Composer  Amnon  Wolman

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Amnon Wolman (b. April 20, 1955) is a sound artist and composer whose work is grounded in a belief that music as an art form expresses many dissimilar ideas of beauty. He works in four arenas: sound art, performance sound-art, composition and collaborative projects.

His interest and involvement in technology and in issues of time-information guide his work alongside long-standing interests in the creative process, the relationship between a performer and an artist, and collaborations. Various performance organizations, galleries and museums present his works, and publications of some works, both audio and text, are available commercially. Among them Heinz Holliger, Charles Neidich, Ursula Oppens, Harry Sparnaay, Benny Sluchin, Ensemble Modern premiered his works, some of which were given awards at competitions such as at the Prix Ars Electronica and at the Karl-Sczuka Preis of the Südwestfunk.

Among the festivals that program his works are Ultima, ISCM World Music Days, ICMC and shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern art, MCA-Chicago, Haifa Museum of Art, Bat Yam Museum of Art, Block Museum Evanston, GASP Gallery in Boston, Diapason Sound Gallery NY and others.

Amnon Wolman is the artistic director of Ensemble Musica Nova in Tel Aviv, and is a well-regarded professor of composition. He taught at Northwestern University, The City University of New York-Brooklyn College, Tel Aviv University, and in numerous master classes and summer courses. He is currently on the faculty of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, and in the fall of 2012 he was the Schusterman Fellow at Harvard University.

==  Biography from the Jerusalem Academy website  
==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

In April of 2004, Amnon Wolman was back in Chicago for performance of his work.  At that time, I was teaching at Northwestern University, so we arranged to meet in my office and have a conversation.  Portions were used on WNUR a couple of times, and now I am pleased to present the entire interview on this webpage.

Bruce Duffie:   You are both a composer and a teacher.  How do you divide your time between those two taxing activities?

Amnon Wolman:   The teaching part and the composing part are very easy.  They somehow compliment each other for me.  I know that other people complain about that, but for me, the interaction with the students
which is what the teaching part iswill clarify some things for me.  Also, students are up on things that I can’t be.  There’s just too much material out there, and they tell me things.  There’s always a new something... a painter I don’t know anything about, or a movie, or a new kind of music.  So, in that way they always enrich my activities, and that’s good.

BD:   Does it keep you young?

Wolman:   No!  [Both laugh]  In many ways it’s actually the opposite.  It reminds me how I age, because their ages don’t change.  They stay young, which is a little bit bizarre.  The part of my life which is harder is the administrative part.  Not to complain, but that’s the part which we all have to deal with in day-to-day life.  That is the less interesting part.

BD:   Do you get enough time to compose?

Wolman:   I take enough time to compose.  I insist on it in my life.  I try teach only in the afternoons so I can have the mornings off to compose.  If I don’t compose I get very depressed, so I need to compose.

BD:   When you sit down to compose, are the ideas always there?

Wolman:   No.  There’s a wonderful, wonderful quote from Flannery O’Connor.  Somebody asked her how she writes, and she said, “I’m every day at my typewriter for two hours, from 10 to 12, and I type.  I don’t write letters.  I write short stories, and if, at the end of those short stories, a single sentence which is good came out, I’m very happy.”  She ended by saying, “I really believe in the muse, but if the muse will arrive and I’d be in the kitchen, the best that would happen would be a great sandwich!”  [Both laugh]  I think that’s the way it works.  The discipline of working is to be there until the ideas come, and not the other way round.

BD:   Are there times when you’re making a sandwich, and you get great ideas, so you quickly go down to your studio and notate it, or put it into the electronics?

Wolman:   I usually keep growing it in my head until I arrive for the next session.  It’s not urgent or romantic in that sense.
BD:   They always managed to stay there, and not get too diluted?

Wolman:   Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.  Some ideas should get diluted.  It’s not that every idea is a good idea, so going through them and sometimes talking about them, I discover that they’re not very good.  Then they
re just worthless ideas and not more.

