Composer  Leslie  Bassett

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

In the course of doing interviews for thirty years now, I have been portable.  That is to say, I have usually gone to my guests
— at their hotels or apartments, backstage at their performing venues, or even to their homes when I have been traveling.  A few conversations were done at the radio station and the occasional other odd location, such as a quiet restaurant, an alcove in a hotel mezzanine, and even an unused conference room at OHare airport!  Then there were a few which were done at my own studio.  Having guests in my home is always a distinct pleasure, and when I could persuade a composer or performer to set aside a bit of time while en route elsewhere, I had a nice place to chat and enjoy a cup of coffee.  Later I was often able to take them out for a genuine Chicago Pizza...

When I first contacted composer Leslie Bassett, he indicated that he came to Chicago on occasion, and we agreed to meet during his next trip.  In June of 1987, he and his wife arrived at my home and we settled in for a nice conversation.  What follows is that encounter . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:     First, let me ask you about winning the Pulitzer Prize.  Has that had any great lasting effect on you or your composing?

bassettLeslie Bassett:    It brought me a better salary at the University of Michigan, which is nice, but it didn’t bring as many performances of the Variations itself as you would have thought.  You would have assumed that the orchestra piece that wins the Pulitzer Prize then would be used.  In fact, my publisher did send the score around to a lot of orchestras somewhat later, because it wasn’t published right then.  But it hasn’t had as many performances as you would have expected, and I found that disappointing.  I talked with Michael Colgrass not too long ago, and he was complaining also that his Pulitzer Prize orchestra piece had not been played a second time, or at least not more than once, until it was done by Louisiana State University when he was there as guest composer two or three years ago.  And he found this strange, a piece which presumably is considered good isn’t immediately grabbed by orchestras.  I think there’s a certain amount of promotional things that have to be done, and if you have agents and publishers who are very aggressive in this regard and feel they can invest throwing away most of the scores, then I think maybe there’s some chance of it.  But it’s a very touchy business.  But it has made a lot of difference, in fact, because when you go to a town and you’re discussed, or comments are made by local newspapers, they all know it’s the Pulitzer Prize, so they give it coverage.

BD:    How difficult is it to get second performances of anything, Pulitzer Prize or no?

LB:    It depends, I suppose, on an awful lot of things.  Young composers have an awful lot of trouble getting second performances if they don’t have a national name and if their piece was performed well by, let’s say, a good community orchestra or one of the minor major orchestras.  It’s very hard to get a second performance.  There are a lot of composers in the United States.

BD:    Are there too many?

LB:    No, not too many, but there are an awful lot of them, and they all have orchestra pieces!  There’s a lot of competition for comparatively few slots on an orchestra’s season.  Some orchestras are doing better than others, as you know, but a lot of orchestras play very little new music, even yet.  I think things are improving, but it’s not ideal.

BD:    Is there a Pulitzer Prize in music every year?

LB:    There’s a competition every year; they don’t award it every year.

BD:    I was just wondering if maybe some of the big orchestras should, say, six months after the Pulitzer Prize is normally awarded, play that work, and if there’s no Pulitzer Prize that year, then a previous one?

LB :    That would be a lovely idea.  I understand that the Albany Symphony intends to do some of the past Pulitzer Prize pieces over the next few years.  Somebody was telling me this.  It’s a good idea.

BD:    Are all of the pieces that win the Pulitzer Prize really worthy of winning?

LB:    This is a very subjective question, and a very subjective answer would be yes, I suppose.  But there’s an awful lot of variety in pieces that have won it over the years.  I think on the whole, they have all been really quite good.  I don’t know of any real lemons, for instance.  I know some that I like better than others.  There are always complaints by various people that the prize should have gone to something else, other than what did receive it.  Sometimes a very small piece of chamber music is pooh-poohed by people who wrote orchestral pieces; they think the orchestral piece should have picked it off.  The one this past year is a fairly modest score
George Perle’s Wind Quintet — which is unusual.  Of course, we know Elliott Carter’s two String Quartets have won it over the years, so there’s a lot of variety.  But it tends to go to the blockbuster piece; it tends to go to the piece that has made a big splash, which usually means orchestral playing.  [Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.]

BD:    How do you feel the afternoon of a big premiere, before the evening of a major work?

LB:    Of a premiere, especially an orchestra piece, I’m fit to be tied!  [Laughs]  My wife says I’m impossible!  She just says I can’t be put up with.  Sometimes I’ve been taken out to dinner on the evening before the premiere, and you go to the restaurant and the service is slow, and you realize you’re going to have to leave before the thing is done.  Then you dash like mad to the hall, and so on.  This can be absolutely unnerving!  It just can wipe you out.

BD:    Does it get any easier if it’s the third, or fifth, or eighth production of the work?

LB:    Oh yes.  After that, after the premiere or maybe two or three performances, the piece has to go on its own.  You’ve cut it loose, and that
’s that.

BD:    Do you ever tamper with it afterwards?

LB:    I don’t say never, but usually not.  There are times when I change the metronome marks and I’ve added a couple of measures or a fermata or something to the score.  Maybe I will put in a ritard or something like this, which seemed to improve the piece.

BD:    When you’re actually working on the piece in your workshop, how do you know when you’ve finished it?  How do you know when it’s ready to be performed?

