Composer  C. Curtis-Smith

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Curtis Curtis-Smith was born in 1941 in Walla Walla, Washington (!), and received a bachelor's degree from Whitman College, where he studied with John Ringgold and David Burge. He received a Master of Music degree in piano at Northwestern University where he studied with Alan Stout and Guy Mombaerts. He pursued further studies at the University of Illinois with Kenneth Gaburo, the Tanglewood Music Center with Bruno Maderna and Jacob Druckman, and in master classes at the Blossom Music Festival with Pierre Boulez. [Throughout this webpage, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.]

In 1968, Curtis-Smith joined the faculty of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he is currently Artist-in-residence and a part-time instructor of music composition. In 1972, he pioneered the technique of bowing the piano.

In 2001, Curtis-Smith's Twelve Etudes for piano was one of four compositions commissioned by the Van Cliburn Foundation for the Eleventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

As part of my long series on WNIB devoted to mostly American composers, I contacted Curtis-Smith by telephone, and he said that his travels would bring him to Chicago in just a few months.  So in December of 1996 and we had this interview in the Windy City. 

While setting up to record, he was speaking about other composers and performers, including Leslie Bassett and Ross Lee Finney.  So to start, I asked him about his name . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Let’s begin with C. Curtis-Smith.  Is that how you like to be referred to, as C. Curtis-Smith?

C. Curtis-Smith:    That’s the way it gets on programs.  My first name’s Curtis, so you’ll just call me that, but if it’s the whole name then it’s usually C. Curtis-Smith.

BD:    How did you happen to wind up being another Boutros Boutros-Ghali [Secretary General of the UN 1992-96]?

CC-S:    Several composers, in fact, went by the name of Curtis Smith, including one in Colorado.  In fact, someone said to me, “I saw those new pieces you wrote for children.”  I hadn’t written anything for children; it was the other Curtis Smith.  So I was trying to circumvent that problem a little.  My two middle names are Otto Bismarck, and I was thinking, perhaps, of hyphenating Bismarck and Smith to make it Curtis Otto Bismarck-Smith.  I ran it by my sister, and she didn’t think much of that, but she mentioned that Curtis was a family name.  In fact, that’s why I got the name in the first place.  It was the last name in one branch of the family that had died out, so she suggested hyphenating that and making it the last name, so that the name would live on.  So that’s the way it was.  It causes a lot of confusion, but as long as Boutros Boutros-Ghali is the Secretary General of the UN, I’ll at least have sort of something to prepare people with a model.  [Laughs]

BD:    So you have no regrets about making this life change?

CC-S:    [Laughs]  Well, for better or for worse, it’s there.  The hardest thing is people look you up in the telephone book in the wrong place, and they don’t find it.

BD:    Look under Smith.

CC-S:    Yes

BD:    Let’s go to your music.  I assume that music is the point of your life?

curtis-smith CC-S:    It seems to have become that.  As much as one tries not to have it be all-encompassing and all-consuming, it’s difficult to not have that happen.  I think about that a lot because Charles Ives said that without his insurance work, he wouldn’t be as good a composer.  He met people and saw life in a way that he wouldn’t if he were just always sitting at home composing.  So there is that.  But on the other hand, when you’re teaching, and meeting a lot of students and colleagues, that’s probably healthy, and it’s more directly associated with music, obviously, than being in insurance.  But it still keeps you open to not just the social aspects, but the influence of different styles and different thought processes and different people.  So that can only be good.  I think if I didn’t have to teach, I’d probably be the poorer for it.

BD:    You’d be a poorer composer?

CC-S:    Yes, probably a poorer, less rounded person as well.  There’s not that many people who can make their livelihood today only by sitting home and composing eight hours a day.  Occasionally it’s nice to be able to do that, of course, but to do it continuously for one’s whole career is both unrealistic and probably not healthy.

BD:    So you encourage your students, then, to be a little more well-rounded than just being composers?

