Composer  Robert  Erickson
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



Composer, author, educator and co-founder of the UCSD Music Department.

Born in Marquette, Michigan on March 7, 1917, Erickson learned piano and violin as a child, studied composition with May Strong in Chicago, and with Ernst Krenek at Hamline University in St. Paul, graduating in 1943. After three years in the Army he returned to Hamline, taking an M.A. in music in 1947, and immediately began distinguished careers as both a composer and a teacher of composition.

A dedicated Modernist, Erickson was one of the first American composers to explore the "twelve-tone" system pioneered by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. By 1943 he had already modified that method to suit his own needs, and by the late 1950s he was evolving a more directly expressive, intuitive music in which, in his words, "craft, thought, and intuition are so merged that it is all one thing."

For many years he experimented with specially-made percussion instruments, with extended vocal and instrumental techniques, with naturally occurring sounds, and with non-standard musical notation.

He was one of the first American composers to work extensively with sounds recorded on tape, both for its own sake and as combined with live performers on conventional instruments; and he wrote distinguished music requiring improvisation, by both solo instruments and ensembles. In later years he moved away from the pioneering experiments of the 1960s and '70s toward a simpler, ultimately stripped-down style, characterized by frequent drones, long slow passages, and hypnotic rhythms which were influential on a number of younger "minimalist" composers.

Erickson composed for virtually every medium except opera, and was performed and commissioned by the Minneapolis, San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles Symphony Orchestras, the American Composers Orchestra, and such celebrated ensembles as the Arch Ensemble, Continuum, the Kronos Quartet, and SONOR. He received fellowships from the Ford Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and, in 1985, the Friedheim Award for chamber music for his string quartet Solstice, performed at the Kennedy Center.

He taught at the College of St. Catherine's in St. Paul, the University of California at Berkeley, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, before becoming one of the founders of the Department of Music at the University of California, San Diego, in 1967. He also served as Music Director of KPFA Radio in Berkeley from 1955 to 1957 and as a director of the Pacific Foundation, KPFA's parent body, for several years thereafter. He was the teacher of Paul Dresher, Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, Loren Rush, Charles Shere, and Morton Subotnick, among others.

Erickson published two books: The Structure of Music: A Listener's Guide in 1957 and Sound Structures in Music in 1975. Many of his compositions were recorded, and he was the subject of two biographies, by John MacKay and Charles Shere, both of which appeared in 1996.

Music for Trumpet, Strings, and Tympani, Erickson's last composition written in 1990, was premiered at UCSD in November 1991 by trumpeter Edwin Harkins and the contemporary music ensemble, SONOR. For the last fifteen years of his life Erickson was confined to his Encinitas home, bedridden with polymyositis, and was unable to attend the premiere.

He was married to the artist Lenore Erik-Alt.

Erickson died on April 24, 1997.

Knowing only a couple of his pieces, I was intrigued enough to seek out Robert Erickson for a conversation to be used as part of my radio series on WNIB in Chicago.  He no longer did any traveling, so we set a date to do the interview on the telephone at the end of February, 1988.  He had been ill and was not up to full strength, but he did want to keep the appointment and though he was weak, he was quite enthusiastic about speaking with me.  The conversation was interrupted a few times near the start, so that he could get more comfortable in his bed, but his answers, though sometimes brief, were thoughtful and reflective of his knowledge and experience.

Here is what was said at that time . . . . . .   

Bruce Duffie:  You're both composer and teacher; how have you divided your career between those two tasks?

Robert Erickson:  All my life I liked to teach; it was easy for me and caused me no difficulty.

BD:  Do you prefer teaching over composing, or composing over teaching, or must you have both?

RE:  You have to make a living, and the easiest way to make a living for me is teaching.

BD:  Has the teaching of music changed at all in the time that you have been doing it?

RE:  My way hasn't changed; I've always taught the same way.

BD:  Are you encouraged by what you hear coming from your students' pens?

RE:  Oh, yeah.

BD:  What advice do you have for the young composers?

RE:  Work hard.

BD:  What do you expect of the audience that comes to hear performances of your music?

RE:  Oh, nothing particular; some will like it and some won't.  I don't expect them to be anything; they don't have to have a college education or anything like that. 

BD:  What do you feel is the purpose of music in society?

RE:  Delight!

BD:  When you're writing music, do you write it to delight?

RE:  I write it to delight myself; I'm hoping that someplace in society there are people who will be delighted by it.

BD:  Have you had good response by the audience?

RE:  Yeah, good enough for me!

