Composer Charles Wuorinen
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Among significant and complex composers of the late Twentieth and early
Twenty-First Centuries, the place of Charles Wuorinen is secure.
He is the holder of the Pulitzer Prize, as well as many other awards
and honors. More importantly, though, is the respect with which
he is held by the composers, performers and audiences of new music.
A short recounting of his achievements and activities is in the
biography which appears at the bottom of this page, which was taken
from his official website.
Wuorinen was in Chicago in February of 1987 for performances of his Third Piano Concerto with Garrick
Ohlson the soloist and Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Chicago
Symphony Orchestra. We met in one of the offices upstairs in
Orchestra Hall on the afternoon before the first performance. Our
encounter was amazingly easy-going, yet packed with knowledge and
insight. The composer often spoke in large gestures, and his
phrases encompassed major thoughts and significant ideas about music
and its direction(s) in both the short and long run. His views
gave scope and balance to the highest levels of achievement while never
forgetting that the sounds were being absorbed by those who knew every
nuance as well as those coming to the arena for the first time.
Here is what was said at that time . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: It
is very gracious of you to take time from your
BD: You are
composer and pianist and teacher...
more conductor at this point than pianist. It takes too much time
to practice, and I have too many other commitments.
BD: My question
for all of this is, are you the
ideal interpreter of your own works?
necessarily. I don't say that I'm
not, but it doesn't fall automatically from the fact that I have
written something that I'm the person best suited to play it. In
addition to the fact that there may be other people with
greater mechanical skills — certainly
Garrick Ohlsson has
always been a better pianist than I ever was at my best, and now it
isn't even to be
discussed — there is the issue of the "when" of
the performance as well. I find, and I would imagine most other
composers also do, that one
doesn't have a constant and unchanging attitude toward one's
work. As it grows older, a given piece changes its relation to
its maker, and for that reason it is not at all the
case that one may perform the piece the same way over and over
again just because one has written it. The set
of records which Stravinsky made through his life shows this very
clearly, and the fiction that these performances somehow
represented the definitive ideas of the master can be shown to
be purely fictional just by listening to
different versions of the same piece, or by comparing his performance
of some of them with what is in the score.
BD: So then it's
definitive for that point in time?
but I think in a broader sense one
can say that once a work is finished, if it's notated to the same
degree of exactness that most conventional scores are, when it leaves
the hand of its author, it really takes on its own life. And
while the composer certainly should be the chief authority for how it's
to be done, I don't think it's necessarily the case that he should be
the only one.
BD: Are you ever
surprised by what you hear in performances of your works?
CW: No. If
by that you mean whether
certain things come out that I didn't expect, and other things
don't that I did, no. I try to be careful about
such things and not make errors of that sort ahead of time, so I am not
BD: Conductors never
find things in your score that you didn't
know you'd put there?
CW: That's another
matter. If you're
speaking purely of questions of orchestral
balance — the
actual raw sound — it always comes out exactly
as I've expected
it. But from time to time I've found that performers —
conductors — will discover motivic
connections or things of that sort in
my pieces that I suppose are certainly there, but that I didn't put
there on purpose.
BD: These are
intuitive things on your part?
CW: To a very
large extent, yes.
BD: You brought up
the idea of recordings. Are
you pleased with the recordings that have been made of your works?
CW: Some of them
yes and some of them no. It depends on the performers, obviously,
and it also depends on the quality of recorded sound, although
that, and I think I speak for a lot of practicing musicians, is less
important to me than it probably is to most non-performing or
BD: Really, why?
CW: Because what
one is interested in is the musical
substance. If the sound quality itself is not as sensational
as it might be, those of us who are professional musicians and spend
our time practicing in the field can hear through those deficiencies,
just as there are a number of people who are quite willing to listen to
ancient recordings of the great performers of the past and are willing
to excuse what would, by present day standards, be completely
inadequate sound reproduction. But the more important
reservation I have about some recordings of pieces of mine is simply
ineptitude of one sort or another on the part of the performers.
BD: So you want a
basic tolerable level of sound, but then you
want musical judgment rather than sonic judgment.
