Composer Hale Smith
-- and --
Composer T. J. Anderson
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
By the beginning of 1987, I had already
done quite a number of interviews. I mention this because the experience
I had gained allowed me to take advantage of a significant opportunity in
this particular case.
As shown in the letter (reproduced above) responding to my inquiry, composer
Hale Smith had agreed to meet with me, and that interview was set up for January
26th at his hotel. After we had been speaking together for a few minutes,
another gentleman came into the room, and I found out this was T.J. Anderson.
He and Smith were old buddies. Smith called T.J. ‘The
Boss’, and ‘one of my esteemed colleagues
and friends’. Their
exchanges made me realize this was someone I should also speak with as an
interview guest, and they were both gracious enough to allow me to do so.
The result of this double encounter is presented on this webpage.
HALE SMITH is regarded as one of America's finest composers. He also had
a distinguished career as an arranger, editor, and educator. Born in Cleveland,
Ohio on June 29, 1925, he began study of the piano at age seven, and his initial
performance experience included both classical and jazz music. After military
service (1943-45), he entered the Cleveland Institute of Music as a composition
major, receiving a bachelor's degree in 1950 and a master's degree in 1952.
His principal teachers were Ward Lewis in theory, and Marcel Dick, his only teacher
He moved to New York in 1958 and from that time he worked with many prominent
jazz artists, including Chico Hamilton, Dizzy Gillespie, Eric Dolphy, Randy
Weston, Melba Liston, Ahmad Jamal, and Oliver Nelson. He also served
as an editor and consultant with several music publishers (E.B. Marks, C.F.
Peters, Frank Music Corp. and Sam Fox Music Publishers).
In 1952, Smith was a winner of the first Student Composer's Award sponsored
by Broadcast Music Inc., and in 1960 was commissioned by BMI to compose Contours for Orchestra. His other works
include Ritual and Incantation,
Innerflexions, By Yearning and By Beautiful, Music for Harp and Orchestra, Orchestral Set, Mediations in Passage, several chamber
music and solo pieces and several works for chorus and solo voice and piano.
Smith received several honors including the Cleveland Arts Prize, and Awards
from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, The National
Black Music Caucus, and an honorary doctorate from the Cleveland Institute
He taught at C.W. Post College (Long Island) and was Professor Emeritus
from the University of Connecticut. In addition, he served on the boards
of several organizations including The American Composers Alliance, Composer's
Recordings, Inc., The American Music Center, and several state arts councils.
He also was a copyright infringement consultant, and orchestrator and artistic
consultant for the Black Music Repertory Ensemble of the Center for Black
Music Research Columbia College Chicago. Smith was appointed to the New York
State Council on the Arts (1993-1997) by Governor Mario Cuomo.
Smith died after a long illness on November 24, 2009.
-- Names which are links on this
webpage refer to my Interviews elsewhere on this website. BD
In my quest for interviews, one of my main contacts was Barbara Petersen,
Vice President of BMI. Knowing her and working with her was rewarding
for both of us since she put me in touch with many composers in her stable,
and I was thus able to present programs of their music and interviews on WNIB,
Classical 97 in Chicago. It was also nice because she was married to
baritone Roger Roloff,
a major Wagner/Strauss singer whom I had known since undergraduate days.
With that in mind, we started our conversation . . . . . . . . .
Did you know anything about me before Barbara mentioned me? I’m just
curious about things like that sometimes!
Bruce Duffie: I wrote to Barbara with a list of requests,
so I was the one who came up with your name. I had read about you in
Baker’s Biographical Dictionary [edited by
and had played a couple of your recordings on the air.
HS: Well, I don’t
have too much that’s available anymore, to tell you the truth. Would
a cigar bother you? If it would, tell me.
BD: Can I ask
you not to? If you can delay it until later, I would appreciate it.
It gets into my eyes.
HS: No problem.
I’m not hooked! I go days and days without them. That’s
the reason I asked the question. [The photo at right shows Smith with a cigar!
The only other person who inquired about smoking a cigar during our interview
was Daniel Barenboim,
and he also graciously agreed not to.]
BD: Thank you
very much. I want to talk about music and composing.
You’re also a teacher of composition?
HS: I guess that’s
true. Officially I am Professor Emeritus in the University of Connecticut.
BD: Perhaps this
is a difficult question, but is musical composition something really can be
taught, or must it be something that is innate within each person?
HS: I don’t think
that’s a difficult question. The ability to express oneself through
any art form is something I think is innate. That cannot be taught,
but craft is teachable. The best teaching — which
is very, very rare in my opinion, especially in the creative area and music
composition — is an approach that helps the student
to delve within his own resources, and at the same time giving that student
a craft that is necessary to express those thoughts or ideas or whatever one
might want to call them. I have a favorite analogy where I tell students,
or young people in general, having to do with the place of craft and technique
in the creative process. The analogy relates to when one first starts
learning how to write is like learning to ride a bicycle. One has
to be very conscious of every gesture, every shift of balance, the slightest
of degree of manipulating the handlebar, the precise degree of pressure on
the pedals, the precise rate of speed that the pedals should be turned, and
if one miscalculates, the result is that one ends up on the ground.
[Both laugh] But one continues to work these problems out, and then
eventually, sooner or later, one jumps on the bicycle, starts off, and somewhere
down the road he might stop to think, “My goodness,
here I’ve been riding this thing around and I didn’t think about it at all!
All I had my mind on was where I was going and what I wanted to do!”
BD: And composition
is like this?
HS: That’s the
way I view the role of craft. It’s indispensable, but until it’s subordinated
to the point where you don’t have to think that way, it’s not fully under
one’s control. So when one gets out into the world of really creating,
one shouldn’t have to stop to think about making a particular chord progression
here, or using a certain inversion there, then having to distribute the voices
in such a way. By that time, what one thinks about, or should be able
to think about, is the piece and what one is doing with it. What one
is expressing is purely music, or one is trying to express the way clouds
go through a sky. It doesn’t matter to me, but the technique has to
be subordinated to the point where one doesn’t have to think about it.
