Composer / Percussionist  William  Kraft

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Perhaps it is because they are standing at the back of the orchestra that members of the percussion section get a unique view of the ensemble and its director.  From this distance, the balance and overview can allow for a particular kind of comprehension that is usually lost on those who are buried in the middle or are thrust upfront.  Maybe there is a particular Chicago connection because for many years, the Principal Percussionist of the Chicago Symphony, Gordon Peters, also directed the Civic Orchestra.  This interview features another native of the Windy City.

William Kraft came from Chicago, studied on the East Coast, and spent his creative and performing life primarily in Los Angeles.  As a member of the percussion section of the L.A. Philharmonic, he toiled in “the kitchen” for eight years before being named Principal Timpanist and serving there for a further eighteen years.  Concurrently, he formed chamber groups and conducted ensembles and the full orchestra. 

After leaving his performing behind, he concentrated on composing, and has made a successful reputation as an original creator.  His music is regularly programmed and recorded, and his teaching is highly respected. 

In anticipation of his 65th birthday in 1988, I arranged to spend an hour with Kraft on the telephone.  He was forthright with his responses and seemed genuinely pleased to be the subject of radio presentations in his city of origin.  We spoke of many musical things, including the piece he had written for the United Airlines terminal at O
’Hare Airport.  Don’t worry if you can’t remember what this sounds like even if you are a frequent visitor.  The sculpture is still there, but the music has been changed to familiar Gershwin.  During the birthday-broadcasts on WNIB, I used the United music under the portions of interview which were included between the recordings of full pieces.  I pretended that the conversation took place in the tunnel, and his music was being heard in the background as we chatted.  Several listeners called to say it was a nifty way of including this special work.

More on that later.  Also, please note that names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.

As we began the chat, he seemed ambivalent at first as to the purpose of the appointment . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You don’t want to hit sixty-five?

William Kraft:    [Laughs]  Well, I just consider things like that as being inevitable situations; it has nothing to do with how you feel.  I think death is the same way.  You can’t stop it; it’ll be there someday.

BD:    That’s true.  Well, what is either the most interesting or the most surprising thing that you’ve discovered as you now approach your sixty-fifth birthday?

WK:    That I keep running into new phases of my life!  I never expected to have different careers crop up.  When I became Composer-in-Residence with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, that was certainly a new phase, a very important phase.  I stopped playing, sold my instruments, and took a chance on seeing if I could live as a composer.

BD:    Why did you sell your instruments?  I would think you would keep those around.

WK:    Really to burn my bridges behind me!  It’s too easy to go out and make money in the studios here, and I didn’t want to take the time away from composing, since it has never been possible to devote my life to composing.  I’ve always had to play for the income, as I put it, to support my habit!  [Both laugh]  I just wanted to see if I could make it as a composer, and to stop playing.  I do regret it a bit now, because I would like to play chamber music, which is, of course, twentieth century music and the only thing there is for percussion.  I don’t miss playing timpani with the orchestra because the routine of it is rather deadly.  That I don’t miss, but I DO miss the idea of playing in little chamber things.  I used to do a lot of that until the time I started to play timpani, and then I had to back off.  I also started to conduct, so that is what is gone.

timpani BD:    When you were playing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, did you get enough time to compose?

WK:    When I first joined the orchestra, I was playing in the percussion section, which meant that there were many weeks free.  So yes, there was time during that.  The first eight years of my career with the Philharmonic was as percussionist.  But then, after those eight years, I became timpanist, and about the same time I started to conduct with the orchestra, and eventually became assistant conductor.  I did just about all the children’s concerts, and then I was doing the contemporary events.  So the composing suffered quite a bit then.

BD:    Is it a good idea for the resident conductor to slough off the contemporary concerts on somebody else?

WK:    Well, no.  I would say no, because the significance of the performance is greater when the resident conductor does it on a regular subscription concert.  That’s what we really aim for.  The tendency is always to put them in what we call the
ghetto concerts, things that are devoted to contemporary music.  The good side of that is that we have an audience that wants to hear new music, but the bad side of it is that there’s no chance of contemporary music getting into the repertory unless the resident conductor is involved in those ghetto concerts, and takes some of those works and puts them into the season!  That’s what I had hoped we were going to do in Los Angeles; that was the intention in the beginning.  It wasn’t carried out, unfortunately.

BD:    Well, how can we get more contemporary music on the basic subscription concerts?

WK:    Just the way Leonard Slatkin does it in Saint Louis — program them.  Just do it!

BD:    But what if you don’t have as sympathetic a conductor as Slatkin?

WK:    If you don’t have a sympathetic conductor, you really can’t.  Somebody has to apply pressure.  In our case, Giulini was not interested in contemporary music.  He did do a few things by colleagues of his that he knew in Italy.