First I want accuracy, although "accuracy" is a term which is hard to
define accurately! [Both laugh] But after that, I would
like musical intelligence — such as I'm
privileged to have this week in Chicago with Tilson Thomas and
BD: What impact
has the proliferation of the flat plastic disc —
and now the smaller plastic disc — had on
the public and the performers?
CW: From a
positive point of
view, we all know that it's a good thing to have music more
readily available than it ever was in the past. That's an obvious
thing. On the negative side, it seems to me unfortunate that
recorded sound has come to be the standard of musical sound
rather than live sound, simply because recorded sound is the way in
which most people receive music most of the time. This has, I
think, a very debilitating effect on the profession — not
necessarily directly on the performers, but simply on public taste,
which always has a tendency to sag down, unless it's elevated and
encouraged by leadership on the part of those who are in positions of
eminence and authority within the profession. By the way, we have
too little of that at the moment, in my opinion. I think one
manifestation of this debilitation comes in the idiotic
way in which most new halls are built. It's a
great rarity if a newly built hall is not an acoustic disaster!
One has to ask oneself why this is, with wonderful technical,
technological, acoustical scientific equipment, and all of these
measurements that are being taken, the answer is very simple
— people don't listen! The most
fundamental thing, which is that the damn place should sound good,
requires a pair of ears that has some sense of what live music is
supposed to be like!
BD: Ears instead
of microphones and an oscilloscope?
Exactly. All the measurements in the world, painstakingly
are not going to produce the kind of sound that a person experienced
with, and sensitive to, live musical sound is going to want. If
it happens, well, it's an accident! There are of course
other reasons for this as well, but I think this is a perfect
illustration of what I'm trying to say.
BD: Is there any
way of doing that as the hall is being
built, or must the hall be completed before you can put the ears into
CW: It would seem
to me that as the space is being readied, one could make tests with
one's ears. Besides which, the
building of good halls seems to have been a rule of thumb skill that
people have had for a couple of thousand years! Why should it now
be inordinately difficult to do, in the great age of precision
scientific measurement? The only thing I can assign as a cause
for this problem is simply that the people who design the halls can't
hear anything. They don't know what anything should sound like,
have no judgment except the non-musical, non-sonic measurements which
they take, and of course those are never going to be subtle enough to
do the job properly.
BD: So it's more
than just the lack of the use of wood?
CW: I think
so. Not to get stuck too much on this subject, but it is a big
problem. I come fresh from hearing the new Carnegie Hall, with
which I am
not very happy, as I think most people are not. Something has
been done to it, so New York now does not have a really
first class concert hall anymore.
BD: They've been
tinkering with Fisher Hall for years... [See my Interview with Daniel
Pinkham, in which he talks about the piece he wrote as an acoustic
test for Philharmonic Hall (as Avery Fisher Hall was first called when
it was built in 1962).]
CW: Well, that's
think. Not everyone agrees with me, but I
think there's been definite damage done to Carnegie. It
certainly is not the remarkable, giving, generous acoustic space it
used to be. Maybe they need to put the curtain back.
BD: In concert
music, where is the balance between art and
CW: Wherever it
is, we certainly don't have it at
the moment. It's not a
question of trying to achieve a balance between art and entertainment
within a symphony season or on a given program, so that it'll be one
part Boléro to two
parts Schoenberg Opus
31, or the other way around. I think what is
important is for purposes to be defined a little more clearly than they
are now, and for certain temptations to be given up and to avoid
running after certain
chimeras so much. I don't think anyone in his right mind could
possibly have an
objection to entertainment! We all need it, we all want it, and
there are times when it's absolutely indispensable and far more
important for our lives and well-being than the highest achievements of
the human race! This is understandable, and yet
those highest achievements of the human race, as manifested in musical
terms in the
works of the great composers of the past and
present may be entertaining. Some of them are, some of them
are not, but all of them are demanding. I think that is the
fundamental difference that one needs to draw between the two
spheres. Entertainment does not demand. It presents the
hearer or the viewer — the spectator
— with something that
can be received without effort and can be enjoyed, whether the
enjoyment consists of titillation or some other form of
encounter with what is being presented. Whereas art demands a
kind of active participation which entertainment does not. Art is
for people who are reasonably well rested; entertainment is for people
who are exhausted and need to be soothed in one form or stimulated in
some effortless way. I remember
discussing this kind of question with a subscriber to the San Francisco
Symphony a while ago, who said, "When I
get home from the office, I don't want to go to the San
Francisco Symphony in the evening after a hard day's work, and have to
concentrate on Boulez or something of that sort."