CC-S:    Most of the time they don’t have too much choice nowadays, because if they’re looking for teaching jobs, those are pretty rare, and to make a living as a composer or a musician they’re probably going to have to do some freelancing
perhaps playing if they’re a performer, and writing the kind of music that they might not choose to write if they were sitting in an ivory tower or had unlimited means at their disposal.

BD:    Should they go into insurance?

CC-S:    [Laughs]  Perhaps some should!

BD:    I didn’t mean to get out of music completely, but I mean as an adjunct.

CC-S:    Well, maybe, yes.

BD;    Without naming names, are there some of your students who you suggest should get into insurance exclusively?

CC-S:    To take it out of the personal realm, I’m amazed that there are so many students in music
not just composition, but piano.  That’s a good example because I’m a pianist as well, and there are certainly fewer piano positions, whether it’s in teaching or on a concert stage.  There are fewer slots to fill today than there were twenty-five years ago when I first started out myself, and yet they’re there and they seem to love it.  I suppose, in a way, if they love it that much, they know the odds that they may not find a job, or the kind of job they want.

BD:    But they should give their shot?

CC-S:    Maybe they should... assuming that it’s not totally hopeless.  Then someone has done them a disservice by not telling that.

BD:    Are you a better composer because you’re also a pianist?

CC-S:    Oh yes, I think so.  I can’t envisage a composer who does not play an instrument at least rather well.  Berlioz, apparently, played the trombone
perhaps not that well, but obviously he was a great orchestrator.  Ravel was a pianist but not that great a pianist.  I think he could play his way through even Gaspard de la Nuit, but not in the sense of a public performance.

BD:    Are we now getting to the point where there are some composers who are not instrumentalists at all?

CC-S:    Yes, we’re getting some and I think they lose touch with the practical aspect of playing.

BD:    [With a sly nudge]  You mean music should be practical???

CC-S:    [Laughs]  Well, that’s another arguable issue, but if the right music is ungrateful or ungracious — both those words are sometimes used by musicians — they turn people off.  They turn musicians off.  Musicians need to want to play a certain composer’s music, and that’s what gives the music life.  It’s not critics who determine whether a piece is going to succeed or fail, it’s really performers who love a piece or like it well enough to mention it to someone else.  Then it finds its way among various players.  That way they keep it alive, and it may enter the repertoire, to some degree, not through rave reviews.  Who’s going to complain about a rave review?  It’s not going to hurt, but that won’t do it.  So if you write music that’s hard to play, that’s needlessly difficult, is clumsy for the instrument, doesn’t exploit the instrument properly, that is going to be a problem.  I always think back to the historical precedents and examples that we have
Beethoven, Mozart and others were all excellent pianists, and it follows right through pretty much up to the present day.  Stravinsky could play the piano very well.

BD:    Was Wagner a pianist?

CC-S:    He composed everything at the piano, as I understand.  The amazing thing is that he wrote no piano music except a real early piano sonata that doesn’t even sound like Wagner.  But I’m not sure how a good a pianist he was.

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

CC-S:    No qualitative comparison is intended, but just the sheer tradition.  I’ve played my own music and written a lot for piano and instruments
not so much for solo piano, but a lot with piano and instruments, chamber music and piano concertos, and so on.  So I like to think of that in the sense of being part of that lineage.  That had been the only way, in those days.  The idea of specializing to the point where you didn’t play an instrument at all, but just wrote for others?  That’s something later.  The idea of a Baroque musician not playing what he wrote was unthinkable to them.  Not that they played every instrument, obviously, but still they were both composer and musician.

BD:    They had to play and conduct and organize the performances.

CC-S:    Exactly, and sometimes even had to repair the instruments, as Purcell did.  That was part of his job.  It was amazing how he wrote so much music, when he had to keep the fiddles in good shape.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You play your own music.  Are you the ideal interpreter of your music?

