Composer  John  Lessard

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

John Lessard is one of those composers who has an interesting background with surprising details.  Many of those are recounted in the interview below, so rather than go through them now, I will let you find them in the text.  Needless to say, I was happy that he accepted my invitation for a chat, and was very pleased to play his recordings several times on WNIB.

He was making a trip to Chicago in the spring of 1989 to visit a few of his former students.  During that encounter with the Windy City, he set aside some time to come to my studio for a conversation.  This is what transpired . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You are both composer and teacher.  How do you divide your time between those two very demanding activities?

John Lessard:    Well, I’ve never had any trouble with that, and people have asked me about that.  Maybe it’s because I came to an official teaching position so late.  I was forty-two before I took a teaching job, which was the same place that I am now, the State University of New York at Stony Brook.  It was a new university that was being formed there by the University of New York.  At that time, Governor Rockefeller was trying to raise its standards to compete with the University of California and various other places, and make it a dignified network of institutions.  And he did raise them quite a bit.  This was a new institution which was just forming departments, and I got in on the ground floor.  It was just a great deal of fun to be in on it.

BD:    Was it better to establish something, or would it have been easier to come into an established and running program?

JL:    I don’t know because I’ve never come into an established one.  Up until that time I had been just composing, working for foundations, teaching privately, doing this, that, and the other.  I had six children, so I was very delighted to have a job!  [Laughs]

BD:    You’re teaching theory and composition, or history and other areas?

lessardJL:    No, just theory and composition.  In our department we’re very specialized.  We have a very strong performance department
really like a conservatory on the graduate level — and we have theory and musicology separate, and composition separate.  You asked me how I manage composing and teaching.  For me, composing becomes a habit if you’ve done it all your life.  By that time, it was just like breathing.  It was necessary for me.  So it was something which I had always incorporated into my life, and which had always been there, and I just kept right on doing it, as the main part.  As I’d been teaching outside, or working for foundations, I just took it as another job which I was doing on the side, and I found that it was working very well.  So I quit the other jobs, and went on with that.  I find that I compose just about as much in the summer times as in the winter times when I’m teaching.  I just go right along.  Because so many people in universities just quit composing once they get in, I always think that because I had been outside of a university for so long before that, and hadn’t been attached to one...  [Sighs]

BD:    You already had established your roots and your patterns?

JL:    That’s right; that’s right.  My pattern of life was there, so it’s never been a difficulty.  Right now I’m looking for things to do, because as you know, I’ll be seventy and I’ll have to retire.

BD:    The University says you must go?

JL:    Yeah, that’s right.  I think it became a federal law; it was one of the few things that was left
tenured professors must retire at seventy.  But I’m glad to retire, and to change.  I think it’s good for the institution, and good for me as well.

BD:    You started teaching in 1962.  How have the students changed from the early and mid sixties, to those you’re encountering now in the late eighties?

JL:    I would say that they have changed a great deal.  The first four or five years, when the department was building, we didn’t really have a graduate program, so I won’t count those.  But once the graduate program did start, we had some very famous names in our department, especially in performance.  Those are the kind of people they get, who are in the public eye the most, which drew attention to the Music Department immediately.  And those names also drew good students.  And on the graduate level, I would say that it stayed pretty much the same, although the composers coming in to study composition always have different ideas of what they want to do.  As you know now, in the sixties it was mostly serial technique.  You would open the door, and it wouldn’t make any difference whether they were coming from Indiana, Paris, or San Francisco.  Their work looked about the same at that time.  Now there’s a very conservative trend, but I would say that the level is about the same on the graduate level, just because of the reputation of the department.  The undergraduate, of which we haven’t really established a thing, has changed a lot.  I think that our students were much better in the seventies than they are now.

BD:    They were more interested?

JL:    There was more interest, yes.  Enrollment has been going down, and the level of the undergraduate has been going down, too.  It is not really building, and that seems to be a problem
— at least it seems to be for us, and I’ve heard that other schools are having that problem, too.

