Composer / Clarinetist William
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
WILLIAM O. SMITH
- Philip Rehfeldt, New Directions for Clarinet, Revised Edition (1994)
Born in Sacramento, California, in 1926, William O. Smith began playing
the clarinet at the age of ten. In his teens, he initiated the dual
life that he has followed ever since: leading a jazz orchestra while
also performing with the Oakland Symphony. After high school and a year
"on the road" traveling with various bands, he attended Juilliard
during the day while playing jazz clubs at night.
Smith studied composition with Darius Milhaud at Mills College in 1946
and with Roger Sessions at the University of California at Berkeley,
receiving B.A. and M.A degrees from that school in 1950 and 1952. He
also attended classes at the Paris Conservatory (1952-53) and the
Juilliard Institute (1957-58). His awards include a Prix de Paris, the
Phelan Award, a Prix de Rome, A Fromm Players
Fellowship, a National Academy of Arts and Letters Award, a BMI Jazz
Pioneer Award, and two Guggenheims. He taught at the University of
California, Berkeley, the San Francisco Conservatory, and the
University of Southern California. Since 1966, he has been the director
of the Contemporary Group at the University ot Washington. His
association with Dave Brubeck began at Mills College, where he was one
of the founders of the Dave Brubeck Octet and responsible for many of
the group's arrangements. His SCHIZOPHRENIC SCHERZO, written for the
Octet in 1947, was one of the first successful integrations of modern
jazz and classical procedures, a style which later became known as
"third stream." His work with Brubeck and others in this direction can
be heard on a number of recordings.
In the early 1960s, he was also among the earliest performers to
experiment with new color resources for the clarinet, this after
listening to Severino Gazzeloni's similar work on the flute. His DUO
FOR FLUTE AND CLARINET (1961) used these techniques, the multiple
sonorities very likely being the first of their type to be precisely
notated. He was also responsible for a number of other works using
these sonorities, including John Eaton's CONCERT MUSIC FOR SOLO
CLARINET (recorded on CRI 296), Gunther Schuller's
EPISODES, Larry Austin's CURRENT FOR CLARINET AND PIANO, William Bergsma's
ILLEGIBLE CANONS (recorded on MHS 3533), Pauline Oliveros'
THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE - a theatre piece based on Smith's astrological
chart - and Luigi Nono's A FLORESTA (recorded on Arcophon AC 6811).
About VARIANTS FOR SOLO CLARINET (1963), Eric Salzman wrote in the New York Herald Tribune on March
14, 1964, "William Smith's clarinet pieces, played by himself, must be
heard to believe - double, even triple stops; pure whistling harmonics;
tremolo growls and burbles; ghosts of tones, shrill screams of sounds,
weird echoes, whispers and clarinet twitches; the thinnest of thin,
pure lines; then veritable avalanches of bubbling, burbling sound.
Completely impossible except that it happened."
-- Names throughout this
webpage which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this
In the summer of 1987, I returned to Seattle for the Pacific Northwest
Wagner Festival, and then a cruise of the Inside Passage of Southeast
Alaska. While I was in Seattle, I arranged to meet with a few
musicians for interviews. Baritone Frank Guarrera and
bass Archie Drake
graciously agreed, and having previously spoken with William Bergsma on
the telephone, he invited me to his home for further discussion.
The same arrangement happened again at the end of my trip
— an earlier telephone chat with the Canadian singers Léopold
Simoneau and Pierrette Alarie yielded a similar invitation to their
home in Victoria, B.C., and more of our interview.
It was Bergsma who suggested meeting with William O. Smith, and then
gave me his contact information. I was staying in a quiet,
residential neighborhood, and knowing the peculiarities of the Seattle
landscape, Smith said it would be easier for him to come to my
temporary residence. That is where we spent a delightful hour.
After the usual greetings and pleasantries, here is what took place on
the last day of July . . . . . . . .
Duffie: Where’s music going today?
William O. Smith:
That’s a tough
one. I can say where my music’s going today but no way I could
prophesy what the world’s going to do. [Laughs]
BD: All right
then, where is the music of William O.
become very interested in computers
and high tech developments in music, and one of the most fascinating
things for me, at this moment, is exploring the possibilities of music
notation on computers. The piece I’m doing now is for woodwind
quintet, with the score moving in real time on a screen that’s realized
by a computer.
BD: Is this
the working score, or the actual score
that will be played?
WOS: It is the
actual score they read from. In
performance the score will be projected on a nine-foot by twelve-foot
screen that is a blow-up of the computer monitor that I’m realizing the
graphics on. This is the fourth piece I’ve done. They’re
not electronic music, but they’re using the possibilities of
letting the computer sort out the difficulties and rhythmic
complications. One piece I did several years ago for the Kronos
Quartet, which was
called Kronos, involved four
different tempos simultaneously. They were in a proportion,
always, of four to five to six to seven, or
to put it another way, the quarter note of the cello equaled 80, the
viola equaled 100, the second violin was 120, and the first violin was
140. With the computer, that’s easy to realize. Your music
is just flowing by, and when it hits the trigger line you play at that
moment. Then it doesn’t matter that these are
complicated things intellectually. It doesn’t matter to the
the musician doesn’t have to be bothered with it, either. He just
plays his note at his trigger line. In other words, it’s like
happens if you’re playing an audio tape. The note sounds when it
goes by the read head. It plays at that moment, and this is just
the same visually. When the note reaches the line indicating
play, you play, and you stop
when it leaves. Anyway, it seems to me it’s a way of exploring
what would be very complicated rhythmic combinations in a way that is
BD: Is this
something that grows out of an
artistic need, or is it more of an exercise?
WOS: No. It’s
not of an artistic need. Normally our music notation
limits us, basically, to working on the equivalent of squared graph
papers. We have squares that’ll give you half of the duration
of the note or half again if we have an eighth note, or that
divided by half. But if I say, “Okay,
I don’t want to think about a grid. I want a note now.
