Composer  Melinda  Wagner

Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie


Melinda Wagner (born February 25, 1957 in Philadelphia) is a winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in music. Her undergraduate degree is from Hamilton College. She received her graduate degrees from University of Chicago and University of Pennsylvania. She also served as Composer-in-Residence at the University of Texas (Austin) and at the ‘Bravo!’ Vail Valley Music Festival. Some of her teachers included Richard Wernick, George Crumb, Shulamit Ran, and Jay Reise.

A resident of Ridgewood, New Jersey, Wagner won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for her Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion. The Chicago Symphony has commissioned three major works - Falling Angels (1992); a piano concerto, Extremity of Sky (2002) for Emanuel Ax; and a forthcoming work. Extremity of Sky has also been performed by Emanuel Ax with the National Symphony, the Toronto Symphony, the Kansas City Symphony, and the Staatskapelle Berlin. Other works have been performed by a number of orchestras, including the New York New Music Ensemble, the Network for New Music, Orchestra 2001, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, and many other leading organizations.

Wagner was also commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for a concerto for principal trombonist Joseph Alessi, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Barlow, Fromm, and Koussevitzky Foundations, the American Brass Quintet, and from guitarist David Starobin. She has received a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an honorary degree from Hamilton College, as well as a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Pennsylvania. Her other performances include the Dallas Symphony, the American Composers Orchestra, the Women's Philharmonic, the New York Pops, and the US Marine Band.

Wagner has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College, Syracuse University, and Hunter College. She has lectured at many schools such as Yale, Cornell, Juilliard, and Mannes. She resides in New Jersey with her husband, percussionist James Saporito, and their children.

--  Throughout this page, names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD 

When doing interviews with classical musicians over the years, quite often a conversation would end with us agreeing to meet again in about ten years for an update.  Sadly, it only happened on a few occasions, but this page does, indeed, present one of those fortuitous times.

Melinda Wagner has been given three commissions by the Chicago Symphony, and as of this moment (December of 2016), two have been presented and the third will arrive this coming June.

melindawagner On her first visit, in February of 1993, I had the chance to speak with her a few hours before the first concert of the series.  Then, just over ten years later, in May of 2003, we met again for our second conversation.  Both of those encounters are presented on this webpage.  She was also in Chicago in March of 2001, and though we did not have a formal interview at that time, we did see each other again at a private reception, and that gathering is documented in the photo at right.

It was between the two interviews, much happened in her life.  For one thing, she won the Pulitzer Prize, and I am pleased to have interviewed her before she received that distinction.  I certainly would have asked her after the fact, and indeed, a number of composers have sat with me after having reached that milestone.  But there is something special in making the request before the accolade, and indeed, one composer, Roger Reynolds, actually told me that he only allowed me to speak with him because I had asked him before the announcement was made.  When you think about it, there is a joy to being known as an accomplished composer before everyone else rushes to meet a media star...

In any event, I found it most interesting to speak with Melinda Wagner both before and after she had won the prize.  On that first meeting, she was not only with a new piece of music about to be launched, but with a new baby about to be born.

Bruce Duffie:    You’re doing the pre-concert tonight?

Melinda Wagner:    Yes.

BD:    Good.  Do you like doing pre-concert lectures?

MW:    I do.  I’m very comfortable talking in front of people.  I get nervous, as most normal people would, but I enjoy especially questions from the audience because usually they’re very intelligent questions.  The people are also usually happy to receive honest answers.  It’s funny, so that kind of a rapport I really enjoy having with the audience first.  People are scared of composers!

BD:    Really???  Why?

MW:    I found this to be true everywhere.  They say, “I can’t imagine putting a note on a page.  What’s it going to do?”  Well sometimes I can’t imagine it either!

BD:    Are they surprised you’re not dead?

MW:    They’re surprised I’m not dead, and they’re surprised that I’m willing to talk to them.  I’m sure some of them are stand-offish, but most composers are human beings.

BD:    If the person is stand-offish, does that make the music stand-offish?

MW:    No, there’s not necessarily any connection at all.

BD:    So then the reverse is also not true — if you’re personable, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your music will be personable?

MW:    [Laughs]  That’s true.  You could find my music very cold and desolate, but that’s up to you.  I don’t think it is.

BD:    Do you have any expectations on the part of the audience when they receive your music?

MW:    Of this audience?

BD:    Or of any audience.

MW:    I hope they’ll be moved in some way, and I hope they’ll have a strong reaction.

BD:    Either strong positive or strong negative?

MW:    Yes.  I usually expect them to have some kind of distinct reaction, which has been a response either way on occasion.  But if somebody really dislikes my piece enough to come up and talk to me about it, it’s almost gratifying in a way because at least I got to them.  It is not my aim to get to anybody, but at least they will listen.

BD:    Okay, what is your aim?

MW:    I may be repeating myself, but it is really to somehow move the audience.  They’re very important because they complete the work.  I can’t put the work on a wall, and stand back and look at it and have it be done.  In a sense, the audience has to put it on the wall, and stand back for me.

BD:    So just the notes on the page don’t make it a complete piece?

MW:    They do to someone who is a very good score-reader, but it’s the difference between reading a poem to yourself and hearing it read aloud.  When a poem is read aloud, you react — hopefully positively — to the reading, to the interpretation.