I was talking with a teacher down in New Orleans, who is a fine pianist and
evidently a good teacher, but I think he has some misconceptions. To
me he’s primarily an educator rather than primarily a performer, and he mentioned
Wynton Marsalis. We both had read this article where Wynton had made
a statement that he never thinks about how he’s going to do something, or
what he’s going to play, or how he’s going to play while he’s performing.
He does not have time to think what chord is going to be played next, or what
notes are going to be played next, or the fingering for the next series of
whatever. You just don’t have time for that in performing. So
this person, who I like very much, was emphatic that Wynton didn’t fully understand
performance because one has to think about those things. I said, “Oh,
no. Wynton is precisely correct because when one is in the process
of performing, one does not have time to think of those things. Those
things are supposed to be part of the equipment, and it’s supposed to be
dealt with before you go on the stage.” It’s
really funny... I had gone to a recital in New Orleans, and after it I went
to the hotel in the French quarter to visit a friend of mine, a fine composer
named Roger Dickinson and who plays piano in the Royal Orleans Hotel there.
There’s an open lounge there where he plays, and I waited until Roger finished
the evening. We went out to the parking area and he was starting to
get into his car to pull out so I could follow. We were going someplace
for breakfast, when who should walk in but Wynton! [Both laugh]
So I told him the story, and he said, “Oh, man, if
you try to think of everything you’re going to do like that, it’s gone before
you get it!” So that’s what I think about it.
Is it precisely at this point when you no longer have to think about the
technique that the real music begins?
HS: I think so,
because there you don’t have to think about how you’re going to do it so much.
BD: Now, you’ve
been involved in the teaching of music for a number of years. How has
the teaching of music changed over ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty years?
HS: In general,
BD: The teaching
of young students of composition, or the young students of music.
I don’t think it’s improved. In fact, if anything, education has declined
and musical education has declined. The problem is that there’s too
many teachers who go through school, say from elementary and high school
through college and get into graduate work without ever getting out into the
world itself. They never have a chance of dealing with the application
and these ideas, what I call the real world. It’s all about academia.
Too many of these students become accustomed to having material handed to
them on a platter. They don’t learn to think. They don’t even
know what thinking is these days. The name ‘education’
as it’s used today is a misnomer, because all we’re doing is some sort of
very extended half-way job training course.
BD: You say the
education has declined. Has the standard of performance of young musicians
declined, or has that gotten better?
HS: It depends.
There is, of course, a very large number of performers, people who are trained
to be performers that are coming out of schools every year, and many of these
people — at least those coming through qualified music
schools — have a pretty fair degree of competency on
their instrument. But again, because so little is brought to the training
process, where they might be well-trained as instrumentalists, they’re not
training well as musicians in my opinion.
BD: So technically
they’re very good but not emotionally?
HS: In most cases, yes. You can use that
word, but I would call it an expressive capacity, meaning the ability to
project some expressive purpose. I don’t really believe too much in
who’s going to be emotional when he’s playing the Hearts and Flowers throbbing kind of
thing, because somewhere in the performance of music — I
don’t care what kind of music it is — the brain has
to be involved. And, since education in general seems to be committed
to doing anything but developing the capacity of the brain, they do not bring
much of that to anything. The evidence of it is what we hear on the
radio or on the TV, or what you read in the newspapers and magazine articles,
and so on. There’s very little bit of that which is conducive to thought
or dealing with serious issues, whether it’s in art or anything else.
Frankly, I don’t think it’s a good period in that sense.
BD: Is there
any hope, or are we doomed forever?
HS: I don’t believe
in anything being doomed forever. Of course there are those out there
doing their best to doom it, but it would come from something else!
BD: Well, let
me pursue that just a bit! Who is dooming it, or who is attempting
to doom it?
HS: I’ll put
it in these terms to keep it from being too particularized. I don’t
believe there’s a country on the face of the Earth these days which has a
governmental leadership that it can afford, and that goes for all of them.
These people who have taken it upon themselves to lead the world are leading
it to hell and back and downhill every step of the way, and I don’t see anything
getting too much better.
there be a role of government in the arts?
HS: If you don’t
have a general atmosphere of well-being, you can’t have anything else.
It’s a fallacy to think that arts really flourish in adversity. No,
they don’t. When the so-called ‘good life’ has been appropriated by
the financiers of the world, the ‘get-rich-quickers’ of the world, the ‘holier-than-thou’
of the world — whether they’re preachers or followers
I don’t care, or whether it’s presidents, mayors and governors of the world
— those who have themselves not been cognizant of the fact that
they themselves are ignorant of most of what has made the world better in
human history, I don’t see that we’re going to improve very much soon.
I don’t know whether that’s fair to these people or not, but in an atmosphere
like that, art cannot really flourish. In this country, there’s a big
to-do about performing arts. A lot of government money —
federal state and municipal — is spent on
what they call ‘performing arts’. There’s very little said about the
creative arts. If we’re talking about dance, we’re eliminating the choreographers.
If we talk about actors, we’re eliminating the people who are writing the
plays and films scripts. And if we talk about music, we’re eliminating
the people who create it, people like myself and other rather good names
such as Carter and
Babbitt, right through
Anderson, especially down to those who are younger coming along, trying to
scratch out careers. They have to compete with the giants of the past
because it’s to the benefit of a Program Director on a radio station, or to
an accountant in any of the businesses that are related to the dissemination
of music, that they make yet another recording of a Mozart symphony or Beethoven
symphony or some fragments from Wagner because they have already in their
hands ‘saleable’ names. They’re not interested in the concept of building
names to the point where they in turn will become saleable items, if you want
to put it that way. They’re not interested in funding the music.
They’re not interested in making it possible for this music to become popular
by being heard. Let’s face it, not all modern music is harsh or hard
to listen to. Not all of it is like that. There’s a lot of very,
very accessible music written by composers that either lived not too recently,
or who are still alive.
