Critic / Professor  Thomas  Willis

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


As readers of these interviews may know, I grew up in Evanston, the first suburb north of Chicago and the home of Northwestern University.  Upon completion of my undergraduate work at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, I returned home to get my Master's Degree in Music History from NU.  After two years of teaching in the Evanston Public Schools, I landed an announcing position with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, and stayed there for just over a quarter century.  When the station was sold and changed format in 2001, I returned to Northwestern at the invitation of Bernard Dobroski, Dean of the School of Music, to teach
Introduction to Music, a course designed for non-music majors.  This course, coincidentally, had been taught in previous years by Professor Thomas Willis.  As it happened, while doing my MM in 1972-3 I was the Graduate Assistant for Willis, and though I did not realize it at the time, he was trying, in his own way, to give me what he had gotten at the Tribune many years before.  I am happy to say that much of it has seemed to stick in my own varied and wide-ranging career, and we stayed in contact while I was on the radio station.

Willis grew up in Southern Illinois, was a church organist and accompanist, went to Northwestern University and later studied at Yale.  He was influenced early on by such diverse creators as Schubert, Monteverdi, Bartók, Josquin, and Gilbert and Sullivan.  He went on to respect Ives and Berio and Menotti and Sir Georg Solti, as well as masters in other fields of the arts.  In a very real way, this is what is necessary to write about music on a daily basis for a cosmopolitan community such as we have in Chicago.  Others can be specialists, and we need them to dig deeply and unearth the truths about each era, but there have to be a few generalists who can see the big picture — or, in this case, hear the full sound — and make sense of it all as a totality.

Tom Willis was my boss, my teacher, my mentor, my friend.  And in case I had not mentioned it, he was also the Senior Music Critic for the Chicago Tribune during an incredible era for music in Chicago in the 1960s and

After he left the paper and devoted his full efforts to NU, he helped to keep the School of Music growing and was part of the reason why so many applied each year for the few openings in each class.  When 1993 rolled around, I knew I had to celebrate his 65th birthday, so I asked him if we could sit down and let the tape recorder eavesdrop on a get-together.  We were having the usual banter as I set up the machine, and we pick up the conversation at that point . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    I appreciate your taking the time for a chat.

Thomas Willis:    Yeah, I was expecting this call maybe a couple of weeks from now! [Laughs] But it’s no problem.  I was happy to do it.

BD:    Glad to know that I’m anticipatory, rather than

TW:    Yeah, unlike the way we work, boy!

BD:    Really?  Okay, let’s start right there.  How much different is academe from the real world?

TW:    [Laughs] In some ways a great deal and in some ways not too much.  First of all, they’re both full of human beings with their own strengths and their own weaknesses.  The thing that is most different about academe from, if you wish to call the newspaper business the real world, is that in the newspaper business you get finished with a project very quickly when you write a review.  If you have six or seven on the fire, you write them very fast and in a sequential order.  Academe has a whole different time frame!  Nothing ever seems to happen quickly enough.  With me that led, over the years, to a sort of sloth because I felt like I had so much time, compared to writing forty-five minute reviews or writing Sunday pieces in three and a half or four hours maximum.  So from a personal point of view, there’s that.

BD:    You’ve gone from the ultra-fast to the ultra-slow without hitting what’s in the middle.

TW:    That’s right.  The other thing about academe is, of course, that our business is in educating students.  Although there’s a teaching mission, certainly, you really do focus on the product — if you want to use it from a marketing standpoint — which is, in fact, the minds of the students.  As a consequence, you’re always dealing with the students either in class or out of class; they’re your primary concern and that means you invent them again every four years.  They’re in four-year steps one year apart, if you’re in higher education, so you develop very quickly a network of people that are of varying ages; whereas you do tend, I think, in the newspaper business, to choose your acquaintances in a different way.  Now I have this network of students and alums across the country, and that makes me feel very good because the students that I have working in my office now are already on their way out into the world, with internships and so forth.  This is the time of the year when we’re arranging all of that.

at NUBD:    You’re helping to push them out of the nest?

TW:    Oh, absolutely.

BD:    But I assume that students are not like automobiles
— they can’t be prefabricated and cut out of the assembly line in a prescribed amount of time.

TW:    That’s absolutely true.  One of the things that I like about Northwestern, much more than several other schools that I have had occasion to get to know pretty closely, is that in the School of Music particularly, we have so many alternative options.  Northwestern isn’t a conservatory; it’s a school of music and it’s embedded in a great university.  That means if the students have interests in tech, we can sculpture a program where it’s part electrical engineering and part music.  The same thing is true with the Arts Management kids who work at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall and then go on as interns.  A number of the students who fan out into the music world in Chicago as interns, go on from there.

BD:    As opposed to, say, Julliard, where you’re going to be a solo pianist and that’s all you can be?

TW:    Exactly.  Northwestern has always had a lot of that variety, as you know from your experience there, in terms of where people go and exactly what they’re doing while they’re here.  But I think it’s even more so now, as we tool ourselves up for the world of tomorrow
which is the world of todaywhich is increasingly multicultural and technologically oriented.  You know, the things that you talked a little bit about when you gave the commencement address here [in June, 1990], and which I think about every day.  [The text of that Address to the Graduates can be found by clicking the link.] 

BD:    I
m very glad I made an impact on my teacher!  I assume the world is moving at too fast a pace.  Is academe moving with it too fast?  Or is it lagging, or leading?

