Composer  Rolv  Yttrehus
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Rolv Berger Yttrehus (b. Duluth, Minnesota, March 12, 1926) is an American composer of contemporary classical music.

He holds degrees from the University of Minnesota and University of Michigan and a Diploma from the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. He studied harmony with Nadia Boulanger and composition with Ross Lee Finney, Roger Sessions, Aaron Copland, and Goffredo Petrassi. He taught at the University of Missouri, Purdue University, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, and Rutgers University.

He regards Arnold Schoenberg and Sessions as his principal influences.

--  Throughout this page, names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD 

Composer Rolv Yttrehus was visiting Chicago at the beginning of February of 1991, and we arranged to meet.  He had attended concerts by the Civic Orchestra of Chicago that afternoon and the Chicago Symphony that evening, and then came to the studios of WNIB, Classical 97, for the conversation.  Since the programming at that late hour was mostly longer works, we taped our chat for later use, and only had to interrupt the discussion a couple of times while I announced the pieces being broadcast, and took care of the other on-air necessities. 

yttrehusThe CSO had performed the Mozart Piano Concerto #24 with Radu Lupu, as well as the Concerto for Orchestra by Paul Hindemith and the Symphony #3 of Franz Schmidt.  Neeme Järvi was the guest-conductor, and as it happened, two of the works were recorded during the performances that week, and later were issued on a Chandos CD [shown at right].  I mention all of this because Yttrehus brings up the details of the concert a couple of times during the course of our conversation.

Being on the airwaves for so many years, I would regularly ask my guests to pronounce their names.  It was especially important this time since his name was unusual and unfamiliar to me. 
He said, Rohlf EET-rah-hoose.  In Norway it’s ERT-rah-hoose, but of course you can’t say that in English.  I repeated it in the Norwegian version and he commented, You’ve a good ear.  My parents were born in Norway, and I was born in Minnesota.

With that, we commenced the question-and-answer session . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You are both composer and teacher.  How do you divide your time between those two very exhausting professions?

Rolv Yttrehus:    That’s a good question.  You’re dependent on your teaching schedule.  Rutgers has been very good to me from that point of view.  I have a reasonable load, so I can’t complain.  If I complain at all, I’ll make up excuses for not getting work done.  [Laughs]  But I can’t really complain.  Ideally one could spend all our time composing of course.

BD:    I was going to ask if you got enough time to compose, so I guess the answer would be no?

RY:    The answer’s no all right. 

BD:    Which courses are you teaching these days?

RY:    Just theory and composition, counterpoint, sometimes orchestration, harmony.

BD:    Do you feel the students who are coming along are really worthy of you using this magnificent tool of harmony and counterpoint?

RY:    [Sighs amusingly]  It’s an interesting way you put it.  Once in a while, yes.  Once in a while they’re some gifted kids who come along.  I’m going to make a distinction now between those who decide to compose and just the general music student.  A lot are gifted performers I’ve dealt with, and occasionally I get a composer.

BD:    Are you encouraged by what you hear coming from the pens and pencils of the students?

RY:    Yes, enough to make it worthwhile. 

BD:    Do you ever get ideas for your own compositions from things that you see them doing?

RY:    That hasn’t happened yet that I’ve noticed.

BD:    Maybe subconsciously?

RY:    No, that hasn’t happened.

BD:    When did you decide that you had to be a composer?

RY:    In my teens I was a jazz player, and it’s hard to say when I started.  I was in the Navy, and started studying music on my own then.  As a child I played drums.  Even in Kindergarten I was fascinated with music from about four years old and on, but I didn’t really get serious until my late teens and college really. 

BD:    Did you feel you were going to be another Buddy Rich?

RY:    I was a great admirer of Buddy Rich, yes, as a matter of fact and Gene Krupa, but once you discover the vast world of great music of all times, jazz starts to fade a little bit.

BD:    It’s still good but it’s insufficient?

RY:    Yes, that’s a good way to put it.  However, once having been a jazz musician it becomes a part of you, and it can help develop one’s music.

BD:    In listening to the recordings of your music, I would hesitate to put the word ‘jazzy’ to any of it, though.

RY:    No, I think you’re right.  I don’t either.  There was a reviewer once who reviewed my orchestral piece, Espressioni per Orchestra, which is not exactly a jazzy title.  He found elements of 1950s jazz in it, and that’s because he didn’t know that 1950s jazz was borrowing from 1910 Vienna music of Schoenberg, Bartók, and Webern.  One of the first new music pieces I heard was Hindemith Woodwind Quintet from the Kleine Kammermusik.  Tonight at the Chicago Symphony concert, they played the Hindemith Concerto for Orchestra, which excited me very much.  It reminded me of the time I heard that Woodwind Quintet.  Up until then I only heard Ravel and Debussy and French modern music.  But with the Hindemith I suddenly realized there’s a vast world.  I then knew Schoenberg was important, but hadn’t heard any of his music yet.

BD:    What is it that makes Schoenberg so important that you put him at the top?

RY:    He’s the guy that burst open everything.  He did what had to be done, and left exciting possibilities for generations after to follow.

BD:    This is twelve-tone music?

RY:    Yes.  He wrote music closely related to twelve-tone music.  Then Roger Sessions
Second Symphony is a work that made me want to be a composer.   He, of course, learned much from Schoenberg.  I eventually studied with Sessions later on.

