Composer  Frank  Wigglesworth

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Frank Wigglesworth (1918-1996) was a composer, conductor, performer and teacher who was a resident of New York's Greenwich Village for more than 40 years. Born in Boston in 1918, Wigglesworth had an interest in music from an early age, playing both the violin and viola and began composing at the age of eleven. He went on to study composition with Otto Luening, Henry Cowell and Ernest White at Columbia University and Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C.

In 1946, he joined the faculty of the Greenwich House Music School, where he was associated with (and later studied with) the avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse. In 1947 he joined the faculty of Columbia University, and in 1954, after spending four years in Europe as a recipient of the Prix de Rome, he began teaching at Queens College and the New School for Social Research.

Wigglesworth was a Composer in Residence at the American Academy of Rome from 1969-1970 and at the Bennington Chamber Music Conference in 1975 and 1985. He served on many boards, including The MacDowell Colony from 1985-1988 and the Youth Orchestra of New York. He was also the founder of the Thursday Evening Concerts at the Greenwich House Music School, organized in 1987. Wigglesworth was President of the American Composers Alliance from 1980-1984.

During my 25+ years at WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, I was able to do many special programs about different aspects of concert music.  I enjoyed them all, but always took particular pleasure in presenting an unknown composer.  I was able to meet many of these creators, some in person and some on the telephone.  All of them seemed pleased that a radio station in a top market was taking an interest. 

Now, after having been aired there and elsewhere, I am transcribing some of them and posting each on my website.  You are reading one such, and it makes me happy that it has been discovered.

As seen above and in the obituary at the end of this page, Frank Wigglesworth was a solid and interesting member of this fraternity, writing his own music and sharing his knowledge by teaching.  All of this plus serving as administrator rounds out his significant career. 

A few months before his 70th birthday, I arranged to speak with him on the phone.  When I placed the call, he answered right away and was in good spirits.  We both commented on how hot it was that particular day in mid-July, and then got down to business . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Where is music going today?

Frank Wigglesworth:    Oh!  That’s a neat problem.  I have been thinking about that for a long time.  It seems to me that music is going through a period in which it’s experimenting about various things.  Once we composers get together and decide that what we want to do is make music useful and enjoyable for many people — it doesn’t have to be everyone — then possibly we’ll be able to use all of our new playthings and make some real music again.  This has happened in the past when composers have been preoccupied with techniques rather than anything else.  Now the computer and all of the electric music has given us so many choices that it’s very hard to decide which ones to use.  I guess the minimalists are trying to get around that by using very few, but I think it will all come together and I am very optimistic about it.

BD:    I’m glad you are optimistic.  I really am.

FW:    [Laughs]

BD:    Now you say
we’ll make some real music again.  Are we not making real music?

wigglesworth FW:    I think that music should have uses.  It always has in the past.  It’s been ceremonial or for dances or for singing or to express some emotion of some sort.  I know this is old-fashioned, but I do think that music should give a certain amount of pleasure to the people who are listening to it.  Oftentimes now I find that audiences are totally confused as to what’s going on.  They get virtuous and say that the composer doesn’t know what he is doing.  Well, what he is doing is experimenting, I guess, and time will salt him in the long run to do something.  [Note: According to the  Merriam-Webster Dictionary,
the word “salt can refer to “sharpness of wit” or “common senseIt can also mean “to add something secretly”.  Either idea might be appropriate in this instance.]

BD:    Should the experimentation be done on audiences, or should it be done in a more closed environment?

FW:    No, I think the audience has to do something about it; I really do because that’s the only way a composer is going to know whether he’s writing music that people like.  Lots of people just don’t care whether an audience likes their music, but that denies music of its place on Earth if it’s just going to be done for technical reasons.

BD:    Then what, in your opinion, is the ultimate purpose of music in today’s society?

