Composer  Olly  Wilson
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Olly Wilson's richly varied musical background includes not only the traditional composition and academic disciplines, but also his professional experience as a jazz and orchestral musician, work in electronic media, and studies of African music in West Africa itself. His catalogue includes orchestral and chamber works, as well as works for electronic media.

Born in 1937, the St. Louis, MO, native completed his undergraduate training at Washington University (St. Louis), continuing with his masters studies at University of Illinois (returning later to study electronic music in the Studio for Experimental Music), and received his Ph.D from the University of Iowa. His composition teachers included Robert Wykes, Robert Kelley, and Phillip Bezanson.

His work as a professional musician included playing jazz piano in local St. Louis groups, as well as playing double bass for the St. Louis Philharmonic, the St. Louis Summer Chamber Players, and the Cedar Rapids Symphony. He has taught on the faculties of Florida A&M University and Oberlin Conservatory of Music, as well as his current position of professor of music at University of California at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1970.

Wilson's works have been performed by major American orchestras such as the Atlanta, Baltimore, Saint Louis, Detroit, and Dallas Symphonies, along with such international ensembles as the Moscow Philharmonic, the Netherlands Philharmonic and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. He has received commissions from the Boston, Chicago, and Houston Symphonies, as well as the New York Philharmonic and the American Composers Orchestra. He has been awarded numerous honors including: the Dartmouth Arts Council Prize (the first international competition awarded for electronic music for his work Cetus); commissions from the NEA and Koussevitzky Foundation; an artist residency at the American Academy of Rome; several Guggenheim Fellowships; a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship; and the Elise Stoeger Prized awarded by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. In addition to being a published author (Wilson has written numerous articles on African and African-American music), Wilson often conducts concerts of contemporary music. In 1995, Wilson was elected in membership at the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Olly Wilson's music is published by Gunmar Music (G. Schirmer, Inc.).

In February of 1991, Olly Wilson was in Chicago for the premiere of his work
Of Visions and Truth.  It was commissioned by the Center for Black Music Research in 1989 with funding from the Borg-Warner Foundation for the Black Music Repertory Ensemble.  While he was in the Windy City, I had the privilege of speaking with Wilson at his hotel.  Here is what transpired that afternoon . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie
:    You are both composer and teacher of music.  How do you divide your time between those two very taxing occupations?

Olly Wilson:    I discovered a long time ago that in this country the university is really the patron of the arts
at least patron of the composers.  I happen to really enjoy the university, so it worked out very well for me.  I’m fortunate enough to teach at a university that recognizes the necessity for creative time, and the teaching load is such that I’m ableand indeed expectedto do creative work.  So because of that understanding, I’m able to focus on my creative work at the same time I’m teaching.  Right now I’m on sabbatical leave, so I’ve got the entire year to focus on writing several commissions.

BD:    At the university you’re teaching composition and theory?

OW:    I’m teaching composition and theory, and I teach courses in the whole range of theory and analysis and composition.  I also teach courses in African-American music, so that that’s another part of it.  But I rotate my teaching schedule so that I’m able to still write music as well.

wilson BD:    By rotating the courses can you keep each one fresh?

OW:    That’s right.

BD:    In the theory and composition courses, are these training more composers or are these training musicians who want to understand music more?

OW:    It’s both.  On the undergraduate level, it’s the general student.  It’s the general music major, as well as, occasionally, a course for non-majors.  Then on the graduate level, we have a Ph.D. program at Berkeley.  These are really very, very sophisticated composers, people who have really committed themselves and are usually fairly sophisticated about the craft at that point.  So there is a judicious balance between the somewhat esoteric technical side of things and the general thing for the general student, and a continuum in between.

BD:    Do you think it would be a good idea for any performer
a fiddle player in an orchestra or just a general music teacherto take a course in composition?

OW:    I think it’s probably a good idea, depending upon what their expectations are, to study with a composer to see how the composer thinks, what parameters interest the composer in working on a piece, and to find out about the range of things that a composer deals with in creating something new.  I think would be interesting for a performer or the general listener, as far as that’s concerned, assuming that both the composer who was teaching the course and the student understood the dimensions of the course, so the composer wouldn’t expect more creativity out of a person who simply doesn’t have that kind of creative bent, and the student didn’t expect a different kind of thing out of the composer.

BD:    You could design a course that’s just the mechanics of composing.

