Composer  Ruth  Shaw  Wylie

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Ruth Shaw Wylie (June 24, 1916 – January 30, 1989) was a composer and music educator. She described herself as “a fairly typical Midwestern composer,” pursuing musical and aesthetic excellence but not attracting much national attention: “All good and worthy creative acts do not take place in New York City,” she wrote in 1962, “although most good and worthy rewards for creative acts do emanate from there; and if we can’t all be on hand to reap these enticing rewards we can take solace in the fact that we are performing good deeds elsewhere.” She was among the many twentieth-century American composers whose work contributed to the recognition of American “serious” music as a distinct genre.

Wylie was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and grew up in Detroit, Michigan, where she received her undergraduate degree and a master's degree in music composition at Wayne State University (WSU). In 1939 she entered the doctoral program in music composition at the Eastman School of Music where she studied with Bernard Rogers and Howard Hanson. She was awarded the PhD in 1943 and took a position teaching at the University of Missouri where she stayed until 1949. In the summer of 1947 she studied with Arthur Honegger, Samuel Barber, and Aaron Copland at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. She returned to Detroit to teach at WSU where she remained for twenty years, retiring from teaching as Professor Emerita in 1969. She moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, and then to Estes Park, Colorado in 1973, and continued composing.

At WSU Wylie taught music theory and composition and served as head of composition; during one year she served as interim chair of the music department. In the early 1960s she founded, directed, and performed with the WSU Improvisation Chamber Ensemble. She continued to count her work with group improvisation as among her most significant contributions. She received a number of awards, including "Friends of Harvey Gaul" and the ASCAP Standard Award. Wylie was a resident fellow at the Huntington Hartford Foundation (1953–54) and at the MacDowell Colony (1954 and 1956). She composed The Long Look Home for the Michigan Chamber Orchestra for a Bicentennial Celebration commission from the Michigan Council for the Arts.

Wylie published articles on music in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, in the Detroit journal Criticism, and elsewhere.

Wylie composed about 60 titles. Her earlier works—from the 1940s into the 1960s—include sonatas, symphonies, string quartets, and didactic pieces for piano. In these works she develops her own interpretation of American neoclassicism. Examples are Five Madrigals from William Blake (1950); Concerto Grosso for string orchestra and seven solo woodwinds (1952); String Quartet No. 3 (1954), completed during a Huntington Hartford Foundation residency; Sonata for Viola and Piano (1954), completed at the MacDowell Colony; and Sonata for Flute and Piano (1959).

Her later works, almost entirely instrumental, are noticeably freer in their construction in accordance with avant-garde ideas of the 1960s and 1970s. Wylie explained in 1985, “I try to study and evaluate all the new musical trends as they arise—twelve-tone, electronic, aleatory, computer, tonal modifications, microtones—whatever. Then I may use, at least to a limited extent, what in all of these trends I find to be aesthetically sound and creatively honest.” Examples include Involution (1967) for orchestra; Psychogram for piano (1968); The Long Look Home (1975), a multimedia work for orchestra with poetry and slides (1975); Incubus for flute, clarinet, percussion, and cello ensemble (1973); Views from Beyond, suite for orchestra (1978); Music for Three Sisters for flute, clarinet and piano (1981); Seven Scenes from Arthur Rackham for two flutes, oboe, viola, cello, piano and percussion (1983); Flights of Fancy (1984), commissioned by Doriot Anthony Dwyer; and Concerto for Flute and Strings (1986).

In the last quarter of the 20th century, I searched out and contacted musicians who worked in the so-called Classical Music field, with a special emphasis on composers.  When they came to Chicago we met in-person, and when their schedules did not include the Windy City, I would do the interviews over the telephone.  [Remember, this was long before the ease and convenience of video-chats on the computer or cell phone!]

One such call was to Ruth Shaw Wylie.  In August of 1986, soon after her 70th birthday, she allowed me to speak with her, and later I was able to present a program on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, which had portions of the conversation, along with recordings of her music.  Now, at the end of 2023, I am pleased to showcase the entire encounter on this webpage.  As always, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.
When presenting interviews which were done on the telephone, I usually begin the transcription where we get into the meat of the conversation.  This time, however, what was first said presents an interesting start.

Ruth Shaw Wylie:   [Answering the phone]  Hello?

Bruce Duffie:   May I speak to Ruth Wylie, please?

Wylie:   This is she.

BD:   This is Bruce Duffie in Chicago.

Wylie:   Right!

BD:   How are you?

Wylie:   Oh, much the same.  Still alive!  [Both laugh]

BD:   That is encouraging, is it not?

Wylie:   Yes, it is when you consider the alternatives!

BD:   That’s true, that’s true.  [More laughter]  Now is a good time to chat a bit?

Wylie:   Yes, I should think so.