BD:    You had sessions with Sessions!  [Both laugh]  Nicolas Slonimsky uses that phrase quite often in his editions of Baker
’s Biographical DictionaryHave you left the jazz world completely, or have you left it for another side of your output?

RY:    Oh, completely.  There’s so much around.  One of the nice things about teaching is that you’re forced to do certain things that you might not otherwise work on.  And it helps you, too.  One is constantly trying to become a better musician.

BD:    You say that Schoenberg made all of this possible.  Is Schoenberg still making all of this possible?

RY:    For those of us who know music, he’s a springboard from which we can go.  It can take quite different forms.  In New York there’s someone who writes for The New York Times under the name I won’t mention, who was putting down atonal music a couple of Sundays ago.  But he just doesn’t understand.

BD:    How much does the general public that goes to concerts understand about non-tonal music?

RY:    Not very much.

BD:    Should they understand more?

RY:    I wish they would.  [Laughs]

BD:    How do we bridge the gap?

RY:    Play more of it and play it well!  Radio stations like yours could do more.  Good radio stations can, and are, a big help sometimes.  Unfortunately the public station in New York is playing awful stuff. 

BD:    They’re becoming more of a classical juke-box?

RY:    You’re right, yes.  A lot of it is easy-listening kind of stuff.

BD:    Is Mozart really easy-listening?

RY:    No.  He can be treated that way, and he is treated that way, I’m afraid, but there’s too much meat in there for it to be easy-listening.

BD:    Is there enough meat in your music to make it special to dig into?

RY:    I hope so.  [Laughs]  I had the occasion recently to hear a tape of my orchestra piece Espressioni.  It’s a piece which was written in 1961, and I was quite pleased with it.  It had substance, and is well worth repeated listening, which is really encouraging especially for an old piece.

BD:    Is this something that you purposely write into the music, or does it just happen to be there as the music becomes constructed?

RY:    You try to write the best piece you can at that stage in your life, and that means there’s always a counterpoint.  All of the notes have to react against other notes.  I can’t just dash things off, and I can’t put in padding.  All the lines have to have some kind of relationship to the other lines and to other voices.

BD:    So they’re all inter-meshed?

RY:    Yes.  Counterpoint is the thing that separates a man from the boys, if one may still use that metaphor!  [Both laugh]  So when you look at students, the ones that are really good musicians can do counterpoint, and understand how this dissonance has to resolve to this consonance, and understand relative densities.  Some people could be surprised here, but that even works in twelve-tone and eight-tone music.  The relative densities of contrapuntal linear impulses are what give the music its moment by moment life, hence it’s overall span-life of a given piece.  If a performance is sluffed over the details on page two, and then ignores more details on page six and some more details on page twenty, the piece gets watered down and the performance in itself is like just one more piece of modern music, and everyone goes,
ho, hum.  But on the other hand, I had an occasion in New York while I was there to hear a Juilliard Orchestra play the Schoenberg Violin Concerto with a student.  They had three students who knew the solo violin part by heart.  They didn’t need music, and they chose the best of those three to play the solo.  All the details were there.  Paul Zukofsky was conducting, and after it was over the audience went wild.  It was so exciting.

BD:    So even atonal music that is not particularly understood, can still make a visceral impression on an audience?

RY:    Absolutely, if it’s well played and the players understand it and get across what they understand.

BD:    Do you feel that players are understanding more and more?

RY:    A few.  Some of them are suffering from what one might call the
path of least resistance syndrome.  They don’t want to bother with things that are too difficult.  Sometimes the good ones get what a friend of mine referred to as a ‘giggie’ attitude towards reality.  They’re very, very good, so they’re able to bring off something or other without too much work.  In some ways, in that sense, it’s better to have a dedicated student who will do more than just the gig, and really get into it.

BD:    That sounds like they’re just going for the easy affects.

RY:    Yes, but there are some wonderful players.

BD:    What advice do you have for the young composer coming along today?

RY:    It’s a kind of feeling that once you want to do it you just have to.  You can’t help yourself.  If you think you want to do it so that you become famous, you’re in trouble.  You have no control.  Keats said if you court fame, she disappears.  You can’t do that.  You have no control over how much your music is going to get played, or how ‘famous’ you’re going to become.  You just have to write the best music you can, and hope for the best.  You hope not to just be demolished, as I’ve seen happen to a couple of my students when things didn’t go the way they thought they would.  They just became bitter overnight, and that’s too bad.  It’s dangerous to feel that sense.

BD:    So you have to develop a thick skin?

RY:    Yes, and you should be constantly growing as a musician.  Ipso facto, music isn’t just what you write, but music is what your friends write, what Schoenberg and Webern wrote, what Beethoven and Bach wrote, what I heard tonight, for example, at Chicago Symphony.  I enjoyed that.  You just grow as a musician, and all music can be something that supports you in those down moments when no one’s playing your music.

BD:    Do you accept all the composers of music as being part of this fabric?

RY:    Yes, in a sense, but not in the sense that I like all their music.  There is a lot of music to be heard today which I don’t like at all.  

BD:    Is it safe to assume that you like music that you write?