I want the next note. [pause of a different length] Now the
next note,” I can do that with the computer. I can specifically
say when I want any note, regardless of anything else. I gave the
one example of a complex mathematical problem, but on
the other side of the coin, it can also give you completely free,
irrational things. Or, to put it most simply, if you want a
ritard, you can precisely notate that ritard on a computer screen,
where you cannot on a piece of paper which just sits there.
BD: So it’ll
always be your ritard and not the
right. If you want to leave some
latitude for the performers, then you could have a line that is of a
width. You could
say, “Perform this note within the two lines that are indicated.”
So it is also possible to give more freedom to the
performers. It’s not necessary to lock them into a hair
trigger precision. You can say, “Okay, play more or less where
it’s indicated, but you have one inch leeway
there of when your attack comes.” To me it makes all the sense in
the world to
have the notation flow by in time as music does, instead of having it
sitting on a piece of paper where there’s no way you can give exact
tempos. We never know what the real tempo was that Beethoven
wanted or Bach wanted.
BD: Is it at
all like a teleprompter?
WOS: Yes, I
suppose, like words going by on a teleprompter. It’s
just that the pitches go by so that you know precisely when to play.
BD: Then you
can have more absolute
or more freedom if you want.
I’ve used a similar process with jazz players for improvisation.
You can say, “Play the given notes as long as they
appear on the screen.” Or you can say,
“For five seconds you can play, choosing this
group of notes. For the next eight seconds, you’ve got these
notes to choose from. For the next four seconds, you’ve got these
notes.” So, it’s a way to control absolutely precisely or very
freely, if you
want, but under control in a general way if you want to give the
performer more freedom. It’s not necessarily a straightjacket.
BD: Have you
basically been pleased with
the performances you’ve heard of your music over the years?
there’s an interesting question.
Yes, I would say that I have. Almost always
my compositions come out sounding like what I anticipated they would
sound like when I wrote them. The challenge of the
composer is to have a vision that you want to hear in
sound, and to figure out the way to put that on paper so that it will
come out sounding like you want. I supposed it is like an
up a skyscraper. You have to imagine what it’s going to look
like, and then put down the necessary information so it, in fact, will
look like that. Then when you look at it you can say, “Ah
yes, the skyscraper worked. That’s what I envisioned.” It’s
similar with my compositions. I’ve always thought,
“Okay, it worked. That’s the vision I was
trying to realize.” I can hardly think
of a time when I’ve been disappointed with the realization of a
piece, although sometimes with orchestra pieces, it’s
hard. If there’s not an enthusiasm on the part of
the players, it sometimes can be hard, because it’s not only realizing
what’s on the paper, but also adding some kind of fire of your
own. With symphony orchestras, sometimes
there’s an antipathy that is so great that it becomes difficult.
BD: You can’t
can’t feel good about it! [Laughs] But
mostly I’ve written chamber music, and mostly it has been for players
who wanted to play what I wrote for them, and I’ve been happy.
BD: Do they
ever find things in your scores that you
didn’t know you did there?
Sometimes things will come out better than I
anticipated. Yes, they’ll have an interpretation or
something that will please me more than I thought it would.
also a clarinet player and you have played your own compositions, as
those of others.
BD: Are you
the ideal interpreter of your music?
yeah... [Both laugh] A lot of my music uses very
clarinet techniques — multiphonics,
muted notes, very high
notes and effects that are comfortable to me but to very few other
clarinetists. I try to write a lot of my music so that other
clarinetists can do it comfortably, that doesn’t use the special
effects, but generally I’m torn between should I write it
using my utmost knowledge of the coloristic possibilities of the
clarinet and thereby limit the performers to a handful, or should I
just write a regular, conventional clarinet technique piece and then
everybody can perform it? But then it won’t use the things that I
the clarinet can do, so sometimes I will do things that I
know will be comfortable for any professional player. Other times
I do things that I know I can play comfortably, and a handful of people
with similar backgrounds and interests to mine can.
BD: And the
hell with the rest of them?
WOS: Well, I
don’t like to think that. I don’t
really think ‘the hell with the rest of them’,
but in essence that’s
what it boils down to. They’re things any clarinet player
of my music could learn if he wanted to, but it takes time to learn
the special techniques.
BD: Are you
finding, especially in some older
pieces that were very difficult, that they are now becoming almost
second nature to some players?
WOS: Yes, I
think that’s true. I first started
exploring new clarinet techniques — or let’s say
sonorities — in the early sixties, and at that
time there was no one
else that was doing it. Then as the years went by, I found
spirits. Gerry Errante, most notably in the United States, and
Ian Mitchell in England, have much the same performance capabilities
that I do, and they can play these things with ease. All of us,
over the years, have developed. That was over twenty years ago,
but now it’s not so difficult to play some of the unusual clarinet
sonorities that were first really tough.
BD: Do you
write the things to be unusual?
well, that’s the hard question because it’s
like which came first, the chicken or the egg? I write it because
I want to
explore, that’s why. It is a thirst
for something, to get away from a boredom with the routine,
conventional things, and an
interest in exploring new territory. It’s the same thing with
rhythmic ideas. I think, “Oh, boy. Here’s an area that
fascinating, and is an extension of the kind of things I’ve done, and
that nobody’s worked with before.” That would interest me to
do. So it’s partly boredom with the conventions that
are overly familiar, and excitement with the new territory to explore.
BD: Is it
exploration on the part of the
composer, or also exploration on the part of the public?
together. I’m very
conscious of wanting to communicate with an audience, but not
with a mass audience. I don’t think, “Now I’ve
got to make something that’s going to please everybody,” but I
have sort of an ideal listener in mind. I’m not
doing it just for my own amusement, but with the hopes that somebody
with similar interests to my own, or a similar outlook to my own, in
the audience would think, “Oh, that’s interesting. I see what
he’s trying to do. That’s really striking. I like
that. That moves me.” It takes a certain openness of
mind. It takes the kind of person who is willing to open their
ears and try to see things, or try to understand things that are not
familiar, and your average audience is not of that makeup, I’m afraid.