TW:    Several of my colleagues look at the world rather differently than I do, and part of it may be the newspaper business.  I have always felt that the artists are out ahead of society, and that the musicians, the contemporary composers and performers, are out ahead of many of the artists in other fields in the ways in which they deal with complex organizations and in the way which they deal with violence, violent sounds and all of that.  I think we saw that even at the turn of the century.  We’re trying to make what we can out of the post-reproduction age, when we’re totally submerged in different kinds of reproductive sound.  At least two generations of teachers have had to figure out how to deal with it, and some have denied its existence.  Now we’re to the point where things are becoming increasingly interactive, so we have the students and the teachers dealing with live-plus-technology and all the back-and-forth things that you and I know about, in order to keep individuating and trying to get some sense of humanity and personality that artists still need to have in spite of the fact that world is so complex, and that people are cocooning at home in their virtual images! [Both laugh]

BD:    Sure, sure!  Well, I never thought this question would actually be a focusing down; usually it’s a broad generalization, but where is music going today?

TW:    Good Lord.  Well, like everything else, it’s getting on its horse and riding off in all directions!  [Both laugh]  I think the things that interest me are the way in which we are no longer pulling at a traditional aesthetic as far as the students and their teachers are concerned.  We’re now two or three generations into the teachers who have embraced this brave new world of fragmentation, and the fact is that there’s no tradition into which you write.  What I do think is very interesting is that many of the musicians that are writing in what we might call classical music
and that’s a difficult word, as you knoware feeling more that they can see the future through the eyes of the past, and that they’re quite willing to deal with it in the terms that do, in fact, win audiences back.  And that makes me a whole bunch happier than some of the things that were going on when I was in school, and shortly after that when you were in school. 

BD:    So it’s good, then, that we take into account the people who are receiving the music?

TW:    Yeah.  Did you happen to catch that article in the Symphony Program that Boulez wrote?  Actually it was lifted from an address that he had given some time before, where he talks about this business.  He likens the way you can create a revolution to a Japanese theater situation, where death was symbolized by going through a paper screen.  He said, “You have to be able to murder the past, but in order to murder the past, you have to know where it’s situated.”  I think that we lived through this period when we were reinventing the past without knowing what we were doing.  I’m thinking now of the sixties and early seventies in America.  There was a sense that everything that the kids were doing was so novel and so bright-eyed that some of the social environments that they were dealing with in their music were all coming out for the first time.  You had all this polarization between the people who were design-oriented and doing all the twelve-tone music, and felt like that was an ideological battle that had to be joined not just in American music, but in Europe.  Well, a lot of the ideological battles are now over, and I think it’s a very good thing because people are addressing some of the problems that music has addressed before, with some success.

BD:     Has this horse that’s galloped off in all directions begun to regroup?

TW:    I don’t know, Bruce.  It depends.  Like to many things, we’re talking about the uses of the past, so it depends on how far back you go.  You can almost always see a cycle.  If you live long enough, you can begin to see that what goes around comes around, in some ways, but that also it’s like a wheel rolling along on some kind of a slope, how ever you choose to deal with the slope.  It’s a difficult one to answer, partly because some of the people that I would be most interested in finding out about, I’m not automatically finding out about anymore.  One of the few things I lament about not being in your line of [radio] work or in the newspaper business, is that I don’t have, automatically coming in, things that I can make choices about whether or not I listen to.  The great thing about reproduced sound is that you can listen to it for two minutes if you want to, and then take the needle off.  And when you get a pile of records three feet high, you can screen them very rapidly! [Both laugh]  That is one of the ways in which those of us who try to keep up with the twentieth century now deal with everything, but particularly the works of art.  Unfortunately I find now that I am being guided by the people that are doing what I used to do.  In other words, I find people in whom I have confidence and let them do the screening simply because my own life right now is so very different than it was.  I don’t do that anymore.  So I’d like to know the answer to your question.  It undoubtedly lies in those people who are now in their twenties to forties.  I’m sure they’re out there and I’m sure they’re working.  I don’t know who they are, and it’s frustrating.

BD:    But they will emerge so that when they get into their fifties they will be more widely known and have sorted themselves out, perhaps.

TW:    I think, yeah.  The developmental stages of the human being, regardless of how much energy you deal with it, do push you far and fast over the first forty or fifty years of your life.  And today there’s so much.  Unfortunately, the pressure of the accelerating information and the accelerating technology are pushing these kids faster and faster.

BD:    Too fast?

TW:    Maybe.  I don’t know.  Certainly I know that the students I have talked to, in whom I have a lot of confidence, do feel that the pause that refreshes is no longer easy to get at, and you can’t do it by buying a Coke, or any of the other forms of coke! [Both laugh]  They really do need reflection.  They really do need some time to deal with this.  And it’s a kind of difficult thing in America, now, for the students getting out.  Their chances of finding a way to support their habit are probably not so much worse, but the ways in which they’re going to do it are going to have to be so much more extreme that it becomes personally difficult for them.  My thirty-five year old son had a reasonable expectation that he would be making as much money as his old man, or more, whereas the kids that are coming out of school now, who are old enough to be my grandchildren, don’t feel that way.  All of them are jittery, and that, of course, leads them into looking at things that are safe.  So they go for degrees that will give them credibility and legitimacy.

shostakovichBD:    Are we potentially losing a few fine composers or performers to money-making ventures?

TW:    Well, yeah.  There’s an implication which is that fine composers can’t make money!  Or the other alternative which is that anybody who does make money can’t be a fine composer.

BD:    It doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive, but it seems to have been!

TW:    I think we may be losing some people who belong as professionals in places where attention should be paid; they are now having to settle for situations where not quite as much attention can be paid, because it’s very difficult for them.  But what’s happening is that the mindset is changing, too.  And it’s true with composers like it is with performers.  We now know lots of young composers who can do what only a few used to be able to do:  make a commercial arrangement or do crossover material to make the money.  I was reading the interview in today’s New York Times with photographer Richard Avedon, who was saying, “In the fashion business, I don’t have any problem with the fact that my material appears in the ads in the New Yorker at the same time that it’s appearing in the Editorial Section.  It is very helpful and I know what the fashion world needs; it needs a lot of glitz and a lot of precision.”  I’m paraphrasing him, and he continued, “and it needs the ability to get there and get the work done, and get the production going and not waste anybody’s time.”  And all of those things don’t hurt you as a professional composer who’s writing music that won’t make money, necessarily.