BD: Do you want
the situation to change to where Hale Smith becomes a household word?
HS: I’m not particularly
interested in being a household word. I wouldn’t mind the money, but
the problem that comes with that is that one in turn has an obligation to
live up to the image. I don’t want to become another Andy Warhol.
I saw a picture of him yesterday in one of the New Orleans newspapers standing
in front of one of his brand new works in that little town in Italy where
The Last Supper is being refurbished.
Warhol has his The Last Supper in
a building across from that little chapel, and the thing that struck me was
that in Warhol’s he had a part of Da Vinci’s painting upside down. I
think Dali was a far greater painter than Warhol could ever dream of starting
to be, and he destroyed himself in terms of becoming the essence of his image.
That’s one of the dangers in that type of thing. I’m not interested
being a household word except in certain circles. I want to be deserving
of being respected by the people that I respect, and that includes the listener.
* * *
BD: When you’re
writing a piece of music, for whom are you writing?
HS: I don’t think
any serious musician, or composer, or creator is ever writing for anyone but
himself. He has an external purpose. For instance, if I were to
write a piece for you and you were going to play it, then I have to take certain
things into consideration. That’s only being professional. But
first, if it doesn’t satisfy me I don’t care what you think about it!
And if it does satisfy me, I still don’t care! [Both laugh] It
has to be that way I believe.
BD: Have you basically been pleased with the
performances you’ve heard of your music?
HS: I’ve had
some good ones and I’ve had some disasters. Most of them have been
pretty good. I’m not the type of composer that gets excited if everything
isn’t perfect. I get upset if the commitment to the piece, or just to
the art of music, is not there. I prefer having flawless performances;
I very definitely would prefer that, because I know if it’s flawless, that’s
what I have in my ear. Usually that doesn’t happen, but I also have
the experience of really dedicated people playing music of mine, who for some
reason or other couldn’t pull everything off. But the commitment was
so strong there that the music worked anyhow, and I would satisfy myself with
BD: Are most
of your pieces written on commission, or are there some things that you just
say, so you have to write them and hope that they get published?
for a very long time I have not had to worry about publishing or publication.
I’ve been very lucky in that way. Usually I have so many things to do
that I don’t just sit down and write a piece like that. Rather, I just
block out a certain period of time just to be writing, and it is something
I find very difficult to do. Besides, I don’t mind being professional.
The great masters of the past were paid for what they did... Schubert was
an exception. He didn’t understand the market place, but for the most
part they got paid in one way or the other. Usually there was enough
to support them.
BD: So then you
feel it’s important for even a creative artist to understand the market place?
HS: I think so.
Samuel Johnson made a very good point. I can’t quote him exactly, but
he did say something to the effect that if one must write, one must write,
but one is a fool to write except for money. Maybe one can’t carry that
quite to such an extent, especially if he’s writing music. If he’s
writing words, that’s a little different. Words seem to get a little
more play by the conglomerates who are even taking care of that these days.
BD: If you have
a lot of commissions, how do you decide which commissions you will accept
and which you will decline?
HS: I’ve never
had that many at one time that I have to make that choice, not on that ground.
But I will accept a commission if there is a serious amount of money involved,
and if it’s clearly understood that the commissioning money is mine.
The expenses for preparing the materials, copying parts and so on, comes extra.
That is not to be taken out of my commission. I will be satisfied with
that if, in addition, the commissioning party and I come to an agreement
on duration, and the type of forces for which I am to write —
whether it’s a chamber group, a solo piece, or full orchestra,
or whether it’s for students, or whether it’s for amateurs, or full-fledged
professional players, all of that. It’s something the commissioner
has a right to impose, but what I write and how I write it is MY business.
And when I write it, I own the rights, and that is clearly covered in the
copyright law of the United States. So if they have got enough money
and they buy that other stuff, I write the piece. I think it’s reasonable
BD: You’ve got
to be protecting yourself and your own interests.
When people commission music, that’s a different proposition from buying music.
If you want to ‘buy’ a piece of something written for hire, and the writer
is good enough to go along with that program, then you as the buyer own the
music. You own the rights to it because that person will have sold
his rights to you. A true commission gives you the privilege of being
connected with the creation with the work of art. Now that might be
rather tenuous. There are names that are coming down to us in history
of people who would not be known except for their connection with composers
in that way. In other words, that takes care of ego and the mortality
factor and the rest. But one could get the privilege of first performance,
and there’s a general range of time where a person might negotiate a kind
of exclusivity. If there’s enough money, you might say you’d like to
have exclusive rights to the performance for a year. Fair enough.
A year’s a good time if the money is enough to make it worth the composer’s
while, because even if a composer writes quickly, there is not wastage of
energy in the sense that the energy you used to write the piece quickly is
exactly the same energy that would be used if the piece took up a longer
time. It’s the conversion from one level to another. It’s a basic
physical fact, that’s all. I’m not talking about metaphysics here.
BD: Are some
compositions not harder to get out than others?
HS: That might
have to do with a number of factors, in the sense that it has to do with the
amount of energy that would be required in pulling a heavy weight up by attaching
it to a rope that would go through a number of pulleys. At the other
end, the person pulling on the other end of that rope might find it easier
to pull that weight up, than to just pull it up by his two hands, but the
physical factors, the amount of energy expended is exactly the same.
BD: You’re still
going to have the same weight?
HS: Yes, and
the energy that’s involved is precisely the same. That’s what I mean.
BD: So the parameters
of the commission then determine how much weight each composition is going
HS: Oh, yes,
but then again, a very easy-sounding passage to a very easy-sounding piece
might be very difficult to write. It might be more difficult to write
than something with an all hell-fire and glory! Schoenberg wrote an
essay called Heart and Brain in Music
(1946) which dealt with that point, and he referred to a passage in Verklärte Nacht. It looks very
difficult on paper — there’s multiple counterpoint,
a lot of complex little things going on here and there — and
he said he tossed it off in no time flat. But there was another passage
that looks very easy and looks empty, and it took him days going to work it
through. All of us who write know that. We have experienced that.