BD: Or Wuorinen?
Wuorinen. He said, "What I want is Philip Glass!" [Both
laugh] I responded, "This is perfectly fine, and
yet do you really think that you should be going to the symphony on
those evenings when you're exhausted? If what you want is a sound
bath, you should find it by some other means, and not demand that
artistic resources — which are enormously
expensive and effortful to operate and which have been honed over
hundreds of years and are part of a rich tradition — should
be the engine of your passive entertainment! There are much
more effective ways that are much more fun than
that." I'm not really answering your question directly, but I
am saying that the balance, whatever it is, must shift according to
need and mood and circumstance, but it must be preceded by a
definition of purpose.
BD: Then what is
the ultimate purpose of music?
CW: There are many
purposes to it. There are purposes that are determined by the
of music involved. Obviously the purpose of many kinds of popular
music is to offer effortless entertainment, and to make lots of money
for the people who produce it, perform it and promote it! The
purpose of what we normally think of as "concert music", beyond
the usual platitudes — which are not platitudes,
true, although clichéd, about the uplifting of the spirit and
opening of the eyes and ears of the hearer into a larger and more
spiritual world, and the transmission of a kind of knowledge that
cannot be achieved through verbal means — beyond
things I can't say. What is the purpose of the Beethoven
7th Symphony? What is
the purpose of The Rite of Spring?
They are there. They're objects, just as one might ask what the
purpose of a mountain one likes is. It is there; it is part of
that life-giving and
life-affirming variety without which we may as well be dead!
Coming back to the other thing — because this
is very much on my mind — is a question of
definition of purpose in
artistic institutions, since you raised the art/entertainment
issue. I worry, sometimes, about our large cultural institutions
in the United
States. Whether one speaks of opera companies, symphony
museums, what have you, they have their tendency in many places to
their fortunes to the effects in the practice of marketing. There
comes a kind of confusion of purpose in which artistic success is
measured in terms of the number of subscribers streaming into the hall,
or the number of people passing through the turnstile at the
And this affects the size of the budget and, above all, the budgetary
size of the
institution. While those things are important indices and
have to be kept track of, they don't represent the
purpose of the institution, and yet, often, one gets the idea that
artistic decisions are made the basis of these mechanistic
considerations, almost in the same way that halls are sometimes
built with calculator and computer, and rarely with the ear.
This is the thing that we, in the United States in particular, have to
out for, since our artistic maturity, it seems to me, is only now
really upon us. As a nation or as a
people, we do not automatically accept a life in the arts, a life
devoted to artistic creation or reproduction or exegesis, as a
natural, self-justifying activity.
BD: Should the
concert management be trying to get more and
more people from the pop culture into their concerts, or should
we just ignore them?
CW: I don't
think it's a choice, a matter of either/or. The inveiglement of
the unwilling and
uninterested is a terrible mistake. That is not to say that such
people should be ignored. To me there is a profound
difference between marketing — advertising and
promoting, which means
inevitably cheapening the artistic product to groups of people
who don't care about it to begin with — on the
one hand, and on the other hand, making the highest artistic activities
and products that people can produce available to all who want
them. Access is a very different matter from promotion.