BD:    So it’s not selling out if you write a great symphony and also a good TV jingle?

TW:    I’ve never thought it was and I certainly don’t think so today.  I don’t think there are any inevitabilities about that; that’s old-fashioned Victorian thinking.  In the world today, the values have to do with values which have always been valuable in the marketplace:  discipline, the ability to turn something out, to turn it out fast, to understand what needs to be done, and to do it.  Then you have to take that further and you have to be able to lead yourself.  It’s a kind of pulling up of your own bootstraps.  You have to lead yourself into knowing exactly what you’re being used for in the marketplace, and then to take those concerns and deal with them in a way that makes sense to you when you’re dealing where the marketplace is not involved.  We’re laboring under all of the romanticism of not only the aesthetic, but of the social world.  That idea of a composer in a garret still has a little bit of currency, but I don’t see it anymore as being serious.  Most of the students that I see across the country are not trying to close themselves off; they’re trying as fast as they can to grab from all directions, and try to find how skillful they can become as fast as they can!  And then they know what to reject.

BD:    But does that allow them enough time to develop, when they’re grabbing at all these things?

TW:    Probably not; certainly not in the way that you and I talk about development, or the people that you and I use as iconic to our own experience
the great classical masters of Europe, some of whom were extremely facile, and very, very fast, including the ones with the big names! [Both laugh]  But I do think that it’s true of composers, as of performers, that the ways in which you develop your life have changed very rapidly.  From the time you’re two years old, if you’re living in urban America, you’re placed in a different frame of operations.  You’re dealing with different strategies to get through your life.  Look at a ten year old child today and what they are doing in terms of their school situation, and in terms of sitting in front of the tube and playing Sega Genesis.  Look at Everding’s staging [at Lyric Opera] of Das Rheingold with all the children’s games all the way through it.  He is talking about the gods as children and this whole business.  The game technology was so strong in there, from the Rheinmaidens on bungee cords to those big cyberpawn figures...

BD:    [Interrupting] Oh, the giants!  They were wonderful when they come lumbering onstage!

TW:    I confess that I extravagantly admired that production.  In a Ring cycle, you always want to predict what the next three are going to be like if you deal with them one at a time as new productions.

BD:    I was thinking that it will be interesting to see, when they come back and do all four of them together, how the Rheingold will have changed after they’ve experienced the other three.

TW:    Exactly!  Will they be playing old man’s games in Götterdämmerung?  That occurred to me, being an older man.  What kind of games will they be playing at the Twilight?

BD:    Maybe so, maybe so.  Maybe he’ll take Twilight much more literally than we think.

TW:    [Wistfully] Could be.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve been away from the newspaper business for a long time, but I’m sure you continue to see how it evolves and changes.

TW:    Mm, yeah.

willisBD:    How has it evolved and changed over the last twenty or thirty years, in terms of writing about music, either day to day or long-range?

TW:    When I left it, I couldn’t see a whole lot of hope for anybody who wanted to write about music in newspapers on the kind of level that I had been trained to do.  I left largely because I was bored.  I had one of the best jobs in the country, as anybody knows who looks at the sixty or so full time jobs in newspaper music criticism that are available in the country!  This was certainly one of the best ones.

BD:    I don’t know that there’d be any better.  You might have a job in New York where it’s busier, but I’m not sure that would be better.

TW:    I wouldn’t want the New York scene.  There were a couple of times when the situation did in fact arise, when I was young enough to move.  No, I wouldn’t like the New York scene.  For a lot of people, that’s the be-all and end-all of their existence because of the fact that it is such an action-oriented place, and because, if you’re talking about classical music, it has to be regarded, at that time at least, as the center of the activity.  Now I’m not sure that the center is nearly as strong.  There’s sure a lot of stuff going on in New York, but the center is a different shape.  And since newspapers always try to mirror the society, or the population which they serve and cover, it’s that uneasy interaction which gets the music critic being a mugwump, with his mug on the one side, and his wump on the other!  [Both laugh]  And we all know how that one feels!  I think the overnight, or the two or three day review is going the way of the dodo bird and the dinosaur.  When I was one of the three Planning Coordinators, with John Von Rhein and Wynne Delacoma, of the Music Critic’s Association’s annual meeting here last October, one of the things that kept coming through was that you’re not going to be able to express your value judgments as they relate to one event.  The newspapers neither have the space, nor do they feel concerned about it.  The consumer orientation of the feature pages in the American newspaper today is something like a movie which has the possibility of a long run of three or four weeks, or a play which maybe has a longer run.  There’s just this pragmatism that was always in the American newspaper.  But what I think is going on, and it started around the time when I decided to leave, was that you have a choice.  You talked earlier about one of the other aspects of our lives
that you have something on one end and something on the other.  The big get bigger and the small get smaller.  Now it’s the big feature where you pull a lot of things together and indeed make something that has some pizzazz to it, and get good visuals and try to find something that gets one point and makes the point really quickly, and at the same time does it with more complexity and gives you more of the story than the TV with its sound bites.  If you get to be an expert at doing that, or you do a personality profile, you join the superstar marketplace.  But that can get tired after a while, although some people that I know love it and never get tired of writing profiles of famous people.  Although you can say an awful lot in stories like that because, even keeping yourself in the background, you still have the choice of the material, as you know so well!

BD:    [Laughs] Sure!

