Composer Charles Wuorinen
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Among significant and complex composers of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First
Centuries, the place of Charles Wuorinen is secure. He is the holder
of the Pulitzer Prize, as well as many other awards and honors. More
importantly, though, is the respect with which he is held by the composers,
performers and audiences of new music.
A short recounting of his achievements and activities is in the biography
which appears at the bottom of this page, which was taken from his official
Wuorinen was in Chicago in February of 1987 for performances of his Third Piano Concerto with Garrick Ohlson
the soloist and Michael Tilson
Thomas conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. We met in one
of the offices upstairs in Orchestra Hall on the afternoon before the first
performance. Our encounter was amazingly easy-going, yet packed with
knowledge and insight. The composer often spoke in large gestures,
and his phrases encompassed major thoughts and significant ideas about music
and its direction(s) in both the short and long run. His views gave
scope and balance to the highest levels of achievement while never forgetting
that the sounds were being absorbed by those who knew every nuance as well
as those coming to the arena for the first time.
Here is what was said at that time . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: It is
very gracious of you to take time from your busy schedule.
Charles Wuorinen: My
BD: You are composer
and pianist and teacher...
CW: ...Actually more
conductor at this point than pianist. It takes too much time to practice,
and I have too many other commitments.
BD: My question for
all of this is, are you the ideal interpreter of your own works?
CW: Not necessarily.
I don't say that I'm not, but it doesn't fall automatically from the fact
that I have written something that I'm the person best suited to play it.
In addition to the fact that there may be other people with greater mechanical
skills — certainly Garrick Ohlsson has
always been a better pianist than I ever was at my best, and now it isn't
even to be discussed — there is the issue of the "when"
of the performance as well. I find, and I would imagine most other composers
also do, that one doesn't have a constant and unchanging attitude toward
one's work. As it grows older, a given piece changes its relation to
its maker, and for that reason it is not at all the case that one may perform
the piece the same way over and over again just because one has written it.
The set of records which Stravinsky made through his life shows this very
clearly, and the fiction that these performances somehow represented the
definitive ideas of the master can be shown to be purely fictional just by
listening to different versions of the same piece, or by comparing his performance
of some of them with what is in the score.
BD: So then it's definitive
for that point in time?
CW: Presumably, but
I think in a broader sense one can say that once a work is finished, if it's
notated to the same degree of exactness that most conventional scores are,
when it leaves the hand of its author, it really takes on its own life.
And while the composer certainly should be the chief authority for how it's
to be done, I don't think it's necessarily the case that he should be the
BD: Are you ever surprised
by what you hear in performances of your works?
CW: No. If by
that you mean whether certain things come out that I didn't expect, and other
things don't that I did, no. I try to be careful about such things
and not make errors of that sort ahead of time, so I am not surprised.
BD: Conductors never find things in your score that you
didn't know you'd put there?
CW: That's another matter.
If you're speaking purely of questions of orchestral balance —
the actual raw sound — it always comes out
exactly as I've expected it. But from time to time I've found that
performers — conductors — will
discover motivic connections or things of that sort in my pieces that I suppose
are certainly there, but that I didn't put there on purpose.
BD: These are intuitive
things on your part?
CW: To a very large
BD: You brought up the
idea of recordings. Are you pleased with the recordings that have been
made of your works?
CW: Some of them yes
and some of them no. It depends on the performers, obviously, and it
also depends on the quality of recorded sound, although that, and I think
I speak for a lot of practicing musicians, is less important to me than it
probably is to most non-performing or non-composing listeners.
BD: Really, why?
CW: Because what one
is interested in is the musical substance. If the sound quality itself
is not as sensational as it might be, those of us who are professional musicians
and spend our time practicing in the field can hear through those deficiencies,
just as there are a number of people who are quite willing to listen to ancient
recordings of the great performers of the past and are willing to excuse
what would, by present day standards, be completely inadequate sound reproduction.
But the more important reservation I have about some recordings of pieces
of mine is simply ineptitude of one sort or another on the part of the performers.
BD: So you want a basic
tolerable level of sound, but then you want musical judgment rather than
CW: Yeah. First
I want accuracy, although "accuracy" is a term which is hard to define accurately!
