Composer / Percussionist
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Perhaps it is because they are standing at the back of the
orchestra that members of the percussion section get a unique view of
the ensemble and its director. From this distance, the balance
and overview can allow for a particular kind of comprehension that is
usually lost on those who are buried in the middle or are thrust
upfront. Maybe there is a particular Chicago connection because
many years, the Principal Percussionist of the Chicago Symphony, Gordon
Peters, also directed the Civic Orchestra. This interview
features another native of the Windy City.
William Kraft came from Chicago, studied on the East
Coast, and spent his creative and performing life primarily in Los
Angeles. As a member of the percussion section of the L.A.
Philharmonic, he toiled in “the kitchen” for eight years before being
named Principal Timpanist and serving there for a further eighteen
years. Concurrently, he formed chamber groups and conducted
ensembles and the full orchestra.
After leaving his performing behind, he concentrated on composing, and
has made a successful reputation as an original creator. His
music is regularly programmed and recorded, and his teaching is highly
In anticipation of his 65th birthday in 1988, I arranged to spend an
hour with Kraft on the telephone. He was forthright with his
responses and seemed genuinely pleased to be the subject of radio
presentations in his city of origin. We spoke of many musical
things, including the piece he had written for the United Airlines
terminal at O’Hare Airport. Don’t worry if you
can’t remember what this sounds like even if you are a frequent
visitor. The sculpture is still there, but the music has been
changed to familiar Gershwin. During the birthday-broadcasts on
WNIB, I used the United music under the portions of interview which
were included between the recordings of full pieces. I pretended
that the conversation took place in the tunnel, and his music was being
heard in the background as we chatted. Several listeners called
to say it was a nifty way of including this special work.
More on that later. Also, please note that names which are links
refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.
As we began the chat, he seemed ambivalent at
first as to the purpose of the appointment . . . . .
You don’t want to hit sixty-five?
[Laughs] Well, I just consider
things like that as being inevitable situations; it has nothing to
do with how you feel. I think death is the
same way. You can’t stop it; it’ll be there someday.
true. Well, what is either the most
interesting or the most
surprising thing that you’ve discovered as you now approach your
WK: That I
keep running into new phases of my
life! I never expected to have different careers crop
up. When I became Composer-in-Residence with the Los Angeles
Philharmonic, that was certainly a new phase, a very important
phase. I stopped playing, sold my instruments, and took a chance
on seeing if I could live as a composer.
BD: Why did
you sell your instruments? I would
think you would keep those around.
WK: Really to
burn my bridges behind me!
It’s too easy to go out and make money in the studios here, and I
didn’t want to take the time away from composing,
since it has never been possible to devote my life to composing.
I’ve always had to play for the income, as
I put it, to support my habit! [Both laugh] I just wanted
to see if I could make it as a
composer, and to stop playing. I do regret it a bit now, because
I would like to play chamber music, which is, of course, twentieth
century music and the only thing there is for percussion. I don’t
miss playing timpani with the orchestra because the routine of it is
rather deadly. That I
don’t miss, but I DO miss the idea of
playing in little chamber things. I used to do a lot
of that until the time I started to play timpani, and then I had to
back off. I also started to conduct, so that is what
BD: When you were
playing with the Los Angeles
Philharmonic, did you get enough time to compose?
WK: When I
first joined the orchestra, I was
playing in the percussion section, which meant that there were many
So yes, there was time during that. The first eight years of my
career with the Philharmonic was as percussionist. But then,
after those eight years, I became timpanist, and about the same time I
started to conduct with the orchestra, and eventually became assistant
conductor. I did just about all the children’s concerts, and then
I was doing the contemporary
events. So the composing suffered quite a bit then.
BD: Is it a
good idea for the resident conductor to slough off the
contemporary concerts on somebody else?
no. I would say no, because the
significance of the performance is greater when the resident conductor
does it on a regular subscription concert. That’s what we really
aim for. The tendency is always to put them in what we
call the “ghetto concerts,”
things that are devoted to contemporary
music. The good side of that is that we have an audience that
wants to hear new music, but the bad side of it is that there’s
no chance of contemporary music getting into the repertory unless the
resident conductor is involved in those ghetto concerts, and takes some
of those works and puts them into the season! That’s what I had
hoped we were going to do in Los Angeles; that was the intention in the
beginning. It wasn’t carried out, unfortunately.
BD: Well, how
can we get more contemporary music on
the basic subscription concerts?
WK: Just the
way Leonard Slatkin
does it in Saint Louis — program them. Just do it!
BD: But what
if you don’t have as sympathetic a
WK: If you
don’t have a sympathetic conductor,
you really can’t. Somebody has to apply pressure. In
our case, Giulini was not interested in contemporary
music. He did do a few things by colleagues of his that he knew
BD: Is the
situation better now with Previn?
