Composer  Roger  Reynolds
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Roger Reynolds was born on 18 July 1934 in Detroit, Michigan. He was educated in music and science at the University of Michigan, when he co-founded the ONCE Festivals. His aesthetic outlook was jointly shaped by the American Experimental tradition and - through his teachers Ross Lee Finney and Roberto Gerhard - also by the Second Viennese School. Reynolds refuses categorization, responding to the variety of the contemporary world with a uniquely diversified output - music now increasingly concerned with myth, text and space-ranging from the purely instrumental and vocal to involvements with computers, video, dance and theater. His multicontinental career - in Europe, South America, Asia, and the Nordic countries, as well as the United States - centers on composing, but includes writing, lecturing, organizing musical events, and teaching. Reynolds has been honored by the prestigious Pulitzer Prize and the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and by commissions from the British Arts Council, Radio France, the BBC, the Suntory and Koussevitzky foundations, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is a member of the faculty at the University of California, San Diego, where he was the founding director of the Center for Music Experiment (now CRCA). Writing in The New Yorker, Andrew Porter called him "at once an explorer and a visionary composer, whose works can lead listeners to follow him into new regions of emotion and imagination."  [See Bruce Duffie's Interview with Andrew Porter.] 

More information, photos, videos, recent premiers, thoughts, etc., can be found on his official website

I was fortunate to have asked Reynolds for an interview before he won the prize because, as he told me later, he was not much inclined to talk with people who only were interested in him because he was a Pulitzer Prize winner.  But since I had requested the conversation when he was "just" a composer and teacher, he agreed to see me when he was in Chicago in December of 1989.  I told that story to the Head Music Librarian at Northwestern, and he said, "Yep, that sounds like Roger!"

Here is what was said that afternoon . . . . .

Bruce Duffie
:    Let us start with perhaps your biggest bit of notoriety, at least of recent days.  You've been composing for many, many years, and all of a sudden you are lauded with the Pulitzer Prize.  How has changed your life, if at all?

Roger Reynolds:    Well, the immediate change was that life became extraordinarily and unproductively congested.

BD:    [Amusedly]  Doing interviews such as this!

RR:    [Sighs]  Yes in part, but you did ask before that happened.  I have, in fact, kept those things in mind.  It's a strange experience because there is such a shift in patterns, but generally speaking, at least at the beginning, it appears to be not a very substantive shift.  There's a great deal of distracting activity that has to do with documenting things you've already done, or with expressing your opinions
often on things which you're not really qualified to express an opinion on, and so on.

BD:    [Chuckles]

RR:    It's very amusing at first, and then becomes a progressively less amusing experience.  However, I have to say as well, that it is very much
to use a military terman "enabling" not piece of legislation, but piece of paper.  A lot of things which are more problematic look as though they're going to take longer to accomplish, or perhaps projects which you've hoped were going to come to fruition and had been kind of limping along, suddenly become easier.

BD:    In other words, you're getting a little more behind-the-scenes help and recognition?

RR:    Apparently.  Actually, it was mainly in the New York Times interview that I supposed the effect of recognition like this would be, to smooth the way here and there.  Where there had been problems, they would tend to be fewer, and certainly that's the case.

reynoldsBD:    Does this in any way affect you when you're at your desk putting notes on paper?

RR:    [Chuckles]  That was what I meant when I said that it was congesting.  In fact, I have been able to do very little work at all since last March, or whenever it was.  I am very much hoping at the end of this month, that is at the beginning of the new year, I am going to decisively turn over a new leaf and turn off what has been going on, because I have a great deal of work lined up now for years into the future.  These are things that interest me very much, and I am getting increasingly disturbed and irritated by the inability to really sit down and pay attention to them.  Music is first, after all.

BD:    [With a sly nudge]  Are you waiting to pass the crown to the next Miss America, and let her get the attention for her year?

RR:    No, hardly.  I'm sure that there will be a sort of a post-Pulitzer depression, or something.  At the beginning it was not clear that it would do anything more than sort of disrupt your life, but it now appears to me that probably it is actually quite useful.

BD:    Is it at all something that you can work for, or is it just like manna from heaven?

RR:    It's certainly not something you work for; at least I'm not aware that one could or should.  So far as I understand it
and I don't understand much about it — there apparently is a jury each year of three people, which, according to what I heard, changes constantly.  So there's no real continuity or memory in the committees, except insofar as the secretarywho is a remarkable woman, who may remember things.  I guess one wouldn't want to say it proceeds on a haphazard basis, but it's certainly my impression of a very inconsistent basis with regard to the fact that the jurors, if not new on the job, at least it's a new combination, which is probably a good thing.  It seems to me that the general level and adventuresomeness of the award over the years has probably been less than one might have wished.  I thought about that at the time when it came, that there were certainly a number of extremely meritorious composers, in my view, that had not won itfor example, Morton Feldman, not to pick him out in particular, but it's certainly melancholy that there are people like Partch and Feldman from our distinguished, explorative past were never recognized.

BD:    It's never given posthumously?

RR:    No.  And if you realize that Roger Sessions was, to put it mildly, not even in the twilight but in the deep evening of his career, and that Milton Babbitt only had a kind of citation, it is really quite odd.  I don't mean by that to suggest for a moment that people who get the recognition are not generally meritorious, but I think that it's such a shame there are not more ways in which artistic excellence can be rewarded in our society.  Think of the number of ways in which a scientist, for example, can be singled out.  If you have any connection with academic life, you realize the number of awards and ways of a profession recognizing itself
let alone a society recognizing the profession from withoutis important.

BD:    [Playing Devil's Advocate]  But a scientist can discover a cure or figure out a way to accomplish something specific.  Is musical composition something that really can be observed and calculated and analyzed, and rewarded in such a way?

