A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

As I've noted before in this series, one of the nicest things about the internet is being able to easily get back in touch with old friends.  While preparing this interview, I contacted Ruth Schonthal again after many years, and portions of our e-mails back and forth will be included in this presentation.

It was in March of 1988, on one of my very infrequent trips to New York City, that I had the good fortune to meet Ruth Schonthal.  I rode the train to her home, and we spent a couple of hours relaxing and chatting and musing about the state of new music in general, and her creations specifically.  Later, back in Chicago, I presented her thoughts and sounds on WNIB, as part of my long-running series.  A few weeks ago, Barry Cohen, the publisher of New Music Connoisseur, asked me to prepare the conversation for his magazine, and I was delighted to revisit it.  When I showed it to the composer, she had this to say:

 Dear Bruce.

      It is so good to hear from you after such a long hiatus, and I am of course
      delighted that you will be doing the interview and expanding on it. I have
      always enjoyed our contact and mutual conversations, and your questions
      and reactions were always so insightful.  Of course, speaking spontaneously
      and seeing it written down can be embarrassing when one notices that one
      has not answered the question as directly as one could or should have.  Legit
      thoughts, ofttimes ungrammatically expressed, may be charming in the heat
      of the moment, but stare at you in print and one wishes to edit, edit, edit.
        [NOTE: Without changing the intent, I have refined a few things, but many of Ruth's
        phrases are indeed charming and reflect accurately the feeling of the conversation,
        so I've left them untouched.  BD]  However, thoughtwise I have not really
      changed, but many circumstances of my life have. I am pretty much alone
      now and, unfortunately, in very poor health for the last two years.

      Recently, some very positive artistic and creative developments include:
      1. The biography and analysis of my works by Dr. Martina Helmig, published
      by the Olms Verlag (1994)
      2. The aquisition and cataloguing of my archives by the Akademie der Künste
      in Berlin (1995)
      3. The contract with the German publisher Furore Verlag to publish and
      promote all my works (1998)
      4. The publication of a substantial article in Grove's Dictionary of Women
      in Music (2000)
      5. The fine artists who perform and record my works.

      I have  written a great deal of music since our last interview.  There are now
      three operas.  After "Camilla" I wrote "Princess Maleen" (1988/89), based
      on a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, commissioned and performed with full
      orchestra and choruses by the Westchester Conservatory of Music to celebrate
      their fiftieth anniversary.  This year I completed a German translation of it.  My
      third opera is "Jocasta" with a libretto by Helene Cicoux in an English translation
      by Judith Graves-Miller.  It was a commission by Marya Mazor, the director of the
      Theatre Company 'Voice & Vision," dealing with the Oedipus legend from Jocasta's
      point of view.  The concept was to have each of the main characters represented by
      an opera singer, an actor (actress) and a dancer with music continuously, which I
      found very interesting.  The opera received its world premiere at the Connelly
      Theatre in New York and had nine performances.  If I would find good librettos I
      would write one opera after another.  They seem to write themselves and I find it
      a most joyous experience.  However, earlier it would be: get a commission if you can.
      The chances of having an opera performed without it are practically nil.  I was
      lucky that these commissions came my way.  I have also vastly extended my body of
      works for beginners and less advanced players for all kinds of different instrumental
      combinations.  Collections include "Divertimenti for Young Virtuosi for different
      Instruments" and many vocal and chamber music works as well as solo instrumental
      music.  I have also been invited many times to music festivals in Germany and this
      summer took one week part in a two week  "Songs of the Americas Festival" in Bolivia
      with workshops and performances of my music every day.  In October I was invited
      by the Jewish Museum in Vienna to have a piano recital cum interview performed by
      Adina Mornell.

      I am so glad you contacted me.  I will be 80 years this coming summer (maybe).
      In any event I wish you a Very Happy and Rewarding, Healthy year 2004.

      With warm regards,

      Ruth Schonthal

Now that we've been brought up to date, here is that conversation from 1988 . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You are both composer and teacher.  How do you divide your time between those two very important professions?

Ruth Schonthal:   It isn't only two.  I'm also a pianist, so it's really three.

BD:   OK, how do divide your time amongst three?