Yes. He has specific tastes. He
likes things that are more on the conservative side. He doesn’t
particularly like adventuresome new works, but he certainly is adept at
doing major works from the thirties, forties, fifties. I’m
talking about William Walton, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. He
likes music of that style, and he likes current composers who
tend to write in that style; more or less tonal and very
strongly tied to the mainstream.
BD: You’re a
more avant-garde composer.
WK: More than
that, yes, but certainly not as
much as other composers.
BD: How do
you feel about composers who are now
writing more tonal
music? Is there a resentment on your part, or do
you feel it’s another form of mainstream?
WK: For those
who do it as a matter of heart, who
really do feel that and that’s what they love to write and
do it to the best of their ability, then
that’s the way it should be. And I sort of feel that I’m in that
category. Some, I feel, have turned to it just as a matter of
being more popular, to be performed. That is a problem.
After all, Copland said that that’s why he went to his American style,
because the other music just wasn’t being performed. So it’s not
a new thing. But I think that several composers now have tended
to go with what they call
the neo-romantic way, with the intention of becoming part of that
school, and then they may get more
performances. There’s nothing like having a label
to get into this current rage of marketing that’s become more prevalent
in the symphonic world. It gives the journalists
something to write about; they love labels like minimalism,
neo-romanticism, or the new romanticism.
BD: Is there
any label that you like?
[Both laugh] No, just good
music. No one
ever gave the major composers labels.
BD: Then what
constitutes good music?
Ultimately, good music is
certainly music that is well-crafted, that shows a
great deal of skill and awareness of the past, and I’d say an
awareness of the present. Somehow a composer will find his
compositional personality, and eventually establish
himself with a style that is recognizable. Think of all the great
composers; you know who they are — Brahms,
Sibelius, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Bartók, Hindemith, etcetera,
etcetera. They all
have an image, but
after the fifties things definitely changed. 1950 is sort of a
turning point with the serial
specifically felt that
music should have no reference to the past. He would teach that
way and require anybody who studied
composition with him to go that way. In the fifties, serialism
was one way of
going at things — non-referential,
it has nothing to do with the
past — going more and more towards the intellectual and more towards
the idea of the technique being the primary motivation for the
piece. And that stimulated reactions on the other side; the other
extreme being the freedom that one given in the music of Cage. Then they
had the Polish school. I
think composers of
my generation wasted many years of our lives
because we felt we were not part of the compositional world if we
didn’t show that we were aware of all these various approaches, whether
it was chance or aleatoric music or
proportional, serial, graphic, improvisational, anything you
All these things were becoming rampant in the fifties and sixties.
BD: Was it
good that we had so many divergent
WK: No, not
for the core because with all these
approaches there was no chance for anything to mature! It
takes a long time for a style to mature. Every period we’ve had
in the past did exist for quite some time, whether it was baroque,
classic or romantic, nationalistic. All these approaches
were around for quite some time, and composers matured in them.
It took years. It takes, I think, a couple of decades for a
composer really to
mature in what he has to say, and to get rid of the other
influences. If you’re working in what
was current in the fifties and sixties, those
things would change. I remember having a conversation with Isang
Yun, the Korean composer. This was many years ago,
probably in the sixties before he was in prison. He happened to
be visiting Los Angeles and we
all met. Some of the composers in the Los Angeles area were
invited to meet him at Lawrence Morton’s house, and we asked him about
the goings on in Europe. He was studying with
Stockhausen at the time — or
at least he had studied with him — and
was working with him in some way. Yun said, “Well, let’s
see, there’s this ‘style.’ I think Zimmermann started that.
That’s good for two years.” Then he named something else.
the crescendos.” These were pieces that were based on nothing but
crescendos. He said, “Well, that’s good for a year or so.”
Then he would say something else, “Oh, that’s a good one!
That’s good for five years.” Well, there’s no maturity possible
with that kind of attitude! And that’s just what happened.
I think that’s why this so-called neo-romantic school began to emerge
in the seventies, because composers were just tired of doing what was
BD: Had they
been suckered into the current fad,
whatever that was?
exactly. In Europe, it was the case
that if you didn’t write in the Darmstadt style, you didn’t get
performed. The Darmstadt School seemed to have a great
influence — that’s Boulez,
etcetera. They are magnificent composers, there’s
about it, but the idea that they would want to control the
compositional styles of the world was just not right!
BD: Where did
you go for your compositional
style, and has that changed over the years?