BD:    Is musical composition something that can be taught?

JL:    No, I’ve never thought so, and my training, which is mostly French, assumed that you couldn’t.  You just taught technique and left it to the person to compose; then it was really up to them.  But in America, the teaching of composition has been established, and I think in a way I’ve come to believe it’s good.  I still believe that the technical things are the surest to teach.   Composition is a very nebulous thing to be teaching.  Where one helps the most is if one is like a backboard for the young composer, instead of him being in a complete vacuum, just writing for nobody out there.  He came come at a regular interval, show his things, have a reaction, and maybe be told, “Show it to somebody else.  Show it to this person.”  I think that it’s a very personal thing, too.  Some people work very well with you, and some don’t, so I’ve always put it that way to my students.  “We’ll just see whether this works or not; see if it works for you.”

BD:    You say you want to show it to various people.  At what point do you say, “Get it performed”?

JL:    I say it right away if we can get it performed — no matter how primitive it is, just so that they hear it and get the experience of sitting in a hall hearing it.  I’ve worked on the performance side very much within the department.  Next week I’ve got seven compositions going to be played, coming out of a class just this semester.  Some of them are pretty good!  They’ll be there and they’ll be well performed by a student group.

BD:    Are there ever any little ideas that you hear in the students’ works that you then incorporate in your own music?

JL:    No, I wouldn’t say there’s ever been an idea,
but every five or six years there seems to be a change in attitude, a change of the way they want to do things.  It is very challenging for one to adjust to it and try to understand, but that kind of exchange is very helpful!  But no, I don’t think I ever have really copied anything, although I would like to!  I think stealing is the best thing!  It’s the easiest and the best thing to do, but I can’t remember doing that!

BD:    Nothing even subconsciously?

JL:    Nothing came up that would work for me, and I couldn’t get it in there!  Although I’ve often told my students, “I’d just love it if you’d do something I could steal!”  But generally it’s an attitude which has changed my attitude slightly and made me look at things in different way.

BD:    So it has influenced you?

JL:    Oh, yes!  Oh, definitely!  Every new movement that comes along influences you somehow.  You’ve got to react to it.

BD:    But you’re not someone who jumps on every bandwagon.

JL:    No!  Oh, no, not at all.  In fact, I’ve been very slow at that kind of a thing.  I’ve kept my own track, I’d say, very much.  But I’ve evolved continually.  I’ve never been on a popular bandwagon.

BD:    You’ve forged your own way?

JL:    Well, yes.  I’m not an idea man.  I’m not a man that says, “Oh, well, let’s try this, and see if we can do music this way.”  I don’t get any fun writing music; it doesn’t work for me.  Composing is intuitive, and to be intuitive you’ve got to get into a style and into the material.  And that takes time.  You can’t be intuitive if you’re using absolutely completely experimental materials or something that’s way out there.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    If your compositional process is intuitive, when you’re writing, how much is the pencil controlling you, and how much are you controlling that pencil as it goes along the page?

JL:    Of course it’s never an exact percentage one way or the other.  I don’t know what you mean, exactly, by
pencil.  There can be several things that are in the pencil besides just the musical notation itself.  What else did you mean, besides the notation?

BD:    In this case, are you always controlling what goes onto that page, or are you just a conduit for something that’s in the atmosphere?