TW:    But I think that the sense of immediacy isn’t as important as making several connections at once and getting them out there with the kind of make-up and design orientation that you need.  We still have none of the feelings that the old fiefdoms had, and that the ones that still exist in Europe and did in fact exist around the turn of the century in some of the newspapers in America.  That’s long since gone.  So we’re all repackaging what we do; form is following function and those of us who are still dealing with it are finding that multiculturalism is more important.  The idea of finding the values that are pleasurable and the idea that it’s fun is being over and over emphasized both by the newspaper and by the performers themselves.  That’s a two-edged sword, but I think you have to realize it does have two edges to it.  It comes back to what we were saying about the composers regaining their audience, and newspapers that are also trying to regain their audience.  When I came to the Tribune, it was still a
Mandarin paper, and Culture Gulch was supposed to deal with the cultural emblems of the community; that was what we were dealing with.  Looking around for too much else wasn’t really necessary, although I was lucky enough to be working with Claudia Cassidy, and she had this incessant search for something else that she thought would be better in Chicago.

BD:    You mentioned one time that you started out writing about sewer bonds.  Should the music critic write about sewer bonds to learn about the newspaper, or should they write about more kinds of music to learn about more kinds of music?

1945TW:    Well, I guess I’m as pragmatic an American as anybody else in that situation.  I can tell you that when I came to the Tribune, it was as the third string reviewer and secretary in the office to Claudia Cassidy and Seymour Raven.  Their invitation was because Claudia went to Europe and Seymour needed some time during the summer to spend with his family.  There was all this summer stock going on and there was all this Grant Park going on, and later in the summer there was Ravinia.  So in terms of the coverage, the paper had to look for its stringers in the summer time, and Seymour and Claudia decided that there was a way that they could get somebody on the staff, in addition to stringing everybody else who had ever been a music critic!  There were times when we had four and five people out, but that is long gone!  We had Ed Berry and Will Leonard and Claudia and Seymour and me.  Sometimes we were out every weekend, but that was including theater, too, because at that point the departments were the same.  To go back to your question, six months from the time I got there, the department decided that they didn’t need me and that they would rather have what amounted to a full time secretary who worked from nine to five; somebody who was a young secretarial-type, as opposed to somebody such as myself, who was a thirty year old learning the first of my many mid-life career shifts.  So I decided I didn’t want to go back and pick up on my piano teaching and the little opera company that I had started.  Having gotten into the newspaper business, I realized that I really liked it.  There are a lot of things about the newspaper business that fit my personality like a tee, particularly my personality then.  So I decided that I was going to make the big pitch to stay in the newspaper business.  I had been lucky enough that I was able to eat lunch with Lloyd Wendt, who at that time was the editor of the Magazine, and subsequently went on up to being the editor of Chicago Today, which was one of the Tribune’s other papers back in the days when we had other newspapers.  So I had a long, serious talk with Lloyd, and with another man who was also a mentor to me in the newspaper business, Walter Simmons, about how I could stay in the paper.  He said, “The only way I can think of that you can stay in the paper is go over to Neighborhood News.  If you really want to learn the newspaper business, we’ll move you around very fast, and I don’t have any idea what will come of it but at least we’ll find out what you’re good for.  Anybody who’s got the kind of education background that you have ought to be able to make this happen.  And we won’t pay you very much at the start.”  I came to the paper in July, and by February I found myself working in the Neighborhood News, covering, as you said, anything that could happen on the Southwest side that would go into what was then the Metropolitan sections of the Tribune.  We had these five zoned Metropolitan sections that reported what amounted to suburban news.  It was fascinating in so many ways!  Not only did I get out to learn suburbia, having been on the North Shore and encapsulated in academe as a student, getting out to the Southwest side of Chicago was a real learning experience in terms of the socialization of Tom Willis.  The other thing was that all of the section editors, which I became quite quickly, made their own picture assignments.  They choose their own photographs and had to work with the copywriters and the make-up people who made the final decision because they were the old pros.  The Tribune placed its young people with the old pros that were on their way out.  So that was one of the ways in which the tradition went.

BD:    Shades of Die Meistersinger! [Both laugh]

TW:    Yeah, right!  Shades of the whole apprentice thing.  Most of the people that I was working with were somewhat younger than I was.  The Tribune at that point wasn’t promoting very many people because Colonel McCormick kept everybody.  He had hired an enormous number of people in 1926 who were still around in 1956, and just about at that point they were getting ready to move out.  So I hit the Neighborhood News section just at the right time.  Right after I got in there and learned to be a section editor and subsequently a copy desk editor, I also learned makeup and worked in the composing room.  This was all in a period of two years, so they really pushed me around.  There was an opening on the Features desk as a copyreader and I worked hours about like yours
I went to work at six at night and got off at two-thirty in the morning.  

BD:    For the edition that would hit the street at five AM?

TW:    Yeah.  It eventually was the Five Star Final; when I first came it was Three Star Final.  They just added stars like critics.  But that was the paper of record.  We had three people putting the Final together.  The Society people would come in and make their changes, depending on what cotillion or whatever was going on, or what pictures they wanted in the paper; Claudia would come in with her music reviews; a few other people would come in to get into that late edition, and that was really all we had to do.  All the makeup was done in the morning, but mine were the last eyes on that Features section.  So, of course, the first thing that the publishers and everybody picked up in the morning was the late edition.  So I was always in this direct position of dialogue with the Sunday editor who would come in at nine o’clock in the morning
when I was still asleepand by eleven o’clock he would be calling me on the phone, saying, “What happened?” [Both laugh]  When I was not doing that, I was reading copy on the standing columns that had come in that were going to go two days down the road.  Well, you can see what I learned.  I learned not only a very valuable lesson in socialization, but I also learned the inside of the newspaper business.  And I made a large number of friends who were later to help me when I went back in Claudia’s office as her Assistant Music and Theater Critic, so that I could be a really good backfield person for her.  Then, when they finally split the job into two in ’65 and Leonard became the Drama Critic and I became the Music Critic, I had going for me a very solid professional background inside the paper.  That gave me a lot of leeway.

