Composer  Irwin  Bazelon

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


"Irwin Bazelon, one of the most original figures in American music in the second half of the 20th century, devoted his life to the art of composition. He was also well known for his musical compositions for films, television, commercials, and documentaries. His music was inspired by his experiences in the fast-paced environments of Chicago and New York."  This is how the promotional material for his bio-bibliography begins, and it's a good way to start getting to know this unique individual.

Many details of his life-story are included the responses he gave to my questions, so I will not recount them at this point.  Suffice it to say that "Buddy" Bazelon was one to grab life and shake it and make a significant mark on his time.  If a picture is truly worth a thousand words, the photo (reproduced above) is all the introduction one needs. 

In March of 1987, Bazelon was visiting family and friends in Chicago and we were able to get together at the home where he was staying.  It was a lively chat and he allowed himself to rant about various things that pleased and annoyed him.  After using portions of the interview on WNIB a few times, I'm happy to be able to showcase the entire conversation on the internet.

Bruce Duffie:  You spent the first 25 years of your life here in Chicago.  Is it like coming home, or do you feel now that you're are New Yorker?

Irwin Bazelon:  It is a homecoming in many ways, Bruce.  I was born and raised here and I went to school here.  I graduated from Senn High School, then spent two years at Northwestern, and then transferred to DePaul University where I graduated in 1945. 

BD:  You studied with Leon Stein?

IB:  That's right.  Leon Stein was largely responsible for encouraging me to continue my work as a composer.  He detected raw talent and sort of fanned the flickering flame, so to speak.  He later became, of course, the Dean of the School of Music at DePaul.

BD:  Now you have not done any teaching of music, correct?

IB:  No, I'm really kind of an anomaly.  I'm one of the few concert composers in the United States who has never taught.  I'm a professional composer.

BD:  Do you feel that musical composition is something that can be taught, or must each composer really have it within himself or herself?

IB:  I have always felt that music schools should not teach composers.  You teach musicians, some of whom might just happen to become composers.  I'm very, very aware that the rock kids - the kids who play rock music - have taught us something today, those of us in the so-called "serious music" world.  I hate that word "serious" because I've never met any composer, regardless of what he was writing, who wasn't serious about what he's doing.  It's just that music means different things to different people, including composers.

BD:  Should we call it "concert music," then?

IB:  Yes, "concert music."  But I believe that if you're going to take some of the learning devices from the rock kids, they've taught us the importance of being performers.  You know, all, or at least many of the least of the great masters of the past were performers, and we've sort of lost this art!  I try very much to inculcate on young composers that they should play an instrument and play it well.  And they should learn how to conduct, to do it all!  If you are a pianist, for example, play the piano really well so that if you're a composer, you can write a piece for the piano and orchestra and have a chance to demonstrate it to a conductor yourself without having to count on somebody else to recreate it for you.

BD:  Are we getting some of this back in the little rock bands, where every kid is a performer and they write their own tunes and play them as well as other tunes?

IB:  To some extent, except that you have to go back a little bit before you can make any statements about what's going on today.  In the '20s, there weren't more than 50 concert composers in the United States.  When I arrived in New York in 1948, there were perhaps 300.  After I left DePaul, I went and studied with Darius Milhaud at Mills College for two and a half years.  Interestingly enough, at the time I was there he had only one other pupil and that was David Brubeck.  Recently, ASCAP has done a survey, and now estimate that there are probably around 35,000 composers in the United States of what they would call "concert composers," and professional jazz composers.

BD:  Is that too many?

IB:  I think that the proliferation has been extraordinary.  But then you can look into the other arts.  There are some 50,000 books published every year, and look at the number of painters there are, many of whom are brilliant and can't get into galleries.  So there has been a tremendous spurt.  Now of course the term "composer" doesn't quite mean what it used to mean.  I've always said that the talent to invent and organize musical ideas and the ability to put a piece together is a little bit more involved than writing tunes or merging funky sounds, 'cause if that's all it takes to be a composer, we have a nation of composers.  Also, today, we have children of synthesizers and many of them don't read or write music.  There are no scores; the score is the tape, and what they're really producing is a form of frozen improvisation!  I do believe, if you're gonna be a composer, I don't think it's too much to ask that you be able to read music and be able to notate it.

BD:  [Chuckles] Those are the nuts and bolts.

IB:  Everybody to their own thing, you know?  But I don't want people to feel that I'm a musical snob; I might even prefer an imaginative rock piece to a prosaic orchestral work.

BD:  Let's come back to the teaching of music just for a moment.  You say you don't believe that musical composition can be taught, yet you studied both with Hindemith and Milhaud, and also with Ernst Bloch.

IB:  Yes, but they didn't really teach me how to compose.  They were guiding hands, so to speak.  I'd bring music and talk about it and how the piece could be improved, and they'd teach me about phrasing and dynamics and the ability to notate the music, which is involved in acquiring a technique.  But I don't really believe that composition as such can be taught; I don't know if it should be.  Hindemith himself was a great discourager.  He believed that only the best should be composing.  And it wasn't fun.  It was intensely serious, whereas Milhaud, who was French, took a much lighter feeling about it.  He thought that it was all wonderful.  One thing they both taught me was that music was not a competitive race; it was not an artistic contest.  It was a love affair, a marriage.  And in spite of the problems and disillusionments of being in the profession - and there are plenty, even though you're in music - the arts are not dismissible, as far as disappointments are concerned.  I still believe it's a love affair.