BD:    Is the situation better now with Previn?

WK:    Yes.  He has specific tastes.  He generally likes things that are more on the conservative side.  He doesn’t particularly like adventuresome new works, but he certainly is adept at doing major works from the thirties, forties, fifties.  I’m talking about William Walton, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.  He likes music of that style, and he likes current composers who tend to write in that style; more or less tonal and very strongly tied to the mainstream.

BD:    You’re a more avant-garde composer.

WK:    More than that, yes, but certainly not as much as other composers.

BD:    How do you feel about composers who are now writing more tonal music?  Is there a resentment on your part, or do you feel it’s another form of mainstream?

WK:    For those who do it as a matter of heart, who really do feel that and that’s what they love to write and do it to the best of their ability, then that’s the way it should be.  And I sort of feel that I’m in that category.  Some, I feel, have turned to it just as a matter of being more popular, to be performed.  That is a problem.  After all, Copland said that that’s why he went to his American style, because the other music just wasn’t being performed.  So it’s not a new thing.  But I think that several composers now have tended to go with what they call the neo-romantic way, with the intention of becoming part of that school, and then they may get more performances.  There’s nothing like having a label to get into this current rage of marketing that’s become more prevalent in the symphonic world.  It gives the journalists something to write about; they love labels like minimalism, neo-romanticism, or the new romanticism.

BD:    Is there any label that you like?

WK:    No!  [Both laugh]  No, just good music.  No one ever gave the major composers labels.

BD:    Then what constitutes good music?

WK:    Oh!  Ultimately, good music is certainly music that is well-crafted, that shows a great deal of skill and awareness of the past, and I’d say an awareness of the present.  Somehow a composer will find his compositional personality, and eventually establish himself with a style that is recognizable.  Think of all the great composers; you know who they are
Brahms, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Bartók, Hindemith, etcetera, etcetera.  They all have an image, but after the fifties things definitely changed.  1950 is sort of a turning point with the serial style.  Boulez specifically felt that music should have no reference to the past.  He would teach that way and require anybody who studied composition with him to go that way.  In the fifties, serialism was one way of going at thingsnon-referential, it has nothing to do with the past — going more and more towards the intellectual and more towards the idea of the technique being the primary motivation for the piece.  And that stimulated reactions on the other side; the other extreme being the freedom that one given in the music of Cage.  Then they had the Polish school.  I think composers of my generation wasted many years of our lives because we felt we were not part of the compositional world if we didn’t show that we were aware of all these various approaches, whether it was chance or aleatoric music or proportional, serial, graphic, improvisational, anything you want.  All these things were becoming rampant in the fifties and sixties.

BD:    Was it good that we had so many divergent trends?

WK:    No, not for the core because with all these diversified approaches there was no chance for anything to mature!  It takes a long time for a style to mature.  Every period we’ve had in the past did exist for quite some time, whether it was baroque, classic or romantic, nationalistic.  All these approaches were around for quite some time, and composers matured in them.  It took years.  It takes, I think, a couple of decades for a composer really to mature in what he has to say, and to get rid of the other influences.  If you’re working in what was current in the fifties and sixties, those things would change.  I remember having a conversation with Isang Yun, the Korean composer.  This was many years ago, probably in the sixties before he was in prison.  He happened to be visiting Los Angeles and we all met.  Some of the composers in the Los Angeles area were invited to meet him at Lawrence Morton’s house, and we asked him about the goings on in Europe.  He was studying with Stockhausen at the time
or at least he had studied with himand was working with him in some way.  Yun said, “Well, let’s see, there’s this ‘style.’  I think Zimmermann started that.  That’s good for two years.”  Then he named something else.  “Oh, yes, the crescendos.”  These were pieces that were based on nothing but crescendos.  He said, “Well, that’s good for a year or so.”  Then he would say something else, “Oh, that’s a good one!  That’s good for five years.”  Well, there’s no maturity possible with that kind of attitude!  And that’s just what happened.  I think that’s why this so-called neo-romantic school began to emerge in the seventies, because composers were just tired of doing what was dictated elsewhere.

BD:    Had they been suckered into the current fad, whatever that was?

WK:    Yes, exactly.  In Europe, it was the case that if you didn’t write in the Darmstadt style, you didn’t get performed.  The Darmstadt School seemed to have a great influence
that’s Boulez, Berio, Stockhausen, Ligeti, etcetera.  They are magnificent composers, there’s no question about it, but the idea that they would want to control the compositional styles of the world was just not right!

BD:    Where did you go for your compositional style, and has that changed over the years?