[We then had a bit of chit-chat about the papers and recordings she had sent to me.  There were two audio items she had included by mistake, and she made no bones about saying why.]

Wylie:   I gave you the wrong cassette.  I don’t want either of those used.  [Names one] was absolutely horrible.  I almost puked because of the tempo and the mistakes.  Oh, it was horrible!

BD:   [Laughs]  Oh my...

Wylie:   And [names the other] I didn’t care for.  That wasn’t a good performance either.  It’s not one of my best pieces, even though it won a big prize.  So, please don’t play either one of those.

BD:   Okay, we won’t use those on the air.

Wylie:   I’d appreciate it if it isn’t too much trouble.

BD:   No, no trouble at all.  [Telling her what else was there to select for use.]  Then there’s a string quartet, the Flights of Fancy, the November Music, and the Five Occurrences.

Wylie:   Yes.  The Five Occurrences is a biggie, and I would like it if you did the Desert from the big orchestral suite.  It’s a very effective piece.

BD:   That’s the one with the poetry?

Wylie:   Yes.  That whole Suite has poetry for each one of the pieces, but Desert is the one I’d most like to have done... and under no circumstances do it without the poem!  Those are very, very closely related and associated.

BD:   There’ll be no problem about that.  Is it unusual to require poetic narration before a musical piece?

Wylie:   No.  From its inception, it was intended to be that way.  The poetry is by my sister, who is a very fine poet and writer.  We both are ardent conservationists.  We love wildlife and wilderness, and we’re all for ecological things.  These poems have since been published.  There are about fifty poems, and each one has to do with nature, or wilderness, or the ecology, or conservation.  I picked out five of them to use for this Suite, and followed the poems very closely
not just in feeling, but in some instances even a little more programmatically than that.  The first one, Moon, for example, I follow very closely from the blast off to the landing, and do what they do up there on the moon.  I know this sounds very prosaic the way I’m describing it, but the poetry definitely enhances the music, and makes the point of the music more perceptible... and vice versa.  I hope that the music also enhances the poetry.

BD:   In a concert performance, should the poetry be read by a narrator, rather than just put in the program notes?

Wylie:   It should definitely be read, yes.  We made a recording of the poetry by my sister, who also is a very fine speaker and a very fine poetry reader.  I have a tape with just the poems for any live performance that wants to do it.  They could use the tape of her reading, or they could have somebody read the poem, but I really would always prefer to have the Suite performed with the poetry before each one of the pieces.  It can be performed without the watercolor slides on the stage.  We did it with slides, too, because we both paint.  I did one of the paintings of these five pieces, and the others are in her book.  At first, we intended to have the paintings projected on a screen all during the performance.  We would then turn out the lights, and have the instrumentalists read from little desk lights, but there were so many little desk lights around that they detracted from the effectiveness of the slides.  So, what we did instead was to have the slide projected while the poetry was read, and as the poem finished, the slide faded and the music came.  That was the most effective way, and very successful.  But the poetry and the music are really inseparable.  My sister and I are in very close cahoots.  We think alike in so many ways, and we feel alike about these things.

BD:   Why did you not set it as a cantata?

Wylie:   Oh, no!  That would have ruined the poetry in my opinion!  The poetry is too good to use it that way.  This is two different hearts trying to say the same thing, and enhance each other one after the other.

BD:   You are standing beside each other, rather than being together as one?

Wylie:   That’s right.  It’s two different creative souls commenting on the same thing in different arts.  I don’t like vocal music, or choral music, or opera anyway.  As you’ll see from my dossier, I’ve written practically nothing for voice.  One piece, Echo, is for chorus and string orchestra, and that’s not bad, if I do say so myself.  That was a commission, so I was told what it was to be for.

BD:   When you were told what kind of forces they wanted, were you surprised, or did you think about turning this commission down because you were not in sympathy with that style of writing?

Wylie:   Oh, no!  I can do it if somebody wants me to and asks me to.  If I’ll get a performance out of it I can do it, but it doesn’t interest me as much as.  I just never went for choral and vocal music much.
BD:   What interests you the most?

Wylie:   Orchestra music, and chamber music.

BD:   Why?

Wylie:   Why do I like a pretty sunset?  Mostly because it’s not vocal!  [Bursts out laughing]  I write a good deal of piano music, but what interests me the most is music that’s for acoustical instruments, and usually from a large orchestra pared down.  You’ll notice I have a great variety in my choice of chamber music.  I like music for a solo instrument and piano, like my Flute Sonata, my Viola Sonata, and the November Music.  But, as far as what kind of music I like to hear is concerned, I prefer to hear orchestral music and chamber music.

BD:   Are there any other styles or periods that you prefer?  Do you prefer contemporary music, or Bach, or romantic pieces?