BD:  Is there not a competition within yourself, and is there not some competition amongst other composers?

IB:  It's very hard to be friends with one's colleagues.  I don't have too many colleague friends.  I have some, but when the ego gets involved I can't handle that and I'm really not interested in handling it; so one chooses his composer friends in a way that one can relate to each other.  I'm interested in their music and they're interested in mine.  I don't brag about my performances and I don't expect them to brag about theirs.  I don't really feel that I'm competing; I'm a part of the same.

BD:  When a piece of yours is being presented, should it be given on an all-Bazelon program, or an all-contemporary program, or should it be dropped into the middle of a so-called "standard" concert?

IB:  Well, Bruce, that's a very interesting question.  I have always felt that a contemporary work sandwiched in between two repertoire pieces, so to speak, will have a tendency to stand out much better than when it's part of a program of four or five new pieces.

BD:  Stand out good or bad?

IB:  It depends upon depending upon the musical language.

BD:  [Chuckles]

IB:  I believe that if a composer doesn't take risks, he shouldn't be a composer.  This is 1987; we're approaching the last decade of the 20th century.  People don't expect American composers or European composers to write like Brahms.  It's interesting you should bring up the question, because three years ago I had the opportunity to conduct the National Orchestra of Northern France in Lille.  I'm the only American composer to have been commissioned by this orchestra and to have conducted it.  [The Orchestre National de Lille; the work was De-Tonations (1976) for brass quintet and orchestra]  I conducted a piece that was sandwiched in between two Brahms works, and I conducted it five times in little small towns around Lille.  It'd be like if the Chicago Symphony visited Gary, Indiana and Elkhart and places like that.  And the response was really incredible; I learned a lot of things.  I learned, for example, that once you leave Paris, most people think the only American composer that existed is George Gershwin.  Maybe they heard of Aaron Copland, but it's doubtful.  But the response of the audience to a contemporary piece was great.  Now I think part of the response has to do with the composer being seen as well as heard.  I'm a great believer in composers being seen, if only to take some responsibility for the notes they write.  But of more significance, it leads people to believe that, "Hey!  This guy's alive!"  [Both chuckle]  I mean, we're not all dead!  When I first started music school, I thought composers were dead!  I didn't see any; I didn't even know any!  So actually being there is helpful.  Now to get back to your question, on a program where there are four or five contemporary works, usually the reviewer pits one against the other.  He'll say, "The best piece on the program...," and this is wrong.  You should take each individual piece by itself.  That way, each person, each composer, gets his own due without having to compete with someone else, which usually shows the personal bias of the of the reviewer anyway.

BD:  Are you basically pleased with the performances of your music that you have heard over the years?

IB:  Some of them, and the ones that I'm pleased with were the ones that I had an opportunity to conduct myself.  I have conducted four or five major orchestras and am a very fortunate man to have had this opportunity.

BD:  Are you the ideal interpreter of your music?

IB:  I think after a while you begin to realize that, but you are the ideal.  I've said many, many times, "Oh, let me conduct this piece."  Yesterday I heard a rehearsal of Ralph Shapey and the University of Chicago Chamber Ensemble.  They're doing my Fusions (1983) on Friday.  It's a 15-minute piece commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation, and I must say I was so thrilled because this is a wonderful group and I consider it an honor to have a piece played by them.  And they have done their homework.  I think it's going to be one of the best performances of any chamber work I've had in the last 25 years.

BD:  You'll be at that concert.  Will you speak about the work before the performance?

IB:  I don't know what the policy is, but I rather doubt it.  There are five composers being played.

BD:  But you mention that the composer should be seen.  Should the composer also be heard talking about his music?

IB:  In some instances you're asked to say a few words.  When pieces I've conducted, at the end of the piece when the audience is applauding, I've been known to stop the applause and make a little speech!  I don't wanna do that on Friday; I don't think that's right.  But I certainly will be in attendance.  I think, sometimes, when a composer does have a chance to talk to an audience, part of his personality rubs off.  The audience can say, "You know, this guy's kind of interesting; I wonder what his music is like."  But at the same time, if other composers are on a program, I don't think it's very appropriate to call attention to yourself.  I'll be so thrilled with the performance that I'll be very happy to stand up and smile.  You know, I haven't had too many performances of my work in Chicago.  It's been one of the banes of my existence.  Up until two years ago, I had never had a piece played in Chicago in my whole life!  Gordon Peters played my Second Symphony with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, which was a big thrill.

BD:  Is this at all typical, that composers, or performers, are not appreciated in their own hometown?

IB:  I don't know.  I really don't know.  One of the dreams of my life is to have a piece played by the Chicago Symphony and I hope I'm not running out of time.  I've had some unfortunate experiences and I don't wanna go into it, but it hasn't happened yet and maybe it won't happen; I don't know.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Let's talk a little more about the audience.  What do you expect of the audience that comes to hear your music?