WK:    I did dabble in most of those things in the sixties and going into the seventies, but I always tried to have a sense of my own self there.  I didn’t find it possible, really, to enjoy composing if it didn’t have some of me in there.  So I would distill.  I remember doing one piece, the first movement of Contextures, totally serialized, and when I got through with it I said, “Wow, I’m going to take this to the piano and see if it really does sound the way I think it does sound.”  I thought I heard everything, but it was very complex, and when I played it through, I said, “Oh, yes, it sounds like every other work I’ve heard that is totally serialized.”  There’s a certain kind of randomness and lack of personal intention in the piece.  So I just took things out here and there so that I had some control as to when things happened.  That’s what I think is the most important thing, to be able to control the event by your own psyche.  Your personality gets into it that way.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re writing a piece of music, are you always in control of the pencil, or are there times when the pencil winds up controlling you?

score WK:    I always stop and look!  [Laughs]  There was one little experience I had with Otto Luening, who was my teacher at Columbia in graduate school there.  I was writing a violin-piano piece called Sonata, as one did in those days, and he was playing through my manuscript.  He was a marvelous score reader, but he came to the end of what I had written and kept going on!  I just was bowled over!  It was wonderful what he was doing!  It was exactly right; everything was just right and I listened intently.  I watched his hands; I wanted to remember everything he did because it was so right.  Finally he stopped and said, “Well, what do you think?”  I said, “Well gee, Mr. Luening, that’s really extraordinary!  How did you do it?”  And he said, “Don’t you get it?  It’s routine.”  Well, that never left my mind!  It’s the same as another teacher saying look at every note.  But I never forgot that.

BD:    So have you stopped being routine?

WK:    Yeah!  Oh, I hope so!  I find that something happens in my mind when I’m writing.  I suddenly come to a block and I don’t know what’s wrong.  I just can’t figure out what should be next.  That may last a few days, so I’ll go out jogging; that’s my way of thinking.  I like to have something to think about when I’m jogging.  I think about it and I generally come to a conclusion, something like,
It’s time for a change, that’s what it is.  I’m not enjoying it.”  As you implied, the pencil was beginning to take over.  That’s the problem, and I go back and look at what the other possibilities are.

BD:    Are there ever times when you’re surprised where your music has led you?

WK:    I suppose so, especially when a piece is over.  I put it away awhile and I come back and I say, “Oh, my gosh!  How did I do that?”  That’s a wonderful feeling.  This is the most important thing to me
that I can pull back from a piece, listen to it objectively and say I respect it from a composer’s angle.  That it is accessible is quite something else.  I speak to myself when I’m composing.  I’m doing this and that and I think, “Oh, that is exciting,” or “That is beautiful,” or “That is just right.”  I just hope that the listener will have the same experience, but I’m not going to think about the listener and what the listener would want to hear.  I don’t want that listener’s concept of drama or beauty or whatever it may be.  I find this to be a problem with students.

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

WK:    An open mind with some background.  They have to have had some experience in listening to music, and they have to have sensitivity.  The biggest problem we’ve had is that we don’t have a society that has heard music in their youth.  It’s not in the families, for the most part.  It would be more so back east where you have older families that have emigrated from Europe and had some sense of background.  Think of the families in Boston and Philadelphia or New York.

BD:    Going to rock concerts isn’t enough?

WK:    Not at all!  [Both laugh]  No, no!  I mean something that’s not entertaining.  What we get ninety-nine percent of the time is just music that’s for entertaining.

BD:    In your music, where is the balance between the entertainment value and the artistic achievement?

WK:    The artistic achievement is involved in the intent. 
What am I trying to say?  I’m not trying to entertain.  If it’s a piece that is meant to be entertaining, that’s something else.  For instance, a piece I wrote for the opening of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, I knew was going to be listened to by an unsophisticated audience.  They had no background in Orange County.  It’s a corporate area; it’s all business.  This was a new beginning!  It was an audience that, as Isaac Stern said, was the worst audience he ever saw in his life!  They clapped between movements, and you could just tell that they weren’t reacting in the way one would expect them to.  Well, I had to deal with what I wanted to say, what I thought the occasion called for.  It had to be a celebrative kind of piece, essentially joyful, so there were certain dictates involved.  I must say that the first version of it was not satisfactory to me.  I revised it and now I’m satisfied with it.  But yes, I meant it to be entertaining in a way that the music was of a pleasant and somewhat exciting and very colorful character. 

BD:    Do you not want to at least get an honest reaction from them, even if it’s not so sophisticated?

