Composer Thea Musgrave
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Keen-eyed readers might have noticed that the name attached to
all of my work is Duffie, spelled with an "ie" at the end, rather than
the much more usual "y". My family comes from England and
Ireland, but also from Scotland, hence the less-familiar way of
spelling. I mention this only because it was that much more
special for me to have the opportunity to chat with the Scottish-born
composer, Thea Musgrave.
Born in 1928, she has distinguished herself as a leading proponent of
music which is both new and different, but also available to the ears
of a large public. Unrestrictive in her style, she also limits
herself to no one genre. Thus, her catalogue includes orchestra
works, vocal pieces, operas, solos and even some electronic
works. A few have become somewhat famous and are played
regularly, and more and more appear on commercial recordings.
We had been trying to get together for a couple of years, but the
composer's travel schedule never brought her to
or even near —
Chicago. So in 1988, on one of my very infrequent trips to New
York City, it happened that my first day there was her last day before
flying off on another engagement, so she graciously allowed me to come
to her apartment.
Despite having a new couch delivered earlier in the day —
a piece which only then was discovered to be larger than the elevator
could accommodate, much to the chagrin of the movers who then had to
carry the piece up several flights —
we were able to have a very amicable conversation.
Let's start out with a very easy question. Where's music going
[Laughs] I haven't the slightest ideas! I'm just afraid
that it's on a jet plane, going in all different directions and
nobody quite knows where it's going to come down.
BD: Should we
know where music is going?
TM: No, I don't
think we should, actually. I would hate to
know exactly what I'm going to be doing in two or three
or four or five years from now. It's nice to have a general
idea, maybe, of where one's going and head
in a sort of direction, but then I think it's exciting to discover
things and be able to react to new discoveries, and then run with
it, rather than have it all pre-planned. I don't
believe in predestination! What happens
in general is that you hear things that interest you technically one
another, and it's good to respond to that. Not immediately; I
think you need a little bit of time where you take it in and let
it become your own, and then respond to it. I don't mean
that you hear something one day and out it comes the next day.
There's a bit of a time lag
there, like jet lag. [Both laugh]
BD: Then how long
does it gestate, or is it
different for different pieces?
TM: It's different for
different pieces. Sometimes I have been thinking about a piece
long time, and for one reason or another I haven't
been able to get to it. Perhaps I have been finishing off
something else, so
it has to go into cold storage. I hope that it doesn't lose some
its savor for me when I take it out and begin work on it. Take,
for instance, Narcissus
[(1987), for flute and digital delay system].
I had the idea for that
really quite a long time before I was able to start work on it, and I
couldn't wait to start. That piece did make use of something not
technologically, because in the old days it used to be tape loop
or tape feedback. Now, of course, it's done by digital delay
system, so new technology creeps in there, but it's not, actually, a
very new idea. To write a 15-minute piece for solo flute is
quite a tall order to make it really carry, and I didn't want to
do a flute-and-piano piece; I wanted to do something different.
The idea came to me that if I used this digital delay or echo
which you hear on practically
every television ad —
and it was about Narcissus, it would
work because the live flute is Narcissus but the feedback represents
his reflection. So it works dramatically as an idea, as well as
making use of a new technology.
BD: When you've
been thinking about an idea for a long
time, do you write it down as sketches, or do you just keep it in
TM: The concept I
held in my mind, but I didn't know exactly how I
was going to work it out. I went to a store and I bought
myself a digital delay system, and then I futzed around with it to see
exactly what it could do. It has several features, and I wanted
explore it. Then I incorporated it into the Narcissus
BD: You obviously
took it much bigger and much deeper
than in a television ad.
sure. It's just using that particular technique of
repeating something, and making it, hopefully, something which is an
artistic expression of something.
BD: This opens up
one of my
favorite questions. In music, where is the balance between the
achievement and the entertainment value?