JL:    That pencil on the page just comes down to musical notation.  I tell my students right away that when one has an idea, it’s an image which is out there, a beautiful image which is before one.  Then one strives to get that sound that one is after,
that sound with a certain movement, with a certain rhythm.  It’s something that one wants to capture.  I always tell themand of course I tell myself when I startI’m very cautious to put notes down on paper, because as soon as you put something on paper, that freezes it in that shape.  Before you put it down, you’re flexible; you can move in any direction.  So I often don’t put the whole thing down.  I’ll just put the vaguest indication.  I’ll put just a few notes with no rhythm whatsoever, just the general direction.  Later I will add a few notes next to them and just indicate them, spatially, on the page so as to leave them.  Let it be as vague as possible.  The order of the notes I sometimes will leave, but the order can be changedin this order, in that order.  I leave everything as nebulous as possible, so as not to have it frozen completelywhich is what notation does to it.  It’s frozen; it’s there.  A portion of that dream, then, is lost, once it’s frozen.  But you’ve got to do it sometime, or you have nothing!

BD:    Or you’re John Cage!  [See my Interview with John Cage.]

JL:    Yeah!  [Both laugh]  Yeah, that’s right.  It would be that, which is another kind of profession!

BD:    Now you’re approaching your seventieth birthday and you’ve been writing music for nearly half a century.  How has your music changed and developed over all that time?

JL:    Of course, like anybody, it’s been circumstances and what was going on in the world which has influenced it enormously.  It’s certainly my time that it influenced it, and it’s a very particular time, my time.  All of my musical education was before World War Two.  Although after that I never went back to school again, I would say my schooling has gone on continually!  [Laughs]  But most of it was before then, which makes a difference, because what was going on in the world before World War Two and after World War Two, was very, very different, and the fact that all of my school influences were before is very significant.  I started in California, in San Francisco.  I was in Palo Alto most of the time until I was sixteen, and amazingly enough, Schoenberg’s music was available to me because that was being done at Stanford by the Kolisch Quartet; he was his brother-in-law, of course.  So the quartets of Schoenberg were there and as a young man I knew that they existed; they were very much there.  As a young man I had a scholarship to study with Schoenberg, but I had such a repulsion for his music and for that outlook on music, that I refused the scholarship and I went to France.  That was where I was aiming to go from the beginning, coming from a French family and having had a background and training from people who had been studying in France, especially at the École Normale, where I went.  So I went at sixteen to France, and there the Viennese School was not even heard of!  Nobody had even heard of it.  As Boulez said, he was the one that after the war had to play, for the first time, Schoenberg and Webern.  There, the Neoclassic School was successful; it was the all-successful thing!  Actually, in some ways it was more advanced sitting in little Palo Alto than it was in Paris or in any other European city at that time, because they were just confined to Vienna.  So my influence there was definitely very, very much of the Neoclassic School, and especially of Stravinsky.  I knew Stravinsky was around.  I was there with him, and all of that school influenced me very much.  So I wrote some very individual pieces at the beginning, and then they took a more and more Neoclassic cast.

BD:    What specifically did Nadia Boulanger give to you in terms of advice or encouragement?

JL:    I met her when she was maybe slightly past the prime in her teaching, but near her prime, and I knew her right to the end of her life.  She was my Godmother, so I was very close to her.  I would say that what she gave me was just what she wanted to give me, which was technique.  We just studied harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, things like that, at the end of the lesson. 
I wasn’t one of these American college graduates that she had to treat as a grown-up, or an adult.  I was sixteen and young enough so that she didn’t have to.  She would slap me down, and then at the end she’s say, “Have you written something?”  I’d say yes, and she’d look at it and say, “Oh, fine, very good.  Why don’t you look at somebody else’s work?” but wouldn’t say too much about it.  One day, when I was about eighteen, she just said, “I think you are a composer.”  That’s all.  Just out of that!  And I went on from then!

BD:    You had arrived!

JL:    Well, she saw something, and thought,
I guess this fellow is going to compose.  I went on still with my technical studies and she gave more and more comments.  She also started playing my music in little concerts here and there, and arranging things.  That’s how it went.  Her main influence, I would say, was a technical one, and a joy of looking at musicwhich she still had at that timean enormous joy of looking at music!  And then I had the whole war away from music.  I stayed in France until Paris was taken by Germans.  I got out and got to this country, and was drafted and went back and was attached to the French Army for the whole war.