CC-S:    I like to think that I am of my piano music, but when it comes to chamber music that involves the piano, not necessarily.  I’ve heard some tremendous performances of things that are perhaps done better than I’d be able to do them.  I could say that about Fleisher playing the Left Hand Concerto.  Of course, he has the technique.  I’ve played some left-hand music
the Ravel concerto, the Prokofiev concerto years ago, when I’d hurt my right hand myselfso I sort of developed the left-hand chops in those pieces.  But the concerto that I wrote for Leon Fleisher is pretty tough.  It’s probably just as hard as the Ravel in terms of negotiating the material, and Fleisher does it very well.

BD:    But you didn’t write it to be tough did you?

CC-S:    No.  I didn’t write it to be that difficult.  It just came out that way because of the musical ideas.  I wasn’t trying to deliberately make it hard, like perhaps the Transcendental Etudes of Liszt or something like that, no.

BD:    Is there ever a time when you write something that you know what it should sound like, but it’s impossible to do that with a mere ten fingers?

CC-S:    Oh, sure.  That does happen.  What really happens is when I’m first hatching the idea that it’s going to be a solo piano piece, before I get too far I realize that it needs other voices, other colors, and then it becomes a chamber music piece.  If someone commissions a chamber music piece with piano, then it’s like commissioning me to write something that I wanted to write anyway.  As Stravinsky said, “The trick is to get people to commission things you’re already working on.”  Perhaps, if you have even gotten well into it or finished it, then get the commission.

BD:    Are there ever times when a commission will spark a brand new idea, and you think that’d be great?

CC-S:    It happens with a new instrument, or new to the composer.  It happened to me when Bill Albright asked me to write some organ pieces for him.  It was just about fifteen years ago, and frankly I had not liked the organ that much.

BD:    Why not?

CC-S:    Perhaps because the only organs I knew were inferior, old nineteenth century instruments, and when I encountered the organ that he premiered the pieces on
which was the marvelous instrument out in Seattle, a Flentrop tracker action instrument from HollandI was quite taken with it.  The sounds were fresh and distinct, and didn’t all sound the same, like some of those late nineteenth century organs do with big sound but not much differentiation among the stops.  But in writing that piece, I found that it brought ideas to my head that I wouldn’t have thought of, had I been writing a piano piece or an orchestral work.  That piece, which ended up being Masquerades: A set of six pieces for Organ, actually helped change my style at that point.  It was a pivotal piece.  The pieces before that, like Rhapsodies and Unisonics, which used the bowed piano, and several other pieces of that genre, were pieces which were very asymmetrical, irregular rhythmically, almost spastic rhythmic configurations, and influenced by Boulez and Berio, Stockhausen, and others from the late sixties and early seventies.  When this commission for the organ came along, I started to write a piece which was just as irregular rhythmicallyaperiodic, apredictable, with unpredictable rhythms always — and it just didn’t seem to quite work for me, at least on the instrument.  So I started to develop ideas which were more regular, perhaps, and the mechanical nature of the instrument brought out certain continuous, long passages in the same rhythmic pattern.  It helped change my rhythmic language.  So that sort of thing can happen, and the pieces after that were such that I never went back to as abstract a kind of rhythm as I’d written before the organ pieces, even when I went back to writing for the same instruments I’d written for before.

BD:    Now you don’t disown your earlier pieces, do you?

CC-S:    No, it’s a change of style.

BD:    It’s a new chapter?

CC-S:    Yes.  The earlier pieces like Rhapsodies and Unisonics, are on old LPs now on the CRI label, and most of those are not available anymore, along with most LPs nowadays.  But the pieces are still performed a lot, and I’m still happy with some of those, especially Rhapsodies and Unisonics.  But it is a very different style from what has happened to my music since the mid to late seventies.

BD:    Once you made this radical change in your music, has there been another radical change?