LB:    I don’t know how I’d answer that.  It’s a matter of intuition, musical intuition.  First of all, you know how long the piece needs to be, more or less.  If you get a commission for a fifteen minute piece, you don’t write one that lasts an hour.  So you have to have some control of the amount of time that you’re dealing with.

BD:    Well, how much leeway is there?  Eighteen minutes would be okay?

LB:    Yes, sure; three or four minutes, I think, on either side at the most.  But your initial conception of the piece is the shape of the piece.  You can’t start out just writing and then just hope that you discover everything as you go along.  I suppose it’s possible, but I think it’s not a good plan.  You need to know whether you’re going to end with guns flashing, or whether you fade off into the sunset.  You need to sense where the climaxes are
especially the final climaxand whether you’ve built up toward it long enough or whether it’s a surprise.  If it’s a surprise, then can you recover from the surprise in order to reassure everybody that indeed the piece is fulfilled?  In general, our first versions of pieces tend to be too short, the endings tend to be too short.  They tend to get there a little sooner than we thought they would.  So usually revisions that happened, with me at least, tend to be extensions of the ending in one way or another.

BD:    Are you ever surprised where the piece has taken you?

LB:    Composing is just full of surprises — at least for me it is.  That’s one of the funs about it.  You never quite know what’s going to happen!  You will find spots where suddenly you discover a beautiful sound which just sort of dropped in on you that you then, of course, appreciate.  You’re also trying to tie in this sound with earlier sound, so that there’s a syntactical relationship, a continuity of language, in your piece.  But then there are surprises, things that you didn’t quite expect.  The last orchestra piece I wrote, which is called From A Source Evolving, does indeed that.  It evolves from the initial sounds, but it’s a fourteen minute piece all in one movement.  I had not done a fourteen minute piece in one movement for orchestra maybe forever.  Well actually, the Variations are longer than that, but the Variations somehow have segments in them.  And this is quite unusual because I usually write movements.  I like movements.  I think movements allow you to absorb the music that you just heard and to pack it away before the next installment comes along.  Then you feel that people maybe have remembered a little better, instead of twenty minutes without break of endless music, which is very hard to absorb.

BD:    So it’s balance and contrast, in amongst all of this?

LB:    Right, oh, yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your works?

LB:    Most of them, yes.  Usually an orchestra, if it’s going to do a piece, is very cautious about selecting it in the first place.

BD:    Are they overly cautious?

bassetrtLB:    Well, I don’t know.  Maybe.  A lot of our orchestras, even the so-called amateur orchestras or community orchestras, are full of really professional musicians.  They may not seem like professional musicians to the world at large, but they’re fully trained and they are very good!  So they can do a very good job.  Sometimes I think the main problem can come from the conductor, if he’s not quite prepared or if he doesn’t have absolute metronome.  If he violates a metronome mark noticeably, that can ruin things.  Or if he just doesn’t really know the sounds and there are errors that are played by various people, he doesn’t catch those.  Especially in the professional orchestras, sometimes a player will deliberately play a wrong note in a conspicuous passage, just to check to see if the conductor if he’s on his toes.  He pretends to be innocent, of course, but nonetheless, these are some of their little tricks.

BD:    Let me turn the question around.  Do players or conductors find things in your scores that you didn’t know you had hidden there?

LB:    No, I don’t think so.  I’ve had wonderful relationships with orchestras.  I was trained as a performing musician.  I played trombone and cello.  I played all the instruments and I feel at home with instrumentalists.  So my music seems to be written in such a way that the instrumentalists enjoy playing it.  It’s idiomatically good for them.  I don’t write passage work that is impossible at the tempo that is given, so I don’t have any difficulties in that way.  There are always surprises with each performance because each orchestra is different.  They have different balance, different people sitting there in a different auditorium, different amounts of rehearsal time, so there’s always something that seems a little stronger in this performance than in the preceding performance.  But no, I’m not surprised!  I know what I’m doing! [Laughs]

BD:    Whom do you have in mind when you’re writing?

LB:    I always write an orchestra piece on commission, so I write it for the ensemble that has commissioned it.

BD:    Do you consider the audience or the critics or anything else?

LB:    Oh, sure!  Oh, yes.  And if I don’t know the people in an orchestra, I imagine what the typical first violin section is like, as opposed to the typical second violin section and violas and cellos and basses.  I know what the oboes are like because of my experience with oboes and their view of how they will respond to my music, as opposed to the flutists, for instance, and the brass and so on.  So I have sort of a standard stereotype of the various instrumentalists, and I sort of compose for that.  Then if it’s a phenomenally fine orchestra, I tune up the level of difficulty a little bit.  If it’s a little less impressive ensemble, I’ll squelch it a little bit.  If I do a piece for some community orchestras, I might write a lot simpler string music.  They’ll still be playing, but the intricacies are not quite so elaborate as they would be for another work.

BD:    It sounds like the technical difficulties and considerations are almost overriding your creative inspiration.

