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.
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?
BD: This is Bruce Duffie,
calling from Chicago.
MG: Yes, I expected you
just about this minute, and here you
BD: That's what happens
in radio; you tend to watch the clock
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 hear — once,
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?
MG: 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
BD: Even in the same
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
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 forth
— I 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
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 clarinet — I
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
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
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
way — though not everybody
— is 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 similar — the
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
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
MG: You mean am I a
BD: A descendant, or a
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?
MG: 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
MG: Yes, but there are
many, many more composers.
BD: Are there too many
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
BD: Well, put in your two
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 works — maybe
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
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
BD: In my chat with him,
Virgil Thomson talked about a certain
"lack of attention." [To read that conversation, click here.]
MG: Yes. Yes,
absolutely. To just sit and listen to
something is an activity that people are embarrassed at. They
BD: It's an art that is
getting lost, I'm afraid.
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
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,
BD: Are you pleased with
most of the recordings of your music
MG: 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 few — where
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 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
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
passage — a 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
MG: So that's the way
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;
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.
MG: 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
out! As a matter of fact, my very first recording — outside
of a very early one — is 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
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
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
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
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 overpowering — twice 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
idea where they're done.
BD: Do the players or the
ensembles not send
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."
don't know who or where or why. Of course it would be very nice
BD: Let me broach a
little different subject. Is it special being a woman composer in
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
which you couldn't ascertain, not a young composer — but 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
intentions. I really think so.
BD: Is it deliberately
intentional or just residual inertia?
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
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 some — will have a
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
BD: Is it safe to assume
that you would rather be
known simply as a composer?
MG: Oh, yes; no question
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
performed — I think their one big mistake is to group
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.
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 kind — in
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
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
BD: Do you enjoy being a
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
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 first — I
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
MG: Yes. I've gone
the rounds of university
teaching in the music department — history, styles,
counterpoint, harmony, composition — and 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
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.
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
think there's been a lot of very good training for
composers. If you look at the works
that come into a student composition — like the BMI annual
competition — if 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.
with you and I'm grateful for your interest.
(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. [To read Bruce Duffie's interview with Talma, click here.]
© 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.
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
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.