TM: Well, it's
don't know that people just go to a concert to be entertained, I
think they go to be grabbed! And I don't think
"entertainment" needs to be a dirty word. You go
to get out of yourself in one way, to think
about something on whatever level. And why not? The artist
should be able to do that, and it can go in various degrees, from
musicals to Broadway —
which is perhaps more "entertainment" —
to a symphony
which is perhaps more serious —
but hopefully it always grabs
you. You become involved in this other world that's being
created. Actually, a friend of mine in Norfolk
is a doctor and a specialist and is a great opera fan, so when she
describes to me how going to the
opera is very important to her, she says it's like a
catharsis. To go to the opera, and to have
one's emotions totally there on stage, something happens
and it's worked through by the composer. That, for
her, is very important as a contrast to her scientific work, with its
enormous detail. Going to
the opera is very important, so I guess on the very
highest level, music can do this for people.
BD: Does she get a
kind of catharsis if she's going to Fledermaus
as opposed to
TM: [Thinks for a
second, then bursts out laughing] I will have to ask her.
BD: These are the
obvious extremes, but should those two pieces do
TM: I guess.
Sure. Fledermaus would
be more "entertainment," and Parsifal
a much deeper
BD: Within that
where does the music of Thea Musgrave fall?
TM: Ohhhhh. Well, I
guess somewhere in the middle. Some of my pieces are lighter and
some of my pieces have
more serious application. For instance, in the opera I
certainly hope to grab people. In fact, in Norfolk, when Mary, Queen of
Scots was done, somebody said they really
liked the story. They weren't quite sure they understood the
music, but they really liked the story. Now I was very
pleased by that because I made story, after all, and what they didn't
realize was that the music actually told
the story. The story is there, of course, but the music really
held the story together. They hadn't realized that, but they were
held by what
was happening on stage. So I was pleased because it meant that
they had taken the first step; something had grabbed them, and I hoped
they would go
back. Maybe they would then hear more of the
music. So it was a first step for somebody who was
not very familiar with contemporary music, who didn't know the style
particularly well, and nevertheless was held by something.
So that I was pleased with.
BD: Much of your
music is in a more accessible style than
some other composers; is this a purposeful device on your part, or is
this just the way you have to write the music?
TM: It's the way I
have to write. I don't think you can set up to write accessible
music, because there would be something a little phony in that.
Now I have to make an exception immediately. I don't like
down to people in any way; I think that's a kind of
insult. On the other hand, when I write for young
people, you do have to write more
simply. Technically, you know, small hands can't reach large
intervals on the piano, for instance, and they can't usually do very
technically difficult things. So you
write more simply so
it would interest them and be a challenge to them, but yet it would
be possible for them to perform.
BD: What are your
expectations of the audience that comes
to hear your music —
either a new piece or an old piece?
TM: To leave their
prejudices at home, and to come open-minded and with a certain
curiosity; they may like it or they may not like
it, but not to come prejudging me. To come and see what we've got
here and to give it a try! More you can't ask!
BD: You don't want
them to prejudge it by saying, "I've
liked your stuff in the past so I hope I like this new piece"?
TM: Oh, well that
would be nice. Sure! Oh, that would be very nice.
BD: I assume that
you are always swamped with a lot of
wistfully] Ummmm, but I don't always say yes.
BD: So how do you
which ones you will accept and which ones you will either postpone or
TM: Just what
grabs me. Right at the moment I
might be interested in a particular medium and I wouldn't be able to do
it right now; it'd have to wait a year or
two. So I have to think, "Would I be
interested in this particular work in a couple of years?" I
usually have a good feel about that. There are just certain
things that I'm not interested in at the
moment, and other things that I am. So I don't accept things that
I don't feel I would really be interested in because then you don't
write a very good piece. [Chuckles] It's got to be
something you really go for.
BD: Does every
piece you write have to be a good piece?
TM: You try
to make it a good piece; it doesn't always
happen. It's something you don't have total control
over. Like with all artists, you really
try to make it absolutely the best that you can at that
particular moment, but for one reason or another it
may not quite work out the way you had hoped. In my own case, and
I guess with a lot of people, it goes in kind of waves. You get
on a roll and you write a certain number of pieces in that kind in
style, and then there comes a patch where it's more difficult, where
you're changing. New things are coming into the
style, and you have to find new things. You're finding your
path, and maybe one or two pieces at that stage are much
more difficult to write because you're finding new ground. You
work through that and get on another roll. That I don't
have control over because I don't want to go on writing the old
piece. You have to forge on; you have to allow yourself
to explore new things, I believe. It has to be fresh and new and
BD: When you're
writing, are you in control of the pen, or
is the pen in control of you?