WK:    I hope that I reach them on my terms, not on their terms.  If it was on their terms, we’d be back to the rock or the very light Muzak style of music that doesn’t require any listening.  In a case like that — as in any case, for that matter — I want to invite the ear; to make one curious as to what’s going to happen next.  So that is what I do to keep the texture alive.  The colors change, and hopefully they are taken as being attractive or meaningful or contrasting.  In some sense it’s odd, but I always go back to Beethoven as a great example of what we should all aspire to.  He does lead you.  You think you know what’s coming next, but you really don’t, unless you know the piece backwards, and sometimes we do!  But the flow of events is such that he invites you to wonder what’s coming next.  You just go with it.  Take the first movement of the Fifth Symphony.  There’s one place where he breaks the whole metric feeling.  It’s really a four-bar phrase all the way through, but when he assumes that the listener is going to get too complacent, or that the music is really getting too complacent, he throws in a five-bar phrase.  It’s this little bar of rest, and I have heard violinists just flop right into that bar far too soon!  [Both laugh]  It’s amazing, but it happens!  Well anyway, that’s what I’m getting at.

BD:    I am not asking for specific names, but are we still getting composers who are writing on the level of Beethoven?

WK:    I don’t think so.  We’re coming out of that confusing period of the fifties and sixties, where for the most part, major composers were looking for new techniques and new sounds, and new this and new that.  Originality was a high priority, but substance and personality were not.  I was once talking to the Music Department at the University of Victoria, British Columbia.  It was just after my Piano Concerto had been premiered, so we were talking about that in particular, and without even thinking about it, I just blurted out that I thought composers of my generation had wasted ten to fifteen years of our lives trying to show that we knew what was going on, and in the process we forgot ourselves, forgot who we were.  Then I started to emphasize that with my students, and always looked for their personality.  I found that to be very productive for them.  They lost their desire to emulate and imitate, and started to look how to use the techniques to serve their own purposes.  It took me a couple years before I really applied it to myself.  In the last eight years in particular, I have gone back to my roots, which were jazz and impressionism, and try to now amalgamate those with the technique of composing that I’ve developed over the years.

BD:    Well, where is music going today?

WK:    I think it’s going in the direction that it had been going up to 1950, where composers are back to trying to be themselves and say something that is significant.

BD:    It’s almost like thirty-five years of music just doesn’t exist.

WK:    Yes, in a way.  People are always asking what works or what composers are going to be important or still performed and considered significant when the twenty-first century hits.  We can’t really answer that.  I can’t think that there is a composer now that has a body of work that would be comparable to those before 1950 such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók, Hindemith, etcetera.

BD:    Not even someone like Elliott Carter?

WK:    As much as I admire his music, I don’t think that it has a combination that is going to survive significantly.  There’s something with all the other composers I mentioned that is, well, I don’t know, how do I want to say it?  Accessible, communicable.  I could be wrong.  There’s no doubt that I could be wrong, but I don’t see any particular work of Elliott’s that I think is going to really grab on and be considered a masterpiece.  It could be a masterpiece in terms of the technique involved.  But when you look at the composers I spoke about, they’ve been accepted, I think universally now.  It takes a little longer in the United States, so we have to talk on a different level here than in Europe.  But there’s something that is attractive, that one wants to hear, and at the same time a work where one who is quite sophisticated can see things below the surface.  I’m talking about professionals, but the more equipped one is, the more one sees in any given work.  That was the thing about the great composers.  It was great music; you didn’t have to think about it, you just knew it was great, and each hearing revealed more.  I remember playing the Brahms First Symphony with the Philharmonic.  We used to play it every single year.  Really, I am not exaggerating.  Every single year it was on at least one pair of subscription concerts, which meant four concerts after a while.  And when Giulini came and did it, I was amazed that there was still a lot that I hadn’t heard while playing in the orchestra.  I’m not talking about doing an analysis of the score; it was just a matter of the balance that he achieved in bringing out all the voices.  It was incredible!

BD:    When you write a piece, do you expect it to last?  And do you write into it all these things that you say are missing from most of the works of this generation?

WK:    I’m not the only one, for gosh sakes, that does that.  There’s some who do that much better, but yes, I always aim at being a respectable craftsman.  I like the idea of motific relationships and a certain kind of continuity that shows the unfolding of material.

BD:    Do you write it to be accessible?

WK:    No, that’s never in my mind.  I write to say what I want to say.  If I had a different sort of ear, an ear like, say, Elliott’s — and by that I mean the inner ear that dictates what is to be done — then I would do something different.  But I’m trying to do what I feel is me.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I assume that you get many commissions.

WK:    I’m very fortunate right now to have quite a few, yes.

BD:    When you get a commission, how do you decide whether you will accept it or postpone it or decline it?

WK:    I would certainly know that it’s something that I want to do, that the idea is a good idea, that the occasion is one of significance, hopefully.  I mean, what the hell?  Any composer would composer anyway, and if you have several commissions, then of course you can take choices.  If I were to say no to something, it would be because I had more important commissions at hand.

BD:    How do you decide which one is going to be more important?