LB:    No, they create it, I think.  If you don’t have limits and givens, you can’t write.  You can’t sit down at a piano and just stare at eighty-eight notes.  You have to put your finger on one, or realize how wide you can spread you hands.  Or consider if you spread your hands, what are the notes you can play.  Just look at your hands; your thumbs are in the middle and your fingers are on the outside, so this gives you certain possibilities, and so on.  If you write for trombones, you know their register and the qualities of sound in these various registers, which can be very exciting.  If you write fast music for a trombone, but it’s way down low, it’s crazy.  It isn’t going to work.  But you can put it up fast, and they can do it.  So you have these things which say this is possible, and this is not quite so possible.

scoreBD:    Are you always working within the usual strictures of music, rather than trying to expand the horizons of the technical possibilities?

LB:    Well, that’s not quite true.  I have, for instance, a solo clarinet piece called Soliloquies, which is fiendishly difficult.  It was written for a clarinetist who wanted to show off how good he was — and he was very good.  For several years the piece was considered unplayable.  It’s now published and considered standard literature ten years afterwards.  And it’s still tough.

BD:    Did you write it to be difficult?

LB:    Yes.

BD:    Did you write it to be pretty?

LB:    I wrote it to be difficult and to be pretty, on occasion.  Quite a bit of it is nice, but there are places which are quite raucous, quite strident.  They’re very pushy; they’re very aggressive, very combative, and others are very, very gentle and very lyrical.

BD:    Who are the combatants?  Is it the composer versus the performer, or the performer versus the audience, or the performer versus the instrument?

LB:    All this stuff is in the music, and the performer is projecting the stuff that has been written by me.  It’s to give certain impressions, of course, like any other music.  You have some music which is very aggressive or very obnoxious, which is very noisy and very pushy, and other music which is lyrical and gentle, and so on.  These are not technical matters, although obviously you have to have a technical aspect of it in order to produce these reactions.  You have to write fast, shrill, aggressive music for the clarinetist to play in order to convey to the listener the impression of shrillness, aggressiveness and so on, which is a perfectly wonderful reaction to have.  Music doesn’t always have to be sweet and saccharine.

BD:    No.  Well, what is the purpose of music in today’s society?

LB:    Sometimes I think there isn’t any, when you realize that most of the music that people absorb around the country is not interesting for me at all.  I’m not interested in ninety-nine percent of the stuff that I hear on A.M. radio, for instance.  I’m not interested; it bores me.

BD:    Are you interested in the new concert music?

LB:    Oh, sure, but I would rather not listen to Muzak, for instance, while I’m shopping or dining or whatever.  That, in a way, is prostituting some of the most beautiful music that we have.  But I’m very interested in new concert music, new electronic music, new anything that isn’t marketed, and the product of the so-called music industry.

BD:    You don’t like the business of music?

LB:    No, not in the usual huckster-ish manner in which so-called pop music is foisted on our culture.  Turn on any A.M. radio, and what do you hear?

BD:    Rock and roll.

LB:    Yes.  It’s okay, but it’s boring after a while.

BD:    Is rock and roll really music?

LB:    Yes, I guess so. 

BD:    It’s just not to your taste.

LB:    Yes.  I think mainly it’s something else.  People talk about the words and the texts and what the meaning of it is, the message of these pieces.  I’m a little disillusioned by these musicians who in fact very often are musically illiterate.  They can’t read music, you know.  Their composing is singing and playing into a tape machine.

BD:    So then the tape is the score?

LB:    Yes.  Well, somebody else makes the score from it.  They give the tape to somebody else
who is musically literateand he can make a score from it.

BD:    But maybe there’s no score made.  Maybe the tape is the piece.

LB:    Right.  So I don’t know.  It’s a different kind of musicianship.  I don’t really mean to knock it, but it’s a different kind of musicianship, and it doesn’t appeal to me at this point.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Where is concert music going these days?

LB:    I don’t know.  A lot of it is tied to orchestras, which means it’s tied to a big corporate financial historical thing that may not be a good thing to be tied to.  But orchestras still are a big force in our country, and they draw large audiences.  They wish they would draw more, of course, in order to pay more bills.  They’re terribly expensive and they’re sort of locked into a situation which has grown up over the past hundred and fifty years.  But nonetheless, it is exciting, and there are serious-music radio stations.  We have lots of orchestral broadcasts, thank goodness, which are marvelous!  We hear the Chicago Symphony and Saint Louis and Detroit and New York Philharmonic, and all these other orchestras any time you want.  Almost any evening you can hear an orchestra concert.  Now that’s marvelous, it really is!

BD:    Is there any point where it becomes too much?

LB:    I think so.  The problem is, if anybody is interested in orchestral music, he will have heard the Beethoven Fifth, Brahms First, the Schumann symphonies and the great C Major of Schubert dozens, if not hundreds of times, to the point where there are not surprises.  There is no magic left; it’s been beaten to a pulp.  That shouldn’t happen because those pieces are gorgeous and they should not be abused like that, it seems to me.

BD:    And yet the promoters say this is what the public comes to.

LB:    Yes, well, in a way it’s like training people to want what you want them to want.

BD:    [Laughs]

LB:    And I think it’s just as easy to train people to want them.  I’m not for getting rid of them at all, but I’m in favor of balancing programs a little better than most of our groups do.  People don’t walk out on my music, you know.  They might walk out on it before they’ve heard it, but if they hear it, they don’t walk out on it.  I don’t find people outraged about what I have to say as a musician.

