Composer / Author  Marilyn J. Ziffrin

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



At the end of June of 1994, Marilyn Ziffrin returned to Chicago, and she graciously took time from her schedule for a conversation.  We spoke of her music and ideas, as well as her other area of study, the composer Carl Ruggles. 

Bruce Duffie:    How did you happen to decide to leave Chicago and go to New Hampshire?

Marilyn J. Ziffrin:    Well, two reasons.  One of course was Carl Ruggles.  I wanted to spend time with him, and I did.  I spent a year with him.  The other reason was even more important in the long run.  I had the feeling that, as a composer, I should go East.  I had this mistaken conception that if I moved to New Hampshire, I would be close enough to the metropolitan areas of both Boston and New York, that I would be able to get down there very easily.

ziffrinBD:    I take it that didn’t work out?

MJZ:    No, as a matter of fact, it did not!  But, in fact, there was another reason.  I was accepted at the MacDowell Colony.  My first visit was in 1961, and I really did fall in love with New Hampshire.  It is exquisite country, and I had the idea of settling out there in the peace and quiet of the countryside.  I felt simply at home, and there are a lot of artists who had done the same thing
— not necessarily in music but painters and so forth.

BD:    Is it particularly conducive to the creative juices that have to flow? 

MJZ:    In truth the answer I have to say is no, because you work a great deal in isolation.  But it is true that you can get to Boston
in my case from where I live in about ninety minutesand so I do get down to the Boston Symphony a great deal.  It is also true that I can get to New York in an hour and a half on the airplane, or even drive down in about five or six hours.  And it is at least close enough to commute by train.  But I had the feeling that I simply had to move on from Chicago and try out new territory, and this was a territory that felt most congenial.  I have simply always loved the East from the time I was a kid, and I had the feeling that this was where I belonged, and I’m not sorry I moved.  I was born in Moline, Illinois, and still have close relatives there.  My brother’s there, but I just think I’m an Easterner at heart.  I don’t quite know what that means, but I’ve always felt comfortable in the East.  Composition, in any case, is a solitary activity, and you can write it anywhere.

BD:    So you can choose exactly where you wish to settle down?

MJZ:    Precisely!  I had taught here, and I wanted to move on to teach somewhere else.  I just had this feeling that it was time to try somewhere else, and the natural place for me was to go east.

BD:    Is the music that you write your music, or is it influenced by whether you are in Chicago or in New Hampshire or in Timbuktu?

MJZ:    Oh, that’s an easy question to answer!  It’s mine, it’s absolutely mine!  I’m influenced by the music I hear, I’m sure, and by the music that I have studied.  I’ve studied a lot, but it would be the same if I lived in, as you say, Timbuktu.  It would still be me!  So I think you’re right
you just pick where you want to live and write the stuff.

BD:    So you’re influenced by what you hear, but not so much by the green around you or the concrete around you?

MJZ:    No, I don’t think so.  It’s what I hear and what I had heard.  I try very hard to hear a lot of music.  In New Hampshire you don’t hear very much live, but you do by public radio.  I probably could not live there if I did not have access to public radio.  We have in New Hampshire only one professional symphony orchestra but where I live I can get three different public radio stations
Vermont, New Hampshire and Maineso I have access to an enormous amount of music.  And then, as I say, I get to Boston within an hour and a half.

BD:    On the radio, do you pay particular attention when new pieces are being played by symphony orchestras or chamber groups?

MJZ:    Yes, exactly.  I subscribe to all three, get program guides, and if there’s a new contemporary piece, or even a contemporary piece that I think I even know, I make a point of being around to hear the piece and really listen.  A lot of people put the radio on and they don’t listen, but I listen!

BD:    Do you get a lot out of re-hearing pieces you know?

MJZ:    I certainly do.  Often times symphony orchestras will pay their nod to the twentieth century by doing something by, say, Stravinsky.  I know Stravinsky a little bit, but I also listen to that, too.  Without that access it would be very hard to live in New Hampshire but with it, it’s great, it’s wonderful.

BD:    Do you also listen to Haydn and Beethoven and Schubert?

