Bruce Duffie: An interview with William Bolcom (1992)

An interview conducted by Bruce Duffie  in Chicago in November, 1992. 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.

BD: You’ve just completed McTeague, a huge work for Lyric Opera. I assume you consider this a huge work? 

WB: It’s a good-sized one, probably bigger than Songs of Innocence and Experience. I wanted to have a full evening but a tight show. I didn’t want a three-hour opera, so we’ve actually ended up with one that’s two hours of music, and that seems big enough for me, considering the way we handle the story. 

BD: Big enough for you as the composer, or big enough for the audience as listeners and viewers? 

WB: It depends on the story. Some stories require longer time in telling. This was a full-scale nineteenth century novel. It came out in 1899, and became a nine or ten-hour movie [made in 1924, directed by Erich von Stroheim] called Greed. No one knows how many hours it really was. 

BD: A lot of it’s lost, unfortunately. 

WB: Yes. The story I hear was that it all was thrown in the Catalina Island sound somewhere, and the fishes have probably eaten it up. 

BD: [Wistfully] Wouldn’t it be interesting if they found the film-cans and they were still sealed? 

WB: Wouldn’t it be wonderful! I’d love to see it all some time. My exposure to the film, which was coming from the novel McTeague, is probably one of the reasons I was interested in this particular story. I was very impressed by the story in the movie... what there is left of it! It may be a mess as far as everything is concerned, but there’s some very powerful moments in it, and the ending is very strong. 

BD: Regarding the size of the work, aside from the obvious differences, what are the main changes that go through your mind when you’re working on a huge work as opposed to a shorter work, or even just a song? 

WB: It depends on the work that you’re starting with. Some pieces call for a multifarious approach. There are things I’ve wanted to do that would require a very varied approach. Here, despite some of the critical comments — they had troubles dealing with the various styles, which is their problem not mine, and obviously not the audiences, either — over time people are beginning to realize that this is what I do and that’s how it is. I have probably used fewer types of molds — or if you’d rather call them styles— than in something like The Songs of Innocence and Experience, which was done here six years ago at Grant Park, and will be done this month by Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony, both in St. Louis and New York. That work has forty-six poems by William Blake and is a group of poems that are extremely varied in approach, and therefore they are many different situations. Here in McTeague, we have a novel which is full of all kinds of subcharacters, and a truncated film, but underneath it all is a very simple, straightforward story. Our approach — Bob Altman and Arnold Weinstein and myself — was to reduce it to this fable kind of level where you’re really telling a story that is as tight a Grimm’s Fairy Tale. We really did cut down on the number of characters and sub-plots and other things that could be found in the book and the film, so it came out to the right length. As operas go, this is rather a short one. 

BD: Two hours, with one intermission? 

WB: Yes, it’s a nice length. It’s certainly right for this work. We could have taken the opposite approach and try to pick up every single thing in the book, which is what the movie Greed did... 

BD: … or tried to do! 

WB: Right, and probably did do, but we’ll never know because so much of it is lost. I have seen a book of stills of all of the scenes that were shot, and you have an idea of the enormity of the enterprise. It showed terrific ambitiousness. 

BD: Should someone with a computer take the stills and remake it into a nine-hour film? [In 1999, Turner Entertainment created a four-hour version of Greed that used existing stills of cut scenes to reconstruct the film.] 

WB: Why??? Leave it as it is! Even the truncated thing is still wonderful in its ways. Would you like to put the head back onto the Winged Victory of Samothrace in the Louvre? There’s a point where somebody decides that the part of what is left to us has been left to us because of the situation. I don’t think it’s necessarily right that it should be all that’s left by fate. Monteverdi wrote forty operas, and we have just two or three of them. That’s all there is. I’d love to know what the other thirty-seven are like, but they could not possibly be reconstructed by computer. 

Suppose we have some kind of atomic destruction here, and all that’s left of McTeague are a couple of scenes. Would you want someone to go back and reconstruct it from a broadcast tape? 

