Composer  Aurelio  de la Vega

Two conversations with Bruce Duffie


AURELIO DE LA VEGA is a Cuban-American composer, lecturer, essayist and poet. He has written numerous works in all forms and media except opera, and since the early 1960s has been an active force in the United States musical scene. Many of his compositions are published and recorded, and the majority of them are played constantly nationally and internationally. His music and aesthetic ideas have been commented upon and analyzed in books, newspapers and reviews throughout the United States and Latin America. In 1978 he was awarded the coveted Friedheim Award of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C. and has been nominated three times for a Latin Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition: in 2009 for Variación del Recuerdo ("Variation of the Remembrance") for string orchestra, in 2012 for Prelude No. 1 for Piano, and in 2017 for Recordatio for soprano, woodwind quintet and string quintet.

De la Vega was born in La Habana, Cuba, November 28, 1925. He was educated at De La Salle College, Havana, 1940-1944 (B.A. in Humanities); University of Havana, 1944-1946 (M.A. in Diplomacy); Ada Iglesias Music Institute, Havana, 1951-1958 (M.A. in Musicology, 1956; Ph.D. in Composition, 1958). He studied composition privately with Fritz Kramer in Havana (1943-1946) and Ernst Toch in California (1947-1948). After occupying important positions in his native land (Editorial Secretary of Conservatorio, official review of the Havana Municipal Conservatory, 1950-1953; music critic of newspapers Alerta (1952-1957) and Diario de la Marina (1957), Havana; President, Cuban Section of the International Society for Contemporary Music, 1952-1954; President, Cuban National Music Council (Cuban branch of the International Council of Music of UNESCO), 1953-1957; Professor of Music and Chairman, Music Department, University of Oriente, Santiago de Cuba, 1953-1959; Treasurer, Cuban Section of the Inter-American Music Association (Caracas), 1955-1958; Vice-President, Havana Philharmonic Orchestra, 1956-1957, he toured the United States as lecturer (1952-1954), and settled in Los Angeles in 1959, becoming an American citizen in 1966.

After being a Guest Professor of Music at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles (summer 1959) he became Distinguished Professor of Music, Director of the Electronic Music Studio, and Composer-in-residence at California State University, Northridge, 1959-1992, then becoming Distinguished Professor Emeritus. In 1971 he received the Outstanding Professor Award of the entire California State University system.

==  Biography from de la Vega's website  

While immersed in my radio series devoted to
mostly living, mostly American composers, I would often ask each guest for contact information about their friends and colleagues.  This sometimes resulted in further conversations, as is the case here.

When speaking on the telephone at the end of April of 1991 with George Heussenstamm, he mentioned a couple other West Coast composers, including Aurelio de la Vega, and this interview took place just three weeks later, again on the phone.

delavega De la Vega was strong in his resolve, and good-humored about many of the ideas which we discussed.  He was pleased with how the discussion went, and when he and his wife, soprano Anne Marie Ketchum, visited Chicago early in 1998, they made time for more conversation with me.  Portions of these interviews were used on the air several times, and now, both interviews with the composer are on this webpage, and the chat with the soprano can be found by clicking the link on her name just above.

The month of May in Chicago is usually warming up from a very cold winter, and a question about the weather in California seemed a convenient way to open our meeting . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   How are things in California?

Aurelio de la Vega:   California is all right.  It’s very dry these days again.

BD:     That’s typical for this time of year?

de la Vega:   Yes.  We had some late rains, and it helped a lot.  It was very beautiful because I had never seen so many flowers, and so many beautiful green mountains around.  But now it has become brown again.  [Laughs]

BD:   How is the climate in California similar or different to the climate in Cuba?

de la Vega:   Oh, very different, completely different.  The climate in Cuba is rather on the tropical side, with very lush greens and lots of rain almost the whole year.  Also, it’s hotter.  The winter is very mild in Cuba, but it’s much more humid, and things are not bad.  It’s completely different from California.

BD:   I just wondered if it was it all the same.  Being from the Mid-West, I know hot summers and cold winters.

de la Vega:   In Cuba it’s kind of a perpetual Spring, with some hot days and some cold days, but it was mainly a Spring-like situation always.

BD:   Did the climate in Cuba have any effect on your music, or is your music just your music no matter what?

de la Vega:   Things are difficult, but I don’t know if the climate has anything to do with it.  I suppose, if you come down to the most ultimate conclusions, everything has to do with the finished material.  First of all, there are the cultural affairs, and then the traditions, and whatever constitutes a country.  I’m sure the climate has some part to do with it, but it’s difficult to determine exactly what the proportions are that affect the outcome.  I came to this country and settled permanently, and when I count the number of years I have been here, it’s more than the number of years that I have been in my native land.  I came here the first time in 1947 and ’48 to study, and then went back for several years.  Then I came again in 1953 and ’54, and then went back for two years.  Then I came in 1957 and ’58, and went back once more for six months.  Then, I came here for good thirty-two years ago, so if I put the whole thing together, I have been here more than there.  Obviously, the change in everything
in culture, in climate, and in societyall affect the music.  The music becomes different.  If I would have come here when I was ten or twelve, that’s a different thing, but when you come into another culture when you’re already formed, what affects the music you composeor the art, or whatever you dois much more profound depending on the external circumstances.  People ask me if my music would have been different if I would have stayed in Cuba, and I say yes, totally and completely!  Not so much the rhythmic elements and things of that sort, because those remain very ingrained, but in fact, in my last year, I have returned to many sounds and modalities of my roots.

BD:   Are you coming full-circle?

de la Vega:   Not completely full-circle, no, but I have become less concerned with what is 
‘in’ and ‘out’, and I write my own music.  If they like it, fine.  If not, please drink a Coca-Cola!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Is this to say that you don’t want the audiences to enjoy what you write???

de la Vega:   Oh, no, no, no, no, no!  On the contrary, up to a certain point in my life
when I was about fifty or fifty-twoI was very worried with being in the avant-garde, and concerned with the latest things in vocabularies, and what to incorporate into my own music, and what is ‘in’ and ‘out’, and so forth.  Then, suddenly one day I said, Baloney with all those things.  I will just write my music the way I like it.  The music has become more expressive, more communicative, and more intelligible in many, many ways.  That has made it more personal, because I am not subjected to whatever is involved, and that makes it very refreshing for me, like I am liberated.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Do you disown any of the pieces from fifteen to twenty-five years ago?

