Composer Rolv Yttrehus
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Rolv Berger Yttrehus (b. Duluth,
Minnesota, March 12, 1926) is an American composer of contemporary
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
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
The 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
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 . . . . . . . .
You are both composer and teacher. How
do you divide your time between those two very exhausting professions?
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
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?
courses are you teaching these days?
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
amusingly] It’s an interesting way
put it. Once in a while, yes. Once
in a while they’re some gifted kids who come along. I’m going to
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.
you encouraged by what you hear coming from the pens and pencils of the
enough to make it worthwhile.
BD: Do you
ever get ideas for your own compositions
from things that you see them doing?
hasn’t happened yet that I’ve noticed.
RY: No, that
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
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
still good but it’s insufficient?
that’s a good way to put it. However,
been a jazz musician it becomes a part of you, and it can help develop
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
for generations after to follow.
BD: This is
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
Slonimsky uses that phrase quite often in his editions of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary. Have
you left the jazz world completely, or have you left it for another
side of your output?
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,
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
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.
becoming more of a
right, yes. A lot of it is
easy-listening kind of stuff.
BD: Is Mozart
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
the occasion recently to hear a tape of my orchestra piece Espressioni. It’s a piece
which was written in 1961, and I was
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
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.
they’re all inter-meshed?
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
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?
Absolutely, if it’s well played and the players understand it and get
what they understand.
BD: Do you
feel that players are understanding more
few. Some of
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.
sounds like they’re just going for the easy
RY: Yes, but
there are some wonderful
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
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
can, and hope for the best. You hope not to just be demolished,
seen happen to a couple of my students when things didn’t go the way
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
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
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
RY: I do very
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?
writing an orchestra piece now, which
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
all over the country.
BD: Does it
make a difference to you if you’re
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?
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
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?
BD: Are we
getting enough new audiences?
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.
orchestra of young professionals attracts that sort of crowd,
which is very good.
RY: But the
Bruckner Eighth is not
teenybopper piece. [Both laugh] They were there, and they
BD: Was the
Wonderful. And the Juilliard experience that
mentioned earlier was first-rate. The halls
were filled, and the response was enthusiastic.
advice do you have for audiences to come to more new music?
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
the problem when you’re talking about the great
masters like Bartók and Webern and Schoenberg and Stravinsky,
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
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
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.
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
obviously they’re not going to analyze the
structure and the form and the content.
BD: Do you
feel that you’re part of a lineage of
RY: I think
so. I feel there’s a definite line. It’s
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 whom — all
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 through the scores. You study the scores, and I do
indeed feel part of a tradition.
BD: 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.
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
[Laughs] No. A couple of times there’ve been students who
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
do to it, you can’t get it to move, and those are the ones who are
hard to get to. It’s a hard thing to deal with sometimes.
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
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
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
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,
[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
is wasting their time?
RY: No, not
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
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?
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
about that. It said that it used to be the Music Director, the
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.
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
BD: A lot or
just a little?
RY: A little
faster. They are good players, and it could
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.
recording of Angstwagen
had better be right because you conduct it!
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
BD: Do you
write all of these details into your
or do you just hope that everyone will understand?
a good point. If you try and
write every little nuance, you end up writing an encyclopedia that has
go along with the scores. To some extent you have to hope that
BD: Hope and
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
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
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
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
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...
should have gone up to him and taped him on the shoulder.
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
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.
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.
BD: So now
your music of a few years ago
should be coming into its own?
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
BD: Do you
ever go back and revise old scores?
RY: There are
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,
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
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.
practically what a friend of mine, who
studied with Roger Sessions, did. In one of his lessons,
Sessions said to him, “That C# there is all
can’t have a C# there.” So he went home and
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
Sessions’s ear, that put him on the right track.
BD: Is there
a right track for any piece of music?
RY: I think
BD: Is there
more than one right track for any piece
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,
everything’s in place. The Rite of Spring to me is just right.
been talking about
pieces which are perfect, or at least perfectly constructed.
we only to concerts and hear pieces that are perfectly constructed?
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
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
BD: What is
it that makes any piece of music a
RY: 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.
gently] But you’re a musician, so it’s something you think about.
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
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
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
like Beethoven has that, just a fury about everything right
there. It never gets carried away in the sense that it’s always
control. So that’s what I was trying to achieve in Gradus ad
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?
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?
Yes. For instance, in my Quintet,
the piano part
is very difficult. I originally wanted it to be just a nice
music part for a pianist.
BD: But 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
to do. So I let it do that, so to speak. So there it
Yes, it’s a hard part, but I think a rewarding one.
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
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
you’re trying to say is that you don’t want it to be trite.
RY: Yes, that
could be another way of
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.
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.
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’.
[Smiles] If it could be that kind, yes.
review used the phrase ‘Let the timid
beware’. Do you want only the strong to really understand your
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
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
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.
Speaking of this particular work, tell me the joys and sorrows of
human voice in your music.
RY: Gradus is sung by a super musician
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
BD: Has she
got absolute pitch?
RY: Yes, she
does have absolute pitch. She
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
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
and do as well as you can. You can’t be trying to please others.
BD: So you
write for yourself?
that’s what any artist would do.
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
Quintet. Ursula Oppens is the
pianist on that.
RY: Yes, she’s a
very good player.
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
The other instruments are violin, clarinet, flute,
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
in a certain instrumentation, and that becomes the
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.
usually the other way round — a group
becomes standard, and then people write for it.
Yes. The string quartet was the most successful of those
ensembles, and that grew as the composers wrote for it.
Then your Sextet is for a
Yes. The strings are
highest and lowest, so there’s violin, double bass, trumpet, horn,
BD: But you
bring them all together, and they sound
good as an ensemble?
BD: Do you
ever used odd instruments, or build your
own instruments like Henry Cowell (1897-1965) or Harry Partch
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
Parnassum piece. I have to laugh when they call it the
world’s first sub-audio melody.
melody? A melody you can’t
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
some more. We have some wonderful equipment at
Rutgers including a Synclavier which I want to learn.
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
that should be human. Are we dehumanizing the music at all?
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
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,
without listening. They don’t listen. I call them ‘dumbbell
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
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
atonal music. He’s another guy whose doing everything he can to
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
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
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
please someone. That’s the difference between an entertainer and
an artist. There are a lot of young kids now that’re
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’.
Yes. [Both laugh] Sometimes they are selling out.
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
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
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
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
ideas, and the vocalization of the composer seems to help to
bridge the gap.
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
my music is because they think I’m a gentle person — which
I am — but they’re surprised that it’s so
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,
safer for your colleagues. [Both have a huge laugh] One
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
I’m not quite ready for it.
BD: No one
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
RY: Thank you.
glad you’ve been able to make this trip to
RY: Oh, I am
too. My pleasure.
--- --- --- ---
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
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.