IB:  I don't think that my music is that far-out, so to speak, or so intellectually involved.  I'm not an intellectual terrorist.  I'm an old-fashioned composer who still believes that music is an emotional-rhythmic experience.  The organization of his material, the working-out of his material, is not necessary for an audience to know this beforehand.  They don't really wanna know how you put your piece together.  A good cook doesn't give out his recipes, as Darius Milhaud used to say.  I started out as a pop pianist and pop songwriter, which is not untypical in this country.  After I graduated high school, it suddenly occurred to me, through very strange circumstances.  I went down to hear a concert of the Chicago Symphony.  I still remember it, quite vividly.  They played the Beethoven Seventh Symphony, and I was amazed that one man had put down all of the notes for this piece.  And it began to dawn on me that writing songs - after all, Schubert was a songwriter, too - was not the end-all and that it had very little to do with the putting together of a real piece of music.  In other words, I started out with a fascination with music and this fascination was encouraged by the people that I studied with at DePaul University.  And it grew into a desire to be a composer, to find my own sounds.

BD:  Is it a fascination with the sound, or with the form, or what?

bazelon IB:  Combinations of everything.  I suffered from an ear condition as a boy.  I was not in the Service because I had a chronic running ear because of scarlet fever.  Today they give you a shot of penicillin and they don't even break the eardrums anymore.  I think there was a compensation factor because sounds became very important to me.  Sitting at the piano and playing sounds for somebody who has a terrible ear problem was a form of warmth, almost.

BD:  Now were these sounds you heard from the piano, or sounds you heard in your head?

IB:  The sounds of the piano, first of all.  It was to ease the pain of somebody who, during the first thirty years of his life, had cotton in his ears!  Subsequently I had my ear operated on and my hearing has been pretty much restored.  I've never had any problem, but it also taught me the ability to compensate.  Alfred Adler, the great psychiatrist, used to say that children with auditory defects sometimes turn to music, and I'm a perfect example of that.  But it starts out with a fascination with music, and from there you either grow or you don't grow.  The wonderful thing about studying with people like Hindemith and Milhaud was that these great masters encouraged me.  They could've easily said, "Go home and find another profession."  Sometimes I think to myself, with all the frustrations in the music - and there are plenty - why didn't they tell me that?  But then you stand up in front of the Detroit Symphony, as I have, or the Kansas City Philharmonic or the National Symphony or the National Orchestra of France and you say to yourself, "Thank you for encouraging me."  It was worth all the frustration and all the effort.

BD:  Is that the advice you give to young composers now?

IB:  The only advice I give to young composers is, [speaks deliberately and emphatically]  "You better want to be a composer and a musician badly, so bad that nothing else means anything to you, because if you don't, you'll fall by the wayside and it won't mean anything to you."  And this, by the way, could apply to a young aspiring actor or a painter or a writer.  When I went to school with Hindemith, for example, there were young composers in that class who had written three symphonies by the time they were 21.  By the time they were 26 they were not involved in music at all.  They were teaching mathematics in some college or working in their father-in-law's business.  Early talent doesn't really mean anything.  I have a saying:  "Show me 20 years of dedication and I'll take you seriously."

BD:  So now, as you approach your 65th birthday, you've got 45 years of dedication.

IB:  Yes.  I remember one story of a young composer who was sent to me by a family friend.  He played his music and I said, "You're very talented; what to you want to do?"  He said, "I think I'd like to be a composer."  I closed up his score and handed it to him, and I said, "When you come through that door and tell me you have to be a composer, I'll take you seriously."

BD:  Does the fire still burn as brightly within you?

IB:  Well, I get depressed, but I happen to have a couple of composer friends; one of 'em is my dear friend Elie Siegmeister who is in his late 70s, and he has more enthusiasm than a 20-year-old composer!  But I get depressed mainly because the situation today is not like it was in the old days.  When I first came to New York, I could call up the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Dimitri Mitropoulos, and go see him!  Today it's extremely difficult to get to conductors, and now with the new composer-in-residency programs, many conductors have abrogated their responsibility of looking at new music and handed it over to young composers.

BD:  Who, of course, have an axe to grind.

IB:  Yes, and they also preselect material and many times it's of colleague friends; they play the "you play me, I play you" game.  Of course, it's a performance bonanza if you're one of the chosen, but it's very difficult at the age of 65 to submit a work to a 28-year-old composer.  And, what also happens is that over a period of time I've had music played by many orchestras, but the conductor's no longer there!  They've either died, they've retired or they were fired, and suddenly a new person is involved and you're starting all over from scratch.

BD:  How can we get more conductors, young and old, interested in presenting new music?

IB:  Last July I was composer-in-residence at the Conductors Guild Institute in West Virginia, sponsored by Dr. Sam Jones and Harold Farberman.  There were 38 young conductors that came there to be criticized and to conduct the orchestra that they had.  Some of them were from Europe and none of them knew me at all.  It was my opportunity to meet some of these conductors.  Some of them may not turn out to be conductors, but some of them will get orchestras and I tried to impress on them that it's part of their responsibility to see composers.  They're not supposed to be show biz stars - as many are today.  Dimitri Mitropoulos used to say to me, "It's my obligation to look at your music.  Without you I don't exist."  You don't find that too often anymore.  There aren't too many people like this.  I don't wanna get into the business of naming names, but give me a conductor who isn't the greatest one in the world who cares about us and who's welcome to see you.  I've found, for example, that once you leave the big cities on the East Coast and come to the Midwest, you can pick up the phone and call, and the conductors actually answer their phone!  Maybe not in Chicago, but in places like Louisville and Kansas City and Indianapolis and New Orleans they do!

BD:  Do these symphony orchestras react to your music?  Do they play it as well as you expect?