de la Vega:   No, no, not at all.  I put the whole thing in perspective, and it’s quite an interesting curve.  But before we go into that, the thing that probably has affected the music more is the fact that when you are in a place like the United States, where the performers are excellent, and the ensembles are first rate, and the physical aspect of music production is so wonderful, the music is tainted with that.  The music probably becomes more virtuosic, and becomes more complex.  This is probably the main influence that I can observe.  Now going back to your question, no I don’t disown anything.  On the contrary, the first piece that I keep in my catalogue is a set of songs called The Infinite Fountain [La Fuente Infinita], which is from 1944, which means I was nineteen.  I still keep that piece in my catalogue, and in fact, it’s sung quite often, and enjoyed tremendously.  It’s interesting when you contemplate the number of years of music-making
something like forty-five years of music-making, which is more or less where I am at this pointhow I have gone through different ways of expressing myself, always with a kind of a central line that goes through all the periods.  I also contemplate the moment where I was possibly in the middle part of my lifein the late 50s and 60swhen I became very, very intellectual, and the music became numerical and complex in that respect.  That is the period of my music that I am less interested in nowadays, but it always has certain elements which I contemplate objectively, and I find them interesting.  It’s been my experience that once I write a piece, and it becomes performed, and goes around the circuit, although it belongs to you in a certain way, it’s as if it doesn’t belong to you in another way.  It’s like a piece by someone else that you contemplate from a distance.  There is a perspective to it, and a critical approach to it, and that makes it very healthy because then you can enjoy or like it, or not like it so much from a completely different angle.

BD:   Do you expect it always to be performed exactly the same way, or do you have built-in areas where interpretation will enter into it?

de la Vega:   There’s always an interpretive situation in any piece.  That’s one of the marvels of music.  One of the things I do not like very much about electronic music is precisely that inflexibility.  Although I have composed lots of electronic music, and it’s one of my more interesting areas of activity from the late
60s and 70s, I always disliked the fact that the music becomes too objective.  There’s no flexibility to it.  When I write a piece with electronics and instruments, or electronics and voice, thats why it’s much more interesting for me than purely electronic music.

delavega BD:   So you have the background which is always the same, and then the changing live performer?

de la Vega:   Sure, definitely.  The human element is magnificent.  Man, with all his downfalls and all its negative things, is a magnificent animal!  [Laughs]

BD:   Do you still use electronics, or have you abandoned that completely?

de la Vega:   I haven’t written an electronic piece for about ten years.  However, I haven’t turned my back on the medium.  In fact, I still teach the courses in electronic music here at the university.  It’s part of our picture, nowadays, in the later part of the century, but somehow I am not in the mood, nor interested at this point to try it.  Maybe I will come back to it with a different perspective, if I don’t disappear in the next few years.

BD:   So it’s another color on your palette that you just don’t use, but you haven’t taken it off the palette.

de la Vega:   That’s right.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You teach and you compose.  How do you divide your time between those two very taxing activities?

de la Vega:   It’s not easy.  Fortunately, almost since the beginning, the University has been flexible and nice to me in that respect.  For example, I always have taught three days a week, so Tuesdays and Thursdays are free, and some afternoons are free.  This is positive, because it leaves me some amount of time free, but it is definitely not an easy situation, mainly if you take teaching seriously, which I do.  I enjoy it, and my obligation to the students is also important.  It takes a lot of your time and concentration.  If I am writing a big orchestral piece, I definitely have to ask for a leave of absence, or half a semester, because otherwise I cannot concentrate on a big piece like that.  I can write a small chamber piece, and it comes together okay, but if it is a big project, I cannot.  It is impossible, and I cannot do it.  Once in a while I have asked for such a leave, and they have granted it to me, and then it works all right, but I am contemplating the end of my academic career with great happiness, and that will happen in one more year.  It will be the final liberation.  [Laughs]  I have some big projects that I want to take care of.  I want to write a violin concerto, which has been haunting me for years, and I want to write a couple of big orchestral pieces.  I also want to write a full-length opera in three acts, and that requires two or three years of work.

BD:   Have you selected the libretto already, or is it just that you want to write an opera?

de la Vega:   I just want to write an opera.   I have some ideas, but I’m not sure whether I stick to them, or change.

BD:   You have done some vocal works.  What are the joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice?

de la Vega:   I think the human voice is splendid.  Interestingly enough, all my vocal works
I don’t know exactly how many there are, but maybe seven or eighthave been for soprano.  I never have written for the male voice, and only once for an alto voice.  That was one extended song in the 50s.  These pieces have always been around the soprano.  I find the soprano voice incredible.  It’s very, very flexible, very powerful, very capable of all kinds of things... if you find an intelligent singer!  I have had a great collaborator in that respect, a soprano named Anne-Marie Ketchum, who has worked with me for many, many years.  She was once my student, and she’s a splendid soprano.  She has done all kinds of contemporary things in recent years in Los Angeles, including with the Philharmonic.  She has been very, very wonderful in that respect.  There are many things in the pronunciation of vowels and consonants that vary the position of the high notes and so forth.  It is special to work with a singer who is intelligent, because there are many singers that just sing because they have an instrument, but they have nothing in the brain.  Ketchum has created a very nice line in the vocal things I have written, and it has provided me with insight.  I have learned a lot from her.  I like to write very idiomatic things, and very virtuosic things.  So, every time I have attempted something, it has been after long years of study of an instrument.  Many years ago, I was asked to write for the guitar.  It was an instrument that I found very, very peculiar and difficult, and limited because of the dynamics.  So, I rejected the idea, until one day I said I’m going to do it.  I studied the guitar myself for two years, until I found many of the secrets that I could explorenot creating the usual palette, but making it a little different.  Then, I was happy with it.  My instrument is the piano, but, funnily enough, I’m very attached to string writing.  I have written many pieces for strings, and always the players ask me if I play violin or cello.  I say that I don’t, but I know the instruments very well.

BD:   You’ve mastered the style?

de la Vega:   Yes, I have, and in that respect I have been happy.  There are two or three things I never have attempted.  For example, I never have written an organ piece, because I don’t know what to do with that monster!  Also, I never have written a piece for the harpsichord.

BD:   That’s getting a new vogue these days.

de la Vega:   Yes, and one of these days maybe I will try to see what I can do with it.  I don’t like to approach music as a sausage factory.  I’m not interested to produce another organ piece just because someone asks.  It has to be something that is kind of new, or unique, and, at the same time, that is written for the instrument in a non-idiomatic way.

BD:   Do you keep up with your piano?

de la Vega:   Yes, but not really very much.  Sometimes I play chamber music with friends, and things like that, but...