BD:   What is it that makes an idea wonderful or worthless?

Wolman:   For me personally, the idea has to keep on being interesting.  If there is just a punch line, then it is not interesting for me.

BD:   It has to have a good set-up as well?

Wolman:   Yes, and every time the set-up needs to feel new.  But that’s my own interest.

BD:   Does it continue to be new even when you’ve worked with it, and gotten it into the music, and heard it a number of times?

Wolman:   No.  The newness that I talked about before is the newness in the process of composition.  Once a piece is finished, then I become a listener
not quite like everybody else, but more passive with the piece.  Then sometimes pieces become old, or I feel I know them very well, and every once in a while I go back and there would be a piece that I haven’t heard for many years, and it will sound new again.  But for the most part, I’m more interested in the future pieces or the present piece than the older pieces.

BD:   Are you able to keep the interest up until you’ve gotten them finished and orchestrated or perfected, so that they’re ready to be launched?

Wolman:   The happiest times, yes, and the happiest times are the addictive times.

BD:   Are you conscious of the audience when you’re writing a piece?

Wolman:   I’m conscious of an audience in the sense that I’m aware that I’m writing for a group of people whose interests are similar to mine, but I’m not writing for the general audience.

BD:   Then your music isn’t for everyone???

Wolman:   It is possibility for everyone, but I’m aware that not everyone will like it.

BD:   Would you want everyone to like it?

Wolman:   No!  I don’t use society like that anymore.  I don’t think society is centralized enough.  We viewed The Beatles as music almost everybody liked, and the reality for anybody who was there in the 1960s was that there were a lot of parents who didn’t like them.  You always talk to people who are a specific group
or at least I doand in that sense I am aware that there is an audience out there.  But I don’t try to describe it for myself.  My solution is to say I’m going to pretend they are all like me, and that they have the same background that I do, and set up similar associations.  I don’t try to second-guess whether they are smarter than me, or more knowledgeable than me, or less smart than me, or less knowledgeable than me.

BD:   Can I assume that you would rather have your pieces on new-music programs rather than on mixed programs?

Wolman:   It’s a hard call.  The answer is definite yes, but the qualifying remarks have to do with the idea that there could be situations.  That’s why I like the new-music marathon, because each one is a portrait of a composer.  I sat in a concert a couple of months ago.  It was a solo guitarist who was premiering fourteen pieces, and I stopped concentrating after the sixth.  It’s so hard to move from one type of piece to another, or from one composer’s language to another composer’s language.  You have to refocus your ears.

BD:   Maybe there should be an intermission for wine and cheese after each piece, or after each couple of pieces.

Wolman:   Right.  Definitely.  Or limit them, and play one twice, which would be my solution.

BD:   They’ve done that at Music Now concerts a couple of times.  With just two or three pieces on the program, they will play them, and then play each piece again so you get to re-experience it.

Wolman:   That’s fantastic.  That’s the way I think new music should be heard.  My feeling with general repertoire is that, even though we know the Bruckner symphonies quite well, and we’ve heard them many times, I would like focus on them just as much as on a new piece, or concentrate on them.  Not all pieces need to be concentrated on, but they do need to be really focused on.  That’s why I would rather be
in the company of very limited groupsnot in terms of who, but just that I think smaller concerts are better.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You write for large instrumental groups and electronics?

Wolman:   Right.

BD:   Separately, together, or both?

Wolman:   In recent years, it’s been mostly both.  There’s mostly an electronic component to each piece.  It just happened.  I was trained as both.  There was a period where I tried to do more instrumental works, because I found the computer music world a little bit limiting.

BD:   Is it because the technology has advanced, that you can utilize it in the concert rather than only in the studio?

Wolman:   Yes, and also the audience changed.  There is a larger audience.  There was a period in the late 1980s where I felt I knew almost everyone.  I did not feel comfortable to compose for just the people I knew.