WB: No! I used to think it was a good idea to reconstruct things. I finished an unfinished Schubert sonata, and I actually finished one of the Iberia numbers of Albeniz which he didn’t finish himself. They’re perfectly all right as ‘finishings’, and it’s all right if you want to put them in concert for people who need to have everything finished up, but I wouldn’t do it today. I don’t think I did such a bad job, as it turns out, on the C Major Sonata of Schubert. Krenek also did the same thing, but I never compared his finishing to mine. 

BD: It would be interesting to see if you arrived at the same place. 

WB: I rather doubt we did. In fact, I did see something that seemed sort of prolix and kind of meandering. I tried to do something closer to what I thought was meant, but whatever happens, why do it? We have lots of other things that we could finish, and if something has gone from the past, then that means there’s more room for something new to come in its place. Maybe our nineteenth and twentieth century pack-driven mentality is so over-populating our artistic universe with such an awful lot of wonderful things that there’s no room for new thing. It may be possibly understandable that there were some terrible holocausts, and that left the remaining humans room to reconstruct their own culture. Maybe a few shards and pieces of pottery and odd things are left over from theirs, but it won’t be the first time it’s happened after all. 

BD: We’ve a few relics, but otherwise we have to start over? 

WB: I can’t worry about all that. 

BD: Is there too much music around? 

WB: No, there’s simply people who don’t listen to it, which makes it too much music because they put it on all day and never really listen to what they have going on all day. So it becomes a kind of drug. There is too much music than requires thorough listening, but I can’t really say that there’s too much music. I’m simply saying there aren’t enough listeners who really listen. 

BD: [With a gentle nudge] So you expect your audience who comes to hear your piece to really listen? 

WB: I hope they will! You do what you can to make them do that, or at least induce to do that, but you can’t make them do that. I always think of that line from William Blake where he says, “I give you the end of the golden string, only wind it up into a ball.” A lot of people might see the end of the golden string being tendered to them, but the actual effort of winding it up into a ball may be more than they’re ready to do. They may have it all thrown at them, and there’s only so much you can do to get them to do that winding. 

BD: Should your music be for everyone — the ones who wind and the ones who don’t wind? 

WB: I give it to anyone who wants it, and that’s what anybody who writes, does. If they get it, wonderful! If they don’t get it, also wonderful! I certainly don’t make it difficult for them, but I’m not going to give away all of the marbles either. 

BD: Do you have the audience in mind while you’re writing? 

WB: I have myself as the audience. I can’t figure out what they want, but I do imagine myself as audience, and have to assume that there is a certain constant between me as audience and them as audience, and it usually has worked as far as timing. I do know that there is somewhere a sense of relationship between myself and an audience. I like very much what Yo-Yo Ma says about a kind of circle, that it is almost an electrical current that goes between the performer, the work and the audience. So you have the piece, you have the performer, you have the audience, and you get a circuit going, and the whole idea is to keep that circuit going. That’s something you can deal with. You can sense when the circuit begins to flutter, and you can sense when the circuit is overloaded. You try very hard to keep a certain control over the electricity so that this constant thing keeps going. 

BD: Without it just becoming feedback? 

WB: That’s right. You have all kinds of means of doing it, but the point is you do try to keep a relationship going. That’s why it’s very important for people who are writing or composing to have at least some very deep sense of what it is to perform. Through circumstance, serendipity, or whatever, I have continued to perform in some way or another through most of my composing life, and I’m very thankful for it because it does give one a certain sense of timing. It might make it less mysterious to an audience than if I had not stopped performing, and that might make it very difficult for critics to deal with because they don’t have any need to have to deal with their usual self-imposed notion of having to be translator for the audience — which I don’t think they do terribly well half the time because most of them are not able to read music! A very simple case in point is that 187 critics have come to McTeague, but only twelve asked for the vocal score. 

BD: Is that a good thing or a bad thing? 

WB: It means they really don’t know music. They know records. They are ‘record-heads’, and that’s perfectly okay. I have nothing against ‘record-heads’, but they’re not critics. 

BD: Or are they coming without the vocal score because they are assuming they should see what the audience sees without any help or crutch? 

WB: Then why don’t they become audience themselves? If they learn how to be audience, they’d be better critics. 