OW:    That’s right, or perhaps periodically have a person sit in on the composition seminar that a composer is giving to other composers, even just observing the energy exchange that goes on — the kind of things that a composer attempts to center in on.  In the creative arts, you can’t really teach creativity.  What you can do is to try to understand what a young composer’s attempting to do and try to help him or her do it better;
to develop the technique, the technique being the ability to bring to fruition, to bring to reality what you imagine.  The real task is to make the imagination real.  Teaching compositional technique is teaching those kinds of skills, so that the person who imagines something is able to write it down, or is able to express to the performers in some kind of way what he or she wishes them to do.

BD:    Where is this delicate balance between the inspiration and the technique?

OW:    It’s hard to exactly pinpoint that.  In some aspects of a composition the focus is on technique
— such as if you wanted something to be effective, but you wrote something that was impossible for the performers to do, or you over-scored it or it was too thick.  You expected it to be clear.  If you wrote three or four lines and you wanted each of them to be heard, but they’re all in the same registersay in the lower register, especially the trombonesyou’re not going to hear them.  [Both laugh]  So understanding that and knowing exactly what to do and how to re-orchestrate that, or how to redevelop that or how to change the texture, the timbre, in order to create the musical gesture that you intend, is really the secret.  On the other hand, sometimes there’s inspiration to the basic idea.  It’s possible to have technique and not have any imagination, and as a result you have something that might be interesting as an exercise, but doesn’t capture one’s imagination, or more importantly, it doesn’t communicate anything to the listener.

BD:    Then that becomes not such a great piece of music?

OW:    That’s right.  It becomes very mediocre if you aren’t able to inspire.

BD:    So each person has to have both of these talents?

OW:    Exactly, exactly.

BD:    Is this, perhaps, what contributes to the greatness of a piece
when both aspects have strength?

OW:    I think absolutely
— when they both are at a sublime level.  When you have both the mastery of the technique and the imagination, then you’re able to really communicate something.

BD:    Thinking a little bit about inspiration, when you’re sitting at your desk with the blank score and all the lines are waiting to be filled in, are you always in control of the pencil, or are there times when the pencil is controlling your hand across the page?

OW:    There’s constantly this idea to get in contact with what someone has referred to as a ‘sonorous image’
your inner ear, the ability to hear things, to imagine things in sound.  What you do with the pencil is to simply write that down so that you have an abstract representation of what you have imagined.

BD:    But you’re more than just a copyist, are you not?

OW:    Oh, much more, much more than the copyist.  The imagination is what you hear, but then you are doing it, creating it, writing it down.  There are different kinds of composers.  Apparently Mozart was the kind of composer that had such a brilliant sonorous image that much of his writing was almost like a medium.  It was so clear that he could simply write it out as the first copy and things were perfect.  But that was certainly the extraordinary exception.  There are very few musicians like that.  Beethoven, on the other hand, was the kind of composer who struggled.  He wrote something and then he changed it; he wrote something and then he changed it again.  He was attempting to reach that ideal state, but he reached that after many trials.  I think most mortals are closer to Beethoven in terms of that relationship of trying to realize that ideal that you have imagined, as opposed to Mozart who apparently didn’t struggle that much at all but was just able to let it flow out.  I certainly am a composer who works over and over, although I’m sure all composers have certain moments of inspiration when they hit that one idea.  Frequently for me it’s the beginning kernel of the idea after I have tried to decide how I am going to start the piece.  As you said, when you confront this blank piece of paper and you’re starting on a new piece, what do you do?  Well, you pray for rain.  [Both laugh]  You seek to try to invoke some kind of inspiration, and you do that in a number of different ways.  People have a number of different schemes they do.  Sometimes they study other music.  Sometimes they might sit at the piano and improvise.  Sometimes I might just take a walk or I might try deep reflection.  At any rate, you keep doing that until you are able to get something and you say, “Aha, this is the idea.  This is what I want to do.”  You get your concept.  Then the process of composition is making that concept clearer and clearer.  Part of that process is sometimes writing things down, and rejecting and accepting and rejecting and accepting and honing, much like an artist or a sculptor does.  Then other times, once you have the clear idea of what it is, then you’re working it out... and that’s also an acceptance and rejection kind of process.