BD:   Are most of the pieces that you write on commission, or are they just pieces you have to get out of your system?

de la Vega:   The year 1962 was a turning point.  I was commissioned by the Coolidge Foundation, and since that time, almost all my pieces have been commissioned.  Once in a while I have also written pieces that have not been commissioned.  This has happened maybe four or five times, but when a commission comes, sometimes I don’t accept it.  If it is something that does not completely satisfy me, I say,
No thank you, but I appreciate your interest.  This kind of music that I produce is not monetarily very positive.  I won’t make a great living with this kind of music, and therefore I’m not going to pay the bills or buy a new car with it.  I feel completely free in that respect, so if it is something I am not particularly interested in at the moment, I would ask if they wanted to wait for some other moment.  If so, fine, and if not, no.  If it is a completely free situation, like when someone just asks me to write a chamber piece, that’s different.  It has happened, and then I can select whatever instruments I want at that moment, for whatever I am hearing inside, or for whatever I want to do.  But if someone says they want a piece for these specific instruments, because that’s what they want, or because it’s their ensemble, I say, “No, I’m sorry.  This is not the moment for that for me.

Coolidge Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864-1953), one of the most notable patrons in the history of American music, seized an opportunity in 1924 to expand the vision and mission of the Library of Congress through underwriting concerts, commissioning new music, and encouraging musicological scholarship. Having already won international prominence by sponsoring chamber music festivals in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and for commissioning and inspiring compositions by eminent contemporary composers in the United States and abroad, she sought to establish a permanent base for these activities as well as a permanent musical influence.

In 1925 the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation was established in the Library for the promotion and advancement of chamber music through commissions, public concerts, and festivals. Mrs. Coolidge's ultimate aim, as stated in a letter dated February 4, 1925, to the Librarian of Congress, Herbert Putnam, was profound as well as prescient:

" make possible, through the Library of Congress, the composition and performance of music in ways which might otherwise be considered too unique or too expensive to be ordinarily undertaken. Not this alone, of course, nor with a view to extravagance for its own sake; but as an occasional possibility of giving precedence to considerations of quality over those of quantity; to artistic rather than to economic values; and to opportunity over expediency."

The Library of Congress Trust Fund Board, the first of its kind in the federal government, was established in 1925 to administer the funds of the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation and all future endowments. With an additional gift, also in 1925, Mrs. Coolidge financed the construction of the 511-seat Coolidge Auditorium in the northwest courtyard of the Jefferson Building. Designed according to her preference for "severe and chaste beauty" rather than "ornate display," the Coolidge Auditorium was completed just in time for the first Coolidge Festival, which successfully inaugurated the new hall on October 28, 1925. This structure has become world famous for its magnificent acoustical properties, for the caliber of the artists and ensembles who have played there, for newly commissioned works premiered, and for the individually scheduled concerts interspersed among concert series, retrospectives, and festivals.

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge's legacy lies not only in the Foundation, auditorium, and concerts, but also in the collections she presented to the Library of original manuscripts and papers that she had received through her philanthropic activities. As a result of the Coolidge commissions executed by eminent composers, a steady stream of notable holographs has reached the Library through the years; many composers maintained a special relationship with the Library and continued to make generous donations of their own manuscripts.

BD:   What are some of the other factors that make you decide yes or no?

delavega de la Vega:   It could be that the situation that they present is not interesting to me, or it could be a personal mood, that I am involved in some other exploration at that moment and I do not want to be hurried and write this piece in the middle.  It has happened several times.

BD:   So just the guarantee of performance isn’t enough?

de la Vega:   Oh, no, no!  Fortunately, I have had a very good career in that respect.  All the pieces since my youth were performed, and they usually by excellent ensembles.  I never have had a piece that has been murdered.  [Both laugh]  That is also very good, because it gives you confidence, and you have leeway to say not too many things.  There has been no problem for me in that respect.  Very often, someone would ask for a piece that has been played, and unless it is already published and I don’t have control over it, if I still control the piece, I would say,
Thank you, no.  Sometimes, for example, if it is an orchestra at a university, I have to know what kind of an ensemble it is.  If someone wants to do a piece in a college situation, or a university situation, and I don’t know the place, I say no.  I’m not interested in having the piece read wrongly, or, having heard marvelous performances of piece, I don’t want to tax my liver!  [More laughter]  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with Frank Campo.]

BD:   On the whole, however, have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard over the years?

de la Vega:   Oh, yes!  I have had marvelous performances by some major orchestras that have been beautiful.  My String Quartet from 1957 was premiered by the Claremont Quartet at the Library of Congress, and since then it has had a wonderful career.  Every ensemble that has attempted that piece is first-rate.  This has always happened, and is very nice, because you select a certain niche for your things, a certain level for your things, and if it is not on that level, you say no!  I’m not eager to say, 
Yes, oh, yes, it is wonderful, and thank you so much for playing my music.  No, no no!  It has been played very well, and I have my own standards.  After I die, I don’t know what will happen.  Who knows?  [Laughs]  I will not be present for the massacres, but that is something I have been very, very careful with.

BD:   What about the recordings?  They have a little more universality and a little more life than the single performance.  Have you been pleased with those?

de la Vega:   Yes, all the recordings have been very good.  [We then briefly discussed which recordings I had in my library, and which others he was graciously going to send me.]  I will send you the companion to the Para-Tangents, which is Tangents from the same year.  It is for violin and tape, and they were both written almost simultaneously.  [Recordings of these works are shown at right and below.]  It was a very interesting situation.  The genesis was that first violinist, Endre Granat, who is a marvelous violinist, and was a student of Heifetz, was at the University at that moment.  He had played a couple of my pieces, and then he wanted a new piece, and I said, fine!  So I started writing this piece, and when I was writing the piece, Tom Stevens, the first trumpeter of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, also wanted a piece.  He was in a hurry, but he’s a fantastic player, an incredible player, so I said yes.  Then I did something which I never did again, which was very peculiar.  I wrote the instrumental parts of both pieces.  The only thing they have in common is that both of them have a very quick cell at the beginning.  This cell appears in both pieces.  It’s a kind of a rondo situation.

BD:   Both of them use the same tape?

de la Vega:   Yes, both of them use the same tape.  The thing that is always very interesting is that unless you play one after the other, people don’t recognize that it is the same tape, because the textural part of the instrumental part is so different.  Also, the spaces between what the solo sometimes plays and the sequences in the tape are different.  In some cases, in one piece it is closer than the other.  So, people do not notice unless they know the secret.  I have tried that several times.  I have even played both pieces one after the other to people, and no one has detected that it is the same electronic sequence.