How do you know when a piece is finished, when you’ve got to quit tinkering
with it, when everything is just right?
HS: I don’t know
how other people work, but I don’t tinker. I can’t really get much of
a head of steam, and I can’t really work very well at a piece until I have
a pretty good idea of where it is — its dimensions and
its various parameters. I tend to think of composition in sculptural
or architectural terms. I equate this block of time with a stone or
a space, and the problem then is shaping that time, space, stone in such a
way that the piece grows out of it. I keep thinking of the story of
this block of Carrara marble that was discarded by a rather renowned local
sculptor because its shape was bad. The dimensions didn’t fit his imagination.
So along came this other sculptor who looked at it and saw exactly what
was in there. He went to work on it, and out came Michelangelo’s David! [Both laugh] According
to the story, which I’m inclined to believe, the height of this block of stone
exactly matched the height of the finished statue. So I guess it’s
the ability to take whatever it is one is dealing with and visualize what
fits in it.
BD: So then really
instead of putting something into a space, you’re releasing from the space
what is already there?
HS: That’s what
I think. That’s the way I tend to think of composition. I don’t
‘do’ a piece; I discover the piece, and in doing that, very often I do need
to build up a very heavy head of steam to get all kinds of pressure and tension,
which is why I say that the best guarantees in me writing are money and a
deadline! I need to have some pressure I can’t squeeze away from to
really make me go through the labor for sitting down. I’m not like T.J.,
who just writes! [All laugh] I wish I could do that! He’s
always telling me, “Man, just write the piece!”
But I consider myself part of the great tradition of Mozart and Rossini.
In both cases they tended to put things off till they couldn’t put them off
anymore. Very often to break through that, I’ll just sit down and start
writing. It’s almost like a blind writing, and I’ll get a certain number
of pages or a certain number of measures, whichever comes first, and then
I stop and isolate the ideas into the harmonic elements, the rhythmic elements,
and the melodic elements. When I isolate them, I write a series of motifs,
sections of the melodic material, let’s say, and I’ll break it down and see
what is the common motivic material with the same with harmonic structures
and rhythms. I isolate them, starting them separately, and I call that
my ‘getting acquainted with the biographies of my ideas’.
I think that’s what Beethoven was doing in his sketchbooks. Then the
time the piece falls in line. There also I do a little work with my
stopwatch, and metronome, and my pocket calculator, in measuring, timing
this, that, and the other. So by the time I actually start writing,
I know it. Once I write it in my head, usually it flows, and I can write
rather quickly like that.
* * *
BD: I want to
go off in a little different direction for the moment. We were talking
about Wynton Marsalis. He sort of made it in both camps
— the ‘popular’ camp
and the ‘serious’ camp.
HS: Now that’s
a word that’s verboten for me!
BD: Which word?
I hate that word! I use the word ‘formal’. My common statement
is that some joker might be standing out there on the corner, right out there
playing the Blues, and he’s dead serious.
BD: Is it a mistake,
then, for the concert public to draw an artificial line between their music
and the music of the guy out on the corner playing the Blues?
HS: I think so,
sure. I don’t draw it for myself, except for when I’m writing ‘formal
music’ I’m writing ‘formal music’, and when I’m writing jazz or playing jazz,
I’m doing that. But the line is a continuum.
BD: Music is
HS: It’s a continuum.
I agree with Duke Ellington when he said that good music is music that sounds
good. But I then admonish people to remember who said that!
BD: But you seem
to have decided to spend most of your efforts on the formal music side.
HS: No, I live
on both sides of that fence every day of my life. I would sit in with
Dizzy Gillespie, and I told Billy Taylor, “Say, man,
you need a piano player in your group?” All the
time I stay on both sides.
BD: [With a sly
grin] Would you go up to Sir Georg Solti and ask
if he would need a piano player in his group?
Well, he can play pretty well! I’m what I would call an aspiring piano
player, but I maintain close ties with jazz world.
BD: Is this,
perhaps, what makes a performer like Marsalis so special because he does
do both so well?
HS: That’s one
of the things, but he’s not the only one by any means. Wynton came along
under some very propitious conditions in time, and he was also very,
very fortunate in his choice of a father. He really was. Ellis
Marsalis is a brilliant musician in my opinion, but Wynton is paying a price
for the fame he’s achieved. His case reminds me of a lot of things
that used to be said about Heifetz. He was regarded as being The Perfect
Violinist, and his technique was just beyond that of anybody else that ever
picked up the instrument. The idea of him having a mistuned note was
completely beyond the imagination, but many, many people spoke of the cold
perfection of his playing. It was cold, but I’m not so sure he was,
and that same kind of thing is applied to Wynton. Let me hear some
mistakes! Let him fluff some time to show he’s human. He’s also
upset a few people — more than a few people
— by the broadness of certain statements he’s made. I find
him very warm and very nice. I often measure a person by observing that
person’s interaction with the lesser of the world, and that includes fans
very often. I’ve known too many performers — names
of some of them you would know — who act disdainfully
towards the public. I’ve never seen that with Wynton. I know
of him to going into schools, taking time out with youngsters, and I know
several youngsters he has encouraged. In that way he’s like Dizzy, because
both of them I’ve seen always encouraging younger players, and taking time
out to talk with them and make them feel good. At least one or two
of them he’s invited over to his apartment and given some lessons, for that
BD: Do you do
the same thing when you encourage young composers?
HS: No, I’m hard
on all of them! [Has a hearty laugh] If I see talent, and even
more so the fact when I see sincerity, I’ll take the time, of course.
I tend to talk too much... like I’m talking too much here! [Both laugh]
* * *
BD: Are you pleased
with the recordings that have been made of your music?