BD:   Why?
Wolman:   Now, when you’re asking me the question, the
why is very relevant.  Now I might think about it differently.  At the time it felt limiting.  It felt like I would know their reactions, and I would know their world.  I knew everything about it, and I wanted an unknown component in it.

BD:   You wanted to learn, not just speak?

Wolman:   Right, exactly.

BD:   When a piece of yours is being performed
either live, or live with electronicsis it part of you that is being performed, or part of just your ideas that are out there?

Wolman:   It’s an object I made.  We have emotional attachments to objects we make, even the ceramics that we did in third grade, but it’s not me.  It is not even my baby, as some people assume.  It is a physical entity which is separate from me, and it has its own relationship to the world.

BD:   Are you pleased when it goes off and has a life of its own?

Wolman:   Very much so, and I am surprised sometimes.

BD:   Are you pleased with the performances you have heard of your music over the years?

Wolman:   As a general comment, yes.  It’s been easier
and I’m sure most composers will say that it’s been easieras I grow older, because more people know what I do.  So the people who ask me for pieces are people who are aware of my style, and I don’t confront many musicians who are forced to play my music when they don’t like it.  That is a situation I dislike, and that usually produces bad performances.

BD:   Bad performances or just indifferent performances?

Wolman:   Those are the bad performances.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Then, for whom do you write?

Wolman:   [Thinks a moment]  For society, I think.  If I was a religious person, I would probably talk about it in other terms.  I don’t feel comfortable about mentioning the religious or spiritual component of it, because it has a political meaning now which I don’t feel comfortable with.  But I write to talk to people.

BD:   Is it safe to assume that music is your religion?

Wolman:   No, but it is an aspect of my practice one could say.

BD:   So, you do it every day no matter what?

Wolman:   I try.  There are periods when I don’t succeed.  I struggle with life, much like I assume everybody else does.  There are periods when I feel good about myself, and I can compose every day, and there are periods when I am stuck and can’t do anything.  But in my good periods, I work every day.

BD:   Can music at times be a help, and at other times be a hindrance?

Wolman:   Yes.  It’s a complex relationship.  It’s like any other part of ourselves, or part of our group, or our lives.  It goes through periods.

BD:   When you start writing a piece of music, do you know about how long it will take to finish the compositional process?

Wolman:   [Smiles]  You keep hitting on all my major failures [laughs].  I’m kidding, but that’s really the place where I’m least accurate.  I have some good ideas about the piece when I start the piece, and I have a good idea about what will be in it, and how long it will be.  The object is fairly clear in my mind, but I always underestimate how long it will take to get there.  There have been periods when I was better at it, but in general I take on too many projects because I think I will be able to fit them all in.

BD:   Do you hear the piece completely formed in your head, or do you have to work out each detail?

Wolman:   There are aspects of them that I know that are completely formed, and there are aspects where the details need to be worked out.  What I know about the piece means that when I write, I will figure out the details.

BD:   Are you always in control, or are there times when the piece just takes over and controls and leads your hand?

Wolman:   Both happen.  I’m not always in control, and that’s the lesson I keep telling to my students.  When I was a student, I wrote a piece, and I had planned for another two minutes.  Then suddenly the piece died on its own.  It ended, and I remember asking a fellow student, who was a close friend of mine, what she thought about it, and she said yes, the piece was finished.  Then I brought it to the lesson and the professor said the same thing.  If it’s ended, it’s ended.  It doesn’t matter that there are other ideas which could go there.

BD:   Did you keep those other ideas and use them for a different piece?

Wolman:   Definitely, yes.

BD:   Are there times when you’re working on a piece, and you come up with something that you know doesn’t belong there, but it does belong in something two or three pieces hence?

Wolman:   I don’t know that they belong to two or three pieces hence, but I know that there are possibilities, so I leave it aside.

BD:   Are there ever times when you’re working on a piece, and you know you ought to put this into a piece from two years ago?