RY:    I do very much, yes... which is a good sign, a helpful sign.  If I’ve set a piece and then begin worrying about that piece, if I have to set it aside for various reasons such as teaching, then I get this scurry to come back to it.  Then, when I’ve poked at it for a while, I give it a kick and then it comes to life.  It is then that I realize what I was doing, and I’m pleased and excited, which is a good thing.  If it weren’t that way, it wouldn’t be so rewarding.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are the pieces you write on commission, or are they just things that you simply have to get down on paper?

RY:    I’m writing an orchestra piece now, which so far hasn’t been commissioned but I just want to write an orchestra piece.  I haven’t written a full orchestra piece for a long time.  The other recent piece was a commission, a sonata for cello and piano.  It was commissioned by the music department at Stony Brook in New York.  My Sonata for Percussion and Piano was commissioned by a wonderful percussion player in New York City, and my Quintet was commissioned by the Da Capo Chamber Players, who play a lot around New York and a lot and all over the country.  

BD:    Does it make a difference to you if you’re working on a commission with a deadline, or if you’re just writing it to get it done because that’s the piece you want to create?

RY:    The deadline helps to get it done faster.  When you’re in New York, there are many concerts going on.  Your friends’ music is being played, and there is other music you want to hear.  You could end up going to concerts every night, and sometimes when I get one of those deadlines, I have to tell my friends,
“If I’m not at your concert, don’t feel hurt because I’ve got a deadline.  It’s very time consuming to try to go to all the music you can hear in New York.

BD:    Is there too much going on?

RY:    I don’t know if it’s too much, but it’s too much if you try to keep up with everything.

BD:    How is one supposed to select which concerts you’re going to go to, or should everyone simply pick a series and just take their chances?

RY:    I know pretty much who I’m interested in, so if I see such and such a composer whose music I like, I try to go to that; or if it
s someone I’ve heard about and don’t know.

BD:    Then it’s a curiosity thing?

RY:    Partly, yes.

BD:    Are we getting enough new audiences?

RY:    Not dramatically.   I wish there were.  It seems to be stable all the same, I guess.  I was encouraged this afternoon when I went to the Chicago Civic Orchestra because they did the Bruckner Eighth Symphony.  I was pleased to notice a large number of young people there in that audience.  Of course, it’s a young orchestra.

BD:    That orchestra of young professionals attracts that sort of crowd, which is very good.

RY:    But the Bruckner Eighth is not exactly teenybopper piece. [Both laugh]  They were there, and they listened, and that’s encouraging.

BD:    Was the performance solid?

RY:    Wonderful.  And the Juilliard experience that mentioned earlier was first-rate.  The halls were filled, and the response was enthusiastic.

BD:    What advice do you have for audiences to come to more new music?

RY:    To approach a work openly.  With Philharmonic subscribers in New York, they have a set line.  Anything after 1900 they just sit there and fidget.  I call them
middle-brow philistines.  If they would just listen with an open mind and with a decent aesthetic, and give the poor guy the benefit of the doubt and listen sympathetically, a good performance of a good piece will intrigue them.  Of course this is not the problem when you’re talking about the great masters like Bartók and Webern and Schoenberg and Stravinsky, and etc., etc.  But when you go to a concert with all new pieces, the chances of one of them being a masterpiece... well, that’s one of the problems.  When you hear a great master, like Webern or Schoenberg or Stravinsky or Bartók played well, anyone who is willing to be sympathetic and listen with an open mind and be receptive, instead of expecting it to sound like Beethoven, or expecting to sound like Wagner, which is a silly thing to do.  When you’re listening to a good performance of a piece by Beethoven or Wagner, as far as you’re concerned that’s the only music that exists.  There is no other music.  How dare you be a composer because Beethoven is.  But then you have to get out of that sphere and forget Beethoven.  Like today, this Hindemith was a wonderful piece.  If you listen to that with openness and went along with it...  I wanted to scream with joy after the piece was over.   The audience surrounding me was just applauding politely.  They didn’t respond quite the same way as I did.  They don’t have the depth, I guess, to go beyond. 

BD:    Should the music of Hindemith and Bartok, or even Beethoven and Mozart, be for everyone?

RY:    No, and it isn’t.  I sometimes wonder about these little scenes at the Philharmonic Hall in New York.  I hear fidgeting and shuffling through an Elliott Carter piece, and then when a Beethoven piece comes along, I realize these people don’t understand Beethoven, either.

BD:    But at least they like it.

RY:    They must go there for some reason. [Both laugh]  It’s easier to get a grasp of certain things without going very deeply into the piece.

BD:    But obviously they’re not going to analyze the structure and the form and the content.

RY:    No.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you feel that you’re part of a lineage of composers?

RY:    I think so.  I feel there’s a definite line.  It’s very interesting...  Roger Sessions, with whom I studied, studied with Ernst Bloch, and he told me that Bloch had told him that he could trace his teachers
— who taught whomall the way back to Johann Sebastian Bach.  Whether that’s true or not I don’t know, but it’s kind of a nice idea, I suspect.  I studied with Sessions, and all my students can stream all the way back in the eighteenth century.  But of course that’s not really the way the tradition is transmitted.  It’s transmitted through the scores.  You study the scores, and I do indeed feel part of a tradition. 

yttrehusBD:    Just like some of the great performers are not necessarily great teachers of the performance, some of the composers are perhaps not great teachers of composition.

RY:    That’s true, yes.

BD:    Is there a special knack to teaching composition?