TM: It sometimes
seems as if the pen is running on
ahead as if somebody is dictating to me. Of
course that's nonsense, but that's the way it
feels. When that happens it's great, and I allow it to
happen; I allow the pen to just write on and see what it
gives! Then the next morning or the next week or
whatever, I will look at this and say, "Now what have we got
here?" The craft and technique come in to fashion
that and to make sure that it's what I really want.
BD: Are you ever
surprised where it takes you?
Oh, yeah! And I think it's good to let
that happen, to be surprised and then see what we have got, and then to
work with that. What is amazing is
that sometimes the subconscious takes you into amazing places, but
the incredible thing is that it does usually make sense. But you
have to discover it after the fact. I don't know if this makes
sense, and it doesn't always happen that way, but it's usually great
when it does.
BD: Are you ever
horrified by where it's led you?
yeah! Then it goes into the wastepaper basket. [Both laugh]
BD: Are you always
the ideas that you decide to save, and those you decide to throw away?
TM: Probably not,
but one can only go with where
you are at that particular moment, and make the best decision you
possibly can for that particular moment and where it fits in.
usually don't throw things out; I was joking a little bit. I
usually just say, "That won't do," and I put it to one side,
and sometimes it creeps back in, in another way, later on.
BD: In the same
piece, or into another one later on?
TM: Either into
another piece, or into the same
piece in another form or at another moment. Sometimes it doesn't
work at all, and you have to
know where to abandon something —
something even that
you might really like and think that's a great idea, but it doesn't
work at that piece at that time. You have to cut it away to make
room for whatever you feel is right for that
BD: How do you
know when to put the pen down?
TM: Before you've
quite finished, so that the next morning when you start work again, you
where to start. It's the sort of inertia of the next
morning, and you get through it immediately. You don't quite
finish. You almost finish,
but don't quite finish.
BD: How do you
know when you've finished
tinkering with all of the spots and are ready to launch the piece upon
TM: Finishing is
actually a matter of timing,
usually. What I usually find I have to do is to play it
through on a keyboard out loud. It's very funny, I don't seem to
be able to read it through to myself and feel
the weight of the piece without a physical sound to react to. So
even with an opera, I sit down and play it
through. It's only then that I really feel the proportions of the
piece, and how long it needs to be before we get to that double
bar. And you can have some surprises, because when you are
actually working on it you might write five, six, eight
bars, and that seems enough; when you have a play-through, that
is simply not enough. I'm reminded of the end of a
Beethoven symphony. He has all those chunking chords which in
themselves are not very interesting, but they are absolutely necessary
the proportion of the piece. So it's that kind of process.
You have to feel the weight of the cadence before you can
write the double bar.
BD: Do you ever go
back and tamper with scores once they're
it's not a very good idea, but I do sometimes! [Both chuckle]
BD: Are there
going to be versions that historians will to
TM: I don't
know. Sometimes in operas I have gone back and revised things,
but with very few
exceptions, I don't allow things to be published until I've heard
them. Basically what is launched onto the world is something
that's been tried out, and hopefully is right.
you look back on works that now are ten, twenty, thirty years old, are
you pleased with those pieces also?
TM: Some I like,
and some I
like less. Some seem to stay
the course, and others I think, [sighs] "Not so good." Or, "That
was a transition piece, and I can see what I was
trying to do, but if I'd only done it this way
instead of that, it would've been better."
BD: You've written
several stage works. Do you like to be considered an opera
composer or more of
a symphonic composer, or just simply a composer?
composer! I do chamber works, I
do orchestral works, I do opera, I have done ballet, I've
done songs, unaccompanied choral pieces —
all sorts of
things. I like to do different things, so I don't
really like to be pigeonholed. There are even some electronic
mostly with live
music, not on its own.
BD: Have you
basically been pleased with the
performances you've heard of your music over the years?
yes. Yeah. Basically I've had very good performers, people
been very dedicated and given of their time and energy and artistry.
BD: What about the
TM: On the whole,
mm-hmm. I'm not pleased with the way that they
eventually get deleted! They don't tell you in advance.
been in the catalog for ten years, they eventually delete them and they
don't tell you in advance, so you can't rush off
and buy a number of copies.