BD:    Rather than just the internalizing it?

MW:    Right.  The words are the same, but the poem comes alive when someone reads it.  So it’s also true of music.  It’s not stagnant, but it’s static on a page.  [Laughs]  At least I hope it’s not stagnant!

BD:    Do you expect it always to be alive, whether it’s on the page or in the air?  When does it take life?

MW:    I’m not sure.  We’re going to talk about chickens and eggs here.  I think it starts to take on a life — that hopefully lasts a long, long time — when it is in the hands of an ensemble, and particularly a conductor who is gone over the score and figured out how he or she wants this piece to sound.  Sometimes it goes slightly against what you’ve written.

BD:    [Genuinely surprised]  Really???

MW:    Oh sure.  People take liberties with tempi all the time, and that’s expected.

BD:    Then who’s right — the composer or the interpreter?

MW:    I don’t know.  Often the composer’s not right.  They say that there are several composers who turn to conduct later in their careers who are some of the most horrific interpreters of their own music.  I won’t name any names, but if I was asked to conduct, I don’t want to.  When applying for grants and things, they ask the duration, and my timing is often off by minutes, which is significant.  It’s because my concept of musical time is out of my field somehow.

BD:    You can’t just put a stop-watch to it, and say a quarter note is 88 and then multiply it by the number of measures?

MW:    Theoretically, yes, but when you look at a score of mine — this one in particular — the meter changes every few measures, so I’d be doing math figure it all out.

BD:    I’ve often heard composers say that music and mathematics are linked.  Do you find that?

MW:    [Thinks a moment]  In a way that’s perhaps different.  Thinking mathematically, especially when figuring out an equation that’s going to explain something, is very important.  It takes the same little spot in the brain.   It’s a very creative thing to be doing, and it also necessitates being able to step outside of your body for a little while, and imagine what a world could be like.  Composers are doing that all the time.  A lot of people say that the rigor of math is like acoustics or intervals.  Maybe, but I’m not that kind of person.

BD:    I would think that math would be an exact science, and music is such an abstract perception.

MW:    Yes, but mathematicians, at least the ones who are out there to do new things, are very creative people.  So in that way I think they’re very similar.

BD:    Now you’re a young composer...

MW:    [Interrupting]  It’s great to be hearing this word over and over again!

BD:    How do you then start to become an emerging composer, since it’s the title that has been given to you now that you’re received an award from an Emerging Composer’s Fund?

MW:    It’s funny because I did emerging for a few years!  [Both laugh]  I hope to keep emerging!  What can I say?  I don’t think any of us will be landed, and based on a conversation I had with Shulamit [Ran b. 1949] today, she would feel the same way.  We’re always emerging.  If you have a piece that’s very well received, and then you go to the next piece and say, “I’ll write it the same way because last time they liked it,” you’re not emerging anymore.


BD:    Then you become stagnant?

MW:    Right, I think so.

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

MW:    That sounds so lofty.  Sure.  First of all, most of us who study composition in the United States are brought up in a very Germanic tradition.  We’re taught Bach and Beethoven, later Mahler and Berg and Webern.  We really cut our teeth on that stuff first, so in that sense there’s a lineage there.  I started playing the piano when I was little kid, and it was Bach and Czerny.  But I’m fortunate enough that my teachers enjoyed listening to it, so I think I’ve been very influenced by that.  One of them, of course, is Shulamit, and the other is Richard Wernick.  I also studied with Jay Reise (1950 -  ) at Hamilton College, and I listened to him a lot when I was younger.  He also introduced me to some of my favorite composers, so I’ve been lucky.  My mentors have been terrific people and great composers.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Now you are doing some teaching.  How do you divide your time between composing and teaching?

MW:    It is a three-ring circus sometimes.  I haven’t taught for a while.  I’ll start this fall for the first time in four years, but when I was teaching, composing had to be pushed off to the evening — which is not usually a good time.  Composing does get shoved around a lot when you have a ‘day job’, but the pay-off is that teaching is very inspiring, and students keep you young in your thinking.  Actually, the four years during which I haven’t taught have been a bit of a challenge.  I’ve had more time, and that requires more discipline.  It’s easier to read a magazine than to think about something that’s actually intelligent.

melindawagner BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  You mean to say that music, as we know it, is intelligent???

MW:    [Has a huge laugh]  It keeps the juices going.  You have to think about it when you listen to it. 

BD:    All music, or just concert music?

MW:    Concert music, yes.  It makes you think, and you have to think about listening to it.  It doesn’t just wash over you — at least not me, anyway.

[Vis-à-vis the CD shown at right, see my Interviews with Elliott Carter, Paul Lansky, and Gunther Schuller.]

BD:    We’re kind of dancing around a little, so let me ask the big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of concert music?

MW:    That’s a hard one, and at the same time an easy one.  People are incredibly moved by music.  Nobody really knows why, but it just continues to pay off.  Concert music is something that we hope will endure many, many, many performances, and live for many years without losing its allure.  People go because they want to be moved, and hopefully they still think a little bit about it.  I remember being overwhelmed by watching Star Wars and the incredibly slickly-made movies that are a little bit easier to get to these days.  But it’s not the same.  It’s not haunting and lasting the way a wonderful piece of music is.