BD:    Are you ever completely surprised by where an idea will lead you?

wilson OW:    Oh, sure!  At least I sometimes have a preconceived notion of what a piece is going to be.  I’m starting a piece and I’ll think in terms of its overall form, and initially I might do it a number of different ways.  I try to get the broad picture first
an overall concept of what I’m trying to do in the piece — and I may even use a graphic kind of notation, a graphic kind of score just to draft out what I want to do in large terms so I won’t lose the big picture while I’m working out the little details.  That will be the beginning of the idea, and this is sort of a broad representation of what I want to do musically in the piece.  Then I go to work out the piece.  By then, hopefully there’s at least enough of the clear concept that I know what I’m trying to do.  In the process of realizing that sort of conception, the broad picture sometimes changes, and the idea, perhaps, doesn’t want to move precisely in the way that you thought it was going to want to move.  Then you have to follow the idea and let the idea make sense.  So it’s a constant reinforcementmoving back and looking forward as you work through the direction of the piece.

BD:    As you’re working on the piece, or even when you start, are you conscious about how long it will take to perform the piece?

OW:    In general I usually am at first.  After you determine what the basic idea is going to be, then you have a general sense of the overall length.  But then again that might vary because the idea may be made in further working out.  Then you get involved and you say, “Oh this needs to go this way.”  So you work that out, and as you work that out suddenly the piece becomes longer.  Or it may be that you do a piece, and then after you’ve done parts of it you realize that your intentions would be better served by making certain overall changes.  The piece that I’m doing that’s going to be premiered on Wednesday night is a case in point.  This piece is a song cycle, and originally it consisted of four songs.  But in the course of working out the songs, I discovered that I really needed some instrumental interludes.  I had the four songs — the main part of the work — and then I realized for a number of different reasons — pacing, tempo, the character of each song — I shouldn’t have Song A following Song B.  I needed to have something in between.  So I then wrote several instrumental interludes and now it’s a larger cycle.  There are interrelationships between the interludes and the main body of the work.

BD:    So it all hangs together.

OW:    Exactly, yes.

BD:    When you’re working with a score and you’re tinkering with it, how do you know when to put the pencil down and launch the work?

OW:    It’s sometimes difficult to let go, but when you decide, “That’s it, I’ve said all I can say; I’ve done all I can do in this particular composition so I’d better just let it have its own life,” then you turn it over to performers.  Hopefully you’re fortunate to shepherd it through its first performance, to help the performers and the conductor understand the conception that you had initially.

BD:    Do you want the performers to play it exactly right, or is there a little room for interpretation?

OW:    I want the performers to follow my directions.  I’m very conscious of what I’ve done, and I want them to do it exactly that way, but I also recognize that any performance is, to a certain degree, a collaboration.  One hopes for a musical and sensitive conductor, such as Kay Robertson who’s doing this piece, and outstanding performers.  Here I’ve got William Brown and Donnie Rae Albert and Bonita Hyman who are all outstanding performers.  I recognize their musicianship and their interpretive skills, so within the framework there’s a certain amount of leeway for them — how long are you going to do this phrase, how do you turn this phrase, how phrase one is related to phrase two, slight increments of intensity.  I might say mezzo piano in the first phrase and fortissimo in the second phrase, but what does mezzo piano really mean in absolute terms?  So it becomes relative, and a sensitive performer is able to take those directions and shape them.  If they really understand your conception, maybe they will even show you different ideas about the conception that you hadn’t thought of exactly in that same way.  Each performance is also a revelation for the composer.

BD:    Tell me the joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.

OW:    The joys are that it is the most marvelous instrument.  It’s so intimate.  It’s so close to oneself.  It is able to express the most profound sentiments in the most significant ways.  On the other hand, it is a human voice and is subject to the frailties of individuals.  Because it’s so intimately connected with people, if they have a cold or if they aren’t feeling well that day, it’s not like an instrument that you can play and you control completely.  Although instruments, really, in the broadest sense and in the best hands become an extension of the person’s sentiments, the human voice has some very dramatic and interesting possibilities.  It has some limitations, and there are certain things that are very difficult to do
although in this century, I, along with many other composers, are certainly pushing the voice to its limit.  You find fantastic performers that are able to achieve almost anything you ask them to do.

BD:    How do you know when you’ve pushed the voice too far?

