Composer  Miriam  Gideon
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


When we think about pioneering people in history, our thoughts often turn to specific political or sociological or artistic movements.  There is always progress being made, and special individuals help to push things along or even change directions.  While men have gained the most notoriety, women have also achieved greatness
often when it was not praised or even noticed!

Musical performance has mostly always included women, but up until very recent decades the compositional side has featured very few females.  There has always been a small number, and most of them just quietly penned their ideas, some of which were and are regarded as significant.  One such quiet worker was Miriam Gideon, who
brought forth many interesting and exciting items and had success both in performance and on recordings.  Details of her life are in the box at the end of this conversation, and I have also included a few of links to my interviews with others who are mentioned. 

During my career it was my pleasure to include her works in the programming on a regular basis, and it was not long before I asked for a bit of her time to chat about it all.  Being in radio, I was used to watching the clock carefully and doing things exactly as specified, so we begin this presentation as I was dialing the telephone . . . . .

[Dial tone; sound of phone being dialed; phone rings]

Miriam Gideon:  Hello?

Bruce Duffie:  May I speak with Miriam Gideon, please?

MG:  Speaking!

BD:  This is Bruce Duffie, calling from Chicago.

MG:  Yes, I expected you just about this minute, and here you are!  [Chuckles]

BD:  That's what happens in radio; you tend to watch the clock carefully.

MG:  What kinds of questions are you going to ask me?

BD:  Let me begin by asking you, what do you as a composer expect of the public?

MG:  [In excited exasperation, as if somewhat immediately stumped by the question]  Mmm!  Are they all going to be that hard?  [Both laugh]  Well, for one thing, I think we have to be aware of the fact that you can't hear music until you've heard it.  In other words, the first time you hear something, even if it's in a really familiar idiom, you don't really get it; you don't get into the inner part of it.  So when you ask me what I expect of the public, I expect that they are going to hear my music
or whatever they hearonce, at least at the moment of the concert.  So I don't expect that they'll get into the inner depths. 

BD:  Is it different, perhaps, for a first performance than for a work that is more familiar?

gideonMG:  Yes, I think it is.  For one thing, I expect a certain amount of resistance.  I'm speaking now about a work that's heard for the first time.  There will be a certain amount of resistance, probably unconscious resistance because it's new.  It's hard to hear new things.  On the other hand, I expect a certain amount of curiosity and willingness and, I suppose, sympathy
unless there's some reason why they don't feel sympathetic.  There are all kinds of prejudices that come into play.  So it's a combination of resistance and interest, sympathy and enthusiasm.  That's about the mixture that I feel I get from audiences.  Even if it's not a large audience or even if it's just friends in a room listening to something of mine, I have a very strong sense of how they're feeling, how they're experiencing the music.  I don't really have any proof that I'm right, but in a larger audience you have ways of telling by applause and by the kind of things they say.  They're very, very different at different times; there are times when I feel the whole audience is with me and times when I feel that it's more scattered.

BD:  Even in the same piece?

MG:  Yes.  Well, no.  Certain pieces evoke a more immediate, and a really deeper response.  A lot of the music that I have written in the last few years has been settings of text.  One of the reasons I do that, I suppose, is the reason that most composers do that
it's a kind of bridge.  Words are a kind of bridge to the audience.  And words fascinate me for all kinds of reasons, including that we have lines of communication.

BD:  Even when the text you're using is not in the language of the audience?

MG:  Yes, because for one thing, as you may know, I have often set foreign languages in translation and I've used both the translation and the original form in the same piece.  So they're bound to get the meaning sooner or later.  And if I don't do that, if it's still a foreign language, I make sure that the translation is in the program.  But it isn't just a question of what the words mean.  There's a whole aura of sound around words that fascinates me.  When it's incorporated with the actual intellectual meaning of the words
if it's appropriately set in the instruments that are used and the melodic lines and so forthI think that combination can have quite a profound effect on the listener. 