BD: Are you
pleased with the
recorded sound that you get, as opposed to sound in live theater or
TM: A lot of the
not digital, so now you get much more picky. Now we
have CDs and all that; the older recordings did not have the
advantage of that, so that is a loss. I think recordings are
great, however it's a little bit like
eating canned food or frozen food; I like live food, I like music
live. You always run the risk that
you can't retake one note or one chord, so there are going to be
imperfections. But the fact of having living music is more
exciting just because
there's an element of risk in there. Musicians take risks when
they know they're not being
recorded; just to
do a little bit more with that phrase, or go for the high note with a
little bit more oomph. You don't do that in a recording; you play
safe because if one person makes a mistake, then everybody has to redo
they don't do that. You always play just a bit more
safe, and it sort of shows.
BD: Then in
performance do you encourage this risk taking?
TM: Sure! If
I'm conducting, sure!
BD: Are you the
ideal conductor of your works?
TM: Oh, no; I
don't think so. Maybe in the first
place. If something is new and there is some of the sort of new
things, I can explain what I want, and if it's not clear
then I can put it right very easily. Then I can be sure it's
marked in the score and
parts to make it clear for later performances. But no, I'm
not the ideal conductor. I think there are lotsa wonderful
BD: Do conductors
or performers often find
things in your scores you didn't know you'd hidden there?
TM: Uh, not
BD: In opera,
where is the balance between the
music and the drama?
TM: That's the
tightrope, isn't it? All
through history it's a tightrope where one has to work or the
other has to work. The difficult thing about
writing operas, actually, is writing the libretto. Since Mary, Queen of Scots I've done my
own. I always
seemed to be on the wrong side of the Atlantic with the librettist, and
I decided it was too
complicated, so I took on that function. I very much enjoy the
planning out of the libretto in terms of the dramatic structure, and
building it as I go. I get an overall
plan and write several drafts, but I always leave a few loose
ends in the detail —
not in what the scene is
about and who is confronting who and what's going to happen; that I
work out as a whole —
but in the detail of how long a
particular speech will be, or what the dialogue will be. I don't
finalize it till I get to the music, and the music tells me what I
need and how long it should be. I can adapt to that
because it is a balance of how long, dramatically,
something needs to be and how long musically it needs to take to
work out. You have to balance the two so that they
both don't feel cheated.
BD: As you're
crafting the words, are some of the musical
ideas coming to you?
TM: Sure, or some
of the colors. Sometimes it's musical
themes, sometimes there will be colors, and sometimes I'm beginning to
of what sort of orchestra it's going to be and what the scoring is
going to be. You have to decide that in advance because I score
as I go along, usually. I don't like to
write the vocal score and then score it; I score as I go along, scene
by scene. I hear the colors and I don't like to forget
it, so I like to score it while it's fresh in my ear. I do a big
chunk and then score it, and then move on, so the orchestra has to be
very clear from the beginning.
BD: Do you feel
that opera works well on television?
TM: It depends
very much on the kind of opera, and also on the television
producer, the director. I'm not sure that it always works just
straight from the stage, although I'm glad that sometimes we get Live
from the Met, and we get to see these productions.
they're very good with their camera angles and getting close-ups, like
the Turandot. I think
that one worked wonderfully on television. I didn't see it in the
house, I only saw
it on television. But other things I wish that we had the
money to take them into the studio and really
make use of film techniques. Whether it's
shot on videotape or film is not an issue, but it has to be done with
skill. It bothers me sometimes when you're miles away from the
convention of the
theater; I'm not sure how far along that path one can really go.
It's a very delicate
BD: Where do your
operas fit in to this scheme?
TM: Well, I would
love to see Mary, Queen of Scots
Holyrood and Edinburgh Castle and France to gain some of the realism of
the setting. On the other hand, that opera is really about
it's really about confrontations, and the settings are
incidental. So I guess that means it would be quite
good if we saw it in Holyrood and had the murder scene actually there
in the place. I remember seeing the room as a
kid. They had red paint on the floor which we were told
was Rizzio's blood! [Both laugh] I'm sure they painted it
fresh each tourist season.
you want your operas translated when they're done in
TM: I think
so. I don't know! Supertitles have just come in. I'm
not sure whether it would be preferable to hear the sound of the
language. I always prefer to go to a movie and hear the
original language, and have subtitles. I like to hear Italian or
Russian or whatever it
is, as long as I can understand what's going
BD: That's your
But I like to hear that. When we've done operas in Norfolk, we
usually do them in the
original language and have supertitles so the audience can
really understand what's going on. And it's easier for the
they don't have to learn the sixteenth translation of the opera which
may or may not be very good, and which never totally fits.