FW:    I should think what it’s always been.  It can be used for ceremonials.  It can be used in the theatre.  It should be used in television, which it isn’t, or not very often.  It should in some way communicate certain kinds of things that some people at least would like to hear.  I don’t know exactly, but, music should give enjoyment of some sort, or some reason to think about things.  I have a humanistic approach to it.  I am not like a lot of other people.  I am for any kind of music, any kind of technique, because it seems to me that we should not bar any.  Dissonance and consonance and all that is fine.  The things that I really don’t like in the music scene today are things that look good on paper but simply aren’t audible when performed.  If you look at some scores and you have two parts, one is 15 and the other is 16 notes to the same beat, you’re certainly not going to hear that and no one’s going to be able to play it.  [Both laugh]  So I think that kind of silliness is something that should be avoided.

BD:    You don’t feel, though, that just because it can’t be played it shouldn’t be written?

FW:    If it wants to be written, OK if someone wants to make a game of it.  It seems to me that most of those things take place in theses for PhDs, where they know that they are going to have to defend their scores verbally.  Then they can point with pleasure to the relation of 15 to 16 with some other thing that’s going on someplace else in the score.  It makes them look pretty erudite, but as far as playing or hearing, nothing will happen.

BD:    I am playing devil’s advocate just for a moment, but about the business of not being able to be played, Tristan was abandoned as unplayable, and now even a small community group can accomplish it.

FW:    That’s true; that’s always true.  And it’s conceivable that that would happen with 15 against 16, but I bet you it doesn’t.  [Both laugh]

BD:    I bet you’re right!  Then at what point should composers abandon the idea of going beyond the current level of human capability?

FW:    Now they’ve got at their disposal electronic business that can do that for them, and they can make 15 against 16.  This is a symbol of what we’re talking about.  Whether the ear is going to pick it up, I don’t know.  Whether it will sound just muddy or whether it will enhance the expressivity of whatever is going on, I don’t know.  Maybe the muddiness is the effect that’s wanted.

BD:    15 against 16 would probably sound like people who can’t quite all do 16 together are trying valiantly to play it.

FW:    Yes.  It’s like people complain about not liking to have recordings because they are always the same.  No recording ever is the same; there’s always little variations with the power and everything like that.  In live music, of course, each performance is totally different, so it’s nice to know that we’re not it a total rut.

BD:    You are the first person that’s ever brought up the fact that recordings are slightly different on each playing.

FW:    Yes.  Well, I think they are, don’t you?  Not perceptively, I guess.  Maybe I am carrying that a little too far.

BD:    I have not noticed
that a slight variation in power will affect the speed [of the LP].  Also where you are listening in the room, and different people in the room will change how a familiar record will sound. 

FW:    That’s right.

BD:    Perhaps  if one speaker is starting to go out, or if it’s covered by books...

FW:    ...or if everything is brand new.

BD:    Exactly.  The same record will sound different on each sound system.

FW:    Yes.

BD:    Right.  That’s interesting.  As I say, that’s a thought I hadn’t had at all before.  So coming back to our topic, do you think that music works well on recordings?

FW:    Yes, in general, I think it does.  I think it’s nice.  Of course composers love to have it because they can hear their music more than once.  That’s something all composers like.  And I suppose it makes money for somebody.  It doesn’t make much money for the composer, but it makes lots of it for the record companies.

BD:    I’m afraid most of the records of classical music, especially the new music, tends to be a losing proposition, though.

FW:    I’m afraid it is.  I don’t think it’s a marketable product, really. 

BD:    So then we should thank the record companies for being willing to lose a little bit here and there to put new pieces out.  [Note: There is a story that a famous opera singer in the 1950s used to say he thanked God for Elvis Presley because he made enough money for his record label that they could then afford to lose a bit on the opera records they produced!

FW:    Yes, we should.  Yes.

BD:    Several of your pieces have been recorded.  Are you pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music? 

FW:    By and large, yes.  Sometimes the little things go wrong, but if it was too bad I wouldn’t allow it to happen.  That’s why they have test pressings and all of that kind of thing
to try to get it straightened out.  But sometimes you’re saddled with the decision of having a pretty good performance recording and whether you want to keep that, knowing it’s probably the only one that’s going to happen.

BD:    So it’s either pretty good or nothing?

FW:    Yes.  So you have to compromise.  I don’t know which way is the proper way to do it.  A lot of people make great stands about it.  I don’t know if it’s that important or not.  I think good music can survive, anyway, and bad music won’t.