IB:  Yes.  I've had very good response.  When the Indianapolis Symphony did my Fifth Symphony and recorded it, Izler Solomon, who at that time was the conductor, gave the piece almost thirty hours of rehearsal, which is unheard of in the United States.

BD:  [Whistles loudly in amazement]

IB:  What he did was practice the piece for six months, stealing from Brahms and Beethoven for Bazelon.  Izler and I once tried to figure out how many composers' names started with "B," and we got up to around 40 or 50.  He said to me one time, "I could give a whole season of concerts in Indianapolis with only composers beginning with the letter "B"!

BD:  [Laughs]

IB:  Unfortunately, when these conductors leave and new ones take over, if you haven't established that kind of a reputation, you are literally starting over from scratch; you no longer have access to that orchestra anymore.  And this is one of the major disappointments, really.  But still, nobody tells you to write music.  If you don't want to write music, stop!  I mean, nobody cares.  My attitude was fixed by my dear friend and first teacher, Leon Stein, at DePaul.  He said, "Write your music; if it's any good, someday it'll be played, and if not, well, who really cares?"  And I think that's the only way, that's the only attitude.  You write until you feel you've said it all, and then you quit.

BD:  When you're writing a piece of music, are you working on just one piece at a time or do you have several going at once?

IB:  I've tried working on more than one piece, but I can't do it.  Of course it's a tremendous advantage, Bruce, to have a commission.  It may come as a surprise to a great many people, but there's probably a dozen composers in the States who are getting more than 80 percent of the commissions offered.  I'm talking about commissions where you write a piece and an orchestra is gonna play it when you finish it.

BD:  They guarantee a performance.

IB:  That's right and it's a tremendous boon.  I've never been jealous of Leonard Bernstein.  I've only been envious of one thing:  that when he writes a piece, the New York Philharmonic is gonna play it.  That's all I'd ever ask.  To write an orchestral work, with all those notes, and then wonder, "Oh, my God, where am I gonna send it?" is extremely difficult.  I have eight orchestral works that I've written over the last seven years, and none of them have been played.

BD:  Were these commissions, or things you had to write?

IB:  They were not commissioned; they were pieces I wanted to write.  But, then again, I wrote a Symphony Concertante for clarinet, trumpet, marimba and orchestra in 1968, and it wasn't till 1985, I believe, that it was performed by Julius Hegyi with the Albany Symphony Orchestra.  He happened to have three soloists and was looking for a piece.  I had met him at an ASCAP convention in Chicago, where he conducted my Short Symphony [Symphony no.2, "Testament to a Big City"] in a closed concert which was not open to the public.  It was the next year that Gordon Peters did it.  Hegyi was looking for that piece and he premiered it.  I had to wait 18 years, but it was well worth it.

BD:  You're also a composer of film and television and incidental music.  Does this take away from your concert writing?

IB:  I'm not doing it anymore.  As I say, I'm an anomaly because for the better part of my life I earned my living as a professional composer.  I have written music for documentary films, art films, industrial films, animated films and a television special.

BD:  Is that kind of thing harder, easier, or just different?

IB:  I didn't find it harder or different in any respect.  I was extremely lucky because I was dealing in the non-theatrical programs.  I was not dealing in big, large-scale commercial films.  I didn't have to write love themes or chase sequences or worry about the fact that there was so much money involved.  I worked for very literate documentary filmmakers, some of the finest in the world including Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke, and I was able to duplicate very closely my concert style so that I didn't have to compromise in any way.  It was a great learning experience.  I learned how to rehearse an orchestra and conduct maybe twenty or thirty of the finest musicians available and I learned how to write 20 minutes' worth of music without having to go to the piano.  And because I was dealing in a non-theatrical field, I had a chance to try out my symphonic ideas.  So I had the advantage of doing this!  I also did television specials or movies of the week and openings and closings of shows.  From 1960 to 1970, my NBC News signature theme was played on the Huntley-Brinkley Report over the NBC television network.  This seven- or eight-second theme would come on and it used to tickle me that I could make this good living out of seven seconds worth of music!  [Both chuckle]  But why me or why not me instead of somebody else, for example?  I never was hired in Hollywood; I never did a big commercial film for some reason.  Maybe my personality, but I never made it with those people!  Then again I'm happy about it, because, as I said, I was able to duplicate my own sound, which is what it's all about.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  When you're writing a piece, how do you know when the thing is finished?

IB:  That's a good question.  I have a tendency to start out thinking I'm writing a small five- or eight-minute piece, and before I know it I got 20 minutes!  That's really a very good question.  I think it comes to the point where you feel that you have taken the material that you have started with and utilized it and organized it and developed it to the point where you can't do any more.

BD:  Do you go back and revise scores later?

IB:  I don't.  You have to remember that young composers have ideas, but they don't always have the technique to be able to carry out these ideas.  So many times the pieces don't always come off just exactly the way they want them to.  When you've been writing music as long as I have, in three or four months I can sit at my desk and write a 25-minute orchestral work without going near the piano.  I've trained my ear.  I have a technique and it's no great accomplishment, but I could never have done that in my early twenties at all!  I never could have done it and I wouldn't have known where to go!

BD:  In composing, where is the balance between inspiration and technique?