BD:    So you strive to make sure your music is not slickly-made?

MW:    I don’t think about that.  There’s nothing wrong with being slick.  If your craft is polished, there’s nothing wrong with that.

BD:    Then where’s the balance between the inspiration and the craft?

MW:    If we’re talking about emerging composers, that’s something that we strive for.  It’s always changing, because hopefully your inspiration grows and changes as you get older.  You have to hone your craft accordingly, but on the other hand, one reason for going to school is to learn the basic craft, like writing counterpoint.  All that comes in very handy for one’s whole lifetime.

BD:    So you learn the craft and then you utilize it?

MW:    When you need to, yes.

BD:    Do you ever find that the craft takes over from the inspiration?

MW:    Yes, but it often pays off if you stay with an idea that’s worked.  Often you discover a new road that you wouldn’t have thought about if you’d been waiting for some ‘light from heaven’.  They play off of each other very easily.

BD:    When you’re sitting there with the page completely or partially blank, and you’re writing notes down, do you always control the pencil, or are there times the pencil leads your hand?

MW:    Oh, wouldn’t it be great if I could tell you that the pencil led my hand!  But never, no, no, no!  [Laughs]

BD:    So you’re always in control?

MW:    No, I’m not saying I’m always in control, but either I am, or if I’ve had a bad day I’ve had to start over the next day.

BD:    So you scrap what you’ve done?

MW:    No, I usually don’t.  I usually shelve what I’ve done for the future use.  It’s funny... I’ve rarely used those things, but somehow their existence is important.  I don’t know why.

BD:    When you’re writing and scribbling and touching up everything, eventually you put the double bar down.  Then you alter things, and you futz a little bit.  How do you know when to say it’s done, it’s ready?

MW:    [Sighs]  Well, there’s just a certain chilliness.  This is a very vague answer, but there is a feeling of satisfaction that it’s complete.  I must say, though, that sometimes months or years later the double bar that you put there at one point doesn’t sound right at another point.  The piece is kind of three-dimensional that way, or four dimensional...

BD:    It does exist in time!

MW:    Yes, and as you grow you see the mistakes you make, so theoretically you can go on changing a piece for ever.  It’s a question of discipline sometimes.  I must end this now!  I’ve got to stop revising this.

BD:    Should you revise the piece, or would it be better to write a new piece?

MW:    There are two schools of thought for that.  I’ve met as many people who would say the former as the latter.  I always go to a new piece because I just feel that’s right for me.  Some people want to be represented by perfection.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Is there such a thing as musical perfection?

MW:    No!  [Laughs]  Let me revise that.  I think probably Mozart and Beethoven got pretty close, Mozart in particular.

BD:    But you strive for it?

MW:    I guess so. 

BD:    Is there such a thing as perfection in performance?

MW:    No.  I don’t think it’s a word that should enter the arena because something can be technically perfect right down to the last grace note, and be wooden-sounding.  One interpretation can be technically perfect and very musical, and another can be technically perfect and very musical and be totally different.

BD:    So you expect some creativity on the part of the performer?

MW:    That’s the most exciting thing.  It’s great, and sometimes they have better ideas that you.  “Why don’t you change this note here because it’s more idiomatically for the instrument?” or “Actually this note is quite awkward.  Why don’t you change it?”  The wonderful thing about being a composer is that we are alive.  Actually the most fun I have is working with the musicians, even with an orchestra.  That’s such a big group and anything can happen.

BD:    Do you view yourself as more than just a springboard?

MW:    Yes, I have control over it.  If someone is really awful, I certainly let them know.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You wrote this piece for the Chicago Symphony.  Does that preclude it being played by a lesser orchestra?

MW:    I hope it’s not!  I hope it’s played by a very good orchestra in the future, but a notably lesser orchestra would have trouble with the piece.  It’s kind of tricky, and I’m not talking about for the orchestra members necessarily, but for the conductor.  It’s a tough piece to put together, and Daniel Barenboim has been just wonderful.  He really understands the shape of the piece, and I think a less experienced conductor who has to change to the metronome markings and so on, might be too intimidated by all the directions, and do a disservice to the piece.

BD:    Is this your advice then to conductors — to use what’s on the page as a start rather than an end?

MW:    It’s a start, yes.  As a student, I hadn’t gotten this whole idea of interpretation straight.  I wanted my interpretation.  That’s what I wanted to hear, and I used to put just layers and layers of directions to the instrumentalist about how to play this musically.  I used to do everything from phrasing the lines for them to asking them to play it with this emotion.  So I’d get the most flat performances because they were so busy looking at directions and trying to figure out what I meant.  Also they were annoyed that I would insult them that way.


BD:    So you eventually got to leave them alone?

MW:    I had to learn to leave them alone, yes.  It is a little bit like sending your kid off to first grade.

BD:    I was going to ask, now that you’re with child, is this going to influence the music that you’re writing in the next few days and the next few years?

MW:    Oh, I’m sure I will.  I’m not going to have any time! [Has a huge laugh]  As for what’s going to happen, I’ll have to let you know.  I plan to stay with it.  That’s the best I can tell you.  I think I’ll have to write smaller pieces for a while.  Orchestra pieces are just such a huge and long undertaking that even a short piece is quite a project.