RR:    Well, it's certainly not a trivial question.  All the questions involving the assessment of quality in art are naturally very, very complex and disconcerting.  There was an interesting occurrence a few years ago.  I may have some of the details wrong here, but the general pattern is correct.  There's a National Merit Scholar program wherein excellent high school students from all over the country are rewarded for the quality of their work, and are encouraged to maintain their efforts.  This program has always omitted the performing arts for the reason that you just mentioned
because it was presumed that there was no objective way of assessing whether or not these people were or were not good, and whether one was better than another.  So at one point several years back, they did convene a judging panel, and I heard a radio interview with someone who was in charge of the overall program.  He said that very much to their astonishment, these diverse artists agreed easily on which of the young people excelled.  They didn't, perhaps, have the same standards, and they didn't agree on the desirability of this or that aspect of performance, of repertoire and so on, but they did say, "Yes, that one is good and that one is better than the other one."

BD:    Were they really trying to say, "This one has a lot of talent and is using it"?

RR:    Yes!  In other words, what seemed to amaze the person who ran the program was that it appeared that there could be assessments made in the quality of a young person's artistic potential
or perhaps achievementat that point.

BD:    So they could see the talent and feel that there was a richness inside that was coming through whatever they were performing.

RR:    They saw an aggregate impression of one sort or another.  And to extend this discussion, if it's possible to discern this with young people on an honorable basis, why doesn't it continue that way after a certain age?  After a certain level, commerce gets into the picture, and as soon as commerce gets into the picture, art withers, from my point of view.

BD:    The Merit Scholarship, though, is about performers.  Do we not get one or even two more layers of nebulousness when it comes to composition?

RR:    As a young person, before I had any interest in music, I remember seeing a number of films
quite a list of them just after the Second World Warthat involved young performing artists such as Mario Lanza or Deanna Durban or José Iturbi, who was actually young once!  [Both chuckle]  There would always be some hard luck situation, and at some point they would go before a great teacher and begin to sing or play.  After what seemed to me at the time a really unacceptably brief period of exposure, the master would say, "Enough!  Enough!" and would pronounce a judgment.  I always was very angry; this seemed to me insupportable.  Of course at this point in my life I do exactly the same thing all the time!  Not that I try to be hard on young people, but it is amazing how quickly one can tell, to sort things into a one-third/two-thirds situation, or maybe even one-quarter/three-quarters.  Normally speaking, I can tell within a matter of five or ten seconds of getting into a piece.  This is apart from the question of the quality of the performance or the recording.  Things come through.

BD:    You're listening for structure?

RR:    No, it's something other than that; it's something more mysterious than structure.  It has to do with what one might say was a "voice."  It has to do with the fact that there is some kind of an imprint that is placed on the way the sound behaves.  It's independent of style, it's independent of medium; it can happen in a solo singing voice, it can happen in a large orchestra, it can happen with a guitar, it can happen with a piano.  It doesn't make any difference.  I'm not saying that I'm always right!

BD:    What about with electronics, when we remove the human element?

RR:    I would say partly it's a question of removing the human element, but also it's a question of removing the micro-variation that is a part of natural sound.  Of course very little electronic sound has that kind of complexity, and it's one of the reasons that when I work with computers I almost invariably process natural sound in some way, rather than work with synthetic sound.  Synthesis per se does not interest me very much for the reason that it's too arduous.  There is so much involved in order to get a sound which is not a product of a natural acoustical phenomenon, which really sings, which really has a kind of gestural continuity
properties that we associate with the application of human volition to acoustical systems, whether it's the body, the voice, or a well known instrument, or, for heaven's sakes, even far more humble things.  We're able to get out of natural devices a wonderfully complex and rewarding sound.  Electronically it's actually not a very easy thing to do from a synthetic point of view.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you are working with electronic sounds, are you working to make the piece complex or are you working to make it what you hear in your mind's ear?

reynoldsRR:    Well, those are two questions which are quite unrelated, I think.  First, I begin with recorded real sound, so the question of trying to work towards a complex sound is simply obviated.  I don't encounter it because I don't go for synthetic sound.  I have done only one piece with synthesized sound.  When I first went to Stanford University in the late '70s to explore the application of computers to music, I realized right away that there were going to be two roads.  One was processing of natural sound, and the other was the creation of synthetic sound.  I tried a piece in both ways during the first year that I worked in it, and decided fairly decisively at that point not to go on with synthetic sound.  That might change at some point, but right now it's not what I do.  The other problem was that one of the difficulties that the introduction of electronics into music brought with it was that in theory, the system
the approachwas entirely general.  But in the absence of models, it turned out to be very difficult to "imagine" a sound that was not like sounds we already knew.  In fact a colleague of mine, Robert Erickson, published a book in which he asserted that the primary families of sound already existed in the sections of the orchestra.  [See my Interview with Robert Erickson.]  I'm not sure that I agree with him, but I do agree, certainly, that models, which is to say images or perhaps montages of images, do.  But in any case, the existence of some kind of sonic experience is a critical matter when you begin to try to work in what is supposedly a free field.

BD:    Then are you basically on a voyage of discovery?

RR:    You're on a voyage, but you may not discover much.  [Both laugh]  It's certainly arduous.  I just was reading this morning about Admiral Peary and his trek to the North Pole, and realizing that he's still being reviewed as regards the authenticity of his achievement.  Exploring is wonderful when you find something, but it's a terribly arduous process and many of the people who have been heroes, literally, in the exploration of this most remarkable opportunity for music, have become absorbed in the quest and in the agonies of the trip.  Though they began with very strong musical stimulation, they've found it often difficult to maintain that involvement because the remaining problems are so great that, in a way, you never finish with them.

BD:    So here is where music and science diverge completely!  In science, looking up a blind alley and finding that something doesn't work is oftentimes as rewarding and as important as finding what does work!