BD:  Have you basically been pleased with the performances of your music that you've heard over the years?

RE:  Oh, every composer is, but I've had some good ones.

ericksonBD:  What about the recordings
do those please you?

RE:  Yeah, because there's always a better performance on a recording.

BD:  Always?

RE:  In my case, yeah.

BD:  Do the recordings ever attain something that's impossible in the concert hall?

RE:  No, I don't think so.

BD:  Tell me about Oceans.  I was wondering if it could be classified as "minimalist" music.

RE:  That was composed a long time ago; I think it was '68 or '69, and the word "minimalist" didn't exist in those days.  I thought of it then and I do think of it now as a "sound piece."  Another way I talk about it is it's a no-theme piece, or a no-tune piece.

BD:  It's just the idea of sounds and timbres?

RE:  You got it!

BD:  Have you written anything else that is at all like that?

RE:  I've got a lot of drone-y pieces, but they aren't exactly like that.

BD:  When you're working with electronics and live performers together, does that pose any special problems?

RE:  Oh, dozens!  To make it sound good in the hall is quite difficult.

BD:  Have you written some purely electronic pieces?

RE:  Just a few, at the very beginning of the electronic era, and I soon gave up, 'cause they didn't...they just didn't have the [kind of?] [sound?] that I wanted.

BD:  So then you wanted to add electronics as another color on your palette rather than using it exclusively.

RE:  I didn't want to use 'em exclusively.  My world is instrumental sound.

BD:  But you've also written for the voice.

RE:  Yeah, I've written some for the voice.

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

RE:  Finding good singers!

BD:  Do you worry about that while you're composing, or is that just something that you worry about when you're getting it performed?

RE:  You bet I do!  I usually have the singers in mind before I begin.

BD:  Do the performers ever find things in your music that you didn't know you had put there, or make suggestions to improve your pieces?

RE:  Yeah!  Yeah.  The ones that I have confidence in make a lot of suggestions about breathing and breaking of words, and things like that.

BD:  Do you incorporate these suggestions?

RE:  You bet!

BD:  When you're writing a piece of music, do you control the pen or does the pen control you?

RE:  I control the pen.

BD:  100 percent of the time?

RE:  Yeah, I'm not an automatic writer in any sense.

BD:  Then where is the balance is between the inspiration and the technique?

RE:  When you're a young composer you really don't know, but as you get older
maybe around 40then it's all one.  It all just goes together.  You don't know when you're thinking and when you're intuiting.

BD:  Is that how you know you've arrived as a composer?

RE:  I've never arrived as a composer; I'm still learning about composing now!

BD:  In your opinion, what constitutes greatness in music?

RE:  That is too big a question for me.

BD:  Well, what are some of the things that contribute to greatness in music?

RE:  I could never handle that question.  I really didn't understand what Alfred Einstein was talking about when he wrote that book which he titled Greatness in Music.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Many of your pieces have been commissioned...

ericksonRE:  Some, mm-hmm.

BD:  When you receive a commission, how do you decide if you will accept it or turn it down?

RE:  There's usually been a lot of discussion before the money changes hands, or before the contract is written.  I'm not in a position to write a piece that I don't want to write.

BD:  Do you often commission yourself to write something that you just have to get down on paper?

RE:  No, I don't think of it that way.  I just write a piece.

BD:  Do you ever go back and revise your scores?

RE:  Oh, you bet!  Yeah, I'm an indefatigable editor, but it's mostly the tiny details
the commas, the slurs, dots, and all of that stuff that might not get down correctly in the heat of the original battle.

BD:  So you don't really tamper with the pitch and duration, you just tamper with the interpretation?

RE:  Yeah, with the directions to the player.  I never rip a chunk out and rewrite it, or anything like that.  I start at the beginning and I go to the end.

BD:  How do you know when to put the pen down?  How do you know when the piece is finished?

RE:  It's finished when I write the last note!  It may need dots and slurs and stuff like that
a couple weeks' workbut that's all.

BD:  Is composing fun?

RE:  Of course!  It's a delight.  It goes beyond fun.  It's a pure delight.

BD:  Do you feel that music is art or is it entertainment, and where is the balance?

RE:  Well, let's hope there's a balance.  Nobody knows what "art" is anymore.  That's the trouble.  We don't know much about what "entertainment" is anymore.  It's probably a mix.  If your audience goes to sleep, you just lost.

BD:  Do you have the audience in mind when you're writing?

RE:  I know there are people out there, but I'm not pandering.

BD:  Do you feel that music works well on television?

RE:  Not really, but that may be because I'm not very visual myself.  I'm very audio.