See my interviews with Hans Werner Henze, Meyer Kupferman, André Previn, Elliott Carter, and Iain Hamilton.

BD:   Would you ever consider doing a performance where the tape plays, and both performers then play their part simultaneously?

de la Vega:   I thought about that once.  The only problem is that both pieces are virtuosic and kind of busy.  So, if I would put one on top of the other, it would probably suffer.  It’s not the type of situation which I could have a dialogue.  I don’t think it would work, no.

delavega BD:   Each player would lose?

de la Vega:   Yes, absolutely.  It would be unintelligible, and wouldn’t have the clarity that is required.

BD:   Do you know Elliott Schwartz?

de la Vega:   Yes, yes.

BD:   I was thinking that his piece, Extended Piano, uses the same tape for Extended Clarinet, and for several other instruments.

de la Vega:   Oh, I didn’t know that.  That’s interesting.

BD:   I was just wondering if there was any kind of parallel.  [After a bit more discussion of his recordings, I asked about Tropimapal.]

de la Vega:   That’s a very important piece.  It’s from 1983, for nine instruments [flute, clarinet, bassoon, trombone, one percussionist, violin, viola, cello and double bass]
, and I think it’s a beautiful piece.  I love it very much.  [Vis-a-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with Max Lifchitz.]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask a big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of music?

de la Vega:   Wow!  [Laughs]  We could be talking for ten years!  I don’t know, exactly.  Those things are very difficult to answer.  I suppose that if you were to ask me what the purpose of music is for you, then it’s easier.  First of all, the idea comes of why is it that someone composes.  That is a mystery because it’s certainly a career that is not very rewarding, and is very lonely in many ways.  I suppose the eternal answer would be because one must do it.  Whatever this mysterious bug that nature’s puts in you, one day, for some reason, you find yourself putting together sounds.  Then you’re happy with it, and that’s the opium forever.  My idea of music is two-fold, because, on the one hand, my interest in music is highly artistic.  It means that I have to inherit from whatever has happened in the past, all that knowledge, and all that technical stuff, and all that is wonderful.  But, at the same time, I have to change the material and do something with it.  The idea that a very nice melody by itself, which is typical of popular music, is enough, is not enough for me.  A folk element is very wonderful in its proper milieu, and its proper frame, but I want to do something with it.  So it means that I want to create an artistic piece of music, whatever that means.  Again, it is vague.  It’s the idea that man is able to do things with natural sources.  He’s able to construct a cantata, or a string quartet, or a symphony, which is a very abstract situation.  It’s a very abstract construction, and that’s the beauty of it.  He’s able to do that when no other element that we know of on the planet can do it.  An animal could be the most wonderful thing, and you can play the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony fifteen times to your cat, but he doesn’t follow it.  This is the wonderful part.  There are two aspects to this situation.  There are people who think that for them, music is going to be, first of all, a money-making proposition.  That’s not the case for me.  If it is a money-making proposition, you have all kinds of combinations.  You have to appeal to an enormous number of people, and, therefore, you have to make the music simpler, and repetitive, and you have to know all the tricks.  From the beginning, this doesn’t interest me.  I have been asked many times to write music for movies, and I always say no, I’m not interested, because I cannot be completely free artistically.  I would have to subjugate my music to an ulterior proposition, and for that I‘m not particularly interested.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You don’t want to be a slave to a click-track?

de la Vega:   [Emphatically]  No!  I always tell my students this, because they get very confused at a certain point.  They want to be with one leg in the commercial world, and with one leg in the other word, and I say,
Forget about it!  Either you do one or the other.  You cannot do both because they are completely different games, completely different philosophies, completely different audiences, and you’re going to become schizophrenic like some of my friends in Hollywood are.  I have friends in the industrylike Leonard Rosenman or Jerry Goldsmithwho are wonderful composers, really.  They have done the rounds of Hollywood, and they are very unhappy people because they always are thinking, “When I finish this film, I’m going to compose my great symphony,” and this never happens because it’s a trap.  Once you get into the trap, that’s it.  But once it is decided, and you say that this is not the idea of what I want to express, then you want to write music which is an object of art, and is something that is intellectually as admirable as you can construct.  At the same time, it has to have a communication process.  I don’t believe in music which is against the human being, which is a mathematical equation that you put in a drawer, and say, “If you don’t understand it, that’s your tough bananas!  That’s not my desire, either.  I think that the composer writes for someone.  If that someone is 10,000 people, fine.  If it is three people, fine, but it has to be for someone.

BD:   Someone besides the composer.

de la Vega:   Yes.  You want to communicate something, and that is my own philosophy.  My aspiration would be that I would live on this planet, and when I disappear I will leave a collection of works that will have some meaning for someone, and that someone will be happier because of it, or someone will smile because of it, or someone will have a spiritual experience because of it.  I will have done it without making any compromise, and without trying to bring out the thermometer to see what the temperature is.  This is a very complicated equilibrium, because, on the one hand, you don’t want to sacrifice certain intellectual principles that you may have, and at the same time you want to communicate.  At that point in my life where I discovered I could be completely independent from any ties and from any pressure, I became much more personal in the music.  The music of the last twenty years is more me for that reason, because I am not thinking what is 
‘in’ and ‘out’, and I am not thinking if I’m going to be in three dictionaries because I smile to left or to the right, and that is a wonderful liberation process.  It is then that you begin to express your own ideas, whatever they are, and whatever value they may have one day.  I suppose that any sane person who creates art knows more or less where he is.  On a scale of a hundred, I think that we all know where we are, more or less.  It may be that you think you’re in at 75, or you may think you’re at 92.  You might think you’re only at 60, but if you’re logical about it, within the picture of the whole wonderful Western civilization situation, you know more or less where you are.

BD:   Is this in relation just to yourself, or in relation to everyone else?

de la Vega:   In relation to everyone else.  I think Picasso knew he was Picasso, and I think Beethoven knew he was Beethoven.  I keep it as my own secret, but I know exactly, more or less, what I have contributed.  I might be off by five or ten per cent, and I may think that my music is a little better than it is, or I might think that my music is not as good as it might be, but the margin of error is not so big, unless you are completely crazy, or self-centered to a degree that you don’t have any logic, or any moral working.