WK: I did
dabble in most
of those things in the sixties and going into the seventies, but I
always tried to have a sense of my own self there. I didn’t find
it possible, really, to enjoy composing if it didn’t have some of me in
there. So I would distill. I remember doing one piece,
the first movement of Contextures,
totally serialized, and when I
got through with it I said, “Wow, I’m going to take this to the piano
and see if it really does sound the way I think it does sound.” I
thought I heard everything, but it was very complex, and when I played
it through, I said, “Oh, yes, it sounds like
every other work I’ve heard that is totally serialized.” There’s
a certain kind of randomness and lack of personal intention in the
piece. So I just took things out here and there so that I had
some control as to when things happened. That’s what I think is
the most important thing, to be able to control the event by
your own psyche. Your personality gets into it that way.
you’re writing a piece of music, are you
always in control of the pencil, or are there times
when the pencil winds up controlling you?
always stop and look! [Laughs]
There was one little experience I had
with Otto Luening,
who was my teacher at Columbia in graduate school
there. I was writing a violin-piano piece called
Sonata, as one did in those
days, and he was playing through my manuscript. He
was a marvelous score reader, but he came to the end of
what I had written and kept going on! I just was bowled
over! It was wonderful what he was doing! It was exactly
right; everything was just right and I listened intently. I
watched his hands; I wanted to
remember everything he did because it was so right. Finally he
stopped and said, “Well, what do you think?” I
said, “Well gee, Mr. Luening, that’s really extraordinary! How
did you do it?” And he said, “Don’t you get it? It’s
routine.” Well, that never left my
mind! It’s the same as another teacher saying look at every
note. But I never
BD: So have
you stopped being routine?
Yeah! Oh, I hope so! I find that
something happens in my mind when I’m writing. I suddenly come to
a block and I don’t know what’s wrong. I just can’t figure out
what should be next. That may last a few days, so I’ll
go out jogging; that’s my way of thinking. I like to
have something to think about when I’m jogging. I think about
it and I generally come to a conclusion, something like, “It’s
for a change, that’s what it is. I’m not enjoying it.”
As you implied, the pencil was beginning to take
over. That’s the problem, and I go back and look at
what the other possibilities are.
BD: Are there
ever times when you’re surprised
where your music has led you?
WK: I suppose
so, especially when a
piece is over. I put it away awhile and I come back and I
say, “Oh, my gosh! How did I do that?” That’s a wonderful
feeling. This is the most
important thing to me — that I can pull back
from a piece, listen to it
objectively and say I respect it from a composer’s angle. That it
is accessible is quite something else. I speak to myself when I’m
composing. I’m doing this and
that and I think, “Oh, that is exciting,” or “That is beautiful,” or
“That is just right.” I just hope that the listener will
have the same experience, but I’m not going to think about the listener
and what the listener would want to hear. I don’t want that
listener’s concept of drama or beauty
or whatever it may be. I find this to be a problem with
BD: What do you expect of the audience that
comes to hear your music?
WK: An open
mind with some background. They
have to have had some experience in listening to music, and they have
to have sensitivity. The biggest problem we’ve had is that we
don’t have a society that has heard music in their youth. It’s
not in the families, for the most part. It would be more so back
east where you have older families that have emigrated from
Europe and had some sense of background. Think of the
families in Boston and Philadelphia or New York.
BD: Going to
rock concerts isn’t enough?
WK: Not at
all! [Both laugh] No,
no! I mean something that’s not
entertaining. What we get ninety-nine percent of the time is just
music that’s for entertaining.
BD: In your
music, where is the balance between
the entertainment value and the artistic achievement?
artistic achievement is involved in the
intent. “What am I
trying to say?” I’m
not trying to
entertain. If it’s a piece that is meant to be entertaining,
that’s something else. For instance, a piece I wrote for the
opening of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, I knew was going
to be listened
to by an unsophisticated audience. They had no background in
Orange County. It’s a corporate area; it’s all
business. This was a new beginning! It was an
audience that, as Isaac
Stern said, was the worst audience he ever
saw in his life! They
clapped between movements, and you could just tell that they weren’t
reacting in the way one
would expect them to. Well, I had to deal with what I wanted to
say, what I thought the
occasion called for. It had to be a celebrative kind of piece,
essentially joyful, so there were certain dictates
involved. I must say that the first version of it was not
satisfactory to me. I revised it and now I’m satisfied with
it. But yes, I meant it to be entertaining in a way that the
music was of a pleasant and somewhat
exciting and very colorful character.
BD: Do you
not want to at least get an honest
reaction from them,
even if it’s not so sophisticated?