BD:  Even in some of your spatial pieces?

RE:  Right!  It's the space within the head.

BD:  Ha!  That's an interesting way of looking at it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  In General Speech, [(1969), for solo trombone (with theatrical effects)] do you expect the people to follow along, almost like an operatic libretto?

RE:  Oh, no; they're not supposed to really understand the words; just one or two here and there.  If they could understand all the words, it would be a failure.

BD:  Really?  Why?  When I was listening to the recording and following along, I felt that I was getting more out of it than just hearing some sounds that didn't make as much sense.

ericksonRE:  To each his own!

BD:  It occurred to me that the first couple of hearings should be followed, but then after that it could be left more to the imagination.

RE:  If you're into the business.

BD:  But you don't expect the people in the audience to understand all of this at first hearing?

RE:  No, I don't want them to.

BD:  Do you think that General MacArthur is happy with that piece?

RE:  I doubt it.  [Both chuckle]

BD:  Is it part of the score that the trombonist is supposed to dress like MacArthur?

RE:  Oh, yes.  That's a stage piece, and he's very carefully costumed... not like MacArthur, but like a military man.  He has lots of medals and the proper hat, all of that.  It also has a lighting scheme.  All of this was designed by my wife.

BD:  Is it really kind of a monodrama?

RE:  Yeah, you could call it that.

BD:  I want to ask about the piece for double bass... is it Ricercar À 3 ["three"], or Ricercar À Tre?

RE:  [In a blasé, indifferent tone of voice]  Well, take your choice.

BD:  No, I want to take your choice!

RE:  I don't have any choice; it's been called both.

BD:  This, of course, is another piece for virtuoso soloist.

RE:  Yeah.

BD:  Is it necessary that the live soloist do his or her own recording of the other two tracks, or should the two tracks be used from Turetzky's recording?  [See my Interview with Bertram Turetzky.]

RE:  No, if he's going to do it entirely alone, he should be on all three tracks.  I have heard pretty good performances when the two side tracks were students of Turetzky.  That was not bad at all, but I prefer it live to recorded.  I've heard it with three live players on several occasions.

BD:  Do you feel this works better?

RE:  I think it works better.  When I wrote that piece, we always had in mind that we were headed for live players when the time came.

BD:  I want to ask about End of the Mime.  This has a text from Finnegans Wake.

RE:  Right.  I'm a Finnegans Wake lover.  This is a very difficult piece to sing, and it's rarely performed.  The performance on records is pretty good, but it is certainly not the end of the world.  I think in this instance I really expected more from my singers than I could get.

BD:  Would you want to rewrite it to make it easier?

RE:  No, I couldn't.  There's no way to do that.

BD:  Do you find that lately the performers are getting a little closer to your original intention?

RE:  Yeah, and lately I'm not writing such difficult music for voice.

BD:  Have you learned, or is this just the way you've developed?

RE:  I think I learned.

BD:  Another recording is the Chamber Concerto.

RE:  That was my first try at combined written and improvised music, and the recording isn't much good.  They weren't very good improvisers; they didn't play my notes a lot of the time.  It was just one of those things...

BD:  Do you want to disown the recording and have it suppressed?

RE:  I think I would, but I don't think that CRI does that.

BD:  I can just simply not use that one on the program...

RE:  I would appreciate it.

BD:  What are some of the other recordings of your music that you would like to have used?

RE:  There aren't that many recordings right now.

BD:  But you are basically pleased with these others that we've talked about?

RE:  Yeah.  There's also a solo flute piece called Quoq which is very difficult and very virtuosic.  It has been played by John Fonville at UCSD, and he really does a superb job.  It's classy!  He published this on some very tiny label which amounts to self-publication.

BD:  I assume that you are still composing?

RE:  Yeah, I'm working on a piece right now.

BD:  What are you working on, or do you not want to talk about it?

RE:  I don't mind; it's an ensemble piece for five instruments.  [This turned out to be Fives (1988), for viola, cello, English horn, bass clarinet, and piano.]

BD:  Do you have the players in mind already?

RE:  You know it!

BD:  It has been fascinating getting to know you just a little bit even in this short amount of time.  I appreciate your making the special effort to speak with me today.

RE:  Well, I wanted to.  You know, composers' egos never get smaller.  I'm happy to have my music played around Chicago.

=====     =====     =====     =====     =====
---   ---   ---   ---   ---
=====     =====     =====     =====     =====

© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This interview was held on the telephone on February 27, 1988.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB 1992 and 1997.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2011.

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.