BD:    Does that please you?

LB:    Absolutely.  I want them to like my music very much.  So I think if orchestras can balance their programs better than they have, it’ll bring in people who are interested in new things, and not drive away people who are only interested in the old.

BD:    Would you prefer that your music be in the middle of a standard concert, rather than on an all-contemporary concert?

bassettLB:    Oh, yes.  I want my music on standard concerts.  I don’t mind if it’s on contemporary ones, but that’s somewhat like ghettoizing.  You’re saying, “All the people who like contemporary music can come to this program, and all you folks who don’t like it can stay away.”  You never convert anybody by doing that.

BD:    How can we get the public, then, to be a little more adventurous?

LB:    You can do it by balancing the programs.  A balanced program ought to have a piece of old music that people don’t really know.  There’s an awful lot of music lying around that’s been performed and composed in the world.  We don’t always have to use the same older pieces.  You need a concerto so that young performers can come along and step into this business of performing.  You need a new work.  We certainly need to know American music, and if you don’t play a new American piece, you can play an old American piece, like one clear back by Anton Heinrich, for instance, the Condor of the Andes, which would be an absolute scream!  It would be wonderful!  [Both laugh]  We have two or three generations of composers in America from about a hundred years ago who are almost totally ignored in our concert life.  So that group should be done, and of course we need a warhorse.  We need a Schumann symphony, a Beethoven symphony, and so on.  Even if this didn’t happen every concert but happened every other concert, then you would have, let’s say, fifteen to twenty new works or unknown works played every season.  It would be the normal thing to expect this to happen.  I’m amazed, for instance, the frequency in which Mahler symphonies are played now.  Every orchestra plays Mahler symphonies, and of course this is wonderful because they’re beautiful pieces.  On the other hand, there are other things to be done, and there’s no real reason why we have to flood the market to the point where maybe in five years we won’t want to hear any Mahler symphonies.

BD:    We’ll get satiated with them?

LB:    Yes, too much!  That’s happened with me already with Bruckner.  I don’t care to hear anymore Bruckner.

BD:    Are we perhaps getting too many directions in music today?

LB:    I think it’s wonderful that we have many directions.  If you have only one direction
or two directions as we had a few years back, where you had either serialism or you have total chaos, a randomness which was a reaction against serialismI think then people who are not in either camp tend to be ignored by the press and by critics who tend to want to categorize people.  And it’s easy to categorize people.  I used to be called a serialist; I’m not really a serialist at all, but that was the handle that would be seen to them to be appropriate.  I was at one point labeled an imitator of Bartók, and next I was an imitator of Berg!  People like to hang these titles on things, and I think that’s unfortunate.

BD:    You are just Leslie Bassett going through your career?

LB:    Yes, writing my own music.  Everybody writes differently, and if you have thirty-five thousand composers in the United States, which we may well have, there are thirty-five thousand different voices making music.  I think this is exciting, even if only five hundred of them do it well.

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

LB:    Oh, you bet!  Absolutely.  Even if you trace student to teacher, we can go back clear to the Renaissance with our student-teacher relationship.  I studied with Ross Lee Finney, Arthur Honegger, Nadia Boulanger and with Roberto Gerhard.  With those people, I can trace direct lineage to Schoenberg, to Berg, to Stravinsky and so on.  And those people, of course, can trace theirs on back
Schoenberg to Mahler and so on.  So you have many, many lines of genealogy — almost as many as we have for our own biological lineage.  This is marvelous, to feel that you belong to a whole history.  And you know that each of these people was in individual, and that he made his own mark.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

LB:    Yes, I think so.  I’m certainly more optimistic about it than I am about some other factors in modern life.  People love music, they really do.  We know this.  You have listeners to your program, very avid listeners.  Concert halls, by and large, are pretty well attended.  You offer a concert and you get word out and people are going to show up.  People buy recordings.  People buy instruments.  People are buying these new electronic keyboards of one sort or another so they can make music at home even if they can’t really play anything!  You can buy a keyboard now on which you punch a note and it’ll play chords, arpeggiations, rhythms, all this sort of thing.  And with your other hand, you can punch out the tune against this.  It’s fascinating for folks who can’t even read music!  So this love of music, I think, is very strong, and it’s something of a refuge for people in our modern, high-tech, computerized society, in which we need refuges.

BD:    Are we coming back to the days of Hausmusik?

LB:    I don’t know about that.  That implies people getting together to play ensemble music, I suppose.  I don’t think there’s an awful lot of that, except by professional musicians.

BD:    So this electronic keyboard thing makes music for one in isolation?

LB:    Right; by and large, yes.  But I think it has already, or will, certainly, replace the guitar, which served the same function.  You have the single person, instead of buying a guitar, he now buys a Casio or something of the sort to use.  I think this is good.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk a little bit about the teaching of music.  How has this changed in twenty, thirty, forty years?

bassettLB:    Mainly I teach composers.  I have taught other things in the past, but right now I teach composers at the University of Michigan.  Every year we have eighty or ninety applications, and from that group we carefully choose ten or so who will be with us.  They are admitted on the basis of the music they have already written, so it’s almost like dealing with colleagues
at least as much dealing with colleagues as it is with students, and this can be very exciting.