BD: [Playing Devil’s Advocate] If they saw the vocal score, then they might see something they could understand more than an audience member who hasn’t seen the vocal score. 

That’s what the vocal score is for, and if they’re able to read music, they could understand it a little bit better and come with a certain amount of information. But they can’t read music, so they have no right to talk. 

BD: So the whole audience should get vocal scores??? We should have 3,600 vocal scores in the lobby for them? 

No, I just say it is a matter of what you decide. When you decide you can set yourself up as a critic and impose yourself as such, you’re taking on certain responsibilities. If you’re going to do that, then you want to have the credentials to do it, and I don’t actually honestly believe that most critics who are setting themselves up as critics have those credentials. 

BD: Should we get rid of critics? 

WB: No, I want good ones. I want those who know something. It would be analogous to having criticism in the field of English literature by people who couldn’t read, and I’m afraid that’s the situation we have. If you’re going to take on the job as a translator, or an introductory person to people who are asking you for this kind of information, then you have a certain responsibility. In a way you’re a teacher, and maybe that’s the whole point of it. It also is possible that people who start out as critics, particularly in Europe, used it as a way to break into the literature field. Don't forget about most of Shaw’s criticism when he was a young man. It was a way for him to break into print, and how many others can you think of as the same case? 

BD: Corno di Bassetto! [Bassett Horn, the pen-name Shaw used.] 

WB: Exactly, and Debussy wrote criticism as a young man, too. Tchaikovsky did it for a while, and then other people did. It was something you did as a young person to give yourself some sort of an introduction. 

BD: Schumann also did it. 

WB: Yes, but he also was interested in continuing the whole publishing notion, which was informing. He looked at it as being a teacher. He was very much a teacher. He thought of it as teaching. I don’t find too many critics today that think of their own job as teaching. They tend to be basically opinion-mongering, and I don’t find that very interesting, even from the ones who were kind to one’s music. I would rather see a situation where they really took the time to do it. Unfortunately, that’s partly the way things are today. One has to criticize, which is say at least review six or eight concerts in a week, and that’s an awful lot for anybody to do. Naturally, or eventually, inevitably you find yourself going towards short-cuts. How can you not? 

* * * * * 

BD: Let’s get off of the critics... 

WB: Yes, let’s leave them alone. I’d much rather not think about them. 

BD: ...and come back to being a composer. You were talking about writing for yourself. Have you figured out what it is you want, or is this a constant learning experience for you in finding new things that you want? 

WB: I’d be more likely to accept the latter because otherwise I’d have it all decided and there’d be no reason to go on. You’re always trying to find out what you want to do next, and the thing eventually introduces itself to you. You try to keep yourself aware of those things. There’s a lot of work involved, and it always changes. Five or six years ago I didn’t know I’d be writing this opera. But now I have done it, and there it is, and it’s on the boards, and people are singing it and playing it, and I have to go onto the next thing. 

BD: When you’re sitting down at the paper and it’s essentially or completely blank, and you start writing notes, are you always controlling your hand that’s putting the notes on the paper? 

WB: Of course! 

BD: The hand never controls you? 

WB: No, but the piece might control me. It’s the movement of the hand, isn’t it? Once you start a particular animal going, it reveals itself to you, and you have to listen very carefully to what it wants to do. But at the same time, you have to keep your control. It’s like a horse and rider. There are some relationships like that. Sometimes you’re a horse and sometimes you’re a rider, but there is a relationship, and that is how it’s done. 

BD: Are you ever surprised by where the horse will lead you? 

WB: Occasionally, but then I have to take the lead and say maybe this is what it is. I think half of my composing has been, “Oh, my God, is this where’s it leading? Oh, right. I’ll go with it.” That, of course, is great excitement and surprise, and also it tends to bedevil our friends the critics, of course. [Both laugh] I no longer seem to fit with their notion of what I should be doing. 

BD: Does a piece ever say to you, “Oh, my God, where have we gotten???” 

WB: Occasionally, and then sometimes I have to find where I am. Then I spend time getting myself out. So you just backtrack and go back to where you were. But in the end, I have loved the idea of when the mind goes and takes leaps that you never have imagined it would take. That’s when it gets to be fun. 