CC-S:    Yes there has been.  After Masquerades in 1978, then I got more and more into the vernacular style
popular musics, drawing on jazz and rock that manifested itself especially in the orchestral work, the Great American Symphony or GAS, as I acronymically call it.  That dates from 1980.  It was premiered in 1981, and is a work that Dennis Russell Davies has conducted quite a few times now with various orchestras including the Indianapolis Symphony, and most recently with the West German Radio Orchestra in Cologne.

BD:    Obviously, he’s a champion of your music, then.

curtis-smith CC-S:    Well, he’s especially taken to that piece.  I think he’s conducted it twelve times or so in different sets of performances over the years, including the American Composers Orchestra.

BD:    Does that please you that he keeps coming back to it, or do you wish he’d move on to something else?

CC-S:    I’m happy he’s coming back to that.  In fact, he has plans to do it again, possibly next year, with the Vienna Radio Orchestra, I believe it’s called.  That piece was probably the high point for me, and a couple of pieces surrounding it, like the Sweetgrass Trio, which is on the New Albany CD.  That trio dates from 1982, and as the title suggests, sweetgrass.  In the last movement it gets to a sort of a hoe-down and some fiddle music, as opposed to violin music.  It’s all brought together, at least I hope brought together in a way that congeals and is not pastiche.  There are some rock elements in the last movement which sort of obliquely quotes George Harrison from the Beatles
—  one of his bass lines, not the melody itself but the bass line.  “My Guitar Gently Weeps” is the opening line.  So there’s that group of vernacular, popular-based pieces from about 1980 through ’85 or so.  Then I actually went back to writing in a little more abstract style, more tonal than my earlier things, but somehow avoiding the vernacular elements, the popular elements.  A song cycle, a Civil War song cycle from ’87 is an example of that.  Then the most recent change that I think is rather considerable is a big jump.  Three or four years ago I got interested in using the rhythms of sub-Saharan African music, black African music.  The best example of that is probably the Second Piano Trio, which is also recorded by the Merling Trio on the Albany CD.  That piece and another piece on the same album, which is called the Piano Wind Sextet —  sort of a generic title —  that was commissioned by Dennis Russell Davies for his woodwind quintet based in Stuttgart, and he played the piano.  He’s an excellent pianist.  People know him as a conductor, but he’s a great pianist, too.  So that’s another piece that uses these cross rhythms and poly-rhythms of African music, but specifically, sub-Saharan African music, not the Islamic northern African music that’s quite different in both scale, content, and its rhythmic ideas.

BD:    Have you any more connection with Africa than just general interest, or is there a specific interest?

CC-S:    The only connection is that for about ten years I taught a class in non-western music at the university.  Although I knew a little about it when I started, after 10 years of teaching it I knew quite a bit... but it’s always a drop in the bucket compared with what there’s out there to know.

BD:    But it obviously fascinated you.

CC-S:    It fascinated me, yes, and didn’t do anything about it until I stopped teaching that class.  I had taught it for ten years, and it was after I actually stopped being asked to teach that class that some of the ideas started to register in my head.  It turned out, when I thought about it, that they were very directly based on African cross rhythms.  Then I went back and looked at some other sources, and pulled that into my language.  I’m still in that phase right now.  What I’m working on right now is a piece [Second Symphony (African Laughter)] for the Kalamazoo Symphony for their 75th anniversary, and that’ll be premiered March 21st.  The last movement especially grows towards that from a more dissonant language into the fourth movement, which is very, very tonal, but very complex rhythmically, and is a statement of those African ideas.  I’ve avoided using African instruments to do this.  From my approach, the way I think of it, it’s a mistake to do that because then you might as well just listen to the African music.  If you take Bartók as an example, at least to my knowledge he never used a cimbalom in Hungarian music.  Kodály did in Háry János, of course.  That is a famous example, and when they don’t have the cimbalom, they use a tinny upright piano and put paper in it or something.  I could be wrong, but I don’t know of Bartók ever using indigenous Hungarian instruments in his Hungarian-style music, or music that draws on that.  But he evoked the spirit through string quartets, piano works, and so on.  So that’s kind of the kind of model that seemed appropriate to pursue, to follow.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You mentioned that you have this performance coming up on a specific date.  Is it comforting or terrifying to know that on a certain date, a certain piece had better be ready so it can be played?