BD:    Then let me ask the impossible question.  What constitutes good music?

FW:    [Laughs]  I don’t know.  It has to do with the times and fashion.  I suppose good music is the music that a majority of people like, which would eliminate all concert music, I guess.  [Both laugh]  I don’t know what to say!  It’s something that satisfies a certain number of people who know something about music, probably.

BD:    Is the public’s taste always right
— at least over the centuries?

FW:    No, it isn’t!  Look at a lot of what they liked in the nineteenth century.  There’s a lot of people that liked what we don’t hear or even think of anymore.  Think of Mozart’s rival, Salieri.

BD:    He’s been getting a lot of negative press lately because of the film!

FW:    Yes, poor man.  He probably sounded pretty good for most people.

BD:    If you think Salieri is not a good composer, should we never play his music at all?

FW:    Oh, no!  I’m very liberal about that.  I think all music should be played if someone wants to play it.  In New York, I don’t know if you remember but they had a Society for Forgotten Music, and they played all of these works of unknown people.  After a little while the society disbanded.

BD:    Did they get tired of the music?

FW:    Yes, they got completely tired of it.  So I suppose you can tell what’s bad music more than you can what’s good music.  Even all of the so-called good composers have their fashionable times.  I remember when I was studying music first, it was very fashionable to dislike Wagner.  I don’t think it’s that way anymore, but it was then.  It goes around like that, I guess.

BD:    He’s in fashion and he’ll go out of fashion again.

FW:    Yes, he will.  Mozart doesn’t seem to go in and out of fashion as much.

BD:    You were the chairman of the editorial board for New Music Edition and New Music Recordings.  How would you decide which music would get published and which would not get published?

FW:    One of our tests was to go around to other publishers and see if they wanted to publish them.  If they didn’t, we did.  But we looked at all of the music and we knew what was going on.  It was much easier then
in the ’40sto know what New Music Edition should be doing because there was a sense of propriety about the publishers.  They only did certain kinds of music, so then we really could do all the other kinds of music that was provocative, and, as we used to say, ultra-modern.  [Both laugh]  It was music that included twelve-tone and all that kind of thing that no one wanted to bother with.

BD:    You didn’t feel that you were The Leftover Society, though?

FW:    No, no!  We weren’t left over.  I think we really helped enormously in getting things going.  Henry Cowell started that.  He had an uncanny ear and eye for good composers coming up, and we tried our very best to follow his example.  We didn’t do it as well as he, but we tried very hard.

BD:    Besides sheet music you also put out recordings?

FW:    Yes, the label was New Music Recordings.  They were 78s, but they were all right.

BD:    Did you issue any LPs at all?

FW:    No.  We got as far as vinyl.  That was the last record we did.  We thought we were very swanky to get to vinyl instead of hard rubber.  The New York Public Library has a complete set of them, and I think Columbia does and I think Juilliard does.  That went hand-in-hand along with the other thing I did for a while, and that was with the Composers
Forum.  The Composers Forum presented concerts of new composers.  In the ’40s and ’50s there was absolutely no place to get music done, so lots of people had their debut in New York with the Composers Forum.  All of the press came.  It was really nice and we all got noted!  [Both laugh]  Now universities take over all of that stuff.  Every university has an orchestra, and the composers who teach in the university get to perform.  So there’s not that crying need any more for a Composers Forum that there was.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You taught music for many, many years.

wigglesworth FW:    Yes.

BD:    Was this theory or composition?

FW:    Both.  Everything.

BD:    Then let me ask perhaps a provocative question.  Is musical composition something that can be taught, or must it be innate within each young composer?

FW:    Oh, I don’t think it can be taught at all, no.  You can teach technique sometimes; you can teach counterpoint and one kind of harmony, or you might try two or three different kinds of harmony
like traditional harmony and then chordal harmony and secundal and so on like that; or you can teach twelve-tone system if you wanted to.  But I don’t think you can teach anybody how to compose at all.  A testament to that is all of the people getting PhDs now who have such beautiful calligraphy.  It seems to me they must have spent part of their time just doing calligraphy.  They’re all expert copyists.  But I’ve seen some oral PhD defenses of pieces and I don’t think that a PhD defense of a piece of music is how you defend a piece of music.  They talk absolute gibberish!  They talk about things that I don’t think anybody except somebody in an academic position would know what they’re talking about.  It hasn’t anything to do with music.