Wylie:   I don’t think ‘prefer’ is quite the word.  I have preferences within each period, but I don’t feel that I would want to, or could even answer whether I prefer eighteenth century over twentieth, or nineteenth over sixteenth, and so on, because everything has grown and developed so gradually out of its zone.  There are some periods that I don’t like.  For instance, late nineteenth century music I don’t care for very much
Wagner, Richard Strauss, Mahler, and Bruckner.  I don’t even care for Berlioz.  I don’t care for that period very much at all.
BD:   Why?  What is it that you don’t care for?

Wylie:   It’s overblown!  [Both laugh]  It’s a little on the rotten side.  Do you know what I mean?  It’s turned!  It’s too heroic, too sentimental, too over-stated, too sexual.

BD:   Too masculine?

Wylie:   No, I wouldn’t call it particularly masculine.  In fact, music to me never is masculine or feminine.  There would be no reason for me to dislike it if I did feel it was masculine.  Wagner’s music is masculine in a sense that it is not one of the best attributes of maleness, and that is the chest-beating, and posturing, and macho-macho.  So, if that’s what we mean by masculine, maybe that would be true about Wagner.

BD:   You are a woman composer.  Is your music at all feminine, or do you put feminine things into your music... or is this not even a good question?

Wylie:   I don’t think it’s a good question.  All music is feminine in a sense, and all music written by men shows a softer side, usually more than the macho-chest-beating sort of thing.  I have never thought of music as being masculine or feminine, and in my familiarity with women’s music and men’s music, I really fail to see any difference.  I recall when Psychogram was being recorded by CRI in New York City.  Carter Harman, the head of CRI, was there to oversee the recording.  The pianist went through it twice, and afterwards Harman said to me,
God, I never thought a woman could write music like this, because part of it is very angry.  I thought how dumb can you get?  Do they think women never get angry, or never want to hit something, or never want to spit, or do things that society hasn’t allowed them to do up until recently???  So, I don’t believe this male/female business is applicable as far as the judgment of music is concerned.  I’m sure you can think of dozens of male composers who have written very sweet, sentimental, compassionate, touching music that we usually assume to be female qualities, more than the male.  That’s why I don’t think it’s a question that has much substance to it, or that an answer could have much substance.

BD:   One of the reasons I bring this up is that I don’t often get the chance to speak with female composers, because there doesn’t seem to be very many.  [In the years that followed, I was able to speak with a total of 496 composers, 62 of which were women!]

Wylie:   Well, there’s more and more all the time!  We never had a chance until the last fifteen or twenty years.

BD:   Why?

Wylie:   [Laughs]  Nobody would play our music!  That’s somewhat of an over-statement, but believe me, there’s a great deal of truth in it.  We are just coming a little past the period of tokenism, and I’m positive that from here on, women will have less and less trouble getting their music performed.  I recall overhearing Howard Hanson one time.  I was walking down the street behind him, and he was talking to somebody else.  I don’t know what the main gist of the conversation was, but I heard him say something to the effect that he
never would conduct a piece of music by a woman unless he couldn’t get any male composer.

BD:   My goodness!  He didn’t want to waste his time?

Wylie:   He just didn’t think that they could write anything worthwhile.  Excuse me for being bitter, but you opened up this can or worms!  I remember another time...  I’d written Madrigals on Songs of Innocence & Experience by William Blake, and they are very, very sweet pieces.  They have a slightly late-renaissance feel to them while still being contemporary.  Two of them in particular are simple but lovely, and I had those performed at the University of Michigan.  Ross Finney said,
“Now that’s the kind of music women should be writing!  How would you like somebody saying something like to you?
BD:   I’d feel very sad that they couldn’t see it any further.

Wylie:   Yes.
BD:   Then let me ask what is hopefully an optimistic question.  Is the situation getting better?

Wylie:   Yes, it certainly is, but now that women are getting performed more often, I have run into difficulties having opportunities, commission grants, awards, symposia conventions, etc., because the attitude is, “She’s had her chance, so let’s let the younger women have their opportunity!”  They don’t realize that when I was young, there were practically no chances.

BD:   Then why did you keep on plugging along?

Wylie:   [Matter-of-factly]  I’m a composer, and composers write music.  I have felt very frustrated many times, and even from time to time I’ve threatened to quit.  But you don’t because if that’s what you are, that’s what you do.  It doesn’t mean you have to be happy about it.  I get performed less than most women composers because I live up here at 7,500 feet in the mountains.  The nearest city is sixty miles away, and I don’t have contact with performing groups.  By the time I hear of the opportunities, the deadline has passed for submitting works.  I’m quite isolated from performance opportunities, but I still go on writing music.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You spent a number of years teaching theory and composition?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Vincent Persichetti, and Arthur Weisberg.]
Wylie:   Oh yes, very much so.

BD:   Did you have many female students, or were they mostly male students?