HS: The one thing I’m not pleased about is
that over the years there’s been so few, and there have been none for quite
a while now. Those are other considerations, but in terms of performance
there’s nothing that I would really turn my back on. Even though the
Louisville recording of my Contours for
Orchestra helped to make my name something that at least people interested
in American music would have reason to pay attention to is done in a sincere
way. It has that type of sincerity that I mentioned before, but I’ve
heard performances of it that have a great deal more fire. That particular
piece calls for that type of drama. The recording of the Ritual and Incantation done by Paul Freeman
with the Detroit Symphony was damaged by decisions made on the recording
side, tying in certain sections on the same microphone lines for the balances
and so on. So when we got into the mixing studio, certain adjustments
couldn’t be made without damaging some other section that was on that same
line. I understand this record is coming out on CD, and in fact that
whole Black Composers Series from CBS is coming back on CD.
BD: Oh good!
It’s been out of the catalogue for a while, so I’m glad to know that it’s
HS: It’s supposed
to. There’s supposed to be two different forms — one
that is sponsored by the College Music Society, and I was also given word
that there’s going to be a CBS release of it again. Now, of course,
that was before Paley took over the reins again, so I don’t know what’s going
to go on now! [Both laugh] CBS is a world unto itself. But
the ending, the last section of that recording is defective because on the
equipment they were using at the time, the ending built up such a dynamic
level that it knocked the needles into the danger zone. When I first
heard a test pressing, I almost died. When it got to the major climax
near the end of the piece, it suddenly dropped. There’s a physiological
expression that would cover the effect, which, since this is going to be on
radio I won’t mention, but I think you would know what it is! [Both
laugh] I objected to that strenuously. There’s a section that
starts the so-called Incantational
second part of the piece, which opens with a drum roll. They started
it at that point and brought the entire thing down to a lower level so there
is some approximation of a climax at the end. But the key problem of
joining these various sections cannot be solved on that recording.
The performance was good. Paul Freeman knew the piece, and in fact he
did the first performance of it, and he’s performed it a number of times.
So I got admiration there.
a recording should get it right, but how are these technical problems with
balances different from, say, a performance in an auditorium where you have
one person sitting way over on one side in front of the harps and the violins,
and another person sitting way over on the other side by the double basses,
and somebody else way at the top of the balcony who can’t hear the inner textures?
HS: A lot of
that depends on the hall and the way the piece is actually performed.
There are certain concert halls that tend to clarify musical details, while
other halls tend to distort them in one way or another. They make certain
sections or certain pitch levels muddy, or overly sharp and bright, or whatever.
But the other factor here is that we are dealing with a concert hall where
sound is being dispersed through the entire space, for better or for worse,
depending on the acoustical properties of the room. But when you’re
dealing with microphones, you’re talking about certain elements of tone being
particularized, isolated, sent into a control board, and then that is manipulateable
by an engineer. So we have two different acoustical problems.
BD: Has the concert
public become too enamored of the gramophone record?
HS: I can imagine
a scene in a concert hall where somebody who is accustomed these recordings
of whatever type is looking around frantically saying, “Where’s
the bass button? I don’t hear enough bass!”
BD: They want
to make their own adjustments!
Today we’ve got a situation where in certain opera halls and concerts halls
in the country, singers are miked. To me, that is one of the least understandable
things for any kind of group. This happens a lot with popular groups
of course, and in a hall like Carnegie, it completely disrupts the natural
ambiance in that hall, and they are always having to struggle to get this
adjusted and that adjusted, and so on and so on. Then when the mixture’s
right, almost invariably they are having it far too loud, so it doesn’t work!
I remember an event several years ago at St. Augustine’s
College [as it was called in 1987 when
this interview was held. Saint
Augustine's University is a historically black college located in Raleigh,
North Carolina. The college was founded in 1867 by prominent Episcopal clergy
for the education of freed slaves.] Ragtime pianist Max Morath
and I were there on separate nights, and also one of those nights had one
of the Preservation Hall jazz groups. They played in the school gym,
and immediately following them was a local group that played. In this
Preservation Hall group, the youngest fellow was fifty-nine at the time, and
the rest of them were in their sixties and seventies. I think one of
them was just about hit eighty. They had to use a beat up upright school
piano they had in the gym. This was a gym with a stage in it, and he
had one electrical light. But it didn’t matter since they weren’t reading
music anyhow. The leader was the trumpet player, and I notice he would
stamp his foot once. By that second beat they were coming in and they
were all rock solid. It was wonderful the way they kept that time.
There was a clarinetist, a trumpet player, a trombone player, a banjo player,
the piano player, a bass player, and a drummer. So there were seven
people up there in this lousy gym, and I heard everything. Every once
in a while one of them would sing, and when this person would get up there
and sing there might have been one mike up front, but I don’t remember.
But what I do remember is that when the singer got up there, the
rest of that band came right down (in volume), and you could hear every word
that singer was singing, and you could hear every note that the band was
playing. Right after they’d finished, the other group started bringing
in their stuff. They had a battery of speakers around the back of
the stage! There were some pretty good musicians. A couple of
them were teachers down there, and they played jobs at night or as extra
players when needed. But when they got through turning those dials,
boy, I remember putting my hand up against a brick wall, and that thing vibrated.
[Both laugh hysterically] You didn’t hear a thing except noise, and
the balances were terrible. I don’t see how musicians can do it.
I just get upset about it. My poor head! [Laughs] There
is a wonderful old popular song called I’m
Old Fashioned, and when it comes down to that, I’m old fashioned.
There’s somewhere down the line the music has to come through, and it’s not
BD: Is the music
of Hale Smith wonderful?
HS: Frankly I
think so because, as I told you before, the music I write has to meet my
criteria, and if I don’t like it, who else should like it? I don’t
think I’d want to put up with anything written by somebody who didn’t like
their own stuff! Sure! I think I write beautiful
BD: Is writing
said it was! I don’t know whether it’s fun or not. It’s like asking,
“Are you a music lover?” I
don’t know, except that there’s nothing else that I would put anywhere near
it in terms of its effect on me. I like pretty things, beautiful things,
and I like to have something to say. Even if I have something to say,
if I can at least make it beautiful to me, then I like that. But I like
hearing it more than I do putting it down. Maybe that’s why I put it
off so much.