RS:   First of all, it's a matter of attitude.  You must get rid of the idea that you must have a long stretch of time in order to start working.  That's the first thing that has to go out of the window.  You have to use absolutely every little piece of time that you have available.  If a student is late, that time can be used.  It doesn't mean that you always get an original idea in this moment, but there are things that you can work out.  Besides, this being a composer is a very conceptual kind of profession.  Often, when it is copied out and can be read properly, you have the development of the musical material very clear in your head.  There are nights when you lie awake.  Music is in your head all the time.  It never leaves you.  You work things out.  Often, when it's copied out, you have things so smooth in your head that you can get even better ideas and you have to do it over again.  It's time-consuming, but somehow it does itself.  You have no choice between what you have to do and what you must do.  There really is no choice, you've got to do both - or all three!  Teaching is necessary.  Most people know that you can't live just on being a composer.  Very few composers can do that, so there has to be something else.  Teaching comes natural to me.  I somehow seem to have the personality where I constantly argue within myself or explain things to myself as if I was two people.  It sounds very schizophrenic, but I always verbalize everything that I think.  So to me, teaching is a wonderful outlet.  Besides, I'm very interested in how the human mind absorbs and thinks and learns.  So it's additional observation and is very interesting.

BD:   Are you then, in a way, teaching yourself by verbalizing all of this?

RS:   I guess so.  I suppose so.

BD:   Are you a good student?

RS:   As a child I had a very hard time learning what I already could do.  Learning to read music, counting, theory, etc., was agonizingly slow for one who could compose and sit for hours improvising in contrapuntal style and going through all keys with the greatest of ease.  Playing a piece musically, however, was very easy, and when the teacher made corrections during the lesson, I could apply them when I got home and could work things out on my own.  As a matter of fact I found some notebooks from when I was a child, and while I practiced I took notes about what happens.  So it must have been just second nature to me.  Yes, one does learn that way, absolutely.

BD:   Where were you born and how did you come to America?

RS:   I was born in Hamburg and didn't come here very directly.  My family and I left Germany in 1938 for Stockholm.  We stayed there for 3 years and I studied at the Royal Academy of Music.  Then in 1941 when we surrounded again politically, we left and went to Mexico.  We wanted to come to America but couldn't get a visa fast enough.  We stayed in Mexico for 5 years when Paul Hindemith came and gave a series of concerts.  I wanted in the worst way to come to America, so I showed him my compositions including a Piano Concerto which I had just premiered.  He got me a scholarship to Yale.  So it was in 1946 that I came here and have been here ever since.

BD:   And music has always been with you?

RS:   I started composing when I was 5.

BD:   You started composing rather than performing?

RS:   Yes.  Definitely.

BD:   As you look back on some of your early compositions, do they bear some of the hallmarks of your more mature works?

RS:   There is a common thread which runs through it all.  There's a certain melodious and lyrical and somewhat romantic trait that is part of me.  My philosophy has always been that you have to be true to yourself.  You have to work out what's in you and make that better, but you cannot go against it and I didn't want to.  For me, the European musical heritage is, of course, a natural thing.  I grew up with it, so I did not have that urge to deny it, which I understand very well in Americans who are born here.  They feel that they want to get rid of the European influence and be American.  This I understand, but for me, it was a different story.  According to my ideas, one has to be true to one's own nature and be honest about it no matter what the trend and the fad is at the time.

BD:   Is it all German influence, or is there some Swedish and Mexican, too?

RS:   Of course it's quite international.  There's a great deal of the German element, but I have quite a number of pieces that have a certain Spanish kind of flavor.  I love Spanish music - not the harmony so much but what it says in its directness and expressiveness.  I like that, I really do.

BD:   Is there also an American influence?

RS:   Yes, and that is done quite consciously.  I have certain works where I really wanted that.

BD:   When you're writing a piece of music, are you in control of the pencil, or is the pencil in control of you?

RS:   I believe in being the wind and the sail alternately.  You have to know when to do what.  In other words, there has to be control and letting go, but you have to know where the wind carries you, and I do.  I've been involved in music so deeply and so introvertedly since childhood, and that's what I think about.  It doesn't mean I don't think about anything else, but it's so all-consuming that thinking and doing is the same thing.  I can improvise in any style and always know what I'm doing.  I do that quite a bit and people seem to enjoy it.

BD:   Is there a Ruth Schonthal style?