Wolman:   No, I’m very, very sequential in that way.  I can only work on one piece at a time.  I know people who can try and work on three pieces at the same time, but I can’t.  I work on one piece at a time, and the moment a piece is finished, it is done with.  I don’t have backwards associations.

BD:   You don’t revise it or tinker with it?

Wolman:   I revise.  I have a rule that I’m allowed to revise only once after the first performance.

BD:   Just to fix details?

Wolman:   Exactly, and if the timing is incorrect, I will fix some timing issues.  But afterwards, if my tendency was to tinker, I would only write one piece and keep revising it forever.

BD:   Can I assume that once you put the double bar down at the end, and you have finished your tinkering, you think it’s right?

Wolman:   I think it’s done.  In many ways, every piece is a lesson for the next piece.  It’s not just its own entity, so I try to do everything I can in the piece.  Then I finish it when I feel I’ve done everything that needs to be done in that piece, and then I try to get it better next time.  None of the pieces are perfect.

BD:   Is it possible to write a piece that’s perfect?

Wolman:   It’s possible to hear a piece that’s perfect.  I know some pieces that I consider are perfect.  They are my ideals...

BD:   Yours or somebody else’s?

Wolman:   Somebody else’s.  But I don’t even attempt to write a perfect piece because it’s in the hearing and not in the writing.  In the writing, somehow I feel that would lead me away from the music.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you put a lot of directions in the score, or do you leave a lot of that for the interpreter?

Wolman:   You’re asking very difficult questions.  Nowadays it depends on the performer.  There are performers who I work with as a collaborator, and I would give them very few instructions
only the things which I know have to be in the piece, and then I leave it open for them to include other things.  For example, Rex Martin’s piece, which will be played on Sunday, has only the pitches.  There are melodic units with slurs so that he knows the groupings, and he told me that every time it’s a different piece for him.  He puts a different atmosphere into it, and I said that’s exactly it.  I trust him to always do it in a committed fashion.

BD:   He’s putting a lot of himself into you?

Wolman:   Right, or into our relationship.  On the other hand, I did a piece for a close friend who is a flautist, who just said he wanted me to decide everything.  He just wanted to try and work with what I gave him, so everything is very detailed.  Recently I started working with this idea of an aural score, so people don’t have a written score.  What they hear is what they get through earphones.  Each one has a CD.  They turn it on, and in many ways I’m doing the thing which I said I wouldn’t do, and that is I’m using the performers only as performers.  They will have an experience, but they won’t have much of an interpretation.  They will hear pitches in their ears, and they’re supposed to match them.
BD:   Should your name still be ascribed as the composer?

Wolman:   Yes, because it’s all my own music.  There is no improvisation.  They get a pitch and they play it, but they don’t even know the continuity of it.  I’m really using them in an uncomfortable way.

BD:   Are you giving them the same things each time, or do you alter what they will get?

Wolman:   With them, they get fixed pieces which are dedicated, so each performer is told what their comfortable range is on their instrument, and the sounds on the CD match that.  What it allows me to do is have thirty performers, each one with a separate part.  So, I get a very complex situation without actually writing thirty lines, which would mean that each one of them would feel very exposed.

BD:   I just wondered if, at some point, instead of having a piece for an improvisational performer, you could have a piece for improvisational composer.  You could be actually dictating to them, or composing on the spot into their ear for them to then perform.

Wolman:   Right, and in many ways that’s what I did, but it wasn’t on the spot.  I wrote this piece with these thirty lines, and then I recorded them on a CD.  I’m saying, “play this,” but they have to use their ears rather than their eyes in order to get the pitches.  It’s a different incline.

BD:   That sounds like the performers would need either special training, or at least some experience with you to be able to deal with it.

Wolman:   Right, and also the willingness to make mistakes, which are part of the piece.

BD:   Looking ahead a hundred years, is someone going to be able to take a piece like that when you’re not there, and still be able to deal with it?

