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
BD: 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
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
minutes — and so I do get down to the Boston
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
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
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
or in Timbuktu?
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
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,
and Maine — so I have
access to an enormous amount of music. And then, as I say, I get
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?
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?
certainly do. Often times symphony orchestras will pay their nod
twentieth century by doing something by, say, Stravinsky. I know
Stravinsky a little bit, but I also listen to that, too. Without
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
indeed. Beethoven and Haydn particularly are probably very great
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.
BD: Do you feel
that your own music is part of a
lineage of composers and compositions and styles?
MJZ: Yes, 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.
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
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
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
BD: Do you
purposely build in this leeway, or is it
just automatically there?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
completely toss it out?
been done! [Both laugh]
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?
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
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
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
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.
naming any names, do we have
composers either writing today or recently who are on the
level of Bach and Mozart and Beethoven?
a moment] I don’t know. I don’t this is a fair question
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?
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
about my heroes of the twentieth century who are
ones who have passed away already such as Benjamin Britten and
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
at time probably didn’t help him.
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
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?
[Enthusiastically] Oh indeed, absolutely! You certainly
can... in fact one does. It’s fun to go back and listen to your
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
quite so frightening as an empty sheet of music paper. What do
you put down on it? Where do you go from there? And
BD: 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?
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
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]
but I’m sure you are able to surmount the
MJZ: Well you
have to. It’s one of the ways where you separate the pros from
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
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?
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.
you’re working on a piece, do you work on it
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
MJZ: Yes, and
that’s very good. But when I’m at home, it’s really quiet every
BD: Is there
a time, even when you’re
at home, that you should put it aside for three days?
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
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?
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?
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
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
wanted a work around 15 or 16 minutes. Already I have that
BD: So if it
becomes 14 or 17, it’s all right, but if it
goes to 22, it’s too much?
and on that basis I can move
there ever be a time, though, when it just has
to be that 22 or 24 minutes?
sure! Then you get yourself into
BD: Do you
write a different piece and not
give them that one?
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!”
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
BD: Let me
ask you the big philosophical question. What is the purpose of
MJZ: [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
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
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
BD: You say
you’re creating. Are you
creating something out of nothing, or are you creating something out of
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
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 ’60s...
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
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
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.
didn’t really have too much to worry about, whereas today’s
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
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
composers back then only had one style. Didn’t Beethoven push
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...
could only go one way?
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
BD: Are the
parameters out there, or are there no
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.
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
BD: It has to
unfold in its own right?
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?
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.
BD: 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.
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?
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
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?
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
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
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.
just have to face the ordinary questions
of being performed.
Exactly! That’s hard
enough! [Much laughter]
talk a little bit about your friend, Carl
Ruggles. What kind of a guy was he?
MJZ: In some
ways he was a very
charming man, and in some ways a very difficult man. He was a
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
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
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?
least he was recognized, but only partially so.
BD: There are
so many composers who are not that much
true, but he wanted to be really
recognized. He wanted the world to think that he was the great
BD: He wanted
to stand along Ives?
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
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
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
didn’t he want to be known for his
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
him burn, and he would be satisfied with nothing less.
BD: Is it a
pity that he didn’t give more attention to
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
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?
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
BD: Does the
recording do his music justice?
[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
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?
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
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
before. It would probably generate some controversy. I
mean people would fight, though I guess they did when the pieces were
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
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
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
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,
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?
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.
that’s pretty universal.
MJZ: But in
the long run I feel enormously lucky in my life. Just let me keep
working, that’s all.
BD: I wish
you lots more productive years!
you, thank you very much. It’s been my pleasure. I’m
© 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
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.