BD:    Because of your knowledge of the French people and the language?

JL:    Right.  I was put in a small unit for liaison between American and French, next to American troops and the French troops
the idea being that they wouldn’t shoot one another.  [Both laugh]  And I passed the whole war like that, which was a different thing if you were born at that time.  Then there was that emptiness which came in after my training.  When I came back, I’d already had one child.  I just got to work composing, and my influence then was very much in this country.  I was on the east coast, near New York on Long Island.  Aaron Copland had known me from before the war, so he met me in New York, because he had been a student of Nadia Boulanger also.  I had one year before I was drafted.  I went to Boston and Nadia Boulanger, for some reason, appeared in Boston, too.  I went to Boston because Walter Piston was there, and I knew he was a student of Nadia’s.  So I went there, but I sent a piano sonata to Aaron Copland.  He immediately got it played by Johanna Harris at the League of Composers.  Virgil Thomson gave it an excellent review, so then I was right in with her old bunchWalter Piston, Virgil Thomson and Aaron.  [See my Interview with Virgil Thomson.]  They knew me from that.  Then I was drafted and went to war.  When I came back, I was known a little bit here by that group.  They very much supported me and helped me because I had been gone those years in the war.  So I had my start, and all of that period, up until about 1960, I wrote neoclassic music.  The music of Schoenberg I still didn’t like, except the early works up through Opus Nineteen, before he turned it into a system.  German Expressionism, even in painting, I’ve just not liked!  It’s been something that I don’t get!

BD:    Do you respect it?

JL:    I respect it from a distance, but I can’t digest it.  It repulses me.  I have kind of a feeling against it.  I can’t digest it.  Even great composers, too.  I respect Wagner, but I can’t stand his music.  I try often, even!

BD:    Do you feel that you are part of a specific lineage of certain composers?

JL:    Oh, yes, sure; Stravinsky and Debussy, certainly.  I would be able to say definite people have influenced my music.  When I was young, I loved very much the music of Bach and of course Mozart, Beethoven.  Chopin, I always adored; Monteverdi and all of the early composers; Josquin I adored.  Maybe the earlier works had more influence on my works than that, but a definite influence after Stravinsky was Webern when I got to know it.  I hadn’t known any of his music, and I began to know it around ’55, ’56, ’57.  I began to know a little of it when a few pieces came out here.

BD:    So none of the other French composers such as Massenet or Charptentier? 

JL:    No, no, not at all!  Of Fauré I liked certain works; Debussy, but no, not Massenet or Berlioz.  Sometimes Nadia would think, “Well, you’re young.  Buy the Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz.”  I’ve come to like Berlioz more now, but at that age he wasn’t pure enough for me.  I wanted things even more pure than Berlioz.  But then Webern started to be an influence.  Even neoclassic music is a different; everybody does it differently.  But Webern began to influence me in ’57.  That technique took a long time.  I had to listen to lots and lots of works before I could really understand what was going on musically.  But I was fascinated, and I kept on!  And all of a sudden, I just turned; switched and tried, and the amazing thing is that when I look back now, I can see that it just wasn’t as difficult a switch as I thought because structurally there isn’t that much difference between the neoclassic and the serial.  But of course, one could always see that I was never, never a strict serial composer, a strict twelve-tone composer.  I have my own way of dealing with it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask the big philosophical question
what is the purpose of music in society?