OW:    Frequently, if it’s too far the vocalist will let you know.  [Both laugh]  If you don’t know already yourself, the vocalist will let you know.  But adventuresome vocalists who are on the cutting edge will frequently encourage you toward pushing it to the cutting edge.  William Brown, who is a tenor, is a person with whom I’ve collaborated for several years on several different pieces.  One of my strongest pieces is called Sometimes for Tenor and Electronic Sound.  It’s about a twenty-five minute piece and is a tour de force for the tenor and electronic sound.  I ask the tenor to do a wide range of extremely virtuosic techniques.  He’s all the way up to about a C and D and a falsetto E flat, and at the same time rhythmically he’s asked to do a lot of very, very interesting, complicated things.

BD:    Did you write it with William Brown in mind?

OW:    I wrote it with William Brown in mind, as a matter of fact, and on Pieces for Voice and Tape, some of the tape includes pre-recorded vocal parts that he actually performed.  So it was really his piece.  It has been performed by other people, though, because it’s been around since 1976.  He’s performed it a number of times, and there are other performers who have also performed the piece.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve worked quite a bit with electronics and electronic tape, and you had a piece that actually won the first competition of electronic music.

OW:    Right.

BD:    I wonder... can there be a competition for the
best piece of music in any given framework?

OW:    [Laughs]  Of course not, but human nature being what it is, people decide periodically to have contests of various sorts.  People enter them for various reasons, and this was in the early years.  The piece won in 1967, and it was quite an experience.  It was actually my first piece of electronic music I had written.  But at the time, electronic music was relatively new, so I was very pleased with the piece.  Of course, the technology now has moved light years away from the technology that we were employing at that time.

BD:    Are there things you can do now that you couldn’t do then, or is it just simply easier and faster to do those effects?

OW:    Both.  It’s easier to do them, and of course with digital synthesis now, it’s a lot cleaner.  You don’t have the ambient noise and the tape hiss that you had with the old equipment.  The signal-to-noise ratio was much higher in those old tapes, and yet there were some interesting things about it.  But the technology now allows you to do different things, and to do some of the older things faster.  Yet if you go back and listen to some of that early electronic music — even going all the way back before tape manipulation to the musique concrète of the forties and fifties, and then moving up to the synthesizers in the sixties and so forth, there are certain qualities about that music that you can only do with that music, with that media; so it’s different.  It’s certainly a lot more sophisticated now than it was then.  I haven’t been writing that much electronic music for about the last ten years because I’ve been fortunate to be asked to do several orchestra pieces.

BD:    You don’t feel that writing for orchestra is looking back, and writing for electronics is looking forward?

wilson OW:    Not necessarily.  I’ve always felt that the composer controls the message independent of the media.  Certainly the media does effect how you do something, but the basic thrust is determined by the composer.  For a single composer writing in electronic media who also writes in the acoustical media
let’s say traditional orchestra, chamber groups or whatever — the music would probably have more in common with one another than another composer who only wrote in one of the media.  I’ve felt that the ideas determine what you do, and you use the media as a means of projecting that idea, taking into cognizance the peculiar qualities of each media.

BD:    I was asking you before about interpretation and leeway on the part of performers.  When you write an electronic piece, it will be absolutely the same each time it is played.  Is this a good thing or a bad thing, or just a thing?

OW:    I think it is just a thing, and it depends on whether it’s a piece only for electronic tape, or for electronic tape and live performer
or whether it’s a piece for electronics to be performed live.  It’s capable of doing that now.  As a matter of fact, one of the things that’s happening in electronic or digital synthesis of sound now is the development of what’s referred to as interactive performance.  This is the kind of technique where an electronic sound source can be programmed to respond to the nuances of the spacing, the tempo, and the dynamics of a live performer.

BD:    So then you’re getting electronic interpretation?

OW:    You’re getting electronic interpretation, according to certain rules, and that’s an interesting challenge.  I’ve seen some examples.  I have a colleague, Barry Vercoe, who works at MIT, who’s been working on this quite a bit there and at IRCAM in Paris.  He’s developed this interactive system where you can play a Bach suite on the flute, and you have a Yamaha-like instrument
a harpsichord, for exampleto accompany the flute that plays live.  It’s programmed so it responds to it as a live accompanist would.  It’s really fascinating, some of the technique that’s going on.

BD:    Will it put a lot of keyboard players out of work?

OW:    No, live keyboard players need not worry about that because it’s a different kind of thing.  But it is interesting and it is interactive, and I think that’s more the wave of the future.