Wylie:   They were mostly males.  I taught first the University of Missouri for six years, and then twenty years at Wayne State University, and in those twenty-six years, I probably could count on the fingers of two hands the number of women students that I had.  That is partly because girls and women have always been taught that only men write music, and that they don’t have the talent, so they can’t do it!  It takes too much!  It’s too complex!  It’s just like chess.  I’m a tournament chess player too, and for quite a few years I played in about six tournaments a year.  Luckily my father taught me to play chess when I was six years old.  I was on my high school team, but everywhere little girls were told that chess is for boys.  Girls aren’t smart enough to play chess.  It’s too complex, and writing music was very much the same way.  But remember, that even in the seventeenth and eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, there were some women writing music, and more and more of them are being discovered all the time.  They couldn’t get published and they couldn’t get performed, but sometimes their husbands would use their music and put their names to it.

BD:   Do you feel at all any kinship with Clara Schumann, or Amy Beach, or any of the others from that era?

Wylie:   Sure, I do!  For instance, there is Cécile Chaminade.  I don’t particularly care for most of her music, but I admire her very much for what she did at the time that she did it.  As far as Clara Schumann is concerned, she was a fine composer.   How much of her music have you heard?

BD:   There’s a piano concerto we have played a couple of times, I believe.

Wylie:   Well, she’s done some chamber music, too, and it is excellent music.  Her husband kept her having babies so much, and looking after him that I wonder when she had time to write anything.  She also did a lot of performing.

BD:   Women in music seem to tend to be performers rather than creators.

Wylie:   They were taught from the time they were little girls that you just couldn’t compose, and you couldn’t play chess...  [Laughs]

BD:   ...or conduct?

Wylie:   Or conduct!  Then there’s still a problem there.  [Again, if I may, 14 of my 224 conductor-guests are women!]  I remember Antonia Brico (1902-1989).  My dad got me a season ticket to the Detroit Symphony when I was 14 years old, and he would drive me down from Grosse Point every Symphony night, go back home, and come back to get me.  From time to time they would have guest conductors, and some time in the early-to-mid
30s, Antonia Brico, as a young woman, came as a guest conductor.  What problems she must have had, and what prejudice she must have had to fight to get that opportunity.  She was very good, and that’s the last I really heard of her until I came to Colorado, and found out what she’s doing here.  She has had her own orchestra for years.

BD:   She made a big splash three or four years ago, and recorded some Mozart works.  That’s about all I knew of her.

Wylie:   She
s in her mid-80s, and I’ve often wanted to go down and see her, and talk to her.  I’m not shy, but I’m not a wheeler-dealer that tries to take advantage of any possible connection I might dream up between me and somebody who can be influential on my career.  But now I wish I had met her because I was so proud of her.  Young as I was then, I was so proud of what she had done, and it was such an oddity to have a woman conductor in the ‘30s!  It just stayed in my mind, and I would have enjoyed meeting her personally.  [Sighs]  I didn’t want to get on this prejudice topic, because I’ve gone ahead and done my thing anyway.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Where is music going today?

Wylie:   That’s a very good question.  I’ve been up here [Estes Park, Colorado] for thirteen years.  I retired early from Wayne State, and went to Salt Lake City for four years, and then came here where I am isolated not only from performance opportunities, but I don’t get to hear much of the new music because hardly any place in Colorado does any really new music, and if they do, it’s somebody from the faculty of the University of Colorado, or Denver University.  I have no place where I can even buy contemporary recordings unless I go to Denver.  So, I can’t say that I’m any kind of an authority on what music is really doing nowadays, but I do manage to keep up to the extent that I can, and I find it troublesome in a number of ways.  First of all, I never did go into the electronic music direction.  At the time that I would have, when I was studying, none of this was available yet.  My last year on my doctor’s degree was the first year that they had tape recordings, and that was paper tape.  So I never had the opportunity to work with electronic instruments, or learn about them, or have any available to me.  So I never went in that direction, and I can’t judge how much of that is being done today, and how worthwhile it is.  I just know it’s not for me.  I do think that some of the best music of that sort that’s being done, believe it or not, is background music for television shows.  Some of the things they’re doing are quite remarkable.  The ones which I enjoy more, and have more admiration than some of the few recordings and tapes that I have been able to listen to, are done by private composers that aren’t writing for a film of any kind.  I also don’t think too much of the twelve-tone technique, and serial music, although I’ve tried it, and have used it a number of times.  In the period of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, they really went off half-cocked.  Back in the
50s, it was felt that any music which was not written with the serial technique was superfluous!  [Laughs]  Well, I couldn’t go that route either, and the times that I have used the twelve-tone technique I’ve gotten so aggravated with it that almost always part way through I’d leave it, because there came a conflict between what my ear wanted and what the series would tell me I should do.

BD:   This brings up another one of my favorite questions.  In music, where is the balance between technique and inspiration?