RR:    To make a facile comparison between science and art is a fairly dangerous undertaking.  For example, I was in a conversation recently with my daughter on the question of creativity.  She's in science, and I used to be, although I'm not anymore, and it was an interesting question.  We finally declared a draw, or a truce, because it seemed clear that to discuss these questions would involve differentiating levels very, very carefully.  From my point of view, on the very top there would be the explorer, the person who was in fact trying to change or renew or enlarge knowledge itself.  At the bottom, or the pragmatic side, there's the person who's enacting it, the engineer who applies the knowledge
— in this case, the musician who re-creates the idea.

BD:    And where in this continuum is the audience?

RR:    Well, I'm just talking now about the process of discovering and delivering, not the process of actually experiencing or utilizing.  But it seems clear that the questions that arise when you start talking about art or artisanship, craft or craftiness, and so on, are very complicated.  They have a lot to do with what aim is.  Some scientists, obviously, are concerned with the pursuit of knowledge in and of itself, and they may wander for very, very long times
— sometimes for whole livesin areas that never actually generate a decisive result.  It may be that in reporting about their travels they stimulate other discoveries.  We certainly know that there are many instances in science where work was done a very long time ago, and the practical nature of it was not recognized until a great deal later when it suddenly provides a spark which ignites something.  An example of that would be the recent interest in fractal geometry and dimensions.  The mathematician Mandelbrot [French mathematician Benoît B. Mandelbrot (b. 1924)] wrote a book which not only announced his own theory, but went back into mathematical history and pointed to all these very remarkable things that people had observed long before, but somehow were unable to put into a complete framework.  So I guess this is a long and roundabout way to say that questions such as the ones that you're asking about the separation of art and science are really almost unanswerable because they depend upon definitions not only of what an art and a science might be, but also of how one is looking at them.

BD:    Let me ask you directly, then, what is the purpose of music in society?

RR:    I'm glad that you clarify it by adding "in society."  I would say that if one can ask about the purpose of music in society in the sense that one is asking about how should or how would one like music to function in society, I would find that fairly easy and enjoyable to answer.  It's not the same, of course, as answering the question, "How is music used by society?" which is quite a different question.

BD:    Right.

RR:    I would like to see music
in fact, all the artsoperate in society rather as a mirror.  I'd like to see a society, or to hear a society, respond to the art of its time.  That is the art of one's fellows who are alive and existing in the same kinds of cultural, emotional, political, economic milieu that you are and I am.  I'd like to have the art reflect in a way that would strengthen and orient and inspire and chastise, and everything else; do all those things that art in its best moments does.  I certainly do not like, and would never knowingly contribute to the notion that art is separate from human needs, or that it should be esoteric or anything else.  Again, there are lots of kinds of ways in which a society can use art, but from my point of view, if a society is ignorant of the art which it is making, then it's a sick society; at the very least it's an unfortunate society.

BD:    Is it enough to be just aware that it's there, or should there be participation in it?

RR:    Ideally there should be participation!  There should be a ferment, and ferment is going to come about only when there is real comprehension, or at least real engagement.  People should ask themselves and the artists who are making the music why they feel this, why they feel that, and why am I not having this experience or why am I having this?  One of the very trivial but completely obvious ways that I sometimes start talking to students about this kind of a problem would be to observe that in the time of Beethoven, by and large battles
warswere decisively won and lost.  The possibility of a triumphant or devastating conclusion to conflicts was certainly a natural part of the society, and of the mental and emotional life of people who lived in those times.  It's equally clear that in our time, the idea of a decisive outcome to a conflict is extraordinarily rare.  We live in a time of compromise, of disengagement, of pull-outs, of a kind of failure to find the clarity of structure and dramatic purpose that was natural.  I don't know for sure that that's true, but it would appear that that was fairly natural in earlier times.  The world is simply a more complicated place now, and to talk about drama in the same terms that it could've been talked about when our lives were lived differently seems to me somehow a fraud.

BD:    We shouldn't abandon the music that was written at the time of clear conflicts, should we?

RR:    Of course not.  But we could recognize that it was a product of times unlike ours, in many regards, and that there is another art, another music, another wealth of experience that is being produced right now.

BD:    Is the music that you are writing today, for everyone?

RR:    Of course it's not.  Nothing that is done is for everyone.  I would guess that if we were talking on a statistical basis, that the number of people who listen to contemporary music now is larger than the number who listened to contemporary music in Mozart's time, for example.  That's not to say that the percentage of listeners to serious music is larger, but as Joan Peyser's wonderful book on the orchestra points out, it's clear that the notion that the old music/new music schism is a new phenomenon is not true!  Articles in that book have pointed out convincingly that in the time of Beethoven's middle period, the percentages of new music to old were about 60-40, and by the 1870s or so, it had already reversed.  And it slipped a little bit more than that by the end of the century.

reynoldsBD:    But there wasn't this huge rejection of the new; there was still a sense of, "Well, maybe it'll eventually sort of seep in," and it eventually did kind of seep in.

RR:    I'm not exactly sure we know how it was.  It's certainly clear that a lot of yelling about unplayable and unlistenable music went on long, long before the 1950s.

BD:    Of course.  I always get a kick out of reading items in Slonimsky's book, Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven's Time.  [See my Interview with Nicolas Slonimsky.] 

RR:    Oh sure.  But in a way, there never was anything like the engine of commerce that exists now.  Consider the degree to which the music education industry and the concert management industry
and these really are industriesare situations wherein decisions about the quality and potential in life for an individual artist is often dominated not by the artist's quality, but by marketing considerations, and so on and so on.  It's just clear that the possible relationship between a composer and so-called "concert music"the potential relationship between me and my audienceis not a simple matter.  It's not a matter over which either I or my audience has any real control.

BD:    [With mock horror]  You wouldn't like to be the end result of a huge publicity machine that gets your works played all over the country all the time???