BD:    What is the proper defense of a piece of music?

FW:    I don’t think there is one.  At Yale they do something very nice.  They make you do all of your class work and everything like that, and then you write a piece.  But you don’t get your PhD until you’ve been out in the field a couple of years and see how you make it as a musician.  I think that’s a pretty good way of doing it.

BD:    So the real defense of a piece should be a few concert reviews?

FW:    Yes, I think so.  In the beginning they thought that success meant if they got a nice job teaching at another college, but lately they’ve straightened themselves out and realized that being a composer doesn’t mean necessarily teaching.  It might mean it, but it shouldn’t mean it.

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

FW:    I think so, by a long shot.  I remember Lou Harrison and I thinking that when he lived in New York.  He and I were good friends.  We decided we would have a slaughter of the innocents because an arduous number of composers were coming along!  So I’m not really impressed with what the academic world is doing in the teaching of music
or art or anything.  I don’t know what happens.  They all become professors in their own right.

BD:    Let us move to another of your interests, the American Composers Alliance.

FW:    Yes, that’s nice.  That’s interesting.  It’s having its fiftieth anniversary this year.

BD:    What was it set up to do, and is it doing it?

FW:    It’s got a mixed history.  I’ll tell you exactly.  It was set up to do one thing, and is doing something a little bit like it, but not enough to my way of thinking.  It was set up to be an alliance of American composers.  There were obviously problems with ASCAP and the Alliance.  At a certain point, right in the beginning, a lot of composers decided that ACA was a company union directed by BMI, and if they went over to ASCAP, where there was a little control by publishers, etcetera, they felt more at home.  But what the Alliance really is, is a collecting agency.  It gets money for us; it does the monitoring of works so that we can get paid for those things, and it helps us in lots of projects.  We had a magazine about composers, and we have a recording award, which is nice.  We have a printing establishment, American Composers Edition, and we publish works and things like that.  So it turns out that it’s a kind of supermarket for composers’ needs.  It works out well and we’re trying to do other things.  We’re trying to put on concerts and things like that, which is nice.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk a little bit about composing music.  Is most of your music done on commission, or is it music that you feel you have to write?

FW:    I enjoy writing music, so I write every day.  If I waited for commissions, I’m afraid I wouldn’t write very much music.  Sometimes these get paid for afterwards, but I’m not the most popular composer in the United States.  So what I do is write it, and try to hustle it around and get performances.

BD:    When you’re writing a piece, how do you know when you have finished it?

FW:    [Thinks a moment]  I intuitively know when I have finished it.  Sometimes it takes a long time to know, exactly.  I just finished an orchestra piece that’s going to be done with the Albany Symphony next year.  I’ve had two or three endings, but now I think I’ve got the ending that I like.  Why it’s ended is because the material I’ve used is used the way I wanted to, and I came to an end. 

BD:    Do you go back and tinker with the score once you have finished it?

FW:    Oh, yes, certainly!  In the process of having it copied I can always find little corrections and things like that.  I don’t think I’ve really gotten into major problems by going back over it because that process seems to go on in the various versions while doing it originally.

BD:    Historians a hundred years from now will find various versions of your work.  Which should they play?

FW:    [Laughs]  Well, I’m only going to copy the one that I like.  They can read through my manuscript if they want to, but they oughtn’t.  It’s hard.  You see painters painting sometimes, and they think the painting is done and then suddenly they’ve got their paints out again and are doing some little thing in the corner or someplace else.  Composers do that, too.

BD:    Do you view yourself as a sound painter?

FW:    No.  I’ve heard that expression, but no I don’t think of myself as a sound painter.

BD:    How do you view yourself, then?