BD:   Who is it that ultimately decides the value of the music
is it the public, is it the composer, is it the critics, is it history?

de la Vega:   I don’t think the composer has anything to do with it.  Any composer is a mysterious machine that creates the art, and leaves it on the planet, and through a very complex process during the next hundred years after he disappears, this music becomes permanent or disappears.  I don’t think he has any control over that.  He has control when he’s alive, or while the publisher has rights, then everything is political because he’s pushing for it, and the publishers are pushing for it.  But a hundred years after his death, if we still play Beethoven it’s because he’s a wonderful composer, and the music is always fresh, and always fantastic, and imaginative, or whatever you want to consider because there is not any more pushing for it.

delavega BD:   Even now, when we still listen occasionally to the lesser lights?

de la Vega:   Oh, yes.  It’s very interesting, because you have serious discussions with colleagues, or with people who really know music, and they ask these questions, such as,
“What do you think will happen to Webern in the next hundred years?  We’ll see what happens!  I have my own ideas, but who knows?  Maybe the music completely disappears, or maybe it doesn’t disappear.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

de la Vega:   Yes, and no.  Sometimes I am worried because it is not easy to see clearly.  It might be something that happens for the next hundred years, and then we come back to a more spiritual era again.  But we’re going through difficult times because of the changes in the society, and the all the things that have happened, mainly after the Second World War, where so many structures were completely destroyed.  This has created a very difficult climate for serious music.  In this country, particularly, it’s very, very appalling.  I had a student once who came from Rock ‘N’ Roll.  Then he decided that it was not what he wanted to do anymore, and went very seriously into his composition as student, and he finished with great honors.  One day we were talking, and he was very pessimistic.  He told me,
In thirty years I think there will be no serious music in America anymore!  He told me this about ten years ago, and I thought it was exaggerated.  I thought he was completely insane.  I don’t think that’s the case.  I think there will always be someone who appreciates this music.  Sometimes, my friend, believe me, I get very pessimistic because the onslaught is so total, and people are starting completely too easily to lose perspective.  This idea that Beethoven is as important as a carpenter, and a pop tune is as wonderful as Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, would create a ‘tabula rasa’ situation.  That would be a very confused situation, which is very dangerous because you have always to create in people the fact that man has a spirituality, and has an intellect.  That’s what distinguishes us from the animals, and you have always to look up no matter what.  Even if you cannot get to the peak of the Everest, you have to know that it is a wonderful mountain, and you have to conquer it.

BD:   Is this perhaps the result of the fact that while we’re trying to break down political and racial discrimination, we’re also losing the discriminatory process in terms of artistic greatness and

de la Vega:   Oh, yes!  I think that is absolutely very, very engrained in the process, because when you have a pyramid situation that we have always had in humanity, with all the negative and unjust sides to it, at least it was a structure in which there was always a goal, and there was always an idealism to it, even if it was unattainable in this creative climate.  I remember perfectly well, when I came here many years ago, I found young people who would not be interested directly in doing this kind of music we’re talking about, but they were respectful of it.  They might say they were not going to write or follow Bela Bartók’s Quartets, but they knew they were wonderful pieces, even if they didn’t understand them.  They were something to be respected.

BD:   They understood there was something special there?

de la Vega:   Yes, and now it’s a completely different attitude.  If it doesn’t appeal to them, or if it is not successful commercially, it’s no good.  There are all these horrible things that we have now introduced into the equation, which don’t have anything to do with culture, with art, and we have confused all the values.  We talk about democracy without really knowing what it is the term meant in its origin.  We talk about
quality without realizing what is the meaning of it, and confusing liberty with all kinds of destruction.  It’s very, very difficult, and it’s very confusing.  I sometimes tell friends of mine who get very discouraged that we might be entering another period of Middle Ages.  We are going to be the monks, [laughs] and we’ll retire to our cellars, and keep this culture alive with our little candles, while the Barbarians are outside.

BD:   We will be waiting for the next Age of Enlightenment.

de la Vega:   That’s right.  We’ll wait for the next Renaissance.

BD:   Can I assume that the times when you are optimistic outweigh the times you are pessimistic?

de la Vega:   Yes, and not only that, what happens is that when you are so very convinced of something that you must carry on, you do it against all odds.  Sometimes it’s very difficult, because when you get this courage, it is not so much on the financial situation.  As I said before, any composer that writes Art Music knows perfectly well that he’s not going to make money with it.  He has to accept that, and he has to adjust his situation.  Whether one teaches, or conducts, or plays the piano, or lectures, or whatever, we know that is part of the game.  Even the great composers of our time, such as Stravinsky, had to conduct.  Copland had to conduct, because his royalties were not enough to live decently.  Now we’re talking about major, major names, whose music was constantly being played.  We know that, and we have to accept that in the beginning.  But what is difficult is precisely the fact that sometimes you find absolute disrespect for things, or complete and total indifference.  Sometimes, when I go to a concert, I see an audience which supposedly is a learned one.  It’s an audience that must have had a tradition, somehow, such as here in Los Angeles, the Monday Evening Series.  You see these people that have been coming to concerts for many years, and then you hear a program.  On the program there are six pieces, and one of them is a marvelous piece.  It’s a beautiful, wonderful piece, and then three of the other pieces are nothings, and two of them are abominable, but the reaction is the same.  It’s like you have taken away the people
s intuition.  These people applaud the same way all through the six pieces.  They react the same way.  Then, you read the critic the next day and wonder what kind of a wishy-washy stuff this is.  It doesn’t say anything.

BD:   [Playing Devil
s Advocate for a moment]  But is it really right to expect people to assimilate a piece of musicgood or badon its first hearing?

de la Vega:   If you are in a spiritual climate, a cultural climate, a climate where people have been finely tuned, I think yes.  At a certain moment in history, and in certain groups history, people are able to see differences.  Now this difference might be readjusted.  It might be people reacted to X piece wrongly, and we know later that that piece was fantastic, but there is a certain amount of intuition in people.  I remember it!  I remember it from twenty years ago.  I remember, for example, the public in the Library of Congress in Washington was a fantastic public.  It was a very cultivated public, and I had some performance there.  It was always very rewarding, because these people knew the differences.  Now in the last years, this public has changed, too.  The older people have disappeared
or have diedand there is a younger generation, and it is not the same thing.  Again, we find everything gets the same reaction, and this is what really hurts a composer.  It is not the fact that he doesn’t earn money, or that he doesn’t get a marvelous car because of the last piece he wrote.  That’s not important.  What is important is that somehow he feels someone understands the effort he has put into this reality, and someone gets some kind of happiness because of it.  I still have that flavor, that feeling.  I have a certain amount of people that are very devoted to me.  They go to extremes which are touching.  They will do things which are sometimes beyond the call of duty to promote a piece of mine, or to help me with something.  They will come to a concert, and discuss with me in the next days what the piece was all about.  In these little focuses I find certain moments and places, and that is what keeps me young, and what keeps me alive, and what gives me faith that not everything is lost.  That is why one breathes for the next twenty-four hours!  [Laughs]

delavega BD:   I’m glad you still have lots of those.

de la Vega:   Oh, yes!  Sometimes I get discouraged with something, and I remember those things.  I know I shouldn’t react like that, because there is someone who knows what it’s all about.  Even if it is, at this moment, only two or three people, that’s enough.