BD:  This is the old operatic question
which is more important, the text or the music?

MG:  I can only answer that by saying opera is different because there's a story.  But in texts other than operatic, a really different art form is created.  The words are not just enhanced or translated into another kind of sound, but they take on a sort of supercharged meaning through the music.  It becomes really another art form.  What often happens with a successful setting of a text is an immediate and rather profound reaction on the part of the audience.  I've noticed a difference, not just my own music but in other people's, too.  Very often there's a wide difference in the kind of response I can sense.  Words have that sort of magic thing that they can do, if they're handled right.

BD:  Are you ever treating the voice as you would another instrument?  Is it a clarinet or a violin?

MG:  No, no, not at all!  It's pretty hard to say; it has to do with my sense of what the voice can do as a voice, although I don't think I really think consciously of that.  It's the vehicle of the words.  I don't write the kind of music in which the vocal line is instrumental or is part of a whole instrumental mixture.  I don't feel that way about the voice.

BD:  Do you craft the vocal line a little bit differently if you know for whom the piece is being written?

MG:  Yes, I think that that comes into it.  Fortunately, in the last several years I pretty much know who's going to perform; it's usually a commission, or some performers have asked for it.  So I certainly very much gauge the kind of performance and the kind of music I write in terms of who's going to do it.

BD:  You don't find that that would be limiting to future performances with different artists?

MG:  Well, I hadn't thought about that.  It'd entered my mind on the fringe, but I'm happy to say that I've really had a lot of luck in my performers; they're very skillful and they're also typical, so if they can do it another good performer can do it, too.  I haven't really had problems of that kind.  Another thing that's interesting is that I very seldom write for a man or a woman.  It can be either.

BD:  You just write for a medium voice or a high voice or a low voice?

MG:  That's right.  Musicians have asked me very often about the octave difference.  Of course a tenor sounds higher than a contralto would sound for the same pitch.  But it seems to work out.  It really does.

BD:  Even though there are no changes in the chamber group that is playing it which might change the color?

MG:  That's right.  It seems to work out.  I must confess that I'm sometimes a little surprised at the sonorities of the piano that may or may not fit as well with a man or a woman, but it's very slight and I've never made any adjustments.

BD:  Would you make adjustments if a performer came to you and asked for them?

MG:  [Thoughtfully and deliberately, considering each word]  I don't think so.  I really don't think so because it would change the nature of the whole piece.  It really would.  Of course, if the instruments are changed
let's say a bassoon plays instead of a clarinetI would certainly have to make changes because of the impossibility of some ranges and so on.  But aside from that, I don't think I would make changes.  Maybe I'm just lazy!

BD:  No, maybe you're very convinced that what you have written is the way it should sound!

MG:  Yes, well that's what I think is part of it.  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  When you're writing a piece, what kind of audience do you write it for?  Or does that even enter into your consideration at all?

MG:  When a piece is commissioned, usually you have a pretty good idea of what the audience is.  And I must say, I'm sure that a lot of contemporary music that's written and played in New York and in any large city, is played for a special kind of audience; they're the people that can stand going to contemporary music concerts!  So I know, pretty much, what kind of audience is going to hear it.  Now my ideal audience is one that comes to hear a mixed concert; in other words, music of different styles and different periods.  I think that's an ideal way to hear music, but it doesn't happen often enough!

BD:  Perhaps treating that same chamber group through the ages?

MG:  Yes, that would be very interesting.  But what I really mean is, for instance, I have a piano sonata that's going to be played in a few days, and the rest of the program, I blush to say, is Bach, Mozart and Beethoven
.  My piece comes after the intermission and before the final piece, which is the Beethoven Eroica Variations.  But the thing that I have experienced, and I think other people feel the same waythough not everybodyis that when you hear pieces of different periods in absolutely different styles, you are refreshed by the change, and every successive piece sounds interesting and more alive than it would if the styles were much more similarthe way they are in most modern-music concerts.  Lots of people don't think in those terms and don't think it's a good idea, but I find it's a very good idea.  If I have the luck to get a piece played on a mixed concert like that, I'm very happy about it.  It doesn't happen too often, though.