means not only that no one could be, or would be, prevented by
economic need or even, perhaps, physical location, from an encounter
with the arts, but on the highest level it means, inevitably, a certain
amount of information
spreading — that is to say making known the
availability. But there is
a profound difference between saying, "We are here and we offer our
artistic efforts for all who care to come," on the one hand, and on
the other, a kind of sloganeering, aggressive, inevitably cheap
marketing approach, which always has an effect on the artistic
product. These are two very, very different things, and I don't
think a proper distinction is being drawn between
them. Especially for the large institutions with heavy expenses,
large staffs, and many responsibilities, there's always a temptation to
look at the 50,000 people who go to rock
concerts and say somewhat wistfully, "Well, we've only got three or
four thousand a
night; maybe we could have more." At that point, a pact begins to
be drawn up with the forces
of darkness. I know from my experience in various places
that there begins to be a pressure placed upon artistic decisions, upon
programming decisions. Since I'm speaking now mostly of symphony
orchestras, the area with which I'm most familiar, a pressure builds
which causes the repertoire to contract. They feel they can't
have any of
the even-numbered Beethoven symphonies, only the odd ones, and really
not too much of 1 and 3, only 5, 7, and 9, and preferably only 9, really. They feel they
could get rid of the
others, and eventually you end up with Beethoven 9 one week and the 1812 Overture the next, and then
BD: Is there a
place on the
symphony program for music that is perhaps not a masterpiece?
CW: Oh, very much
so, but I respond positively to that question perhaps in a way
that you don't mean. I have nothing against pops concerts
at all. That's perfectly fine with me, just as I have nothing
entertainment, or popular music, or any other thing that people enjoy.
BD: As long as
it's billed as a pops concert?
CW: As long as the
made, and as long as we don't pretend that it is something that
it isn't. As long as it's done frankly and honestly, I see no
reason why a symphony orchestra shouldn't be doing that sort of
thing, any more than I don't see any reason why a symphony
orchestra, if it wants to make money shouldn't, if it has a facility
at its disposal, book in popular acts of some sort in order to help
to cover its deficit. That's all fine with me; I don't
care. But to come back to your question and answer it in a
slightly different way, there
is very much room for the non-masterpiece on the symphony
program. What I mean by a non-masterpiece is not necessarily a
piece of popcorn, although it might be. What I
mean is the untried new work, which is quite likely not to be the
greatest piece ever written. The thing that we
seem never to notice about the way our concert life unfolds is that we
spend most of it in a kind of necrophiliac posture with
the works of the past. Anyone who is a living composer feels this
very strongly. We all know new music is not nearly enough
played, but there's another, slightly more subtle point about it.
The music of the past, which we hear over and over
again, has undergone a process of historical filtering, so that there's
very little of the music of the past, very little music by dead
composers which is not of the highest quality.
There may be some pieces of junk that have survived for one reason or
another, but they're very few indeed. Overall, when you hear
music from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries,
and even from the early 20th, you get the very best of that
period. Now that has all been more or less done and taken care
of, but when one comes to balancing this against the
new music at whatever time we're speaking of,
one has a chaotic, disorganized situation in which all kinds of people
are scribbling like mad. There may be
many languages with us today which are not familiar. The
collective aesthetic consensuses have not been reached, and we don't
have any guarantee that we're getting a
certified masterpiece when we hear a new piece. The masterpiece
complex, which wants
every single work to be the greatest thing that has ever been composed,
is not only unrealistic but extremely unhealthy. In
fact, it does damage to those very masterpieces that it affects
to revere! In the world of contemporary
art, many more people are at work than are going to be
remembered, but we have an obligation to present, certainly
perhaps not everything that is scribbled down, but at least all those
works that are part of the professional mainstream,
which is a very broad area.
BD: Are there too
many composers writing?
CW: I don't think
so. Composers don't become composers
because they think there's room for one more; they become composers
because they have to. Ours is not a profession that you go into
because you think people want it; you go into it because you
must, and if you don't have the undeniable need to
write music, then you shouldn't be doing it to begin with,
because it's an arduous life, filled with misunderstanding, and not
BD: For whom do
you write when you sit down to compose a piece of
CW: It goes
without saying that if one doesn't please
oneself one can't please anyone else. And the evidence I've seen
so far is that even those who write, let us say, the most modest and
simplest kind of stuff or the
most irredeemably populist music, that no one
succeeds in any of these departments of musical life unless
they are sincere in their efforts, and unless they have a real love
for what it is they are doing. That having been
said, it seems to me, from the composer's point of view, there
really isn't much else that needs to be said. Of course we
don't write music not to be heard! [Both chuckle]
Presumably we know what it sounds like, so for our own
purposes, even though it's fun to hear it, it isn't really
necessary. It's a hard question to answer because it immediately
raises the question of social utility. Bach wrote for God,
there's no doubt of that. His music also had a function, which
specific, and which he carried out. I seriously doubt that he
gave a great deal of thought to the question
of who was going to remember his work after he was gone.