RS:   I would think so.  I would hope so.  I would say there's a certain amount of harmonic idiom which combines the tonal with an enriched mixture of majors, minors, augmenteds, chromaticisms.  There's a way of mixing sensed timing with metric timing.  There's a lot of variation and metamorphosis in the way my things are developed so that nothing ever comes back the same.  Everything gets influenced and transformed, like in life itself.   No recapitulation comes back as it was.  My music is very volitale in its emotions   It always comes in different shapes.  I like to juxtapose contrasting things as if they were the other end of the same thing.  A conversion from the beautiful to the ugly or vice versa.  That kind of aesthetic philosophy for which I have chosen my vocabulary to express these things.  Dissonance, consonance, metric-time, sense-time, expressive, melodic, romantic, lyric, sometimes anger.  As far as emotions are concerned, they always go through the whole gamut.  It's not placid.

BD:   Do you work every day on all of this?

RS:   No.  I can't do that any more.  My life is too splintered now.  I have too many things that I have to do.  I also have several careers going at the same time.  I'm deeply into pedagogy, not just teaching.  I have recently written a book about how to teach teachers how to compose during the music lesson because I feel that education is very important.  We do need that.  We need that people understand and get these wonderful insights of music and then can follow.  We need listeners, too.  That's important.  I have written a lot of music for children.  I have given concerts and many lectures, and there's my home life, too.  I have 3 children who are grown now.

BD:   Coming back to the idea of music for children.  When you sit down and know you're going to write a piece for children, how does that take shape differently in your mind than something for the concert hall?

RS:   It's a totally different problem and a challenge because you have to make the most with the least.  The restrictions are tremendous, and yet my aim was to write real music in spite of that and I think I have succeeded quite well.  There are a number of things that are published for children which are quite successful.  They are music, not teaching-pieces, but they do teach many things.

BD:   Real music that is not technically difficult?

RS:   That's right.  Not everything is finger-difficulty.  There is also something else.  You have to be able to feel a child's world, interests and sensitivity.  It must interest them, not how you would feel if you were a child now.  It's not the same thing.

BD:   Do the children's interests change over the years?

RS:   Oh yes, definitely.

BD:   Have you kept up with that as we move forward in time?

RS:   I try to listen (and often deplore) what children and teens listen to nowadays in order to know what they like.  I've not played any of the video games and have not written any music for them, but it still seems that children take to my pieces an awful lot.  So I must still be OK.

BD:   Are the youngsters coming along today as interested in all kinds of music as they were in years past?

RS:   I think so but they are less and less interested in listening to classical music.  There is little introduction to it because of the lack of music education in the home and in the schools.  TV could do more by having programs featuring young soloists.  Children and teens identify most with their peers.

BD:   Then are you optimistic about the future of music?

RS:   Music can't die.  It's not possible.  Can you imagine a world without it?  As a matter of fact I have found that many people who work all day with computers have had a life-long dream of composing.  There is a great seriousness.  They are sitting in front of the screen all the time or just working all day with numbers.  Music is numbers, too, but my God, if you start really listening to what can happen - for the most part - with just those 12 simple pitches, then you must say that mathematically speaking it's quite an accomplishment.  To see all those possibilities happening is so very exciting.  I think people appreciate that.

BD:   Are we running out of possibilities?

RS:   Well, it's getting more difficult to do something that hasn't been done before.  That, of course, is a big problem, and it goes for all artists and writers, too.  Human emotions have all been expressed.  Shakespeare already knew everything there was to know about the human psyche, about emotions.  But still, there is a different sensitivity in each century.  In the time we live, we must feel that we have our own way of saying things and seeing things, and maybe putting things together.  The emphasis shouldn't be so much on just doing something that nobody has ever done before, like being without parents artistically.  That's nonsense.  But we need to use a vocabulary that expresses musical elements in new combinations and aim to find the emotional quality that expresses the feelings, concerns and aesthetic of our own time, or find new ways to think about music and what music should be, and take advantage of the many new technical possibilities.

BD:   Are you conscious of your own musical lineage?

RS:   Yes, I am definitely conscious of it.  I don't deny it.  I build on it and I add our own concerns and our own way of looking at things to it.  To combine things is really my aim.  I once listened to John Cage, who is very, very clever, and he said, "My father was an inventor and that's the way I was brought up.  One always does something new."  Now to him, that's natural.  Another woman composer friend of mine said, "I've always dreamt to create sounds that nobody has ever heard before."  I told her that was beautiful, that was lovely.  But for me, it's the other way around.  I love the music so much I want to write more like, but different.  So these ideas are both legitimate in their own ways.  If you're an inventor, you think in different timbres.  This is the most important thing and you want to create sound qualities, so you start from that end.