* * *
BD: Have you
written an opera?
HS: It’s a funny
thing. I’m listed in some opera guide as having written a chamber opera
many years ago. What I did was write what I thought was incidental music
for a production of Lorca’s Blood Wedding,
and if it’s an opera, it’s a strange one because none of the principals were
singers! [Both laugh] So all of the vocal work writing is done
for people in the show. It was done for the Campbell Theater in Cleveland
many years ago. The interesting thing to me is that in November I had
two libretti handed to me within one week. People that had been working
BD: Are you going
to set them?
HS: I want to very much, so I’m thinking about
them. Right now I’m trying to sort the two. They are so far apart
that it’s possible I might even pull a Ravel coup and start writing two operas
at one time! [Much laughter] Both of them, for whatever it’s
worth, deal with essentially black subject matter, but they transcend those
ideas, those conditions. One has very rich and beautiful imagery, and
the other is quite stark.
BD: Are they
HS: Yes, they
would be full length.
BD: If they were
chamber works, maybe you could put them both together.
HS: No, no, these
would be full length. In fact, my problem with the lush one is that
the librettist was really thinking the impossible! I asked him how many
stages in the world he thought could handle this! There’s one point
when he has the chief protagonist is going through the theater, dropping down
on a rope, trying to get to his seat, and he’s stumbling over people, stepping
on shoes and everything. There’s action on the stage; a singer doing
something on the stage, and while all that’s going on, he’s singing an aria!
Even in the greatest theater in the world it would take you fifteen minutes
to get down the theater aisle! [Much laughter during this entire story]
That is something we have to work out, but I’m not mentioning names deliberately.
BD: I hope it
comes to pass, both these operas.
HS: I wouldn’t
mind doing it. Thinking of operas, there are two recent operas T.J.
Anderson has done, that are quite remarkable. T.J. has written two of
them. [Addressing Anderson, who has been listening to the conversation
since his arrival] Have you finished the second one? [The second work would be Walker which would be completed in 1992.]
T.J. Anderson: Just
HS: You’ve only
just finished the first? Soldier
Boy, Soldier. I’ve not seen it. I wasn’t able to get to
performances but I did see the score. So he’s done something.
Then there was an opera based on the early life of Frederick Douglass by
a woman composer, Dorothy Rudd Moore. The one which got the most attention
I believe is Anthony Davis’s opera, X,
based on Malcom’s life. I think they’re very strong; all three of those
scores are quite strong in my opinion. I went to a performance of X that was at the City Center Opera, and
during an intermission I went around holding my posterior for, as far as
I’m concerned, Anthony Davis kicked a lot of us, and we were pretty tender.
He did a beautiful job.
BD: High praise
HS: Well, yes,
I think each of those are very strong pieces. Soldier Boy, Soldier is good, as is the
Frederick Douglass work, and of course X,
so I’ve got quite a precedent in front of me when I’m thinking of doing mine.
BD: Is opera
the way to reach people today?
HS: The way to
reach people today is to write rubbish, and be sure that properly placed radio
people are paid enough to play it. That’s the way to reach people today.
BD: Then why
HS: Because it’s
there to be done, and there are certain things that need to be expressed that
people like us can express. The world — if it
lasts — is not going to remain in the hands of the ‘know-nothings’
and ‘the great I ams’. I’m not being prophetic. It’s just that
we’re going through a phase and a cycle, I believe, and if we live long enough
and come out of it, hopefully there will be enough of our civilization left
for really serious interesting beauty. It will have a chance.
BD: I hope we
HS: So do I,
I tell you!
BD: Thank you
so much for sharing your time with me today.
HS: Well, maybe
I shouldn’t have gotten so vociferous.
BD: No, no, this
was fine! [Looking at T.J. Anderson] Can I impose on you to change
seats and let me talk with you?
HS: This guy
upstages me so often. [Laughter all around]
TJA: Oh, no,
never. He is my teacher. How can you upstage your teacher!
HS: Do you want
me to tell you something about him?
a protest] No, no, no! [All laugh]
HS: He’s one
of our privileged composers. For years he was head of music at Tufts
University until he stepped down, and he’s still at Tufts. He is one
of our most eminent educators. Before that he spent some time in Atlanta
as composer-in-residence for the Atlanta Symphony with Robert Shaw, and he
is one of the most articulate and pungent speakers.
BD: [To my new
guest as he settles into the chair by the microphone] So, where’s music
TJA: I don’t
know and I don’t care! [Laughs] I really don’t. Basically,
any artist that has a sense of commitment and a sense of value to their own
truth to what they envision must just go out and do it, and if the arts coalesce
around where you are, you’re fortunate. If not, you just go on along,
just as Hale has gone on alone and left quite an impressive body of literature
that a lot of people don’t know. But certainly the literature is there.
To follow the trend, which a lot of composers have done, we’ve seen composers
that have been influenced by jazz, and others who write popular music.
Then there’ve been ‘minimalists’ who have come and gone, and ‘abstract expressionists’
have come and gone, and before that the ‘twelve-tone’ composers. In
my lifetime I have seen many movements come and go, and the question is not
that you don’t enjoy this diversity. You do, but within this diversity
there’s so much insignificance. The sense of one’s own personality and
one’s own wisdom, you might say, is really what makes any artist a significant
BD: How do you
decide when a piece of music is significant?
TJA: I think
there are several things. One person can’t make a piece of music
BD: Not even
It has to be a combination of creator, performer and audience. The difficulty
of what I’ve just said is that sometimes these things don’t go hand in hand.
It took Mendelssohn to discover Bach. You do have these lags so that
we may have — and certainly I do believe we have
— significant composers now, but they are more or less obscure.
We also have composers that enjoy a great deal of popularity in terms of
name identification and performances that may prove to be totally insignificant,
say, fifty years from now.
BD: You and Mr.
Smith have been jovially bantering. Is there a competition amongst composers?
