A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
This conversation took place in Chicago in January of 1995. As with most of my interviews, its original destination was a radio program, and I'm very pleased that now it finds an additional life on this website. A brief biography of the composer/pianist appears at the end.
Bruce Duffie: Thank
you very much for allowing me to intrude on your space a bit. You're just in from Europe. Do you like
Frederic Rzewski: No.
BD: Not even for your
FR: [Takes a deep
breath] Well, it's something that you
have to do. The motto of the Hanseatic
League is Navigare
necesse est, vivere non est necesse. "It
necessary to sail; it is not necessary to live." I
traveling, especially air travel, becomes cumulatively less
easy to tolerate. It's like
radiation - in fact, it is radiation, especially if you travel anywhere
near the poles.
BD: You say the
is, "It is necessary to sail."
Is it necessary to music?
heartily] Well, that's another
discussion that probably will never find an adequate answer. I don't know; it's the only
thing I know how
BD: You both compose, and you
teach. And you perform, so you're a
FR: [Chuckles] A triple threat, mm-hmm.
BD: Do you
get enough time to compose?
FR: I don't travel that much and I don't teach
that much; at least these last few years, I guess I've
lucky. I get to spend quite a bit of
time at home.
BD: Where is home for
you? Still Rome?
FR: I'm living
in Brussels now. I've been living in Europe for some time
now and I have a family which is divided
between the United States and Europe.
I have two sons living in America, but I also have three
children in Europe, so I'm trying
to go back and forth between the two continents.
BD: Does all
of this globe-hopping eventually affect the music that winds up on the
FR: I suppose it does, but it might be difficult
to say exactly how.
[Thinks for a moment] I'm sure it
does, yes. I'm
sure everything you do has some effect on what you
[Pauses for a moment] But not
about it in the last five
minutes, I'm not ready to improvise an answer to the question. [Laughter]
BD: You're a performer of both your music and of
Are you a better composer because
you're also a fine performer?
FR: I'm not the right
person to pass judgment on how good a composer I am. I don't
about it that much. But if, in
your professional life you travel around a lot, as I do, I'm sure
influence the character of your output in some way, especially the kind
that you do. For instance, I do a lot of
improvising. I have a group with whom
we play regularly - Musica Elettronica
Viva (MEV), and our concerts mostly
consist of improvised music because we live spread out
don't come together that much. Besides
which, improvisation was the thing that we mainly have done for 25
live interacting with the electronics?
FR: Yes. Well, not
just electronics, but including electronics.
FR: No. In fact, in a sense, most of
the work is set up beforehand, so the improvisation is simply playing
around with some kind
that's been set up and is not that easy
BD: I'm almost horrified to think... are we
eventually going to get
an electronic brain that will be able to improvise with the input of
live (human) players?
FR: That's probably
true, although I'm not the right person to ask about
that. I dabbled with
electronics for a few years, but for all kinds of reasons
I kind of
gave it up, so I don't fool around with electronics that much
anymore. But I am an interested
bystander. The people who do
the electronics in our group are Richard Teitelbaum and Alvin Curran,
we have other people like George Lewis, who's definitely a
person in this area. So I know
about it from what they tell me, but yes, that's probably
going to happen pretty soon, I think.
BD: Are we in
danger of completely replacing the live performer with the electronic
FR: Well, to a certain
extent that's happened already in many areas of music.
But I don't see why live
performance should ever disappear; after all, as long as there are
humans, there are going to be people doing performances of various
kinds. That's why people want
to listen to music. They want
to see what actually goes on in real time when
a gifted performer, like an athlete or a chess player, is
confronted with a problem that has to be solved instantaneously.
This is an interesting
thing to watch and to listen to.
So why should it disappear?
[Pauses for a moment and takes a deep
breath] Personally, I'm
not that interested in dabbling with gadgets because it's very
time-consuming. I'm more interested
in working with more traditional forms,
like writing with pencil
BD: Really? [Facetiously] How
don't look at it as being old-fashioned. After all, looking
at it from a long-term perspective, the art of writing has
been around for about five thousand years; this is not very long in
terms of the
history of the species! In
many ways I think one could argue that it's still in its
After all, we still haven't found the perfect writing tool. I have a very expensive German mechanical
pencil which I bought a few years
ago, which was supposed to be the most advanced kind of thing
one of those
pencils that pushes out the lead automatically, as you write. You don't have to
adjust it, it does it
all by itself. But what actually
happens is that it chops the lead as it comes out, so that it comes
out like a string of sausages. So
there's still a lot of work to be done in this area.