RY:    Well, you really can’t teach it, actually.  What you do is sort of coach it.  You’ve done it for a longer period of time than the student has, so you’ve had more experience and you notice things.  Even then you have to be careful, as what looks like a mistake can be just some little quirk of his personality that you should let be there.  So it’s tricky sometimes.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  You’re not trying to make a bunch of clones of your music?

RY:    [Laughs]  No.  A couple of times there’ve been students who imitated my music.  That, of course, pleases one, but sometimes you have to try to wring a few notes.  Sometimes you can see signs of life and you suggest that maybe he could hold that note a little longer, and then add this note, put a sforzando here.  Working with the material they present to you it can come to life, but other times it just sits there, inert.  No matter what you do to it, you can’t get it to move, and those are the ones who are really hard to get to.  It’s a hard thing to deal with sometimes.

BD:    Obviously you can’t teach creativity.

RY:    No, you can’t, any more than you could teach anyone how to write a poem.  But you can coach it, and even inspire it sometimes. 

BD:    Have you had some winning composers?

RY:    I’ve had some that have gotten some performances and that are starting to get played.

BD:    Oh, that’s good.  Do you teach differently for a student who wants to make a career in music as opposed to one who just wants to dabble in it, or learn just a little bit about it?

RY:    Most of the students I deal with are what we call ‘music majors’, so they’re going to be trying to be professional performers, or they’re going to try to maybe even teach in public schools.  I get some who do that, and a few who want to do be composers.  Sometimes I get some gifted students in a harmony course who are in another field entirely
medicine or mathematics — and I teach them pretty much the same as I would a music major.  Occasionally you make some adjustments because in a sense you should.  It would be demanding for the non-major.  But it’s interesting about this atonality.  I find in each generation of students that comes along, the most gifted ones tend to be drawn towards the atonal side of things.  They’re the faster ones who will have the least resistance.

BD:    It seems that today we’re having a resurgence of tonality.

RY:    Oh, yes, it’s awful.

BD:    Awful???  Why?

RY:    [Hesitates]  Tonality died quite a while ago.

BD:    We’ve put a stake through its heart?

RY:    Yes, we did, I guess.  Everyone says the beginning of Tristan is the end of tonality.  That’s where it ends, and that’s probably true.  You can’t resurrect a language that’s part of the past, and the
proof is in the pudding.  If you hear some pieces written now that try to be tonal, it sounds like movie music.

BD:    So then anyone who is writing with a key signature is wasting their time?

RY:    No, not necessarily.  It depends on what you mean by wasting time.  They might be played because a lot of orchestras now will take a piece like that because it doesn’t require much rehearsal time, and they can prove that they’re playing so-called modern music.

BD:    Is it wrong, then, for the managements of symphony orchestras and the chamber groups to even attempt to hear what these composers are saying?

RY:    Oh, no.  I just wonder what is happening with those who decide what music is being played now, and maybe that’s going to be changed in five, six, ten years.

BD:    There was a piece in The New York Times recently about that.  It said that it used to be the Music Director, the conductor, who would do all this selecting, but now, partly because they’re often absentee and/or doing guest conducting around, they leave that task to the General Manager, who becomes the musical decision maker.

RY:    Yes.  Those aren’t the best people to choose repertoire.  It is too bad when that happens.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you basically pleased with the recordings that you have been made of your music?

RY:    I wish the Sextet had a faster tempo.  [Both laugh]

BD:    A lot or just a little?

yttrehusRY:    A little faster.  They are good players, and it could have been better, but it comes off pretty well.  The Louisville recording of Gradus ad Parnassum comes out very well.  Generally speaking, yes, I would say I am pleased. 

BD:    The recording of Angstwagen had better be right because you conduct it!

RY:    Yes, right.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Are you the ideal interpreter of your music?

RY:    [Thinks a moment]  It’s strange with Angstwagen, which is a piece for soprano and percussion.  It really never got off the ground until I started conducting it myself.  Then it caught on and it’s gotten played quite a bit.  Otherwise, no, I am not necessarily the ideal conductor.  I’m a part-time conductor out of necessity, and someone who does that all the time and is conscientious about it can do a better job than the composer would do.  For example, Robert Black in New York
‘conducted’ my Quintet.  Notice I say ‘conducted’.  One of the problems with a lot on chamber music is that it’s hard enough so you need someone there to conduct it, which is too bad.  It’s nice to have pieces that are played strictly as chamber music.  But he did a magnificent job with it.

BD:    Would it perhaps be the ideal situation to have the five players work on it a little bit, then have the conductor come in and polish it up, and then disappear?

RY:    Yes.  Maybe that’s what the people do with the Schoenberg Woodwind Quintet which was considered unplayable for a long time.  It was first played with a conductor every time, and now it’s played routinely without a conductor.  So there is progress.

BD:    Is there ever a case where a performer or a conductor finds things in your score that you didn’t even know you’d hidden there?

RY:    One of my students pointed out something once to that effect, yes.  It hasn’t happened very often, but I can think of that one instance.

BD:    How much interpretation do you build into your music?  How much leeway do you expect on the part of the performers?

RY:    It should be quite rhythmically accurate and strict, because if there’s rubato, the rubato would be often written in.  On the other hand, you can’t just play the notes.  If it’s supposed to have ferocious sound, it should be ferocious.

BD:    I assume, though, you don’t want every performance just to be carbon copy of every other performance?