[Both laugh] But after that, I would like musical intelligence
— such as I'm privileged to have this week in Chicago with Tilson
Thomas and Garrick Ohlsson.
BD: What impact has
the proliferation of the flat plastic disc — and
now the smaller plastic disc — had on the public and
CW: From a positive
point of view, we all know that it's a good thing to have music more readily
available than it ever was in the past. That's an obvious thing.
On the negative side, it seems to me unfortunate that recorded sound has
come to be the standard of musical sound rather than live sound, simply because
recorded sound is the way in which most people receive music most of the
time. This has, I think, a very debilitating effect on the profession
— not necessarily directly on the performers, but simply on public
taste, which always has a tendency to sag down, unless it's elevated and encouraged
by leadership on the part of those who are in positions of eminence and authority
within the profession. By the way, we have far too little of that at
the moment, in my opinion. I think one manifestation of this debilitation
comes in the idiotic way in which most new halls are built. It's a great
rarity if a newly built hall is not an acoustic disaster! One has to
ask oneself why this is, with wonderful technical, technological, acoustical
scientific equipment, and all of these measurements that are being taken,
the answer is very simple — people don't listen!
The most fundamental thing, which is that the damn place should sound good,
requires a pair of ears that has some sense of what live music is supposed
to be like!
BD: Ears instead of
microphones and an oscilloscope?
CW: Yes! Exactly.
All the measurements in the world, painstakingly achieved, are not going
to produce the kind of sound that a person experienced with, and sensitive
to, live musical sound is going to want. If it happens, well, it's
an accident! There are of course other reasons for this as well, but
I think this is a perfect illustration of what I'm trying to say.
BD: Is there any way
of doing that as the hall is being built, or must the hall be completed before
you can put the ears into it?
CW: It would seem to
me that as the space is being readied, one could make tests with one's ears.
Besides which, the building of good halls seems to have been a rule of thumb
skill that people have had for a couple of thousand years! Why should
it now be inordinately difficult to do, in the great age of precision scientific
measurement? The only thing I can assign as a cause for this problem
is simply that the people who design the halls can't hear anything.
They don't know what anything should sound like, so they have no judgment
except the non-musical, non-sonic measurements which they take, and of course
those are never going to be subtle enough to do the job properly.
BD: So it's more than
just the lack of the use of wood?
CW: I think so.
Not to get stuck too much on this subject, but it is a big problem.
I come fresh from hearing the new Carnegie Hall, with which I am not very
happy, as I think most people are not. Something has been done to it,
so New York now does not have a really first class concert hall anymore.
BD: They've been tinkering
with Fisher Hall for years... [See my Interview with Daniel Pinkham,
in which he talks about the piece he wrote as an acoustic test for Philharmonic
Hall (as Avery Fisher Hall was first called when it was built in 1962).]
CW: Well, that's hopeless,
I think. Not everyone agrees with me, but I think there's been definite
damage done to Carnegie. It certainly is not the remarkable, giving,
generous acoustic space it used to be. Maybe they need to put the curtain
* * *
BD: In concert music,
where is the balance between art and entertainment?
CW: Wherever it is,
we certainly don't have it at the moment. It's not a question of trying
to achieve a balance between art and entertainment within a symphony season
or on a given program, so that it'll be one part Boléro to two parts Schoenberg
Opus 31, or the other way around.
I think what is important is for purposes to be defined a little more clearly
than they are now, and for certain temptations to be given up and to avoid
running after certain chimeras so much. I don't think anyone in his
right mind could possibly have an objection to entertainment! We all
need it, we all want it, and there are times when it's absolutely indispensable
and far more important for our lives and well-being than the highest achievements
of the human race! This is understandable, and yet those highest achievements
of the human race, as manifested in musical terms in the works of the great
composers of the past and present may be entertaining. Some of them
are, some of them are not, but all of them are demanding. I think that
is the fundamental difference that one needs to draw between the two spheres.
Entertainment does not demand. It presents the hearer or the viewer
— the spectator — with something that can
be received without effort and can be enjoyed, whether the enjoyment consists
of titillation or some other form of encounter with what is being presented.