BD: Is there
any way to encourage more people to come
to concerts that include your music?
WOS: You have
twentieth century music more available
on radio. We have a lot of it available on recordings, but I
think it would help if radio and television had more performances of
music. Not my music in particular; it’s true of all music
of the twentieth century. It is all exploratory. At the
beginning of this century there was a need to re-examine
all the traditions and conventions of music.
BD: To throw
out the old, or just expand the old?
way. It depends on who you’re
talking about. Almost everybody expands the
old; certainly I do, and even the most radical composers such as Webern
and Schoenberg. They didn’t think of themselves as
throwing out the old, but as expanding it, and most
serious musicians have felt that way. There are
exceptions, certainly, especially since World War II. In fact,
immediately following both of the great wars
there was a reaction against traditions that made breaking with a
tradition desirable just in itself. In my own music,
I’ve always felt a strong need to relate to the past, and my admiration
for Mozart and Bach and composers of the past is too great to think
that I would want to forget everything that came before me and start
afresh. Nobody can do it even if they want to. There’s no
way. It’s like a tree starting to grow without
any roots below the soil. We are the result of what’s
come before us whether we want to admit it or not, and even if
we are reacting against it, it’s still influencing us.
BD: Do you
feel that you are part of a particular
branch of that tree?
see. [Thinks a moment] Of all
twentieth century composers, the one I am most taken with is
Stravinsky. My teacher was Darius Milhaud and he, likewise,
was a great admirer of Stravinsky. There’s no doubt the
qualities of Stravinsky and Milhaud were very strong in
my early music, and still are. On the other hand, I
also studied with Roger Sessions, and studied the music of Schoenberg
and Webern and the Viennese School, and was influenced by their ideas
also. But if there’s one main influence to me as a
musician, it’s been Stravinsky.
BD: What did
Milhaud teach you?
everything. I studied everything from
sixteenth century counterpoint and Bach fugue writing, orchestration,
analysis, and composition. I went the gamut
with Milhaud, from the most simple whole note against whole note
counterpoint, to contemporary complexities. The one
word that he used that I hope I learned from was ‘dare’.
[Laughs] The other thing that goes along
the same way was ‘should I try
this?’ I was thinking about doing this
piece for two
orchestras moving in two different tempos, and he said, “Well,
why not?” If your intuition is leading you in a direction that is
necessarily a well-trodden path, why not follow it?
you’re writing something, are you in control
of the music, or is the music in control of you?
WOS: Can you
put that another way? If you’re writing music, it’s like an urge
sing. Then you could say, “I’m taken over by this urge to
sing, and it has made me sing this.” On the other hand you can
also say, “I know
what I’m singing, and I can sing it differently if I want to.”
BD: Are you
ever surprised by where the music
WOS: I think
so. I don’t
know. It’s hard in the abstract to deal with that one.
Sometimes I will start out a piece and not know where it’s going to
take me, and will end up in places I hadn’t expected to get to.
But more often than not, when I start a piece I have a general idea
about it. It becomes more specific as I progress. I’m sure
this present piece I’m doing for woodwind quintet using
computer graphics will end me up in some unexpected places because I’m
working with techniques that are new to me. In fact, it’s a
little bit scary. I have to think “dare” because
of what I can get the computer to do. I’m not completely sure of
it all, and I
have to work it out bit by bit and say, “Well, okay. I see now I
can do this. If I want to do this, I could do it but it won’t be
practical; this I can’t do.” It’s a lot different from doing
something in completely conventional circumstances
where you know what all the parameters are. There are lots of
question marks left with what I’m working with now.
Eventually you’ll have to answer all those
BD: How do
you know when you’ve answered the last
WOS: I let my
intuition be my guide. I just have to feel whether a
thing is appropriate or not, and answer my musical intuition.
BD: Are you a
better composer because you’re also a
Mm. Maybe. That’s hard to answer.
[Pause] I don’t know. I enjoy performing music, and maybe
better insight into how the performer’s mind works than if I were not a
performer. But I’m thinking in my head there are
composers who were no great shakes as performers but who wrote fine
music. But I don’t know that one should be a performer
BD: Then let
me turn the question around. Are you a better performer because
you’re also a
WOS: I can
answer that with a positive response more readily because the
more deeply you understand a piece of music, the better you can perform
it. My experience as a composer, dealing with
the problems of writing music, helps me to have a deeper understanding
of the music than someone who’s just dealing with the technical aspects
of the performance.
BD: When you’re
performing, do you approach your own music
differently than you approach the music composed by others?
Yes. There’s a lot more
freedom. I know that I can change things if I want. For
instance, a couple weeks ago I played at the International Clarinet
Conference at the University of Illinois, and did my new piece for
clarinet and string quartet. There’s a little cadenza
before the concluding section that is about a
minute of multiphonics, or double-stop effects. The original
version I’d written and practiced and played, but through daily
practice it changed and varied. I just wrote different
notes and wrote different fingerings. If it were somebody
else’s piece I couldn’t do that. I’d have to do what they’d
instructed me to do and feel a responsibility to do that. But
when it’s my own piece, it’s always in a process of growing, or can be
since it’s my music. If I want to polish it and change it I have
BD: But no
one else can polish it or change it?
No. If somebody else did, I wouldn’t like
BD: Even if
they came up with the same
things you did?
responsibility as performers is
to realize what the composer’s intentions were, and if the composer
works with us and you say to the composer, “How do
you like this? Could I do this instead of that in this particular
passage?” and he says, “Yes,” then that’s fine. But if the
composer isn’t around and you start changing the things that he’s
asked for, it’s doubtful and not a very good idea.