BD:    How do you decide which composers you will accept?  What do you look for in their music?

LB:    You look for craft; you look for imagination and some spark of originality.  Furthermore, you are interested in general intelligence.  If you found a beautiful piece of music by somebody whose IQ was very low, or whose Scholastic Aptitude Test ratings were very low, this wouldn’t seem right.  You would suspect something has gone wrong there because almost all of the good composers have very high IQs, and are very adaptable, very skillful with language and very often with math as well.  So you look for a good brain, if you wish, as well as a good ear.

BD:    There’s always this connection between music and mathematics.  I’ve never really figured out why!

LB:    I haven’t either, but it’s true that most mathematicians are amateur musicians.  Even Einstein was, you know.  He played fiddle.  At Michigan, the Mathematics Department has had several string quartets among their faculty and graduate students.  So it is around.  Otherwise, I think the teaching of composition is pretty much the same as it has always been.  A teacher looks to increase the craft and the skill of his student, and he prods him to make sure that he’s imaginative, that he has vision and insight.  Also we look to see that his piece is balanced and is realistically planned
— that he isn’t writing things that can’t be played; also that his metronome mark is right for what he’s doing.  In other words, there’s an awful lot of just plain craft that must be taught.  There is certainly as much craft in this as if you were to try and learn to play the violin.  Laymen, I think, tend to assume that you become a composer by simply sitting down and doing it, and the teaching of it is going to ruin you.  The fact is, without an awful lot of mastery of craft, you can’t exercise your imagination.

BD:    Are you really learning to play a score, then?

LB:    Oh, sure!  And people have to have substantial facility at the keyboard, at least.

BD:    But when you speak of the craft, is learning to play your score with the pencil a bit like playing a violin?

LB:    Yes, I think that’s a good analogy, mm-hm.

BD:    Is the act of composing fun?

LB:    Sometimes
if it goes very well, and that isn’t always the case!  There are times when you will have break-throughs and suddenly spurt ahead, and you will have a wonderful morning at work.  Other times, weeks will pass and nothing sounds good to youanybody else’s music or yours.  You’re blocked.  You got to a certain spot where somehow things just stopped.  That can be serious; if it goes on too long, you might just end up having to throw away the piece because it was not fully formed in your mind.  Or some major catastrophe may happen in your life which wipes out the sense of the life of that work.

BD:    If you throw away a piece, do you ever salvage ideas or thoughts from it?

LB:    I don’t because I figure they’re stored away in my head anyway, someplace, and they will surface again.  I’ve had two occasions in which my students lost a piece just as it was virtually finished.

BD:    They lost the score?

LB:    Yes, it was stolen from their bag of books or out of the car, and of course, they’re devastated!  In both of these cases, the young composers then sat down and recomposed, rewrote as much as they could remember.  They couldn’t, in fact, remember an awful lot of the themes.  On one of these occasions, the original score that was lost was found by police and returned months later.  And indeed, the new version was much better than the original!  [Both laugh]  So we carry some of the good things with us.
  We tend to dismiss some of the things that are not so good; that’s true of our memory in life, you know.  If you were in France fifteen years ago, you remember the good thingsthe dinner you had at this spot and the people you met here and all this sort of thing.  You probably have forgotten all the inconveniences of travel that you went through at the timethe annoyances, the rudeness and so on that you might have had as well.  But you remember the good things, and I think that’s kind of true with our musical memories, too.  We remember things that worked wellspecial turns of phrase that seemed especially beautiful.  That’s why, I believe, when you look at a composer’s work, you expect to find the most profound music toward the end of his life.  Take Mozart or Bach as examples.  It’s wonderful that these refinements have gone on all the way.  They’ve gradually thrown away some of the things that weren’t quite so special, and capitalized on the good things, which they’ve remembered.

*     *     *     *     *

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

bassettLB:    Yes, pretty much.  On some of them I’ve been around for the recordings, and a lot of them I’ve not.  The recording of the Echoes from an Visible World by the Baltimore Symphony was done at a three hour recording session.  The union demands an hour break, so that’s, in fact, two hours of recording time.  It takes about eighteen minutes to play the piece straight through, and in recording they usually do it from the beginning down to a certain point.  If that went well, you’re lucky, but chances are you’ll do it again, just to make sure.  Maybe there was a slight problem
the conductor’s baton ticked the stand or something of the sort, or you needed to move microphones or whatever.  So to get through an entire piece in two hours, with break along in there is very difficult.  I was fit to be tied by the end of that session, and in fact it did not get through it, because they were within about twelve measures or so of the ending, and the time was up.  Of course, orchestras are very unionized; you don’t go over time unless you pay.  So they finished the recording at the next recording session three or four days later and I wasn’t there for that.  So it’s really quite a trying experience; you’re not so sure whether things are going well, and if you record a piece section by section, you don’t have the view of the sweep of the whole thing, all the way through, which can be slightly detrimental.

BD:    Is there ever a case where a recording can be too technically perfect, and lack that spark of inspiration?

LB:    Oh, I suppose it’s possible.  I don’t know; I guess so.

BD:    What’s the role of a music critic?