BD: Do you
CW: Uhhh, probably
less so than other people, but of course I
consider it since I am part of a tradition, which, since the time of
Beethoven, has elevated the artist as prophet, martyr,
seer, rabble-rouser, revolutionary, this, that, and the other, and
above all, one who makes utterances that don't
evaporate within ten minutes! What the future holds, who
will be remembered and who will not, is something that none
of us can really say. But to return to the question
of who one regards as one's public, it's a rather
abstract notion. I think of certain people that I know.
them are not musicians who have
demonstrated to me a capacity to listen intelligently, by which I mean
to remember what they've heard and relate it to what's happening now
at this moment in the piece. These are the people for whom I
write, I suppose, if one wants to externalize. The idea of
talking about the public in a general way, or trying to chart public
taste, or attempting to define what "the public" wants is an
exercise undertaken, usually, with negative import by a number of
critics. This seems to me absolutely absurd
because the musical public is so diverse, not only from nation to
nation, but just taking the case of the United States, there
are great differences amongst the publics who go to different kinds
of musical events within the serious sphere. I'm not talking
popular music, I'm talking about those who go to opera as opposed to
opposed to chamber concerts. They are different. Those who
records and don't go to concerts are different. Those
who are on the East Coast are different from the West Coast, and
those who are in the center of the country are different from both.
BD: Are these good
differences or just differences?
are differences of response, and there are differences of age as
well. There are so many
publics. They overlap a great deal, but there are so many really
distinct and identifiable groups, that to talk about addressing one's
musical message to "the public" at
large, I think, is nearly meaningless.
BD: Well, what do
you expect of the public that comes to hear the
music of Charles Wuorinen?
CW: Obviously, the
first thing I want them to do is to like
it; if they do, then I'm pleased. But, as I often
say to audiences when I'm asked to tell them something before they
hear an unfamiliar work of mine, I think it's not very helpful, and its
anyway wrong to suggest there is a particular correct
way to hear any piece. For that matter, certainly, I know there
no particular correct way to hear mine — at least
not one I have
worked out to pass along to people. People have differing
degrees of involvement with music, after all, and I don't think that
those who have a casual relation to it, and don't want to put
themselves out to a great degree, should be denied access to the higher
things of life. I think they should simply accept
the fact that the price they pay for not making more of an effort is
simply that they get less out of it. If they're willing to accept
that trade-off, then it's fine with me! But I would like to have
attentive, retentive listening if I can get it.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of music?
CW: It depends on
what you mean. The future of composition
is always rosy because, as I said earlier, composition is undertaken by
people who must do it, not people who decide they'll do that instead
of becoming dentists. And given the motivation, therefore, of
people who go into the actual writing of music, I have no doubt that we
will continue with a stream of works of high quality. On the
other hand, when one looks at the musical profession in its external
sense, which of course is what most people see and most people
think of when they talk about music or the world of music, I sometimes
get depressed. I sometimes get worried because I see what
I've started lately to call the maniacal celebration of the imbecilic
on many fronts. [Both chuckle] I won't be too much more
specific than that. [Despite this dismissal, he does
continue] As you know, there are certain kinds of music,
abroad — which are essentially pop — which
have been declared, I think quite arbitrarily, to be serious music,
and which I don't think serve the cause of public understanding
nor the art well at all. There are also, as I alluded to earlier,
certain tendencies in the larger institutions especially — which
unfortunately get imitated in the smaller, more modest ones
— to make
the whole life in music, the whole art of music, into a kind of
product which needs to be somehow promoted and sold. People have
been complaining about this for a
long time, but I think it's worse now. I think that it is
that loss of a connection to the art itself, to the notion of serving
the art as best as one's abilities allow, to know
oneself to be part of a really quite noble and very rich tradition
which needs to continue to develop and to expand. It is the loss
of a sense of purpose of that sort, and being