WK: I hope
that I reach them on my terms, not on
terms. If it was on their terms, we’d be back to the rock or the
very light Muzak style of music that doesn’t require any
listening. In a case like that — as in any case, for that
matter — I want to invite the ear; to make one curious as to what’s
happen next. So that is what I do to keep the texture
alive. The colors change, and hopefully they are taken as being
attractive or meaningful or contrasting. In some sense it’s odd,
but I always go back to Beethoven as
a great example of what we should all aspire to. He does lead
you. You think you know what’s coming next, but you really don’t,
unless you know the piece backwards, and sometimes we do! But the
flow of events is such that he invites
you to wonder what’s coming next. You just go with it. Take
the first movement of the Fifth
Symphony. There’s one place where he
breaks the whole metric feeling. It’s really a four-bar
phrase all the way through, but when he assumes that the listener is
going to get too complacent,
or that the music is really getting too complacent, he throws in a
five-bar phrase. It’s this little bar of rest, and I have heard
violinists just flop right into that bar
far too soon! [Both laugh] It’s amazing, but it
happens! Well anyway,
that’s what I’m getting at.
BD: I am not
asking for specific names, but are we still getting composers who are
writing on the level of Beethoven?
WK: I don’t
think so. We’re coming out of that
confusing period of the fifties and sixties, where for
the most part, major composers were looking for new techniques and new
sounds, and new this and new that. Originality was a high
but substance and personality were not. I was once talking to the
Music Department at the University of Victoria, British Columbia.
It was just after my Piano Concerto
had been premiered, so we were
talking about that in particular, and without even thinking about it, I
just blurted out that I thought
composers of my generation had wasted ten to fifteen years of our lives
trying to show that we knew what was going on, and in the
process we forgot ourselves, forgot who we were. Then I started
to emphasize that with my students, and
always looked for their personality. I found that to be very
productive for them. They lost their desire to emulate and
imitate, and started to look how to use the techniques to serve their
own purposes. It took me a couple years before I really
applied it to myself. In the
last eight years in particular, I have gone back to my roots, which
and impressionism, and try to now amalgamate those with the technique
of composing that I’ve developed over the years.
where is music going today?
WK: I think
it’s going in the direction that it had
been going up to 1950, where composers are back to trying to be
say something that is significant.
almost like thirty-five years of music just
WK: Yes, in a
way. People are always
asking what works or what composers are going to be important or
still performed and considered significant when the twenty-first
century hits. We can’t really answer that. I can’t think
that there is a composer now that has a body of work that would be
comparable to those before 1950 such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg,
BD: Not even
someone like Elliott
WK: As much
as I admire
his music, I don’t think that it has a combination that is going to
survive significantly. There’s something with all the other
composers I mentioned that is, well, I don’t know, how do I want to say
it? Accessible, communicable. I could be wrong.
There’s no doubt that I could be wrong, but I don’t see any
particular work of Elliott’s that I think is going to really grab on
and be considered a masterpiece. It could be a masterpiece in
terms of the technique involved. But when you look at the
composers I spoke about, they’ve been accepted, I think universally
now. It takes a
little longer in the United States, so we have to talk on a different
level here than in Europe. But there’s something that is
attractive, that one wants to hear, and at the same time a work where
who is quite sophisticated can see things below the surface. I’m
talking about professionals, but the more equipped one is, the more one
sees in any
given work. That was the thing about the great composers.
was great music; you didn’t have to think about it, you just knew
it was great, and each hearing revealed more. I remember
playing the Brahms First Symphony
with the Philharmonic. We used
to play it every single year. Really, I am not
exaggerating. Every single year
it was on at least one pair of subscription concerts, which meant
four concerts after a while. And when Giulini came and did it, I
was amazed that there was still a lot that I hadn’t heard while
playing in the orchestra. I’m not talking about doing an analysis
of the score; it was just a matter of the balance that he
achieved in bringing out all the voices. It was incredible!
BD: When you
write a piece, do you expect
it to last? And do you write into it all these things that you
say are missing from most of the works of this generation?
WK: I’m not
the only one, for gosh sakes, that
does that. There’s some who do that much better, but yes, I
always aim at being a respectable craftsman. I like the idea of
motific relationships and a certain kind of continuity that shows the
unfolding of material.
BD: Do you
write it to be accessible?
that’s never in my mind. I write to say
what I want to say. If I had a different sort of ear, an
ear like, say, Elliott’s — and by that I mean the inner ear that
what is to be done — then I would do something different. But I’m
trying to do what I feel is me.
BD: I assume
that you get many
WK: I’m very
fortunate right now to have quite
a few, yes.
BD: When you
get a commission, how do you
decide whether you will accept it or postpone it or decline it?
WK: I would
certainly know that it’s something that I want to do, that the idea is
good idea, that the occasion is one of significance, hopefully. I
mean, what the hell? Any composer would composer anyway, and if
you have several commissions, then of
course you can take choices. If I
were to say no to something, it would be because I had more important
commissions at hand.