Translations go out of date, and they don't really fit the music.
Queen of Scots was done in Germany in German, which I didn't
'cause we were on tour in the Far East at the time. I would've
been very interested to hear how it worked. If it made the
audience more involved and understand more, I think it's good. On
the other hand, when you hear operas in whatever language you don't
necessarily hear all the words. If it's in German
for the Germans you don't necessarily hear every word, just as if it's
English for the English. When Beverly Sills gave the Argento
Homecoming, at the State Theater, she had
supertitles, even though it was in
English! And why not? Although the diction was
actually very good and the singers were very good, there
were one or two moments of ensemble where there's no way of hearing
everything. So I was glad for the supertitles.
BD: What, for you,
constitutes greatness in music?
TM: That's a hard
one. I'm not sure how to answer that. I think some
kind of greatness of vision, greatness of aspiration, not necessarily
to go for the easy way, though sometimes it can
be that. I think Schubert and his songs, which
are simple in one way, are great! They just are absolutely
right. What constitutes rightness? I
don't know. You just know it's there when it's
right, and people on the whole will respond to it when it's
right. It must be something truthful.
BD: Is the music of Thea
TM: I haven't the
slightest idea. I would like to think so,
but I don't know.
BD: What, in your
view, is the purpose of music in society?
TM: It's very
important. It's all those things of
the human spirit that you need! It's not the scientific side,
it's not the practical, day-to-day living side; it's the other side of
man or woman which is the imagination. It's all those things
which my friend was calling the
catharsis. It's the poetry, the aesthetic sense —
either visual or aural —
need! Even people in a very much more simple society
needed it. You have cave paintings even for people way back
when! We need it too, though
I think we often forget it in our computerized world. We
also need the poetry and those other things in life that make it
BD: But you don't
look on the arts as being strictly useful, do
TM: Not useful,
no, but it's essential!
BD: What advice do
have for young composers coming along?
TM: [Thinks for a
moment, and takes a breath] Don't! [Both laugh
heartily] Don't, unless you really have to; then they do it
anyway. They have to get a very good
craft. They have to really know what they're doing and learn all
the technical things. But at the same time as
doing that, they have to let the imagination go to explore and find
new things, and not to be afraid to really go for it.
They need to hear a lot of things, particularly when you're
young. Go to a lot of opera, to ballet, to whatever. Go
and hear new things; go and hear what other people are doing.
Look at scores, listen to recordings so they
have a width of experience to draw from. Then they find out where
they stand within that and forge their own individual path out of
that. Nobody can tell them what to do; one has to find it for
oneself. One can't be told; one shouldn't be told.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of music?
sure! As long as people are
around, sure because, as we
just decided, it's essential. What form it will take, I don't
know! I don't think one can possibly know, but the
artistic expression is essential. As long as we're human beings
who talk to each other and have means of expression, it's going to be
there one way or another for sure.
BD: You work a
lot with young people. Do you do any teaching at all?
TM: I've just
started to teach, and I really love
it. I've discovered I really love it. It's very
interesting and challenging, but
it's something quite new; I just started in September. I
teach at Queens College in New York. These
young people are so different from each other, with the backgrounds
that they have and different experiences
that they have. They come from different countries, and it's
interesting to try and see where they're at a particular moment, and
to help them. Also I'm glad because Queens has a very
good theory background which they have to have. I don't do
that, but they need to have that. You need
something to build on. You can't build on sand; you've got to
build on rock, the rock of theory. So I hope they
have that when they get into my composition class. I try to
encourage them to be imaginative and to explore things, and see what
BD: You mentioned Mary, Queen of Scots a couple of
times. Is this work particularly close to your heart, being a
Yeah. But on the other hand, another recent opera
was Harriet, The Woman Called Moses,
which is very different from my
experience. What grabbed me about that was
the universality of that experience. It can speak to
everybody. [Harriet, The Woman
Called Moses (1984), opera
in two acts; libretto by the composer based freely on the life of
Harriet Tubman; commissioned jointly by the Virginia Opera and the
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden] I think that that's
something else that an art can do —
transcend time and
space. With time, hopefully through seeing Mary, Queen of
Scots, one can understand something about her even though she
many hundreds of years ago. Harriet
for me is a big space difference. Coming from Scotland
and talking about slavery in Maryland is a long way
from my own personal experience, yet there's something that's universal
about the kind of courage that she had that can speak to
everybody. That can hopefully be a universal experience.