RY:    Oh, no, no.  A good player will add his or her own personality to the piece which, in an ideal world, will work.  When the player catches on to what you’re doing, his or her musicality becomes a part of that, and it comes across.  It’s a good performance.

BD:    Do you write all of these details into your score, or do you just hope that everyone will understand?

RY:    That
’s a good point.  If you try and write every little nuance, you end up writing an encyclopedia that has to go along with the scores.  To some extent you have to hope that they’ll understand.

BD:    Hope and trust?

RY:    Yes, because there is only so much the composer can do.  You can put in a hairpin, crescendo marks for dynamics, but can’t say not to use any vibrato the last microsecond of this note.  [Both laugh]  That sort of thing is just impossible.  Sometimes when you suddenly point out things to a player, they will understand.  In the Cello Sonata, for example, the piano played something and the cello played the same thing later on, and they should have had the same kind of effect.  They didn’t notice that until I pointed it out to them, and when they noticed it, the whole passage came to life.  That can happen in any music, because when you’re looking at a hard new piece, you see a bunch of notes and you play these notes.  After a while it starts to make a shape, make a phrase, and this note has a higher priority than that note, so it’s at an arrival point.  Those things come out later on in the work.

BD:    You say some notes have a higher priority.  I assume, though, that no note is irrelevant?

RY:    No, no note is irrelevant, right.

BD:    Have you ever thought of leaving a little chart with each piece saying to be sure and notice this is related to that, and give them a road map?

RY:    As a matter of fact, I did that when they played my piano piece called Explorations for Solo Piano.  The chart showed that this phrase at page five comes back on page sixteen inverted and was the same kind of gesture.  So if you notice it’s the same kind of gesture, you will show it and the listener will hear the connection.  Unfortunately my colleague didn’t bother looking at those charts.  He just kept plowing through it.  I wish he would have noticed...

BD:    You should have gone up to him and taped him on the shoulder.

RY:    [Laughs]  Yes.

BD:    Aside from this instance, are you basically pleased with the live performances you hear of your music?

RY:    Up until recently I’ve been quite pleased, yes.  Some things haven’t come off well yet, but I’m hoping that I’ll get good performances in the future.

BD:    Are you being too fussy?

RY:    No, I guess the pieces are getting harder.  It depends.  In one instance it was just a player who is very competent, but she didn’t take the work seriously and sort of faked it.  It was a disaster.  It was especially trying because she’s very good and she could have done a wonderful job.

BD:    That’s too bad.  Is it safe to assume that you and most other composers write just a little ahead of the understanding of the performer?

RY:    I think that’s probably true of any demanding composer.

BD:    And then, of course, the performers are always a step or two ahead of the audience, so that means the lag time is going to be several generations.

RY:    It’s true, yes.

BD:    So now your music of a few years ago should be coming into its own?

RY:    It should, yes.  My Angstwagen was played again recently.  My Music for Winds, Percussion, Cello and Voice, which is an old piece, was played a year ago last summer, and it’s coming out on a CD.

BD:    Do you ever go back and revise old scores?

RY:    There are things I’d like to revise, but it’s hard to do.  In Gradus ad Parnassum, there is a place where I would like to revise.  I have a passage where I use a cantus firmus from Johann Joseph Fux’s counterpoint book.  [Sings]  Re, Fah, Me, Re, Sol, Fah, Lah, Sol, Fah, Me, Re, which every counterpoint student uses, but the trouble is I spread it out registerally so no one recognizes it.  Now I can’t figure out why I did it.  [Both laugh] 
It just doesn’t come off right, so I’ll have to try and fix it.  You find that if you fix something in measure five, you have to go back and fix it in thirty-three, and then you have to change it over in measure fifteen, too.  The piece is really put together in an integral way, so if you knock it askew here, everything else goes askew in the end.

BD:    It sounds like it’d be better if you write a different version of that same work.

RY:    That’s practically what a friend of mine, who also studied with Roger Sessions, did.  In one of his lessons, Sessions said to him,
That C# there is all wrong.  You can’t have a C# there.  So he went home and put some other note there, and then he added other changes.  He ended up rewriting the whole movement.  When he brought it back to Sessions, he said, That’s much better.  It started with just that one note.

BD:    At least in Sessions’s ear, that put him on the right track.

RY:    Yes, right.

BD:    Is there a right track for any piece of music?

RY:    I think there is.

BD:    Is there more than one right track for any piece of music?

RY:    That’s a different question.  [Laughs]  Listening to the Mozart C Minor Piano Concerto this evening, it just sounds like there’s nothing that had to be exactly the way it is.  The more I hear Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, that has to be exactly the way it is.  The two pieces are of quite different styles, quite different periods, but everything’s in place.   The Rite of Spring to me is just right.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    We’ve been talking about pieces which are perfect, or at least perfectly constructed.  Should we only to concerts and hear pieces that are perfectly constructed?

RY:    No.  It’s good that you asked that question.  There should be some adventure in this sort of music.  If you listen to a wide variety of music, you’re bound to listen to pieces that aren’t masterpieces, and sometimes they have very rewarding things in them.  There’s the Schmidt that I heard today, for example.  I didn’t know the work, and I don’t know yet if that’s a perfect work, but there are a lot of things in it that I enjoyed very much.

BD:    So it’s good that we rediscover some of these things?

RY:    Yes.