RR:    [With revulsion]  God, no!  God no.  In fact, I suppose, things begin to happen just because of age, because you've been around for awhile.  I like very much the idea that I now encounter people who've heard my music over a long period of years, who know my earlier works and who comment on new things with some knowledgeability about how things have progressed.  I remember maybe ten years ago now, noticing that New York Times reviews of my music had suddenly begun to start with phrases like, "As in much of Mr. Reynolds' music," blah blah blah...  Who knows?  It may be entirely a matter of files, right?  It may be computer files that spit these things out rather than experienced ears.  But of course it is a wonderful thing to become aware of the continuity in one's own life and in one's own work.  Quite apart from the question of whether it's any good or not, it is consistent in an astonishing way, and when you look back at works that you wrote twenty years ago, it's frightening.  It's really frightening.

BD:    Do you still like the works you wrote twenty years ago?

RR:    Yes!  I like them; I don't like them as well as I like what I'm doing right now, but the thing that is so remarkable about it is that if you're honest with yourself, you know that it's you.  Even though that you is so remote at this point, and you know
and this is the disturbing thing, the frightening thingthat the you that was writing then was terribly naive, technically not well equipped and not very experienced.

BD:    And yet you thought you knew it all at that time!

RR:    No, I don't remember thinking that I knew it all.

BD:    Do you know it all now?

RR:    No!  Heavens no.  [Both laugh]  But I worked very hard to do the best I could then.  The thing that's surprising is how that self could be so remarkably present even at the time of the second or third piece I ever wrote.  I had the experience a couple of years ago at the remarkable summer festival in Banff.  The Canadian government has a kind of Juilliard-like year-round school for all the arts in the Rockies.  There was a performance of a piece that I had tried to kill!  It was a piece that was erroneously issued years and years ago, in fact in 1963.  So I thought, "Well, okay, I can't stop the performance, but at least I can root around in the score and spruce it up a little.  I found I couldn't change a thing!  Anything that I did disrupted the completeness, the wholeness, the balance
, which was perhaps crude but was still there, nevertheless.

BD:    You say you were amazed at what was in your second or third piece.  Now you came to music a little bit later than someone who went through high school and college in the conservatory.  Is there a difference in the fact that your second or third piece was written in your late twenties or early thirties rather than in your late teens or early twenties?

RR:    Quite possibly. 

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

RR:    I revise things now.  For example, I certainly made quite a number of changes in Whispers Out of Time after it was first premiered in 1988.

BD:    Immediately after a first performance is one thing, but twenty years later?

RR:    No.  For me that would be quite impossible.

BD:    A composer who understands that the creative process extends beyond the first performance is one that will be able to make those revisions then, but be able to leave it alone after that.

RR:    Partly I leave it alone because there's always something new that interests me.  But also I have discovered, or I have decided, that the kind of musical education that I had was very privileged.  The two composers that I worked with both came from the Second Viennese School
Ross Finney and Roberto Gerhard.  Finney was a Berg student and Gerhard a Schoenberg student who was also was closely involved with Webern and Berg.

BD:    I did an eightieth birthday interview and program for Finney.  I like him a lot.

RR:    He is still going strong!  He is astonishing.  Talk about vigor and vitality and just a healthy artistic life!  Ross is an amazing man.  Roberto was also amazing and wonderful.  Not as boisterous and assertive a public figure as Ross has been, and by no means a sort of cultural leader.  In fact, as he said, he was deliberately a recluse.
  But the thing that was important, I think, about that Second Viennese background is that it very much was inculcated in me that composition is a totally involving process which should draw from every nook and cranny of the self, whether it's intellectual or emotional, intuitive or plotted, in the most objective fashion.  It involved everything, and it could be that one of the things that makes these early works what they are is that notion of full commitment.  I don't claim anything special for them, you understand; I'm just saying that they have this identitymy identity.  Schoenberg used to speak of his "heat" in the compositional process.  Certainly another possibility is that, as you say, the first piece that I did was when I was twenty-five.  It's certainly the case that, relatively speaking, I was more mentally mature than you are when you're fifteen.  So my approach to it was more agonized because what it was that I understood was much more complex and elevated than what it was I could do.  I almost despaired!  I remember the first summer that I was working with Ross, it was very much a downhill course throughout the entire summer.  I had just about come to the point where I was going to throw in the towel, and suddenly I got around a corner somehow.  One day he said, "Well, this isn't so bad!"  And of course, nourished by that small hope, I persevered.

BD:    Do you nourish small hopes in your students?

RR:    I hope so.  We're very fortunate at the University of California, San Diego; we have a remarkable collection of students, and that has been so for a long time.  It's not only Americans, but a very international group.  One gets to see what a very bright Japanese or Korean or Israeli or Icelandic or Finnish or French, or whatever else young musician is thinking, as well as the young Americans.  And of course they're not the same, often.

BD:    So you have some Icelandic students?

RR:    Yes!  We have two, strangely enough, right now.

BD:    I've contacted the Iceland Music Centre and have done several programs of new music from Iceland.  I put the listing in the Program Guide, and people go,  [incredulously]  "What?  There's music up there???"  [Both laugh]  "It's not just yaks and reindeer???" 

RR:    In fact there's an even funnier thing.  One of the composers that I met when I was just beginning, who was studying at the University of Illinois, was an Icelander, and his name was Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson.  I invited him to San Diego in the early '70s when I began a thing there called the Center for Music Experiment.  He came, and among other things he informed us, to our great astonishment, that getting orchestra music played in Iceland was a breeze because there's a national orchestra which doesn't have enough music to play.  So it'll play anything and it'll rehearse for hours and hours.  But, he said, getting a string trio is completely out of the question.  The rates that you have to pay individual musicians mean that to write chamber music is a hopeless dream.  I loved the irony for the American composer, especially one that was at all interested in innovative behavior.  The notion that chamber music was a dream which you could never realize was very amusing.