BD:   So you're more of an innovator rather than a creator?

RS:   Any gifted creator is both creator and innovator.  The aim is synthesis of the old and the new in new ways, in which case the creator is also the innovator, or revolutionary, aiming at the overthrow of tradition.  Music synthesis would represent the intent - or point of departure - to combine thematic material which could consist of any given musical element, developing the dramatic flow, structure and emotion or purely musical abstract content.  It does not exclude the use of contemporary techniques or new ways of using traditional instruments.  The innovator places his or her emphasis on attempting to re-think what music is about - à la John Cage - or through various other ways.  This could include the invention of new instruments and other sound sources and timbres such as electronics.  Thus the sound/timbre/mood becomes the primary point of departure rather than the emotion.  The emphasis would be on innovation, but it is also creative.  For instance, I wrote a piece called Reverberations, which is supposed to be a portrait of Germany and what happened to it, the destruction and all, to a country with such a humanistic background.  I wanted to create something with a spiritual quality that was destroyed like a bombed-out cathedral.  The piano was no good for that, so I experimented and put all kinds of objects on top of the strings.  Nothing was safe and I ended up with an orchestration on the strings which gave me that shattered-beauty effect that I was looking for.  I used these sounds to express something conceptually that I wanted to bring across.  But it's not my point of departure.  The sound itself was so pretty, so beautiful  that I could have written other pieces using it, but that was not what I wanted to do.

 *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask you a balance question.  In music where is the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

RS:   That's a very loaded question!  Entertainment is a very wide concept and it differs from person to person in what they want.  Some people, probably most people, when they think of entertainment, mean that they want enjoyable background where they don't have to think.  It diverts them from their daily misery or whatever.  It has a very happy mood and it becomes very shallow.  Others want intellectual stimulus even when it's entertainment.  Mozart operas are great entertainment, but as he said, "I'll give them what they want - and then some!"  There's a depth behind that entertainment, you see.  If you just want a good time, that's something else.  Everything has its reason for being and we need variety.

BD:   Then let me pursue this one step farther.  What is the ultimate reason for the being of music?

RS:   There is no ‘ultimate.'  The ultimate is the variety.  As a creative art, it has to go on.  I see it as a continuing tapestry where everybody adds their design to it.  It's for everybody, but each will choose, in part, what they want to get out of it.  In other words, they choose what they think music should be.  When I give large classes to non-musicians, I ask what they want to get out of music, and about 75% of the answers were ‘entertainment.'  Some want more and some are very romantic visualizing a White Knight on a Horse, some like the humanistic influence such as Bach, and then you choose accordingly.  Some like intellectual stimulus and those are the ones who like contemporary music. You can go all the way up like that.  In many ways, you can almost tell on the person's face what kind of music he or she will like.  Almost.

BD:   OK, what do you want to get out of music?

RS:   I like to be moved by music. I like to be intellectually stimulated and I must find what the composer does interesting.  I must feel that the ideas are worthwhile and are well developed.  But we are leaving out the performer, which we shouldn't do.  The performer has a tremendous influence upon what a piece is like.  A bad performance of a good piece will change it.  There have been occasions when I have changed my mind about a piece when it was (finally) properly performed.  As a rule, I can pretty much judge, but there have been instances where a performer has understood a composition of mine and put something into it that I didn't notice.  It's very rare, but it has happened.

BD:   So you trust your performers?

RS:   No, not totally.  (Laugher) It's a give-and-take as far as I'm concerned.  I trust the performer, but I put quite a number of indications in the score.  If I find the performer has done something different from what I intended but it's valid, then it's fine with me.  Bach is my ideal in this way.  You write such good music that no matter what interpretation you put to it, it works.  So I give a lot of leeway to good performers.

BD:   Now you are also a performer.  Are you the ideal interpreter of your own works?

RS:   I don't think so.  I have friends who say yes, but I don't believe that.  There are some wonderful pianists who have played my works and I've been very fortunate.  They play the pieces much better than I do, but it takes lots of study.

BD:   How can we get more performers to study more new scores?

RS:   If there are more incentives.  There have to be more competitions where this is part of the format - to include one new work.  And part of the prize money should also go to commissions.  There are lots of steps now in the right direction, but there should be even more.  The other thing is the schools.  I know places like Juilliard do modern music, but it's always separate.  You listen in the halls to the practicing and every measure is familiar.  And that is also reflected in the concerts.  There should be more rapport with living composers.  It would have tremendous benefit.