BD:   Do you have any advice for audiences that come to hear a new piece of your music?

de la Vega:   No, not really.  One of the things I resent very much in our times is precisely the verbalization, the rash of explanations that the composer has created.  This began with Schoenberg, and with all these people because of the destruction of so many parameters of music where the public could, somehow, understand the music.  We began to explain the music.  When I hear this over-use of explanations of a piece, I get very suspicious, because I never saw Brahms explaining any of his intermezzi.  He just wrote the pieces, and that was it.  Then, you just enjoyed the beauty of them.

BD:   The music should not need any explanation?

de la Vega:   That is right.  You find this in scores in our time.  I always laugh and point to a score of composer X that consists of three pages, and fifteen pages of explanation before it!  The minute I see a piece like that, I put in the trash.  I’m not interested in that.  We have lost this joy of music.  Maybe one day it will return, and I am trying to make it return in my own music.  Music became so torturous, so anguished, so ‘angst’, so super-complicated all the time that there was no joy in the composition.  It was like a process of giving birth to a monster every time, and I find that very disgusting.

BD:   Is there a balance between an artistic achievement and an entertainment value in a piece of music?

de la Vega:   Yes, there is, but that is the difficult part of the term sometimes.  That’s why I feel so liberated now.  If you are able to completely divorce yourself from what we might call immediate success, and take out of the picture that which we were talking about before
the commercial aspectyou can go into the serious aspect of music.  There is a series of political things which are working that you can always exploit.  You can have your little Mafia, and you can have your close friends, and you can have your little groups, and you can even have the right political idea at the right moment, all of which makes the music be played more often because you are in the circuit.  But, at the same time you’re doing that, you are completely ‘selling out’, or at least you are compromising to a certain degree, the music.  I completely detach myself from that, because I am not interested in groups.  For example, very often people will ask me to participate in a Festival of Latin American music.  Sometimes I say no, that I don’t want to be labeled.  Whether I am a Latin-American composer, or an American composer, a right-wing composer, or a left-wing a composer, I’m not interested in that.  I’m interested in hearing the music.  For me, the idea of things for a contemporary composer is not the festivals, it’s not those things where you have three days of contemporary music.  No, the ideal is that the piece is played normally within the framework of a concert.

BD:   A standard concert?

de la Vega:   Yes.  For example, a string quartet is going to play a Beethoven quartet, and they’re going to play a Dvořák quartet, and they’re going to play your piece.  That, for me is the best.  When that happens, there is a mysterious situation between the audience, the interpreters, and yourself that creates the fact that this music is played in the normal context of history, without any other consideration.  It is simply that the musicians thought this piece was good, and are playing it in the middle of a concert.  That is the most rewarding thing on Earth.  The minute you take the piece and put it on a concert of female composers, or male composers, or Chinese composers, this is suspicious immediately.

BD:   You just want to be a composer.

de la Vega:   That’s right, and that’s it.  If you want to know if I was born in the Himalayas, or in the Tropics, that’s a different matter.  It might be interesting to check your biography, but not as a preconceived idea.

BD:   It
s just incidental?

de la Vega:   Just incidental.  Listen to the music!  See what it says!  Does it say something to you?  Does it communicate some kind of reaction?  Whatever the reaction is, then you start investigating.  Then you want to see what these poems are all about, or what the meaning is of the frame of reference of this piece.  Then you find out where is this composer is coming from, and if he has a personal style, and all the other things.  But the first situation should be that this piece, without compromising its integrity is in a language that communicates to someone.


BD:   One last question.  Is composing fun?

de la Vega:   It should be.  That’s what I keep saying and telling people.  For many, many years of our century, music became a non-fun situation.  It became a problematical theory, and I think this is wrong.  For example, take a man like Boulez, who is very intelligent.  At times, before writing a piece, he presents to himself so many problems that he doesn’t write a piece.  The piece has to be the greatest piece ever written, and it has to be a combination of Goethe and others, and it has to be that the second movement is the square root of the first one, and it has come from Jupiter, and mean something specific.  [Both laugh]  What sort of thing is that?  It doesn’t have anything to do, as you said before, with the joy of music!

BD:   It’s interesting you pick Boulez, because he’s an exact contemporary of yours, also born in 1925.

de la Vega:   That’s right.  But we have to return to the fact that music should be a joyous act of creation.  The music sometimes could be sad, or it could be dramatic, but it has to be a joy.  It has to be something that comes from the inside, and is expressed in whatever vocabulary you’re using to express yourself.  Whatever your style, it has to be an act of joy.  That’s a very key word, and I’m glad you mentioned it, because it’s very important that we return to the way it was, like it was for Mozart, like it was for Bach, like it was for so many wonderful things that have happened in our history.

BD:   I’m glad you’re getting a joy out of writing and listening to your music.

de la Vega:   Yes, so far! 

BD:   Thank you so much for speaking with me today.

de la Vega:   It has been a great pleasure, Mr. Duffie, to talk to you.  I wish you the best with your programs.  You are one of the few that still keeps culture going.


Six and a half years later, at the beginning of January, 1998, de la Vega (along with soprano Anne Marie Ketchum) were in Chicago, and we met for more conversation.  Since he was with a singer, that is where we began . . . . .

delavega BD:   Tell me the joys and sorrows for writing for the human voice.

de la Vega:   That’s a very interesting question.  The first piece in my catalogue is a set of songs for soprano and piano, so I began writing for the voice at that time.  Then many, many years passed, and I wrote only instrumental music, and things for very complex chorus.  Then I came back to vocal music, mainly for a soprano in California by the name of Anne Marie Ketchum.  She happened to be my student at the University, and later on we became professionally related, and it was a great pleasure to write vocal music again.  This person is serious about music-making, and I learned from her about placing of vowels, and some placements of certain notes which work this way or that way.  Sometimes I would have written something, and I changed it later because of that.  So the collaboration was very effective, and out of that collaboration many works were created.  She has performed many of these works, and recorded some of them.  Then I became very, very immersed in the voice again, first of all because of the thematic implications of the poems, and the philosophical implications that were written, and second because the human voice is an incredible instrument
when you know how to explore it, and not use it as flute, but use it as a human instrument.  It has been a joy in that way, so I have written lots of vocal music, almost exclusively for the soprano voice.  There is a cantata that has a mezzo, and an early contralto piece, but that’s about it.  I have gotten very, very much in love with the soprano voice, because it has a certain timbre quality, and ringing elements that the other human voices don’t have.  You may enjoy a tenor tremendously, but somehow the flexibility and the plasticity of the female voice is much more intriguing than the voice of the male in that respect.  I suppose before I die I’ll write a Requiem Mass, and then we’ll have all the soloists in all the ranges!