CC-S:    It’s both, but I had enough lead time in this case.  I knew about it well over three years before the fact, so I still have four months or so, now.

BD:    I hope you’re less than four months away from completion.

CC-S:    I’m quite close, actually; could be two or three weeks.  It’s virtually finished, and that means literally things that you think have been taken care of that aren’t
little mistakes here and there, a few adjustments in terms of certain passages and so on.  But the hardest thing about this particular piece has been that just in the past year I’ve learned the software for Finale, one of the commonly used computer notation programs.  There are some others, but Finale is one of the prominent ones, and it’s tough to learn, especially when in my case.  I didn’t own a computer at all until a year ago, and jumped right in and learned this program which has about 700 pages worth of manuals to tell you how to do it.  And you have to almost read all of it to understand most of it, at least.  Entering the notes is the easiest part; it’s the other things like the articulation markings and page layout and things like that.  It really can be maddening at first, but I did master it, pretty much at least, so I’m doing that now with this very large orchestral work.  Sometimes there’s 25 or 30 lines per system, and that’s a big score to deal with.

BD:    Is that gratifying to have the page come out almost printed, rather than in manuscript scrawl?

CC-S:    It’s more gratifying now than it would have been, say, twenty years ago because somehow my scrawl gets worse as I get older.  [Laughs]  I had more patience to do it slowly with T-square and triangle even, and make it look pseudo-engraved.  George Crumb does that so well, better than almost anybody, and I don’t think he’ll change to computer notation because he can do some things that are his signature.  The calligraphy of his hand is very beautiful, but I have so much tension when I’m writing, when I hold the pen or pencil, that I just don’t think it would work out very well anymore.  I don’t have the patience for it.  But I find Finale is really very useful in a way I hadn’t expected.  Not only, of course, does it look nice
if you do it right and really understand it, it can look virtually engraved and the parts can be extracted with less time than sitting down and copying them all over again — but it allows you to make changes at a late date.  I work that way.  I sometimes make changes even after a performance, sometimes rather major ones.  It was sometimes such a daunting thought to take a completed orchestral work and make a change.  If you leave out even two measures some place, or re-do two measures, just to renumber the rest of the piece it is a big task.  Now with the click of the mouse, everything is re-done and is re-numbered.  So I started to revise, and in a certain sense even compose a little bit using the program, though I still don’t think I’d want to start from scratch composing.  When I get an idea, instead of having a scribble on a page, I input the notes.  The idea of something that looks engraved as a sketch is kind of weird.  [Laughs]

BD:    Might you be reluctant to change it because it looks done?

CC-S:    Perhaps so.  I think some of the students I see have that tendency.  It looks done and so they think it’s good because it looks good, and the looks have nothing to do with the sound, of course.

BD:    This brings up one of my favorite questions.  When you’re working with a score and you’re tinkering with it, how do you know when it is done?

CC-S:    That’s a difficult question.  I have a pretty good feeling myself when it is finished, and a composer has to guard against the biggest trap.  If it’s a piece you’ve worked on a long time and you know it very well, you’re going to know it better than almost any other human being ever will, probably, and in a sense you sometimes get bored with it.  You know it so well and you’ve heard it so often, you want to make it more interesting for yourself so that a certain passage where it’s building up to a climactic point is just as fascinating and exciting to you, the composer-as-listener as it was when you worked on it several months ago.  Then if you hype it up and keep making it more complex to fulfill your own need to have it stay interesting in every measure and every note, there’s the danger that you overload it and you lose the audience.

BD:    Those are the people who haven’t heard it over several months and seen the development?