Whereas art demands a kind of active participation which entertainment does
not. Art is for people who are reasonably well rested; entertainment
is for people who are exhausted and need to be soothed in one form or stimulated
in some effortless way. I remember discussing this kind of question
with a subscriber to the San Francisco Symphony a while ago, who said, "When
I get home from the office, I don't want to go to the San Francisco Symphony
in the evening after a hard day's work, and have to concentrate on Boulez or something of
BD: Or Wuorinen?
CW: Or Wuorinen.
He said, "What I want is Philip
Glass!" [Both laugh] I responded, "This is perfectly fine,
and yet do you really think that you should be going to the symphony on those
evenings when you're exhausted? If what you want is a sound bath, you
should find it by some other means, and not demand that artistic resources
— which are enormously expensive and effortful to operate and
which have been honed over hundreds of years and are part of a rich tradition
— should be the engine of your passive entertainment! There
are much more effective ways that are much more fun than that." I'm
not really answering your question directly, but I am saying that the balance,
whatever it is, must shift according to need and mood and circumstance, but
it must be preceded by a definition of purpose.
BD: Then what is the
ultimate purpose of music?
CW: There are many purposes
to it. There are purposes that are determined by the type of music
involved. Obviously the purpose of many kinds of popular music is to
offer effortless entertainment, and to make lots of money for the people
who produce it, perform it and promote it! The purpose of what we normally
think of as "concert music", beyond the usual platitudes
— which are not platitudes, they're true, although clichéd,
about the uplifting of the spirit and opening of the eyes and ears of the
hearer into a larger and more spiritual world, and the transmission of a
kind of knowledge that cannot be achieved through verbal means
— beyond these vague things I can't say. What is the purpose
of the Beethoven 7th Symphony?
What is the purpose of The Rite of Spring?
They are there. They're objects, just as one might ask what the purpose
of a mountain one likes is. It is there; it is part of that life-giving
and life-affirming variety without which we may as well be dead! Coming
back to the other thing — because this is very much
on my mind — is a question of definition of purpose
in artistic institutions, since you raised the art/entertainment issue.
I worry, sometimes, about our large cultural institutions in the United States.
Whether one speaks of opera companies, symphony orchestras, museums, what
have you, they have their tendency in many places to devote their fortunes
to the effects in the practice of marketing. There comes a kind of
confusion of purpose in which artistic success is measured in terms of the
number of subscribers streaming into the hall, or the number of people passing
through the turnstile at the museum. And this affects the size of the
budget and, above all, the budgetary size of the institution. While
those things are important indices and have to be kept track of, they don't
represent the purpose of the institution, and yet, often, one gets the idea
that artistic decisions are made the basis of these mechanistic considerations,
almost in the same way that halls are sometimes built with calculator and
computer, and rarely with the ear. This is the thing that we, in the
United States in particular, have to watch out for, since our artistic maturity,
it seems to me, is only now really upon us. As a nation or as a people,
we do not automatically accept a life in the arts, a life devoted to artistic
creation or reproduction or exegesis, as a natural, self-justifying activity.
BD: Should the concert
management be trying to get more and more people from the pop culture into
their concerts, or should we just ignore them?
CW: I don't think it's
a choice, a matter of either/or. The inveiglement of the unwilling
and uninterested is a terrible mistake. That is not to say that such
people should be ignored. To me there is a profound difference between
marketing — advertising and promoting, which means inevitably
cheapening the artistic product to groups of people who don't care about
it to begin with — on the one hand, and on the other
hand, making the highest artistic activities and products that people can
produce available to all who want them. Access is a very different
matter from promotion. Access means not only that no one could be,
or would be, prevented by economic need or even, perhaps, physical location,
from an encounter with the arts, but on the highest level it means, inevitably,
a certain amount of information spreading — that is
to say making known the availability. But there is a profound difference
between saying, "We are here and we offer our artistic efforts for all who
care to come," on the one hand, and on the other, a kind of sloganeering,
aggressive, inevitably cheap marketing approach, which always has an effect
on the artistic product. These are two very, very different things,
and I don't think a proper distinction is being drawn between them.