People can speak to one another through an art and reach
another kind of understanding which goes beyond just words.
BD: Is there any
parallel at all between trying to get freedom for the black people as a
and now trying to get freedom for women as a group?
TM: I think of
freedom for anybody, from whatever kind of oppression, whether it's as
a group or as an individual. You can use
it as a metaphor for anything, but the important thing is
to go for the freedom. How she did it was what was
moving to me, and why I felt I wanted to tell the story.
Something which seems totally impossible and totally out of
reach can be reached by somebody with enough courage to do it.
It's wonderful! It's really wonderful to think that just one
person who was totally uneducated —
she wasn't allowed to be
did what she did! It's fantastic! So I think
there's a moral there for
us. Not that I wrote it to be moralistic, but it's
BD: Have women
composers come far enough now that
they no longer need to be classified as "women composers"?
without hesitation] Oh, surely.
BD: I'd hoped so,
but I just wanted to make sure, because occasionally I will talk with a
woman composer who will say that not enough has been done yet.
TM: But I don't
think there's enough done for composers! I
don't think it's a matter of sex, I think it's not enough done for
composers. Until the concerts have much, much more 20th
century music of today in them, everybody's neglected. You look
at any concert program, it's a huge preponderance
of the Classical and Romantic period! Now a little bit of early
music is coming into its
own, very early music, but not 20th century
music for the most part.
BD: Whose fault is
the audience, the managements, the composers?
office. People don't promote it right,
and it becomes a whole financial problem; all the business side of
it, all that awful part of the arts which I hate.
BD: Wasn't it
Barnum who said, "If the public won't come, no one
can stop 'em"?
true! On the other hand, we have such a
tradition that's been built up over a number of years,
that music in the concert halls is mostly Classical and Romantic.
If the public had been brought
along to keep up to date, things might be different. People go to
galleries and look at the
far-out things visually, but on the whole, it's only the brave
ones that go and listen to the far-out things in concert
music. They listen to jazz or rock music, which
is pretty much up there. If it's part of a film score, without
them knowing they've heard a lot of things which are actually as far
advanced as most music! So sometimes it happens.
BD: How can we get
more contemporary music on the various
concerts? Or is that not your problem?
TM: I wish I knew
the answer. It is my problem, but I don't know what
the answer is.
BD: Obviously not
enough is being done.
TM: I don't think
so. But I don't know what the answer is. It's where the
funding has to
happen; there has to be more funding for the arts compared to the money
that we spend on all sorts of
things. The arts need
actually a very tiny proportion of that budget, but they do need
it. The orchestras and the opera companies need more
money to exist; they're all fighting for that tiny
proportion that they get, and they have to do all this
fundraising. But they feel they can't take
risks as far as box office is concerned; they have to play
safe, otherwise they go out of existence, and that's not good
artistically, either! I'm exaggerating a bit. Obviously
some orchestras do more new music than others, but it's a problem!
is next on your calendar?
TM: Tomorrow I'm
going to Israel, where I've been invited
to conduct the Jerusalem Symphony in a concert of my works. I
will start off with one of my earliest orchestral works and
finish up with one of the more recent ones. In the
middle I'm doing something called Monologues
from Mary, Queen
of Scots, four excerpts out of the opera which I'll
be doing with a young Israeli soprano. So that should be exciting.
BD: Do you
enjoy the travel all over the world, taking your music to new places?