WK:    Well, the performing forces.  If the choice was between an orchestra and a chamber work, I would go with the orchestral work.  That’s what’s most difficult.

BD:    Even if it was for a chamber group that would take it around and tour it for many months?

WK:    Well, that’s important, too!  [Both laugh]  I’d try to do both; there’s not doubt of that, but it’s a matter of time.  For instance, I had several commissions at hand.  I had the Library of Congress, I had one with the U.S. Air Force Band, and this Orange County thing.  And the Cal State University at Sacramento has an annual American music festival in the fall, and they wanted me to write a piece for them, so I just had to put that on a back burner, because the others were much more important to me.  You know, the Library of Congress is a major event.  So I asked Cal State if they could wait until ’88, which they did.  I’m working on that piece right now.

BD:    When you start out writing a piece, do you know about how long it will take you to write it?

WK:    Yes, I think I do.  If it’s an orchestral work of twenty minutes duration, I would certainly want to have at least a good six months to work on it.

BD:    Do you ever work on more than one piece at a time?

WK:    Generally no, because I think the subconscious functions when you’re not aware.  You get away from the piece and the piece is still going on inside.  I’ve had occasion to find solutions to compositional problems at the strangest times!  I work in the morning, but there have been times in the afternoon when the solution to the problem that I had comes up.

BD:    You’ll be eating a salad at dinner, and all of a sudden it will dawn on you?

WK:    Yes!  I might start thinking about it, or it will crop in and out.

BD:    When you’re working on a piece, and you’ve been working on it for about six months, how do you know when you’ve actually finished?  How do you know when to stop tinkering with it, put the pencil down and give it to the world?

WK:    I like to be very careful about endings because the tendency when one is younger, and I was certainly guilty of it, is to hurry up the ending because you’re so anxious to finish the piece.  So I like to take the time and keep thinking about it.  I always think ahead.  I always have an idea of where I’m going.  I have a whole idea in the beginning, but that always changes as I get going on the piece itself.  Then when I do finish, I like to leave it for a while, and just come back to it.  You know, let it sit a few days or a few weeks.  I might go to another work.  This is kind of ideal, that the thing doesn’t have to be in right away, so I can put it aside for several weeks and maybe work on something else to get it completely out of my mind, and then come back to it and go over it and go over it and go over it, and get rid of the extraneous things just to clean it up.  After I do that a while, then I’m sure that it’s done.

BD:    This is what I’m looking for.  How do you know when all the extraneous stuff is out but you haven’t removed any of the meat?

WK:    When I have no doubts!  When I finish a piece and I have no questions about it and it feels good.  That
’s the thingif it feels good, I know.  And that has proven to be the wayjust to be true.  When I feel good, it usually comes out that the piece starts to sound almost right away.

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your music over the years?

WK:    Basically, yeah.  I would say so.  A lot of it depends on the forces, and whether they give it proper rehearsals.  Only one chamber work was disappointing in its first performance.  That’s very distressing to me, because when something doesn’t work or doesn’t sound, I blame myself first of all.  But in this one case I know it wasn’t my fault because things just weren’t happening that were supposed to happen.  Generally, as I think back, I’ve been quite pleased.

BD:    Have you conducted your own works?

WK:    Oh, yeah.

cd BD:    Are you the ideal conductor of your works?

WK:    Oh, no!  I don’t think so, not at all.  I think every conductor has something he brings to the work that he’s conducting.  For instance, Zubin brings a great sense of drama; he brings out the dramatic qualities of a work.  I had a wonderful experience recently with Paul Polivnick and the Alabama Symphony.  They did a work of mine called Interplay, and he knew it so well that I swear he knew it better than I did!  He knew the innards.  He performed it first last November, and then recorded it just about six weeks ago.  That’ll be on Nonesuch.  Also on that disc will be the Los Angeles Philharmonic doing Contextures II, which was a meet the composer commission, a meet the composer recording.  That’s with Previn conducting.

BD:    So it’s a record devoted entirely to you?

WK:    Yes.  I asked for that and they agreed to it.  I just had to get the things recorded and give them the masters.  Alabama liked the piece so much that he agreed to that.  He made sure that he got the wherewithal to do it.  And the third piece is going to be recorded June 29th by the Utah Symphony.  That’s the piece done for the Orange County Performing Arts Center.  I call that Of Ceremonies, Pageants, and Celebrations, which is an acronym for Orange County Performing Arts Center, OCPAC.  Interplay was premiered by the L.A. Philharmonic with Simon Rattle conducting, and I was immensely satisfied with that.  Simon has a way of getting into a piece, knowing what it’s about, and I would say that Polivnick did the same thing.  He just knew the piece so well!

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with the recordings of your music?