BD:    Have you been composing in the last six or seven months?

MW:    No, I did a lot of proof-reading, and the kind of business which is attached to composing, but during this time I was quite morning sick!

BD:    I just wondered if having the child inside you was going to influence what came from your pen?

MW:    [Thinks a moment]  I don’t know.  I’m very happy in general, but my music is happier than it used to be, so I can say yes, it has affected me.

BD:    [Noting that she is almost thirty-six years of age]  Are you pleased at where you are in the music world at this age?

MW:    Yes.  I am.  I have a lot of younger colleagues who are much further along than I am, but I can’t compare myself to them because I’m a sort of a late bloomer!  I said this to Shulamit when I was twenty-three, and she turned bright red in the face because she knew that twenty-three was a baby!  But to me, twenty-three was ancient.  But I still feel like that’s true.  Maybe if I come into my own, if that’s not happening now, it’ll happen maybe ten years from now.

BD:    Is this the first child for you?

MW:    Yes.  My husband is a freelance musician so he’s not tied to a nine-to-five schedule.  I think we’ll work things out.

BD:    Is being involved on a very close personal basis with another musician helpful or a hindrance?

MW:    Oh, it’s great because we’re so different.  He’s mainly a jazz musician, plays percussion and drum set, and his world is as a player.  Even if he were a hundred per cent ‘legit’ player, his world is still very different from mine, so we complement each other that way.  He often helps me with my notation and things like that by saying what is clear and what is not.  If both of us were composers, though, that might be very strange, but it’s been wonderful being able to talk to him about it and not having to explain things.  I know he feels the same way about me.

BD:    [Having looked at the score prior to the interview]  I noticed this piece is littered with a lot of percussion.  Is that the result of his influence?

MW:    Absolutely!  Not his influence only, but going to rehearsals with him, and all of his friends who are percussionists are my friends.  I sit in and I’ve learned a lot just by watching.  So it’s fun.   Percussion instruments are great.

BD:    Have you written a piece for percussion ensemble?

MW:    No, I haven’t but I will.  That’s one plan.

BD:    Good.  Lots of luck with this, and lots of luck with your continued success and your family.

MW:    Thank you very much.

A little over ten years later we met again . . . . . . . . .

BD:    It’s been about ten years since we chatted, and a lot has happened to you.  You’ve done a lot of writing, you’ve won the Pulitzer Prize, you took a tour around the world...  Is your career going in the direction and at the pace that you want?

MW:    I don’t think I anticipated it going as fast as it’s gone recently.  But I’m very happy with the direction in which it has gone, and I’ve certainly learned a lot along the way.  I also had family to take care of, which was true ten years ago, and so learning to juggle all that has been a challenge, and has been very humbling!

BD:    This may not be politically correct, but is it incumbent upon you, being the wife and mother, rather than the husband, to do more to take care of the family?

MW:    We’re both musicians and we both are hands-on parents, so we try very much to both do our part with the kids.  It’s difficult because his schedule as a free-lance musician is very unpredictable, but we somehow manage to work it out.  If the children are sick, then they gravitate towards their mom.  I have to say it’s the one thing that’s sort of built in nature.

BD:    Have you ever thought of writing a piece of music for a sick child?

MW:    [With a huge laugh]  That’s a good idea!  Maybe I’ll try it.

BD:    I’ll license the idea!  [More laughter]

MW:    I won’t forget you! 

BD:    Perhaps the most notable thing for you is winning of the Pulitzer Prize.  How, if in any way, has that changed you as either a performer, or a composer, or as an all-round musician?

melindawagner MW:    It really hasn’t changed me at all, I have to say.  I feel the same person I was.  I feel like I have the same foibles that I’m forever working on trying to get rid of.  Maybe there are new foibles and I’ve gotten rid of the old ones, but there are always weaknesses in my work.

BD:    Have they moved to another level?

MW:    Maybe the weaknesses have become more sophisticated!  [Bursts out laughing]  But I feel the same insecurities and the same belief that it’s part of what it is to be a composer — to never quite be where you want to be.  You’re always looking to the next piece, and trying to improve upon yourself, so none of that changed.  I never had the sense that I had arrived or anything, and it was such a huge surprise for me.

BD:    Really???

MW:    No, I had no idea.  I might as well have landed on the moon, I was so surprised.  It wasn’t that I was expecting it for many years, or hoping for it.  I really didn’t think about it very much.

BD:    Now that it is something that is part of your portfolio, are you then expected to come up to that level more often?

MW:    I really try hard not to think about that because unfortunately ‘Pulitzer Prize Winner’ is attached to my name now wherever I go.  That’s very, very nice, but it’s also a little scary if I think about it too much.  So I try not to think about it at all, and just proceed as I was before.  It’s been four years now, and the piece which Chicago’s doing tomorrow was in the works before the Pulitzer, which is really nice.  I really like that, and that makes me feel good.  Some of the other projects I’m working on now were also in the works before.  On the other hand, I’m grateful for this wonderful honor.  It was thrilling, and it still is, and I certainly am very grateful.  I’m not saying it’s nothing because it really is very lovely.