Wolman:   Assuming that CD players or something like them are still around, it’s a no-brainer piece.  You give out the CDs to the different people, and they play them.  There’s an electronic score in addition, and that’s it.

BD:   Assuming that we don’t have a recording of a performance, are we then talking about the same kind of thing as with Mediaeval music, where we just guess at what the composers played and wanted?

Wolman:   I’m sure there will be that because, to quote the great Stravinsky, there is no past.  It’s always the present looking at the past, so they will do whatever they need to do if they choose to do something.  That’s the part which I’m least concerned about.  You asked about audiences, and we are talking about present-day audiences.  But the future and history in general are not important components of my music-making.  I wish we were back in the seventeenth century, when a musician wrote music because he had to.  Mozart wrote because somebody commissioned a piece.  They needed a piano concerto, or he needed the money.  It wasn’t about how well we could play it in the twentieth century.  That idea would have been ridiculous to him.

BD:   Are we then leaving perhaps too much information by having recordings of the performances
not just the parts, but a performance which the composer approved of and sanctioned?

Wolman:   I don’t view historic or social interactions in a critical way.  We are doing it, and they will have to deal with it.  Looking at our own arrogance in terms of the past, I suspect they will be just as arrogant.  They will look at a Pierre Boulez piece and say, “Actually, he wanted it twice as slow.  His metronome didn’t work, and they recorded it too fast.  Even though he approved of it, it was best they could at that time!”  That’s the way they will do it.

BD:   Was it the best they could do at the time?

Wolman:   Yes.

BD:   Do you want them to play it better every year?

Wolman:   [Thinks again]  I’m not sure I have any feelings about the future performances.  I have strong feelings about first performances because I love hearing and being involved in a performance of my piece.  I like to see it come alive, but the second and third hearings are very important for the audience.  It’s amazing for me that some pieces are still alive and people are playing them.  They send me recordings, and I enjoy hearing them, but it’s not a comparison.  There is no life to the process in the sense that it’s evolving.  It is a process which is happening.

BD:   Let me throw the joker in here about commercial recordings, because those will be the same every time, and they will be heard, theoretically, the same today, and next year, and a hundred years from now.

Wolman:   Right.

BD:   Does that please you?

Wolman:   It has done a lot of terrible things to classical music, to music in general, and to live music.  But it’s not the recordings that did it.  It’s our lack of ability to separate recorded music from live music.  When we buy a Berlin Philharmonic recording under Simon Rattle, the belief is that if we go there, we will hear a similar thing.  Film and theater were separated almost immediately as arts forms, and I wish recorded music was separated from live music in a similar fashion, because those are two different art forms.  They’re related, but they’re not the same.  They use the same kind of artists, but they’re not the same.

BD:   We’re dancing around it, so let me ask the real easy question.  What’s the purpose of the music?

Wolman:   [Thinks a moment, re-asks himself the question, and then thinks even more]  It’s hard for me to answer it specifically about music, so I’ll say something general about art.  Art plays a role in society which, at its best, both describes society in every way, in both its good and its bad.  Art presents a complex picture of information and complex relationships in ways that no other communication devices do.  That is the role that art has for me.  It’s not what it is, but it is the place in society where people find the most complete descriptions of things.  I’m talking about emotions, life situations, and even politics.  But if you want to know how I feel about Galileo, instead of actually describing it in words, if I can find a piece that will describe it, for me it will be a more accurate a description, or a more complete description.

BD:   A more detailed description?

Wolman:   More detailed, and then more multifaceted.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask about some of the recordings.  How many parts of The Marilyn Series are done?
Wolman:   There are six which were done.  In recent years, nobody asked for another Marilyn piece, so I’m doing okay.  The first piece was my own initiative, and from then on everybody
asked if I had another Marilyn Monroe piece, and if not, can I do one for them?  Who would be doing the piece also helped to decide on the forces.

BD:   There are six, and three of those are on the CD?