WK:    Oh yes, because I’m usually involved somewhere along the line.  The first recordings that I did for a company here, Crystal Records, were chamber works.  I conducted all of those.  Then the first orchestral recording was by the Louisville with Robert Whitney.  I had nothing to do with that, and yet it was good.  I never heard the performance or anything!  They just sent me the finished product; that I’m not so keen on.  I like to be given a chance to say something.  They usually give you a test pressing somewhere along the line. 
There are some records I just dont pay attention to any more.  When the Los Angeles Brass Society recorded the Fanfare, I heard it and I didn’t even recognize it!  I said, “Is that mine?”  They had distorted it so much!  But then I put it away for six months and came back and thought it’s a rather nice avant-garde sounding piece.  It’s not what I wrote, but...  [laughs]

BD:    Are you one of these guys that will make suggestions to the conductor, or will you basically keep quiet?

WK:    Oh, no!  [Laughs]  I like to make suggestions, but I’ve learned in this business you have to know whether the conductor wants it or not, and how he wants it.  When John Nelson premiered my Timpani Concerto, he asked me to sit onstage.  This was in Indianapolis.  He put a chair and a stand and he said, “You sit right next to me, and any time you want to say something, you say it!”  On the other hand, I had a piece done by Odaline de la Martinez, a very, very gifted conductor in Britain.  She has a group called Lontano in London; she also has a chamber orchestra and she’s been doing a lot of BBC guesting.  She does not want the composer to say anything during the dress rehearsal, or even during the rehearsals, to a great extent!  She likes to wait until there is a break and then discuss the various things.  That makes sense; I understand that very well, but it’s sort of hard to sit there trying to remember everything.  I take notes and mark the score, but I always have the feeling,
Well, there it is; why not correct it right now if the flutist is doing something wrong, or it’s a misprint.  I’d like to say something about it, and it’s harder after.  The thing has been rehearsed and then during a break you go back and say this and this and that.  But either way, the composer certainly should have something to say about it.  In an orchestral rehearsal, it only makes sense.  I was surprised that John Nelson was so generous, because orchestras are expensive entities, and it takes time away from rehearsing.

BD:    I wonder if he would do that with everyone, or if it was that he knew you had been a professional player and were sensitive to that?

WK:    I don’t think it has to do with being a player; I think it was simply as the composer.  He wanted my input into whether things were done to my liking.  I think it should be that, and I think he would do it with any composer.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You spent many years as a percussionist and composer.  Did you do any teaching of composition?

WK:    Oh, yeah.  The first time I taught composition was at Cal Arts, I think in 1969; I spent a year there teaching composition.  I also worked with the percussion ensemble and taught timpani, and did some conducting because the conductor was indisposed.  Then in ’72 I was invited to come back again and just teach composition.  Then I was Composer-in-Residence at USC in ’77, and had that same position with the L.A. Phil from
81 to ’85.  Next year it looks like I’ll be at UCLA teaching the graduate seminar in composition and some orchestration.

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

WK:    Find yourself.  Learn all the techniques, everything that’s gone on and everything that is going on.  Be acquainted with that.  Listen to a lot of music.  That which you like, get acquainted with.  Get the score and study it.  Find out how it was done, but always have the intention of distilling what you’re doing ‘til you find what is really you.  I’d go for the personality, not to sound like other people, but to get rid of the influences.  Generally one has to write them out.  If one is a great disciple of Boulez and he wants to write like Boulez, fine.  But eventually he’s got to find out how he differs from Boulez.  I don’t think that a composer can succeed by emulating another composer.  The other composer is true to himself; it’s a natural expression.  We’ve all gone through our phases, even Bartók.  All composers start out sounding like somebody else, but eventually they find themselves.

BD:    Are you optimistic about what you hear coming from young composers these days?

WK:    In some cases.  I think that in this country we are lacking in the experience, the background that’s necessary to produce a composer of the first rank.  It has changed significantly recently, and I think it’s getting more promising.  I did a brief residency at USC, and some of those master’s candidates — the graduate composers
were really quite good.  So I am encouraged.  Without pressure anywhere, they are doing what I think they should be doing.  They’re trying to write what they want to write.  I’ll tell you something that was really fascinating.  I was just at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England.  They were asking me about my music, and I played some and we talked.  Then I said I wanted to hear their music, and I was terrifically impressed at the maturity of some of those composers!  Of course, they take only the very best.  It’s not that large a school that they can take everybody; it’s not like the universities here that tend to have so many students.  They do have a lot of students, but they have the opportunity to hand pick the students.  I was really impressed with one work in particular by a boy that was no more than twenty-two.  It was such an astoundingly mature piece; the technique was so sure!  It had that combination of comprehensibility and profound craftsmanship!  He really was gifted and very intelligent.  And I heard a second work that was similar.  I asked the professor, Martin Butlerwho I also admire — if they could send me tapes and scores of their works.  I’d like to get acquainted with more, and at least have them around here.  As I do more teaching, I wanted to see how it compares to what is going on in this country.  I’ll be interested to see what I find at UCLA because that is a major institution, and it certainly should have students with a comparable talent and ability.  The real problem is getting performances.