BD: When you’re tinkering with it and you put in the double bar, how do you know when to stop, when it’s done, when it’s ready to be launched? 

WB: It sort of tells you, but there is also an awful lot of experience and technique, and I do very strongly believe in the technique. It’s not a very bourgeois notion because novels and movies have this idea there’s some sort of weird spiritual thing is going on, like angels singing to you. One of the fun things is to collect the notions that people have in movies about how tunes come to composers. They’re very funny. In many cases, angels sing them to you as they float by, and they’re always absolutely off the mark. That’s not how it happens. It never can be the way it happens. 

BD: Can you explain how it happens? 

WB: No! [Both laugh] I would certainly not want to even if I could because it would be the kind of thing that one would have to keep as a secret. But I don’t think you can explain it. It’s one of those things that has to do with the machinery that is going on in the mind, which, if it were explicable, would then be words. That’s the whole point. We’re dealing with a new language which has its own rules, and they tend to reveal themselves to you over time. But I do believe that you acquire the ability and the means of setting down exactly what you want, and that is what I would call ‘technique’. 

BD: Do the rules evolve over time? 

WB: Constantly. 

BD: So when you discover a rule, was it not a rule but just a very temporary waystation? 

WB: That’s sort of it. The next time around you’re talking about the next one. Once it becomes case-hardened a rule, there has to be a really major dynamite blast or two to push things out of that situation. Most of the early part of the twentieth century was trying to get rid of rules, for they had become a very codified harmonic style. So people did all kinds of dreadfully anti-establishment moves for a lot of plain, simply draconian anachronisms to blow things up. [This was probably the reasoning behind Pierre Boulez’s published remark, “Opera Houses? Blow them up!”, which actually got him into serious trouble with the police some years later, as can be seen in the interview.] That’s fine, and we had to do it. It was one of the necessary moves of getting out of what would have otherwise been a kind of super-Richard Straussian kind of harmony taken to its final destination. We had to throw all that out, and then we came back to find what survives. There is a certain amount of that which happens, particularly in music, and some people have said that ours is the longest Mannerist Period in the history of art — which is most of the twentieth century. Now we’re in the process of finding out what is viable in all of that material. 

BD: Who decides if it’s viable — the composers, the public, who? 

WB: The composers in the end, but the point is that the composer again is part of the circuit. There you are with the performer and the composer and the public, and when you get that machinery and electricity going, then we have something that has a real viability. The validity is that the current moves. It working and we are making a connection. It’s the kind of thing that absolute bedevils any critic because they are often looking for rules, and there aren’t any. 

BD: No rules at all? 

The rules impose themselves as the piece progresses. 

BD: Are they the same new rules each time? 

WB: I’d have to say the same thing. They are things that would be parallel to what you might call grammar and syntax, and any kind of language function. Those things continue. They are tendencies, and they tend toward comprehensive ability, and they have a certain atmosphere about them. But you don’t write the literature out of grammar. Grammar guides you toward a certain discipline and comprehensive ability, but it does not generate what you’re writing about. It makes it possible to communicate to someone else in a clear way, but it does not create ‘the idea’. The rules will not generate anything. No system nor little notion will save you. We’ve had a pile of them in the last century or so, yet at the same time this or that system or procedure can generate a discipline, which can help you hold what you’re doing and bring to it a certain level of control. But that’s another story. Then you’re making the rules, or, if you want, the tendencies or the syntactical phenomenal to work for you. But they will not generate the idea. 

BD: So once it’s all written down, then you can look back and see what rules were used? 

You might notice tendencies. I do notice sometimes that I will find a piece that will generate certain things. “Oh, is that what I’m doing?” I always tell my students to ask themselves, “What am I doing?” Look back and take a look at what you are doing. Don’t do it in such a way that you’re going to inhibit yourself, but once in a while take a good hard look at what’s happening in there, and be as objective as you can. Then go back into the piece again. That way you have a certain sense of what’s happening. Yes, there is definitely a kind of syntax that grows out of every piece. It is slightly different in every piece, and sometimes it’s very different, but you have to have a mixture of self-awareness and total heedlessness. 