CC-S:    That’s right, yes.  One of my favorite quotes
I think it’s attributed to Rossini, who said, “Don’t try to be a genius in every measure.”  That’s probably good advice because in a lot of the very complex music of this century, there has to be so much interesting happening with almost every note or every phrase or every measure, that then the larger span of the piece suffers because you’re looking at everything in detail instead of seeing the whole arch.  Without a certain simplicity to balance, or thin textures to balance thick textures, you can’t really have shape in a large sense.  It might be interesting, of course.  One measure might be more interesting if you increase its momentary interest, but it might not serve the whole piece as well.  The Waldstein of Beethoven begins with those repeated chords, which in themselves are not even a very interesting idea.  But if he’d given you something too complex at the beginning, where could he have gone with it?  He understood that better than anybody.  So he didn’t make that mistake of jacking up the interest for himself to the point where he overloaded the piece.  There are composers that one might accuse of giving too much, perhaps.  Scriabin may have sometimes imbued so many measures with such ideas, but it’s beautiful.  It’s great stuff.

curtis-smith BD:    But you really need to dig at it for the fifth time before you understand it.

CC-S:    Yes.

BD:    We’re kind of dancing around this, so let me ask the real easy question
what’s the purpose of music?

CC-S:    I think if music doesn’t have an emotional impact of some kind, then, for all of its complexity and/or beauty otherwise, it is perhaps meaningless.  The emotional impact, which may not necessarily be there in a composer’s mind when he first starts a piece, will shape itself along with the notes as he’s writing them.  Then the piece will impart something.  Music has to speak on several different levels.  Mozart said that he wrote music that he hoped the true musician would find interesting and not get bored with, but that the average concert listener, the casual listener even, would find attractive.  That’s a hard balance to strike.  Of course, he did it.  To this day, musicians are fascinated by every page he wrote, and the casual concert goer probably loves Mozart above all composers.

BD:    Do you try to include that balance in your compositions?

CC-S:    It’s a tough thing to achieve.  Mozart did it better than anyone, perhaps.

BD:    But you strive for it?

CC-S:    I strive for it, yes.  Some composers would argue that a certain surface appeal is
selling out if it has an immediate impact, and you shouldn’t worry about that.  But I do in any case, for better or for worse.  I think about that, and I do have pieces which maybe succeed more on the surface than they do on the deeper levels.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you get the score finished and deliver it to the performers, are you expecting them to put any interpretation into it, or do you want them to play it exactly as you’ve notated it?

CC-S:    I expect them to put some interpretation into it, if that’s the way of phrasing it.  I know there are certain composers who have disavowed that kind of responsibility for the performer.  I believe Ravel said at one point, “I will not be interpreted,” but I think he was speaking of some of the very excessive late nineteenth century pianists that were still performing in the early part of the twentieth century.  He probably had to suffer through performances by some of them playing his music in a very over-romanticized way.  If you hear Paderewski play the Moonlight Sonata, in the opening movement the left hand is so far ahead of the right on each of those downbeats, with the whole notes in the left moving down, that it sounds like a travesty today, at least to me.

BD:    He must have thought it was perfectly good that way.

CC-S:    He thought it was expressive to play that way.  Today it sounds like you’re doing too much.  Now we’ve gone too far to the other extreme, and you hear pianists that all play about the same.  They all sound perfect, in a certain sense, and you could almost interchange them
especially some of the young competition winners.  I think someone did thattook a tape of the finalists of one of those big competitions and spliced them all together.  It was maybe the Tchaikovsky concerto or something that’s very standard, and you couldn’t tell a tempo change.  You couldn’t really tell any stylistic difference.  It sounded like the same person playing it.

BD:    Should each individual sound like an individual, even though they’re playing a standard masterpiece?

CC-S:    The performer should bring something to the piece.  I guess I’m of that school of thought.  I like the fact that when Rachmaninoff played the Chopin B Flat Minor Sonata, in the Funeral March he didn’t do at all what Chopin said.  He starts the piece pppp and makes a gradual crescendo to ffff at the bottom of the first section.  Then the lyrical middle section he plays more or less as Chopin indicated, and then he reverses the process.  When the big, famous Funeral March chords come back, he starts with three or four Fs again and makes it a diminishing piece.  It’s like a patrol piece that comes from a distance, moves to the foreground and back again.  There’s a number of pieces in the literature that.  It’s almost a genre, the patrol piece, when you hear something coming closer and then receding.