BD: How do
you decide which one is going to be
WK: Well, the
performing forces. If the
choice was between an orchestra and a chamber work, I
would go with the orchestral work. That’s what’s most difficult.
BD: Even if
it was for a chamber group that would take
it around and tour it for many months?
that’s important, too! [Both laugh] I’d try to do both;
there’s not doubt of
that, but it’s a matter of time. For
instance, I had several commissions at hand. I had the Library of
Congress, I had one with the U.S. Air Force Band, and this Orange
County thing. And the Cal
State University at Sacramento has an annual American
music festival in the fall, and they wanted me to write a piece for
them, so I just had to put that on a back burner, because the others
were much more important to me. You know, the Library of
Congress is a major event. So I asked Cal State if they could
wait until ’88,
which they did. I’m working on that piece right now.
BD: When you
start out writing a piece,
do you know about how long it will take you to write it?
WK: Yes, I
think I do. If it’s an orchestral work of twenty minutes
duration, I would certainly want to have at least a good six months to
work on it.
BD: Do you
ever work on more than one piece at a time?
no, because I
think the subconscious functions when you’re not aware. You get
away from the piece and the piece is still going on inside. I’ve
had occasion to find solutions to compositional problems at the
strangest times! I work in the morning, but there
have been times in the afternoon when the solution to the problem that
I had comes up.
BD: You’ll be
eating a salad at dinner, and all of a
sudden it will dawn on you?
Yes! I might start thinking about it, or it
will crop in and out.
you’re working on a piece, and you’ve
been working on it for about six months, how do you know when you’ve
actually finished? How do you know when to stop tinkering with
it, put the pencil down and give it to the world?
WK: I like to
be very careful about endings because
the tendency when one is younger, and I was certainly guilty of it, is
to hurry up the ending because you’re so anxious to finish the
piece. So I like to take the time and keep thinking about
it. I always think ahead. I always have an idea of where
I’m going. I have a whole idea in the beginning, but
that always changes as I get going on the piece itself. Then when
I do finish, I like to leave it for a while, and just
come back to it. You know, let it sit a few days or a few
weeks. I might go to another work. This is kind of ideal,
the thing doesn’t have to be in right away, so I can put it aside for
several weeks and maybe work on something else to get it
completely out of my mind, and then come back to it and go over
it and go over it and go over it, and get rid of the extraneous
things just to clean it up. After I do that a while, then
I’m sure that it’s done.
BD: This is
what I’m looking for. How do you know when all the extraneous
stuff is out but you haven’t removed any of the meat?
WK: When I
have no doubts! When I finish a piece and I have
no questions about it and it feels good. That’s the
thing — if
it feels good, I know. And that has proven to be the way
— just to be true. When I feel good, it usually comes
out that the
piece starts to sound almost right away.
BD: Have you
basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your music
over the years?
Basically, yeah. I would say
so. A lot of it depends on the forces, and whether they give it
proper rehearsals. Only one chamber work was disappointing in
its first performance. That’s very distressing to me, because
when something doesn’t work or doesn’t sound, I blame
myself first of all. But in this one case I know it wasn’t my
fault because things just weren’t happening that were supposed to
happen. Generally, as I think back, I’ve been quite pleased.
BD: Have you
conducted your own works?
WK: Oh, yeah.
you the ideal conductor of your works?
no! I don’t think so, not at all.
I think every conductor has something he brings to the work that he’s
conducting. For instance, Zubin brings a great
sense of drama; he
brings out the dramatic qualities of a work. I had a wonderful
experience recently with Paul Polivnick and the Alabama Symphony.
They did a work of mine called Interplay,
and he knew it so well
that I swear he knew it better than I did! He knew the
innards. He performed it first last November, and then recorded
it just about six weeks ago. That’ll be on Nonesuch. Also
on that disc will be the Los Angeles
Philharmonic doing Contextures II,
which was a meet the composer
commission, a meet the composer recording. That’s with Previn
BD: So it’s a
record devoted entirely to you?
Yes. I asked for that and they agreed
to it. I just had to get the things recorded and give them the
masters. Alabama liked the piece so much that he agreed
to that. He made sure that he
got the wherewithal to do it. And the third piece is going to be
recorded June 29th by the Utah Symphony. That’s the piece done
for the Orange County Performing Arts Center. I call that Of
Ceremonies, Pageants, and Celebrations, which is an acronym for
County Performing Arts Center, OCPAC. Interplay was premiered by
the L.A. Philharmonic with Simon Rattle conducting, and I was
immensely satisfied with that. Simon has a way of getting
into a piece, knowing what it’s about, and I would say that
Polivnick did the same thing. He just knew the piece so well!
BD: Have you
basically been pleased with the recordings
of your music?