TJA: I don’t
think so. I can speak to that only in reference to black composers,
and I can say without question that black composers tend to be individualistic.
There’s no ‘school’ of black composers. All of us have different styles,
and the reason we do is that the desire for freedom is greater than the desire
for collective school. That’s one of the beautiful things about the
movement in terms of black composers. The other point I would make is
that while there’s safety in identification in terms of schools or becoming
a part of a group, black composers tend to support other black composers
because we recognize the problem with being black in the society. The
problem of being a black composer is a problem of being a black, period.
You can’t separate that from any other type of black person within the society.
The problems that we have, have been addressed by previous generations.
From composers like William Levi Dawson or William Grant Still and certainly
others of that generation, their imprint on the society has meant a lot to
us because we have known exactly what they wanted. The younger generation
looks at our generation and says the same thing, that we don’t know what they’re
BD: Let me get
a progress report, then. We’re at the end of January of 1987.
Has the black movement and the black musical movement made the kind of progress
that you wanted?
TJA: No, without
question. The society refuses to integrate on the basis of talent.
For black composers, like black performers, the problem is not that we don’t
exist; the problem is not that the literature isn’t as good as any other ethnic
group that you want to compare it with. The problem is that we just
don’t have access. Now the question you have to ask yourself is who
is responsible for that. Certainly we’re not responsible for that.
We write the music, so the breakdown is not on our part. The breakdown
is on the part of the society which is clearly defined, as classical music
is, and that accepts fewer black composers.
BD: Do you yourself
want to be a black composer, or do you want to be a composer?
TJA: I am a black
composer! I have no choice, and I say that with pride because, I honestly
believe there are things in my background that not only make me black but
also make me a mark. If you’re talking about American music, then I
am American music, but when people talk about American music they don’t talk
about me! I remember a remark that William Dawson made once. After
a concert, a woman walked up to him and said, “Oh, Mr.
Dawson, your music sounded just like Gershwin!”
He said, “Madam, you have that backward. Gershwin
sounds like me!” His meaning was that Gershwin
was drawing from the same source, and the source turned out to be his root.
So this whole absenteeism of what we represent has been represented by a synthetic,
BD: [Hoping for
yet another interview to come out of this encounter] Is Dawson still
An interesting thing happened recently. I knocked on his door this past
summer about 6.30 in the morning, and he came with suspenders on. He
was just having breakfast, and I arrived unannounced, and we had a great time
BD: You were
asking me how I get ideas for interviews, and he’s one who has been
on my list for a long time. [I then
asked if Mr. Anderson could provide contact information, which he gladly
did. To my great regret, when I called Mr. Dawson a few days later,
we spoke for a couple of minutes and he politely but firmly declined my request
for an interview.] [Continuing the interview] I wrote
to Olly Wilson and
am waiting to hear back from him, and I did do a great show with my interview
of Ulysses Kay.
excellent, yes. He’s a close friend of both Hale and I.
* * *
BD: Have there
been some recordings of your music?
TJA: Yes, a few recordings. I don’t have
as many as Hale, but certainly I have a few recordings. It’s interesting
being back in Chicago because I have very fondest feelings for Chicago.
Particularly, one of my closest friends, the sculptor, Richard Hunt (shown together in the photo at right),
has been very instrumental in my career. I had a fiftieth birthday
celebrated there in the studio, which he made possible. Another thing
is that he commissioned a piece for principal bass of the Chicago Symphony,
Joseph Guastafeste. This was a piece for flute
and double bass [Bridging and Branching]
which I composed for him, and that’s been published by my publisher in Berlin.
Another thing is that my librettist for my opera, Soldier Boy, Soldier, teaches at Northwestern.
This is Leonne Forrest, who I consider one of the most important writers in
America today. His is a tremendous mind, really.
BD: Let’s talk
about your opera. This was commissioned?
TJA: This was
commissioned by Indiana University several years ago, and it was based on
a story of a Vietnam veteran returning from the violence of that war to greater
violence in America. It’s the story of his readjustment, and basically
it ends with his own murder.
Are you pleased with the way the opera was presented?
TJA: I am very
pleased with the performance I got at the University of Indiana. The
young voices that were there were very impressive. The reception was
mixed. In all fairness I could say that some people didn’t like it,
and others did. The problem with contemporary opera, particularly one
that deals with a black subject is that people automatically go looking for
Porgy and Bess! [Both laugh]
In fact, they asked me if I would do a Brian’s Song. That’s a natural, in terms
of the story between a white and a black and their tragedies. I wasn’t
interested in that. For personal reasons, the Vietnam war had a lot
to say in terms of the disproportionate number of blacks that were killed
in that war, in terms of the lack of fulfillment, in terms of the national
commitment that existed in the country at that time, and in terms of the
dissipated resources that were expended in Vietnam, and the end result of
that. It’s a legacy of that tragedy that we still, as a nation, have
BD: This impacts
you as a human being. Does this impact the way you write music
— not necessarily this one opera specifically, but the way you
write all your music?
No. Obviously there is a style that is somewhat consistent, and there’s
a book on what I do. Like Hale, I have developed a system of writing,
and there’s a dissertation by Bruce Alfred Thomson at the University of Indiana
on my system of how I write. What I try to do is have each work have
a life of its own so it’ll address the particular need of that work, so that
the Vietnam situation doesn’t impact on other things that I do, only tangentially.
I’m doing a piece based on a text by Philip Levine. I think it’s phenomenal,
and it’s about the immigrants that came to this country and their experiences.
When you stop to think, our great cities were built by immigrants
— Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Houston. You had this
great migration of poor people coming in, and they were really able to provide
an industrial base for the country. Now most of these people are up
in age. They can’t walk the streets of the city. They’re no longer
desired because the new technology has come in, and their children are no
longer desired, either. Look at the steel industry as an example.
It is not that you object to technology; what you object to is the inhumane
relationship to the technology for the people that made this technology possible
in the first place. What really hits me and disturbs me is when you
see high unemployment rates and would want to be capricious and callous and
say that they’re lazy and don’t want to work, as opposed to trying to be creative
and find a solution to the problem. This is something I think all of
us have as a nation, I think.