BD:    Ives did that.

CC-S:    Yes, Ives did with the two marching bands, and so on.  I was reading the other day that Ned Rorem said he doesn’t want to be interpreted.  He wants people just to play his music as he wrote it.  For one thing, I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.  Besides, if you really play it exactly how it’s written and he really meant that, then he would be satisfied with a computer playing the music, and that is intolerable.  I know that for a fact, just from having worked with the Finale program.  When you have Finale played back, something that you’ve put into the computer simply is not music.  The unforgiving, mechanical aspect of it makes it something else.  I’m not sure what it is.  On the other hand, you have people, like Conlon Nancarrow, who have written player-piano music.

BD:    But he wrote it for the mechanical instrument.

CC-S:    Yes, he wrote it for that instrument.  Actually there’s many asymmetrical, irrational rhythms that give his pieces a certain life, and are so complex that a person couldn’t do them.  But in a sense there’s almost a feeling of a rubato programmed into that, such as nine against eleven.  Then there is Canon X in which one voice speeds up and the other voice slows down.

BD:    From a humanistic point of view, is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

CC-S:    I think not, because it would mean that only one person could ever really play a given piece and bring out what the piece has to say.  It’s like asking, “Is there a perfect performance of Hamlet?”  What’s perfect?  Not missing a single word?  Of course that means nothing.  Missing a single note or missing a lot of notes may still end up in a great performance, at least in a live situation.  You may not want to live with it on a recording, but as a live performance that is something else.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You are both composer and teacher.  How do you divide your time between those two taxing activities?

CC-S:    At the University of Michigan it’s probably easier than at most places, because the load is quite light.  So that makes it more possible.  Ross Lee Finney, who was one of the founders of their Composition Department, struggled and fought for that situation for the composer.

BD:    Is composing fun?

CC-S:    It’s both fun and torture.  Sometimes beginning a new piece can be a hellish experience when you’re casting about for new ideas and you don’t want to repeat the ideas you’ve used in the last piece.  A few years ago I spent a whole month sketching out ideas.  I was on sabbatical at the time, so I had plenty of time to do it.  In fact, I was doing it all day long
or forcing myself to — and after the whole month of January I had almost nothing that I felt was useable.  That was very discouraging and just seemed like a total waste.  Then suddenly, in the middle of February, in one day’s time I got all these ideas which flowed very rapidly.  Of course they still needed revising, but perhaps all that struggling somehow was brewing in my head, and without the struggle I couldn’t have gotten to that.  If it’s an epiphany, or some kind of breakthrough, or the light bulb goes on, or whatever you want to call it, it can happen, but it usually is preceded by some really hard, struggling work.  So I would say that it’s both the most frustrating and most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life, and on the other hand, after a good performance of a piece that you’re happy with, it can be the biggest high that I can imagine.  I’m comparing it now to a pianist.  Having been a concert pianist myself, even after a performance of whatever Chopin or Bartók or even my own music, that simply does not compare with a fine symphonic performance that I’m hearing in the audience.  That kind of a high is not quite achievable by a performer just as a performer.  But if you’re playing your own piece or listening to someone else play it well, that can be a high that is hard to achieve any other way.  And it’s almost a problem, because you get such a high.  I remember when Leon Fleischer played my Left Hand Concerto with the Detroit Symphony a few years ago.  There were three performances, three nights in a row.  It was almost like getting a fix each night, and each performance was better than the previous.  After the end of that, you go into withdrawal, almost.  It sounds like I’m exaggerating, but it’s almost really there.  Then if you’re lucky, you’ve got another performance coming up in a few weeks or months.  If you’re really lucky, you’ve got one the next weekend, but most composers have to wait some length of time for big performances.  If you had nothing but all those significant performances, you wouldn’t write anything new because you just always want that fix.  Of course you’d get tired of it, perhaps, and decide it’s enough, and go home and write something else.  But it really works that way.

curtis-smith BD:    It sounds like you have the right balance of performances and composing time.