BD:    Just a flip-flop from what we are used to!  Do you purposely encourage American and European students to write chamber music because there are more opportunities to get it played immediately?


:    My basic attitude towards instruction is that you can, at best, increase the speed with which a talented young person begins to really grapple with what's central to them.  My first effort is always to try to find out, both by what they say and what I observe, what they really think they're doing and what they really want to do.  Now that sounds fairly basic, but it's not actually such a simple matter, because an inexperienced composer frequently is not doing what he or she thinks he's doing, and there's confusion about the relationship between the aim and the method and the result, that creates, I think, the murkiness in much contemporary music.

BD:    How does an eighteen-year-old really know what that soul wants to do?

RR:    I suppose with difficulty.  [Chuckles]  I don't, and of course many don't because certainly craft
the ability to command a method of some sortis absolutely critical to any kind of achievement in art, from in my point of view.  And yet, for me or anyone at this time in history to say that they know what that method or that craft should be, what it should focus on is, I think, presumptuous.  It is fairly clear to me, anyway, that there is no common practice at this point, and that there won't be for a while.

BD:    Do you think there ever will be again?

RR:    I would imagine!

BD:    [Genuinely surprised]  Really???

RR:    Sure!  Why not?  Perhaps not "common practice" in the same sense that it existed in the past, when we had this dream of unanimous values
— at least within a sector of Europe.  If you think about the idea of Common Practice, of course it never was "common" in the sense that there were always vast reaches of the world that not only knew nothing about what was going on in this Common Practice period, but would not have thought it of any artistic merit whatever.

BD:    Lou Harrison calls Europe "Northwest Asia."  [See my Interview with Lou Harrison.]

RR:    Yeah.  The University of Chicago students call Harvard "Chicago East."

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let's come back directly to your own music.  In your music, where is the balance between the craft and the unknown inspiration?

RR:    Most artists are rather hesitant to discuss it, but the way I got to thinking about it was that after you get to a certain age, you are frequently asked to talk about your music, and in some sense to explain it, to present your music to a group of students or to some audience of presumably interested people.  What I discovered was that I keep, for whatever reason, very extensive notes on what I do.  I'm not actually fanatic about the precision of them or anything, but I do a great deal of exploring on paper for each work, and although the methodological element has changed, frequently over the years the works have evolved in different ways.  There's always a lot of secretarial work and that's a whole 'nother question.  But there is a reason for that work; it's not idle, but it has to do with trying to build a consistency in the music when history or our time doesn't give us consistency in the same way that a Common Practice period would.  But the point is that in spite of the enormity of the records, when you get up and try to explain the music, and you hear it, you realize that these records that you've kept don't say very much at all about what the music is.  In fact, the substance of the music
the thing which you are most left with as an experience when you listen to itis extremely difficult to describe, and is virtually impossible, I think, to transmit effectively to an audience except through the music itself!  Which, of course, is the way it ought to be.

scoreBD:    Of course.  This is why I never ask about what a certain piece means, but how do we get there, or what kinds of ideas are in your mind as you are working on them.

RR:    I find that to the degree that I understand the world, I understand it through music.  I've thought about this a lot lately because it just happens that this was particularly strong as an experience in the case of the piece that won the Pulitzer recognition, Whispers Out of Time.  This was a response to John Ashbery's poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror [published in 1975, it won the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award].  The thing which I realized as I read this poem
or tried to read it over and over and overwas that I would continually discover a germ of meaning which would resonate, and I would be thinking about it in bed at night or in the morning after working the previous day.  I would go back to the poem, but I wouldn't be able to find the thing which seemed quite clear in my mind.  That happened to me over and over, and I realized that that's part of the magic of Ashbery's work.  But beyond that, it made me realize that if I was going to deal with that poem, the only way I was going to really "get" it and make it minenot in terms of ownership but in terms of comprehension or participationwas to write a piece through it, on it, around it in some way.  This comes back, even for the composer, to the comment you made earlier about becoming involved. 

BD:    But then doesn't your piece have the same kind of impact on other people that the poem has on you, that repeated hearings are really what is necessary, and even then you're not able to grapple with all of the inner workings of it?

RR:    I think that music, as a narrative function, is naturally far simpler than poetry.  I say "naturally"; perhaps it wouldn't seem natural unless you'd read the poem or know Ashbery's work well, but the poem has something like 550 lines in it.  The pattern of references and of illusion and allusion is so complex that to even imagine setting it exhaustively would be megalomania; we're talking about pieces that would last weeks.  So what I did, being a more sensible man, is to try to capture in my own mind the quality of the poetry.  Helen Vendler, the marvelous writer on poetry, makes the observation that the form of Ashberry's poetic works operates according to the shifts of mood.  So I used that as a tool to start examining my own reactions to the six parts of his poem.  Once I had made a certain tentative decision about what each section was meant to mean, then I began to try to generate my own view of that.  There was a place in the last (and longest) section where I found that I came through what I understood to be John Ashbery's images to a very different conclusion.  I rather thought, in fact, that when I sent a copy of the piece to him, that he might be testy.  I see his own reaction at the end of that poem as being rather... I don't want to say "negative," but certainly it's not upbeat.

BD:    Non-positive?

RR:    Right, non-positive.  I found it, on the other hand, tremendously stimulating and affirmative.  So in a way I rewrote his conclusions while believing that I had some grasp on his premises.

BD:    Was he aware that you were writing the music before you did it?

RR:    No.

BD:    You just sent it to him fait accompli.

RR:    Right.  Right.

BD:    Was he pleased?

RR:    Very; he responded most warmly.  In fact he wrote in a letter about the way that he frequently uses music as a kind of... he didn't say whether it was a stimulant or an environment or what, but that he will listen to certain pieces
Brahms' Sextet or somethingconstantly while working on a particular poem.  So that in some way it is a response to what goes through him emotionally, intellectually and so on, while in the presence of that music.  That makes a great deal of sense to me.