BD:    Are there, perhaps, too many composers vying for those performances?

WK:    Sure!  No question of it.  It doesn’t matter what age you are, whether you’re twenty or seventy.  We all have the same problem because it comes back again to the society.  The audiences aren’t very geared to new experiences because they don’t get music in their schools as they grow up.  They start going to concerts when they become a little bit affluent and have some leisure time, and they hear all these works for the first time.  They may know the major works, the Tchaikovsky Fourth, the Beethoven Fifth, the Dvořák New World, that sort of thing.  They may know those, but they won’t know the other symphonies of these composers.  So the orchestras have the obligation of educating these people, building up their background.  But now these people are in their thirties and forties, and that’s not what we’re looking for.  We’re looking for the steady diet, where the commercial media, whether it’s television or radio, will take a responsibility in raising the level of culture in the country.

BD:    This is what I try to do here on WNIB by locating the living American composers, and talking with them and playing their music!

WK:    You got it!  [Laughs]  You’re one of the great heroes; there’s no question of it! 
We should clone you and put you in all the cities of America!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask you about the work you wrote for the United Airlines Terminal at O
’Hare Airport.

WK:    My statement to them is that art is not to be judged by the Nielsen ratings.  It looks like we are going to have the symposium at University of Michigan, because they feel the same way.

sky's the limit BD:    I know many of the details, but it want to get them all from you, just to get them straight and from your perspective.

WK:    The history, as I understand it, was that they felt they needed something to go into the tunnel that was to join the new terminal to the existing terminal.  It was a long stretch, and they thought there should be something in there that would be particularly inviting to the passengers.  They had toyed with the Disney people, and someone on the board, I understand, said, “Wait a minute, what are we doing?  We’ll have real plastic flowers and real plastic birds,” or whatever it would be; in other words, more on the entertainment side.  It was decided that they wanted to have something more aesthetic, of a more serious nature.  Helmut Jahn was involved in that, and the former President of United, Richard Ferris.  These were the people that were in favor of going to what Michael Hayden had presented.  When he was chosen to be the sculptor, Hayden said he wanted to have music.  They resisted that.  Then he said he wanted my music in particular, and they asked for samples.  So I sent them some tapes. and on the basis of that they decided to go along with having me do the music for it.  The rest is history.  When the tunnel opened and they started to get different views, all I can say is the same thing we’ve been alluding to in this conversation
that people aren’t ready for something that they haven’t heard before, or even haven’t seen.  It’s been proven in surveys that music is the most powerful of all the stimuli, and therefore the most difficult to absorb when it’s unknown.  The newness of a sculpture can be taken in more readily, whereas it takes time and actually repeated hearings to hear new music.

BD:    Let me play Devil’s Advocate just for a moment.  Is the tunnel, where travelers are trying to meet deadlines and all they are thinking about is getting to their planes, really the place for them to have an educational experience?

WK:    Well, it’s not educational by any stretch of the imagination.  Nothing was meant to be educational.  It was meant to be a pleasant and stimulating environment.  I put it on that definition.  The music I wrote was not something that had to be listened to; in fact, there is no beginning or end.  It’s just environmental music.

BD:    How much music is there?

WK:    All together, about sixty-five minutes.  There are two sections of music but there are three sections of the sculpture.  We’ll call it A-B-A because the outer sections are identical.  People coming in will start from either end, so that’s the way Hayden wanted it.  The center section, which is the B section, is of a more lively nature.  But nothing is heavy. 

BD:    How long was it used before it was taken off?

WK:    Oh, maybe a month.

BD:    So they did give it a better shot than just a day or two.

WK:    I think what happened is that in the very beginning, before the tunnel opened they started to have some of the flack.  The week before it opened is when Richard Green wrote his article.  He had a chance to go through it and wrote his article, so when it actually did open, they played the music at such a low level you really couldn’t hear it.  What you did get out of it was the peaks.  You couldn’t hear the continuity at all.  What you heard is just when a louder thing came through, or a higher note, so it was all disjointed.  Small wonder people wouldn’t want it.
  In fact, when I talked to Professor Brown at the University of Michigan, he said they had this seminar on music and architecture where this student, Lesley Hogan, played the music.  She had a cassette of the music I wrote for the tunnel, and while it was being played, she read the comments of Richard Green, and he said the students just roared!  There’s no relationship that they could find between what he was saying and what they were hearing!  The difference in the listener.  Those are university students.  They are educated, sophisticated more than the average person, perhaps, who’s totally involved in business and doesn’t have time to listen, and hasn’t ever had a chance to really listen.  I just don’t think it requires much at all.  I think they should become aware. 