MJZ:    Oh, indeed.  Beethoven and Haydn particularly are probably very great influences on me, and have been for years.  I studied for an advanced degree in musicology at the University of Chicago, and one of my major professors was probably one of the greatest teachers I ever ran into, a guy called Grosvenor Cooper, who was a Beethoven specialist, and that mattered very much to me.

ziffrinBD:    Do you feel that your own music is part of a lineage of composers and compositions and styles?

MJZ:    Yes, I do.  I think my music is in the tradition.  We’re not talking now in terms of whether I am as good  or as bad as they are, but yes, I don’t think my music is out of the tradition.

BD:    You live on their street?

MJZ:    I think so, yes.  My music sounds like the century in which I live, and I would not want it to sound any other way, but it’s also within the tradition.  I’m one of those people who believe in structure very much, and while I certainly experiment with sounds and use what other people might call dissonances and modern harmonies, it seem to me it’s very much in that line.

BD:    When you’re writing a piece and putting some notes on paper, are you always controlling what goes on the page, or are there times when you see something on the page and you don’t know where it came from?

MJZ:    It’s a very good question!  There are always surprises.  I have described being a composer very much like being an athlete.  You get in training as an athlete and when you’re composing you spend so many hours a day doing your composition, your thing.  When you’re in training, the wheels are greased and it moves, and when it moves sometimes you don’t know where it’s going and you are indeed surprised.  Then you have to be your own worst critic and use an eraser as well as a pencil, and that’s dreadfully important.  Then this is one of the joys
— as performers take up your piece, they will find things you didn’t know you had put in.  As they make the music their own, they don’t change the notes, don’t misunderstand me, but they discover things that you didn’t know were there.  If the piece is good, it has that quality so that the same piece can be played by many different people and have different interpretations.  That’s really one of the great joys.

BD:    Do you purposely build in this leeway, or is it just automatically there?

MJZ:    It’s automatic.  If you’re in training and it goes well, it gets in there and I have no idea how.  For me, this is one of the tests of whether a piece works or not.  If it works, then it will have that quality, and you may not even know it exists.  In fact you can’t know it.  That ability to move around within those parameters does not happen until the performers take it.

BD:    Do you know as you’re writing it whether it’ll work or not?

MJZ:    Oh, yes!  That is the mark of a good composer
to be your own worst critic.  Yes, you have to know if it’s going to work.  If you don’t know that much about a piece, then you have some studying to do.

BD:    Studying of technique?

MJZ:    Studying of technique, self-study, studying of what you’ve done.  You really have to stand back every day and understand what you did yesterday is either good or bad, or has possibilities.  I’m very, very serious about the use of an eraser.  You have to willing to know you thought it was wonderful yesterday but today we have to erase it.

BD:    It wouldn’t be back to being wonderful next week?

MJZ:    If you really feel it’s no good, it won’t get back to being wonderful.  If you’re not sure, give it a chance, but if you really know the next day it’s no good, get rid of it.  You can’t fall in love with your own stuff.  You have to stand back and know if it is good or bad.  You can make a judgment.  This is terribly important.  I had a teacher who said that everybody can learn to be an acceptable composer.  There are rules just like there are rules of writing poetry and so forth, and if you study long enough, everybody can do it.  Everybody gets ideas.  People sing in the shower, and those are motives.  Those are nice little tunes and things that may be their own.  Techniques will teach you that, and then the X quality comes in.  But as a composer, you have to be able to know what you did and that there are flaws, and maybe you can fix the flaws.  If you can’t, is the piece still good enough to stand on its own two feet?  If it isn’t, then you have to get rid of the piece!

BD:    Just completely toss it out?

MJZ:    It’s been done!  [Both laugh]

BD:    When you’re working with the piece and tinkering with it and you have all of the notes down and you’ve fussed with it, how do you know when it’s ready and when you can give it away?