BD:  Does it make you feel good to stand alongside the great masters?

MG:  Oh, I don't mind.  I don't think anybody thinks in comparison.  At least I hope not; that isn't the idea.

BD:  Do you feel that you, as a composer, are part of a musicological lineage?

MG:  You mean am I a descendant?

BD:  A descendant, or a forebear!

MG:  Yeah, I think so; I think I feel that.  When I write, I don't try for any particular style at all!  That would be absolutely the most inhibiting thing that could happen to me as I write.  But I feel that I'm part of an ongoing language.  I write what I feel is right for me at that time.  It's part of what's gone before and it's partly new.  It is what I myself have to say, and I think that's the only way anybody should compose, frankly.  I think that everybody has something unique and special to say; some, of course, are much more interesting and more important than others.  But it's only in writing in those terms that you can compose anything authentic.

BD:  When you're writing a piece, do you want to write something and hope that someone will commission it, or do you wait for the commission and then decide how best to arrange it?

gideonMG:  Oh, I don't do that.  In the past I've written what I felt like writing and most of the time it was performed.  In the last 15 or 20 years I have had commissions offered, or performers have said, "If you will write such-and-such, we'll play it on such-and-such a day."  It's the performance that attracts me, so that's the way I've been working.  I've been lucky, I guess.  When I started composing and getting performances, there weren't nearly as many composers around, let alone women composers.  I think it was much easier to get performances; I don't remember trying.  I studied with Lazare Saminsky [(1882-1959), Ukrainian Jewish performer, conductor, and composer, who focused on Jewish music] and with Roger Sessions [(1896-1985), American composer].  They were really my principal teachers, and were instrumental in a lot of music-making organizations, like the League of Composers [founded in New York City in 1923 as an American arm of the International Society for Contemporary Music] and the ISCM [established in 1922 in Salzburg, Austria].  They saw to it that young composers that they were interested in got performances.

BD:  Is this not happening still today?

MG:  Yes, but there are many, many more composers.

BD:  Are there too many composers?

MG:  [Chuckles and speaks with good-natured exasperation]  Well, I could say there are never too many good ones.  But there are too many to make it easy, that's for sure.  There are more organizations playing, so that helps a little bit.  But it is much harder these days for composers, especially young ones, to get performances.  About that there's no doubt.  That's the situation in New York, but I think it's true of any large city.

BD:  Is there any way of getting more of the general public more interested in contemporary music?

MG:  [Thinks for a moment]  You're asking the 64-million-dollar question!

BD:  Well, put in your two cents worth, then.  [Both chuckle]

MG:  There have been lots of ideas; for instance, the Horizons concerts here at the Philharmonic.  [The "Horizons '83" new music series which was developed by Jacob Druckman (the New York Philharmonic's composer-in-residence) and begun in June, 1983]  That's run for three or four seasons, and I think they're going to have another season this spring.  That's presented in such a way that has attracted large audiences.  The choice of works on these has to be very careful; there often has to be a very theatrical element or something very avant-garde to attract audiences.  Otherwise, I would say that the best device is the thing I was just talking about
alternate modern works and brand new works with other works.  Years ago, when the ISCM was working in a situation where there weren't as many composers and there weren't recordings the way there are now, they very often would have a program in which there was a combination of new worksmaybe some of the Bartók Quartets that had never been heard in this country very much because they hadn't been recorded and new works by young composers that were completely unknown, and then some very rarely performed early work, like a 15th-century mass or something like that.  Those were fascinating programs and they attracted quite large audiences.

BD:  So it was all music that was new to the public, even though it was not all recent music.

MG:  That's right.  That's right, and it was absolutely fascinating.  I think to some extent that could be done today; of course it would have to be very carefully chosen.