BD:    So he's finding a cocoon he wants to be in, and then re-hearing the music so he's always in that same cocoon.

RR:    Yes.  Yes, and then working with the world of imagery and ideas that is fostered by that world.  In a way, I do that too.  I think that stylistically it's probably a particularly frequent thing in times of instability that artists in any art, and certainly in music with text, will search for wholeness outside of their own world.  I'm very much committed to that, and to the degree that I'm aware of it, I end up ratifying and therefore trying to project in my music subject matter which really resonates for me.  I found, for example, in reading Kundera's recent novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, that he had a number of very, very interesting things to say from a Central European point of view that I wasn't really very familiar with, such as issues of orientation.  Not alienation per se, which is a slightly more tired idea, although certainly still a reality.  [Reynolds composed Sketchbook (for The Unbearable Lightness of Being) (1985), for low female voice accompanying herself at the piano, and electronic processing; text drawn from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a novel by Milan Kundera; first performance 14 May 1985 at Symphony Space, New York City, by Joan La Barbara]  But I later wrote a piece called Symphony[Vertigo] [(1987), for orchestra and quadraphonic computer processed sound].  "Vertigo," as Kundera puts it, has to do not with the fear of falling, but with a voice that calls from below urging you to fall.  So it's very much about darkness and about the problem of a failure of center.  These kinds of things seem to me extremely relevant.

BD:    Is some psychologist going to listen to the piece and say, "Oh, yes, that English horn solo is the voice down there calling"?  [Both chuckle]

RR:    It's odd that you should say that because in the last movement of that symphony, there is, indeed, a long English horn solo.  But no one has said that it's the voice from below.

*     *     *     *     *

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

reynoldsRR:    Serious attention.  And, as you mentioned earlier, the idea of hearing a piece repeatedly is a practice that's necessary.  I could ask you, or anyone who's speaking about the arts, would you really be satisfied writing work that could be fully appreciated on one hearing?  Is this a conceivable aim?  Does even the most crass of popular songs aim to be fully exhausted on one hearing?  I doubt it.

BD:    Obviously you want people to be able to plumb the depths for a long time.

RR:    On the other hand, the realistic situation is that, so far as live performances are concerned, few pieces that any living composer is writing are likely to have enough performances in his presence so that there really is a kind of development of a knowledge between him and his listeners.  I imagine that those listeners listened a number of times, rather than just in that one situation.

BD:    So then each time you want to invite people in, knowing that they won't be able to get everything, but at least the door is opened.

RR:    Yeah.  In fact in trying to talk about these unspeakable matters, I often say that if music was conceived in earlier times as an act of communication
— and it seems possible that at least during the 19th century there was such an attitude on the part of composersthat at this point it seems more to be an act which hopes to elicit revelation.  If you're the listener and I'm the composer, if I say to you that I'm writing a piece of music which is going to explain something to you, or at least portray to you my feelings about a subject, whatever that may be, I think that this is preachy and pompous.  The phrase that Gerhard used to use was "the composer off center."  The idea that he had there, and the idea which I find attractive, is that one works as hard as they can to create a consistent experience with complexity and richness, and that one's hope is that this music invites the exploration and participation of the listener, and as would always be the case, the depth of the reaction or the nature of the reaction is, to a large degree, a function of what that listener brings.  So when you ask what I expect, I don't expect comprehension, I don't expect uniformity, but I would certainly like a real chance, an openness to the music and to whatever it was that that music elicited in you as a listener.  It's of course the case that when our reactions are unfamiliar, they're often disturbing, but I don't think it should be that way.

BD:    Is there a balance that can be achieved, and if so are you trying to achieve it between an artistic value and an entertainment idea?

RR:    Well, sure!  I think so.  And I think that for many composers who have an innovative bent, there tends to be a passage through their life of movement towards a more compromised posture, or at least an effort to try to do the things that they are able to do in ways that are more easily confronted or assessed or experienced by people.  Without talking much about other composers, many of whom are the most significant who are now alive, I think that it's true almost across the board that in later years I don't think that they become compromised, but I think they become aware of the power of institutions.  I don't mean that cynically in this case, although I usually do mean it cynically.  It reflects the power of institutions and the tremendous cultural resonance that can come when one's work finds a place in the middle of what we've spent hundreds of years preparing.  I fluctuate in this regard, but I certainly try, deliberately at this point when it's possible, to make my ideas come across in as vivid a way as possible internally in each piece.  This is to say I try to make each piece self-sufficient, not because I don't wish people to know more of my music, but .because I know what the realities of our concert life are.

BD:    Each piece has to stand on its own.

RR:    Right.  For example, I've recently been doing a series of concertos.  I'm working on one right now for violin.  [Personae (1990), for solo violin, chamber ensemble, and stereophonic or quadraphonic computer processed sound; first performance 28 March 1991, Kathryn Bache Miller Theatre, New York, with János Négyesy, violin, Sonor Ensemble, dir. Rand Steiger]  These all have a parallel aspect.  I decided that an important element of the concerto, or one way one could look at it, would be of a sort of statement-response, but on a quite large scale.  So thinking just about some of the concerti in which the soloist will have an initial statement of the theme and then the orchestra will come in, rather to make this a fairly elaborate process where the soloist plays a solo and the orchestra responds and then the soloist makes a longer statement in another mode and there's a longer response and then a longer one
not cause and effect, but the play of roles, of positions, of the dimensions of volition and commentarythat these things are "explained" by the piece itself.  This makes for pieces which are fairly long, which can be a problem.  But on the other hand, it has, so far in my experience with this notion, the great advantage of creating a climate of its own, so that in a way it may not be popularizing on the surface, but it is pragmatic in the sense that here you have one musician making one very sophisticated and dynamic presentation of an idea, and then you have a group of musicians responding to that in their way.  An ensemble is not a soloist, and from my point of view it would be foolish to imagine that an ensemble could actually replicate the plasticity that an individual can.  Or vice versathe individual cannot create the massiveness.