BD:    Did that make the editors and publishers happy, to know that the guy writing about music knew about the newspaper business, and wasn’t just a social gadfly?

TW:    Absolutely!  I think it was one of the most important things, in terms of just looking at career development for Tom Willis, in a paper that had always emphasized hard news.  I would never say that there was anything easy about this job, but I could cover a hard news story
like Petrillo and Oldberg canceling that Chicago Symphony season in 1962; it didn’t get canceled, it got settled, of course.  That was in the days when these cancellations were almost pro forma.  It was a way of seizing the initiative from the union, as you know.  But the fact that I could cover that story and be ahead of the competition, phone in rewrites and develop my contacts with Petrillo — in other words, do the things that the hard news reporters didmeant they could count on at least one guy in Culture Gulch.  Claudia was that way, too; I learned this from her.  She was a superb hard news reporter, as anybody who followed her career knew.  Not only had I learned it from watching her and from reading copy on her, but I also came to believe very strongly that it is just as important to know what’s going on and to be able to develop all of the areas of the activity, as it is to have a coherent value structure built on a large population of your knowledge of listeners.

BD:    I assume, though, that this kind of thing is nearly
(or completely) impossible to get at a newspaper today.

TW:    Pretty much.  Pretty much.

BD:    Now I’m going to make the funny jump.  Is it as possible to do that same kind of thing in music, or are we getting just alto flute players and tenor trombone players?

in lutkinTW:    [Pauses for a moment] I’ve been thinking about that question a great deal and, almost oddly enough, in the same way you phrased it.  Your mind and mine tend to move in some of the same directions, Bruce.  I think that the strategic plan that I helped Dean Dobroski write for the School of Music for the next five years and the way in which we are trying to take the music school, indicates what I see as the best answer to the implications of the question.  This all concerns me very deeply, and I’m here at Northwestern, turning sixty-five in April, because I believe in this mission.  I could have not only retired — and I’m not going to retire — but I could also have gone back to being an academic instead of an administrator.  Now I only teach one or two courses a year, three at the most, and spend most of my time in administration.  A lot of it is assisting the Dean in the activities that focus around exactly what you’re suggesting.  We do not want to train alto flutists who will join the hundred and fifty alto flutes who would audition for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra exclusively.  On the other hand, it makes absolutely no sense to train performers at all if you don’t train them to the high standard that will at least make them a force in the marketplace.  They have to have their chance.  The question is, what do you do with a population that is increasingly diverse, that do have a lot of this ability, but who are going to have to have quite a lot more than that if they’re going to take their place in what’s going on right now?  Almost every boundary has to be tested, and almost everything has to be put together differently. The School of Music is trying to keep from training a glitzy bunch of professional performers.  That is happening in the major music schools, one way or another, across the country.  Even at Julliard.  Dean Polisi has done a great deal of very interesting things there, trying to figure out how to deal with the fact that Julliard must be modified so that the students that are there do avoid being encapsulated to the degree that some of us were who were in very specialized performance practice, and which many of the teachers feel is the only way to success.  So the administrators always have their battles with certain members of their faculties; that’s always been the case, you know.

BD:    Well, if it worked for them, it should work for all of their students!

TW:    Right, exactly!  But I must say, at Northwestern we have a really dedicated bunch of people who, now that they have had a chance to begin to shape the new organization, have come out and helped us.  Things are going really well, but, everything is being tested.  We have a Music Theater program that now ties us with a Theater program which is unrivaled except by two or three other institutions in the country.  That program is a prong of a variety of things that are going on in order to make sure that the curriculum, as well as the external activities of the students who are in the School of Music, does not allow them to focus specifically on learning their required Beethoven Sonatas and three English Suites and the stuff that I had to learn as a piano major.  They still have to do this, and the juries are harder!  That’s one of the things that means that we have to be very careful about the stress of these overworked kids.  We try to get them involved in multicultural activities, and all of these initiatives are being supported by alums who have come forward to help us.  Since Dean Dobroski came, it
s amazing how many people have wanted to join in making this university capitalize on what it has going for it.  I’m not trying to just shill for Northwestern here, because it has all the problems that every other private university has, and it has the same concerns to deal with.  But what we are going to do is to make sure that we’re not talking about this music school as training an exclusively homogeneous population.  It will be heterogeneous in the way the classes will be functioned.  We’ll mix the live performers as well as recorded music into these classes such as the ones where you were my assistant.

BD:    Sure.

TW:    More and more we’re getting the College kids
that is, the kids that are not in the School of Musicaware of what’s actually going on over there on that corner of the campus, beyond a lot of noise coming out of the practice rooms!  And that’s been fascinating to watch.  I’m also teaching in this Integrated Arts program, which right now is in the middle of a seminar in performance where these kids create performances.  For students that are not majors in the areas, they will go out and they will, in fact, know a lot more.  I mean, when you can get Frank Galati (who is a great theater director), two of our best people in the Art Department, another brilliant young instructor, and myself all teaching an A-level course, and deal with things as interesting as the Monteverdi Orfeo, the Berio Sinfonia, Beckett’s Endgame, Picasso’s Guernica and Velasquez’s Las Meninas, it’s just fascinating!

BD:    So all of these ideas are being put into practice now?