 *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

BD:   Have you written any vocal works?

RS:   Oh yes, lots.  I have one opera and a lot of song cycles.

BD:   Tell me about the opera.

RS:   My opera is an original play by A.A. Milne, who wrote "Winnie the Pooh," as well as a lot of plays.  This one is "The Ugly Duckling," which I used unchanged as the libretto.  Since it has nothing to do with the fairy tale of the same name, I re-christened it "The Courtship of Camilla."   It's not yet been performed, so it's in my closet.  The point is that it kept me so busy writing and copying that when it was finished, I had so many other ideas that they were choking me.  This comes back to your first question about splitting my time.  This is really the problem, because when you write and you copy and you teach and all this, the other ideas want out and it becomes like an obsession.  You can't stop.  You've got to put the old in the closet and do the new ones, but you also have to go out and be an agent.  Now we get to something ugly because there's no money in this.  So you can't hire a secretary or a copyist or manager.  This is a Catch-22.

BD:   So you hope one day the opera gets done?

RS:   Yes, but it won't run away from the pages.  So one day, even if I'm not around, somebody else can do it.  That's the wonderful thing about music.   Even though I say that, it's a consolation for me, and not the real thing. (Laughter)

 *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

BD:   I want to ask about your recordings.  Are you pleased with them?

RS:   Very.  Very much so, but that is another thing.  I'm sure everybody has the experience that when you finally reach something and when you've got it, something changes drastically and you have a technical revolution.  Some of my pieces are on LP and now they want only CD or digital cassettes.  Because LPs are pretty dead right now, we have had to start all over.  But on a CD, you have over an hour of music.  Can people be expected to buy that much material of a composer they don't know?  It's difficult and might be a setback.  For operas and cycles of known-music, it's great, but for living composers it's a disaster.  Stores don't want to bother with LPs any more.

BD:   You also appear occasionally on the nationally syndicated radio program First Hearing.  Tell me about doing that.

RS:   It's about 8 or 9 times a year.

BD:   When you listen to something for the first time, what do you look for?

RS:   Whether it holds my nterest.  Composers listen to others' music a bit like a magician watches another magician's act.  (Laughter) So what I look for is good material and interesting ideas.  I look for all kinds of things.  Like I said, I like intellectual stimulation.  I like to be moved.  I like the musical elements to be well put together, and that can be up to the composer.  I had to judge competitions, and that's very interesting.  How can one do something when all these different styles come together?  I finally had to make myself a long list of attributes that I wanted to look for and how I wanted to judge a piece of music.  I took all the musical elements apart - melodic invention, harmonic invention, structure, originality, all of them.  It's a technical aspect, and when I was through with the list, I found the most import things are impact, originality, and memorability.  Not that you could hum the melody, but that you remember the impact, that you remember whether you liked it or not.  It's something that somehow grabs you and where you feel there is an individuality behind it.  I like to recognize the intent and follow how well it was carried out.  Stylistically, I have no barriers whatsoever.  My own response is only about the quality.  Their style, as long as it's what the composer is about, doesn't limit my enjoyment.  It can be dissonant or minimalistic.  It doesn't matter.  If there's something authentic that I can recognize as having been felt and thought through and makes its statement, then I can enjoy it and that's the way I like music.  There are things I like less, but sometimes I can change my mind about it.  I didn't like Fauré, but now I like some of his pieces.  My taste changes.

BD:   What do you expect of the public that comes to hear one of your pieces - either for the first time or again?

RS:   I actually do hope that I am reaching people who like music, and that they want to hear it again.  Many people cannot get things the first time, but I've been very lucky that on many occasions people say they were moved by my music.  That is very satisfying.  When people say exactly what they felt and it's exactly what I meant them to feel, that's wonderful.  It's gratifying.  It's a little message in the bottle that has arrived.  I wrote Reverberations and when I went back to Germany in 1983 for the first time since I'd left in 1938, I played it and people were crying every time.  Then somebody introduced it into the schools and it's now part of the music program.  That's why I think of it as a message in a bottle which has arrived.  I have several pieces which are against war.  There are certain messages that I want to put into music where there is a kind of program.