Especially for the large institutions with heavy expenses, big budgets, large
staffs, and many responsibilities, there's always a temptation to look at
the 50,000 people who go to rock concerts and say somewhat wistfully, "Well,
we've only got three or four thousand a night; maybe we could have more."
At that point, a pact begins to be drawn up with the forces of darkness.
I know from my experience in various places that there begins to be a pressure
placed upon artistic decisions, upon programming decisions. Since I'm
speaking now mostly of symphony orchestras, the area with which I'm most
familiar, a pressure builds which causes the repertoire to contract.
They feel they can't have any of the even-numbered Beethoven symphonies,
only the odd ones, and really not too much of 1 and 3, only 5, 7,
and 9, and preferably only 9, really. They feel they could
get rid of the others, and eventually you end up with Beethoven 9 one week and the 1812 Overture the next, and then back
to Beethoven 9.
BD: Is there a place
on the symphony program for music that is perhaps not a masterpiece?
CW: Oh, very much so,
but I respond positively to that question perhaps in a way that you don't
mean. I have nothing against pops concerts at all. That's perfectly
fine with me, just as I have nothing against entertainment, or popular music,
or any other thing that people enjoy.
BD: As long as it's
billed as a pops concert?
CW: As long as the distinction
is made, and as long as we don't pretend that it is something that it isn't.
As long as it's done frankly and honestly, I see no reason why a symphony
orchestra shouldn't be doing that sort of thing, any more than I don't see
any reason why a symphony orchestra, if it wants to make money shouldn't,
if it has a facility at its disposal, book in popular acts of some sort in
order to help to cover its deficit. That's all fine with me; I don't
care. But to come back to your question and answer it in a slightly
different way, there is very much room for the non-masterpiece on the symphony
program. What I mean by a non-masterpiece is not necessarily a piece
of popcorn, although it might be. What I mean is the untried new work,
which is quite likely not to be the greatest piece ever written. The
thing that we seem never to notice about the way our concert life unfolds
is that we spend most of it in a kind of necrophiliac posture with the works
of the past. Anyone who is a living composer feels this very strongly.
We all know new music is not nearly enough played, but there's another, slightly
more subtle point about it. The music of the past, which we hear over
and over again, has undergone a process of historical filtering, so that
there's very little of the music of the past, very little music by dead composers
which is not of the highest quality. There may be some pieces of junk
that have survived for one reason or another, but they're very few indeed.
Overall, when you hear music from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and
even from the early 20th, you get the very best of that period. Now
that has all been more or less done and taken care of, but when one comes
to balancing this against the new music at whatever time we're speaking of,
one has a chaotic, disorganized situation in which all kinds of people are
scribbling like mad. There may be many languages with us today which
are not familiar. The collective aesthetic consensuses have not been
reached, and we don't have any guarantee that we're getting a certified masterpiece
when we hear a new piece. The masterpiece complex, which wants every
single work to be the greatest thing that has ever been composed, is not
only unrealistic but extremely unhealthy. In fact, it does damage to
those very masterpieces that it affects to revere! In the world of
contemporary art, many more people are at work than are going to be remembered,
but we have an obligation to present, certainly perhaps not everything that
is scribbled down, but at least all those works that are part of the professional
mainstream, which is a very broad area.
BD: Are there too many
CW: I don't think so. Composers don't become composers
because they think there's room for one more; they become composers because
they have to. Ours is not a profession that you go into because you
think people want it; you go into it because you must, and if you don't have
the undeniable need to write music, then you shouldn't be doing it to begin
with, because it's an arduous life, filled with misunderstanding, and not
BD: For whom do you
write when you sit down to compose a piece of music?
CW: It goes without
saying that if one doesn't please oneself one can't please anyone else.
And the evidence I've seen so far is that even those who write, let us say,
the most modest and simplest kind of stuff or the most irredeemably populist
music, that no one succeeds in any of these departments of musical life unless
they are sincere in their efforts, and unless they have a real love for what
it is they are doing. That having been said, it seems to me, from the
composer's point of view, there really isn't much else that needs to be said.
Of course we don't write music not to be heard! [Both chuckle]
Presumably we know what it sounds like, so for our own purposes, even though
it's fun to hear it, it isn't really necessary. It's a hard question
to answer because it immediately raises the question of social utility.