TW:    Yeah.  The School of Music will have its centennial in two years.  The first class at the School of Music was in October of 1895.  Before that, they were buried in a Fine Arts Department
as so many music departments still are in private universities of modest size.  As I recall, we were a subset of the College of Arts and Sciences.  We’re speaking now about the undergraduates.  The graduate school had not been developed to much of an extent.  At that point, Peter Christian Lutkin [the first Dean of the School and namesake of Pi Kappa Lambda fraternity] and the central administration made the decision to actually move the school into an independent school.  If you know the history of music in America, it is largely because of the church choirs that we had a strong choral tradition and that we were able to deal with the a capella choirs.  Increasingly these a capella choirs were beginning to come up, along with the large music festivals that were being done in Chicago and so many other places in the eastern part of the country under the impact of Theodore Thomas, who started the North Shore Music Festivals, as well as several others across the country.  And don’t forget the difficulty that he had a hundred years ago with the World’s Columbian Exposition!

BD:    [Laughs]  Right!

TW:    But we had somebody who was saying that music was a very important aspect of the cultural life of the educated amateur and the educated person.

BD:    Are there enough people now around who are saying music is an important part of life as we know it at the end of the twentieth century?

TW:    No, and yes! [Laughs] No, people still feel that the arts are expendable, not realizing that teaching somebody to perform well in the arts is one of the best possible trainings you can give them for anything else.  This is something that our ancestors at the singing schools in New England knew.  We seem to have lost track of that over a very checkered history, and when they do think of us, the school systems often put this in the perspective of the marketplace.  You know, we need somebody to do a good half-time show.  We can’t do a Christmas concert anymore because we can’t deal with exclusively Christian entities; we have to do a multicultural concert, so we pick and choose from all sorts of different instruments, which doesn’t give us the homogeneity to develop a critical mass.  We are expendable in so much of the educational system, and yet in other areas it’s going along just fine, largely because you have some pretty brilliant organizers who have elected to stay in the school system instead of going out and make money, as many other people with music degrees have done.  So to answer your question, when I said no and yes, I really meant no and yes.  

BD:    Sure.  I understand.

TW:    People do not realize as much as they should the importance of training people to express themselves in the arts with rigor and discipline and skill and knowledge, and with the same sense of dedication in order to experience that incredible high.  A lot of them will never get that high out of math and they’ll never get that high out of earning good grades; they can get it out of the arts, and there’s a high that is unmatched for those people who can hack it.  They serve as a yeast, as a leavening in society, and it has to do with the fact that they can deal with spiritual and emotional and physiological problems in ways that a lot of other people can’t.  And this needs to be constantly said over and over again by anyone — you, me, anyplace that they can say it.  It isn’t just fun; it’s a high for the listener as well as for the performer.

BD:    It’s Freia’s golden apples!

TW:    Without question!  Wonderful!  Yeah, without question.  I think that’s one thing.  On the other hand, I deal with these students in the College, as you know from when you and I first came together.  I was teaching huge classes — a hundred and sixty-five to two hundred.  We were doing all sorts of really fascinating things in order to individuate them because I never had any interest in homogeneous teaching.  I was always trying to break them up into heterogeneous modules.  I find these kids today, although they’re much move conservative and sometimes more fear-ridden and certainly in some ways more alienated than they were in the late sixties and early seventies, that this is a generalization that will not hold because many of the very people that I value most are safe from it.  But the generalization still needs to be said:  music means an enormous amount to them, regardless of how hostile they are to the idea that learning something about it is valuable.  That’s the interesting contradiction!  You have to hook them on the fact that music is worth learning about.  Because it’s so important to them, they don’t want to learn about it.  Learning is something that is not pleasant, and that is an indictment of the educational institution, though certainly not all educational institutions; there are always good teachers and there are always good schools.  There are people across this country that are doing incredibly wonderful things in situations where you don’t feel like they can do it.

BD:    Are there always good students?

TW:    I think so.  The problem with the students is that they are much move varied and much more variegated.  They’ve learned a different aesthetic.  Many of them have come out of different cultural backgrounds.  A student that attaches a great deal of meaning to art rock will stand up and be as much of a table thumper as you and I will ever be about the primacy of the late Beethoven Quartets.  He or she will tell you chapter and verse about it in the same way that a connoisseur of the really interesting things that are going on in progressive jazz, both here and abroad, can tell us about these things.  So these students have educated themselves, and they’ve educated themselves because they now have the freedom to do that because of the reproduction, the marketplace, the ease of getting recordings, and the ease of learning by picking and choosing.  It’s that eclecticism.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you optimistic about the whole future of music?

TW:    Oh, absolutely!  Yeah.  The only problem is can those of us who are trying to catalyze the process change fast enough?  The way to do it is to listen to the musicians and to the music to really understand what they’re saying to us, and then do what they’re doing!  This is what I was saying back when you were a student; a great Haiku of Basho that says, “Do not follow in the master’s footsteps.  Seek what he sought.”  Look for the masters and then try to emulate them wherever you sit in your own world.  The educational system, all the way down, will change.  I think it will.  Television is not the bugbear that a lot of people think it is, as far as music is concerned, but God knows, you wish that there would be more challenge in terms of what’s really available.

BD:    It used to be that in order to understand any bits of music, you had to play it either by getting the group together or playing it on the piano.  Now you can pull a flat plastic off the shelf.  How has this changed, and how is it changing, the way we perceive and understand and feel music?

elecTW:    There are a lot of cognitive and perceptive people who are answering that question in some very interesting ways in hard data research.  There’s no question about the fact that the person who plays, the person who actually does it — I don’t care whether you’re talking about football or music or anything else — however much or little he has done, if he’s done it enough to learn the rules of the game and the physiology of it so that the physiology can then be stimulated by the senses, he’s going to have a different level of understanding and a different level of activity in his head than if he’s pulled it off the shelf.   That’s the reason why I feel so strongly that we need to have performance-based instruction.  I’m now looking into higher education, but several of my friends are looking at it in terms of kindergarten and pre-kindergarten things.  We must keep that performance capability, regardless of how simple it may seem to those of us who are accustomed to working on a very high intellectual level.