BD: That way you know what you are doing? 

WB: Sure. 

BD: Then my question is, why are you doing it? 

WB: Because I can’t help it! I’m a composer! [Both laugh] 

* * * * * 

BD: Here is a more general question but aiming at the same target. What’s the purpose of music? 

WB: If there were a purpose, then we should all just throw up our hands and do something else. Its purpose is itself. You do it because that is what you do. I think of art as a big totality. If there was a nice, interesting, simple answer to it all, then there’d be no reason to go on. Once you figure out the purpose then you might as well say, “Okay, fine, QED, let’s go onto something else.” I can’t do that. If I could explain it to myself then why should I bother go on? I’m not pretending to be dumb but I’m simply saying that the thing in itself is its own purpose. 

BD: Then are you always searching for it? 

WB: Of course! Well, I’m not necessarily searching for the purpose, I’m searching for the next piece. This happens to be what I do but, as I said, I cannot help doing. Anybody who’s a committed artist and this kind of person would probably, often as not, be perfectly happy to be able to pull the whole thing over and forget about it. It’s only amateurs’ block to the artists. You can’t help with it if you are one, and it would be very nice to be able to get that burden off your back, but you can’t help it. There you are, you’re doing it, and the darn thing has its control over you, but you can’t wait to get back to work. 

BD: Are you glad for the burden to be on your back? 

WB: I have no choice. 

BD: So you’ve made a friend of it? 

WB: At least I’ve made some kind of a roommate. 

BD: [Laughs] Roommates can be co-operative, or roommates can be irritating! 

WB: Oh, I can’t kick this one out. It’s paying the rent! [Both laugh] 

BD: [With a gentle nudge] Oh, come on... composing is more than just your job! 

WB: It is always a job. Probably it’s the most labor-intensive of the arts, although if you talked to any artist they’ll always tell you that every one is labor-intensive. When I think about the amount of time it takes to write the notes of an orchestral score, just to be finished with one minute of music, especially with the whole orchestra on full tilt, I would be very surprised that the same amount of work would be put into pretty much anything else. In his autobiography, Aaron Copland is complaining about the same thing — that no one else seems to understand the amount of sheer drudgery that goes into writing the score. 

BD: Is it not true that every note gets its little moment? 

WB: Every note gets its little moment, but it’s a very small moment. I’ve written millions of notes. Any composer who has ever been a professional has written millions of notes, and they all have their little moments. 

BD: But every little moment becomes a sound at some place in performance. 

WB: Sure it does, and that’s what you’re doing. You’re dealing with putting together all these sounds. That’s the way it’s done. That’s what’s known as being a composer — you’re putting things together. That’s what the word means. 

BD: You noted earlier that you have taken a lot of these styles and put them together. It seems in your music that instead of being a ‘soup’, it’s much more of a ‘salad’. 

I don’t know what you mean. 

BD: In a soup everything melds together and becomes one homogenous entity, whereas each item in a salad retains its own distinct character. 

WB: Oh, I see. It depends on the piece. I’ve made soups and I’ve made salads. [Continuing the metaphor] I’ve made casseroles and I’ve made the kinds of pieces that I can cook and serve as a reasonably extensive repertoire of recipes. It depends on what the occasion calls for. 

BD: With your notoriety, you must be inundated with requests and offers. How do you decide which ones you will accept and which ones you’ll turn aside? 

WB: If they’re interesting artists, that helps. If they have enough to pay for my time, that definitely helps because my time is valuable and I only have so much of it, so you tend to husband it. But things tend to work out that way. I’ve done things for nothing, I’ve done things for lots of money, and I put the same care into both. It’s just that you do have to at least somehow try to make a part of your living in this process because there’s an awful of labor-intensiveness. When I think back at the actual number of notes that went into McTeague, and if I counted the money I was paid, I would say it probably came to about a dollar and a half an hour, which is way below the minimum wage. 

BD: So obviously you’re getting more than just the dollars in your pocket. 

WB: Of course, because I’m sure there’d be ways to make a heck of a lot better money for less work, but what can I say? That’s what I picked to do, and it’s a good piece. I never really thought seriously of doing anything else. That’s what I do. 