BD: You said you
don't like to fiddle around with gadgets. Is the piano not a
FR: Well, you could look
at it that way, but the piano is one of those machines
are still fooling around with. There are digital pianos
and keyboard instruments that simulate pianos electronically,
on and so forth. But the concert piano
that we have has not
evolved that much in the last hundred years. In
fact, it isn't that different from Cristofori's instrument of
that there is
still room for improvement, but in many ways I think you
can see, like
the bicycle, it's kind of a perfect machine. It's
reached a phase of evolution
where you can add all kinds of things
to it, but...
BD: ...Cristofori stumbled
on just the right set of things, originally, and it hasn't needed the
improvements so much.
FR: I don't think
so. Certain things were done in the 18th
and 19th centuries which improved its efficiency in some ways,
in the last hundred years it hasn't changed that
much. So it's kind of a perfect
machine, I think.
BD: If that's
a perfect machine, is there any such
thing as a perfect music?
FR: I really don't know
what that means. What does it
mean to you?
BD: I don't know;
that's why I'm asking if there is such a thing.
FR: [Thinks for a
moment] I've never really thought
question. [laughs] I
doubt it. I doubt it.
you're writing a piece, are you looking for or seeking a
specific or a non-specific, or are you seeking an unattainable?
FR: It depends on the piece. I
think it's difficult to generalize
about composition in general; it depends
very much on specific circumstances, at least for me. I
difficult to write music in a vacuum. It
always helps to know for whom you
are writing and what kind of thing in
general you are trying to do. All
of these practical considerations are very important; they
on which to hang your ideas.
BD: But once the
piece is launched, it doesn't always have to be performed by that
person for whom it was written.
course not. One of the interesting things
about the art of writing in general - not just music,
but you could say the same thing about writing words - one of the
interesting things about this discipline is the possibility of
expressing ideas in a very specific form, notating ideas very
same time in such a way that allows for a variety of possible
interpretations, all of which may be equally interesting.
was a master of this approach to writing. He fussed and
fidgeted over little details, as we know, but at the same time, as we
know, the result is open to many possible, and quite
different, interpretations. For
instance, in the Hammerklavier Sonata,
there's that famous A-sharp in the first movement, just
the recapitulation. Maybe this a
little bit too abstruse for
the radio listeners, but it's one of these famous places that
people are still arguing about. Did
Beethoven mean this note to be an A-sharp? An
doesn't seem natural, or is it really an A natural, and he forgot
put in the natural sign.
BD: I would think the thing to do would be to try
it both ways and see which is better.
FR: Well, that's
what happens, in fact. Pianists
are more or less equal. I think most pianists would go
for the A natural because it's a more kind
of conventional solution, but there
are significant numbers of
people who think that it should be an A-sharp. So
are things where there will never be agreement.
BD: When you're
writing a piece,
do you make sure that there are no points of disagreement, at least on
FR: Well, I don't try
to set up enigmatic situations which will baffle people. I try to
express whatever idea it is in a rational form! I don't try
to make puzzles, but, at
the same time, I think it's interesting to put down your ideas
a way that may allow for not only a variety of possible
readings at one time, but which may lead to other creative
interpretations in the future which you can't
really foresee. This is what
makes writing interesting.
BD: So you encourage
people, then, to find new things in your music?
FR: Yes. For
instance, in piano
music, I often leave spaces for improvised cadenzas.
BD: But in
something that's strictly notated, how far is too far?
FR: How far is too far of what?
BD: From what you've
actually written. How much
interpretation do you want, and then how far afield can that
FR: Well, there are cases where
someone may read something in the wrong way.
In that case it's either his or her
fault, or it's my fault, and one could
argue about that.
I mean, both of these things are possible. There
situations where something is read the wrong way, and then you
have to ask, "Well, whose fault is it that this person read this
thing the wrong way?" Maybe
it's the composer's
fault; maybe the music is written in such a way that it
is not precise enough. In that case, it
should be changed. Or, the performer has
mistake, has not read it correctly and in that case you point out the
mistake. But then there
are other situations. In classical music there are many forms
of expressing ambiguity, and the
ambiguity is not a negative thing.