BD:    The guys who play high school football and high school basketball are going to enjoy the NFL and the NBA in a way that the guys who played in a marching band someplace are going to like the Chicago Symphony.

TW:    Absolutely!  And that’s the reason why we must keep the live performer in front of the listening public.  You can remember back when we were doing those courses that I always had kids from the Music School coming in to play because the students can’t tell a clarinet from a trumpet on a recording.  It has a “different” sound, but it has a whole different embouchure and a whole different way of dealing with what has to be learned; it’s the full back versus the tight end. 

BD:    And it’s good to see a long black stick rather than a gold horn.

TW:    Yeah, right.  And also that shows how it takes a double reed or a single reed, and also how much energy it takes!  One of the things about this whole lip synching thing is that we now take everything apart.  In the post-movie generation, where everything is separated and you have a sound track that you mix so and so and do such and such, you can lip synch which means that you can cover up how much energy it takes.  As much as I can get exercised by some of what happens on “Live from Lincoln Center,” the one thing that I don’t have a problem with is the fact that you actually see these singers singing.  It’s all right to scratch your crotch at a baseball game, but in films they want more sophisticated camera work in order to make sure that people don’t look bad when they’re on stage.

BD:    But they have to look how they look!

TW:    That’s right!  Absolutely!  It’s the difference between whether the camera’s coming at you from forty-five degrees up or forty-five degrees below looking down the throat of the singer.  But it is very important to have that sense that a lot of focused energy and a lot of discipline is there in the same way as we see in a televised basketball game.  I feel very strongly about the need for, and the use of, television in all of this.  More and more, I’m keeping a video camera on my kids and playing it back for them because they’re living in this world and they better learn how to deal with it in ways that they can make intelligent comments to camera men and directors.  Nobody can afford to be without it, particularly with all these VCRs and cameras in the homes.

BD:    I’m so afraid that our life is now being lived on the television screen rather than in real life.

TW:    Yeah.  That’s the fundamental alienation of the video-oriented world we live in, this cocooning.

BD:    I’d much rather be a participant than a spectator.

TW:    You and I have to keep knowing how much trouble it will be and how much it will involve us
and the people who are younger than both of usto keep this sense that we are, in fact, dealing with life and not with the image of life.  There’s nothing that’s more important in the arts than the feel of what it gives you in terms of the way life is lived!  It’s not just the emotional life and it’s not just the physiological life.  You can talk about the technically gifted and wonderfully God-given voices of piano talents that we have, but it is a challenge to live life and we have to make sure that people know that; it’s not just something that’s sitting there on a platter that you can use for your own enjoyment.

BD:    I want to make another strange jump and ask about this.  Our life is moving faster and faster and faster, and I think the increase is increasing at an increasing rate...

TW:    Oh, yeah, it’s geometric, at least.  It’s exponential.

BD:    ...but it still takes, with slight variances, the same amount of time to listen to a Beethoven symphony as it did when Beethoven himself conducted it.  How can we reconcile these two things?

TW:    [Thinks a moment] We are living now and Beethoven is in the present; Beethoven is not in the past.  We are listening to Beethoven with present ears, and our present ears are very impatient ears.  But it was always thus.  Some arguments were quickly impressed on their audiences to the point where the reviewers and the public at large and the publishers and the patrons were saying
in the case of the some of these radical composers like the ones that have the big names as classicals now“Too many notes!  Who wants a plot that complicated?  Why don’t you get down to the point?  Why don’t you give me a sound bite, like the Italians do!  Make it quick, make it simple.

BD:    I never thought of Salieri as sound bites!  [Both laugh] 

TW:    But you know what I mean, you understand what I’m saying.

BD:    Sure, sure.

Don’t challenge me in ways that are asking me to change.  But as the speed of this happened, then Beethoven becomes long-winded.  You get a maximum-coherence person like Schoenberg, or Webern even more in some ways, who are compressing that rhetoric into such short spaces and in such multidimensional designs, that it taxes the head a great deal and asks us not to sit back and engage in something that approaches a novel in its complexity, or at the very least a multi-character short story.  We’re not learning to follow, and that’s where the learning has to happen, and that has to do with a lot of changes in lifestyles.  I’m not trying to suggest that things are the same today as they were in the Vienna of Beethoven’s time, but Beethoven was “on the cusp,” and he had a bunch of patrons who were also on the cusp; he had publishers who, regardless of the problems that they had, were willing insofar as they could because they knew that he was in an area of an expanding marketplace, and that he had a market segment.

BD:    They knew he would sell.

TW:    Yeah, they knew he would sell; not as much as Haydn, perhaps, but it was enough
particularly with the radical fringe such as the Rasimovskys and the people who were out there in the suburbs. 

BD:    So how do you actually deal with a Beethoven today, in the world where everything is short and sound bite? 

TW:    The answer is the same as it is in anything else
— it’s essentially a spiritual answer.  You find the ever-rarer people who want to take that amount of time.  It’s the same questiondo you want to read Chekhov or Dostoyevsky, or do you want the Reader’s Digest version?  If the payoff is great enough in terms of the enrichment of your life and in terms of your own internal growth, if it really does speak to something in you that you find continually worth coming back to, then you have durability.  I honestly do not think there is anything automatic about these great pieces surviving.  I know that the marketplace can replicate them over and over againas the piles of CDs on your apartment floor and old albums in my storage rooms amply attest!  [Both laugh heartily]  I don’t think there’s anything automatic about it, but I do think that the people who are truly inspired by them — and I use that word knowing the word — with these people, if there is a breath, if they are breathing, if there is real inspiration, if they are inhaling what they have, then they’ll buy every bloody CD they can afford to hear the next person’s attitude toward this.  And they may very well keep recirculating these masterpiecesbecause of the fact that they are so meaningful to themto the extent that they use them as tools for reflection, as opposed to tools for knowledge.  It’s difficult to take some of the modern pieces, where violence and a great deal of the desperation and internal ferment that are going on in the world are being replicated in some of these sound scores that we’re getting; it’s very difficult to come to terms with them and it’s very difficult to even want to play them enough to come to terms with them.  But it was difficult for the people in Beethoven’s time to come to terms with them, too. 

soltiBD:    I hope there will always be some who will at least try.  Is it helping or hindering that now some of these purely musical scores are being put on the television with light shows and all kinds of things coming at you besides just the sound?