BD:  You bring up the subject of recordings.  What is the impact of recordings on society today?

MG:  That's really hard to answer.  With the availability of so much, I'm sure that much more is bought and played, though I hesitate to say more is listened to because hearing music in the background has become such a part of our lives.  I doubt whether too much more real listening is going on now than when there were no records available, or very few.  However, I think on the whole, the impact of more availability has been good.  I really do think so.

BD:  In my chat with him, Virgil Thomson talked about a certain "lack of attention."

MG:  Yes.  Yes, absolutely.  To just sit and listen to something is an activity that people are embarrassed at.  They really are!

BD:  It's an art that is getting lost, I'm afraid.

MG:  [Emphatically]  Yes.  Yes, absolutely.  Of course in a concert they're forced to unless they read the program, which they do very often.  But even if they're sitting there not holding a program in front of them, who knows whether they're really listening?  We were talking before about the newness and the resistance which enters into it.  It's very hard to get real listening, whether records are more available or not.  But I do think that recordings have helped.  There's no doubt.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Let us talk about some of your works specifically.  Since we're discussing texts, tell me about Rhymes from the Hill.

MG:  That's recorded with Jan DeGaetani and uses poems by Christian Morgenstern [(1871-1914), a German author and poet].  Those are in German, a very witty and very special kind of language which has actually been translated, but I didn't set the English translations; I simply set the German.  I used clarinet and marimba.  Because they're grotesque, witty, a little macabre and ironic, it seemed to me that the choice of marimba, with its sort of hard-hearted sound, might be appropriate.  And Jan DeGaetani's voice was just absolutely perfect for that.  The translations are with the record because otherwise it doesn't make sense; it's such a special kind of German.  They were a delight to set and I hope that I did right by them.  It's hard to say unless I describe them in detail.  There are, for example, the clocks that move in a strange way
one will move at the rate that a person wants it to, so if he wants time held back, the clock will go slower and if he wants time speeded up, it will speed up.  Of course the music indicates all these things.  I think the term in the poetry is "a clockwork with a heart," and at that point I set it so it's a distorted version of the opening of the Tristan prelude.  Not everybody catches it, but it's there.  So it's that kind of parody which is very delightful.  And the Lullaby, which is a kind of takeoff on the well-known "Sleep, Baby Sleep," is sort of macabre.  "Sleep, baby sleep; in the sky there is a sheep," or something like that, and "a cloud eats it up."  I've forgotten exactly what the words are, but instead of this nice, lulling melody I use a kind of vague resemblance to it that becomes very dissonant and very jagged, so you know something is happening there.  It's that kind of distortion which takes place in it and I hope it gets across.

BD:  Sure
things are not always what they seem.

MG:  That's right, exactly.  Another record, where Judith Raskin sings Songs of Youth and Madness, that is one of my dual-lingual settings.  The original German is by Friedrich Hölderlin and I used the translations by Michael Hamburger, who is the official translator of Hölderlin.  I alternated the German and English.  I started with the English.  I always think that's a good idea because when people listen, they'd like to know what it's about.  Then as you follow that English stanza by the German, there's a sort of a jolt that takes place aesthetically.  I hope it's a good jolt, a sort of surprise and the language of the music becomes more Germanic, more intense in this case.  Judith Raskin did a marvelous, marvelous job.

BD:  Are you pleased with most of the recordings of your music that exist?

NW-cdMG:  Yes, I can honestly say that I feel very, very fortunate.  I don't think there's a single recording
and I have quite a fewwhere the performers are not first-rate.  They are so special; they're so devoted to contemporary music; they're so proficient; they have such good sound, which is very important whether you're a singer or an instrumentalist.  And there's no end of work that they will not do.  They're just remarkable people to work with.  There isn't a single record that I don't feel is pretty close to what I want.  I'm happy to say that and I can't say it enough.

BD:  You're very, very fortunate.  I understand there's a special story about the Nocturnes?