IB:  I don't know what inspiration is.  I get up every day and I work whether I'm inspired or whether I'm not inspired.  As has been well known, I happen to be what's called a "weekend horse player."  I go to the racetrack and I find the tremendous rhythmic drive of the racetrack quite commensurate with the rhythmic beat of the city.  I've lived all my life in the city; there's nothing of the great wild or open spaces of Montana in my music.  It's the kind of music that could only have been written by someone who lived his life in a city.  And it's strange, because one of the greatest influences on me was Béla Bartók.  Now Béla Bartók was a composer of the soil, of the people.  He used folk music and music from his native land!  I'm a composer of glass and steel, but where I was fascinated by Bartók had to do with the rhythmic propulsion.  That's where the influence of Bartók came in.  And then, to a large extent, the other great influence for me was Edgard Varèse.  I'm very fond of writing very high sounds that slip in between each other, in between the notes, and clash.  But one has to know when to put contrast in and when not to.  I'm not much on program notes, I must tell you.  I find some composers write pages of program notes for a piece that lasts three minutes, usually ascribing all kinds of heroic proportions and philosophical connotations which are quite often figments of their imagination.

BD:  You would just rather have the music speak for itself?

IB:  That's right.  Music is not descriptive, it's evocative.  I have one set of program notes for every piece I write, and that is, "The prominence of the musical line is determined by dynamics, by impact accents, by phrasing, by color and contrast, and the usual general character of the music itself.  There are certain 12-tone and jazz elements in my work, but they're neither strict nor formal."  And sometimes I just let the players fight it out for themselves.  [Both chuckle]

BD:  Do the players ever find things in your scores that you didn't know were there?

IB:  In the early years, but not in the last ten or fifteen.  When you've been writing music, as I have, for over 40 years, you know what you want and you know how to say it.  It's not really necessary for the performer to recreate the piece, although that's what really happens, in a sense.  A writer writes a book and it's in front of you to read.  A painter does a picture and it's on the wall for you to see.  But a piece of music is nothing more than a decorative piece of paper until someone comes along and recreates it.  And this recreation is what the performer does.  Now you don't want it to be recreated to the point where you can't recognize it!  But you certainly want a certain amount of leeway and an imaginative performer can do this.  But that's really what performance is all about and that is a recreation of those notes that you have written.  And you can't do it by yourself, you need somebody else.

BD:  Have you done anything with electronics?

IB:  I haven't.  You can't teach an old dog new tricks.  [Both chuckle]  I've been tempted to look into the DX7 and the KX88.  [Both are/were Yamaha electric keyboards; the DX7 keyboard synthesizer was marketed from 1983 to 1986 and the KX88 was an electric keyboard with 88 weighted keys, which was marketed in the 1980s]  I can conceive of it as an adjunct to live musicians.  But I really haven't done anything.  I tell you the truth, my theory is very simple:  I try to write unusual music for the usual instruments rather than usual music for unusual instruments.

BD:  Have you done anything with the human voice?

IB:  I have been an instrumental composer most of my life but I'm just beginning to tackle the voice.  I'm working on a song cycle to poems of Hart Crane because it's my desire to write an enormous symphony based on Hart Crane's epic poem The Bridge.  I've been preparing for it all my life and I'm just beginning to tackle it.  It is a new challenge and it creates certain problems.  But for the most part, I'm an instrumental composer and now I'm sort of changing canoes in midstream, so to speak.

BD:  You haven't said the last, though, in your instrumental style.

IB:  No, no, I have about six or seven more works that I want to write, and then I'm gonna put my pencil down.  I'm going to say, "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I'm free at last."

BD:  [Genuinely surprised]  Really???  You will stop composing?

IB:  [Without hesitation]  Yes.  I believe that a composer, or any artist, is a prisoner of his talent, and I'm not gonna do what so many of the great composers did, and that is to spend the last years of their lives recreating their earlier music.  I'm gonna put myself in a position of saying, "I've said what I want to say; here are my children; play it or not play it, I've had enough and then I'm gonna write my autobiography.  [Both chuckle]  I think I have a lot of things to say about something that has rarely been touched upon, and that is what it means to be a composer of concert music in 1987, in the midst of the greatest super-business society ever put on this earth.  How to function in a sense, almost, as a 19th-century artist living in another time and what it means to be a composer of concert music in this 20th century!

BD:  Despite their proliferation, are composers, then, becoming extinct?

IB:  One doesn't know what's gonna happen with the synthesizer; one can only see what's happening at this moment.  Many musicians who used to do a lot of recording dates are lucky if they get one job a month now.  The synthesizer is putting a lot of them out of business.  I don't know what's gonna happen.  And the way the computer music is going and everything, I don't know if we'll have music schools in the same sense that we have had in the past!  One thing is certain: the people making guitars and making synthesizers and making computers are making a lot of money!

BD:  Should concert music be something that should be let to die peacefully???

IB:  I really don't know what to say about it.  I think that some of the orchestras in this country are moribund.  They're being supported by one institution, and if this institution, this corporation, decides to take their funds away, the orchestras will go down the drain!  It's a very sad thing that's happening and I'm very fearful about it.

BD:  The opera house is sometimes called a museum.

IB:  Yes.

BD:  Will the symphony orchestra also become a museum?