BD: Are all
your changes improvements?
WOS: In my
mind they are. Mm-hm.
BD: Do you
ever go back and revise scores?
much. In my process of
composition I revise as I am writing, and perhaps during rehearsal for
the performance I may make changes. For instance, the
quintet that I was speaking of. I had a string quartet here in
Seattle read it with me before I went back to play it at the Clarinet
Convention, and there was one section that had the string players
playing very fast notes that were supposed to be a virtuoso effect that
was fast-moving. The string players pointed out that
I was going over strings and making it so hard that it was doubtful
they could play it up to the tempo I wanted. So I got together
with them and simplified the parts. Instead of having leaps over
the strings, I smoothed it out so that the notes were more under the
hand, and I’m glad I did.
BD: But it’s
basically the same effect?
WOS: Yes, the
effect is the same, but it’s more
practical for the players to handle.
clarinet can jump
registers a little bit, but string players have to get over from one
right. So I do make changes, but they’re usually before the
performance. Once I’ve had the performance and it worked all
right, then I go on to the next piece. I might write another
clarinet quintet next year and it might be a lot different than this
one. Instead of re-writing this one
with the other quintet, I’d rather write a new quintet.
BD: With this
clarinet quintet, did you think about
it in terms of juxtaposing it with the Mozart?
Na-ha-ha-ha! The Mozart is so beautiful and
wonderful. I’ve written three clarinet quintets now, and
I try to make them always as far from having to compete with
Mozart as possible. This one, for instance, I called Music for Five
BD: But if
you have a concert with those five players
already together, it could seem that it would be a good way of
playing an old piece and a new piece.
yes! Sure. I would love to
do any one of my clarinet quintets on a program with the Mozart
Clarinet Quintet, but I don’t
want to try and write another
Mozart clarinet quintet. This one is as far away as I could
get. It’s in seven sections, and the first one is just
solo clarinet, with me on stage and the strings off-stage. They
play sustained notes that reinforce notes that I’m playing, so it’s
essentially like echo effects. In then the second movement the
cellist comes on and we play a duet. The third movement is
essentially the viola and second violin, so they come on and we play a
trio with a little bit
of support from the cello. Finally the first violin
comes on and plays the violin solo with light accompaniment from
us. Then we play the only movement where it’s really a clarinet
quintet. The five of us play, and that’s the one with all the
notes in the string parts. Then the quartet plays a movement
by themselves, and then I play a solo number while they go
off-stage. So it’s like a mini-concert of solos, duos, trios,
quartets, quintets. It’s nothing like the
traditional quintet format.
BD: Is this
something the audience should know
ahead of time, or should they just be surprised?
WOS: They can
just be surprised, and they were. When we did it at Illinois
there were no program
notes. It indicated that there were seven movements, but I hoped
that the audience would be surprised. It was a piece that
I hoped would be full of little pleasant surprises.
BD: For what
audience do you write?
myself as a representative of the
human race, I guess. But as I mentioned before, I would like to
think that there are other people who have similar tastes to mine, and
it’s for them that I write.
BD: Do you
have the audience in mind at all when
particular audience? No.
BD: Just an
audience, any audience?
yes! Always. There’s a sort of
ideal audience. It’s as if I were in the
audience. If I were listening to this piece, would I be able to
understand this? Would this connection be clear? How would
I feel about this, if I were the audience? So, it’s writing for
my mirror image, I guess.
BD: And yet
you are not typical of any kind of
WOS: Well, I
think I am. I am not any type of audience
particularly, but I think that in any audience there are people like
BD: What do
you expect of the audience,
the general audience, that comes to hear a new work of yours, if
anything at all?
WOS: I would
hope that they would listen with
open ears, and not feel that they had to be given the tried and true
and overly familiar. We’re at a strange
point in history, or at least in twentieth century
history. This is certainly the most conservative decade in all
aspects of music that we’ve been
through. There is a strong feeling of going back to the
nineteenth century, and as one of my colleagues said recently, “Let’s
just forget all this twentieth century stuff and get back to where
real music was.” I don’t feel that at all. I
love the twentieth century, and as a matter of fact I don’t feel very
comfortable with the nineteenth century. I like earlier
music, but my true love is twentieth century music. So I have no
feeling that I want to turn my back on that. But there is a
feeling in lots of composers, performances, audiences, that they want
to go back and get the things that are comfortable and that won’t rock
BD: For you,
what is real music?
music is a true expression of a
musician. It might be a blues singer, or it might be a total
serialist composer, or it might be somebody writing in a completely
conservative style, but for it to be real music, it should be a
sincere expression of their beliefs, and use whatever knowledge they
have to express what they believe is true.
BD: Is that
the ultimate purpose of music?
Yes. I would say the ultimate purpose of music
is to express something that is in you already, and if you can do
that it can be meaningful to other human beings who are on the
receiving end of it.
BD: How do
you divide you time between
composing and performing?
morning I compose for a couple of
hours, and I play a couple of hours a day, either rehearsing,
performing, or practicing. I suppose my composition schedule is
the most rigid. I find that if I can compose every day for a
couple of hours in the morning, I feel good. It’s just a
physical need. I can go for a few
days without practicing or playing and it doesn’t bother me. It
to make much difference. But as things turn out, since I am
active in performing in both the jazz world and the non-jazz world,
I’ve always got something I’ve got to practice or rehearse or
perform. So it’s never a question. I have to make myself
compose because there’s no demand for it. I could stop composing
and the world wouldn’t fall, but if I stopped playing, it would mean
I’d have to cancel a concert that I’m supposed to play next week.
I’d have to cancel a tour I’m supposed to do next month, etcetera,
BD: Are the pieces
you write on commission, or are they just things you have to get out of
Sometimes they’re on commission, but more
often than not they are not on commission. This clarinet quintet
was commissioned by the
International Clarinet Society, but while working on that one
commission — which took me several months
— I had other things that I
wanted to do, for instance, a piece for viola. We had a very good
violist here that I wanted to write a piece for and had an idea for,
so I stuck that in in the middle. I took time out from
the quintet to do the viola piece.