Wylie:   That’s a good question, too.  They aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.  [Apparently she heard me say
‘talent’ instead of ‘balance’.]  It depends on what you mean by talent!  There could be some talent, I suppose, in using the twelve-tone technique, but I see your point.   

BD:   I would think that the inspiration and the technique would be mutually dependent.
Wylie:   Yes.  I misunderstood you, and I don’t even think you could call it technique in the use of twelve-tone.  I wrote an article a number of years ago called Musimatics: a View from the Mainland, which was published in the American Journal of Aesthetics, and I really expressed my view that it’s a kind of gimmick.  That was the period when all kinds of smart young people began using it.  After Boulez began to serialize the rhythm, and the dynamics, and all the other parameters of the music, every Tom, Dick, and Harry started to do it.  Young music students that hadn’t had any real theoretical training at all, but knew some mathematics, would begin to fool around with numbers, and it was all phoney-baloney as far as I was concerned.  The article goes into that at great length, and I don’t even think it’s technique.  It certainly isn’t musical technique.  It would be just the technique of number-manipulation, transcription from patterns of numbers.  As to whether or not you could get some inspiration, I shouldn’t say it’s impossible, but I doubt it.  Maybe you would get an inspiration, and suddenly think you have a new way you could use numbers.  [Both laugh]
BD:   If not for those who adhere to popular gimmicks, for whom do you write?

Wylie:   I like to think that I am writing for people who love music.  I’m trying to express my private self in relation to my world, the Earth, and the universe, hoping that I can reach people who will share what I’m trying to express.  For example, in the Suite, The Long Look Home that I was describing to you, where my sister and I have written about the ecology and conservation, we feel very strongly about what man is doing to the air, and the water, and the animals, and the wilderness.  We are paving everything over, cutting down trees, killing animals, polluting the air and the water.  We feel so strongly about this, that very often in my music I’m trying to get this across in a very personal way, without trying to be literal.  I’ve written a number of works where I am trying to express those things that are so important to me.  Primarily I want to communicate with people who love music, and have a sense of beauty and a sense of responsibility.  They may even have a sense of sadness, and a sense of compassion, and true emotional feelings expressed truthfully and honestly, and with integrity.  Primarily, I eschew gimmicks and new things just for the sake of newness, although I have several pieces that one might call somewhat experimental.  I really don’t think that they are gimmicks in that sense.  For instance, I’ve written several works that don’t use any bar lines in the score.

BD:   This is the Woodwind Quintet?

Wylie:   That’s right.  Another one was Incubus [for flute, clarinet, percussion, and cello ensemble, Op. 28], and another one was Imagi [for any combination of flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, Op. 29].  In those instances, I was striving to get some rhythms that could not be notated in the ordinary traditional way.  I did this by introducing a slight element of chance, only in the sense that the performers have to align what they’re doing visually on the page and in my scores.  I only use the staffs where music is actually being written.  There are no blank staffs anywhere on the score, so they’re all reading from a score.  They play in the proper ensemble just by aligning themselves visually on the page with each other.  So they collide a little bit, and it might be slightly different each time they do it.  The rhythms that can result are quite understandable and intelligible, yet couldn’t really be written in traditional notation.

BD:   You’re putting a lot of reliance, and a lot of trust on the performers.

Wylie:   Yes, but there are built-in safeguards.  I do it in such a way that they can’t go very far astray!  It makes good sense.  It’s not crazy music by any means.  It’s quite a successful piece.

BD:   What do you say to someone who says your music is crazy?

Wylie:   Nobody would say that, except some people who have never heard any contemporary music, and would think it’s all crazy.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Then what do you expect of an audience that comes to hear your music, perhaps for the first time?
Wylie:   You hope they’ll like it.  You hope that they will hear something that you’re trying to communicate.  That’s always been hard, and consequently I always dread going to hear performances of my own music.  [Laughs]  I want to, and yet I don’t want to.  I want very much to hear my own music, but I dread and fear it, because I know a lot of people aren’t going to like it.  Some people aren’t going to like it because they don’t understand it, and they’re not familiar with any music from this period.  It hurts you to know that you’re not communicating to some of the people, and so I always have this double-feeling when I go to hear my music live.  Are they going to like it?  Are they not going to like it?  In fact, there’s more than those two options.  The third one is are they (or are they not) going to play it decently?

BD:   Are you generally pleased with the performances of your music?