BD:    Now you mentioned that some of these things have been going on now for a long time.  You’ve had things in the works.  Is it good to have something that you plan and work on, and its performance day is way in the future?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Sir Andrew Davis.]

MW:    Just in general, deadlines are really good because they help you plan your life, and they give you extra impetus to keep going.  I don’t like to have them too far ahead because it’s easy enough to put off starting a little bit.  Starting is my least favorite part of writing music.

BD:    Then instead of giving you a ‘dead’ line, they should give you a ‘live’ line to start it!

MW:    [Laughs]  That sounds pretty good to me!  No, right now I have all my ducks in a row, and I know what I’m supposed to do when, and that’s very comforting.  And it’s a lot!  I have a lot to do because things would happen suddenly, just coincidentally.

BD:    Do you have enough ducks, or too many ducks?

MW:    I have enough, but not too much.  One more would be too much.  I’m right where I want to be.

BD:    With this premiere tomorrow night, does that mean that duck is no longer in the row, and it’s now out on its own?

MW:    That was a really big duck!  [Lots of laughter]  It was a wonderful project to work on, but a very challenging project.  Writing for the piano is quite difficult.  There’s such a huge number of things that can be done with the piano.  The range in terms of pitch and sonority is just huge.

BD:    Is it your responsibility to get everything out of the piano, or do you select the kinds of things that the piano can do that you want to incorporate into your piece?

MW:    If I took the approach that I should really expose everything that the piano was able to do, and try to exploit that, I would not be able to compose a note.  So I ended up writing my music, and it came out that in this piece that I have a lot of huge chords and a lot of scale-passages which sound a whole lot like Prokofiev and Bartók.  So in a way it’s a very traditional piece, and pianistically it’s quite traditional-sounding.

BD:    But that’s the way you wanted it to sound?

MW:    I didn’t plan it that way but that’s what came out.  So somewhere in there that was in my ear, and it’s not surprising since big chords and scales have really gotten out of the piano, especially when Emanuel Ax is playing.

BD:    Did you design it all differently because you knew Ax was going to play as opposed to, say, some other pianist, good or bad? 

MW:    Yes, and I’m thinking of one part in particular.  He has such a lovely touch, especially with quiet, more lyrical music, so I was sure to be very careful to include something which would show him off that way.  But there’s an awful lot of really loud blustering.

BD:    Would you be pleased to have it taken up by another pianist?

MW:    Hope springs eternal.  It would be very interesting to hear someone else play it.  This was not a consortium commission, so there are no other orchestras signed up to do it.  It might never be performed again for all I know.  Of course, I hope it will.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed!

BD:    When you hear it tomorrow night, are you then going to go back and tinker with it, or is it done, finished, complete, and that’s the end of it?

MW:    If I do tinker with it, it would be very minor because now I’m already working on other things.  I’ve already written a piece since I finished this one, and I’m working on the next one.  I feel I’ve moved past it in a way that would make me feel a little strange about going back.   If there are mistakes — not only copying errors but mistakes in terms of my calculating balance and so on — I might go back and tinker with that, but I don’t tend to do that.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Now you say that this was finished, and then you went on to another piece, and now you’re back to this one again.  Is it at all frustrating to come back to this one which is yet to be born?

MW:    I’m kind of used to doing that, but I did have to go back and relearn the first movement because I had finished that quite a long time ago.  I had to go back and actually remember what I’d written, and do a little homework.

melindawagner BD:    That seems very odd.  Usually we have stories about the ink still being wet on the page!

MW:    No way!  [Laughs]  No, I try very hard to get things done in time so everyone could woodshed a little bit.  But the first movement was a little dusty for me.

BD:    Did you send it to the pianist in pieces, or wait to send the whole thing at once?

MW:    I sent him movement by movement, but I sent him a score at first, and then my copyist sent him a full part.  [Thinks, then continues]  No, my copyist sent him the second movement, which is the fastest and the most technically difficult one right away.

[Vis-à-vis the CD at right, see my Interviews with Ruth Schonthal, and Libbly Larsen.]

BD:    When you started to write this piece — or when you start to write any piece — do you know how long it will take (a) to compose and (b) to perform?

MW:    I had a guess that this would be twenty-four minutes long, and actually now I don’t really know, but it’s more than twenty-four.  I timed it at one point and it was twenty-six.

BD:    But that’s close enough?

MW:    That’s pretty close, yes.

BD:    Would you have been horrified if it had been just twenty or maybe thirty?

MW:    Not at all.

BD:    Because it was just what you wanted it to be?

MW:    It did what I wanted it to do.  I’m not sure I have it in me to write big epic pieces.  Maybe thirty is over-doing it for me.

BD:    So if someone asked you for a two-hour piece...

MW:    I don’t think I’m that kind of composer.  My music is dense in a way, and kind of organic, and it goes to seed for a while.  It can grow only so far, and then it is done.  I’m not interested in writing an opera, for instance, even though opera’s very much in vogue right now, and possible to produce.

BD:    Not even a short opera?

MW:    I’m just not interested right now.  Maybe sometime...

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  What have you got against the voice?  [Both laugh]

MW:    Nothing at all, nothing at all!  I’m just having too much fun doing what I’m doing now.