Wolman:   Right, three have been recorded.  All of them have been performed live, and I have recordings.  For a while, we thought that we would bring out the second set, but now there seem to be other projects which are of more interest to people, and so they’re being pursued.  But it was interesting for me because I do sometimes work in sets of pieces, or groups of pieces, but Marilyn is not that.

BD:   Is this something that should appeal to fans of Marilyn Monroe, or just to new-music fans who know who she is or was?

Wolman:   The second is probably right.  It will appeal to new-music people, and in many ways that’s how I wrote it.  Marilyn Monroe brings up so many social connotations, and they play in the piece.  The moment you mention her name, and hear the music, there’s lots of ideas that just her name brings up, and they’re supposed to be there for the piece.  I assume that happens to the fans as well, but my realistic side says that the people I’m writing for are the people who both know Marilyn Monroe and like contemporary music.

BD:   Would it have been the same if you had been thinking about, say, Rita Hayworth, or someone else like that, or a Greek goddess, rather than a modern-day film star?

Wolman:   It would have been a similar situation.  I chose Marilyn Monroe specifically for what she represents, which is different than all those other characters.  It has to do with her political connections, her hardness and vulnerability, her suicide, and all the myths around that, and her being a very, very big symbol in the gay community.  All of those mix into it.  She was also a great singer.

BD:   Are there bits of her in the work
either purely her, or electronically-manipulated her?

Wolman:   It’s all manipulated, but it’s based on bits of her voice.  It started because in the film Some like it Hot, she sings the famous song I wanna be loved by you.  I thought that those songs would serve as great material, and that started the process.  I worked with that material, and it became a little bit more depressing as the process progressed.  So I wrote the first orchestra piece, and then somebody asked for the second orchestra piece, so I revised that, and revised my thinking about the voice.  For the third piece, I went back to the recording and used other parts of the song.  But her voice is always an integral part of the piece.

BD:   And you’re pleased with the way it stands now?

Wolman:   Yes.  These are all pieces.

BD:   Do they have to be played together?

Wolman:   No, no, they’re independent of each other.

BD:   The next recording uses Cycling 74?

Wolman:   Cycling 74 is a company which produces a piece of software which I’ve been using since 1989.  It was called Max, and now is called Max MSB.  They very generously decided that they were making profits, and they should use it somehow.  So they started this CD label of people who use the software.  The title piece, Dangerous Bend, is based on a cello and electronics piece, which was done for Anton Lukoszevieze, a fantastic British cellist, and Michael Burritt who is on the percussion faculty of Northwestern.  He plays the piece for marimba and tape, which was written for him, and the rest are all electronic pieces.

BD:   How long were you on the faculty of Northwestern?

Wolman:   Thirteen or fourteen years.

BD:   Was that a good time for you?

Wolman:   Life is complex, and there were ups and downs, but some of the best periods of my life were there.

BD:   Where are you now?

Wolman:   I’m now at Brooklyn College at the University of New York.

BD:   Why did you leave Northwestern?

Wolman:   The easy answer is New York.  [Laughs]  The more complex answer was that they had a very well-known computer music studio, and they asked me to direct it.  So, it was another step up, and also I believe in change.  My best period here was when Michael Pisaro was here, and Jay Alan Yim, who is still around.  We were a group, and together with Steve Syverud, Bill Karlins, and Alan Stout, there was a sense that we were doing things as a group which were larger than each of us individually.

BD:   Are you finding this now in Brooklyn?

Wolman:   I’m hoping to get it there.  This is my second year there, but I’m a great believer in communities, especially when it comes to classical music, because we’re a small group of people who have a small audience which is interested in what we do, and we should help each other, and do things together, and listen to what’s going on.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of classical music?

Wolman:   I’m actually very optimistic, but I think there’ll be lots of pain along the way.  There will be a moment, much like we are having with jazz, when the sense of rejection from the audience will be such that the musicians will just have to say, “I’m doing this because I love to do it, and if nobody wants to come and hear it, I will still do it.”  Then the audience will come again.
BD:   The audience will be cyclical, but the music will be continual?