MJZ:    Oh, that’s the best question of all!  If you think I know the answer, you’re wrong.  I don’t!  I once asked a poet how he knows when a poem is over, and he said,
When they take it away from me!  [Both have a huge laugh]  I don’t know.  I write syntactical music, music where one thing follows another and follows another and follows another, like language.  There are other ways to write music, like music of chance or aeleatoric music where you don’t have that thing.  But mine is syntactical, therefore you set up certain sound expectations as you write.  One seems to know the piece is over when those expectations have been fulfilled, so I suppose that’s a technical way in which you know.  Another way is that they take it away from you!  In all truth, one is never totally satisfied with the piece.  Every piece has certain flaws, and it’s just that you know that you’ve done the best you can at that moment.  You hope nobody else knows that those flaws are there, and if you’re honest with yourself you think that even if I didn’t do so well at this point, this is the best I can do now.  When I do the next piece, I won’t make that same mistake.


BD:    Is it even humanly possible to write a  piece without flaws?

MJZ:    I personally do not think so, but of course when I look at somebody like Bach, for example, I wonder.  Not Beethoven because I can point out flaws in Beethoven.  Bach is a little more problematic.  Maybe he did, I don’t know.  I don’t think so. 

BD:    I was going to nominate Mozart...

MJZ:    This is fair, yes.  In today’s world maybe there are composers who think they’ve written pieces without flaws?  I would certainly be the last one to say that about my own music.

BD:    Without naming any names, do we have composers either writing today or recently who are on the level of Bach and Mozart and Beethoven?

MJZ:    [Pauses a moment]  I don’t know.  I don’t this is a fair question because they lived so far back and we could look at their work as a whole, study it over so many years, and study their techniques with no emotional baggage that we’re carrying looking at it. 

BD:    In other words, the most recent music that we can study now would be, maybe, Debussy or early Stravinsky?

MJZ:    Exactly!  I may be wrong on this but I don’t see towering figures on the landscape today.  I see good composers, don’t misunderstand me.  I can only speak about my heroes of the twentieth century who are ones who have passed away already such as Benjamin Britten and Charles Ives. 

BD:    Carl Ruggles too?

MJZ:    I have mixed feelings about Carl as a composer.  As a man there is no question that I have very strong feelings about him.  I loved him and I hated him also at the time sometimes!  I think Carl managed to write probably a masterpiece in the Sun-Treader, but almost all of the other pieces have flaws.  Though he certainly had a lot of it, his lack of training and his lack of self-criticism and his inability to criticize too seriously for too long at time probably didn’t help him.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    We’ll come back to Ruggles a little later.  I want to mostly talk about you and your music first.  You were saying that you can’t really fall in love with your own music.  Once it is out there and published and is no longer part of you, then can you fall in love with it?

MJZ:    [Enthusiastically]  Oh indeed, absolutely!  You certainly can... in fact one does.  It’s fun to go back and listen to your music you’ve done, say, ten or fifteen years ago.  You listen to it and you know that it stands up.  There are some weaknesses, but you’ll stand by it, and that’s fine.  It’s fun, but you dare not do that while writing the piece.  I’m quite serious about this.  You absolutely dare not do that while you’re writing the piece.  You really have to be very critical.  You will like certain things, and some things work when the juices are flowing.  You come back to it two or three days later and you think this really works, and there’s this enormous sense of satisfaction.  But if the piece isn
’t over, at the same time you have that sense of satisfaction you also have this terrible sense of having to do something that matches it!  That’s a tough thing.  I’ve often said there’s nothing quite so frightening as an empty sheet of music paper.  What do you put down on it?  Where do you go from there?  And that’s scary! 

ziffrinBD:    Is it as scary as having a full sheet of music paper and you don’t know whether to let it go or still play with it?

MJZ:    The empty sheet is scarier.  If you have the full sheet and you have really good critical faculties, you’ve got some hints on where to go.  But an empty sheet has no ends.  In my case, once something is down, if it has validity there are within it suggestions of where to move.  The issue is whether I am smart enough to let the music tell me where to go.  If there’s nothing down there, then I’m in trouble!  [Both have a huge laugh]

BD:    Ohhhh, but I
’m sure you are able to surmount the trouble!

MJZ:    Well you have to.  It’s one of the ways where you separate the pros from the amateurs.  You have to, and you do.

BD:    Are the pieces you write on commission, or are they things you just have to write?