CC-S:    I wouldn’t mind even more performances, but I’m grateful for the performances when they’re good ones.  Of course, every composer is.

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with the performances of your music?

CC-S:    Yes.  There have been a number of groups that have played the Second Piano Trio.  The Merling Trio played it very well, and they recorded it, of course.  Last year, two or three other groups played the piece as well on their tours, and another group has a plan to take up.  Those were good performances, and it’s a very difficult piece with all the African cross rhythms and poly rhythms, and so on.

BD:    I want to be sure and ask you about the bowed piano.  Tell me how you came up with that.  [The front of the LP jacket shown at right, and the liner notes (from the back) are shown below.]

CC-S:    That is kind of an interesting story.  David Burge asked me to write a piece for him, and I knew that he played pieces by George Crumb and Henry Cowell and John Cage.

BD:    Where you had to get into the guts of the piano?

CC-S:    Yes, right.  I suppose that led me to think in the same direction.  So I sat down at the piano one day and I wondered if there was anything that Henry Cowell, John Cage or George Crumb haven’t already thought of?  I thought probably not.  It wasn’t that I was trying just to think of something novel just for the sake of novelty, because that in itself is meaningless.  You can write bad music even if it’s the most original thing right at that moment.  But I did wonder if there was anything else that one can do just as a technique, and then put it to musical purposes.  Just stumbling around, I had an old violin bow there, one that had the horsehair which wasn’t even attached anymore to the other end.  So I just disassembled the bow and tried it, and lo and behold, it worked... except the horsehairs broke too fast.  Then one day I happened to meet my colleague, a violist there at WMU, and asked him what I should do about this problem.  He’s a fisherman, so he said, “Why don’t you try monofilament nylon fishing line?  Just go out and buy some fishing line.”  So I did, and that solved the problem.  I just had to make my own bows, loop that around, and tie the ends and so on, and rosin it.  That didn’t break.

BD:    Did it sound all right?

CC-S:    Yes.  Certain kinds sound better than others, but the cheap kind sounds better.  The other is milled too finely
— that’s what I found, at least.  So I try to find the cheapest stuff I can.  It’s a rougher finish, which is what you need for it to hold the rosin.  So that was something that was just stumbled on, and lo and behold, no one else had thought of that.  George Crumb did use it later in a piece of his.

BD:    Did he give you credit for it?

CC-S:    He did mention it.  It is mentioned on the record jacket, yes.  Then there is a composer working in Colorado, Stephen Scott is the name.  He did something with the same idea, and he was always very nice to give credit on every program.  He took the lid off the piano, and then ten percussionists or pianists stand around one instrument, and all ten of them bowed the piano inside.  Some used the long bows which I had devised, and they also used little popsicle sticks with horsehair glued to them and rosined.  They made short, little sounds.  It was kind of a minimalist piece, and he’s done quite a bit with that style.  He’s written a number of pieces, even a piece for the Los Angeles Chamber Symphony and bowed piano.  At least ten years of his compositional career is all focused just on that technique, but he’s always given me credit even though I never asked for it.  So that’s nice.

BD:    Didn
’t Henry Cowell do something inside the piano in one of his pieces?

CC-S:    That’s true.  Henry Cowell’s Banshee actually has one person at the keyboard holding the pedal down, and the other one does all the inside manipulation.  But obviously, that’s not necessary.  You could put a wedge behind it or put a heavy brick on the pedal.

BD:    Thank you so very much for coming to speak with me today.

CC-S:    It was my pleasure.  Thank you.


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© 1996 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on December 2, 1996.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following March, and on WNUR in 2012.  This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this website at that time.

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.

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.