JL:    Oh yes, that’s a big question, and of course it’s a very personal thing, and it depends on the time that one lives.  But what I think of especially when I’m posed that question, I answer with a line in a poem of Auden, in which he says
more or less, I’m not saying the exact words — but the eleventh commandment is “Thou shalt not sociologize!”  [Both laugh]  Lord only knows where it’s been in society, or what it does, but for me as a person, it has been a great joy all my life, and a beautiful thing.  It is something which has been able to take me out of myself, and it’s never failed me yet.  It is just like a beautiful building, like Chartres, or a painting that is beautiful.  One forgets one’s self, and one lives with that beautiful object.  Because of that, in some ways I hope that there may be a slight bit of that truth which is a little opening to the whole mystery of whatever this isour wonderful life on this planet for the little short time that we do have here!  I don’t mean to make it something sacred, but for me it does have that delight and that beauty.  I don’t know what it does for society, really.  I think that for those of us who love it, it does do that.  It helps us with a beautiful thing, as any beautiful object will help us through this life and others.

BD:    When the audience comes to hear a new piece of yours, what do you expect of that audience that’s sitting there listening to your music
if anything at all?

JL:    I don’t expect anything at all.  It depends upon which audience it is; you expect different things.  The audience during my musical time has been mostly fellow composers.  The audience has not been that disparate.  The music of my time has been so disconnected from society.

BD:    But you don’t write just for other composers, do you?

JL:    No, no, I don’t write really for other composers.  I write for myself!  I write what I hear.  I don’t write down for an audience, or I don’t try to hit an audience when I’m writing.  I just exist with the music.  I don’t try to do it less well for an audience.  I do what I think is just the very best way of doing it, the most fascinating and the most beautiful.  I just hope that there are other people that’ll find it the same.  One has to hope that one is close enough to one’s fellow beings that there may be some out there who will react to it in the same way.  But of course I’m very influenced by adverse criticism.  I’m influenced when somebody loves the piece or when somebody likes it.  Of course, I adore that!  Even when critics, as silly as they are, say something nice to you, you do like it.  But they will say it about one piece, and then ten years later that same piece will be played, and the critics, or an audience, will say it’s horrible!  [Both laugh]  So you don’t know where you are, or where one really is looking for the absolute truth in this.

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your music over the years?

JL:    No!  No, very seldom!  And more and more, I am pleased even less!

BD:    Really???

JL:    When they’re done by professionals, I find I am less and less pleased with the performances.  But I am more and more pleased when I can do it with students.

BD:    Are they more flexible?

JL:    No, they spend more time on it!  Everything has become money, in America.  Just straight money!  To do what we do
contemporary musicit doesn’t pay very much when you walk in to do the job.  And this is true even with the ones who are known as the greatest specialists in contemporary music with big reputations!  No matter what they do, they sit and read the piece.  They can do eleven against seven, three against fifty-two, anything you want!  They do it and they walk out, and they don’t even know what the piece is!  They’ve done it beautifully, as it is written there, but no piece of music has been communicated.  When I can work with students, we can go until they do it musically; the way you would learn a piece if you were a pianist learning a Beethoven Sonata.  I have a group, and we can sit for three months and work on the piece, day by day, and they get to learn it.  They get to know it and then they can get to like it.  And when they walk out, they project a piece of music with meaning, instead of just an accurate set of notes.  So that’s what I miss very much, because of the pay situation.  And I do point the finger very much at the American scene for that, very, very much.  I have a daughter in Paris who’s in the dance (and two grandchildren there), and I have daughters who are here who are in music.  The difference between the careers of those two people is just incredible!  My daughter in the dance there, her husband has a ballet company — a dance company which is subsidized by the government.  When they speak about art and their dance, this is only what is the most beautiful for the dance and what they’re going to do.  One hundred percent of the time, that’s what they’re doing!  They make huge effort to do it, but the government subsidizes them.  Here in America, they’re jobbing ninety percent of the time, and the other ten percent of the time they get to play a piece which they want.

BD:    But the situation in France is where we’ve just had this whole big blow up at the Bastille Opera, with some of the politicians trying to take control, and everything!  Isn’t that the backside, then, of the subsidy?