Bach wrote for God, there's no doubt of that. His music also had a
function, which was very specific, and which he carried out. I seriously
doubt that he gave a great deal of thought to the question of who was going
to remember his work after he was gone.
BD: Do you consider
CW: Uhhh, probably less
so than other people, but of course I consider it since I am part of a tradition,
which, since the time of Beethoven, has elevated the artist as prophet, martyr,
seer, rabble-rouser, revolutionary, this, that, and the other, and above
all, one who makes utterances that don't evaporate within ten minutes!
What the future holds, who will be remembered and who will not, is something
that none of us can really say. But to return to the question of who
one regards as one's public, it's a rather abstract notion. I think
of certain people that I know. Some of them are not musicians who have
demonstrated to me a capacity to listen intelligently, by which I mean to
remember what they've heard and relate it to what's happening now at this
moment in the piece. These are the people for whom I write, I suppose,
if one wants to externalize. The idea of talking about the public in
a general way, or trying to chart public taste, or attempting to define what
"the public" wants is an exercise undertaken, usually, with negative import
by a number of critics. This seems to me absolutely absurd because
the musical public is so diverse, not only from nation to nation, but just
taking the case of the United States, there are great differences amongst
the publics who go to different kinds of musical events within the serious
sphere. I'm not talking about popular music, I'm talking about those
who go to opera as opposed to symphony as opposed to chamber concerts.
They are different. Those who mostly buy records and don't go to concerts
are different. Those who are on the East Coast are different from the
West Coast, and those who are in the center of the country are different
BD: Are these good differences
or just differences?
CW: They're differences.
There are differences of response, and there are differences of age as well.
There are so many publics. They overlap a great deal, but there are
so many really quite distinct and identifiable groups, that to talk about
addressing one's musical message to "the public" at large, I think, is nearly
BD: Well, what do you
expect of the public that comes to hear the music of Charles Wuorinen?
CW: Obviously, the first
thing I want them to do is to like it; if they do, then I'm pleased.
But, as I often say to audiences when I'm asked to tell them something before
they hear an unfamiliar work of mine, I think it's not very helpful, and
it's anyway wrong to suggest there is a particular correct way to hear any
piece. For that matter, certainly, I know there is no particular correct
way to hear mine — at least not one I have worked out
to pass along to people. People have differing degrees of involvement
with music, after all, and I don't think that those who have a casual relation
to it, and don't want to put themselves out to a great degree, should be
denied access to the higher things of life. I think they should simply
accept the fact that the price they pay for not making more of an effort
is simply that they get less out of it. If they're willing to accept
that trade-off, then it's fine with me! But I would like to have attentive,
retentive listening if I can get it.
BD: Are you optimistic
about the future of music?
CW: It depends on what
you mean. The future of composition is always rosy because, as I said
earlier, composition is undertaken by people who must do it, not people who
decide they'll do that instead of becoming dentists. And given the
motivation, therefore, of people who go into the actual writing of music,
I have no doubt that we will continue with a stream of works of high quality.
On the other hand, when one looks at the musical profession in its external
sense, which of course is what most people see and most people think of when
they talk about music or the world of music, I sometimes get depressed.
I sometimes get worried because I see what I've started lately to call the
maniacal celebration of the imbecilic on many fronts. [Both chuckle]
I won't be too much more specific than that. [Despite this dismissal,
he does continue] As you know, there are certain kinds of music, abroad
— which are essentially pop — which have been declared,
I think quite arbitrarily, to be serious music, and which I don't think serve
the cause of public understanding nor the art well at all. There are
also, as I alluded to earlier, certain tendencies in the larger institutions
especially — which unfortunately get imitated in the
smaller, more modest ones — to make the whole life
in music, the whole art of music, into a kind of product which needs to be
somehow promoted and sold. People have been complaining about this
for a long time, but I think it's worse now. I think that it is that
loss of a connection to the art itself, to the notion of serving the art
as best as one's abilities allow, to know oneself to be part of a really
quite noble and very rich tradition which needs to continue to develop and
to expand. It is the loss of a sense of purpose of that sort, and being
caught up in yielding to short-range temptations with the promotional and
marketing, these things bother me. Being immersed right in the center
of it, I can't tell whether these things that concern me are a temporary state
of affairs — just one more little aberration of the
sort we have constantly — or if they represent a permanent
shift. I am not willing to say, as was said to a colleague of mine
by a record producer not long ago, that his generation — that
is to say, people in their forties — were going to
be the last generation who listened to serious music. I find that a
little bit apocalyptic and really quite depressing. But it is very
disturbing, when one takes the cause — the case of
the arts as a whole, and music in particular — and
looks at it in an even larger context. It is the question of what the
young know now, and they don't know very much. Part of my activities
involve university teaching; not a great deal of it, but I have some contact
with the current generation of students, and they are utterly, abysmally,
hopelessly and terrifyingly ignorant. And I don't just mean about music.