MG:  Yes.  It was commissioned by a businessman who works in air conditioning, Sidney Siegel.  He lives in New York, and some years before he had come to me with a commission for a piano work.  Because his son was going to be 13 and having his bar mitzvah, instead of paying a lot of money for a party he wanted to commission a composer to write a piano work.  So he asked me.  This was not for his son to play; his son was too young and not up to it.  So I did write this piece and it has been played a good deal.  Of course he was very happy about it, but the son said he would rather have had a bicycle.  [Both laugh]  But it was too late.  Then when one of Mr. Siegel's daughters got to be 18, he asked me if I'd write something in honor of her birthday.  So I wrote Nocturnes, which is a setting of poems about the Moon.  I used a chamber orchestra and Judith Raskin sang; it was performed by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.  That was the first performance.  We all went out there
including the patron, Mr. Siegel, who was very happy and excited about it.  The recording is with the Da Capo Chamber Players who are very, very good, one of our best chamber players in New York.  But I think it's particularly lent itself to Judith Raskin's voice.  She's just absolutely beautiful.

BD:  Do you wish that there was more of this
where people who are not involved in music commission a composer to write something in honor of this or that?

MG:  Yes.  I really do.  I think it's a fine idea.  Mr. Siegel has learned a lot from this.  At the time when he first began to commission me, I asked why he didn't commission other composers, and he said it was because I was the only composer he knew!  Since then I think he's gotten to know others.  It works that way sometimes.  Of course, we get corporate help all the time in our musical organizations, and those are not musicians.  I think it's terribly important.

BD:  I'm just wondering, though, if this is a way of getting more individuals involved with contemporary music, to promote this idea of commissioning new pieces of music for special occasions?

MG:  Yes, I think that this is very important, and it seems to me that there are more and more occasions when this happens. 

BD:  Should the people be guided to established composers such as yourself, or should they be encouraged to explore university students or young budding composers?

MG:  I don't know.  I really don't know how to answer that.  If they have good guidance it's fine! 

BD:  Coming back to your works, there's the Sonata for Piano.

MG:  I wrote that about ten years ago.  It was commissioned by a very dear friend who was a pianist.  He commissioned it for his wife to play; his wife, of course, is a fine pianist.  In the last few years I haven't written too many things that were not settings of text, so this is one of the few.  It has been played and recorded.  I don't feel that my style has radically changed at any point, though I guess it's different from when I started out.  There is a recording of one of my first opuses that I recognize, and that's The Hound of Heaven.  That dates way back into the '40s.  But this, which is from the late '70s, of course sounds different, but there really hasn't been a very abrupt change of style at any point.  Although I have never used quotations, in this case I used a kind of harmonic passage
or not even as long as a passagea cell, a small group of notes in each movement.  This was the core or inspiration; it doesn't sound at all like the work from which the cell was taken — not at all!  But it generated something in me because there were associations with the work that I had taken those cells from, and that went way back into my youth.  It stirred up a whole well of feelings and wishes to write certain musical ideas which weren't related to the cell.  I don't know whether this is very clear, but I'm doing my best.

BD:  I think I'm following it...

MG:  So that's the way this thing materialized.  There are three movements and after it was written, I felt like using poetic titles.  I'm against using "Sonata no. 1, first movement
Allegro; second movement", et cetera.  I think that it's more evocative to use poetic titles, so I looked through some poetry and I came across Choruses from Atalanta by Swinburne, and I found some phrases which exactly described the strange world that I was portraying in these movements.  So I used them.  The first movement is called "Veiled Destinies;" the second is "Night, the Shadow of Light," and the third is "Rapid and Footless Herds."  I thought that was wonderful because of the imagery and it fit exactly this very presto and mysterious movement that I had written. 