JL:    [Laughs]  Yes, it is!  It is the backside in all of those subsidized countries, but less in France.  In the really subsidized countries, like Holland and I think some of the Scandinavian countries, and for a while in Italy, too, it was like a hothouse; they felt anonymous because everybody was subsidized.  And of course, you would get a title of genius or near-genius or mediocre, but it would be passed out and there was no real judgment being done.  I do think that the situation is better.  But I’m complaining because I’m here; I’m an American and I’d like my own situation to be better!  But there are wonderful people in it, and I’m very interested in performance of new music.  I’m getting more and more involved in it, and when I retire I think that that’s what I’m going to try to push, as much as I can.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the whole musical scene?

JL:    No, but I like making good performances, and they please me when I can bring them off!  I won’t brag too much, but I will say that at on the performance side at Stony Brook, we have really among the top players in New York for most of the instruments.  We have pianists Charles Rosen and Gilbert Kalish.  [See my Interview with Gilbert Kalish.]  Since the beginning we’ve had flutist Sam Baron [See my Interview with Samuel Baron], and we had cellist Bernard Greenhouse who just retired.   So we get excellent students.  They’re just top students, and they’re idealistic, too.  Even though they know there’s no place to go, they’re there because they love music and they’re doing their instruments.  We’ve been putting on a concert in Merkin Hall once every year with six premieres.

BD:    New works by faculty?

JL:    No, no!  No faculty at all!  Nothing to do with Stony Brook; everything outside of Stony Brook.  I want this to be a thing for composers in general, from San Francisco to New York, and chosen by people outside of the university.  Once the works are chosen, we have to say what will work, what we’ve got instruments for, but we choose from the works that they have suggested.

BD:    Are you helping to do the choosing?

JL:    Yes, along with Gilbert Kalish and percussionist Raymond DesRoches.

BD:    What advice do you have for the young composers coming along?

JL:    If they can, to marry a girl that works in a bank.  [Both laugh]  That’s about it.  I tell them pretty much what the situation is out there, and to really love what they’re doing and do what they can.  The situation right now is very, very poor to expect to get a job in a university.  There just aren’t that many jobs for composers now.  Where the jobs are beginning to appear, the composers will need to have a little bit of knowledge of electronic music and computers.  If they can get a little computer job, it seems to be more the thing that they should try to aim at if they’re going to subsidize themselves somehow.

BD:    Are we perhaps turning out too many young composers?

JL:    I would say so.  It’s a question of every department wanting to turn out composers, and turning out an awful lot of composers that aren’t really composers.  Some go into other departments and then they immediately stop composing.   So that scene has changed very much since those first days when I hit New York and there was just Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland.  As Virgil said, there were only about six people in America who could orchestrate anything decently to even be played on the radio for the background music!  Everybody knew who everybody else was.  Now it’s five or six hundred per square mile, it seems!  [Both laugh]  I think maybe we have trained too many.  It all started with Roger Sessions — and I don’t blame Roger for what he did — when he entered into Princeton.  He was the first one who got into a university department.  It was just the time when people were beginning to think that the traditional studies of harmony, counterpoint and so forth, were not relevant.  He wrote harmony books, and he taught harmony and so forth, but the idea was that one was going to teach composition.   So this became more and more the dominant thing, whereas now the standard techniques aren’t as relevant!  Let’s face it, the traditional harmony and counterpoint isn’t as relevant as it was to Gabriel Fauré!  But those first composers were teaching those techniques to everybody
to the performers, to the musicologists, to everybody.  There was a reason for them to teach harmony, counterpoint, things like this, and now they won’t hire a composer for that.

BD:    Isn’t there a reason, though, that every composer should know those techniques just to have that in their background?