These are people who have no connection whatever, as far as I can tell, with
history. They know nothing of what has happened in the past.
They think that ten years ago is a long time. Their sense of historical
perspective is absolutely miniscule. They cannot write, they cannot
speak, they cannot make complete sentences. There are, of course, some
who can, but at a general level, and this is not their fault. They
have been utterly betrayed by an educational system which is degenerate beyond
endurance. [Takes a deep breath] As long as I'm fulminating on
this subject, and to return more specifically to music, there is one more
thing I could say, and that is that in the United States, insofar as there
exists a difficulty between the public and new music in the specific, and
serious music as a whole, it can be directly traced to music education
— that is to say the lack of it, or its perversion and misapplication
— in the nation's schools. Those of us who live in professional
music, constantly wondering about helping people out and making them understand
and love our art better, have a hopeless task. We can't do it because
most of the people that we would like to reach have already been ruined by
a really detestable attitude toward music manifested in the public schools.
And until that is corrected — and I see no particular
sign that it's going to be — until music teachers are
competent in what is taught, mastering the very simple matter of learning
to read music a little bit in rudimentary fashion, and then either learning
a little bit of an instrument or singing, until that is done we're going
to continue to have trouble.
* * *
BD: Let me ask you about
your operas. There have been two, I understand?
CW: It depends on how
you characterize "opera". There is one which I call a masque on Chinese
topics. [The Politics of Harmony
(A Masque) (1967), text by Richard Monaco, premiered by The Group for Contemporary
Music, Charles Wuorinen, conductor.] And then there is another one,
which is more of an official kind of opera, in two acts called The W. of Babylon, which I wrote about
ten years ago and has never been performed. I am going to do in a concert
version for the first time in San Francisco this coming December. [The W. of Babylon, (or The Triumph of Love over
Moral Depravity) (1971-1975), text by Renaud Charles Bruce, premiered
in 1987 by the San Francisco Symphony, Charles Wuorinen, conductor.
Excerpts seem to have been performed at a concert on December 15, 1975, by
The Group for Contemporary Music at John C. Borden Auditorium in New York
BD: Why did you write
CW: I wrote it for practical
and impractical reasons. The impractical reason was that a friend of
mine who's extremely clever, had written a libretto which he badgered me
over until I finally set it, which I think is very amusing. The practical
matter was that I had a joint commission from the National Opera Institute
and the New York State Council on the Arts, which made it possible for me
to write the work. [Note: the National Opera Institute is now called
the National Institute for Music Theatre.]
BD: But a performance
didn't arise out of that.
CW: These institutions
did not involve themselves with questions of performance, and because the
score, as all my music I suppose, is difficult. But I think perhaps
more important it was because the libretto is quite risqué.
[Chuckles] It's taken a while to get somebody willing to do it!
BD: You had to wait
for the public to catch up to it.
BD: Will you be writing
any more operas?
CW: I don't have any
immediate plans, but I'm certainly not against the idea.
BD: Is the future of
opera different from the future of concert music?
I don't know; isn't opera always dying? Hasn't it always been dying?
[Both laugh] I really can't say since I don't work in the field that
BD: Every generation
says that it's dead, and then it comes back.
CW: Yes, and it keeps
coming back, so I honestly don't know. I think it'll go on. It's
just for those who get hooked on it. I think it's simply too engaging
— in spite of all its headaches, which make ordinary music seem
like absolutely nothing at all — and its enormous expense.