caught up in yielding to short-range temptations with the promotional
and marketing, these things bother
me. Being immersed right in the center of
it, I can't tell whether these things that concern me are a temporary
affairs — just one more little aberration of the
sort we have
constantly — or if they represent a permanent
shift. I am not
willing to say, as was said to a colleague of mine by a record producer
not long ago, that his generation — that is to
say, people in their
forties — were going to be the last generation
who listened to serious
music. I find that a little bit apocalyptic and really quite
depressing. But it is very disturbing, when one takes the cause
— the case of the arts as a whole, and music in particular
— and looks at it in an
even larger context. It is the question of what the young
know now, and they don't know very much. Part of my
activities involve university teaching; not a great deal of it, but I
have some contact with the current generation of students, and
they are utterly, abysmally, hopelessly and terrifyingly
ignorant. And I don't just mean about music. These are
people who have no connection whatever, as far as I can tell, with
history. They know nothing of what has happened in the
think that ten years ago is a long time. Their sense of
historical perspective is absolutely miniscule. They cannot
write, they cannot speak, they cannot make
complete sentences. There are, of course,
some who can, but at a general level, and this is not their
fault. They have been utterly betrayed by an educational system
which is degenerate beyond endurance. [Takes a deep
breath] As long as I'm fulminating on this
subject, and to return more specifically to music, there is one more
thing I could say, and that is that in the United States, insofar as
there exists a difficulty between the public and new music in the
specific, and serious music as a whole, it can be directly
traced to music education — that is to say the
lack of it, or its
perversion and misapplication — in the nation's
schools. Those of us who live in professional music,
constantly wondering about helping people out and making them
understand and love our art better, have a hopeless task. We
can't do it because most of the people that we would
like to reach have already been ruined by a really detestable attitude
toward music manifested in the public schools. And until that is
corrected — and I see no particular sign
that it's going to be — until music teachers are
competent in what is
taught, mastering the very simple matter of learning to read music a
bit in rudimentary fashion, and then either learning a little bit of
an instrument or singing, until that is done we're going to continue to
BD: Let me ask you
about your operas. There have been two, I understand?
CW: It depends on
how you characterize "opera". There
is one which I call a masque on Chinese topics. [The
Politics of Harmony (A Masque) (1967), text by Richard Monaco,
premiered by The Group for Contemporary Music, Charles Wuorinen,
conductor.] And then there is another one, which is more of an
official kind of opera, in two acts called The W. of Babylon, which I
wrote about ten years ago and has never been performed. I am
going to do in a concert version for the first time in San Francisco
this coming December. [The W.
of Babylon, (or
The Triumph of Love over Moral Depravity) (1971-1975), text by
Renaud Charles Bruce, premiered in
1987 by the San Francisco Symphony, Charles Wuorinen, conductor.
Excerpts seem to have been performed at a concert on December 15, 1975,
The Group for Contemporary Music at John C. Borden Auditorium in New
BD: Why did you
CW: I wrote it for
practical and impractical
reasons. The impractical reason was that a friend of mine who's
extremely clever, had written a libretto which he badgered me over
until I finally set it, which I think is very amusing. The
practical matter was that I had a joint commission from the
National Opera Institute and the New York State Council on the Arts,
which made it possible for me to write the work. [Note:
National Opera Institute is now called the National Institute for Music
Theatre.] But these...
BD: But a
performance didn't arise out of that.
institutions did not involve themselves with questions
of performance, and because the score, as all my music I
suppose, is difficult. But I think perhaps more important it was
the libretto is quite risqué. [Chuckles] It's taken
a while to get somebody willing to do it!
BD: You had to
wait for the public to catch up
BD: Will you be
writing any more operas?
CW: I don't have
any immediate plans, but I'm certainly not
against the idea.
BD: Is the future
of opera different from the future of concert
[Pensively] I don't know; isn't opera always
dying? Hasn't it always been dying? [Both laugh] I
really can't say since I don't work in the
field that much.
generation says that it's dead, and then it comes back.