IB:  It already is!  Look at all of the tremendous amount of vitality that's going on in performing music, and it's all being done on college campuses!  The college campus, the university, has taken over the aegis of the American composer!  And many of the performers prefer to stay on the campus because they're free to play what they wanna play and they're free from all kind of conservative managerial control that goes on with the orchestras and the musical organizations that are outside of the campus.  Of course, I think that this is a danger for many of the composers.  You have to understand something, Bruce:  98 percent of all composers in this country teach in universities or music schools.  The IRS, for example, does not call composers "composers"; they are professors of music.  Poets are called English teachers.

BD:  So what are you?

IB:  I happen to fall into that category of being a professional composer because I earn my living from writing music.

BD:  So what do you put down on the 1040?

IB:  The IRS has called me in several times, and also a lot of other freelance artists.  Anybody who does not have steady employment - an actor, a writer, a painter, or a composer - is under a different category than professors of music.  Charles Ives would never be considered by the IRS a composer.  He was an insurance man, and an American composer who wins the Pulitzer Prize, but who earns his living working for a bank, is a bank employee.  There isn't any doubt about it.

BD:  It's a skewed set of values, someplace.

IB:  Of course, it's crazy!  And then you have the music establishment which says, "Heaven forbid you should make money writing music.  You're not a professional; you're not a serious artist, but a commercial hack!"  It's an incredible Catch-22!  You can't win!

BD:  Is there any way for the composer to win?

IB:  What's going on now with the young composers is very significant.  Many of them are opening their own publishing companies and publishing their own music.  And they're distributing their own music.  In order for music to be performed it must circulate and many of them are doing this.  They're bypassing the traditional publishing houses.

BD:  Have recordings played a hand in this?

IB:  I think so, yes.  But I think what's really played a hand is the tremendous proliferation; there are so many young people writing music today and they are not being absorbed by publishing companies or record companies!  They've simply to go on their own and do it.  Many of them, probably 98 percent of the American composers teach in universities, but when a university job becomes available, five or six hundred composers apply for it!  I always talk to young composers and I say, "Look, if you don't wanna teach, there aren't too many options open for you.  Especially if you don't like racehorses and you haven't found a wealthy wife or wealthy husband.  This is another aspect of the scene - there are so many women composers today.  It's my contention that in the next ten years the most important composers in America are gonna be female!  We've always had composers who were women but they were never taken seriously before.

BD:  And now they are.

IB:  And now they are and this has changed a great many things.  But so many of these young composers starting out don't wanna teach, so there aren't too many options open.  Since I wrote a big book on motion picture music a few years ago called Knowing the Score, [Knowing the Score:  Notes on Film Music (1975)] many of them write to me and have solicited my help in trying to show them how to put tapes together that they can play for people making films.  They want to see if they can get themselves an opportunity to write music for films because of the tremendous amounts of money being paid.  When you consider it, a film composer, with one score, can make three times what a first-class professor of music at a university can make, and do it in three weeks!  So everything is topsy-turvy.  It has nothing to do, anymore, with what I remember.  [Both chuckle]  I don't know whether I'd even wanna start over as a composer knowing what I know today!

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

IB:  I am, and I'm also pessimistic.  I know my wife always says to me, "Always be upbeat.  You're doing what you wanna do and that's what important.  You can never be a failure if you're doing what you wanna do."  I always wanted to write music.  I wanted to be a composer.  I don't think that I had the initial background that some of the young people had that I went to school with, but I had something they didn't have:  I wanted to be a composer more'n anything in the world.  I didn't work at it 24 hours a day, I worked at it 30 hours a day.  I spent a great deal of my life practicing technique and going to concerts and listening and trying to do everything.  I wrote three or four symphonies before I was 30 and threw every one of 'em away.

bazelon BD:  Why?

IB:  Because I didn't think they were worthy of what I wanted to really express.  I'm glad that I only had a couple pieces published in my 20s.  I think I would've been embarrassed by them.

BD:  You wish to disown those early pieces?

IB:  Yes, I normally do, outside of a few of them.  Recently I had five early piano pieces recorded on CRI and I was amazed to discover they weren't bad at all!  But it took me a long time to mature and this is unfortunate because in America we have a tendency to dismiss artists who haven't made it by the time they're 35 or 40.  I think this is wrong.  People develop in their own time and it takes a certain amount of time to find your own sounds and to work at it.

BD:  Yet while you're doing this, the whole world changes and the sounds change, and everything.

IB:  Absolutely.  That's right, and sometimes after you find your sound, you discover it's not fashionable, and that becomes difficult.  I'm very pleased, however, with audiences' response to my work.  I think they respond to the tremendous rhythmic propulsion of my music.  I really feel that this is an aspect that they respond to, and, of course, that's what they respond to in pop-rock, too.

BD:  Should we try to get the kids, or the adult audiences who listen to pop and rock, to come into the concert hall to hear your music, as well as the earlier masters?

IB:  There have been many attempts made, but I'm not sure whether they're productive or counterproductive.  A lot of the symphony orchestras are now beginning to play movie scores and a lighter kind of music that they feel will attract an audience.  They're not competing with the Boston Pops, but sometimes they are doing things that certainly have not been very traditional.  I think one of the greatest factors that we can do is to send composers around to high schools, where the kids are just beginning, and try to make them understand that there's a big difference between hearing music and listening to music.  Hell, a duck hears; so does a frog!  But listening is intelligent perception.  It's trying to understand what the composer does with the tune.  He doesn't just play the tune, he develops it; he makes it into a piece.  I've often had interesting response from young people who have come to my concerts when I've conducted.  They've come back and told me how much they got out of it!  I think that a greater effort has to be made, but we, as concert composers, don't have access to the mass communications channels.  I often ask an audience, "Name me one other composer beside Bernstein, Copland, Menotti and, recently, Phil Glass, who's ever been on network television."  They see pop-rock songwriters all the time and the result is that they think that a composer is a songwriter and a musician is someone who plays in a band!  Who else do they see?  I think this is incredible! 