I think it's too seductive to be given up, and I don't think it will be.
It may change; it always has.
* * *
BD: When you come to
performance of a work such as this one here in Chicago this week, do you
help the conductor with it at all, or do you just let him get on with his
CW: It depends on who
it is. I've worked over the years with Tilson Thomas quite a bit, and
he understands my work very well, as is also true of Garrick Ohlsson, who,
after all, is the person for whom the piece was written. So with these
people, there's very little that I need to do by way of helping out in a
general way. Of course there may be specific questions about balances,
and even, perhaps, occasionally errors in the score — although
fortunately there are few of those. That kind of assistance I give.
But under less favorable circumstances, I may make general comments of a
certain sort to try to help a performer who doesn't really understand quite
how to do the general kinds of things I've asked for.
BD: Do you ever go back and revise scores?
CW: Almost never.
In fact, I can't remember the last time I did.
BD: So there are no
problems of which version to use.
CW: No. As I said
earlier, I try to do it right the first time. I'm usually busy writing
something else, and the idea of returning to something I've already finished
is not particularly appealing to me. Some composers like to cuddle
and cozy their works forever, and keep changing a little of this and a little
of that until it comes out just perfect, but that is not my style.
BD: I assume that you
have a lot of commissions. How do you decide which commissions you
will accept and which ones you will decline?
CW: It depends on a
number of things. Of course it depends on economic considerations,
and it depends on the worth to me from an artistic and professional point
of view of the venue. If someone wants me to write a piece for solo
kazoo, and a major symphony calls the same day with a request for something,
I'm likely to choose the latter rather than the former if I have to make
a choice. But I have a fairly big backlog, and some of the smaller
things that I'm asked to do can be delivered pretty much at my convenience.
Usually I'm booked about, I would guess, two to three years ahead.
BD: Is that a good feeling,
or a kind of confinement?
CW: It's better than
not having anything to do, but this is in the context of an output which
is three to four pieces a year, usually.
BD: I hope the piece
is a success tonight.
CW: I hope so.
It seems to be going quite well for the most part. We will wait and
see what people think of it. But what a wonderful orchestra, needless
to say! I think they really are the best. It's always a question
between this one and Cleveland. I did a new work for Cleveland about
two years ago, so that's fresh in my mind. [Movers and Shakers (1984), premiered
by the Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi,
conductor.] You can argue one way or the other, but I think this one
BD: If you write something
for Chicago, is it going to be impossible to be played by other orchestras?
CW: No! This piece
was originally commissioned by a consortium of regional orchestras, and was
done first by the Albany Symphony.
BD: But if you're commissioned
by the Chicago Symphony, would you write it differently than if you were
commissioned by regional ones?
CW: I don't think so.
My music is intrinsically difficult enough as it is, and one doesn't want
to limit even further the possibilities for performance.
BD: You don't write
it to be difficult, do you?
CW: No! That's
the way it needs to be, and as a matter of fact it usually turns out over
and over again that musicians say, "This is terribly difficult," when they
start working on it, but it's only difficult because it's unfamiliar.
Most of the difficulties are psychological rather than physical. Once
they begin to find out how it goes, they say, "Oh, this is very ordinary!"
You just have to count the eighth notes, or whatever.
BD: How do you know
when the piece is finished?
CW: When I have nothing
more to contribute to it; when I begin to feel as if my judgment is no longer
contributing to the improvement of the work. That's a little difficult
to say, because no matter how precise one's vision of the whole piece is
before one starts to compose it, the actual reality of the notes makes for
a sense of difference. It makes a different situation than what it
was when contemplated in the abstract. There are always little improvements
and changes of emphasis that the work can use, but I stop doing that final
stage of composition at the point where it seems that choice A and choice
B are equivalent. Then I know that there's nothing more that I can
contribute to it.
BD: Do you know before
you start how long will be?
CW: Yes, always.
BD: You're conscious
CW: First of all, I
normally have some kind of external circumstance imposed. Somebody
wants a 15-minute piece or a half-hour piece, and I try to fulfill those
BD: If they ask for
a 15-minute piece, can it be 14 or 16, or must it be exactly 15?