LB:    I think he’s a publicist for music, a speaker for music and somebody who should let the public at large know that concert music
or whatever you want to call this stuff I’m doing and Beethoven didis beautiful and needs to be brought to their attention.  I don’t know whether it’s his job to say, “That piece was great, and this piece was not.”  Maybe it is.  I think he needs to report when things are effective.  He gets into trouble sometimes if he makes pronouncements about new pieces which he has never heard before and doesn’t know and has never seen the score.

BD:    Should he come to rehearsal?

LB:    Yes, absolutely; if he hasn’t been to a rehearsal, he has no advance preparation at all.  If he’s been at the rehearsal, then he’s very qualified to say, “This piece went together well;” or, “The orchestra had an awful lot of trouble with that spot, and it didn’t work at the concert;” or, “The intonation was bad here and there, and it still is bad;” or, “The conductor doesn’t know what in the world he’s doing.”

BD:    [Laughs]

LB:    Then you have an intelligent report, which is great.  And then if he blasts the piece and says, “This piece, in spite of all of its efforts to do the job, fell flat, and it fell flat because it’s ugly,” he can say anything he wants and that’s great.

BD:    In the opinion of an experienced composer, what constitutes greatness in music?

LB:    Well, I don’t know.  It’s true that great music doesn’t always impress the listener as being great, and if you listen to pieces which you know have been declared great for years, they still may leave you cold.  So as far as the personal reaction is concerned, I don’t know.  A lot of pieces that are held up as great are simply big, and big doesn’t necessarily mean great.  There are some small pieces that great.  Drink to me only with thine eyes, for instance is a great piece, but it is awfully short!  It is very short, very beautiful.  Londonderry Air is another, and so on.  There are some very beautiful things which one finds very moving almost whenever you experience them.

BD:    Is the music of Leslie Bassett great?

LB:    Well, I’m prejudiced, of course!  I don’t think I could continue composing if I didn’t think so.  Maybe this sounds like an egotistical statement, but if I didn’t believe it was great music, I don’t think I could continue.  You have to have incredible confidence in what you’re doing; otherwise, there’s no doing it at all!

BD:    Isn’t that one of the requisites of being a composer?

LB:    Yes, absolutely!  You don’t need to be offensive about pushing your opinion on the world at large, but nonetheless, you have to have it when you’re writing.  It has to be the most beautiful thing you could imagine.

BD:    Do you feel that concerts work well on the television?

LB:    No, because it’s a visual event instead of a musical event, an aural event.  You’re zeroing in on the oboist and then you’re zeroing in on the timpanist and then you’re on the conductor, usually from underneath, and you watch him sweat.  You have all of these things going on
the bows here, up and down, and every time there’s an event in the piece, you’ve changed to that.  I find it not as appealing as I wish it were.  I think there are times when you want to see an orchestra play, but not always.  Once in a while it’s okay.

BD:    Do you think the camera, then, is just too close?

LB:    Yes, and this matter of jumping around and spotting everybody when he has a note to play can be interesting if you want to see what they look like.  I’m sure some instrumentalists might be interested.  “Oh, he used that fingering instead of such and such a fingering.”  So there are these peripheral benefits, but I find it not too good in general.  I’ve seen some television broadcasts of Bach concerts in Germany which I thought were quite good.  That was a smaller ensemble, but it seemed to me that the camera shots didn’t get in the way.  The jumping around isn’t so frantic as often in some of ours.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Have you written some music for the voice?

LB:    Oh, yes.  I have several sets of songs and quite a bit of choral music.

BD:    What are the particular joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice?

bassettLB:    The joys are that it’s the most beautiful instrument!  It’s just gorgeous, and you have not only beautiful sound, but you have a person articulating words which are beautiful at the same time.  To hear notes and words at the same time is wonderful!  Furthermore, you look at the person who is not holding up an instrument under his chin or in his mouth, but he or she looks right at you.  It’s a very direct communication; very often these are attractive people
handsome men and beautiful ladies in lovely gowns — and it’s a very wonderful thing!  Furthermore, if you have choral music, there is an esprit de corps.  These folks are socially attached to one another.  They have a sense of the fun of being together.  And if they’ve worked hard!  Singing is not easy, and if you have folks that don’t read music too well, you’ve done an awful lot of teaching to get them to the point where they can perform.  So there’s an awful lot of investment of time and energy and enthusiasm, which is very beautiful.  I think it’s a wonderful medium.  I love it!

BD:    You don’t find that same closeness and togetherness in an orchestra?

LB:    No, it’s different, certainly.

BD:    How?

LB:    Well, for one thing, most choirs are not paid.  There are almost no paid choirs in this country, or they’re not paid living wages, as our major orchestras are.  And they’re not unionized so they don’t function in the same set of circumstances.

BD:    So part of their wages is the fun they get out of it?

LB:    Right, right, yes!  It’s a wonderful experience to sing in a very good, large choir which really does a handsome job, especially if they sing with an orchestra under a major conductor, or they tour together.  There is this enhanced sense of the potency of the occasion, which orchestras aren’t quite able to do, I don’t think, because they’re a little more removed, a little more aloof.

BD:    With this love of the voice, why are there no operas in your catalogue?