BD:     So electronics are continually developing?

OW:    Oh, of course.  Technology always does, and technology always has its own rules and its positive things.  But it’s not a panacea.  Electronic music has been around for years.  I first became involved in the early to middle sixties, and now, almost thirty years later, ninety per cent of the music and sound that you hear on television is produced electronically one way or another.  But still, live instrumentalists are thriving and performing in all kinds of genres of music because it is something special.  There’s something about the quality of the human spirit that also loves the acoustic sound.  It’s not an either/or; I think it’s clearly a both/and.

BD:    So you’re optimistic about the whole future of music?

OW:    Oh, yes.  I’m optimistic about the whole future of music.  I tend to be an optimistic person.  There are a lot of things that I’d like to see be better.  As a composer I’d like to have more performances.  I have been fortunate recently to have a number of performances, although the Chicago Symphony hasn’t performed my work yet.  They’ve got to do that!  They ought to do that.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’re perhaps inundated with commissions.  How do you decide which ones you’ll accept and which ones you’ll either postpone or turn aside?

OW:    I try to accept those commissions that I really would like to do.  At this point in my life I am fortunate to have a number of different commissions, and of course the biggest problem is time.  Even though I’m on sabbatical and even though at the university I do have this balance of teaching as well as creative work, still I have other responsibilities and it does take time.  I’m not exactly the fastest composer in the world anyway, so I try to judiciously accept commissions that I really want to do.

BD:    Then what is it you look for?

OW:    A lot of times it has to do with the ensemble.  The best commissions are the ones that are sort of carte blanche, “We want you to do a piece,” especially a piece either for orchestra or for chamber group.  Right now I have a commission from the National Endowment for the Arts to do a viola concerto for Marcus Thompson.  [See my Interview with Marcus Thompson.]  That was something I wanted to do, and I applied directly to NEA.  That’s something Marcus and I had been talking for about for a long time, and it worked out.  So I’m beginning that now that I’ve finished this piece for the Black Music Repertory Ensemble.

Thompson presents world premiere of Viola Concerto by Wilson

Clarise Snyder
July 12, 2012

wilson Violist Marcus Thompson, Robert R. Taylor Professor of Music at MIT, presented the world premiere of the Viola Concerto by composer Olly Wilson with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra on June 2. The performance, under the direction of Arild Remmereit at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theater, was presented as part of the 40th International Viola Congress held at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.

Stuart Low, reviewer for The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, wrote: …“Olly Wilson’s Viola Concerto, dazzlingly performed by Boston soloist Marcus Thompson, was a more serious affair. Skillfully and innovatively written for the instrument, it often calls for hammered or vigorously scrubbed bow strokes that help the viola’s dark tone project. The concerto’s atonal lines tend to unfold in tight, chromatic steps — a great help to a violist zipping around this large instrument in quick runs. Wilson, a highly acclaimed Berkeley, Calif., composer, also takes advantage of the viola’s lyrical side in the concerto’s elegiac middle section. Searing and haunted by turns, it was eloquently delivered by Thompson.”

Wilson’s Viola Concerto was commissioned by the National Endowment of the Arts and written for, and dedicated to, Marcus Thompson. Wilson is professor of music at University of California at Berkeley. He has received numerous honors and awards from the American Academy in Rome and the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships. His works have been performed by major American orchestras and international ensembles.

Then I’ve got a commission from the New York Philharmonic.  As part of their one hundred fiftieth celebration I’ll be doing a piece for them.  And there are several other pieces that I’m commissioned to do within the next couple of years.

BD:    So you say you haven’t done anything for the Chicago Symphony yet, but you have had the Boston Symphony and now you’ve got New York!

OW:    Boston, New York, Cleveland, Saint Louis
— almost all of the major symphonies have played some of my music, with the exception of Chicago!

BD:    I hope it’ll happen, but the point I was making is that there are many composers
— even those who have recordingsand they don’t get any of the big orchestras to play their music.  So you’re very fortunate.

wilson OW:    Yes, I am fortunate and very pleased by that.  I have been fortunate in having had conductors who supported my work.  One of them who was very supportive was Seiji Ozawa, who performed my work in San Francisco and then did it in Boston.  He then commissioned me and recorded the Boston piece that you have.  [Photo at left.  See my Interview with John Harbison, whose music is also on that CD.]