BD:    Does it ever surprise you by what you’re asked to write?

MW:    Not yet.  Most of its pretty civilized, and no one gives me any conditions, which is very nice.  They might ask for something in terms of fifteen or eighteen minutes, but beyond that I can pretty much choose my instrumentation, and that’s very nice.  But getting back to the time you asked about, this piano concerto took longer than I thought it would take.  I had to drop it for a while and then resume writing again.

BD:    But you’d obviously left yourself enough time.

MW:    Yes, I did, and I was able to get it ready.  I knew when the copyist needed to get the material, so I’m pretty good about predicting when I can finish.

BD:    You get up in the morning and you sit down with the paper.  Do the ideas always come?

MW:    [Giggles]  Oh, absolutely not!

BD:    Do the ideas eventually come?

MW:    An awful lot of it is a process of elimination.  I never think of composing as being an additive process, meaning putting pieces of clay on the face of a sculpture.  I’m carving away to make the shapes.

BD:    You have the solid rock and you take away everything that’s not supposed to be there?

MW:    Right.  I have a lot of really, really bad ideas, and the work is carving those away and deciding which ones I can use.  So it’s a very disorganized way of working.  I don’t know why it evolved that way, but I have a box full of just the noodling and the notes and the stuff that I threw away.  For this piece, the box weighed about twenty pounds, an enormous amount of papers.

BD:    Did you go back into the box once in a while?

MW:    I go back to check.  Sometimes if I feel I’ve made a copying error, I go back and check the very original idea as I had written it the very first time.  It’s really ridiculous.

BD:    When you’re writing it and you’re tinkering with it, how do you know when you’ve got this phrase right?

MW:    That’s a very good question.  It is when I like it!  It’s really very subjective, and if it works in terms of the pacing, which is really very important to me, then I’ll go with it.

BD:    Now if this phrase works, and this phrase works, and this phrase works, does that guarantee that those three phrases will work together?

melindawagner MW:    That’s really the core of composer’s work, to make sure that the parts of the piece link up in a most honest way.  For instance, it’s awfully easy to write very loud and dramatic music, but I would feel dishonest if I hadn’t done a lot of preparation compositionally for a big climax in a piece.  It’s easy to ‘wow’ listeners by using a lot of cymbals and timpani and a lot of brass, but you have to make that inevitable compositionally.

BD:    You don’t just want to be ‘showy’?

MW:    No, no.  I believe in transitions.  I believe in preparing and winding down, and in the different functions of music — the middle music, the beginning music, the end music — and somehow making it clear how that music is functioning, and where you are in the piece, and how you can navigate through it.

BD:    Are there times though when ‘showy’ is good?

MW:    Oh, yes, absolutely!  There’s a lot of ‘showy’ in this piece.  I spent a lot of time preparing those sections, but I try to make them organic and part of the body of the work.

BD:    Do you ever share your work with husband or friends or teachers, or do you wait until it’s all done and then present it?

MW:    The former, certainly.   I have a wonderful relationship with my former teacher, Richard Wernick.  He’s been incredibly generous about looking at my work, and now we look more as colleagues and friends.  He shows me his work as well, but he always has great suggestions.  He’s very supportive but honest.  If there’s something isn’t ringing true, he’ll say, ‘“Well, you can do better than that,” which is actually very comforting because I know that I have the second guess.  I’m very fortunate to have someone like that, because composing is mainly very incredibly lonely and isolating.

BD:    Are you able to shut everything out — family, children, and everything else — enough to concentrate on your work?

MW:    Yes.  [Sighs]  That’s a great challenge, it really is, because music is a part of who I am, and my family, obviously, is part of whom I am.  Those two things pull at each other a lot because I wouldn’t be able to drop composing, but I certainly wouldn’t be able to just drop the kids either.  It’s very interesting for music be competing with the experience of pure love, which is what you have when you have children.  But I do shut it out, and that’s part of the attraction, too, because I’m not writing about my life.

BD:    What are you writing about?

MW:    I feel when I’m sitting in front of the paper that I’m writing about music, and trying somehow to tell the story, but it is an idea that has absolutely nothing to do with anything that’s happening in my life.  Sometimes I can go back and look back on an older piece and see connections, and I remember how depressed I was when I wrote that piece, or how elated, or whatever.  But I don’t feel the connection at all, so in a way it’s a very nice, comforting thing to do, especially when things are very hectic in life.

BD:    Now you’re saying you’re writing musical ideas.  Are these musical ideas that you have created, or are they musical ideas that you’ve discovered?

MW:    Both!  I try to create the carrot at the end of the stick, and then the music sometimes leads me along by the nose.  Open-ended ideas are great because you can take them in this direction, and you can go down a rather long path with them for a few days and realize that you’ve gotten to a place where it doesn’t work.  I like working that way, but it’s very painful and heart-breaking when you realize it didn’t work because you have to back-track and go back to that open-ended spot and try another direction.  But that part of it’s real fun too.

BD:    Have you ever gone off where you didn’t think you would, and then it becomes a separate piece?