WK: Oh yes,
because I’m usually involved somewhere
along the line. The first recordings that I did for a company
here, Crystal Records, were chamber works. I conducted all
of those. Then the first orchestral recording
was by the Louisville with Robert Whitney. I had nothing to do
with that, and yet it was good. I never heard the
performance or anything! They just sent me the finished product;
that I’m not so keen on. I like to
be given a chance to say something. They usually give you a test
pressing somewhere along the line. There are some
records I just don’t pay attention to any
more. When the Los Angeles Brass Society recorded the Fanfare, I
heard it and I didn’t even recognize it! I said, “Is that
mine?” They had distorted it so much! But then I
put it away for six months and came back and thought it’s a rather
nice avant-garde sounding piece. It’s not what I wrote,
BD: Are you
one of these guys that will make suggestions to the conductor, or will
you basically keep quiet?
no! [Laughs] I like to make suggestions, but
I’ve learned in this business you have to know whether the conductor
wants it or not, and how he wants it. When John Nelson
my Timpani Concerto, he asked
me to sit onstage. This was in
Indianapolis. He put a chair and a stand and he said, “You sit
right next to me, and any time you want to say something, you say
On the other hand, I had a piece done by Odaline de la Martinez, a
very, very gifted conductor in Britain. She has a group called
Lontano in London; she also has a chamber orchestra and she’s been
doing a lot of BBC guesting. She does not want the composer to
say anything during the dress rehearsal, or even during the rehearsals,
to a great extent! She likes to wait until there is a break and
then discuss the various things. That makes sense; I understand
that very well, but it’s sort of hard to sit there trying to
remember everything. I take notes and mark the score, but I
always have the feeling, “Well, there it is; why
not correct it
right now” if the flutist is doing something
wrong, or it’s
a misprint. I’d like to say something
about it, and it’s harder after. The thing has been rehearsed and
during a break you go back and say this and this and that. But
either way, the composer certainly should
have something to say about it. In an orchestral rehearsal, it
only makes sense. I was surprised that John Nelson was so
generous, because orchestras are expensive entities, and it takes time
away from rehearsing.
BD: I wonder
if he would do that with everyone,
or if it was that he knew you had been a professional player and were
sensitive to that?
WK: I don’t
think it has to do with
being a player; I think it was simply as the composer. He wanted
my input into whether things were done to my liking. I think it
should be that, and I think he would do it with any composer.
BD: You spent
many years as a percussionist and
composer. Did you do any teaching of composition?
yeah. The first time I taught composition was at Cal
Arts, I think in 1969; I spent a year there teaching composition.
I also worked with the percussion ensemble and taught timpani,
and did some conducting because the conductor was indisposed.
Then in ’72 I was invited to come
back again and just teach composition. Then I was
Composer-in-Residence at USC
in ’77, and had that same position with the L.A. Phil from ’81
to ’85. Next year it looks like I’ll be at UCLA
teaching the graduate seminar in composition and some
What advice do you have for young composers
coming along today?
Find yourself. Learn all the techniques,
everything that’s gone on and everything that is going on. Be
acquainted with that. Listen to a lot of music. That which
you like, get acquainted with. Get the score and study it.
Find out how it was done, but always have the intention of
distilling what you’re doing ‘til you find what is really you.
I’d go for the personality, not to sound like other people, but to get
rid of the influences. Generally one has to write them out.
one is a great disciple of Boulez and he wants to write
like Boulez, fine. But eventually he’s got to find out
how he differs from Boulez. I don’t think
that a composer can succeed by emulating another composer. The
other composer is true to himself; it’s a
natural expression. We’ve all gone through our
phases, even Bartók. All composers start out sounding like
somebody else, but eventually they find themselves.
BD: Are you
optimistic about what you hear
coming from young composers these days?
WK: In some
cases. I think that in this country
we are lacking in the experience, the background that’s necessary to
produce a composer of the first rank. It has changed
significantly recently, and I think it’s getting more promising.
I did a brief residency at USC, and some of those master’s candidates —
the graduate composers — were really quite
I am encouraged. Without pressure anywhere,
they are doing what I think they should be doing. They’re trying
what they want to write. I’ll tell you something that was really
fascinating. I was just at the Royal
Northern College of Music in Manchester, England. They
were asking me about my music, and I played some and we talked.