BD:   You and Richard Strauss share a passion for writing for the female voice.

de la Vega:   That’s right, exactly.

BD:   How do you go about choosing your texts?

de la Vega:   You know that I was born in Cuba, and although I came to the United States when I was thirty-two, because of the revolution there in Cuba I never returned, because I don’t like dictators.  Almost all the texts of my vocal music are Cuban poets, with exception of a piece for contralto and piano, which is a Rabindranath Tagore text.  All the other ones are Cuban poets of different periods.  Some of them are dead, some of them are alive.

BD:   Are you keeping the freedom of their writing alive by setting their texts to music?

de la Vega:   Oh, yes, definitely!  There are some songs that I have written to poems of Armando Valladares, a Cuban poet who was in prison for twenty-one years for political reasons.  I have set words of Gastón Baquero, who is a poet born in Cuba, and who now lives in Madrid.  He is a very complex writer, with a very baroque type of writing, but incredible images.  It is poetry that is very difficult to put music to, because the poetry itself is rich and so full of sounds that you wonder if you should do anything with it.  So, it was a good challenge.

BD:   Is this always a problem, that you don’t want to add something to a complete piece?

de la Vega:   That’s right.  I love poems that are complex and long, and that’s difficult because then you become very wary with the words in itself.  For me, the words are very important.  I always told my students that one of the great negative things of writing for the voice is that they do not realize the rhythm and the accents of the spoken word.  Where the syllables are longer and shorter, they should correspond to the music.  It means the text dictates the music, and not vice-versa.  You don’t write the music first and then put the text inside.

BD:   Do you speak the lines out loud to yourself to hear them?

de la Vega:   Definitely and completely to hear where the accent falls, and where the elongation of the notes is.  Mainly in popular music, sometimes you hear horrendous things where the syllables are inverted in their length.  The word
‘love’ becomes ‘love-ah!’ for ten minutes.  This kind of incredible thing is something which I find very, very uncouth.  [Laughs]

BD:   [I asked if he was optimistic about the future of musical composition, and his response was very similar to the one he gave in our previous conversation.  I then asked if he was pleased with the recordings which had come out, and while his feeling was the same as before, he gave some details which reflected advances in the recording industry.]

de la Vega:   Yes, I am pleased so far.  There were some old recordings on LP where the quality was not so good, but the performances were great.

BD:   You mean the technical quality?

de la Vega:   Yes.  The technical quality was not on a par with recent things, so in that respect I’m happy with the new ones.

BD:   But you still like the old recordings?

de la Vega:   Oh, yes, yes, yes!  They always have something.  If I go to recordings from the whole world, some of them are maybe mechanically not very good, however, musically they have something that is magnificent.  Once in a while you hear a recording from the
20s or 30s.  I remember, for example, there is a recording of Willem Mengelberg and the New York Philharmonic doing Ein Heldenleben.  Now this is a recording from 1928, so it is one of the first electrical recordings.

BD:   I was going to say, at least it’s electrical, so you can hear the inner voices.  [Electrical recordings (made with a microphone) replaced the acoustical recordings (made with a horn that looks like a megaphone) in 1925.]

de la Vega:   That’s right, and it is an incredible performance.  I never have heard Ein Heldenleben like that.  So even if you need to have a very special old needle to put on the 78, please have the old needle and play it, because it’s great.  [This recording, along with countless others, has been re-issued on LP and CD.]

BD:   Does something like that set up an impossible standard so that you would never want to hear Ein Heldenleben again?

de la Vega:   No, no!  The piece is beautiful enough that it accepts several interpretations, but this was particularly beautiful.

delavega BD:   Does your music accept several interpretations?

de la Vega:   Oh, yes, oh, yes, as long as the people who are doing it are good musicians, and serious musicians.  The problem of music, as you know, is the interpretative quality.  It’s an art that always requires not only the interpretation, but the recreation.  A painter has a wonderful time, I always say.  My second love is painting, and the next time I come back to this place of suffering which is called Earth
if I do come backI want to be a painter, definitely, oh, yes, yes, yes.  You paint your ideas, and there it is.  It doesn’t move.  People keep coming back to it, and even some people buy because it’s cute from a decorative point of view.

BD:   So the only interpretation in painting is whether is hung and lit properly?

de la Vega:   That’s right.  As a composition, the artist imagines all the parameters.  But when you write an orchestral piece, good luck!  You have to have an orchestra, and good luck having a good orchestra.  Then the score is put on the table, and people don’t know what to do with it.  It doesn’t serve any purpose.  It’s not decorative, and it doesn’t change my mood.  It’s a very difficult profession, and every time the piece has to be redone.  Try to explain Sonata Form to someone, as compared to explaining a painting of Picasso.  When you have someone who is not a complete idiot, you can explain the painting of Picasso very, very quickly.  If the person is a little open, and he says he doesn’t like Picasso, you can ask him to look at this mass.  This color is always there, and after a while, the person gets it very quickly because it’s permanent.  In music, you want to have him look at this particular idea.  You then go on to explain the first movement of the piece.  How many times do you have to play that particular fragment so that person even remembers something from it?  What happened in one second doesn’t happen in the next second.

BD:   Music deals with time.

de la Vega:   Right.  This incredible thing goes on in front of you, and it doesn’t return, really.  You have to have this retentive mind
which is very rare in peopleto make any sense of the structure of the piece.