MJZ:    It’s a combination of both.  I’ve been doing it for so long that I’m happy to say a lot of commissions are coming in.  People are asking me to write the music, but there are things to write whether anybody commissions  them or not, on the hopes that I will find performers who would be interested in playing them.  So at the moment it’s a nice combination of the two.

BD:    Do you work on more than one piece at a time?

MJZ:    No, no.  Just one.  I’m not one of those people who can deal more.  There are composers who can handle more than one piece at a time, but I can’t.  I’m too concentrated.  It’s got to be that, and then I move on to the next.

BD:    When you’re working on a piece, do you work on it every day?

MJZ:    Yes, every day possible.  If I have to take a trip or something, then of course I don’t.  But if I’m home, the answer is yes, Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays, the whole bag.  I usually work in the morning.  I’m a morning person.

BD:    You don’t bring it with you on trips and maybe tinker with it on vacation?

MJZ:    No, but I think about it a lot. 

BD:    Let it steep?

MJZ:    Yes, and that’s very good.  But when I’m at home, it’s really quiet every day.

BD:    Is there a time, even when you’re at home, that you should put it aside for three days?

MJZ:    There probably is a time when I should, but mostly I just deal with it.  Life itself interferes in terms of those two or three days.  There are always do-days and social engagements and so forth, that sometimes will mean I’m not going to be able to work tomorrow.  So there are interferences like that.  But on the blotter I work regularly.

BD:    When you get a piece finished, you can set it aside or give it to whoever has to take it from you.  Do you plunge into the next piece right away, or do you give yourself a little bit of a break?

MJZ:    I generally try to give myself a small amount of break, but again it depends.  If I have more work that is piling up on me, then I may plunge right in.  But one works when even when one isn’t working, if you know what I mean.  If you’ve got something on your mind, it churns by you walking down the street or grocery shopping or whatever.  So you do work even when you’re not working!  While often times I would take a break from one piece to the next, there are times when I don’t have to.  It really depends on whether somebody is out there waiting for it, whether it’s up to me, and what life will do. 

BD:    When you start working on a piece, are you aware of how long it will take to compose?

MJZ:    No.  That can be a bit of a problem.  What I always try to do is give myself more time than I think it will take.  I’m usually wise to do that because so far I’ve always been able to meet all my deadlines without any problems.  I wouldn’t like to have to write something in a hurry.  I’m sure this doesn’t hold for other people, but in my case, forcing something would make it turn out to be less well done than I could do it.

BD:    Do you know when you’re starting about how long it will take to perform?

MJZ:    That’s a parameter I make ahead, yes.  For example, the piece I’m working on now is a clarinet concerto, and when I was asked to do this, I was told that they wanted a work around 15 or 16 minutes.   Already I have that parameter.


BD:    So if it becomes 14 or 17, it’s all right, but if it goes to 22, it’s too much?

MJZ:    Exactly, and on that basis I can move ahead.

BD:    Will there ever be a time, though, when it just has to be that 22 or 24 minutes?

MJZ:    Oh, sure!  Then you get yourself into real trouble!

BD:    Do you write a different piece and not give them that one?

MJZ:    I guess... I don’t know.  It hasn’t happened with me.  I start out with certain parameters, and in this case it’s the soloist versus the orchestra, and it’s that length.  I arbitrarily decided it was going to be a three-movement work.  I was not going to have a cadenza in the first movement because everybody has a cadenza in the first movement.  I’m going to delay it to the opening of the second movement.  All these things are a result of simply sitting down and trying to figure what the parameters are.  I haven’t had that problem of writing a piece that extends beyond, or a piece that’s too short.  There is that famous story about Stravinsky.  When the city of Venice commissioned a work from him to open up the Teatro Fenice, it turned out to be a very short piece.  They wired that because they were paying him so much for it, it should longer.  He cabled back and said,
I could make it longer, but I couldn’t make it better!

BD:    Good answer!