BD: You seem to have contradicted yourself. You say you picked to do it, when I thought it picked you. 

WB: I did say that, really. It picked me. I really have had no choice. I was always going to be a composer, and I can’t remember ever looking seriously at doing anything else... except, of course, being a musician, which I am. I’m also a pianist. I’m an accompanist for my wife, Joan Morris, as one of my major, major things in life, and I’m a professor. I teach composition to budding composers — which is something that is really essential, but impossible. You really can’t teach it, but what you can do is help the students. You can guide them a bit. You can at least open doors for them, but you can’t push them through. 

BD: What are the main things you see coming off the pages of your students? 

WB: They come out to a place like Michigan because probably we have a reputation — not only me, but my colleagues have been very open to many American vernacular styles. My colleague, Bill Albright, has been very involved with Ragtime, and Michael Daugherty, who is new with us, has been involved with Rock and also with the various popular electronic things. But all of us have very strong classical background, and this the armature on which everything was hung. So we do essentially what has happened throughout the ages, which is to say an amalgam of popular and historical and classical styles, to put together a structure that will be comprehensible and also have the resonance that you wouldn’t have had without that background. I don’t think this is very different from the mandate of any composer throughout the history of music. Palestrina put little pop tunes of his day in his ‘cantus firmuses’, and Monteverdi took popular styles and popular dances and put them into an opera which was meant to have been a revival of the ancient Greek tragedy. You can call case after case of opera styles that have been put in and subsumed into a larger structure throughout the history of music. I find what I am doing is exactly that. 

BD: Has it changed a bit now that it has gotten away from being a toy of the aristocracy, and being for everyone? 

WB: I don’t think it was ever really a toy of the aristocracy. In the strictest sense it was for everyone, however, the audience changes. The aristocracy could pay for it for a while. Later you had subscription concerts, from the eighteenth century onwards, where other people started to pay for it. Later it became a tool, if you like, or a toy of the button manufacturers in the beginnings of the bourgeoisie. Every one of these people helps pay for the continuation of something which is essentially, in some weird way, non-profit. It’s because they truly want it, not because it’s going to make them any money. Nowadays, once the composer or the generator is gone you could put the work into a museum of one kind or another. It could be an art museum where you hadn’t to pay any longer because it’s past any kind of royalties. You can do the same thing to an opera house or a symphony orchestra because these fellows are long gone. There’s no estate to worry about, and they’re going to have a grand old time playing. One of the reasons people concentrate on older music is that it costs less to make. You don’t have to pay the living guy, who’s a pain in the rear because he keeps making things tough on you. He keeps wanting to correct your notes; he has definitely no sense of style; he’s an irritant. It’s much nicer to deal with older folks, and you can get scholarly conferences to talk about historical accuracy, and have Historically Informed Performances which follow metronomic markings, which any composer will tell you are not trusted. Nowadays, people are organizing whole aesthetics around what Beethoven might have marked in a particular movement, where half the time, I’m sure, the metronome wasn’t working properly. Schumann’s hardly worked right, and I know I’ve done with a broken one for years! 

BD: How accurate do you want your music to be when it’s reproduced? 

WB: I want the same current between performer, the audience, and the artists. True artists find their place in that community of electricity, that circle which Yo-Yo Ma talks about so well. A really good performer will perform accurately — sometimes more accurately than I’ve written it! 

BD: [Mildly shocked] How can that possibly be? 

WB: Because, for example, tempo notions tend to develop and settle themselves when a really good performer who is on that track gets in there. Dennis Davies was able to say, “No, that wasn’t the right tempo, this is the right tempo,” and when I heard it I had to admit he was right and I was wrong. I wrote down the wrong one. 

BD: Has he figured out what you really wanted? 

WB: Yes, because we’ve been on that circuit for a long time. I’ve worked with this man for twenty-five years. 

* * * * * 

BD: Earlier you said that if some of a piece is lost for some reason, you don’t want it re-created, re-established, but how much re-establishing do you expect from the score while it’s there? 