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

RS:   Practically, I always tell them they should only do it if they must.  I also want performers to study composition to get more understanding of the process and for enjoyment and enrichment.  But as a profession, only compose if you must.  For just self expression, painting is an easier art.  Everyone has lots of extra suitcases, and later on it becomes wearing.

BD:   Is it worth it?

RS:   I wouldn't change with anybody that I know, but it does get me down very often.  I know many people whose chosen field gets them down.  But when you feel you have written something that's worth it, when it has that something extra and you feel it will last, there is a gratification that has almost no equal.  It's a great thing.  Something else is that your whole attitude about death changes.  Most people are terribly afraid of dying.  They don't like the idea at all, but with a composer it's not as bad because you leave your music behind.  I do think it does make a difference to leave traces.

BD:   It's more than just saying, "I've been here" isn't it?

RS:   It's not "I" but my music is there.  I very often speak about it as if it was somebody else's.  It's very strange.  Once it's out, it's out.  But getting back to your question about advice, I've never seen advice make composers change if that's what they wanted to do.  The other part of my advice is to be true to yourself.  Don't let yourself be persuaded to follow a trend because it's a fad.  That's very important.  I teach students to think things through to see what it is they want, and I try in my students to see what their talent is.  They must all sound like themselves.  No one is allowed to be an imitation of their teacher.  I was a student of Hindemith, and he did that.  It can be fatal, but I survived because I was a composer before I went to him.  When I was finished, I wrote on a sheet of paper 13 points which I didn't want to be like Hindemith.  I had to cast out many items that lacked the stylistic freedom I was striving for.  That doesn't mean he wasn't a great teacher.  He was.  He really was a marvelous teacher -- if you were a strong student.  Hindemith by no means had the intention to make us (his students) into imitations of his style.  The outcome of the stylist component was rather the outcome of his all encompassing methodology.

BD:   Did you feel you had to compete with him?

RS:   No, I didn't do that.  As a matter of fact, I don't think Hindemith knew all of the things I could do because he didn't believe one could.  For instance, he didn't believe that one can hear the whole music all together.  He worked line-by-line.  That's the way he did it, and I never proved to him that I could do it.  I held back.  I didn't want that.  I just wanted to learn and take what I needed.  I learned a lot of harmonic control from him.  I didn't use it the way he said, but I learned a lot.

 *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

BD:   Have we gone past the time when we need to worry about being a ‘woman composer?'

RS:   It depends whom we mean by ‘we.'  There are now quite a number of people in the music business who are aware of it.  The public at large is still as ignorant as ever.  Perhaps they know of a Pulitzer Prize winner, but it's a great, great exception.  Most people are quite patronizing about it still.  I can't blame anybody because if I think back some years, I wasn't really aware of it myself.

BD:   You felt you were working in a vacuum?

RS:   Yes, sure.  I never thought about it too much, but I really didn't know any other woman composer.

BD:   Now you know there are many!

RS:   Oh, my God, do I!

BD:   Are there, perhaps, too many composers in the world?

RS:   Yes.  Definitely.  This is a matter of mathematics.  Let's say that each composer writes an average of half an hour of music each year that has to be performed.  Estimates range from 10,000 to 40,000 American composers, but if you work out how much material has to be performed.....  And, as we know, nothing sinks in the first time around.  It has to have better performances until it gets really well-known.  And unfortunately, a lot of these concerts of contemporary music have an audience of other composers who look for performers to show them their own scores.  So it's a very in-bred kind of thing, not a healthy situation.

BD:   Would you rather your music be on an all-contemporary concert or a mixed program?

RS:   Oh, God, sandwiched between Beethoven and Chopin is just fine!  (Laughter)

BD:   You feel your music can stand up to the competition?

RS:   My next orchestral piece will be on an otherwise all-Beethoven program, between the Coriolan Overture and the 9th Symphony.  It had better stand up.  I'm not scared at all.  And I've had a lot of occasions like that and I think my pieces hold up quite well.

BD:   Is composing fun?

RS:   Yes, it is, if you use the word ‘fun' with a tremendous scope.  Fun can be all sorts of things.  It can be agony, too, and agony can be fun!  (Much laughter) The agony and the ecstasy - there is something to that.  If it goes well, there is no greater fun, reward, gratification.  If for awhile you have a bad time, there is probably no greater agony, either.  It's not something for a lazy person.  It's agonizing when you spend so much time for nothing because it's not good enough, and yet this is very important.  You throw all of this out and Phoenix rises out of the ashes.  You have to work yourself all the way through to that.