MJZ:    Wonderful!  But I haven’t run into that so far.  I guess I’m just one of those plodders who do what they tell you to do, which is fine.  I have no arguments with that. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask you the big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of music?

ziffrinMJZ:    [Thinks a moment]  That’s a biggie!  I could answer you with an equally philosophical statement,
Man does not live by bread alone!  I really do think every human being, whether they choose to admit it or not, has an inner life, and it seems to me that music, serious music, deals with the human inner life, not the outer life.   It won’t make you richer by any means but it will make you bigger.  There’s a wonderful poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay called The Concert, in which the woman is talking to her lover and she says, Do not go to the concert with me,” because she wants to go by herself to hear the music and not be distracted by the man she loves.  But she says, Don’t worry, I’ll come back to you, but I will come back taller.  I think that’s the purpose of music.  I would even go so far as to suggest it’s probably the purpose of art, and that ain’t a bad purpose!

BD:    Of course not!  What advice to you have for younger composers coming along?

MJZ:    I would say to the young composers, work , work, work, and don’t be discouraged.  You may or may not make lots of money, but the joy is in the doing, and it really is a joyful endeavor.  If you make it your life, you will know great, great joy.   You may be poor, you may be rich, it doesn’t really matter.  The act of composing is really very thrilling because you’re creating something.  There aren’t very many people who do that.  It’s really a wonderful thing.

BD:    You say you’re creating.  Are you creating something out of nothing, or are you creating something out of something?

MJZ:    You’re creating something out of something.  You don’t do it in a vacuum.  What you do is you hear all kinds of sounds
sounds of streets, sounds of jazz, all kinds of musics and all kinds of sounds.  Then, if you have that creativity within you, and the guts, and the stick-to-it-ness, and all the rest of it, you take all of that and it gets mingled with your personality and comes out sounding like you.  I don’t think it comes out of nothing, I really don’t.  It has to come out of other sounds.  But they can be all kinds of sounds.  They don’t have to be any one kind.

BD:    At least from what I’ve been able to hear, you have consistently written music that derives from tonal centers.  Are you glad that we seem to be coming back to that in a general sense?  We seem to have lost it in the

MJZ:    Yes, that’s interesting.  There are my conservative friends and they’re not tonal sinners.  There are moments of stability to which one comes back, gestures of stability they would say, and yes, I think it’s good.  I also think, though, that it’s very hard to be a composer in today’s world because there are so many possibilities.  It was much easier when you had one style, when Beethoven and Mozart were around.  Bach already moved a little bit because he had the modes and he moved into the major-minor system.  But there were preconceived notions of what classical music would sound like, so the composer knew that ahead of time and wrote in that style.  He didn’t really have too much to worry about, whereas today
’s serious composer has so many possibilities.  There’s minimalism, there’s neo-romanticism, there’s electronic music, there’s you name it, there’s so many styles.  And no matter how difficult it is for the composer, it’s also very difficult for the listener.  A listener goes to a concert, and unless he knows the composer’s music ahead of time, he or she has no way of knowing what to expect.  When the composer sits down, there are so many styles to choose from, so what you do?  You ultimately have to be true to yourself and do whatever comes out, but for a young composer it may indeed be very difficult situation.  I have fortunately gone beyond that, but I can see that it’s not in any way an easy time.

BD:    You say the composers back then only had one style.  Didn’t Beethoven push that style along, and develop it, and didn
’t Wagner especially change it?

MJZ:    Yes, but by the time Wagner came along, he did romanticism to death.  They had to change it.   There was absolutely no place else to go.  But take a composer like Mozart.  There was the sonata allegro form, and he had his some of his students finish his movements for him, because...

BD: could only go one way?

MJZ:    Yes.  You had a first theme in the tonic and the second theme in the dominant, and then you had the development section.  Of course, Mozart would do that, but by the time you’d get back to the recapitulation, both themes had to come back and both themes had to come back in the tonic so you could end the piece.  So he could give them to an advanced student and have him finish it.  We can’t do that today!  You don’t have the certainty.  Also, in those days when the audience went to a concert, they knew what to expect.  Don’t misunderstand me, they could marvel at the genius of these people who were able to work within this set of parameters that everybody knew and still write absolutely write incredible and glorious music.  But they knew from when they sat down what the parameters were.  Now, somebody in the audience sits down and will wonder what she’s going to hear!

BD:    Are the parameters out there, or are there no parameters?

MJZ:    Precisely the point!  There are none.  Each piece has to set its own, or each composer has to set his or her own parameters.  So if you don’t know the previous music of the composer when you go into the concert hall, you really have to have a totally open mind.