BD:    What is it that makes any piece of music a masterpiece?

yttrehusRY:    Well, that’s quite a question!  [Laughs]  I would say a masterpiece is something that generation after generation finds rewarding.  [Thinks a moment]  It’s hard to tell; it’s hard to say.  This is a profundity.  I remember the third time I heard the Beethoven Opus 127 String Quartet I was thunder-struck by it.  Not the first time, not the second but the third time.  The easy word ‘profundity’ comes to mind.  There are pieces that Beethoven wrote, that Wagner wrote, that Mozart wrote, that Schoenberg wrote, that Stravinsky wrote that had that quality.  It takes a philosopher I guess to answer that question.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Then let me ask the big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of music?

RY:    I don’t know.  I’m not a philosopher.

BD:    [Pressing gently]  But you’re a musician, so it’s something you think about.

RY:    It’s something you want.  It’s this expression of energy, somehow.  Energy distributed well.  [Thinks again]  I call my orchestra piece Espressioni per Orchestra, Expressions for Orchestra.  I guess I am a reconstructed expressionist.  I feel part of that period of the Second Vienna School, which for me goes back to Wagner and goes back to Beethoven.  I get expressionistic things in Beethoven where things aren’t just ‘pretty’.  I don’t like ‘pretty music’.  Beethoven could write nasty music, and in my Gradus ad Parnassum I deal with that in a sense.  Part of that recording I sit at the piano and improvise, and get really carried away, and rant and rave, and pound away at the keyboard.  Sometimes it has a hilarious effect, and so I decided to put that into a piece of music.  I would use that as a battery that would propel the piece, and then I would get text from Nietzsche and from Fux to sort of justify this terrific rage.  Also it turned out that Ancient Greece had the same justification because of the Oracle at Delphi.  There’s a priestess called Pythia who sat on a tripod over a crevasse at the foothills of Mount Parnassus from which some gas escaped that made the goats go crazy.  The shepherds got a high on it, too.  They decided there was something, so they put this priestess about it, and she would sit there ranting and raving, and spewing nonsense.  The priests would
interpret what she said, and that’s what I did with my own rantings and ravings.  It got to be the wild, uncontrolled Dionysian rantings and Apollonian control and balance.  I think a great work of art has that, like Beethoven has that, just a fury about everything right there.  It never gets carried away in the sense that it’s always under control.  So that’s what I was trying to achieve in Gradus ad Parnassum

BD:    When you’re sitting there and you’ve got the paper in front of you, are you always in controlling everything that goes on the page, or are there times when the pencil seems to control your hand?

RY:    Very often I find that the piece takes on a life of its own, which goes against my plan.  When that happens, usually it’s a good thing.  I usually let it go.

BD:    Let it work itself out?

RY:    Yes.  For instance, in my Quintet, the piano part is very difficult.  I originally wanted it to be just a nice comfortable chamber music part for a pianist.

BD:    But not pretty?

RY:    Not pretty.  Maybe pretty but not only pretty.  But it kept getting wilder and more registry expanded.  I thought maybe it was a concerto, but then I realized that it had developed its own inner life, and that’s what it wanted to do.  So I let it do that, so to speak.  So there it is.  Yes, it’s a hard part, but I think a rewarding one.

BD:    You mentioned you don’t want your pieces necessarily to be pretty.  Would it offend you if someone comes to you and said that such and such a piece, or such and such a passage was pretty?

RY:    No, it wouldn’t offend me at all.  [Laughs]  I’d be very pleased that they’d found something, or they could use that idea.  What is ‘pretty music’ anyway?  I’ve heard some Salon music that was pretty...

BD:    What you’re trying to say is that you don’t want it to be trite.

RY:    Yes, that could be another way of putting it.

BD:    I was reading through some of the papers you sent, and one said that a group played the Music for Winds, Percussion, Cello and Voice, and then took it back and used that for their party music.

RY:    Yes.  [Both laugh]  That’s the most amazing review I’ve ever had.

BD:    It would seem that’s not really appropriate for a party.

RY:    Well, they seemed to think it was.  [More laughter]  And of course I’m delighted.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  You should start writing ‘party music’.

RY:    [Smiles]  If it could be that kind, yes.

BD:    Another review used the phrase ‘Let the timid beware’.  Do you want only the strong to really understand your music?

RY:    I saw that in the Fanfare Magazine review of the recording of Gradus ad Parnassum.  He’s responding to the wild carryings on I did.  I refer to them as ‘Lieder Recitals of the Dionysian Muse’, and he’s referring to that.  They’re kind of embarrassing for me.  I get carried away to such an extent that you blush when you hear it.  But I think it works well in the piece because I edited all the stuff down from about twenty minutes to three  or four minutes.  I was playing material that became the twelve-tone row on which I built the piece, so I tried to integrate that into the piece.  In the first one you get a vague hint of D minor in there, believe it or not.

BD:    The key of death???

RY:    Yes, right.  [He laughs]  It
’s just the sense of it, and then I introduce that with two notes, D and F on orchestral chimes, tubular bells.  Then when the second one comes back, it’s F# and A.  If you put those together you get a D minor triad then a D major triad.  I try to integrate it in there, but he was referring to the wildness of that.  That’s exactly the idea I want to try to get across.

BD:    Obviously this reviewer had understood what you were trying to do.