Wolman:   Right, but the musicians will find their commitment again, and hopefully the administrators will, too.  But now I’m talking about the orchestra, and it is easier to talk about the orchestral establishment because they’re the ones who are struggling most in many ways.  They have large needs of money, so when you look at the struggles that some orchestras are going through around the country, it is worse because I love the orchestra, and it can produce great sounds and great pieces.

BD:   Do you ever write for just orchestral instruments?

Wolman:   One of the Marilyn pieces is for large orchestra and tape.  I’ve done things in the past without tape, but I haven’t in recent years.  Most of the time, when anybody asks me it will be for something that will include electronics.

BD:   When people ask you for a piece, how do you decide if you will accept the commission, or turn it aside?

Wolman:   Usually, it has everything to do with their commitment, and their knowledge of my own music.  I’ve had a romance with a French ensemble for the last several years.  I knew the repertoire they played, so when they first came to me, I told them they had better listen to my music, because I didn’t think they would enjoy it.  So then they did, and they decided to do a solo piece.  Eventually something happened to their own style or aesthetic, but three years down the line they came back and said, “Now we do want one!”  That’s the process for me.  It’s a relationship.  It’s a community.

BD:   Tell me about the Innova recording of  Thomas and Beulah.

Wolman:   That piece was done at the Museum of Contemporary Art about three years ago, and this is a recording from the live performance.  It was highly complex technology-wise.  We had a live Disklavier from Yamaha, and then we had to build a new mechanism to put on it.  It was prepared in live action, so things were lowered down on strings, and lifted up through a computer.  There were multiple screens, but basically it’s a song-cycle for a singer and a piano with a lot of electronics.

BD:   A lot of extra going on?

Wolman:   Right!

BD:   Would it work just as singer and piano without the other material?

Wolman:   No, it would be too thin.

BD:   If someone comes to you and would like to do it just that way, could you punch up the piano part a little bit?

Wolman:   This sounds arrogant, but I don’t think anybody would try.  They need to understand that the electronics are an integral part of it.  Leonard Ratner, the musicologist, used to say that every piece is a two-voiced piece, which meant you could alter the whole harmonic progression of any tonal piece for two voices.  That was his perspective on the analysis.

BD:   I just wondered how flexible you were, or your music was.

Wolman:   That specific piece is not quite so flexible.  I can be flexible, but I’m a composer.  [Both laugh]

BD:   [Noting that he would be fifty the following year]  Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

Wolman:   Yes, very much so.   It’s been very magical.  I’ve been very lucky in many ways.

BD:   Is composing fun?

Wolman:   Sometimes! There was a sociologist whose big argument was that he was very angry with the TV show Sesame Street.  He thought it was a terrible show, and his reasoning was that education and learning cannot be always fun.  You cannot avoid practicing.  You cannot avoid the burden part of it.  It’s life!  Everything is fun and not fun.

BD:   You can’t avoid being knocked down?

Wolman:   You can’t avoid being knocked down.  Then you have to learn to pick yourself up, even if you don’t feel like it.

BD:   Should someone knock over Big Bird on Sesame Street a couple of times?

Wolman:   I don’t know.  I’m not a television person, so I don’t know how they could fix it.  But when you talk about teaching students, I know musicians, and I get them ready to be adults.  Or I encounter them already as adults, and the ones who have it easy are the ones who know how to enjoy practicing.  But it doesn’t make practicing fun.

BD:   You adapt to it?

Wolman:   Yes.  You learn the joys of doing something that you don’t enjoy doing sometimes.  [Both laugh]

BD:   I hope you always enjoy the music and the composing, and I hope for lots more things from your pen... and from your circuitry.

Wolman:   [Smiles]  Thank you very much.


© 2004 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in my office at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, on April 30, 2004.  Portions were broadcast on WNUR the following July, and again in 2015.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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

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