LB:    Well, I haven’t been commissioned to do one!  And if I were to do one, I would have to be assured of the performance
that it would be a good one, a very conspicuous oneand that I would have a lot to say about how it was staged and put together.  It would take a long time to compose; depending on how big it was, it could take five or six years.  This is a big hunk of your life with a lot of risk, because a lot of operas have been written which have not succeeded.  Many have gotten an awful lot of poor reviews on their first performance, and never were staged since.  And maybe the poor reviews are as much to do with the director, the stage directing, the layout, the whole thing, as well as the music.  So you have an awful lot of other factors entering into a piece which are beyond your control.  That’s why I would approach it very carefully.

BD:    I assume you have a long list of commissions.  How do you decide which commissions you will accept and which commissions you will decline?

LB:    Usually I take the ones which I want to do.  Obviously, if I had a commission from the Chicago Symphony, I would jump at that.  This would be an exciting thing; it is exciting whenever a major orchestra commissions a piece.  So that’s always top priority.  But you do give your word, after all, and if you have given your word to do a piece, you’ll try and do it.  So you have your schedule of deadlines.  I have four now, which is enough for me.  I can’t imagine scheduling myself further than that.  I have a work schedule, and I know that if I do this piece and have it done by Christmas, I’ll be all right.  If it spills over Christmas and goes beyond, then I’m in trouble because then I’m moving everybody else back.

BD:    So you’ve accepted these commissions, but there must have been many more that have come in.  You must sort through all the ideas and requests.  How do you decide which ones to say yes, and which ones to say no?

LB:    Usually it’s a matter of when things come in.  If somebody gets me on the phone and says, “I’d like to do this piece.  Could you do this for me?  We need it by such and such a time.  We have this much money.  That’s all that we’ve got,” or, “I think we can get more.  Would you be able to fit it in?”  If it sounds kind of interesting to me, I’ll say, “Well, let me think about it, and I’ll call you back tomorrow.”  So I think about it, and if it seems like maybe I could do it, that would be it.  Two days later you might get another call from somebody else which would be for that same period of time, and I would have to say, “I can’t make it in that time, but how would it be a year later?”


To read my Interview with Milton Babbitt, click HERE.

To read my Interview with William O. Smith, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Charlews Wuorinen, click HERE.

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

LB:    Assuming that they are tremendously gifted in the first place, their only hope is to learn their craft and write as many marvelous works as they can.  Write for performers who are their friends, or who they know who will play their music.  Apply to contests and so on, competitions, because there are quite a few.  Just learn your business.  Also I think they need to have a secondary profession up their sleeve, because they are not going to be able to earn their living, probably, as composers.  They can make some money at it, but it won’t support them.  A lot of young people who have come up have hoped that they could go into college teaching, university teaching, and there is a tremendous surplus of people in that business already.  Not all of the good people are going to get jobs there, so they do need some other area — such as you have, for instance, working with radio stations, with broadcasting companies, with publishers, with concert management groups, with local arts foundations or forming their own ensembles and performing.  Anything under the sun they can think of.  Of course, if they are performers and can manage a career as a performer-composer, that’s often very good.  If you’re an organist, for instance, and you’re quite good, and you can get a few jobs touring, and playing here and there at some churches or auditoriums.  And you can play your own music on that occasion, which would be very good.  But it’s an endangered profession.  I think all of music is endangered.  People need to be very realistic about earning their livelihood at it.  I wish them all well, but I think they should know that it’s tough!

BD:    Too tough?

LB:    Not too tough, but all of the arts, I think, are in this field.  A lot of the humanities are in.  If you were wanting to get a job as a teacher of English literature at a college or university, there would be a lot of competition for this
teaching classics, psychology, philosophy and so on.  There are lots of applicants for all of these fields in the humanities and the arts.  I think one needs to be well gifted in the first place.  One needs to learn his business and then really go out and hit hard.  Several of my students are trying to get jobs in universities and colleges, and it’s not unusual to have two hundred applications for every job.  It’s comparable, of course, to an opening in the brass section of the Chicago Symphony.  There will be hundreds of applications!  And it’s really quite distressing for a lot of young people who get their experience by playing in community orchestras and then watch in the musicians’ magazines for all openings, and they apply here and there.

BD:    Is it like a herd of sheep?  They all run over here and one gets in, and then they all run over there and another one gets in?

LB:    To a certain extent, yes, mm-hm.  It’s impossible for some.  If you’re a tuba player and you want to play tuba in the orchestra, how many tuba jobs open up in the United States?  One every five or ten years, maybe?  Where you can earn your living by playing tuba?  So it’s really an impossible situation, and a lot of these guys are good!  They’re very good.  They’re as good as the guy who gets the job.  So it can be very distressing, I think, for some of our young people.

BD:    What advice do you have for a young person who wants to be a conductor?

LB:    In a way, it’s the same advice as one would say for a composer, because again there are lots of hopeful young conductors, and the outlets for them, at least in our major orchestras, are not as promising as one would wish.  We have tended, in the United States, to look abroad for our conductors.  We bring them in from abroad.  Not that they’re not good; I don’t mean to say that, but there is a certain tendency, a provincialism maybe, of our music boards, to assume that if you’re from Europe or Japan or South America, that you must be more glamorous and more effective than if you grew up in Chicago, for instance.  And this is just unfair!  It’s crazy, also, of course.  At least we do have a few American conductors who are running major orchestras now.  Lorin Maazel, you know, made his reputation in Europe, and people didn’t really pay too much attention to him over here until he was middle-aged and took over the Cleveland Orchestra.