CW: Yes, and it
keeps coming back, so I honestly don't know. I think it'll go
just for those who get hooked on it. I think it's simply too
engaging — in spite of all its headaches, which
make ordinary music seem like
absolutely nothing at all — and its enormous
expense. I think it's too
seductive to be given up, and I don't think it will be. It may
change; it always has.
BD: When you come
to performance of a work
such as this one here in Chicago this week, do you help the conductor
with it at all, or do you just
let him get on with his work?
CW: It depends on
who it is. I've worked over the
years with Tilson Thomas quite a bit, and he understands my work very
well, as is also true of Garrick Ohlsson, who, after all, is the person
for whom the piece was
written. So with these people, there's very little that I need to
by way of helping out in a general way. Of course there may be
questions about balances, and even, perhaps, occasionally errors
in the score — although fortunately there are
few of those. That kind of assistance I give. But under
favorable circumstances, I may make general comments of a certain sort
to try to help a performer who doesn't really understand quite how to
do the general kinds of things I've asked for.
BD: Do you ever go back
and revise scores?
never. In fact, I can't remember the last time I did.
BD: So there are
no problems of which version to use.
CW: No. As I
said earlier, I try to do it right the first time. I'm usually
busy writing something else, and the idea of
returning to something I've already finished is not particularly
appealing to me. Some composers like to cuddle and cozy their
and keep changing a little of this and a little of that until it
comes out just perfect, but that is not my style.
BD: I assume that
you have a lot of commissions. How do you
decide which commissions you will accept and which ones you will
CW: It depends on
a number of
things. Of course it depends on economic considerations, and it
depends on the worth to me from an artistic and professional point of
view of the venue. If someone wants me
to write a piece for solo kazoo, and a major symphony calls the same
day with a request for something, I'm likely to choose the latter
rather than the former if I have to make a choice. But I have
a fairly big backlog, and some of the smaller things that I'm asked to
do can be delivered pretty much at my convenience. Usually I'm
booked about, I would guess, two to
three years ahead.
BD: Is that a good
feeling, or a kind of confinement?
CW: It's better
than not having anything to do, but this is in the context of an output
which is three to
four pieces a year, usually.
BD: I hope the
piece is a
CW: I hope
so. It seems to be going quite well for the most part. We
will wait and see what people think of it. But what a wonderful
orchestra, needless to say! I think they really are the
best. It's always a question between this one and
Cleveland. I did a new work for Cleveland about two years ago, so
that's fresh in my mind. [Movers
and Shakers (1984), premiered by the Cleveland
Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi, conductor.] You can
argue one way or the other, but I think this one is better.
BD: If you write
something for Chicago, is it going
to be impossible to be played by other orchestras?
CW: No! This
piece was originally commissioned
by a consortium of regional orchestras, and was done first by the
BD: But if you're
commissioned by the Chicago Symphony,
would you write it differently than if you were commissioned by
don't think so. My music is
intrinsically difficult enough as it is, and one doesn't want
to limit even further the possibilities for performance.
BD: You don't
write it to be difficult, do you?
That's the way it needs to be, and as a matter of fact it
usually turns out over and over again that
musicians say, "This is terribly difficult," when they start
working on it, but it's only difficult because it's unfamiliar.
Most of the
difficulties are psychological rather than physical. Once they
begin to find out how it goes, they say, "Oh, this is very
ordinary!" You just have to count the eighth notes, or whatever.
BD: How do you
know when the piece
CW: When I have
nothing more to contribute to it; when I begin to feel as if my
judgment is no longer contributing to the improvement of the
work. That's a little difficult to say, because no matter how
precise one's vision of the whole piece is before one starts to compose
it, the actual reality of the notes makes for a sense of
difference. It makes a different situation than what it was when
the abstract. There are always little improvements
and changes of emphasis that the work can use,
but I stop doing that final stage of composition at the point where it
seems that choice A and choice B are equivalent. Then I know that
there's nothing more that I can contribute
BD: Do you know
before you start how long will be?
CW: Yes, always.
conscious of time?
CW: First of all,
I normally have
some kind of external circumstance imposed. Somebody wants a
15-minute piece or a half-hour piece, and I try to fulfill those time
BD: If they ask
for a 15-minute piece, can it be 14 or 16, or must it be exactly 15?