BD:    I think that even if you knew the previous music of the composer, you’d still have to have that open-ness.

MJZ:    Precisely. 

BD:    So what advice do you have for audiences then
— just come with open minds?

MJZ:    Yes, and that’s such a stupid statement to make because obviously it’s very difficult, but yes indeed.  They have to.  It seems that they are quite willing to accept the visual with an open mind.  Those who go to art galleries and to different painting shows look at paintings by artists whom they don’t know, and again whose parameters they do not know, but they can see it at a glance.  They can see the whole.  Music can’t be observed like that!  So it’s harder.

BD:    It has to unfold in its own right?

MJZ:    That’s right.  It’s a time art rather than an instant kind of thing like that.

BD:    Don’t you think there are visual artists who wish that people would linger a little more than just glancing at it and hoping that they take it all in?

MJZ:    No question about it.  I’m being facetious about that because clearly if you really want to look at a painting you have to stand and look at it and study it.  But yes, my advice to an audience would be to come with an open mind, understand that the composer has worked very hard to create this sound structure, and he or she expects you to work that hard to get it, instead of just sitting there and letting it flow over your while you think about something else.

ziffrinBD:    This brings up a balance point.  How much is artistic achievement and how much is entertainment value either in music in general or in your music?

MJZ:    I don’t write music to be entertaining.  I write music to make a statement.  I don’t know what the statement is.  I know that sounds facetious, but if I could put it in words clearly I wouldn’t write music.  But I don’t think the purpose is to be entertaining.  On having said that, I immediately retract it because I can think of pieces that do indeed have humor in them and are written to be entertaining.  But by and large you know by their titles whether they’re to be entertaining or not.  But if you write a serious piece of music, it’s not to be entertaining.  It’s to say this is something I have to say about the human condition.  Now that may be entertaining, but I want you to listen to it with your whole heart and soul and mind.  If you don’t like it, fine, but give it a chance and maybe it will say something to you.  If it does, we’ve connected.  I don’t think that’s entertainment.

BD:    I hope we’ve gotten beyond this now, but is it still more difficult being a woman composer than just being a composer at the end of the twentieth century?

MJZ:    Yes, it’s still harder than being just a composer, but it’s certainly better, believe me.  The young women composers coming up probably will have problems, but they’ll have problems because they’re young composers, and the issue of quality would not be about being women.  But it’s still there a little bit, but for anybody to try and hide behind it is foolish.  There is some prejudice, but the issue today is to be sure you get on the proper network.  It really is networking for males and females, and if you get on, that’s fine.  There are not an enormous number of women composers out there, but the quality will arise and be recognized.  I can’t really believe that there are really superb women composers who will not ultimately be recognized anymore.  It is true, and the statistics still bear this out, that the prizes and awards from the NEA and so forth tend to be less in terms of percentage to women than men.  But it may be that’s the way the ball bounces and that they deserve it.  It was pretty bad years ago, but I don’t think it is now.  They used to say to you if you wrote strong music you write like a man.  They don’t say that anymore.

BD:    Now they just say you write strong music?

MJZ:    Yes, which is, of course, the way it should be.  Further, and I’ve heard people argue this point, but my view is that if you don’t know who wrote it, you do not know whether it was a male or female.  The issue is always quality, and it has nothing to do with male or female.

BD:    So it really does become a superfluous point?

MJZ:    I would say at this point it’s rapidly becoming that, if it isn’t there now, and I’m very happy to say that.  There are some vestiges of it, but not enough to worry about.

BD:    Great!

MJZ:    Yes, it is good, it really is good, and I’m thrilled.  I do believe that the young composers coming up will not have to face that.

BD:    They’ll just have to face the ordinary questions of being performed.

MJZ:    Exactly!  That’s hard enough!  [Much laughter]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk a little bit about your friend, Carl Ruggles.  What kind of a guy was he?

rugglesMJZ:    In some ways he was a very charming man, and in some ways a very difficult man.  He was a very stubborn, irascible guy.

BD:    How long did you know him?