Then I said I wanted to hear their music, and I was
terrifically impressed at the maturity of some of those
composers! Of course, they take only the very best. It’s
not that large a school that they can take everybody; it’s not like the
universities here that tend to have so many students. They do
have a lot of students, but they have the opportunity to
hand pick the students. I was really impressed with one work in
particular by a boy that was no more than twenty-two. It was such
mature piece; the technique was so sure! It had that
combination of comprehensibility and profound craftsmanship! He
really was gifted and very intelligent. And I heard a second
work that was similar. I asked the professor, Martin
Butler — who I also admire — if they could send
me tapes and scores of their works. I’d
like to get acquainted with more, and at least have them around
here. As I do more teaching, I wanted to see how it compares
to what is going on in this country. I’ll be interested
to see what I find at UCLA because that is a major institution, and it
certainly should have students with a comparable talent and
ability. The real problem is getting
there, perhaps, too many
composers vying for those performances?
Sure! No question of it. It
doesn’t matter what age you are, whether you’re twenty or
seventy. We all have the same problem because it comes
back again to the society. The audiences aren’t very geared to
experiences because they don’t get music in their schools as they grow
up. They start going to concerts when they become a little bit
affluent and have some leisure time, and they hear all these works for
the first time. They may know the major works, the
Tchaikovsky Fourth, the
Beethoven Fifth, the
Dvořák New World, that
sort of thing. They may know those, but they won’t know
the other symphonies of these composers. So the orchestras have
the obligation of educating these people,
building up their background. But now these people are in their
thirties and forties, and that’s not what we’re looking for.
We’re looking for the steady diet, where the commercial media, whether
television or radio, will take a responsibility
in raising the level of culture in the country.
BD: This is
what I try to do here on WNIB by locating the living
American composers, and talking with them and playing their music!
WK: You got
it! [Laughs] You’re one of the great
heroes; there’s no question of it! We should clone
you and put
you in all the cities of America!
BD: Let me
ask you about the work you wrote for the United Airlines Terminal at O’Hare
statement to them is that art is not to be
judged by the Nielsen ratings. It looks like we are going to
have the symposium at University of Michigan, because they feel the
BD: I know many of
the details, but it want to get
them all from you, just to get them straight and from your
history, as I understand it, was that they
felt they needed something to go into the tunnel that was to join the
terminal to the existing terminal. It was a long stretch, and
they thought there
should be something in there that would be particularly inviting to the
passengers. They had toyed with the Disney
people, and someone on the board, I understand, said, “Wait a
minute, what are we doing? We’ll have real plastic flowers and
plastic birds,” or whatever it would be; in other words, more
on the entertainment side. It was decided that they wanted to
have something more aesthetic,
of a more serious nature. Helmut Jahn was involved in
that, and the former President of United, Richard Ferris. These
people that were in favor of going to what Michael Hayden had
presented. When he was chosen to be the sculptor,
Hayden said he wanted to have music. They resisted that.
said he wanted my music in particular, and they asked for
I sent them some tapes. and on
the basis of that they decided to go along with having me do the music
for it. The rest is history. When the tunnel
opened and they started to get different views, all I can
say is the same thing we’ve been alluding to in this
conversation — that people aren’t ready for
something that they haven’t
heard before, or even haven’t seen. It’s been proven in
surveys that music is the most powerful of all the stimuli, and
therefore the most difficult to absorb when it’s unknown. The
newness of a sculpture can be taken in more readily, whereas it takes
time and actually repeated hearings to hear new music.
BD: Let me
play Devil’s Advocate just for a
moment. Is the tunnel, where travelers are trying to meet
deadlines and all they are thinking about is getting to their planes,
really the place for them to have an educational experience?
it’s not educational by any stretch of the
imagination. Nothing was meant to be educational. It was
meant to be a pleasant and stimulating environment. I put it on
that definition. The music I wrote was not something that had to
listened to; in fact, there is no beginning or end. It’s just
How much music is there?
together, about sixty-five minutes.
There are two sections of music but there are three sections of the
sculpture. We’ll call it A-B-A because the outer sections are
identical. People coming in will start from either end, so
that’s the way Hayden wanted it. The center section, which is
the B section, is of a more lively nature. But nothing
How long was it used before it was taken
WK: Oh, maybe
BD: So they
did give it a better shot than
just a day or two.
WK: I think
what happened is that in the very
beginning, before the tunnel opened they
started to have some of the flack. The week before it opened is
when Richard Green wrote his article. He had a chance to go
through it and wrote his article, so when it actually did open,
they played the music at such a low level you really couldn’t hear
it. What you did get out of it was the peaks. You couldn’t
all. What you heard is just when a louder thing came through, or
a higher note, so it was all disjointed. Small
wonder people wouldn’t want it. In fact, when I talked
to Professor Brown at the University of
Michigan, he said they had this seminar on music and architecture where
this student, Lesley Hogan, played the music. She had a cassette
music I wrote for the tunnel, and while it was being played, she
read the comments of Richard Green, and he said the students just
roared! There’s no relationship that they could find between what
he was saying and what they were hearing! The difference in the
listener. Those are university students. They are educated,
sophisticated more than the average person, perhaps, who’s
totally involved in business and doesn’t have time to listen, and
hasn’t ever had a chance to really listen. I just don’t think it
requires much at all. I think they
should become aware.