TM: I don't like
to do that. I like to travel a
little bit from time to time, but basically I need to be
in one place for a certain period of time in order to work. I
can't work on the train or on the plane. I have to be somewhere
and have a work situation. At the moment my life is between New
York and Norfolk, but I go from home to home. I have a studio in
each place and I'm
set up for work. But when I go to Israel, I probably won't be
able to work very much. I'll work for the concert and conduct,
but I doubt that I'll
be in the mood for composing very much. I'll enjoy being in a
country which I've never visited before, and when I get back,
hopefully I'll have a lot of ideas to work on.
BD: If you get a
idea when you're there, I assume you'll jot it down.
TM: Oh sure, or
file it away in my memory. I might take some work, but I'm not
whether I will do very much.
BD: I asked you
about advice to
composers; what advice do you have for performers of either music in
general or your music in particular?
TM: I hope the
come with it with a fresh spirit, and audiences come with an open
mind. Don't prejudge it; let's see what happens. I'm always
particularly pleased at rehearsals for a concert
if the performers like the work. Sometimes if a thing is new and
unfamiliar, a public finds
it more difficult. But if the performers really like it, I'm very
pleased. If the public may take a little longer to come to
it, that's all right, but if the performers don't
like something, that's not good. They may
take a little while just to get into it, to get over the
notes, but then you really want them to like it. I
BD: If the
performers like it, that's really half your
because they have to play
it and are committed to it. So you need to convince them.
It's one thing is
to get right notes and right rhythms, and all that. The
other thing is the dramatic part of it. A lot of my orchestral
works have a kind of dramatic function, and the idea is to make that
work. If it's in front of a mike, it doesn't matter
so much, but in front of an audience, it is important to make it look
encouraging them to stand out with a certain panache if that's what's
needed, or to act out just a little bit. And it's not just
for the sake of being a performer; I think they play differently if
they do it with the right spirit. If they stand out with a
certain zest, it'll sound
that way as well. I like them to stand when I need them to
stand because it sounds different. When you stand to play,
you play with a little bit more freedom, and because you're
standing, you're more visible than if you're sitting. I work with
that kind of thing in some of
the orchestral pieces, so it's important they stand with the
right spirit, and aren't sheepish or apologetic about it in any way,
and also at times to enter into the fun
of the thing. It's not all deadly serious. Sometimes it
should have a spirit of fun and playfulness as well.
BD: One last
question. Is composing fun?
Usually; sometimes not, but on the whole,
it is. Well, "fun," I don't
know, but "involving" and "interesting" perhaps are better
words. So I guess that's fun. It is actually,
it really is!
Otherwise, you wouldn't be so crazy as to do it! That's why I
would say to a young person who asks what he or she should do to be
a composer, the answer is, "If you have to ask the question, don't!"
then we've lost the days of, [with exaggerated pathos] "I must
suffer for my art"?
sometimes you suffer,
but it's because you have to do it! It's not that you really
suffer; you sort of suffer. You tear your hair out when it
doesn't go right, but it's because you're after
something and you haven't got what you wanted. You have to be
determined to get it!
BD: Thank you for
being a composer, and for spending a few minutes with me at this very
TM: It's hectic at
the moment, and you ask some difficult questions!
try to encourage my guests to think. There's no
point in asking superfluous questions.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland on 27 May 1928, Thea Musgrave studied first
at the University of Edinburgh and later at the Conservatoire in Paris,
where she spent four years as a pupil of Nadia Boulanger, before
establishing herself back in London as a prominent member of British
musical life with her orchestral, choral, operatic, and chamber works.
In 1970 she became Guest Professor at the University of California,
Santa Barbara, which anchored her increasing involvement with the
musical life of the United States. In 1971 she married the American
violist and opera conductor Peter Mark, and has resided in the U.S.
since 1972. In 1974 she received the Koussevitzky Award. She has also
been awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships, in 1974-75, and again in
1982-83, and was recognized with honorary degrees by Old Dominion
University (Virginia), Smith College, Glasgow University and in May
2004, the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. She was awarded
a C.B.E. on the Queen's New Year's Honour List in January 2002. As
Distinguished Professor at Queens College, City University of New York
from September 1987-2002, Musgrave has guided and interacted with many
new and gifted young student composers. For more information and
a full list of her works, visit
her official website.
© 1988 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in the composer's apartment in New
York City on March 21, 1988.
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB two months later, and again in 1993 and 1998.
made and posted on this
website in 2011.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
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.