MJZ:    He died in 1971, and I knew him from 1964.  I spent a year with him in about 1967, and then went back to visit him about every six weeks until he passed away.  So I knew him very well the last seven or eight years of his life.  Of course he was a very old man when he died.  He died at 95, and a lot of people thought he was senile.  That was one of the great tragedies because he was not senile at all.  He was very hard at hearing, and you had to take the time to make him hear you because he refused to wear a hearing aid.  This was an example of his stubbornness, and so you simply had to sit there and shout at him to make yourself heard.  But if you did, he was very lucid and quite bright, and not at all senile.  The last years of his life he spent a great deal of time alone, in isolation, and a nursing home.  But he always knew me, and we always had great conversations when I would come over and talk to him.  He was, I think, a marvelous painter, which he always felt was of less value than his compositions.  He felt much more secure as a painter than he did as a composer, but he was determined to be known as a composer, and made it!

BD:    So he was a success in the end?

MJZ:    Yes.  At least he was recognized, but only partially so. 

BD:    There are so many composers who are not that much recognized.

MJZ:    That’s true, but he wanted to be really recognized.  He wanted the world to think that he was the great American composer.

BD:    He wanted to stand along Ives?

MJZ:    At least, if not above!  Ives was the only American composer that he really was willing to admit was his equal, if not his superior.  They were very close friends, and Ives was a wonderful benefactor to him.  Ives sent over money for extra rehearsals when his Sun-Treader was done in Europe.  And after he died, Mrs. Ives gave him the secretary that Charlie had used, and Carl was very proud of it.  They worked in his school house home for many years.  He always said that he and Ives were the two great American composers, but the world didn’t think that.  The world thought that Ives was, but they weren’t quite sure about Carl.  There was always this doubt.

BD:    Is the world reassessing Ruggles now?

MJZ:    No, I really don’t think so, I regret to say.  He has had some performances lately, which is very nice.   The New York Philharmonic recently did the Sun-Treader.  They did it on a program with Ives, Wallingford Riegger and Henry Cowell, and they called them ‘The American Eccentrics’.  [See program shown below.]  I’m not sure Carl would have been pleased about that at all, although he’d have been delighted to be on the same program with Ives.  I since learned that the Cleveland Orchestra is going to do some of Ruggles, but I don’t think there’s any resurgence that he’s going to be played a lot all over, suddenly, forever, and all that sort of thing.  On the other hand, I don
t feel that his music is ever really gone out.  It’s just that it would get played rarely, but it would continually get played rarely.  His paintings, on the other hand, are in major museums.  Most are in private collections, but the Detroit Institute has some and the Brooklyn Museum has some.  He had well over three hundred paintings but he only had ten compositions.  That’s pretty good, you know!

BD:    Why didn’t he want to be known for his paintings?

MJZ:    He always felt that it came too easily to him.  He found out that he could make money at it, which he did, whereas composition was tough.  That made it more valuable because you fought over it, and he’d been trained as a musician.  He’s not here to speak for himself, so you have to understand I’m trying to put myself into his mind.  But he loved Beethoven and Wagner.  He used to say Wagner made them burn, and the music touched him more deeply than any painting ever could.  And because it touched him that way, he wanted to do that to other people.  That was his great goal.  He wanted to write great music.  He wanted to make people burn the way Wagner made him burn, and he would be satisfied with nothing less.

BD:    Is it a pity that he didn’t give more attention to his painting?

MJZ:    I think so because he was a very fine painter.  On the other hand, the pieces of music that he wrote are chiseled out of granite.  He worked over them and worked over them.  His whole method was trial and error, and you really had to pull his music away from him because he would never let go of the pieces.  He wrote Angels back in 1922, and in 1966 I was writing a musicological article on that work, including some of the history and so forth.  I was with him at the time and I was telling about the article, and he still wanted to change some of the notes!  I told him it was ridiculous!  It was forty-some-odd years later, but he still wanted to make some changes.  So the pieces that are extent which, as I say, are ten, are really chiseled out of granite.

BD:    Is the music all available?  Does the two-record set have everything?