BD:  Let me ask about another non-vocal work, the Lyric Piece for Strings.

cri-cdMG:  That's in fact the earliest piece of all my recorded pieces.  It was written in the very early 1940s, and I wrote it for string quartet.  I was still studying with Roger Sessions then, and strangely enough, there seemed to be more opportunity to get it played by a string orchestra than by a string quartet!  You would think the opposite, but that's the way it worked out!  As a matter of fact, my very first recording
outside of a very early oneis a symphony, the Symphonia Brevis.  You would think that would be the hardest kind of thing to get recorded, but these opportunities came up in connection with the American Composers Alliance, of which I'm a member.  They're closely connected with CRI.  At that point they were doing a lot of recording in Europe because it was less expensive, and there was a chance to get some orchestral works recorded.  So they took my Symphonia Brevis, and it was done in Zurich conducted by Jacques Lenot.  I had already a string orchestra arrangement of the Lyric Piece because there had been a local performance of it, so they also took that and it was done in Tokyo!  It's a rather intense work in one movement, and has a great deal of... [thinks for a moment] ... it's kind of hard to use any word but "lyric" quality.

BD:  If you want to use "lyric" to describe it, then it is appropriately titled!

MG:  Yes!  That's true enough.  But at any rate I can't exactly say "gentle."  It's song-like, let's say, then erupts into something quite vociferous and then subsides again into some of the material of the beginning.  I will acknowledge this piece as my offspring, and I guess I could call it "Opus 1" of my recognizable things.  I have, of course, lots and lots of music that I wrote before that.

BD:  Aside from the very early works, are there some mature works that you would not like to recognize as your offspring?

MG:  I think that's so.  A few times I've withdrawn them from the catalog of the places that keep my music, but not very many.  They are instrumental works not with text.  Every once in a while somebody ferrets them out and plays them, and they don't sound half bad.  [Both chuckle]  But it's a question; it's very hard to decide about these things.  No composer gets enough performances, and you want to be heard and remembered for what you think is your best.  So I guess that's the basis on which sometimes I'm tempted to withdraw certain works.

BD:  Are you aware of all the performances of your music that take place around the world?

MG:  No.  My music is published by American Composers Alliance, by C. F. Peters, by Bomar Publishing and a couple of others.  They will send a royalty check
which is nothing overpoweringtwice a year.  They will tell you what's played but they don't tell you where.  The same goes for radio performances.

BD:  Does it sometimes surprise you to get in the mail a review of a performance, or when somebody says, "I heard this or that, and it was a nice performance"?

MG:  Sometimes; not very often.  I would very much like to know where these things are played and who orders them, and so on, but they'd have to get additions to their staff in order to do that.  Not for me, because I don't have that many, but if you add up all their composers, it would be a big job.  I know what's done around New York, of course, or pretty much so.  I also get royalties from Europe and I have no idea where they're done.

BD:  Do the players or the ensembles not send you reviews?

MG:  If they're people that I know, they do.  But the publisher who sends me the royalty statements simply says, "Such-and-such work was ordered or was done and we are sending you royalty for it."  But I don't know who or where or why.  Of course it would be very nice to know...

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Let me broach a little different subject.  Is it special being a woman composer in this century?

bookMG:  [Chuckles]  I have to be flippant and say I've never been anything else, nor have I have I lived in any other century.  But I will say that I really was not aware of being a woman composer until somewhere in the '60s when there was a lot of talk about it.  Then I had to be aware of it and began to reflect on my experiences.  When people asked if I was discriminated against, I always said, "No, no, no!  No, not me!"  I really was treated like a composer
a young composer, and then at some point which you couldn't ascertain, not a young composerbut in those terms, not a woman composer.  But as I looked at it more carefully, and I got to the stage where I was often a judge on a panel of other composers, I realized that there are all kinds of discrimination which one isn't aware of, and that probably there was discrimination against women composers.  I think there still is, in spite of the best intentions.  I really think so.

BD:  Is it deliberately intentional or just residual inertia?