BD:    What advice do you have for young composers coming along?

OW:    I think young composers should follow their own muse and study as much as they can.  By study I mean listen — my advice is to listen to as much music that interests you and to study as many scores as you possibly can.  My musical background is steeped not only in the European classical tradition, but in the African-American tradition.  I found listening to a great deal of music — in my case a great deal of jazz and so forth, and playing and getting involved, immersing oneself in the musical experience as much as possible
is the best way for inspiration.  It sensitizes you a great deal to what’s going on around you, and it makes you critical.  Any creative person has to be critical.  You have to be critical of yourself, and in order to develop that kind of skill you have to know a lot.  You have to listen to a lot.  You have to have experienced a lot.  This is done by playing music and making musiceither as a performer or a conductorlistening a lot, reading a lot about music, and immersing yourself in all of the traditions as much as you can.  I find inspiration comes from a wide range of sources, and you can’t always predict where it’s coming from.

BD:    Does it come for you even from your students?

OW:    Oh, sure!  It comes from my students and from my colleagues at the university.  You asked earlier about the university and how one juxtaposes or balances the responsibilities of a professor and at the same time fulfills the drives of a creative artist.  Even though they recognize, as I did, that the university is the twentieth century patron of the arts, I have colleagues who say that they could never survive in the university because there are too many other things that are distractions.  In my case, I don’t think of it that way.  It’s not a distraction; I find that it’s intellectually stimulating.  I find it also inspiring because of the fact that you can go and here somebody giving a lecture on the latest advances in physics, or somebody talking about philosophy or an entirely new approach to geopolitics.  I find that all stimulating, and in funny ways I think it keeps you alert.  It certainly becomes an inspiration for me to pursue my art.

BD:    As an African American composer, whenever we listen to a piece of yours, are you helping to express African American ideas, or is it just simply part of the universal music that you are presenting?

OW:    Music is experience consciously transformed, and because my experience has been an African-American experience, I think it expresses that.  But that is a very, very complicated kind of thing which is inclusive.  It includes a lot of different things including the full range of human experience at the end of the 20th century living in the United States.  Having said that, if you listen to music on the other side, there may not be discernible aspects of that music that you say, “Aha, that’s clearly from African American tradition.”  In some instances, in some of the music, you might be able to discern it and in other instances you aren’t able to discern it.  I would hope that you would be able to discern something that made sense, something that communicated something of the human spirit.  To that degree it’s universal, but the universal always comes from the particular.  What really makes it universal is that somebody has looked very deeply at their specific human experience
which is very culturally bound and culturally based.  But what comes out of that is something which has meaning to you, and that becomes universal because the human experience is so common in so many levels.

BD:    Is the music that you write, or any concert music, for everyone?

OW:    Of course.  The idea of a creative person
certainly my ideais to attempt to communicate.  There are two drives a creative person has.  One is to create, and the other is to communicate.  You want to communicate to anybody who can hear it and anybody who can appreciate it, so you’re constantly dealing with that.  The first drive, I think is primary because even if you weren’t successfuleven if I had no commissions, even if I were not fortunate enough to have my work performed by outstanding ensembles like the excellent repertory ensemble that’s performing Wednesday nighteven if that were not the case I would still create because I’ve got an inner drive to create.  I also want to communicate, but I want to communicate on my terms.  The difference would be though I want to communicate, I don’t start with the fact that I want to communicate, figure out what people like and then try to do that.  I start out with my inner drive, my inner concept of what makes sense, and then hope that people will understand what I’m attempting to do.

BD:    Do you have the audience in mind at all when you’re writing?

OW:    I have the audience in mind in a general sense, but not in a specific sense.  I’m so involved with the dynamics of trying to make sense out of this musical universe that I’m trying to create.  I’m also the audience, and I’m also listening back and saying, “This works and this doesn’t work.”  If you’re fortunate to reach that moment when you say, “Ah, this really works,” then I assume that’s going to work for the audience, too.  But I’m not consciously thinking about the audience when I’m writing a piece.  I’m consciously thinking about the piece and what makes sense within that piece.