MW:    [Thinks a moment]  Sometimes I write at the end of a piece first, or I think I know what it’s going to be and I write with that end in mind.  That’s a very nice carrot because there’s certain comfort knowing where you’re going harmonically and dramatically.  But sometimes when I actually get there the piece has transformed, and the end isn’t appropriate anymore.  But it’s served its purpose as being that carrot.  I never throw anything away, but I will discard it and put it somewhere else and write a different end.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I may have asked you this when we met before, but I’m always curious.  What for you is the purpose of music?

MW:    That’s another tough question, but for me as a listener, it’s a way of appealing to the best we can be, or the best our minds can be.  To really listen to music and be transported by it, we’re engaging the most sophisticated beautiful part of our mind.  I don’t think we can live without it.

BD:    I know I can’t!

MW:    And that goes certainly for all art.  It takes us away from the horrible things on Earth.  It all sounds rather lofty, and there’s certainly entertainment involved in music, too.  Music is completely abstract, and yet most people understand what I’ve been talking about.

BD:    Do you purposely try to balance the lofty and the entertainment, or do you just let it happen?

MW:    Oh, I don’t think about that at all.  I just try to get notes on a page, and hope they’re the best notes that I can put together.  I couldn’t possibly set out to move someone, but I can hope that I move them — in either direction.  If they really, really adamantly hate my piece, in a way that’s good because I’ve made an impression.  But I don’t think about any of that, truly.

BD:    You’re never conscious of the audience before a piece is done?

MW:    No, but I think very much about performers, and I think about writing music that they will like to play and enjoy digging into.  I love that relationship.  I always feel there is a collaboration, and they always bring something.  They bring their interpretation to your piece.  In a sense, they really finish it for you and give it life because it’s different every time it’s played.

BD:    Does that please you?

MW:    Oh, I think that’s so cool!  [Both laugh]  It really is not your piece anymore after you let it go.

BD:    Are there ever times when they take the piece and it’s completely theirs? 

MW:    Oh, absolutely!  Sometimes they’re very possessive in their interpretation.  They say things like, “Now we’re going to do it this way!  Don’t you really think that it would go better this way?  Maybe I should use the mute here,” and then it does become theirs, certainly!  Composers are notorious for having a strange sense of tempo.  I have a good sense of time.  I can perform myself without rushing terribly, and I can keep time pretty well, but when I’m choosing tempo for my own music, if it’s a really cloudy day it might be a very slow.  Then the next day I would look at it, and it’s totally wrong.  Performers help enormously with that.  They tell me when something does not speak very well at this tempo, or if it just doesn’t fall into the groove, so to speak.  So they’re very important.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s come back to the ducks in a row for a moment.  You mentioned that the one big duck is now about to be set aside, so that leaves room in the line for another duck or two.  Do you have several offers that you’re going to pick from, or do you wait for the right thing to come along?  How do you decide what is to be the next duck?

MW:    I’m actually working a piece now for a wonderful group in Philadelphia called Network for New Music.

BD:    Is that one of the ducks which is already in the line?

MW:    That’s in the line.


BD:    OK, but I’m asking about what’s now going to come into the line to fill the vacant spot, to take the place of the duck that’s no longer in the line.

MW:    There are no vacancies till about 2005, which is really nice.  I’ve had to turn some things down because there were no spaces in there, and that was painful because they are things I would have enjoyed doing.  But when I’m finished with group of projects, I don’t know!   I don’t know what will happen.

BD:    I guess I instinctively assumed that it’s like a shooting gallery.  You have, say, five ducks going along, and when one gets premiered, then you have four and you can put another one in the line.  So are you waiting until all five are done, and then you’ll gather a new set of five?

MW:    Oh, no, no, no!  I don’t know how it’s going to come along.   These just came along at the same time, and I had juggle a little bit in terms of the schedule.  They were very anxious to get that settled because they have their program brochures and their calendars and everything to think about.  No, that’s just the way it happened to come along.  In five years I’ll let you know what happens next.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Are you able to balance big orchestral works with chamber works?

MW:    The piece I wrote right after finishing this orchestral one was a choral piece, and that was really nice.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  So you do like the voice!

MW:    I do like the voice.  That was so much fun to work on something so different, and it was really perfect timing.  Now I’m writing a piece for piano trio, which is another small setting, and that’s fun too.  But I really do think I prefer writing for orchestra.  When I was writing the orchestra piece I was thinking it would be nice to do a piece for solo flute!

BD:    So the grass is always greener — or the notes are always brighter — on the other side!

MW:    That’s sometimes true, yes.

BD:    You don’t need to mention a specific work, but has there come a time when you get in the middle of a piece and just say, “I don’t like this piece anymore,” and scrap it?

MW:    Oh, gosh, that would be really hard.  I have a couple of pieces that I knew were not going to be my best pieces, and afterwards I didn’t like them...

BD:    But you persevered? 

MW:    I persevered because I had to.  They were waiting, and I did my very best, given all of those circumstances, but I’ve not pursued other performances of those works, and they’re on the shelf.  I don’t throw anything away, as I said, because they’re just as important as part of the fabric as pieces that are more successful, or that I like better I should say.

BD:    Now that you have more experience, would you go back and perhaps tinker a little more with them and straighten them out?

MW:    Oh, absolutely not, no.  I dislike them immensely.  [Laughs]

BD:    So what happens when someone picks the score up and plays it brilliantly?