BD: Then what
can you do to address these social problems?
TJA: I write
music! [Laughs] A lot of music has texts, and I imagine the Philip
Levine takes that road. I’ve written texts with a number of major poets,
yet, at the same time there’s a lot of my music that doesn’t have a text.
In writing a piece I try not to bring out the message of the problem.
It’s not what I’m really interested in. I’m interested in the human
response to the condition that we as a society find ourselves in at this time,
and that’s what I try to project in my music. The range of my music
is extremely diverse. I make use of Indian Ragas, jazz, other folk
music or spirituals, even avant-garde music in which people say I’m very
much influenced by Schoenberg and Webern. It’s true! So there
is a diversity to all of this, yet at the same time the core of this is the
experience that I have in my listening habits and study of scores, and things
that I have experienced in life.
BD: Do you receive
commissions for a lot of these works? [Vis-à-vis the recording
shown at left, see my interviews with tenor William Brown, and violist
TJA: I’ve had
a number of commissions, yes.
BD: How do you
decide which commissions you’ll accept and which commissions you will decline?
I’ve not been in that position and been fortunate like Hale. But I think
the only reason I would decline a commission is if it were a moral issue
that I could not support.
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] We can’t expect an opera from you about the Ku Klux Klan?
TJA: Ah, no.
[Laughs] They have their own power bases, and they do it pretty well
from what I’ve seen in Georgia. I’m very proud that’s my daughter was
on that march, so the next generation is there.
BD: What I’m
getting at with some of these questions is why you write the music you do?
TJA: I write
the music that I do because I have had a set of experiences that nobody else
has had. I also can do what nobody else can do. I have had training,
I’ve had teachers, I’ve studied violin for a number of years. I’ve played
— I was a professional jazz musician at fourteen and went on the
road — so I’m saying I’ve had a number of experiences
which culminate in what I do. I agree with Hale — there’s
nothing else for us to do but write music. Certainly I could other
things. Obviously I could have gone to law school and been a lawyer.
In fact, I was all set up to go law school when I decided not to go to law
school, and become a musician. So there are conscious choices in terms
of being an artist, and when you make that choice, there are certain things
you know. You know that you will lack support either from federal subsidy
or the patronage system. You know that you will be misunderstood, because
if you’re projecting an aesthetic and if the aesthetic is foreign, then there
is a rejection because it’s different. It’s nothing to do with race;
it’s the reality with being an artist. So you know there’s a certain
amount of rejection. Yet what sustains you is your colleagues, and
your sense of feeling of worth, which is really very important. When
I say colleagues, I mean not only your composer colleagues but I have body
of listeners that generally follow what I do, and generally go to performances
when I have performances. So I do have a body of people who believe
what I do is important, and that sustains me. It’s not a lot, but I
remember in talking with the poet Philip Levine, he was saying that he has
300 readers that he can depend on, and these are 300 readers that have followed
all of his books of poetry. They believe that what he does is significant,
and that’s enough! Certainly he can’t be like the Russian poets and
address 10,000 in one reading! [Laughs] But what I’m saying is
Philip Levine has his 300 readers, and he knows that’s the market that he
works hard for because he cannot disappoint that number of people.
* * *
BD: You’ve been
involved with Tufts University for a long time. Are you optimistic about
what you see coming out of the universities?
TJA: I’m always optimistic! We go through
our peaks and valleys like all societies, but I’m optimistic. We have
just gotten past the ‘me generation’. Tufts is very much a leader school,
and very expensive. When students come in, it’s almost a joke because
when you ask freshmen what they want, the answer is, “I
want an MBA from Harvard!” or, “I
want to finish medical school.” Their whole
career has been mapped out.
BD: They’ve been
ruined for any other ideas.
been ruined, that’s right. The word I use is brainwashed! [More
laughter] Our President, Jean Mayer, makes the remark that our best
students are the ones that come who are intellectually curious and don’t
know what they want to do. They begin to ask questions such as, “What
is life about? What is the relationship of knowledge to society?
What is my responsibility to the problems of South Africa as a humanist?
What do I do as a scientist that can relate to the poverty that exists in
the world?” All of these
are questions that any person with intellect should be thinking about, and
that’s what we try to cultivate at Tufts.
BD: Where does
music fit into that?
TJA: Music fits
in. The strange thing about it is that most people assume that you only
teach music majors who go on in the field of music. I have composers
who are in medical school right now. I have students that go off and
do a lot of things. My students come from a wide spectrum of interests,
and they go on in many other fields. What I try to instill in them is
the value of music in their lives, so that they in turn begin to be better
people. Certainly these values are values that we all would like to
see in the total society, not just a select small people.
BD: Is this the
same kind of hope that you have when a concert audience hears one of your
That’s one that I can hope for! No, most of the time the audience is
polite. I can say in most of my performances are polite, or sophisticated.
I never really worry about it. As I say, my job is to put it out there
and see what happens. [At this point
Samuel Floyd, the Director of the Center for Black Music Research, came to
escort my guests to their next appointment. Anderson asked for my
card so he could send me some material.]
HS: [Who had
been listening to this part of the conversation from across the room]
That was very good!
BD: You’ve both
been very kind and very generous with me. Thank you so much.
TJA: Well, we
are so glad you’re willing to take up so much time.
HS: Would it
be possible for us to get copies of this?
BD: Of course.
I will send them along.
TJA: That would
HS: I would appreciate
that very much.
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on January 26, 1987.
Portions involving Hale Smith were broadcast on WNIB the following year,
and again in 1989, 1990, 1995, and 2000; on WNUR in 2012; and on Contemporary
Classical Internet Radio in 2012. Portions involving T.J. Anderson were
broadcast on WNIB in 1988, 1990, 1993, and 1998. In all cases, selected
recordings of their music was also included. This transcription was
made in 2016, and posted on this website at that time. My
thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her
help in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was
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.