RY:    I hope so, yes.  When Nietzsche talked about chaos, he says if you’re going to create a dancing star, you have to have chaos in spite of yourself.  Later on he says you must organize the chaos in yourself.  So that’s how the piece has a happy ending.

BD:    Speaking of this particular work, tell me the joys and sorrows of including the human voice in your music.

RY:    Gradus is sung by a super musician named Catherine Rowe.  She can sight-sing anything, and this piece is very difficult, with skips of minor ninths and other wide skips.  She sang just beautifully, very lyrically.

BD:    Has she got absolute pitch?

RY:    Yes, she does have absolute pitch.  She sang very lyrically and expressively, which it should be, and it went very well.  She did a beautiful job.  In this case the structure of the piece was determined by the text.  I choose texts that extol the virtues of chaos, and which will tell you that chaos must kept under control.  It comes from the Fux counterpoint book, too.  He’s complaining about the corruptness of the times, which he should, though our times are even more corrupt than his.

BD:    Is your music corrupt?

RY:    I don’t think so yet.  I hope not, but I don’t know.  Maybe I’m not the one to judge.  I write what I want to write, and I don’t write what I don
’t choose to write.  Anyone who’s ever been a composer knows you write exactly the music you want to write, and do as well as you can.  You can’t be trying to please others.

BD:    So you write for yourself?

RY:    Yes, that’s what any artist would do.

BD:    Is composing fun?

RY:    Sometimes.  Once in a while, yes.  Mostly it’s just agony.  Sometimes it’s just agony, and then when you burst through a hard spot, then it’s fun, yes.

BD:    So in the end it is worth it?

RY:    Oh, yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Tell me a bit about the QuintetUrsula Oppens is the pianist on that.

yttrehusRY:    Yes, she’s a very good player.  That’s the piano part I said that got bigger than I intended.  I let it grow to be that.  When you hear it, you’ll hear it’s a wild part.

BD:    The other instruments are violin, clarinet, flute, and cello?

RY:    Yes.  It’s the ensemble that Schoenberg used for Pierrot Lunaire.  He uses doublings which I don’t, but it’s become a standard ensemble.  For example, the Da Capo Chamber Players consists of that instrumentation.

BD:    So you get a major masterwork written in a certain instrumentation, and that becomes the standard?

RY:    It did in this instance, yes.  It’s interesting you should say that.  I can’t think of another instance where that has happened.

BD:    It’s usually the other way round
— a group becomes standard, and then people write for it.

RY:    Yes.  The string quartet was the most successful of those ensembles, and that grew as the composers wrote for it.

BD:    Then your Sextet is for a different group?

RY:    Yes.  The strings are highest and lowest, so there’s violin, double bass, trumpet, horn, piano, percussion.

BD:    But you bring them all together, and they sound good as an ensemble?

RY:    Yes.

BD:    Do you ever used odd instruments, or build your own instruments like Henry Cowell (1897-1965) or Harry Partch (1901-1974)?

RY:    I’ve never been drawn in that direction.  Mr. Partch made some beautiful instruments. 

BD:    But you do work with tape...

RY:    Yes, I have worked with tape in that Gradus ad Parnassum piece.  I have to laugh when they call it the world’s first sub-audio melody.

BD:    Sub-audio melody?  A melody you can’t hear???

RY:    Yes.  Recently in the electronic studios, you can tune the keyboard down below the bottom of the piano, so it keeps sinking until you get down on twenty cycles, and you don’t hear the pitch anyway.  Instead, you hear these thumps.  I have a fragment of a whole tone scale which sounds like a bunch of thumps
[sings to illustrate the quick tempo]  bup, bup, bup, bup, bup, bup — and that pitch becomes a new tempo. [Sings more bups in compound time]  You try it with electronics, or a computer now, but still electronic.  So I have worked with tape, but I haven’t for some time now.  I may go back and do some more.  We have some wonderful equipment at Rutgers including a Synclavier which I want to learn.

BD:    Everybody talks about that, and it sounds like it would be a wonderful machine.

RY:    It’s sort of geared towards a commercial musician, but you can bypass that.  It’s flexible enough so you can do serious things with it.

BD:    Now we have the electronic machine doing something that should be human.  Are we dehumanizing the music at all?

RY:    It depends on how it’s used.  I like to think that when I used it, it was just another tool.  You could describe the mechanism of a piano and it would sound like you’re describing a machine.  [Muses a moment]  It does happen in commercial music.  I get so irritated by the drum machine that is sounding when you go into a store.  You hear the idiotic music they play in the ceiling in grocery stores.  There’s a drum machine, not like a bass drum but just that machine, and these feeble-minded pop musicians accept that.  They don’t question it.  They don’t even notice it.  The good jazz trumpeters like Cootie Williams (1911-1985) would use a ‘wah-wah’ mute as an integral part of the phrase, and it’s wonderful music.  These new guys now just turn these filters on and they go ‘wah, wah, wah’ without listening.  They don’t listen.  I call them
‘dumbbell pop musicians’.

BD:    You listen intently, and you listen with the trained ear, and with a sense of recognition of everything that’s going on.  The ‘Average Joe’ who goes to the concert can’t be expected to grasp all these things, so perhaps the ‘dumbbell pop musicians’, as you call them, have to hit their audience over the head with things to make them realize and appreciate it?