CW: I'm very
conscious of the
difference between 14 1/2 and 15, as I would have to be, but
I find that most people who say 15 minutes actually really
mean is anything between ten and twenty, and they're perfectly
happy. They don't mean five, but they don't mean 15 and not a
penny less or
more — although they also don't mean twenty-five
when they say 15.
BD: But they'll
tolerate 18 or 13, as a rule.
BD: Is composing
CW: It is for me,
most of the time. Every once in a while
there are really exasperating problems that come up, and in the course
of life one has, as everybody does, ups and downs of a more general
nature. But by and large it is! One
couldn't continue doing it as much as I do. I work all the
time, and I do that not because I feel driven, particularly, but
because I really like doing it. So it must be fun.
BD: Do you work on
one piece at a time, or a couple?
CW: That changes
from one year to
the next. Up to about
ten years ago, I quite regularly worked on three or four things
simultaneously, but that has not been the case in the last
decade. It may very well come to be again, so I don't have
a fixed policy about it.
Thank you for being a composer!
CW: My pleasure in
more ways than one.
look forward to the performance tonight, and everything else
that comes from your pen!
CW: Thank you.
|CHARLES WUORINEN (b. 9 June
1938, New York City) has been composing since he was five and he has
been a forceful presence on the American musical scene for more than
In 1970, Wuorinen became the youngest composer to win the Pulitzer
Prize in music for Time's Encomium,
an electronic composition written on commission from Nonesuch Records.
The Pulitzer and the MacArthur Fellowship are just two among many
awards, fellowships and other honors to have come his way.
Wuorinen has written more than 250 compositions to date. His
newest works include It Happens Like
This, a dramatic cantata on poems of James Tate to be premiered
at Tanglewood in Summer 2011, Time
Regained, a fantasy for piano and orchestra for Peter Serkin,
James Levine and the MET Opera Orchestra, Eighth Symphony for the
Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Metagong
for two pianos and two percussion. He is currently at work on an
operatic treatment of Annie Proulx’s Brokeback
Mountain to a libretto by the author. (Wuorinen’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories based
on the novel of Salman Rushdie was premiered by the New York City Opera
in Fall 2004.)
An indication of Wuorinen's historical importance can be seen in the
fact that in 1975 Stravinsky's widow gave Wuorinen the composer's last
sketches for use in A Reliquary for
Igor Stravinsky. Wuorinen was the first composer commissioned by
the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnanyi (Movers and Shakers); and likewise
the first to compose for Michael Tilson Thomas' New World Symphony (Bamboula Beach). Fractal geometry
and the pioneering work of Benoit Mandelbrot have played a crucial role
in several of his works including Bamboula
Squared and the Natural Fantasy, a work for organ.
His works have been recorded on nearly a dozen labels including several
releases on Naxos, Albany Records (Charles Wuorinen Series), John
Zorn’s Tzadik label, and a CD of piano works performed by Alan Feinberg
on the German label Col Legno.
Wuorinen's works are published exclusively by C.F. Peters Corporation.
He is the author of Simple
Composition, used by composition students throughout the world.
An eloquent writer and speaker, Wuorinen has lectured at universities
throughout the United States and abroad, and has served on the
faculties of Columbia, Princeton, and Yale Universities, the University
of Iowa, University of California (San Diego), Manhattan School of
Music, New England Conservatory, State University of New York at
Buffalo, and Rutgers University.
Wuorinen has also been active as performer, an excellent pianist and a
distinguished conductor of his own works as well as other twentieth
century repertoire. His orchestral appearances have included the
Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, San
Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the American
In 1962 he co-founded the Group for Contemporary Music, one of
America's most prestigious ensembles dedicated to performance of new
chamber music. In addition to cultivating a new generation of
performers, commissioning and premiering hundreds of new works, the
Group has been a model for many similar organizations which have
appeared in the United States since its founding.
Wuorinen is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters
and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in an office upstairs at Orchestra
Hall in Chicago on February 26,
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB in 1988, 1993, and again in
1998. An unedited copy of the audio was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University. This
made and posted on this
website in 2012.
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
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.