TW:    I think they are being pitched at a different audience than the people that we’ve just been talking about.

BD:    Okay.  So rather than adding to what the people we’re talking about will take, we’re adding a new audience that can get some of the music and then some of the light?

TW:    Yeah.  These are the same kinds of questions that come back and they have no answers.  But the questions always keep coming back and they need to be asked.  I got the David Bispham Award in the early fifties for production of opera in English, and I had to do a speech about it.  After World War Two, the opera in English movement in America was at its height, and of course they expected me to come out really strongly because all the operas that I’d produced were in English.  I was doing things similar to what Alan Stone is doing in Chicago Opera Theater, although at a much smaller level.  This was my mission in life before I went to the paper, and what I said to them at that particular point applies in terms of the answer to your question.  I don’t see any reason whatsoever why we can’t have both opera in English and opera in the original language.  And I see nothing that is contradictory about the one and the other existing side by side.  Quite truthfully, and particularly in these canonical works, the real icons that you have heard over and over again, the arguments are very familiar.  If you just relax and sit back and watch what’s going on, you may be able to look at something that a skillful movie producer can convey.  I’m thinking now in terms of the some the laser disc productions of some of the major symphonic works.  I don’t have any problem with the fact that I see the Schubert countryside or pastoral landscapes.  After all, pastoral landscapes were in the ken of the connoisseurs of classical music during that period.  I don’t have any problem with having a multimedia approach to it.  It’s a matter of curiosity to me, more than it is a matter of enjoyment, but now and then I find something that’s absolutely fascinating in those programs!  And I must say that the same thing is true with programs like
The Solti Orchestra with Dudley Moore, where they do all the lighting on that young orchestra, and so forth.  I have no idea whether this will lure any of the people in that audience that they’re trying to lure into it.  What I do know is that the people will feel more comfortable about giving it a shot.  One of the most interesting things happened in that regard when they showed it on TV not too many weeks ago.  My college freshman step-son is at the University of Omaha in Computer Science and has no particular interest in the kind of classical music that we’re talking about.  He is into alternative rock and writes computer games and will probably do more interesting cyberpunks than the cyberpunkers are doing now because he’s all into virtual imagery and trying to get really into the complexities of game plus video theory.  He has his music, and his music is pretty far out.  So he looked at this program, but he insisted on watching it all the way through.  It was not only because he had some curiosity about what his old man and his old lady were spending so much of their time on, but because he knew there was a famous person there that he knew — not Solti, but Dudley Moore!  [Both laugh]  But he also knew that Solti was a name that I knew a lot about.  So he started out with curiosity, but the thing that I noticed was that he had no problem with dealing with what was coming in, and it was simply because it was in an environment that he felt comfortable with on the tube.  So in a sense, that is a gateway that’s opening and giving you a little bit more of a sense that what’s back there is pretty familiar.  This is the way in which the work of the future is being done as we cross these boundaries.

BD:    I don’t know if I’ve coined the word or not, but I’m an inclusionist.
  I like to have all of these things available.

TW:    Well, I think you’ve done an incredible job.  I really mean that, Bruce, from the bottom of my heart.  What you’re doing at WNIB where you’re continuing to redefine, in your own terms, what’s meaningful for you to the point where you’ve developed this audience that really respects you and is led in other directions that they might not be led to.  That’s what we need to do, and of course that’s what I was trying to do at the paper.  One of the things that I have to say is that doing that not only gave me the clout, internally, to make it happen, but it also convinced me that you are not going to deal with music, or any of the other arts, as any kind of a Mandarin activity of a Cultural Elite.  And that was something that I stood up and shouted about when I first had a platform to shout out!  You’re an inclusionist, and God knows so am I, and so is the university.  We are, in fact, trying to figure out how we can profile our activity so that the students who come out will not be rubber-stamped in any way, but will have their own potential to be able to make the connections so they can emerge and develop their own emergent personalities in the arts.

Thomas Willis, 76, former School of Music faculty member, died Sept. 23, 2004, at Manorcare nursing home in Wilmette.

Mr. Willis, who had a long career as music and arts critic and editor at the Chicago Tribune, taught music history, managed Pick-Staiger Concert Hall and served as executive assistant to the dean at the School of Music.

He began at Northwestern as a part-time visiting lecturer in 1967. He became a full-time faculty member in 1977 when he resigned from the Tribune after a 20-year career there. He later became an associate professor before retiring in 1999.

Mr. Willis wrote the essay for a photo book on the Chicago Symphony, hosted a classical radio program for former Chicago station WEFM-FM and was on the music panel of the National Endowment for the Arts.

A native of Flat Rock, Ill., he graduated from Northwestern with a bachelor of music degree in 1949 and later pursued graduate studies at Yale University. He received a Ph.D. in music history from Northwestern in 1966.

From the Northwestern University Observer

© 1993 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on February 15, 1993.  Portions (along with recordings) were broadcast on WNIB later that year and again in 1998; a portion was also included in the Memorial Service for him at Northwestern University in November of 2004.  The transcription was made in 2008 and posted on this website in 2009. 

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.