MW:    They won’t.  I have the only copies.  I’m somewhat neurotic that way.

BD:    How much control do you want to exercise over these or other pieces?

MW:    Oh, not anything like that.  I’m not worried about how I appear, but there are pieces out there of mine they don’t like as well as others, and that’s fine.

BD:    I assume though that you like most of your pieces?

MW:    [Laughs]  No!  Most composers are kind of strange about that.  We can fool ourselves into thinking we’re absolutely brilliant during the creation of a piece, and no one else has ever come up with this idea, and then when it’s performed you cringe a little bit.  “Man, that was awful,” and, “I wish I hadn’t done such and such.”  Well, onto the next thing.  I always go through a stage where I really detest my music, but that keeps me on the ball, keeps me honest.  I know a lot of composers who are self-flagellating...  [Both laugh]

BD:    So I guess it’s better that we have this chat just before the premier rather than after.

MW:    That’s right.  I’m more up right now!  [More laughter]  I’ll be very depressed next week when I’m sure my career’s over.

BD:    Will you still be depressed when people come and tell you this was a wonderful piece, it was a great performance, and everybody liked it?

MW:    Yes, unfortunately I’m not persuaded by what people say, but it’s okay.  I’ve accepted that personality quirk, and I have many friends who share it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You have a couple of pieces which have been recorded.  I assume that you like the way those sound?

MW:    There’s a wonderful recording of my Flute Concerto, done by the Westchester Philharmonic [which is shown farther up on this webpage], and I’m very happy with that.

BD:    That’s the piece that won the Pulitzer Prize?

MW:    Yes, which is not to say I’m happy with the piece.  I’m happy with the performance.  I go back and forth on that. 

BD:    Are you happy at all with the chamber work that’s on the other record?

MW:    Yes, I like that piece.  I very much enjoyed working on that piece.  I wasn’t in an artists’ colony, but I might as well have been.  I was staying in a little cabin that had a piano, and I was by myself.  I could go for walks and there was no phone ringing.  It was very pleasant to write that piece.

BD:    Do you need isolation to work?

melindawagner MW:    No, I don’t anymore but, at that particular time in my life, that was very nice.  Perhaps that is what’s needed right now.  I live with two drummers who play in the basement, and it comes up through the heating system.  I’ve gotten used to composing while I’m hearing Gene Krupa downstairs, so it’s pretty interesting in my house.  [Laughs]

BD:    Especially when you’re writing a string parts!

MW:    Yes.  Actually my music has gotten more beat driven than it used to be, and I’m wondering about that... I’ll look back some day and figure it out.

BD:    It’s just sort of seeping into your subconscious?

MW:    It might be!   I don’t know.  [Laughs]

[Vis-à-vis the CD shown at right, see my Interviews with Robert Beaser, Samuel Adler, Joan Tower, and William Schuman.]

BD:    I wonder if at some point you’ll either try to fight it off, or just invite it all in?

MW:    Whatever wants to come in is fine by me!  [More laughter]  I am really very open to all suggestions.

BD:    Do you have any idea where your music is going?

MW:    Hmmmm...  [Thinks a moment]  I’ll let you know.  [Thinks a bit more]  It’s less thorny than it used to be, and I allow myself more in terms of style.  I was pretty rigid some years ago with what I could do and with what notes I could choose, but that was also the way it was for everyone.  I can go freer now, so definitely my music is reflecting that.

BD:    I was going to say, there don’t seem to be strictures at all anymore.

MW:    Yes, really one can do whatever one feels like doing.  It is really nice. 

BD:    I’m glad that you feel like doing music.

MW:    Oh, yes.  I’m just very grateful to be doing what I love doing, and not having to punch a clock.  It’s great!

BD:    Are there some more recordings coming along?

MW:    I can’t tell you exactly when, but I have a little solo guitar piece that will be coming out on a CD with many other little guitar pieces, brilliantly played by David Starobin [also shown farther up on this webpage].  I also wrote a brass quintet for the American Brass Quintet two years ago, and they recorded that this past Spring, and that will come out soon too.  I’m looking forward to that.  They did a wonderful, wonderful job.  [This is shown immediately above.]  Then I’m at the early stages of a CD of my chamber music, but I have to write another piece first!  [They laugh]  So I have to work on that, and I’ll have a piece after I’ve finished the one I’m working on now.  I hope that one works out.

BD:    I wish you lots of continued success.

MW:    Oh thank you!

BD:    This is your third trip to Chicago?

MW:    This is my third trip here, yes.  The Chicago Symphony has been very, very good to me — incredibly generous and I’m almost in awe.  I’m so sure I don’t deserve it, but it’s very nice indeed.

BD:    I’m sure at some point you’ll realize you do deserve it, and then we’ll see if your music changes!  [Both laugh]

MW:    I’ll still be the self-flagellating composer.  [More laughter]

BD:    Thank you so much for the conversation.  It’s nice to chat with you again.

MW:    Thank you very much for coming.


© 1993 & 2003 Bruce Duffie

These conversations were recorded in Chicago on February 4, 1993, and May 21, 2003.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1995, 1997, and 1998, and on WNUR in 2003 and 2005.  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.

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.