BD:  And yet we're having this constant barrage of sound.  You have the little Walkmans and you have it in elevators, you have it in taxicabs, you have it everywhere.  Isn't this creating, like Virgil Thomson told me, a lack of attention?

IB:  Of course!  Everybody is bombarded, and what Virgil meant was that people are turning it off!  I suspect that Beethoven were alive today, he wouldn't know what to do!

BD:  Would he be a hero?

IB:  Oh, I don't think so.  In fact, my theory is that if Paganini and Liszt were alive today they'd be rock stars!  They were as much a part of showbiz in their day as some of the composers I know are a part of showbiz today!  I suspect they would've been rock stars.

BD:  [Chuckles]  Is 'rock' music?

IB:  To my ears, and of course my ears are very sophisticated, I find it mindless, infantile, repetitive, vulgar, and devoid of artistic standards.

BD:  Can we say, then, you don't care for it?

IB:  Yes, you can.  But as one young lady I met on a plane said to me, "Yeah, but why don't you like it?"  In fact, she asked me, "What do you think of The Who?"  I said to her, "What?"  And she said, "The Who, the rock group!"  I said, "What do you think of Mozart?"  And she said, "Oh, he's good, too!"  After I stopped laughing, I thought to myself, "Well, maybe Mozart's a group; I don't know."  I don't listen to as much music as I used to; perhaps I don't need it.  I'm involved, now, in trying to fill out my own circle, to write my own work.  It's hard enough in this world and this society to tune everything off and compose.  There was a time I used to go to the MacDowell Colony and now I go down to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts to just to get away.  I suspect I go to the racetrack on Saturday just to get away from music for a while because it's occupied so much of my life.  The big problem is, as an American composer, I take music very seriously.  How do you communicate with masses of individuals who think of music as something less than serious - as a diversion, as an amusement, as something that's easy on the eyes and easy on the ears and easy on the mind?  How do you communicate with these people?  Is it possible?  I don't know!

BD:  Have you thought of maybe creating something that would be played over the speakers at the racetrack between each of the races?

IB:  I did write the Churchill Downs Concerto [Churchill Downs (Chamber Concerto no. 2), for brass, string septet, and percussion (1971)].

BD:  But that's for concert, though.

IB:  Yes, but I sent it to the president of Churchill Downs at the time it was recorded, and he wrote me back a letter and said, "Some of the people here liked it, but for me, I couldn't find the clippity-clop!"

BD:  [Laughs]

IB:  I had a piece played by a major orchestra once, and one of the members of the trustees came up to me afterwards and said, "Mr. Bazelon, I loved those themes that you wrote, but who actually put down all the notes for the orchestra to play?"

BD:  They expected an arranger to do it.

IB:  Yes.  I said, "Well, did you think Beethoven had an arranger?  Do you think that I would put my name on something I'd not written?"  And she said, "Well, don't you people have someone who helps you with this?"

BD:  Unbelievable.

IB:  It is unbelievable, really.  It is unbelievable.  But it's still great getting back to Chicago.

BD:  Good.  I'm glad you still like the city.

IB:  I do.  And I must say that when my Short Symphony was played here two years ago, both of the critics - Robert C. Marsh [Chicago Sun-Times] and John Van Rhein [Chicago Tribune] - were very, very good to me.  They got something out of my work that pleased me very much and I was very, very appreciative.  In fact, I like to tell my friends and colleagues that if they'd have been reviewing for the New York Times, I would've won the Pulitzer Prize. 

BD:  Let me ask you about some of your recordings. 

IB:  I have ten major works recorded.  The first was a Ford Foundation commission and included my Fifth Symphony on one side, performed by the Indianapolis Orchestra under Izler Solomon, and on the opposite side was my Churchill Downs jazz chamber concerto.  Propulsions, a concerto for seven percussionists is also recorded on the CRI label with my Brass Quintet performed by the American Brass Quintet.  My Duo for Viola and Piano is also on a CRI record as is my Sound Dreams, recorded by the wonderful Collage group in Boston - that's for six instruments [flute, clarinet, viola, cello, piano, and percussion].  And recently I shared a record with my friend and colleague Elie Siegmeister.  Two of his song-cycles are on one side, and mine is piano music - Imprints . . .on Ivory and Strings, and Five Early Piano Pieces.  In addition to that, the Boehm Woodwind Quintet has recorded my Woodwind Quintet for Orion Records, and, of course, my Short Symphony is recorded by the Louisville Orchestra on their label.  So far, these are the ten works that I have.  I've completed a piano concerto which Wanda Maximilien, who recorded my piano works, is learning at the present time, and we are going to play it for several conductors and hopefully see if we can't find an orchestra that'll premiere it.  [Note: This work, Trajectories, was recorded on the first of (so far) eight CDs on the Albany label devoted to orchestral and chamber music of Bazelon.]

BD:  Are you pleased with these recordings that have been made of your music?