Wylie:   No!  Very rarely, and now that I’m way out here, even more so.  Psychogram is often very well done, and November Music [for cello and piano, Op. 36] is often very well done, but it’s a very simple piece, because I wrote it for a young man here in Estes Park, Colorado, with whom I play chess.  There are five or six of us who, for about ten years, have been playing chess together once a week, rotating from one person’s house to another.  This man is one of my chess buddies.  He’s an aeronautical engineer, but he is also an amateur cellist, and he did something very nice and sweet for me one time, and I was very touched.  Consequently, I thought I’ll write him a cello piece that’s not too difficult for him to perform... and one that’s not too difficult for me to perform on the piano!  [Laughs]  I was taking piano lessons when I was fourteen, and managed to go on through my musical career playing the piano well enough to get by.  I could read and study scores, and use it as a teaching tool, but I’m not a pianist in any sense of the word.  So it is technically a simple piece, and for that reason a lot of cellists and pianists might not want to do it, because they always want to show off their virtuosity.  That’s something else I’m never primarily interested in, but it is a nice piece, and it’s often well-performed.

BD:   Was your cellist impressed with it?

Wylie:   He didn’t play it in the recording.  He studied it for a while, and came over and played it once with me, and it didn’t go too well the first time.  It was still a little bit too much for him, although parts of it he did quite well.  He didn’t have a really good ear, and his intonation wasn’t so good in some places.  I assumed that it could have gotten quite a bit better, but he never came and did it again, and I didn’t want to press him for it.  We used to play some Bach Cello Sonatas together once in a while.  I’m a pretty good sight-reader, but anything beyond the baroque period I don’t sight-read too well, because it takes more technique than I have.  But for Bach and Vivaldi I’m good at sight-reading, so we used to do that.  We got along pretty well with those, but he didn’t come back again because he got mad at me about something else.

BD:   I’ve a feeling you trounced him at chess.

Wylie:   No, it was nip-and-tuck with the chess.  We were about even in our ratings.  I’d win sometimes, and he’d win sometimes.  All of us were about the same level of chess, which made it nice.  It made the chess a lot more interesting than if some of us had been a lot better than the others.

BD:   You say you’re very isolated.  Do you feel that the proliferation of recordings has helped to spread music around?

Wylie:   Yes, except that the contemporary stuff doesn’t proliferate as much as I wish it could.  I don’t have access to what has come out, and I haven’t seen a Schwann Catalog for about ten years.  So I’m not au courant with that.  I’m sure there has been more of a proliferation in recent years, and that certainly should help.  If nothing else, now and then somebody’s going to buy one of those pieces by mistake, and at least be exposed to it!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Is there any way to force-feed the public a little more contemporary music?

Wylie:   They’re getting a lot of it subliminally on their television sets.

BD:   But isn’t that really just commercial music?

Wylie:   Some of it is excellent music.  I don’t know how many people realize that.  Of course, a lot of it is just junk, and it depends on what the show is, but there are a lot of television shows where the background music is superb, not just as background to that show, but as music.  I’m always listening to the background music on any show that I watch on television, except the basketball game or something like that!  [Both laugh]

BD:   But you are more attuned to that than the average viewer!
Wylie:   Yes, but they’re getting familiar with it.  They wouldn’t understand what’s being done technically in any sense of the word, but they’re hearing it all the time in some of these shows, so if and when they should happen to go to a concert, and have to listen to one of these pieces, it might not seem quite as strange to them because they’ve been subliminally subjected to this for quite a while on the television.  This is probably something I shouldn’t say because, after all, a score for a television show is not really in the form of a piece that you could perform live on a program.  But some of the finest composers working today are writing movie and television show music.  I have heard some things that I just wished I had written myself, or even thought of.  In fact, I’m even influenced sometimes by what I’m hearing.  I think something’s just gorgeous, and note what has been done there.
BD:   Have you ever thought of seeking some of these commissions?
Wylie:   No.  Those aren’t commissions.  Some composers go to Hollywood, and they work hard to get on the payroll of one of the studios.  So, that’s not a commission situation at all, like Aaron Copland did with the score to Our Town.  That was a special thing years ago.  But your ordinary run-of-the-mill Hollywood and New York television show composer works at it because that’s what he wants to do.  He’s very well educated.  These are special composers I’m talking about, and special shows.  A lot of it is junk, and a lot of it’s stolen, but some of it is just terrific.  Even some of the electronic stuff is superb music.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Coming back to your own music, do conductors or performers find things in your scores that you did not know were there?

Wylie:   [Laughs]  You could take that two ways, but we’ll let the mistakes they make go by.  I’m sure that’s not what you had in mind!

BD:   [Laughs]  No, no, no!  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Philip Glass, Aaron Jay Kernis, William Bolcom, and Jennifer Higdon.]

Wylie:   [Thinks a moment]  I’m trying to think if I can remember any specific examples.  It would be more the way that they’ve put something into it that I didn’t write, than if they found something there that I wasn’t aware of.

BD:   Are you one of these that will go to first or last rehearsals and make suggestions to conductors?