BD: You can
only really work on one piece at a time?
Yes. So if I have one commission
for a year, I may do a couple of other little pieces during the course
of that year that I don’t have to do, but that I feel good about that I
want to do.
you’re offered a commission, how do
you decide if you’ll accept it or turn it down?
it’s a work that I feel could
interest me or not, and it almost always is. I can’t imagine a
commission that would not... well, I guess there could be
commissions that I wouldn’t want to accept. Let’s just say I’ve
encountered that problem. Usually it’s been of interest.
BD: How about
a concerto for ocarina and bagpipe?
[Laughs] Well, that might be a real
challenge. But I like challenges!
BD: I asked
if you were pleased with the
performances. Have you been pleased with the recordings that have
been made? Those are more permanent.
and also there are more
variables including the quality of the recording and how the performers
that particular evening and so forth. But I would say by and
large that I am pleased with the quality of the recordings that I’ve
BD: Do you
think music works well when it is embedded
WOS: Yes, I
do. It’s like the visual arts such as painting. If you do a
painting, let’s take Japanese brush painting, sumi-e
painting. It is done like an improvisation. There’s no
re-working of it. You just do it quickly, once and
for all, and it has the spontaneity of an improvisation, but it’s
frozen once you get it, just like a recording is, and that’s okay
by me. I don’t see any problem with that. But if somebody
records the piece another time, I
think it’s good if it’s different. It would be dangerous
if we all tried to make each recording of a piece the same as a
BD: But with
the cut and paste, does
it ever become too technically perfect?
minimum of cut and paste is a
good idea. I don’t think of being technically perfect as being a
problem. Probably what
you’re thinking of is that if you do cut and paste, you get more
technical perfection, but lose some of the spirit. But that’s a
matter of the
producer of the album to get a balance, so that it is perfect enough
that you can listen to it repeatedly and not think, “Oh, my God, he
played that G sharp where it should have been a G
natural, again.” You can get away with
more inaccuracies in a live performance than you can on a recording
that is going to be listened to repeatedly, but to cut it up to
the point where the spirit is lost doesn’t make any sense.
BD: To get it
reasonably high level of perfection, though, sets up an impossible
standard to duplicate in a concert hall.
Ah! Well, that’s another question. They’re two different
things. Probably that does
happen. The recording quality and the perfection of things on
record can be greater than the perfection you can achieve
in a concert hall. We just take that for granted as
BD: We expect
too much of the concert
hall now that we’ve been listening to records.
Yes. Oh I do, too! I wish people would make more
mistakes. I think it would be
nice. [Laughs] We’ve got ourselves so hemmed into striving
perfection that it’s painful to everybody, most especially the
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] You don’t purposely make mistakes, though, do you?
WOS: No, but
if I do one, I forgive myself quickly.
[Both laugh] We should strive for perfection,
certainly, and be glad when we get it. But it’s
like my struggling for words in our conversation is different than if I
were writing this out on a piece of paper and could stop and edit and
cut and paste. I could make a more cohesive, a more perfect
stringing together of words, but some of the spirit would be lost, and
I think the actual stumblings
BD: It just
shows your thought processes. [Note: This is evident when
listening, but I have done the smoothing process here (as with all of
these transcriptions on this website) to allow reading this text to
flow gently and not be bumpy.]
just as if we wanted every woman
to look like Marilyn Monroe. We don’t. It would
be boring. Our flaws are part of
us, just as our strong points are, and to omit all the flaws is
inaccurate and unsatisfying. I remember hearing about Rubinstein
doing a recording once, and when he was playing back to the recording
he said, “Who is that playing?” The engineer said, “That’s you,
Master.” Rubinstein said, “That’s not me. There are no
mistakes.” “Oh, we cut out all the mistakes, Master.” “Well
put them back in. That’s not me.” You know, it’s not a
reflection of my playing. We are our weaknesses and our strengths
together, and that’s not representative if we just present our good
BD: You said
you would like each performance to be different, and each set of
its own impetus. Going back to the first thing we were
talking about, the computer piece where the ritards are always the
same and you’re doing more dictating, are you not strangulating the
pure life out of it?
WOS: As I
mentioned, not only do I
have the possibility of putting very precise limitations on the
musician, which are strangling in terms of the freedom we have in terms
of most printed music, but if you think of Stravinsky, according to
what he said he wanted the musicians to play exactly
what was on the page, exactly his tempo indications, exactly his
nuances, and he didn’t want them to add anything of their own
personality. But it’s impossible! Everybody does.
When you hear Stravinsky, L’Histoire
sounds much different by one group
than it does by another.
BD: So then
are you anticipating this even in a computer-type piece?
even in a computer type piece. It would sound much different
depending on the musicians that
play them, even though rhythmically I could get more accuracy
than people have in the past. There are still the
freedoms in terms of balance, dynamics, tone, vibrato, types of
accent, and the performer still has plenty of choices and chances for
their personality to enter in. And if I want, I can
open it up so that they do have more choice, so that instead of having
to play a note exactly as it passes the trigger line, for example, the
trigger line could be an inch wide, and you could say, “Start that note
sometime within that inch of space.” You can give them the
freedom, but in the rhythmic sphere it depends on the kind of piece
you’re trying to bring off.
always going to go at exactly the same
tempo. You’re not going to be able to have different conductors
say it must go slower or it must go faster.
WOS: In fact,
you wouldn’t need conductors
anymore. If the orchestra all had their computer monitors, the
conductor could take a vacation. [Laughs]
BD: Is that
something to strive for???