MJZ:    Everything that is available, yes.  Having said that, I should say that somewhere between 1910 and 1920 he decided to destroy all of the pieces that he had written previous to that.  They had been written in the late nineteenth century parlor song tradition, and he quite literally tore them up.  What he didn’t realize was that there were a couple of songs that had been published by Gray & Company, and copies were in the Library of Congress.  They are indeed nothing but parlor songs; they’re really not good at all.  So they are the only ones that still exist that are not on those two records.

BD:    Does the recording do his music justice?

MJZ:    [Hesitantly]  Yes, I think so.  There are two versions of the Evocations on there including the one that John Kirkpatrick did, and of course he’s the definitive interpreter of those pieces.  The recording that Judith Blegen did of Toys is magnificent.  Michael Tilson Thomas has since recorded the Sun-Treader on DGG and it’s out on CD.  It may be a slightly different version but, of course, he recorded it on the two record set, too.  So yes, I would say the performances are very good.  [To read my Interview with Michael tilson Thomas, click HERE.]

BD:    Should we treat the music of Ruggles with kid gloves, or should we throw out there and let it be heard?

MJZ:    Oh, I’d say throw it out and let it be heard, absolutely!  I’d say that for any music.  What do you mean by playing music with kid gloves?

BD:    Playing it with over-reverence.

MJZ:    I don’t think any music should be treated that way.  Just throw Carl’s music out and play it and let the people respond.  It’s certainly not that dissonant anymore.  The modern day ear would find it acceptable, if not moving.  There will be some who will say it’s dreadful because it’s so tense and so tight, but there will be others who’ll wonder why they haven’t heard this before.  It would probably generate some controversy.  I don’t mean people would fight, though I guess they did when the pieces were first performed.  But that’s fine!   Carl would like that!  The more people fought about his stuff, the more he liked it.

BD:    He would rather have that than universal accolades?

MJZ:    I think probably so.  He loved fights!  He would take one side, and if he had the feeling that you agreed with him, something was wrong, so then he would take the other side.  He was sort of a natural antagonist, and he could take either side because it didn’t matter to him, just as long as there was some sort of controversy going on.  He loved controversy.

BD:    But he wanted an outcome?

MJZ:    Oh, yes, he wanted you to hear his music.  That was important, absolutely important.  Hear the music and then fight about it afterwards, and continue to hear the music.  But you need a fight.


BD:    So hear the music, then fight, then hear it again!

MJZ:    Exactly, exactly!

BD:    I’ll wear my boxing gloves next time when I have Ruggles on the turntable!

MJZ:    Oh, you should.  But you should play Ruggles, and not just you, but everybody.  It’s important.  There was a survey of music critics in the United States some years ago, and they picked out the ten most important pieces in the twentieth century written by American composers.  The Sun-Treader was among them, and that’s no small feat for a guy who only wrote ten pieces.  So play his music!  Men and Mountains is a marvelous work, and the Evocations are great.  The one song is absolutely marvelous, but it’s terribly, terribly difficult.  You have to have a really superb singer to be able to carry it across.  Judith Blegen is the singer on the LP, and I think she does a superb job.  [To read another story about Ruggles, see my Interview with Ray Green.]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

MJZ:    An honest answer to that is I rarely think about it.  I don’t know.  That’s pretty big.  Certainly I’m optimistic that people will never stop writing.  Now whether that means they write in a vacuum and nobody ever plays it, I don’t know.  There will always be this human endeavor, and I suspect there will always be good music written, I really do.  Yes, I guess I am optimistic.

BD:    Are you at the point in your career that you expected to be at this age?

MJZ:    You ask tough ones!  In truth, yes and no.  I feel very, very lucky in my life.  Sometimes so lucky that I hope the gods don’t see.  But I would like to be further along.  By that I mean I would like to have my music better known and more often performed, but I think that’s what every composer wants.

BD:    Yes, that’s pretty universal.

MJZ:    But in the long run I feel enormously lucky in my life.  Just let me keep on working, that’s all. 

BD:    I wish you lots more productive years!

MJZ:    Thank you, thank you very much.  It’s been my pleasure.  I’m delighted.


© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on June 30, 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB six weeks later, and again in 1996, and on WNUR in 2007 and 2014.  This transcription was made in 2015, 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.