MG:  [Without hesitation]  No.  I think it's so part of consciousness.  Just like a critic can latch onto anything that would help them to say something about a composition, I think judges in competitions have a tendency to latch onto any hint of the quality of the work that they're judging.  And if it's a woman, I really think, sometimes
not everybody, in fact not most judges, but somewill have a tendency to put it down a little bit.  I'm saying that I don't want to give the impression that this is widespread because I don't think it is, but I think it still operates.  Of course there are very, very fine women composers.  I'm not in possession of statistics to judge how many there are, or which ones I would consider the best, but I know that the number is growing and so is the quality.  But the general answer to what you're saying is that I feel that there has always been discrimination and there still is, but much less.  Even though I've never recognized it, I have probably been discriminated against.

BD:  Is it safe to assume that you would rather be known simply as a composer?

MG:  Oh, yes; no question about that.  Absolutely, and I feel the one thing I really want to say loud and clear is that while I sympathize with all the efforts that women make to get performances
and they should be performedI think their one big mistake is to group themselves as women in concerts or in broadcasts or on recordings.  They don't do justice to themselves if they're heard as part of a woman's group.  I just think that's a big mistake.

BD:  So you're back to the idea of playing some Bach, some Mozart, some Beethoven and some new.

MG:  Exactly!  Exactly!  It's the same idea.  I wish I could persuade some of the women's organizations about that, to try to hear music
new music or any kindin terms of itself.  Some of them agree, but some of them don't.  I know this is true of myself, because that's what you were asking.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Coming back for a moment to music with text, why no operas?

MG:  I did write one opera, and that was a setting of a play called Fortunato, by the Quintero Brothers who were Spanish playwrights.  It's half an evening, about an hour in three scenes.  My husband [Frederic Ewen (1915-1988)] and I worked on the libretto; we got the rights for it about 30 years ago.  It's never been produced; I'm not an aggressive type.  There are certain rounds I should make and should have made in order to try to get it produced, but I never did.  I showed it to a couple of opera people and they were very interested; they said that what was needed was a real singing actor
a combination of actor and singer, but of course there are such people!  I never pursued it.  I've orchestrated the first scene, and it could be done with just piano.  Maybe one of these days I will take it in hand again; it's a rather fascinating play and I think it worked out fine.  But why I didn't do more is that opera is such a big venture.  It's got all the problems of an orchestra work, which is hard to get launched, and a play, which is hard to get launched, and here you combine them.  To get a performance is difficult, to get a good performance is difficult, and to get more than one is next to impossible.

BD:  [Chuckles.]  It seems like everything is loaded against you!

MG:  Yes.  I think unless you have absolute assurance of a performance on a certain date, you would be very foolish to try it, and even then it doesn't guarantee very much.  It's too big a venture.  Of course if I were very, very involved with operatic thinking I would probably do it, because everybody who writes operas realizes what I'm saying, but they don't care!  It's just as foolish to be a composer, but I can't help that.

BD:  So you feel that you can say what you want to say in chamber works with voice better?

MG:  Yes.  Yes, I think so.

BD:  Do you enjoy being a composer?

MG:  [Hesitates for a moment]  Well, it's the way I've lived for so long I can't imagine not writing, not composing.  I think it was Virgil Thomson who said that if he doesn't compose he gets sick.  He, too, has been composing all of his life and is still at it, and so have I, pretty much; certainly from my twenties.  I can't imagine living without it.  It has its high points and low points; I think the highest point is the first rehearsal of something that I've written.  When it's going well I get the idea, really, in sound.  After that, nothing quite equals the excitement.  But it's all worth it.

BD:  Are you always thinking of something new, the next composition?

MG:  In the last few years it's turned out to be a question of commissions.  At this present time I have three or four in the offing.  So depending on the deadline
which one has to be done firstI think in terms of what that's going to be, and that is determined by the audience, who's going to do it, et cetera.  So in a way I am always thinking of what I'm going to do next.  I only write one thing at a time.  I know some composers don't, but unless I was pressed by very peculiar circumstances I don't think I could write more than one thing or keep going at more than one.  I wouldn't do it unless I had to, and I can't imagine a situation where I would have to.