No. I like conductors all right, having
been mainly a chamber music player myself and not put in much time
working under conductors. But I know that some of my friends
who played with various orchestras full-time have a lot of built-in
resentment against batons, and would be happy to follow a computer
screen without the ego behind it. [With a smile] But
certainly a conductor could say, “Okay, here’s my version of
Mozart as I’ve designed it for video monitors, and my 100 musicians
can read off these 100 monitors, and I’m going to the Bahamas.”
[Laughs] There is still a mysterious quality
that conductors bring beyond the actual pacing.
got to be inspiration.
Right. So, even if
a conductor made his own version for video monitors of exactly how he
piece to be paced, his own personality
would be needed.
BD: Have you
written anything for the human voice?
I’ve written a lot for voice.
BD: Why no
never been able to find a libretto or
librettist that I could work with. I wish I had more ability to
handle words myself. I think it would be nice to write my own
BD: Where do
you find the texts for your songs?
it’s been e.e. cummings. A lot
of my songs have been his, or also Theodore Roethke and Kenneth
BD: What are
the joys and sorrows of writing for the
WOS: It’s the
most wonderful thing
to write for. All music is an extension of the human
voice, and we as humans have an urge to sing. Some of us
get violins or clarinets and sing through those instead of through our
voice, but still, if you’re a good player, it’s an extension of
that urge to sing. The listener, likewise, sitting in the
audience, takes it in as an extension of singing. I think of
singing as the basis of music, as far as I’m concerned, so to
write for the voice you’re just there at the roots of this source of
music, and I like it very much.
yes! It’s the most fun.
BD: All the
because it’s the one time you’re really in
control. You could say, “I know that I want this to be
a flute, and I know I want the oboe to come in here, and this is where
the percussion will enter.” You make these decisions, stand
by them, and that’s fun. It’s not fun if you’re collaborating
with somebody and they say, “Now, wait a minute. I don’t want an
oboe coming in there. Give me something softer. How about a
flute?” And you say, “No, I don’t think it should be a
flute. I want an oboe.” Then, that’s murder. But if
you’re composing on your own, that’s
BD: You also
play a lot of jazz. Are we blurring the line between concert
and jazz music?
WOS: Oh yes,
I think so.
BD: Is that
WOS: I hope
so. I think it is. Especially in the United States, jazz is a
natural expression for
a lot of us, and is a language that is understood by most of us, and to
not use it seems to me to be unhealthy and forced. It seems to be
natural. Even Roger Sessions, who was no jazz lover, said you
can’t help but be influenced by the jazz that’s been around in
his life, and things come out in his music that are influenced by
jazz. It’s just part of our surroundings, and it makes just as
much sense to me that we use jazz here as when we write an
American novel the language is different than an English
novel. It’s just our language, our way of talking and listening
and hearing, and it seems to me that’s the way it should be.
BD: Is the
music of William O. Smith typically
WOS: I don’t
know whether it’s typically American,
but certainly everything I’ve written has some jazz influence in it,
and everything is an outgrowth of my experience as an American, and as
a performer of American music, both in and out of jazz. I’ve
never tried to write an American piece, but I think it probably is
American, just like I’ve never tried to walk like an American, but if I
go to Japan they say, “Ah, there’s an American. You can tell by
the way he walks.”
Are audiences different around the
world from city to city, from country to country?
WOS: Yes, I
think they are. You can
generalize, probably, but in certain countries they’re more sedate, and
others they’re more vociferous.
BD: Would you
rather they be more demonstrative, or a
WOS: We all
like to be appreciated; there’s no
doubt. [Both laugh] If somebody likes my music or my
very glad to have them demonstrate that. There’s a friend of mine
who feels that applause is a bad thing, that the audience is a
negative thing. He feels that you played
this piece of music for them that has left all of the sound
waves orderly and pleasant, and then the applause is a jarring,
discordant thing. I don’t feel that at all. It’s the only
way we have of showing our pleasure at a performance, and
I appreciate it. I think it’s great.
BD: Let me
ask about a few specific works which are on your recordings. Tell
me about the Five Pieces for Flute
WOS: When I
wrote those I was in
residence at The American Academy in Rome. Fritz Kraber was a
very fine flutist also living in Rome, and we did some concerts
together. So I wanted to write a piece for flute and clarinet for
and I to play. I wanted to try and include some of the
multiphonic explorations that I’d been working on in that piece, and
it’s the first piece of mine that has use of multiphonics in it.
Actually, in 1959 I did a recording of my Five Pieces for Solo
Clarinet for Contemporary Records, and there is one multiphonic
put in the concluding sonority that actually wasn’t written in the
piece. But I was excited by the idea that I could play a chord
instead of a single note, and so I did. But this was the first
composition where I designed it to use special clarinet effects.
does that leave the Fancies for
WOS: The Fancies were written as
pieces demonstrating the various types of multiphonics that I had
uncovered. Before that I had recorded Variants for Solo
Clarinet, which is the first piece I wrote for solo clarinet
multiphonics. That was on the CRI record, “Two Sides of
Smith.” That has Mosaic
and Variants on
it, which are both, likewise, explorations of multiphonic sounds.
BD: Is it
gratifying to play clarinet alone, as
opposed to clarinet in a chamber group, or at least accompanied by
WOS: Yes, it
is. It’s a different kind
of experience. If you’re an actor and you do something
with three other actors, there’s a pleasure in the interrelating with
the other actors, and I like that a lot. On the other hand, if
you have a solo thing, it’s a heroic endeavor where you’re on
your own, and I like the challenge of that, too. Probably playing
with others is more rewarding. The
interrelationship with others is more rewarding, but there is the
challenge of trying to make something by yourself, especially with the
clarinet, that will maintain the interest of the audience. That’s
something one can enjoy the challenge of.
recording is The Eternal Truths.