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

OW:    Yes I do, very much so.  As an American composer, I feel very much a part of the tradition of American composers, and specifically African American composers
a tradition which is much older than many people are aware.  It goes all the way back to the early part of the nineteenth century with composer-performers like Frank Johnson, who was an excellent band leaderone of the first band leaders and composers, writing music that was both quasi-popular and at the same time was also outside of the popular, for the salon as well.  It goes all the way up to the end of the nineteenth century with Dvořák and Harry Burleigh, and through the twenties with William Grant Still and William Dawson, and later on with Howard Swanson and then people of my own generation like George Walker, Hale Smith and T.J. Anderson, and people who were my colleagues and contemporaries, and some former students like Wendell Logan.  [See my  Interview with George Walker, and my Interview with Hale Smith and T.J. Anderson.]  All of this is in addition to being part of the general contemporary American music movement.  Obviously there’s been an impact from Stravinsky and influence by a number of other composers who have been active.  There has been the impact of Varèse on my work in various ways, and I’ve been influenced by the music of Berio.  [See my Interview with Luciano Berio.]  But I’ve also been influenced by the music of Charlie Parker and, to different degrees, John Coltrane and Miles Davis.  So it’s all of those things that have been the sum total of my musical experience.

BD:    Is composing fun?

OW:    Composing is fulfilling.  It’s fun and it’s also frustrating.  It’s a challenge
— in Michelangelo’s terms, ‘the agony and the ecstasy.’  It’s both of those.  When you come to those creative solutions for problems that you have, it’s just absolutely ecstasy!  It really is marvelous!  On the other hand, when you are struggling to achieve that goal you’re your own best critic.  When you know that this is not quite up to the standard, it is agony.  So it is both exhilarating and also capable of casting you into utter despair at times.  You can understand both sides of it, and you try to maintain an equilibrium and say, “Well, today I didn’t do so well, but maybe tomorrow I’ll do better,” and you keep at it.

BD:    Do you go back and revise scores?

OW:    I don’t do that very much.  I try to move on to the next piece.  Occasionally if there’s a real miscalculation in a performance — maybe the orchestration wasn’t right — I may make some minor changes here and there.  But I have not been the kind of composer who does a lot of serious revisions.  As you know, history is full of composers who’ve done that.  I don’t do that very often.  I think, “This piece reflects the way I was feeling at that time.  Even with its imperfections, let’s move onto the next level.  The next piece is a new opportunity.”

BD:    So rather than fix an old piece, you’d rather write a new piece?

OW:    Exactly.  And in most instances, by the time I’ve finished with a piece I’m satisfied with basically what it’s done.  There may be a little thing, something here or there that is minor, but for the most part I’m pretty satisfied with the output before I release it.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  There are no pieces lurking in the early part of your catalog that you want to disown?

OW:    No, but there are pieces in the early part of my catalog that I say, “Yeah, but I was a student then.”  [Both laugh]  There are pieces that I wouldn’t do now that I did in 1959 and so forth, but there are some early pieces which I still consider inspired, so it’s good.

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BD:    You’re teaching at U.C. Berkeley?

OW:    Right.  I’ve been there twenty years, as a matter of fact, since 1970.

BD:    Is there a real difference between the west coast school and the east coast school?

OW:    I don’t think so.  Given the nature of communications and the ability of people to travel back and forth, I don’t think there ever was a real strong difference.  In the sixties and the seventies there was the presence of several strong figures in the west coast who approached music differently, and some strong figures in the east coast.  If you recall, in the sixties in terms of contemporary American music, probably the leading intellectual leader was Milton Babbitt at Princeton with a certain kind of approach toward composition.  The whole notion of the post-Webern total serialism, total determination and so forth — these ideas were prevalent certainly in the eastern academies.  At the same time in the west, particularly around San Francisco and also, to a different degree, in LA where Schoenberg was living, you had a number of people who were supporters of John Cage who were also adherents of applying more indeterminacy.  [See my Interview with John Cage.]  As a result of that, people began to associate Cage and a prior California composer, Cowell, who was also iconoclastic, and also looked to the east and different ways of approaching these ideas instead of the extension of the Germanic tradition.  At least philosophically, perhaps some ideas were redefined and reinterpreted because they weren’t precisely the way they were from Asia, but grew out of Zen Buddhism.  [For more on the Asian influence, see my Interview with Lou Harrison.]  At that time there was such a clear difference in philosophical approaches to composition, and ideas associated with the east coast and the west coast, people thought of it in terms of east and west.  But at the same time that was going on, Roger Sessions, who represents another trend of very deterministic music, was also living and working in California, at Berkeley, as a matter of fact.  So that’s never been absolute, and there’s always been a certain amount of exchange.  Since then, there have been a number of different ideas that sort of co-exist on both coasts in different ways, so that at this point there is no single dominant school or idea that informs and determines contemporary music, even within the academy.