IB:  [Without hesitation]  Yes, very much.  I've had a chance to supervise them.  I also have worked closely with Carter Harman [(1919-2007)], who was formerly at CRI, and his recordings are really first-rate.  Well, Louisville Records ran out of money when they were recording my piece and I would've liked for them to have repeated one of the movements.  I always teased Robert Whitney [conductor of the Louisville Orchestra from its founding in 1937 to 1967] about it, but they did their share.  They recorded an enormous number of American composers and Whitney was the person responsible for most of them.  He's a very, very great man who has done more than any other conductor to further the range of American music.

BD:  You don't need to mention specific names, but are there any young composers coming along whose music you are impressed by?

IB:  Yes, there are several.  One is a young man named Robert Beaser in New York, who runs with the Musical Elements which is a contemporary music group who are quite different than many of the contemporary groups.  This group is very catholic in its taste; it's not hermetically sealed and it's open to composers of many different styles.  He's had pieces played by the Philharmonic and he just has gotten a commission now from the St. Louis Symphony.  He's a very talented person.  I've also been impressed with a couple of the students that I met here.  One is a young man named Jonathan Elliot who is a student of Ralph Shapey, and I was very impressed with his piece.  There are a great many others...  Of course, my colleague Richard Rodney Bennett is a comparatively young man.  He just celebrated his 50th birthday and he's one of the most extraordinary musician-composers I've ever met in my life.  He is an extraordinary individual and a very gifted person.

BD:  Now as you approach your 65th birthday, is there any one thing that stands out as having surprised you the most over that time?

IB:  That sense of exhilaration that I received walking out onto a stage, mounting the podium and facing an audience, and then turning around and realizing that in a few seconds I was gonna give a downbeat and 100 musicians were gonna play what I had written.  You forget about the disappointments, you forget about the frustrations, you forget about the rejections - and, God, this profession has plenty of all of it.  I can't tell you the number of rejections I've had from conductors who never even looked at scores.  And suddenly you realize that it's all been worth it and you thank those people who encouraged you along the way.  There's a sense of power, there's a sense of almost magnificence that comes from having this opportunity to do it.  It hasn't happened that many times in my life, but when it happened it's been wonderful.  And, as I say, I have protected myself by having a great number of dreams.  In fact, I'm fond of saying I've even allowed my dreams to have dreams, and one of them is that before I leave this earth I have a chance to get a piece played by the Chicago Symphony.  I still think it's gonna happen one of these days, as a surprise.

BD:  I hope it does.  I really hope it does.  Thank you for being a composer.

IB:  Thank you, Bruce.

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Irwin Bazelon Is Dead at 73; Wrote Symphonies and Jingles

Published: Friday, August 4, 1995

Irwin Bazelon, a composer whose angular, rhythmically complex and sometimes jazz-tinged works evoke the tension, energy and restless drama of contemporary urban life, died on Wednesday at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. He was 73 and had homes in Manhattan and Sagaponack, L.I.

The cause was complications after heart surgery, said Bette Snapp, his press representative.

Mr. Bazelon had an unusually varied career. In the late 1940's, his principal interest was jazz, and his first professional job was as a composer and pianist for a dance band in Chicago. A concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra inspired him to study symphonic music, but before his own serious works found their way to the concert stage, Mr. Bazelon spent 20 years writing music for documentary films and cartoons. He also composed commercial jingles and the theme used by NBC News during the 1960's. But from the mid-1970's, he devoted himself almost exclusively to symphonic scores and chamber works.

Irwin Allen Bazelon was born in Evanston, Ill., on June 4, 1922. He studied composition at DePaul University, and after earning bachelor's and master's degrees there, he worked with Paul Hindemith at Yale University and with Darius Milhaud at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. He moved to New York City in 1948, and worked as a railroad reservations clerk for six years before finding a composing job with United Productions of America, an animation studio.

He also began writing music for documentaries and television dramas, and for productions of the American Shakespeare Theater in Stratford, Conn. When he decided to give up soundtrack composition after two decades, he wrote a valedictory of sorts, "Knowing the Score: Notes on Film Music" (1975), a frank book in which he discussed both the artistry and drawbacks of the craft. Still, Mr. Bazelon's soundtrack work bought him the freedom to write his more serious works. As he put it in a 1994 interview, the eight seconds of music he composed for NBC News "was enough to subsidize three symphonies."

All told, he completed nine symphonies and was at work on his 10th, a large orchestral and choral piece inspired by the writings of Hart Crane. Mr. Bazelon's works are distinguished for their coloration -- he was particularly partial to brass and percussion -- and for their use of elaborate, propulsive rhythms.

An eclectic, Mr. Bazelon used (and often intertwined) both 12-tone techniques and jazz moves, and often drew on seemingly conflicting images, as in his "Quiet Piece for a Violent Time."

He also brought nonmusical enthusiasms into his work. A horse-racing enthusiast, he captured that passion in the compositions "Sunday Silence," named for a racehorse, and "Churchill Downs," the site of the Kentucky Derby.

He is survived by his wife, Cecile Gray Bazelon, and a brother, Edward Bazelon of Chicago.

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on March 4, 1987.  Portions were aired (along with recordings) on WNIB two months later, also in 1988, 1992 and 1997, and on WNUR in 2006.  This transcription was made in 2008 and posted on this website at that time.

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

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