Let me put one direct question to you that
they might ask, and get your response. The people go through the
tunnel; they don’t like the music, and they decide not to fly
United Airlines. Is United not supposed to take precautions that
they don’t turn away passengers this way?
WK: Well, I
don’t blame them. I just think that
they ought to do it properly and treat it properly. If they
were, for instance, to play the music at the proper volume so that it
was really heard, and at
the beginning of the tunnel say, “We’re proud to present...” They
should identify that the sculpture is by Michael Hayden and that the
is by William Kraft, and show that they have some pride in
it! Then the people will have a different attitude, and give it a
better chance. I
say this to orchestra managements, too, if they’re going to do a new
work. Tell the audience, “We’re proud to present such and
such.” But the way they went at it was just like taking
a poll. It was all set off in the wrong way. They
themselves had misgivings about the thing. But I’ve had letters
from people that didn’t know I had done the
music; they found out one way or the other. I had a letter from
just a few days ago
saying that he didn’t know that I had written the music. He
said, “It was wonderful!” He had gone through the tunnel many
times when it was still being played, and he thought it was beautiful
and couldn’t understand why they would take it out. He said, “Now
they’ve got some crap there,” some disjointed Gershwin, I understand.
probably the same kind of things you
hear in the commercials, with bits and pieces of the Rhapsody in Blue.
WK: Yeah, I
think that’s what it is. And to
composers and musicians, that’s such an insult to Gershwin! This
is a test case for the problem we’re
having with business. With the domination of business in
the arts, a lot of our best talents just go right into commercial work
because they want to survive! So here they are, doing jingles
and all that sort of thing. Whether they’re artists or musicians,
they find this lucrative; they can make money!
BD: Let me
wipe away all of the
bad thoughts and ask one last question. Is composing fun?
WK: Well, it’s my
life! I love it! It’s
essential. It’s just automatic for me. It’s just always
right. I don’t think about anything else,
really. I do think about other things, of course, but that’s the
first thing. I compose in the morning, and hopefully if that goes
well, the day is just great. Everything else rolls along nicely.
BD: I hope
you have lots more great days!
Is your station commercial or public?
BD: It’s a
WK: It’s not
BD: No, it’s
a commercial station.
is sort of backwards from the rest
of the country. For most of the country, it’s the PBS station
does all the classical.
WK: I know it!
BD: Here in
Chicago, we have two powerhouse stations
that do classical, and they’re both commercial. The PBS station
does nothing but instruction and jazz!
I’ll be damned! [Laughs] I’m so envious of Chicago for
that, you know.
BD: Maybe we
can get you to come back to the town of your
BD: Thank you
so much for this conversation.
WK: It was a
pleasure. Thank you!
|William Kraft (b. 1923,
Chicago) has had a long and active career as composer, conductor,
percussionist, and teacher. Until June of 2002, he was chairman of the
composition department and holds the Corwin Chair at the University of
California Santa Barbara. From 1981-85, Mr. Kraft was the Los Angeles
Philharmonic’s Composer-in-Residence; for the first year under
Philharmonic auspices and the subsequent three years through the Meet
The Composer program. During his residency, he was founder and director
of the orchestra’s performing arm for contemporary music, the
Philharmonic New Music Group. Mr. Kraft had previously been a member of
the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 26 years; eight years as
percussionist, and the last 18 as Principal Timpanist. For three
seasons, he was also assistant conductor of the orchestra, and,
thereafter, frequent guest conductor.
Kraft was awarded two Anton Seidl Fellowships at Columbia University,
graduating with a bachelor’s degree cum laude in 1951 and a master’s
degree in 1954. His principal instructors were Jack Beeson, Seth
Bingham, Henry Brant, Henry Cowell, Erich Hertzmann, Paul Henry
Lang, Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky.
He received his training
in percussion from Morris Goldenberg and in timpani from Saul Goodman,
and studied conducting with Rudolph Thomas and Fritz Zweig.
During his early years in Los Angeles, he organized and directed the
Los Angeles Percussion Ensemble, a group which played a vital part in
premieres and recordings of works by such renowned composers as
Stravinsky, Varese, and many others. As
percussion soloist, he performed the American premieres of
Stockhausen’s Zyklus and
Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maître,
in addition to recording Histoire du
soldat under Stravinsky’s direction.
© 1988 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded on the telephone on May 25,
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB later that year, and again in 1993 and 1998. A
copy of the unedited audio has been placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University. This
made and posted on this
website in 2010.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
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
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
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century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.