Wylie:   If it’s an orchestra, and you go to the first rehearsal, nine times out of ten that’s all you’re going to get is that first rehearsal.  But if I’m going to get more than one rehearsal, I don’t like to go to the first rehearsal for two reasons.  First of all, you can waste the orchestra’s time terribly because you expect more than they’re able to do at the first rehearsal.  Also, you are cramping the style of the conductor.  You should allow the conductor to work it out himself with his people first, to the extent that he can in one full rehearsal.  For instance, for The Long Look Home I went to two rehearsals.  I went to a rehearsal, and then the final dress rehearsal, and they had already had a couple before that so they could work things out themselves.  I did make just a couple of comments, but I have seen too many cases where composers have driven the conductors crazy.  Every time they hear the slightest little thing that’s wrong, they go bounding up and making comments.  It might be something quite inconsequential, and they make them stop every three or four measures.  The time goes by, and they’re all being paid union scale.  I don’t want to be that type of composer, and I never have been.  So it has to be quite important before I will interrupt a conductor and tell him something.  Oftentimes, the conductors are polite enough that they’ll ask me something, and that’s really the way I would prefer it to happen.  I remember one time at the University of Chicago, my piece Nova [for vibraphone solo, flute, violin, clarinet, cello and percussion, Op. 30 No. 1] was being performed.  Ralph Shapey was conducting, and I went to one rehearsal.  The rhythm was quite complicated in a number of places from the standpoint of being able to notate it arithmetically correct, and I had made one tiny little mistake.  A very small note value was in a very complex beat pattern within a beat, and he had found that little mistake.  So he called me up and said that I’d made a mistake.  Should it be so-and-so?  I hadn’t seen the score for a while, and I believed that it was a mistake, but it was a very, very tiny little mistake that didn’t matter that much.  It just became a sea of notes to my eyes, [laughs] and I said yes, it should be that way.  He kept pointing it out, and finally I said,
Do you want me to genuflect?  [More laughter from both]  We didn’t get along too well.  They did the piece twice.  At the performance, they played through it, and he took his bows, and went out and came back, took some more bows, and I didn’t know he was going to do this, but he played it again.  I guess that was so the audience could become familiar with it.  When it was all done, I went up on the stage to compliment and thank the performers.  I went up to the cellist and offered my hand, and he finally got it out of his pocket, as though the last thing in the world he wanted to do was shake hands with this dumb female.  He was ungracious.  I spoke to Shapey with a bright smile, and said that it was a good performance.  That was a good group, and I was smiling and I wanted to look pleased.  I complimented him, and said that I didn’t know he was going to do it twice.  He said, “Well, why not?” and he turned on his heel and walked away.  So you can get some funny experiences!  All the more reason why I don’t like to bother conductors.

BD:   Is it a good idea to perform the piece twice in succession?

Wylie:   Not necessarily.  It depends on what the occasion is, and what kind of an audience you’re expecting to have there.  Sometimes it might be good.
  I wish Shapey had told me ahead of time that he was going to do it, because it was a surprise to me, and it left a bad taste in my mouth afterwards, like I had committed some kind of an indelicate indecency.  The performers weren’t at all gracious with me afterwards.

BD:   That’s too bad.  Is there a competition amongst composers?

Wylie:   [Sighs and then laughs]  It’s dog-eat-dog!  I have less success getting my works performed by these new conventions of women’s associations than I do just sending stuff off to places to where men and women can apply, or can submit works.

BD:   Why is that, or do you know?

Wylie:   I don’t really know, but I have some ideas.  For one thing, it’s because so many of the women composers live in the New York area, or the Los Angeles area, or possibly Boston or Washington, the big cities where the big performing groups are, and where all the influence is.  So they have their ear to the ground, and they get the commissions.  They know of the awards, and they get known.  Bernard Rogers, from the Eastman School had the same trouble to a lesser extent.  He said that all they did was pass the bean bag around. 
I’ll let your student get a Pulitzer this year, if you’ll let mine get a Friedheim Award next year.  Now, these women are passing their bean bag around.  They know each other, so they say things like, Judith Zaimont had one piece done last May by this group, so let’s let Marga Richter have it this time.  I’m way out in left-field, out in the boonies.  That’s one reason.

BD:   Are there simply too many composers today?

Wylie:   There aren’t too many composers.  There are too many composers to have them all performed, but I don’t think you could ever have too many composers.  The more people that are trying to write good music, the better the world is as far as I’m concerned.  Think what else they could be doing!

BD:   [Laughs]  Getting into trouble, you mean?

Wylie:   Yes, or committing crime.  I’m being a little facetious, but trying honestly to do something creative is never bad, and the more people doing it, the better it is for our world.  On the other hand, there are far too many for them to all get heard, and get performed, and be successful.