BD:   Would you want your music to hit people all at once?

de la Vega:   It is that famous thing.  Once I was in class when a student asked me exactly that question.  I said the problem is that you cannot compress the whole score in one chord.  With the painting, you enter a room, you look at a painting, and you have seen it completely.  Then you analyze it, and then you come back to it, but the impression is that the whole thing is there in front of you as a unit.  In music, this never happens.  It is something that goes in front of you and disappears, and comes back in front of you and disappears, and comes in front of you once more and disappears.  You cannot condense the whole thing into one chord.  It might be interesting to play one chord, boom, and it’s the whole piece.  [Both laugh]

BD:   You don’t wish it could be done like that?

de la Vega:   No, I don’t think so.  I prefer that people don’t remember it, but at least that it gets in front of them.  [Laughs]

BD:   Do you find that the audience gets a good impression of your pieces as they are being presented?

de la Vega:   There is an incredible mystery in music, which depends on whether the piece is good or not.  If the piece is good
and we can discuss for years what is good and bad in that respectit doesn’t matter.  The piece has to have that mysterious punch, that incredible element in which a composer is not only in command of the technical aspectsorchestration, counterpoint, harmonybut also of the time element.  Is this piece too long?  Is it too short?  Is it boring? Does it lose the audience?  All these things must be considered.  If a piece has a right amount of time in relation to the material it is offering, and these things are presented properly, the auditor doesn’t know what it is, but he gets something.  There is something that hits him, and this thing that hits him is what makes the piece alive at that moment.  A composer wants that.  That’s his aspirationthat you can communicate, somehow, without ever changing the aspects of the material.  I’m not going to write a piece that is so easy that five million people are going to whistle it the next morning.  That’s not my interest.  My interest is to write a piece of music, with my own schedule and my own vision, but which has some kind of punching power, that even if it doesn’t reach five million people, it reaches two hundred.

BD:   You don’t write it to be good, but you write it and hope that the goodness is there in what you have written?

de la Vega:   Exactly!  It’s like that famous item on nationalism.  We have to write nationalist music, and I always say yes, you have to write nationalistic music, but it has to come from the inside to the outside, not from the outside to the inside.  I’m not going to write Cuban music because it has two maracas and you move your hips.  I’m going to write a piece of music that someone might say that person was born in that little island.  Beethoven doesn’t need to use a tune to be German music.  Debussy is not going to whistle some song from Marseilles to be a French composer.  It happens that sometimes we invert the equation, and we put the little tourist stamp in the piece thinking that there is going to be magnificence because this little movement was used.  No!  It has to come from the inside, and it’s a tremendously long process of the combination of abilities and thinking and so forth.

delavega BD:   Should your music be called Cuban because you put all this into it, or because it’s there, or should it be just music of the world because you are a citizen of the world?

de la Vega:   Exactly, that last idea.  People ask me what would happen to my music if I would not have come to America, and it would have been different, obviously.  First of all, the influences that you receive in a society are there, and the technical abilities of a given group of people are there.  You can write certain music in Germany that is different from the music you write in Chicago for that reason.  Many elements are involved in these influences, but the phrase that you use precisely is this idea that you are going to write music that is universal.  It doesn’t matter what.  My music has some cultural characteristics because the underlying elements are there
like my accent.  I can never get rid of my accent.  It’s impossible.  It was part of my structuring since I was born, and that’s it.  It is not something that you play with.  It’s something that is there.  It’s completely subconscious and given, and that’s the way you are.  Similarly, that’s the way your music is and your art is, but the universality is what counts, absolutely and totally.

BD:   Do you enjoy having a potential audience of six billion?

de la Vega:   I would love to have a potential audience of six billion!  This I cannot deny!  [Much laughter]  How I achieve it is the problem.  It has to be achieved on the level that I want to live this particular musical experience.  If it works that way, wonderful.  I am all for it.  But if it doesn’t, I don’t get worried.  I am my own worst critic.  Once I write a piece of music, I completely objectivize it.  It is as if it is not mine anymore.

BD:   As if somebody else wrote it?

de la Vega:   That’s right, and when I hear the piece, I feel it’s not so bad, or sometimes this is not so good.  [Both laugh]

BD:   I’m surprised you can detach yourself that much.

de la Vega:   Oh, yes.  Once a piece is finished, I am detached.  It is an aural detachment when I am listening to the piece.  I don’t detach myself completely from the piece.  I’m always with it, but I objectivize it that way, and that’s very healthy because it creates a growth in me all the time.  I always want to write something better, and it doesn’t mess me up in the socioeconomic cultural parameters.

BD:   In the end, is it all worth it?

de la Vega:   Yes, I think that it is worth it.  One has to live, but I also tell my students that whether they have religious beliefs or not is beyond the point.  Life is completely absurd, totally absurd, and the only way that we live it is by creating a dream.  We live by the dream, with all its characteristics and all its responsibilities, and that way you fulfill whatever is in your dream.  Your years are here, and the aspiration is to leave something after.  If every time that someone hears a piece of mine, he is slightly happier, or slightly better, or slightly more, shall we say, sophisticated, I am the happiest person on Earth.  This is my reward.  My reward is not an economical one.  I don’t live on the royalties of my music, believe me.  I could not even pay the rent, probably.  This is what makes me free.  I’m not tied physically in that respect, meaning economically to the music.  That is always very good, because then you don’t have to rely on anything with it.  You present it, and like it or not, thank you, and on to the next!

BD:   Thank you for all of the music thus far, and for all of the music still to come.

de la Vega:   I hope that some will come.  My next big performance is in New York, and I’m very happy with that because it’s a big festival of Cuban symphonic music that takes one week.  There are people coming from Cuba, and from the outside.

BD:   [Surprised]  They’re letting people out of Cuba to come???

de la Vega:   Yes.  I will see colleagues that I have not seen for forty years.  That’ll be emotionally gripping, and difficult, but it will be fascinating, too.


Left to right: New York Times critic Howard Taubman, composers René Leibowitz, Roque Cordero, Aurelio de la Vega,
Joaquin Rodrigo, Harold Gramatges, (unknown), Edgardo Martin, Juan Orrrego-Salas

BD:   I hope it’s all that you expect it to be.

de la Vega:   I hope so, too!  It’ll be most peculiar.  [Laughs]  It’s like in literature, interestingly enough, or in painting.  Remember, this is political situation that has been going on for forty years, not just a few days.  It has created a complete generation of people that are here or there, who are completely apart.  The literature that has been created outside the island is as important, or more important, than the one that has been created inside because it’s freer.  It is the same with the painting, and the same with the music.  It will be most fascinating to see what has happened and not happened under these circumstances.  Let’s see what the end product is.

At this point, the conversation shifted to Anne Marie Ketchum, and that interview can be read HERE.

© 1991 & 1998 Bruce Duffie

The first conversation was recorded on the telephone on May 21, 1991.  The second was recorded in Chicago on January 17, 1998.  Portions of each were broadcast on WNIB later in 1991, and again in 1995 and 2000; on WNUR in 2012 and 2015; and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2012.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.