BD:    Let me put one direct question to you that they might ask, and get your response.  The people go through the tunnel; they don’t like the music, and they decide not to fly United Airlines.  Is United not supposed to take precautions that they don’t turn away passengers this way?

WK:    Well, I don’t blame them.  I just think that they ought to do it properly and treat it properly.  If they were, for instance, to play the music at the proper volume so that it was really heard, and at the beginning of the tunnel say, “We’re proud to present...” 
They should identify that the sculpture is by Michael Hayden and that the music is by William Kraft, and show that they have some pride in it!  Then the people will have a different attitude, and give it a better chance.  I say this to orchestra managements, too, if they’re going to do a new work.  Tell the audience, “We’re proud to present such and such.”  But the way they went at it was just like taking a poll.  It was all set off in the wrong way.  They themselves had misgivings about the thing.  But I’ve had letters from people that didn’t know I had done the music; they found out one way or the other.  I had a letter from John Corigliano just a few days ago saying that he didn’t know that I had written the music.  He said, “It was wonderful!”  He had gone through the tunnel many times when it was still being played, and he thought it was beautiful and couldn’t understand why they would take it out.  He said, “Now they’ve got some crap there,” some disjointed Gershwin, I understand.

BD:    It’s probably the same kind of things you hear in the commercials, with bits and pieces of the Rhapsody in Blue.

WK:    Yeah, I think that’s what it is.  And to composers and musicians, that’s such an insult to Gershwin! 
This is a test case for the problem we’re having with business.  With the domination of business in the arts, a lot of our best talents just go right into commercial work because they want to survive!  So here they are, doing jingles and all that sort of thing.  Whether they’re artists or musicians, they find this lucrative; they can make money!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me wipe away all of the bad thoughts and ask one last question.  Is composing fun?

kraft WK:    Well, it’s my life!  I love it!  It’s essential.  It’s just automatic for me.  It’s just always right.  I don’t think about anything else, really.  I do think about other things, of course, but that’s the first thing.  I compose in the morning, and hopefully if that goes well, the day is just great.  Everything else rolls along nicely.

BD:    I hope you have lots more great days!

WK:    Is your station commercial or public?

BD:    It’s a commercial station.

WK:    It’s not a PBS?

BD:    No, it’s a commercial station.

WK:    Isn’t that terrific!

BD:    Chicago is sort of backwards from the rest of the country.  For most of the country, it’s the PBS station that does all the classical.

WK:    I know it!

BD:    Here in Chicago, we have two powerhouse stations that do classical, and they’re both commercial.  The PBS station does nothing but instruction and jazz!

WK:    Hm!  I’ll be damned!  [Laughs]  I’m so envious of Chicago for that, you know.

BD:    Maybe we can get you to come back to the town of your birth!

WK:    Maybe...

BD:    Thank you so much for this conversation.

WK:    It was a pleasure.  Thank you!

William Kraft (b. 1923, Chicago) has had a long and active career as composer, conductor, percussionist, and teacher. Until June of 2002, he was chairman of the composition department and holds the Corwin Chair at the University of California Santa Barbara. From 1981-85, Mr. Kraft was the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Composer-in-Residence; for the first year under Philharmonic auspices and the subsequent three years through the Meet The Composer program. During his residency, he was founder and director of the orchestra’s performing arm for contemporary music, the Philharmonic New Music Group. Mr. Kraft had previously been a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 26 years; eight years as percussionist, and the last 18 as Principal Timpanist. For three seasons, he was also assistant conductor of the orchestra, and, thereafter, frequent guest conductor.
Kraft was awarded two Anton Seidl Fellowships at Columbia University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree cum laude in 1951 and a master’s degree in 1954. His principal instructors were Jack Beeson, Seth Bingham, Henry Brant, Henry Cowell, Erich  Hertzmann, Paul Henry Lang, Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky. He received his training in percussion from Morris Goldenberg and in timpani from Saul Goodman, and studied conducting with Rudolph Thomas and Fritz Zweig.

During his early years in Los Angeles, he organized and directed the Los Angeles Percussion Ensemble, a group which played a vital part in premieres and recordings of works by such renowned composers as Ginastera, Harrison, Krenek, Stravinsky, Varese, and many others. As percussion soloist, he performed the American premieres of Stockhausen’s Zyklus and Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maître, in addition to recording Histoire du soldat
under Stravinsky’s direction.

sky's the limit

© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on May 25, 1988.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB later that year, and again in 1993 and 1998.  A copy of the unedited audio has been placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2010.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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

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