FW:    I write music that I like first, and I would deem myself a failure if some other people didn’t like it, too.  I used to say that a composer should write to please himself and at least three of his friends.  But actually I don’t mind writing simpler music.  If you’ve heard my music, you know that it isn’t very complicated.  I don’t mind that at all.  It’s very accessible.  I’m for amateur performers as well as the top-notch people.  I think music should be written that can be played by others, too, although I always like to have the best performers play my music.  There seems to me a place for music to be played by decent amateurs all the time.  I know some of the music they can’t play.  For some of the more difficult music you really can have only the best players.

BD:    You have been observing the musical scene now for many, many years.  Have the performers gotten better over that time?

FW:    Oh sure they’ve gotten much better!  They’ve gotten better every year.  I remember, for example, in Varèse’s Density 21.5, that high D at the end.  In 1945, Varèse and I put on a solo flute concert together, and we had René Le Roy, who is one of the great French flutists performing.  We got him because he was the one who was going to be able to play the high D well.  But since then, I see high school kids all the time playing the high D.  It’s nothing to them at all.  The rhythm, which seemed hard in Density at one point, anyone can play that now.  It’s not just flutists either, it’s everybody.  They are doing just fine!

BD:    This is what we were talking about earlier, the business of writing something that can’t be played, and then it becomes easy.

FW:    Yes.  Yes, yes.

BD:    It becomes almost standard.

FW:    Yes.

BD:    Are you also a performer as well as a composer?

FW:    I play violin and viola.  I don’t practice much, but I love playing.  I’ve played professionally, but not very much.  I would consider myself a decent amateur.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    With all of your interests, how do you divide your time between composing and administration and teaching?

FW:    Usually I try to compose every morning.  That doesn’t always work, but that’s what I try to do.  Then the afternoons and evenings are for the other stuff.  I’ve been teaching a lot at night so it doesn’t interfere, but some days I have a class in the morning.  I have to do it, but I think of all of the other people that have classes.

wigglesworth BD:    When you are writing a piece of music, are you in control of the piece, or does the piece have a mind of its own?

FW:    That’s a good question.  Often times, it seems to have a way of moving that you didn’t expect.  I sometimes hold back on that because I wonder what’s happening, but often times I just let it go and it turns out to be the best thing anyway.  I guess it’s like riding a horse that you’re not very sure of.  You think you want to go on one path, and the horse wants to go on another.

BD:    But either way it’s a pleasant ride?

FW:    Yes.  [Laughs]  Something like that.

BD:    Are there some horses that you control completely?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Evan Ziporyn, and Samuel Baron.]

FW:    Yes, I try some.  I just finished some today that I like very much, but it had words, so the words controlled me there.  I think oftentimes, with words, you have to be guided by them.

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

FW:    I always think that singers can sing higher than they can or lower than they can because they say what their range is and then you find out that that isn’t quite their range.  If you want to be certain about a decent performance, you take that range with a grain of salt and you’ll be in much better shape.

BD:    So you have to be much more practical about it?

FW:    Yes.  I remember my first lesson in that was in another concert that Varèse and I put on.  We found a singer who could sing to high E, way above high C.  I wrote a piece for her and I employed the E.  Varèse wrote a piece for her and didn’t employ the E.  In fact, he didn’t go any higher than the B.  She missed my high E and she sang the B beautifully!  [Both laugh]

BD:    When you write music with someone particular in mind, are you then surprised that someone else can take it up and play it also?

FW:    No.  No, I would hope that anyone else could do it, too.  But in that case, with the E, I would have put another extra note there.

BD:    An optional lower note?

FW:    Yes.

BD:    While we’re talking about vocal music, I want to be sure and ask you about your opera.  Is there just one opera?

FW:    Actually, my operas aren’t really operas.  I call them
illuminations.  What they are is projected slides, and singers below the slides.  In this particular opera you are talking about, which is the Willowdale Handcar, Edward Gorey did the pictures and he had the captions underneath them.  So I put the pictures on the wall and then set the music.  I set the words to music and had it kind of sung.  Since it’s a ride on a railroad handcar, it’s always moving and things change.  There’s a cast of characterstwo women and one man.  I had a baritone and a countertenor and a soprano, but I didn’t keep them in the same parts.  Once they were the woman and then another time the man.  They went all around, so it was all mixed up.  It works out very well with Gorey’s pictures and everything.  There’s a tiny bit of acting and it’s kind of nice.  It’s like illustrated stereopticon business.