BD:    So when you're writing for orchestra you're not writing for an instrument.

RR:    No, I'm writing for the massive potential.  There may certainly be passages for soloists, but to write for orchestra is to write for a resource that is, at this point, unprecedented anywhere else.  We don't have that kind of a palette.

BD:    But you don't think of it as a single instrument.

RR:    It doesn't have that kind of unity, no.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is composing fun?

RR:    Yes.  It is not always easy, in fact often not easy, but it's enormously exciting and challenging for me, and that's what I would prefer to be doing than virtually anything.  Those quiet days when one is simply engaged in working out the things that are interesting in a musical project are the days that are really treasured.

BD:    I hope you have lots of those still to come!

RR:    [Chuckles]  I as well.

reynoldsBD:    Are you going to be giving up a little bit of the teaching in order to get more time for the composing?

RR:    The pattern of my responsibilities is shifting, and I suppose that's partly a question of time in service, and so on.  I've also always believed that musicians should have a period of service to the profession.  I don't think that it's right that we only take out.

BD:    You don't feel that creating works is serving the profession?

RR:    Yes, but I think that its problems are sufficiently large so that more than simple cooperation with ideals is in order.  When I came to UCSD, I put a lot of energy into what I thought were important ideals
not only in terms of teaching per se, but in terms of the organization of programs and the creation of administrative structures that would nourish certain kinds of ideals and opportunities.  I did that with a lot of energy for a long time, so in a certain sense, I feel that it's not at all inappropriate at this point that other peopleyounger, different peoplecome in and put their mark on what's going on.  I feel not in the least evasive or self-serving in saying that it's time for me to be working on my own things again, as I did earlier, because I know that I really did put a lot of energy into the program there.

BD:    You've been there for twenty years now?

RR:    Yes.  But a research university, a university with real aspirations, recognizes that if their creative faculty do not continue to really do that which attracted the university to the person in the first place, then you are impoverishing rather than building.  It's not only the teaching of classes, it's the providing of examples.  As I said earlier, by the beginning of next year, I'm going to be more careful again about how I'm spending my time.  I had an occasion recently to try to plan the first of a series of distinguished residencies at UCSD that are being funded by a patroness.  I called and spoke at some length with a number of people
Elliott Carter, Lutosławski, Xenakis, Boulezabout the possibility of appearing in such a situation, and I became very clearly aware of how difficult it is for figures of that renown to get anything done at all.  [See my Interview with Elliott Carter, and my Interview with Iannis Xenakis.]  What most of them do is plan their lives years and years in advance, and they zealously guard certain periods.  So if you hit one of the periods where they're working, there's no way.  No amount of money, no amount of privileged interaction or anything else will tempt them at all because what really matters is that mental space!

BD:    It's good that they have that steadfastness.

RR:    Well, if you don't, it all goes away.  Because of the extraordinary number of graduate students that seem to lust for information that cannot be satisfied, you could go on for the rest of your life after you're 50 doing nothing but dealing with that which you've already completed.  So at a certain point you have to begin to manage things.  Certainly part of what has happened in my life in the past five or six years is that I've begun to have opportunities on a larger scale than I previously had
to get back to the point about the upside-down Icelandic reality.  The American innovator or really demanding composer has tended to be pretty much stylistically trapped in the world of chamber music, the world of skilled musicians in small numbers willing to give the rehearsal and having the capabilities of playing the music and of meeting the demands.

BD:    Are we turning out, perhaps, too many composers?

RR:    Oh yes, certainly.  That's obvious.  We're probably turning out too many musicians with professional aspirations.  Otto Luening, who was among the organizers of several of the earlier American societies and groups to defend composers' rights, said to me that in the '30s, someone
perhaps it was Minna Lederman, [Minna Lederman Daniel (1896-1995), American writer and editor on music and dance] — made a survey of composition in America, and came up with a list of something like 300 names, of whom really only about 100 were anything other than composers of church music and so on.  [See my Interview with Otto Luening.]  At this point, surely we must have at least two orders of magnitude more; probably even more than that.  There are certainly tens of thousands now.

BD:    Gunther Schuller bandies about the number 50,000.  [See my Interviews with Gunther Schuller.]

RR:    Yeah.  I don't know where anyone would anyone get these numbers, but it's certainly evident on the basis of the number of CDs out, on the number of musicians who are members of rights organizations, the number of people who apply for even one position at even the most humble of schools in remote areas; it is appalling, and it bothers me a great deal.  It's one thing to mislead young people into imagining that their prospects as artists are greater than one actually knows or imagines to be the case, but there's also simply the problem of the irresponsibility of leading people into a field where jobs are simply neither prevalent enough nor well-paying enough, nor stable enough to justify it.  I have argued in my own department that we abolish the undergraduate music major completely, and in undergraduate courses to concentrate totally on the areas of seduction.  To say, essentially, that all of our energies in undergraduate teaching will go towards making music comprehensible; the whole range of music, not only the present or the past in our society, but of world music, of the whole thing.  At the undergraduate level, musical literacy is something that I can see pouring tremendous resources and energy into.  But every year to create whatever it is
a dozen, thirty, fifty people who are actually hoping to commit their lives to musicis, I think... well, I don't want to use too disparaging a word.  It's not right.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Have you been pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music?

cdRR:    I've been fortunate in that most of the recordings have been made without any direct involvement of mine, which is to say they've been made because the performers wanted to make them.  They have not been the result of a sort of vanity press situation, where one cajoles people before a microphone in hopes of capturing something.  The players who have played my music on records have normally been players that were committed to it, and I feel very privileged that there's actually quite a few pieces out.  The way in which I'm not very satisfied is that my larger-scale works tend not to be recorded because of financial difficulties.  For example, in the late '60s Ozawa did a really amazing performance in Japan of an orchestra work.  It was recorded by Victor and it was going to be released around 1969 or '70.  But he changed to Angel Records at that point, so it evaporated.  [Threshold, for orchestra (1968); first performance 7 June 1968 at Orchestral Space '68, Tokyo, performed by the Japan Philharmonic, dir. Seiji Ozawa]

BD:    If the tapes are still sitting in the vault, eventually maybe they can be extracted and published.