CW: I'm very conscious
of the difference between 14 1/2 and 15, as I would have to be, but I find
that most people who say 15 minutes actually really mean is anything between
ten and twenty, and they're perfectly happy. They don't mean five,
but they don't mean 15 and not a penny less or more — although
they also don't mean twenty-five when they say 15.
BD: But they'll tolerate
CW: They'll tolerate
18 or 13, as a rule.
BD: Is composing fun?
CW: It is for me, most
of the time. Every once in a while there are really exasperating problems
that come up, and in the course of life one has, as everybody does, ups and
downs of a more general nature. But by and large it is! One couldn't
continue doing it as much as I do. I work all the time, and I do that
not because I feel driven, particularly, but because I really like doing
it. So it must be fun.
BD: Do you work on one
piece at a time, or a couple?
CW: That changes from
one year to the next. Up to about ten years ago, I quite regularly
worked on three or four things simultaneously, but that has not been the
case in the last decade. It may very well come to be again, so I don't
have a fixed policy about it.
you for being a composer!
CW: My pleasure in more
ways than one.
BD: I look
forward to the performance tonight, and everything else that comes from your
CW: Thank you.
|CHARLES WUORINEN (b. 9 June 1938,
New York City) has been composing since he was five and he has been a forceful
presence on the American musical scene for more than four decades.
In 1970, Wuorinen became the youngest composer to win the Pulitzer Prize
in music for Time's Encomium, an
electronic composition written on commission from Nonesuch Records. The Pulitzer
and the MacArthur Fellowship are just two among many awards, fellowships
and other honors to have come his way.
Wuorinen has written more than 250 compositions to date. His newest
works include It Happens Like This,
a dramatic cantata on poems of James Tate to be premiered at Tanglewood in
Summer 2011, Time Regained, a fantasy
for piano and orchestra for Peter Serkin, James Levine and the MET Opera
Orchestra, Eighth Symphony for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Metagong for two pianos and two percussion.
He is currently at work on an operatic treatment of Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain to a libretto by the
author. (Wuorinen’s Haroun and the Sea
of Stories based on the novel of Salman Rushdie was premiered by the
New York City Opera in Fall 2004.)
An indication of Wuorinen's historical importance can be seen in the fact
that in 1975 Stravinsky's widow gave Wuorinen the composer's last sketches
for use in A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky.
Wuorinen was the first composer commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra under
Christoph von Dohnanyi (Movers and Shakers);
and likewise the first to compose for Michael Tilson Thomas' New World Symphony
(Bamboula Beach). Fractal geometry
and the pioneering work of Benoit Mandelbrot have played a crucial role in
several of his works including Bamboula
Squared and the Natural Fantasy, a work for organ.
His works have been recorded on nearly a dozen labels including several releases
on Naxos, Albany Records (Charles Wuorinen Series), John Zorn’s Tzadik label,
and a CD of piano works performed by Alan Feinberg on the German label Col
Wuorinen's works are published exclusively by C.F. Peters Corporation. He
is the author of Simple Composition,
used by composition students throughout the world.
An eloquent writer and speaker, Wuorinen has lectured at universities throughout
the United States and abroad, and has served on the faculties of Columbia,
Princeton, and Yale Universities, the University of Iowa, University of California
(San Diego), Manhattan School of Music, New England Conservatory, State University
of New York at Buffalo, and Rutgers University.
Wuorinen has also been active as performer, an excellent pianist and a distinguished
conductor of his own works as well as other twentieth century repertoire.
His orchestral appearances have included the Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago
Symphony, New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic,
and the American Composers Orchestra.
In 1962 he co-founded the Group for Contemporary Music, one of America's
most prestigious ensembles dedicated to performance of new chamber music.
In addition to cultivating a new generation of performers, commissioning
and premiering hundreds of new works, the Group has been a model for many
similar organizations which have appeared in the United States since its
Wuorinen is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and
the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in an office upstairs at Orchestra Hall
in Chicago on February 26, 1987. Portions (along with recordings) were
used on WNIB in 1988, 1993, and again in 1998. An unedited copy of
the audio was placed in the Archive of Contemporary
Music at Northwestern University.
This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2012.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with
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.
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.