BD:    Then why is it called an opera?

FW:    I don’t know why it’s called that.  I call it an
illumination, but everyone called it an opera.  I have another one which is meant to go with that one.  It’s a police log in the local country newspaper.  I have the policemen doing what they’re doing, and that’s being illustrated now.  I hope they’re both going to be done together.

BD:    It would make a nice evening.

FW:    Yes.

BD:    Would you ever write a regular opera?

FW:    I want to very much.  I’ve started a couple, but I’ve never gotten the librettos straight.  I’m still looking.  That’s a big undertaking.  [Laughs]

BD:    Is it too big an undertaking?

FW:    No, no.  I think that I’d love to do it.  I’d like to do a couple of one-acters first to see how it works, and then try a big one.  I like to do everything.  The only thing I can’t do is I can’t write band music.  I wish I could.

BD:    Why? 

FW:    I don’t know!  It’s different instruments!  I suppose I could write a band piece if I wanted to, but my heart sinks when I think of it.

BD:    So you are more at home with orchestral works and chamber works?

FW:    Yes.

BD:    When you’ve got an idea, do you know immediately that it will fit into a chamber work or into a choral work or into a symphony
— or have I got it the wrong way around?

FW:    If you’re commissioned a piece, they tell you what they want.  So then you have an idea of what they want.  If it’s a non-commissioned piece, then you may be guided by the fact that you know a group that might want to do it.  Let’s say you met someone at a party and they say, “Oh, Frank, do please write us a piece!”  Then I’d say, “What instruments?  What kind of a piece do you want?”  If they’d tell me, then I’d do it.  So I think it depends on circumstances.  I very rarely wake up in the middle of the night with a stroke of some great inspiration.  I don’t think I do that very often... or I’d forget it, like some dreams.

BD:    Do you feel that music or opera work well on television?

FW:    I’d love to do something on television.  No one’s ever asked me.  I’d really like to do it, and I think my illuminations might work in that with a little acting.  I don’t know anyone in television, so I guess you have to get to know someone to do that.

BD:    Is that the bane of composers
getting to know the right people?

FW:    Well, you do.  You have to keep going all the time.  You have to be selling yourself, and some people do it better than others.  That’s the problem.  Obviously the ones who push the hardest get performed more.

BD:    Let me ask a very difficult question.  Where is the balance between art and entertainment in music?

FW:    Oh, I think art can be entertaining.  It can be both.  I don’t think that’s really a problem.  I think that’s a problem of semantics, because there’s art in even the most vulgar kind of vaudeville show.  There’s a way that people do it when they act and everything, so it’s an art.  They might choose rather vulgar music, but the whole thing goes together and it’s a kind of art form.  I don’t worry much about whether it’s art or not.  It’s because I think the words
art and entertainment don’t mean anything.  I don’t know how you separate them.  You can be entertained at any big performance — like the St. Matthew Passion of Bach.  It’s certainly art, and certainly it’s entertainment, too.  It seems to me that’s why it survives, in a way.  That’s why the Jesuits wanted things like thatoratorios and suchbecause it did entertain.  It was instructive, and it turned out to be artistic.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    As you approach your seventieth birthday, what is the most surprising thing that has developed in terms of music?

FW:    I would never have guessed that something like minimalist music would have happened.  I wouldn’t have imagined it, and there it came.  It’s very interesting what they are doing with so little, even though it goes on.  I listened to some of La Monte Young’s stuff, and it goes on for hours and hours and hours.  It is interesting, but it’s something I never would have thought of happening.  Everyone that thinks they’re avant-garde now are probably rear guard, or almost.  I don’t think there’s any avant-garde today, not in the sense that it happened in Paris in the ’20s. 

BD:    You don’t feel that Boulez and IRCAM are avant-garde?

FW:    I don’t think so, no.  I don’t know why; it just seems old hat to me.  Old hat avant-garde — maybe that’s what it is.  [Laughs]

BD:    Where is the next musical frontier?

FW:    I don’t know what’s going to happen.  I expect it to be with electronic music somehow.  I’m sure that’s where it’s going to come.  And maybe something will come of minimal music.  I don’t know.