BD:   You're about to become 65.  What is the most surprising or interesting thing you've noticed in that time?

RS:   That you have to stick to your guns.  That, to me, is the most interesting thing.  In retrospect, every aesthetic movement, be it in art or music, in hindsight is tremendously logical and you have to have the patience to find the pendulum and not go along with it if this is not your direction.  Wait it out and be interested.  I notice the changes in attitude and people's reaction.  Composers all of a sudden allow themselves now to write more melodic and more romantic music, and I find that surprising because they were so against it.  I feel it is a pity that they let themselves be swayed like that.  I don't mean that they should not be romantic, but something must have been wrong - either what they did before or what they're doing now.

BD:   You don't see this as an experiment along their path?

RS:   If it is, that's fine, but it very much goes with the wind, and that bothers me.  The academics were very, very strong in suppressing urges that went any other way but post-Webern for so long.  You were not allowed to write a note that was next to another one in time and space.  We were literally not allowed, and that was wrong.  You have to treat people as individuals, as composers.  To say, "That is the way we should compose" is wrong.  It should be an individualistic, lonely, search for what you have to say and how you have to say it.  That, I believe.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

RS:   It depends on what you mean.  Whether people will go to more concerts; whether they will like more contemporary music; whether there will be more on the radio; whether there will be more records......  Music is a strong force, but will have to adjust itself to economic conditions that seem to rule us more and more.  We are all dangling like marionettes.  The people with money have tremendous power, there's no question about it.  Thank goodness there are many who have money who like music.  You have to adjust yourself and keep on with it.  You must have hope.  Without hope, it doesn't work at all.  I have nothing concrete to offer except that music is so strong and there is such a great need for it.  Because of the mechanization, that need is even greater.  People feel less and less like individuals who have power or influence.  The power is in the hands of too few.  There are lots of people very frustrated, and music is a tremendous outlet.

BD:   Thank you for spending time with me this evening.  I look forward to presenting your music and ideas on the radio.

RS:   It was a great pleasure, and a great opportunity for me.  Composers are always most grateful.  It's our lifeline to the public.

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In addition to her recent comments in the introduction above, the composer sent me this list of her current recordings on CD.

      "The Bells of Sarajevo," "Diverse Settings," Esther Lamneck, clarinet, Ruth Schonthal,
      piano/Capstone CPS 8641

      String Quartet #1/Vive la Difference/The Crescent Quartet/Leonarda LE 336

      "Early Songs," eight songs with text by R.M. Rilke/ Songs by Women
      Susan Gonzales, soprano, Marcia Eckart, piano/ Leonarda LE 352

      "Von einer weissen Rose" (Olbricht), "Arme Erde" (Olbricht), "Frühjarsschatten" (Kottek)/
      Anklänge, Lieder von Komponistinnen des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts/Lan Rao, Soprano,
      Michaela Gelius, piano/ Salto Records International.

      "Fiestas y Danzas," "Sunburst"/Solo Piano Works by 7 American Women/ Nanette Kaplan
      Solomon, piano/ Leonarda LE-345

      "The Canticles of Hieronymus," (1987), Gestures, (1978) Self-Portrait of the Composer as
      an Older Woman (1999) Margaret Mills Plays Piano Works by Lowell Liebermann and Ruth
      Schonthal/ Cambria Master Recordings LC 5882

      "Variations in Search of a Theme" "Reverberations" for LC timbred piano, "Fragments from
      a Woman's Diary"/ Keyboard Expressions/ Works by Ruth Schonthal performed by Gary
      Steigerwalt/Cambria, Master Recordings LC5882

      "A Bird Over Jerusalem" for flute, tape and prepared piano, Eastman Chamber Players, String
      Quartet #3 "Holocaust in Memoriam" Bingham Quartet, London. Milkin Collection of American
      Jewish Composers

      In Preparation:   "Inventions and Re-Inventions in Two Parts" Bach-Schonthal/Rosemary Caviglio,

      "By the Roadside" (W. Whitman) & "Six Times Solitude" (A.A. Milne) Sonya Baker, soprano/
      Collection of songs by women.

      Theme and Variations for solo flute, Nina Assimak, flute and others.

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Linked from New Music Connoisseur in January, 2004.
©2004 Bruce Duffie

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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.