WOS: I ran
across the Sheldon Kopp
Eternal Truths, which on the
one hand were
amusing and on the other hand true. So when the Soni Ventorum
asked me to write a piece for woodwind quintet, I thought that would be
a fun thing to do, to have those little bits of folk wisdom
interpolated with the music. I felt very good about the way
the Soni brought it off. They thought it was fun to do,
and they did a nice job with it.
other recordings would flesh out the picture of William O Smith?
are four large-scale works for jazz
group and symphony orchestra that I wish were recorded, or at least
some of them, and I wish that some of my music with string quartet had
been recorded. Actually, there are two early recordings of
chamber music that were recorded by Contemporary Records in the
fifties which I wish were still available, and one of those is my First String Quartet. Since
written two others, and three clarinet quintets with clarinet and
string quartet. I’m
particularly fond of string quartet, and would be happy if those were
available or recorded. Of course it would be just fine if
somebody wanted to put out all of the things I’ve written to get an
idea that my music
varies a lot from one piece to the next.
BD: Are all
your clarinet compositions for the standard B-flat clarinet?
WOS: They are
for the B-flat clarinet or the A clarinet.
BD: I just
wondered if you ever wrote for E-flat
clarinet, bass clarinet, or basset horn.
never written for basset horn. I’ve written for bass clarinet and
for E-flat clarinet, but mainly it’s B-flat clarinet that I’m most
BD: Would you
ever want to write something for
a choir of clarinets?
Yes. I have a commission to do a
piece for three clarinets, which will be two clarinets and bass
clarinet for a concert here in the winter. While I
was in Illinois I heard the University of Illinois Clarinet Choir,
very beautiful. It was like a string orchestra. It was
amazingly good, and if I were invited by
them to write a piece I would be glad to do it, but it’s not
high on my list of priorities. Actually, I like strings a whole
lot, and two of my pieces that I feel
especially good about are Twelve,
which was written for a string ensemble, the Northwest
Chamber Orchestra, which was twelve string players, and Elegia, which was likewise for a
string orchestra with clarinet. It appeals to me more to write
something for string orchestra than it does for
variety, or just that’s the way you
WOS: I don’t
know. I hate to say it,
but there is more variety and more beauty in the string orchestra than
clarinet choir. I’m sure not everyone would agree with
that, but I have a particular love of string instruments. I
played viola myself for a couple of years, and learned to have a great
respect for the difficulties of string playing, and some understanding
of their possibilities. But if somebody gave me a choice
and said, “Would you like to write a piece for string orchestra or
clarinet choir?” I’d say, “I’ll take the string orchestra,
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] You don’t feel like
you’re being traitor to your reeds?
No. Well, maybe. I think I am, but
that’s the way that I feel about it. [Laughs]
BD: You go by
William O. Smith?
Actually, throughout my
career all my
jazz recordings are under the name Bill Smith, and all my classical
things are under William O. Smith. So it’s a matter of
great confusion to my listeners [laughs], and it sometimes helps to
have people who know me by one or the other come. A Bill Smith
admirer will come to a William O. Smith concert, and think, “My
God! I didn’t know he wrote that kind of stuff!”
BD: I wonder
if there’s anything Freudian about
that. Is Bill Smith a little more relaxed, and William O.
Smith a little more formalized?
have a jazz recording by a Benjamin Goodman. It’s just a
tradition in jazz to use the
most friendly version of your name possible, and in classical music you
don’t have Lud Beethoven and his
boys. You use the formal. I don’t think there’s anything
Freudian, but certainly there’s a psychological drama
there. You’re representing two kinds of music, one
that is informal and where you’re called Bill, and another that is
formal and where you’re called William.
blurring the line, though, which name do
you really prefer?
Willie. [Both laugh]
BD: And yet
it’s Bill Smith, not Bill “Cool
right. [Laughs] Right, right.
BD: Thank you
such a multi-faceted musician.
thank you. I hope that the broadness
of my experience is useful. It would have been much
easier to have just been a jazz musician, or have just been a classical
musician. My hope is that from time to time I’ve been able to
the best of both worlds together in some sort of a marriage of the two
influences. Whether this is the case of not is up for the
listener to decide.
BD: I look
forward to playing more of your music on WNIB. [Checking the
biographical detail] When is your birthday?
September 22, 1926. I’m 60, going on 61, and I still
feel like a grad student. It’s a little hard to imagine...
I haven’t come to grips with entering into my
|[From a blog by Astronauta
Pinguim posted Tuesday, June 26, 2012, with an interview of composer
ASTRONAUTA - The jazz musician Bill Smith was a great friend of yours
and one of the first persons you met when you moved to Italy in the
late '50s/early 60's. Could you tell us a little about the period you
played with him? Is there any record/film/photograph of that
time? [Photo below shows Smith
with his clarinet on the left and Eaton on the right at the piano.]
JOHN EATON - Bill (William O. Smith) was not a pianist, but a
magnificent - the best in my opinion! - jazz and classical
clarinetist. We had a group in Rome that toured Europe and the
doing concerts of contemporary music, jazz, and especially, both on the
same program. We met the fall of 1960 and immediately began performing
written compositions, jazz and other music together around Italy, and
then for Columbia Artists in the USA. We recorded 2 jazz albums,
for RCA Victor, New Sounds: Old World with Erich Peter and Pierre
Favre, and one for Epic, New Dimensions with Richard Davis and Paul
BD: Is there
any one thing that’s the most surprising
aspect of music, that you wouldn’t have thought would happen, as you
look back on your years of music-making?