JL:    That’s hard to say.  Of course, I believe that it is helpful.  Some of my younger composers have learned it and do know it well, and a lot of them haven’t because it isn’t really required that much in any program that I know.  But those who do know it really well say that they can notice it in other composers from Europe and here, and they can tell the difference of those who are well-trained and those who aren’t in the conventional techniques.  At the same time that I say that, I know that it certainly isn’t as relevant as it was a hundred years ago or even seventy-five years ago.  It really isn’t.  Maybe there should be other techniques which can become more useful, sort of like techniques at the barre for the dance
just pure, technical things.  Maybe there should be some technical exercises around the serial technique or around various other things, working with timbre or things like that.  But the styles never solidified enough to make those exercises really necessary.  We’re in a period of flux, and we have a lot of marvelous young composers coming along in spite of the too many numbers!  There are a lot of them who do come in, and then in the end it is always a mystery when one writes a beautiful piece of music.  It isn’t just because they have technique, you know.  One can’t put it all on technique.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    May we talk about your recordings?

JL:    I see that you have my records there and you were thinking of them.  That one on top has the Concerto for Winds and Strings and the Sonata for Cello with Bernard Greenhouse.  Those are on C.R.I.  I had those two come out very early on C.R.I.  They are excellent recordings and represent my works very well.  Then I got on the board of C.R.I. and worked on it for twenty-five years.  I decided I shouldn’t have any on C.R.I., because I was working on the board!  Then I had a publisher, a marvelous man — Paul Kapp
who put out Serenus Records.  I must say that the technical side is not that good.  There’s a lot of print through on some of them, and it is noticeable even more now.

BD:    But the performances are all right?

JL:    Some of the performances are excellent and some of them are not good at all.  The Toccata in Four Movements is just an excellent performance.  That’s on Serenus 12032.  That’s for harpsichord.  He put Toccata for Harpsichord on the copy, but it’s Toccata in Four Movements. Isn’t that something?  That’s typical Paul Kapp!  By the way, you may read some of the things which are on the back as biographical material.  He was an extraordinary man, as I say.  He had his ups and downs, and his great points and his weak points.  And one of them, which I don’t say is good, or bad, or anything, but he just put out all these records by himself.  He got the artwork, did this, did that, worked at night time in his own place, putting out these covers.  And he would sometimes work at night time and make the notes on the back, and he would invent my life!  [Both laugh]  He would put in things and would invent the notes for the work, too.

BD:    A couple of other composers have said that the information on the back of the Serenus Records are a little bit spurious!  [More laughter]  Joseph Alexander was saying the text bears no relationship to what he’s like!

JL:    The Toccata in Four Movements, which got me the National Academy Award in Music was commissioned by Sylvia Marlowe.  She recorded it twice with different companies, but they’re out of print, of course.  The Partita for Wind Quintet was the very first one that Kapp did.  He used a very scrumply group and the disc doesn’t even represent the work, so just don
’t play it!  The members of the orchestra in Rome were more interested in just getting a couple of bucks and then going out and having some spaghetti!  They did the presto sections andante!  But the rest of the works are OK.  The Octet for Wind Instruments is well done.  Flagello conducted that and he did a good job on it.  So that’s a neoclassic work which is well-represented.

BD:    How about this new recording on the Opus One label?

JL:    Opus One!  Oh, that’s just great!  Because you see, you’ve got twenty years where I don’t have, really, my music recorded at all.  The last work recorded on Serenus is from 1971, and we’re almost to ’91 now.  The performers on Opus One are excellent.  Both of them had been students at New York; now they’re professionals, but they’ve played my music for years, and we just put that together so beautifully!

BD:    One last question.  Is composing fun?

JL:    Oh, I don’t know what to call it.  It’s more than fun!  It’s almost like breathing — if one gets used to it and one loves to do it.  It’s an activity which just fills up one’s life in so many sides.  But of course it’s a lot of work, too.  There is the copying and getting it done, and doing this, doing that, things that one has to do as there is for anything.  But in general, yes.  It’s an activity like any other activity which demands all kinds of work.  But it’s the result that one is aiming at that is really fulfilling, I think.

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© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on May 6, 1989.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1990, 1995, and 2000.  This 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.