BD:    We now have this instantaneous communication, as you were talking about, and something that is played in Berkeley can be heard even simultaneously in New York and all over the country, and indeed, all over the world.

OW:    Exactly.

BD:    Is this helping to coordinate music, or is it breaking down the individual styles and making it too homogeneous?

OW:    On one hand, one might suspect that, because that’s what technology does often.  If you look at folk cultures and look at popular cultures, it certainly does do that even on an international level.  In the written music tradition, that’s not necessarily the case because we’re so historically self-conscious that people are so aware of being different.  Instead of there being a single line, there are now multiple lines at the same time.   Five or ten years ago, John Rockwell in The New York Times declared that minimalism was the way to go, and a number of composers such as Phil Glass and Steve Reich rose to ascendancy.  [See my Interviews with Phillip Glass, and my Interviews with Steve Reich.]  But even at the same time that was going on, Elliott Carter was still going strong, and there were still composers who were influenced by his way of writing one way or another.  [See my Interview with Elliott Carter.]  The fact of the matter is that there are many, many composers who are not swayed by any of those major movements, or highly touted movements, but simply follow their own muse.  In fact, we’ve got a creative eclecticism, and I think that’s sort of the norm now.  I serve on juries for various kinds of things for young composers, and I don’t see any one single line.  I see composers feeling free to listen to the music of George Crumb or Copland or Babbitt or Schuller, or to the music of T.J. Anderson or Olly Wilson, and they come up with their own solutions.  [See my Interview with George Crumb,
my Interview with Milton Babbitt, and my Interviews with Gunther Schuller.]  I think that’s healthier than the days when people were so conscious of style that they felt they had to adhere to either this style or the other style.

BD:    So you encourage young composers
or any composers, reallyto stick to their convictions?

OW:    Sure, exactly, because I don’t think you can create unless you are convinced by your own conventions.

BD:    When you serve on juries, what do you look for in a new musical work?

OW:    You look for some individuality.  In the first instance you look for competence in working for the media that you have chosen.  Then you look for individuality, a creative spark that is unique and stimulating and that reflects a particular perspective.

BD:    But you don’t want it to be different just to be different?

OW:    No, not different just to be different.  That path has already been gone down.  That was one of the things that used to happen in Darmstadt in the late sixties and seventies.  Every year somebody would come out with innovations for innovation’s sake, which became absurd after a while, and nobody came anymore because it became so far out.  You look for a real creative spark, something that communicates musically and artistically in sound.  That’s really the ultimate criteria.  Now for a person who’s able to do that in an innovative way, that’s fine.  Or a person who’s able to do it working within a more traditional or more conservative means is fine.

BD:    Is there any chance that we’re getting too many young composers coming along?

OW:    I don’t think so.  I think society has a way of taking care of itself.  A number of people come to the university to study composition, and the world can only support so many composers.  So by the end — after graduation, or certainly after a master’s degree
they move to something else.  Some people drop out of music altogether, but having had that discipline and that experience, they listen to music and frequently support music.  That’s important, too.

BD:    It’s obvious that the technical proficiency of performers is getting better, year after year.  Is their musicianship getting better also?

OW:    I don’t know.  Since I’ve been so impressed at the difference between young performers now and the way it was, say, twenty or twenty-five years ago, it appears that the musicianship is getting better.  But I think that has to do with attitude and technical proficiency.  Twenty-five years ago, to find young performers right out of the conservatory or right out of the university who were willing and able to perform very, very difficult music and with the same kind of aplomb that they approach the traditional repertoire was few and far between.  But now you can find them, so I’d like to believe that it’s probably a combination of those factors.

BD:    Thank you for coming to Chicago.  I’ve been wanting to meet you for quite a while, and I’m glad that you’re here.

OW:    Thank you for having me.

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© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in his hotel in Chicago on February 4, 1991.  Portions were used (with recordings) on WNIB in 1992 and 1997, on WNUR in 2005 and twice in 2012, and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2005 and 2009.  This transcription was made and posted on this website early in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.