WOS: One of
the surprising things of
my career has been that I performed with
Dave Brubeck regularly and enjoyed it. We were good friends and
college buddies, and we concertized a lot together. Then he went
his way and I went mine, meaning that my emphasis was on college
teaching and his was on road concretizing. Then just a few
years ago, Dave called me and asked if I could play with him on a
regular basis again, and I told him I’d be pleased to as far as I
could fit it into my teaching schedule. So for the last few years
I’ve been playing regularly with Brubeck
again, and this is a surprise. I never anticipated that fate
would bring us back
together again, and I’ve enjoyed it very, very much. It’s been
very nice... more than very nice, it’s been splendid.
you’re teaching at the university, are you
teaching clarinet or are you teaching composition?
composition, and I’m director of the
contemporary music group. I also teach jazz improvisation and
arranging, and occasionally have a clarinet student. Bill McCall
our main clarinet teacher.
musical composition something that can be
like poetry can be taught or painting can
be taught. You help the person with the basics,
and after that try to guide them as best you can, helping them to find
their own path. It can’t be taught like you teach
mathematics. I suppose it is sort of like
going to a psychiatrist — they can help you to
bring out things
that are already in you. You can’t take someone
who has nothing in them and say, “Okay, I’m going to give you this
music. You will now be a composer. Here are the theorems
you have to work with.” But if they have compositional
ability, you can help them to realize it.
the balance, then, between this creative
ability and the technical achievement?
WOS: The technical
achievement is in the
basic learning of grammar. If you want
to be a poet, you first learn traditional grammar and literature and
Shakespeare, etcetera. I would think that you
would want to know what went before you, and be able to construct
sentences and essays in terms of conventions that make sense.
After you can do that you can handle things more freely and in a more
individualized manner. In the advanced things your teacher is
just more of a guide than someone who is giving
you rules and regulations to work by. It’s the same in painting
as in musical composition. You
start out and learn strict counterpoint and Bach counterpoint and
nineteenth century harmony, then traditional orchestration. All
these things strengthen you, but in the long run you try and find your
own path, and in finding your own path, the best you can hope for is
BD: One other
question. In music, where is the balance between art and
WOS: If your
audience falls asleep while you’re
playing, then it is all for naught. Art has to have some impact
on the audience; it has to entrance
them. Entertain? It’s a tough
question because the word ‘entertainment’,
in our vocabulary,
has been taken to be a naughty thing, a cheap thing. Yet
Shakespeare is entertaining; Molière is entertaining; Mozart’s
entertaining; Haydn’s entertaining.
William O. Smith entertaining?
WOS: Oh, I
hope so. I think so. I would
think especially something like Eternal
Truths would be
entertaining. But we have identified entertainment in our society
with a striving to make money. If you’re
in the entertainment industry, it means you’re doing everything you can
to reach a mass audience and thereby get rich, and that’s incompatible
with trying to do anything worthwhile,
actually. You might happen to do something worthwhile
that does make money and does appeal to a lot of people, but if the
aim is in money-making, I think it’s a wrong pass. That’s what we
think of ‘entertainment’. If
you’re in the entertainment
industry, it means you’re in the “let’s make a lot of money off of it”
than creating something of lasting value?
Yes. I’m not sure what the dictionary would say, but I
would probably have a broader definition than that.
expect your music to last, don’t
Yup. Well, some of it. I’ve
written about 140 compositions, and I would
hope that at least some of my clarinet pieces would last. I’m not
optimistic enough to think that a lot of it will last. I’m very
aware of how many composers we have in the world, and how many
compositions each of them have written. It’s
overwhelming. When my
contemporary group put out a call for people to send string quartets,
we wound up with hundreds of them! And some were very good
ones. Our epoch is so full of composers. We just have so
many people and so many composers and so much music on paper that you
have to have a very strong ego to feel secure that yours is
going to be chosen to live forever. But one would like to see
the time, then looking out the window to check the weather] How
is it out?
Is it raining still?
Really? Oh, God. Isn’t that something?
BD: I’m glad
we brought the umbrella. We were
debating whether or not we should bring it...
WOS: Any time
you come to Seattle, bring
an umbrella, I would say. [Both laugh]
BD: We did last
time we came, and we didn’t need it!
that’s good. Maybe you scared the
rain away that time by bringing it.
BD: It didn’t
fall for it this time. [Both laugh]
fooled me last time, but not anymore. Summers are delightful
Actually, I think it’s great to have some cool air. Our winters
are mild, but we do get a lot of
gray skies and a lot of rain.
BD: But you never
get the bitter cold like we get in
never. We have a week of snow at the
most, and it’s not uncomfortable. It’s no big deal. I’ve
never been through a Chicago winter, but I
have been through... oh, wait a minute. I have been through a
Chicago winter, but many years ago when I was twenty years old.
I played a couple of months with a band at one of your big
WOS: Yes, the
Aragon Ballroom, and man, that was cold. I
remember I had on my California clothes, and that wind blew off the
lake and right through them! [Mimics the wind] I couldn’t
believe it, so I
bought a new wardrobe.
BD: We get
mild winters once in a while, but
then we get two or three brutal winters.
WOS: I spent
a winter in New
York, and that was really cold. I was
brought up in California and lived for several years in Rome, and most
of the winters I’ve experienced have been sissy winters.
[Laughs] Before coming to Seattle this time, I got a letter from
Bergsma. We’re going to try and get together while I’m here, and
he mentioned that he didn’t think you’d be
here. He figured you’d be in your apartment in Rome.
yes. [Laughs] Up until these last few
years when I’ve been with Brubeck, I did spend every summer in Rome
because my son lives there, and we have an apartment still that we got
in 1960 when I first went there. My wife and I enjoy going
back there in the summers a lot, but now I tour during the summer with
Dave so much
that we just squeeze in our visits to Rome whenever we can. This
year we’re going to go back at Christmas to see my son.
BD: And you
have to squeeze those trips into the academic
yes. But Christmas vacation’s a
good time. Dave doesn’t do many concerts during the winter, and
I’m off from school at that time, so it works out well.
BD: Thank you
for sharing a little bit of your time with us today.
WOS: I’m glad
glad you’re taking an interest in new music and helping us out.
There’s not that much. Every little bit helps. Take it
easy. It was nice to meet you.
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Seattle, Washington, on July
31, 1987. Portions were broadcast (along with recordings) on WNIB
in 1991 and 1996.
This transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this
at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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
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.