BD:  You've also done quite a bit of teaching?

MG:  Yes, I have.

BD:  Teaching of composition?

MG:  Yes.  I've gone the rounds of university teaching in the music department
history, styles, counterpoint, harmony, compositionand I still am teaching.

BD:  I was just wondering, is music composition something that really can be taught, or is it something that must come from within?

MG:  Well, you've answered it.  I think it can't be taught, and lots of our great composers have said that.  Bartók wouldn't teach composition.  It can't really be taught, but you can guide people; you can help them to judge their work.  I think that sometimes composers who have never studied "composition" sometimes show the lack of judgment or lack of perspective in their work.  A teacher sometimes helps you to evaluate your work, but the real springs of composing have to be there; nobody can do it for you.  That's my strong feeling.  I like teaching very much.

BD:  Do you feel that performers and composers have gotten better over the last 40, 50, 60, 70 years?

MG:  I think performers have definitely gotten better.  There's no question about it!  You can judge by the fact that a work that might have taken many rehearsals now takes very few, and it's just as well done if not better.  Our conservatories and colleges have trained young performers marvelously.  As for composers, it's hard to say.  I don't know what "better" is, or "good" or "bad," really, in composing music
or in any art.  It's my judgment of them that there have been so many distractions in the last couple of generations that have misled young composers.  They've wanted performances so much that they have turned away from their real source of composing and creating, and that's themselves and what they have to say.  Insofar as there have been more and more of those distractions, this has been a hardship for composers.  Sometimes they realize it before it's too late, and sometimes they don't!  [Both chuckle]  But on the whole, I think there's been a lot of very good training for composers.  If you look at the works that come into a student compositionlike the BMI annual competitionif you judge by that, my answer would be yes, composers have improved because they are fantastically precocious and good.  Sometimes they're just precocious, but very often they're very, very good, and more so as the years go on.  There's been more experience in teaching; the same thing that's gone into training performers, so it rubs off on composers, too, but there is always a danger there that I just talked about.

BD:  Are the performers better technicians, or are they better musicians?

MG:  Oh, I think they're both.  There is, on the whole, a wider interest in contemporary music and in a variety of music, instead of just the old warhorses, so that they've had to expand their sights about musicianship. 

BD:  Thank you so much for this conversation.  I've learned a lot and look forward to playing more of your recordings on the air.

MG:  I've enjoyed talking with you and I'm grateful for your interest.

Miriam Gideon
(October 23, 1906 - June 18, 1996)

She studied organ with her uncle Henry Gideon and piano with Felix Fox. She also studied with Martin Bernstein, Marion Bauer, Charles Haubiel, and Jacques Pillois. She studied harmony, counterpoint, and composition with Lazare Saminsky and at his suggestion also composition with Roger Sessions after which she abandoned tonality and wrote in a freely atonal or extended post-tonal style.

Born in Greeley, Colorado, she moved to New York City where she taught at Brooklyn College, City University of New York (CUNY) from 1944 to 1954 and City College, CUNY from 1947 to 1955. She then taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America at the invitation of Hugo Weisgall in 1955, and at the Manhattan School of Music from 1967 to 1991. She was rehired by City College in 1971 as full professor and retired in 1976.

In 1949 she married Frederic Ewen. Both political leftists, they become victims of McCarthyism, Ewen resigning from Brooklyn College to avoid naming names, Gideon being fired from the same and resigning from City College to also avoid naming leftist colleges.

Gideon composed much vocal music, setting texts by Francis Thompson, Christian Morgenstern, Anne Bradstreet, Norman Rosten, Serafin and Joaquín Quintero and others.

She was the second woman inducted into American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1975, Louise Talma being the first in 1974.

© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on June 18, 1986.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB later that year and again in 1996.  An audio copy was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2009.  

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.