BD:   Despite all this, are you optimistic about the future of music?
Wylie:   [Thinks a moment]  I’m frightened of the future.  One of my former students just talked to me on the phone a couple of days ago.  She was my student only in the sense that she already had a Bachelor’s degree, and was about forty years old.  In the meanwhile, she had four children, and came into an identity crisis in her life where she wanted to leave her husband, and throw all the kids out, and just devote herself to music, because all those years she hadn’t been doing anything for herself, or realizing herself.  So, she packed up and came out here and studied privately with me all day long for two weeks.  So I consider her a student of mine, because from then on, she’s been writing music like crazy.  She went and took a Master’s degree at U. of M. after that.  She said she’s going to buy a computer, and the special electronic gear you need to do electronic music, and synthesizers.  I thought I’ve lived too long, because it’s just out of my ken.  I didn’t have the opportunity.  I like instruments where you can feel the human pulse, or the human breath, or the human vibrato.  You can get some wonderful effects with the electronic gear, and it’s very exciting, but it just isn’t for me.  It frightens me a little bit to think that maybe, before too many years, you won’t ever hear a flute unless it’s amplified.  They had somebody on a television program this morning playing electronic bagpipes.

BD:   My goodness!  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Frederick Fennell.]

Wylie:   This was a top-notch bagpiper from Scotland, and he played.  Then another fellow played an instrument which also had a little bag which had a zipper.  He lifted up the flap of the bag, and there were all these dials!  [Much laughter]  He played the same little tune, and you couldn’t tell one from the other.  I thought again that I’ve lived too long!  That’s frightening, and it’s devastating!

BD:   Have you got any advice for those of us who have to live in this new world of 1986?

Wylie:   Just hang in there is all I can say!  There are things that worry me a lot more than what music is coming to, like what they’re doing to the Earth for one thing, and the whole drug scene, and the crime, and the psychopaths.  Yesterday in Denver, a young boy about twelve years old, was riding his skateboard in front of his house.  A guy comes along in a car with a rifle, and just shoots him, and goes on.  So many of those things are happening now, so there really are more worries than what music is coming to... although I am frightened about the fact that it’s not going to be done by humans anymore.  That’s a great loss in my opinion.

BD:   What should be the ultimate purpose of music?

Wylie:   Some of the things I was trying to describe earlier about why I write music, and what I am trying to communicate.  It should be creative, and it should be aesthetic.  It’s an art form, and it should be Art.  Aesthetic principles should be involved.  One should work with things like balance, and proportion, and continuity, and aesthetic qualities as well as emotional qualities.  It should be sincere, and try to communicate, and it should try to be beautiful.  It should try to be understandable.  It should try to be real and true, and even in twentieth century idioms, it can be all those things.  It’s just that so many people don’t dig it because they’ve made a big jump.  The last thing that they can listen to without freaking out is Debussy, and then they jump over to some of the things that are being written today, and it’s just too much of a shock to them.  They can’t grasp the beauty that
s there because there’s too much in between that they didn’t get a chance to become familiar with.  They have to grow into it.  I can remember a time when I thought contemporary music was stinko!  When I first had my season ticket to the Detroit Symphony, it took me a while, believe it or not, to accept Stravinsky.  I can’t believe that now, but it was what happened.

BD:   You opened your ears?

Wylie:   Yes.  It was not too long, but soon after I heard a couple of pieces, for instance, the Firebird Suite, which might have been his least shocking one in those days to somebody like me.  After a couple of years, you’ve heard it three or four times, so you know what it’s going to sound like.  You can hear things you didn’t hear in it before.  Familiarity is a very important aspect of learning to like contemporary music, whatever century a person would be contemporary in.

BD:   It
s been fascinating talking with you.  I’ve learned a great deal.

Wylie:   Well, I don’t hold back in expressing myself and my opinions.

BD:   That’s good!

Wylie:   When you get to my age, you feel they’ve only got a few more years to do anything to me.  I can be the old lady in the tennis shoes.  I can say some things more aggressively, and project more with greater impunity than I could twenty or thirty years earlier.

BD:   Thank you for sharing all of this with me, and I want to thank you for being a composer.

Wylie:   Do you compose, too?

BD:   No, I haven’t done any composing.  I’m an old bassoon and contrabassoon player.  I’ve been at the radio station for about ten years, announcing classical music and interviewing opera singers, and conductors, and composers.  My interviews are on the air, and they’re also published in a few magazines.

Wylie:   That’s more gratifying?

BD:   I can be more help to the contemporary performer and composer that way.  I’ve long been an advocate of new music, and done as much pushing as I possibly can for all kinds of things.

Wylie:   Good!  We need a lot more people like you.  I certainly appreciate this opportunity.

BD:   I’m glad we’ve been able to chat.

Wylie:   It’s been a pleasure.

========                ========                ========
----        ----        ----
========                ========                ========

© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on August 27, 1986.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB ten years later to celebrate her 80th birthday.  This transcription was made in 2023, 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.

*     *     *     *     *

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.