WB: We’re not talking about the same thing. You’re talking about finishing out the fragments of works. We were talking earlier about that, and it’s not the same thing. Any piece of written-out music is an imperfect transcript of what the music is supposed to be because our notation is severely limited. It’s pretty good in many ways, but it really does not impart the notions of style, particularly if we’re talking about something like Popular Style, which was essentially what people used to always equate as the style. People talk about the eighteenth century ‘notes inégales’, the unequal notes. How do you play Couperin or Bach, or something like that? This was, in a way, very analogous to popular styles that everybody knows. How’s the Shuffle been played? Do you play Ragtime with absolute equal sixteenths? When do you bend and when do you not? This is where you have to keep that circuit going between Performer, Audience and Piece, and as long as the cycle is going, that’s going to be imparted to somebody else. This is what tradition is about! 

BD: So does your piece get better and better as it’s performed more and more? 

WB: Until people lose the thread, and I’m afraid to say that in many cases with the classical repertory we probably have lost the thread of performance style in many cases. We’re dealing with a kind of torso of what it might have been. 

BD: If we’ve lost the thread, should we go and find the thread, or should we just abandon it completely? 

Well let’s at least try! Often as not you find it in popular styles. When I was hearing the old archive recordings of Monteverdi operas , which were perfectly deadly dull renderings of what was written down, everything was just people following all the half notes and whole notes, and generally plunking along with this rather pedestrian style because they were playing what THE NOTES said — as Eubie Blake used to call it. I just knew this was wrong. One day I was taken to a coffee house in Florence where a fellow was sitting there improvising a kind of sing-song over the events of the day. He was accompanying himself on the guitar, and I said to myself, “Hoo-ee! This is Monteverdi in recitative!” It was probably way before Monteverdi, and they picked up the style. If you want to find out how the old styles were, look into popular sources. There’s a very interesting record we put out in the Explorer Series when I was working at Nonesuch called Folk Fiddling from Sweden. It’s full of quadruple stops, and it has a wonderfully raw sound about it that can be compared to the Bach Partitas and Sonatas for unaccompanied violin. You see enormous numbers of parallels. If you want to have some sense of what it might sounded like in Bach’s day, listen to that. In other words, the popular sources will continue this kind of relationship, often longer than you’ll find in conservatories. So there are sources, and you can find them. About three or four years ago, The New York Times was despairing, talking about how Charles Ives was over-rated, and everybody was checking their hands about how to play it. These were conservatory musicians trying to get a handle onto Ives. Well, for heaven’s sake, there is the whole Gospel tradition, and the whole popular music traditions that Ives grew up with, and this is very much extant. Go look at that and you’ll have a better idea of how to play Hello, my Baby in the middle of Central Park in the Dark! 

BD: And even the marching bands that just go by in his works! 

You bet, it’s all there! All you’ve got to do is look at it, and find that part of you that responds to it. Then you can keep that circuit going. Many people are very puritanical about it and don’t know how to bring it off. They try to do it in some sort of prescribed conservatory notion, and they’re missing the whole point of Ives. 

BD: Despite all of this, are you optimistic about the future of music, (a) composition, and (b) performance? 

In general versus being pessimistic about it? Anybody reasonable has good reason to be pessimistic about anything. We have a terrific number of horrible problems as a planet that we’re not really hurrying towards resolving, so I don’t know why I should be any more optimistic about the future of music and performance than I should be about the future of the world. I feel we’re on a terrible collision course, and we have a very good chance of screwing the whole works up. So why should I be any more optimistic about the future of music? 

BD: So you don’t expect your music to last two hundred and fifty or three hundred years? 

WB: I don’t know whether my music will last or not. It’s not my business. We’ve really spent too much of our time thinking about this. Probably most of the neuroses of the twentieth century stem from worrying about what’s going to happen to us in the future. I hope that people will understand something as they go by, and I hope that people will respond, and I hope that what I’m doing will become part of that wonderful circuit that Yo-Yo keeps talking about. Then, if it has a certain kind of longevity, fine. I’ve also noticed that longevity for music has nothing to do with current criticism. I’ve looked back into the things that were reviewed by even the very best critics of the past, and much time is spent on people we don’t play at all. 