RR:    Well, who knows.  But in any case, the thing that I am not grateful for is the fact that a fairly large and increasingly important segment of the musical work that I do, which is for orchestras, is not on record at all.

BD:    Go to Iceland!

RR:    The difficulty of course is an American one in general, differentiating between the music which is more easily rehearsed and that which is not.

BD:    I guess your only hope is to get a good performance of something and say, "Look, all the rehearsal's been done; set up the mikes and let's do it."

RR:    It's not that simple because there are all kinds of union rules.
  I'm beginning to actually pay a little bit of attention to that now because more opportunities are arising.  The normal pattern in the past has been that a composer's recorded representation lags his actual output by a decade or so, and that's more or less true in my case as well.  Hopefully now it will be less the case; there will be several things out in the next year or so on Neuma, CRI, Lovely, New World and Wergo among others.  One that is just out is Coconino...a shattered landscape on Gramavision with the Arditti Quartet.  [See my Interview with Irvine Arditti.]  There's a funny story about that recording.  The cellist in the Arditti Quartet, Rohan de Saram, is a phenomenal player.  Well, they're all phenomenal, but he is maybe even more phenomenal.  They are really a wonder individually, and they're good friends.  The work begins with a duo between the first violin and the cello.  We had recorded the last section first, which often happens in a recording.  You go first to the thing which is most difficult and you take your freshest energy to try to capture that if the piece allows that.  In this case, mine is sectional enough to allow it.  Then you go back and start at the beginning and work through it.  So we began, and the cello was so strong that the engineer thought that the microphone must've tipped over.  When the take ended, Irvine Arditti, the first violin, said, "Rohan, you're playing with your "recording sound."  When something is for real, Irvine has this way of somehow turning up the gain, as it were, to some celestial level.  So he just had to sort of gather his wits about him, and then project exactly the same way.  But the kind of energy and commitment that that group has, and the extraordinary capabilities, both individually and as an ensemble, is probably the most satisfying kind of thing that a composer can ever experience.  I know Elliott Carter has very much that same feeling with regard to the Arditti group.  It's the dream in that everything happens.  Everything that you've hoped for is thereevery detail and more.

BD:    I just wish he'd be a little more quiet, as far as the noise he makes when he inhales through his nose.  Several times I've been concentrating on the music, and all of a sudden I hear that sound and it disturbs me!

RR:    [Chuckles]  I think like Glenn Gould's humming; it's a price you pay for the degree of immersion and commitment that is going on there.  And of course being first violin is not his only role.  He certainly does a wonderful job of leading the ensemble and playing his part, but he really is the force; he's running the show and you can see that in the whole demeanor, and perhaps those extraneous sounds sometimes come along with that commitment.

BD:    Thank you for being a composer!

RR:    Well,'s often a pleasure.  [Both laugh]

Roger Reynolds (b.1934)

Roger Reynolds was educated in music and science at the University of Michigan. His compositions incorporate elements of theater, digital signal processing, dance, video, and real-time computer spatialization, in a signature multidimensionality of engagement. The central thread woven through Reynolds' uniquely varied career entwines language with the spatial aspects of music. This center first emerged in his notorious music-theater work, The Emperor of Ice Cream (1961-62; 8 singers, 3 instrumentalists; text: Wallace Stevens), and is carried forward in the VOICESPACE series (quadraphonic tape compositions on texts by Coleridge, Beckett, Borges and others), Odyssey (an unstaged opera for 2 singers, 2 recitants, large ensemble, multichannel computer sound; bilingual text: Beckett), and JUSTICE (1999; soprano, actress, percussionist, computer sound and real-time spatialization, with staging; text: Aeschylus).

dvdIn addition to his composing, Reynolds' writing, lecturing, organization of musical events and teaching have prompted numerous residencies at international festivals. He was a co-director of the New York Philharmonic's Horizons '84, has been a frequent participant in the Warsaw Autumn festivals, and was commissioned by Toru Takemitsu to create a program for the Suntory Hall International Series. Reynolds' regular masterclass activity in American universities also extends outward: to the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Ircam in Paris, the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, to Latin America and Asia, to Thessaloniki. His extensive orchestral catalog includes commissions from the Philadelphia, Los Angeles and BBC Orchestras.

In 1988, perplexed by a John Ashbery poem, Reynolds responded with Whispers Out of Time, a string orchestra work which earned him the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. Critic Kyle Gann has noted that he was the first experimentalist to be so honored since Charles Ives. Reynolds' writing -- beginning with the influential book, MIND MODELS (1975), and continuing, most recently, with FORM AND METHOD: Composing Music

In 1998, Mode Records released WATERSHED, the first DVD in Dolby Digital 5.1 to feature music composed expressly for a multichannel medium. "As in all art making, there is a kind of 'alchemy' going on [producing] a richly nuanced and authentic result," wrote Richard Zvonar in Surround Professional. In the same year, The Library of Congress established the Roger Reynolds Special Collection. Writing in The New Yorker, Andrew Porter called him "at once an explorer and a visionary composer, whose works can lead listeners to follow him into new regions of emotion and meaning." (2002)  Reynolds has also appeared widely in Asian, American and European journals. Reynolds' music, recorded on Auvidis/Montaigne, Lovely, New World, Pogus, and Neuma, among others, is published exclusively by C.F. Peters Corporation, New York.

© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on December 12, 1989.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1994 and 1999.  A copy of the unedited audio was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2010.

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.