BD:    About the only ones I can think of offhand are Leonard Slatkin and Gerard Schwarz.

LB:    Right.  And Leonard Bernstein, of course, is after all an American conductor, and a very distinguished one.  But by and large, I blame the symphony boards and the management for this sort of thing because for some reason or other, it seems that getting a foreign conductor is going to add glamour or sex appeal, or whatever it is.  And maybe it’s true; I don’t know.  It’s too bad, I think.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is your music played in Europe, as well as here in the United States?

LB:    Somewhat.  There is not an awful lot of American music played in Europe at all.  There
’s Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and the Piano Concerto, and a little of Aaron Copland, but Gershwin is still the big name over there.  John Cage and that kind of music is sort of a specialty thing for certain music festivals.

BD:    Is the response to your music in Europe different than the response here?

LB:    No, not really.  The last time I was in Europe I was in Ireland where a choral piece was commissioned by the Cork Festival.  I was there for that, and the piece went over tremendously well!  It was performed by an American chorus, so they appreciated both the American chorus and the piece.  It really wowed them, I must say!  So that was a wonderful thing.  On the other hand, Ireland may be not representative of Continental Europe at all because every Irishman, of course, has a cousin in the United States.  [Both laugh]  So there’s a certain affinity there that you might expect.  My performances in Italy were always very well received.  In fact, the Variations for Orchestra received its first performance in Rome.  I was so moved at the end of that, because the concertmaster and several members of the orchestra came down off the stage and shook my hand, which I never heard of anywhere else!  Usually the composer goes up and takes his bow, but these men came down to where I was sitting, and it was really quite a special time.

BD:    Is it special for the audience to have the composer present at the performance of his music?

LB:    I think so, yes.  Conductors, at least, and orchestras like to have you there to take your bow, assuming you do it well.  I remember Mr. Ormandy told me how nicely dressed I was one time.  He said, “When we did a piece for Roger Sessions, he had that old brown suit of his that he always wore, and it hadn’t been pressed for a long time.  And he sort of slopped onstage.”  [Both laugh]  I don’t think he was too happy to have Roger Sessions there at that time!  But yes, it’s a part of the show.  And of course, if you go along with that, I think that’s okay.


BD:    Your sixty-fifth birthday is coming up next year?

LB:    Mm-hm, in January.  It’s hard to believe, sixty-five years! [Laughs]

BD:    What’s the most surprising thing?  Or is there anything that is terribly surprising as you look back on sixty-five years?

LB:    Well, I don’t know.  It’s just amazing.  I’ve been on the faculty at Michigan for thirty-five years.  It just sounds incredible that you could be there that long!  It’s all of your life.  You’re thirty-five, more or less?

BD:    I’m thirty-six.

LB:    So, it’s just amazing, you know; just one thing after another.  You go through life and suddenly here you realize you’re going to have to retire one of these days.

BD:    But you won’t retire from composing, I hope.

LB:    No, no, no!

BD:    I would think that retiring from the duties and responsibilities of teaching would give you more time and more luxury to compose.

LB:    That’s true.  I value the teaching because of my contact with the performers, performing colleagues, and so on.  So in that regard, I will miss it; otherwise, not.  But I enjoy the contact with good young composers, too, because there’s always a lot of life and vitality there.  And you see things in other people’s music that you wouldn’t have thought of in your own, so you can sort of steal it if you wish, or borrow it, or adapt it!  [Both laugh] Bach did to Vivaldi’s music, and various other people, Buxtehude, and so on.  I think one grows by doing this.  If you only imitate yourself, you may not grow; maybe some, but not very much.  But contact with other things tends to shake you loose if you’re excited by what you see.  On the other hand, if you’re repulsed by it, it isn’t too positive.

BD:    Thank you for being a composer.

LB:    My pleasure!

BD:    And thank you for coming in today.  This has been extra special that you would go out of your way on a trip to Chicago.  

LB:    Glad to.

Leslie Bassett was born in Hanford, California in 1923, and was raised in the San Joaquin Valley where he was trained in piano and trombone. During World War II, he served over three years in army bands as a trombonist, arranger and composer, and later he studied composition with such notables as Ross Lee Finney, Arthur Honegger, and Nadia Boulanger. His many honors and awards include the Pulitzer Prize in Music, the Prix de Rome, a Fulbright Fellowship, two Guggenheim Fellowships, as well as commissions from the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony, the Koussevitsky Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Mr. Bassett joined the faculty of the University of Michigan in 1952, where he later served as Chair of the Composition Department. In 1984, he was appointed the Henry Russell Lecturer, the university's highest faculty honor. He is currently the Albert A. Stanley Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Music and continues to influence the rising generation of composers to this day. Bassett's works have been performed by the orchestras of New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Detroit, Syracuse, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, the radio orchestras of Rome, Zurich, and the Netherlands, and the American Composers Orchestra. In addition to orchestral pieces, he has written extensively for wind ensemble, choir, voice, and a wide variety of chamber music combinations. His catalogue contains over one hundred works

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on June 11, 1987.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1988, 1993 and 1998.  A copy of the audio tape was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2009.

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.