RY:    No, I don’t think that’s the case.  Popular music didn’t used to be dumb.  It used to be for adults.  I refer to your question about the machine and dehumanizing.  That’s dehumanizing when you just turn a machine on and don’t listen to it.  If you play an instrument, you have to do it yourself.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

RY:    Milton Babbitt has given many lectures about the unlikely survival of serious music.  I find more and more of the signs that he’s turning out to be right, and it’s very scary.  There was a recent article by Donal Henahan of The New York Times against atonal music.  He’s another guy whose doing everything he can to put down the highest levels of music making, and go for the middle, easy ground.  Carnegie Hall’s celebrating its hundredth anniversary, and they had a brochure about it.  Henahan complained, and went on about atonal music, referring to it with some political term like ‘totalitarian’.  Carnegie Hall should be striving for the highest levels of art, and he is coming out with this philistine kind of talk.  It is really depressing.  Carnegie Hall and The New York Times should be the standard bearers instead of the ones that drag it down, looking for the easy path.  So I’m not optimistic in that sense.  But, on the other hand, I did hear that wonderful concert last summer in the Juilliard, and that was a heart-warming experience, so maybe there is hope.

BD:    I hope there’s hope.

RY:    I hope there’s hope too because the impulse to make music is a strong one.  By that I mean to make real music, music that you want to make, not something that you know will please someone.  That’s the difference between an entertainer and an artist.   There are a lot of young kids now that’re getting played by the big orchestras, who admit they’ll find out what people want to hear, and they write that.  That’s too bad, and the music sounds that way, too.  That’s what I mean when you asked earlier about tonal music, and I said it’s terrible.  You were surprised, but I meant the pieces I’ve heard which are just that kind of thing, really.  They find out what orchestras will play and they will write the kind of music that they think can get played.

BD:    In the ‘60s we used to call that ‘selling out’.

RY:    Yes.  [Both laugh]  Sometimes they are selling out.  It’s just they don’t have any convictions.  If you don’t have any convictions, it’s not selling out.  You’re just a shallow person who writes shallow music.

BD:    Let me play devil’s advocate just for a moment.  Some of the music of Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is dense and derives from serial techniques, but most of his famous works are tuneful and accessible.  Are we not getting the same kind of thing today?

RY:    The pieces I’ve heard don’t come anywhere near in quality to what Copland did in his conservative music.  I studied with Copland at Tanglewood one summer.  I wanted to study with Milton  Babbitt, and when I went to Tanglewood I thought I was going to choose.  But I didn’t have a choice.  Copland wanted me to be his student, and it turned out to be a wonderful situation.  He’s a wonderful teacher.  He understood what I was trying to do.  My music is quite different from his, but he got right at the problems.   He was familiar with polytonic music, so he was a very good teacher.  We got along well.

BD:    Let me get you to speak just a little more about Roger Sessions.

RY:    I heard his Second Symphony on the radio back in 1947, and the whole world opened up for me.  I hadn’t heard any Schoenberg then, so I heard this piece and never heard anything so exciting in my life.  I was determined to study with this man.  So I got a job teaching at the Lawrenceville School right near Princeton, and studied privately with Mr. Sessions for three years.  By then, as a teacher he was less interested in teaching, so I learned more from his music, but didn’t get it from actual lessons.  On the other hand, sometimes he was very helpful.

BD:    Do you feel talking with almost any composer brings you a little bit closer to the music that they create?

RY:    I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  Sometimes... It depends on how much you can talk to them.  You can’t have it in casual conversation.  With Sessions I got to know him well enough so that I guess you could say that would be true.

BD:    This is what I try to do with these programs.  I present some music, and then people hear some of the thoughts and ideas, and the vocalization of the composer seems to help to bridge the gap. 

RY:    Yes.  There is another aspect to your question.  Sometimes you hear a piece by someone, and it will sound just like that person.  I’ve gone up to them afterwards and said,
That just had to be your piece.  That can happen.  It’s very interesting when they write the music just like their personality.  People have sometimes been surprised how violent my music is because they think I’m a gentle personwhich I am — but they’re surprised that it’s so ferocious.

BD:    You store it up and let out the violence that’s within you on the page rather than in your personality!

RY:    I guess, yes.

BD:    It’s safer for your colleagues.  [Both have a huge laugh]  One last question.  As you approach now your 65th birthday, are you at the point in your career where you expected to be, or have there been some huge surprises?

RY:    I’m not quite ready for it.

BD:    No one ever is.

RY:    I think of myself as being about, oh, fifty-three or thereabouts.  Then I want to stay fifty-three for about a decade, but it doesn’t seem to work out that way.
  I wish my music were played more, but other than that it’s about where I would have expected it to be.  I’d like to have gotten more music written.  I’m getting faster at it now, which is good.  It’s always been such a struggle, but you do learn.  A friend of mine said that no one writes anything good until they’re at least fifty, which is an interesting idea.

BD:    So then theoretically you are just really hitting your stride?

RY:    Yes, I like to think that.

BD:    Well, I hope we get lots more pieces from your pen.

RY:    Thank you.

I’m glad you’ve been able to make this trip to Chicago.

RY:    Oh, I am too.  My pleasure.

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© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in the studios of WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago on February 2, 1991.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB seven weeks later, and again in 1996; on WNUR twice in 2011, and also on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2011.  This transcription was made in 2016, 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.

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.