BD:    What is next on the calendar for Frank Wigglesworth?

FW:    I’m writing a song cycle at the moment for a singer.  I finished the first of fourteen songs today.  I’m very busy.  I’ve got a piece that’s going to be done in Albany to copy, and so I’ve got my work cut out for me.

BD:    Do you work on more than one thing at a time, or just one?

FW:    If I feel perfectly up to being schizophrenic, I don’t mind doing one or two or three pieces at once.  But sometimes I don’t, and then I get loyal to one piece.  But it seems to give relief, sometimes, to set something down and then do something else for a while and get some more ideas while you let the other thing cook a little bit.

BD:    Do you find you come back to it and it’s matured of itself?

FW:    Yes.  I’m amazed sometimes.  I see some pieces that I’d written a couple of years before and I say, “My heavens.  Did I think of that?  Wasn’t that the most wonderful!”  [Both laugh]

BD:    That’s a good sign, if you are pleased with them.

FW:    Yes, I think so, too.

BD:    This has been fascinating speaking with you.  I’m glad we got together.

FW:    Yes, me too.  Thank you.

Frank Wigglesworth, 78, Writer And Performer of New Music

Published in The New York Times, March 20, 1996

Frank Wigglesworth, a composer and teacher whose music was an important part of New York's new-music landscape in the 1950's, died yesterday at St. Clare's Hospital in Manhattan. He was 78.

The cause was cancer, said B. C. Vermeersch, the director of the Greenwich House School of Music, where Mr. Wigglesworth presented a series of new-music concerts.

Mr. Wigglesworth composed prolifically in a style that embraced the extremes of lyricism and atonality, the balance shifting to suit the needs of the work at hand. His "Summer Scenes" (1951) is an easygoing pastoral work for flute, oboe and string orchestra. But his dance work "Ballet for Esther Brooks" (1961), uses percussion and polytonality forcefully, and his opera, "The Willowdale Handcar" (1969), is a rhythmically complex and freely atonal setting of the Edward Gorey book.

Mr. Wigglesworth was born in Boston on March 3, 1918. He was a grand-nephew of the new-music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge on one side of his family, and Oliver Wendell Holmes on the other. He studied the violin and viola as a child, and conducted his high school choir. He went on to study composition with Otto Luening, Henry Cowell and Ernest White at Columbia University and Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C.

From the 1940's on, he combined his composing with a career as a teacher, editor, administrator and performer. He took his first teaching post at Converse College in 1941, and during his two years there, he was also a first violist in the Spartanburg Symphony Orchestra and the chorus master of the Spartanburg Lyric Opera. During World War II, he composed musicals that were performed at Army posts.

He resumed his teaching career in 1946, when he joined the faculty of the Greenwich House Music School, where he was associated with (and later studied with) the avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse. In 1947 he joined the faculty of Columbia University, and in 1954, after spending four years in Europe as a recipient of the Prix de Rome, he began teaching at Queens College and the New School for Social Research. He was appointed chairman of the music department at the New School in 1965.

Mr. Wigglesworth was also the chairman of the editorial board of the New Music Edition and New Music Recordings series, from 1947 to 1951. And he was composer in residence at the American Academy in Rome in 1969, and at the Bennington College Chamber Music Conference and Composer's Forum of the East in 1985.

His large catalogue of orchestral works includes three Symphonies (1953, 1958 and 1960), the dark-hued, harmonically ambiguous "Telesis" (1950), a Concertino (1965) and "Sea Winds" (1984). Mr. Wigglesworth also wrote a great deal of chamber music, several song cycles and a body of sacred choral music that includes two Masses as well as settings of Psalms and other biblical texts. His works also include incidental music for a production of "Hamlet" in 1960, and a ballet, "Young Goodman Brown" (1951).

He is survived by his wife, the artist Anne Parker; a son, Henry, of Portland, Ore.; a daughter, Philio Cushing of Manchester, Mass., and a sister, Constance Holden, of Cambridge, Mass.

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on July 18, 1987.  Segments were used (with recordings) on WNIB in March of 1988, 1993 and 1998.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2013.

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

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

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.