BD: Slonimsky has that wonderful book... [Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time] 

WB: Exactly! It’s also where you see all the pieces we do love dearly skewered by these guys. What does live is the thing that causes the performer to get on that circuit again. The performer says, “Hey, I can do something with this,” and then the piece lives. That’s how any kind of longevity is brought about. It has nothing to do with some sort of pantheon of great art that’s put up by any kind of aesthetic. In the end it’s the whole business of making something out of when I play it. There may be lots of wonderful music from the past, and we try very hard to reconstruct the dead styles, so there’s big things that we only have a tiny kind of idea what they might be. I’m talking about much of them in the mediaeval tradition, but if you look carefully, much of these sources are still existent in the popular culture. If you can extrapolate from that some sort of a direct line all the way back, then you might be able to play these works in some kind of way. Many music colleges are beginning to find this to be true, and there are ways of doing it. I worked with a wonderful musician out in Stanford, George Houle, who wanted to show us how a pattern of a Galliard was performed. We went out to the back and we had to dance them, so we played them better. With simple things like you see the connection between that and the previous other kinds of things. It is not necessarily a question of trying to be historically authentic. We can’t be, but we can make something that’s exciting and viable that will make sense to us. Then it’s worth doing. 

A number of your works have been recorded, and obviously these performances will transcend at least a few years. Are you pleased with these recordings? 

WB: I would say on the whole, yes. I’ve never felt one was really absolutely wrong, and sometimes you find things that come at you that you’ve had no idea of. The Louisville Orchestra recently did three of my orchestral pieces [CD re-issue shown below], and I only heard them play one of them. The other ones they did without ever sending tapes to me, and I was interested to listen to them. At least most times when they record something, they usually send a tape and say, “What do you think about it?” Or, “Maybe there’s a wrong note here and there. Can you help?” I repeatedly asked them to send something, but they never sent a thing, and one day a whole package with the finished record came. I wondered what it was going to be like, but I sat down and was perfectly happy. I would have fixed a couple of tiny ensemble problems and a wrong note here and there, but in the main they played it very well. So what can I say? I’ve been nothing but basically happy. I do feel that there’s a large number of performers who know what I’m after, and seem to play my scores with a certain kind of understanding and expertise. They might even like them! So if that means you have certain time of longevity, then that’s fine. I have no idea how long it will last. It may be that we’re in the process of seeing the last few years of a whole instrumental culture, which might be supplanted by a whole electronic one. 

BD: Is that a good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing? 

WB: I don’t know. I found ways of dealing with electronics in various orchestra pieces whenever it’s practical. We are using a Kurzweil synthesizer, or I should say sampler, in the pit for the Lyric Opera Chicago but you’d hardly know it was there. It’s in a corner where all those xylophones, marimbas, glockenspiels, celestas, pianos, and organs are all on one keyboard. If we have to use all those varied instruments, they would take up half the pit themselves, so I’m able to save a lot of space. With the good quality sampler you can come out with a perfectly realistic thing, and it works very well, particularly in the pit because you’re trying to deal with the saving of space. It allows me a lot of color variations that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. But you have other losses because no electronic keyboard will be able to deal with the variety of a text that real instruments can use. So you have to be very judicious about it. 

BD: So you gain and you lose? 

WB: You would lose if you played a whole orchestra with a bunch of keyboards, but I imagine many small opera companies and groups could use it. Certainly, we’ve already seen it in the Broadway orchestra, and in orchestras in opera productions where people do resort more and more to keyboards. It has to be tasteful, it has to be judicious, and often as not it’s going to be pretty boring. 

BD: Hopefully your material is not boring! 

WB: [Laughs] Well, I hope not! It might make people a little angry sometimes, but that’s all right. At least I keep them listening. 

BD: One last question. Is composing fun? 

WB: It’s the most fun I’ve ever had, except for performing and enjoying my life with my beautiful wife whom I adore! 

BD: I hope it continues for a long time. 

WB: Thank you very much.

© 1992 Bruce Duffie 

Recorded in Chicago on November 5, 1992.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1993, and 1998, and on WNUR in 2004.  This transcription was made in 2017, and posted at at that time.