Rubato, ritards, accelerando, all these
Yes. The beauty
of classical notation is that it can be very
ambiguous. So there are continuously
changing points of view about how many of these classical texts should
be read, should be played and heard, and these things go on and on, and
of the reasons why this music continues to live is
that it presents constantly new openings for successive
generations of interpreters.
BD: You say you write with a specific
performer in mind whenever you can; do you have the audience
in mind that will be listening to the
FR: I've thought
about that question a great deal and I've asked myself
am I writing for. Am I writing for a
audience in a concert hall? Am I writing for a
recording audience, somebody
who's listening to records in their living room? Or
radio audience? Who am I writing for? It's
a difficult question to answer because, of course, it may be
with each different piece, but I've more or less decided that in the
case of, say, piano
music - being a pianist myself, I have a special relationship to
this instrument - and I've more
or less decided that in the case of piano music,
writing for other pianists. Then
it's up to them to translate the information into a form
which is communicated to the listener, whoever that may be and in
whatever circumstances that may be, whether
it's recording or a live performance.
BD: But that puts you
one more step removed from the audience.
FR: Yes. Yes, but in
a way I feel more secure that way, because at least
I know who it is, or I have a concrete idea of the destination of these
strange black and white .marks
on pieces of paper. It seems kind of
funny, but at the same time this business of
writing music is such an abstract and iffy kind of activity.
It's so fragile and precarious
that you have to hang onto something. Otherwise
you run a serious risk of really becoming
removed from reality, and
this happens, I think, fairly often
in the case of composers. You're spending a lot of
time alone in a room dealing with some problem for which
you may never
find a solution. And you don't get reliable feedback right away,
all. You might have people telling you you're doing
job or you're
not doing a good job, or you're doing it right, or you're not doing it
right, but you can't believe
BD: Whom should you believe?
FR: Well, that's a very delicate question! You have to be aware that
there are certain professional hazards involved, just as there
are in any kind of work.
Truck drivers get kidney disease, people who work with computers
a lot get carpal tunnel syndrome, and composers run the risk of ending
in the loony bin. [Chuckles] And
them do, as we know. So it's
to be aware of these. And there are
certain things that you
can do to protect yourself against that kind of disorder, and I
think it helps
a great deal to formulate some kind of a
clear image of what
is going to happen to this work in the end. It's
do, and sometimes it's a little crazy.
BD: When you're writing your ideas down
on the paper, are you always in control
of where the pencil goes, or are there times when the pencil leads
your hand along the page?
have experimented quite a bit these last, maybe, six or seven years,
with various kinds of techniques of spontaneous writing.
Now that's something that is fairly
common in other art forms like painting and poetry,
the 20th century we have things like stream-of-consciousness
techniques in writing; the Surrealists worked a great deal with such
techniques in the 1930s; the painters, also.
But in music this has not
been very widespread and it's
something that I've gotten interested in in recent years.
I use certain techniques basically for turning off the various
kinds of interior
censorship that goes on in the brain, ways of letting ideas flow out,
say, without worrying about whether they are the right ones or
wrong ones. And this
is not easy.
It's not easy to
off the mechanisms that exist in the brain
which tend to inhibit the expression of certain loony
ideas that may appear. You
some kind of yoga or mental discipline
for allowing these things to happen, and ensuring,
somehow, that something worthwhile appears; that it's not
just a waste of time, or some kind
of self-indulgent and
ultimately self-defeating waste of time! This
is not easy to do. Recently I've
been trying basically to do what Stravinsky described - composition
as being improvisation with a pencil, which is an
extremely lucid and concise way
of defining this activity.
fact, this observation is very interesting,
because it describes not so much something that already exists,
as something that perhaps might exist in the future.
But it has not
been done very much in music.
BD: Now you're working with this and
you tinker with it and you get all your improvisations in
and you figure out that this what you want and that is what you
do you know when it's done and ready to be launched?
FR: I think
different composers have their own ways. There's no general way. Of course, I can only speak for myself, and
I've noticed in my own work is that it's
better not to have too clear an idea of the final form too early on. It's better to let it
evolve, perhaps in
entirely unexpected ways. I find the most
satisfying case is
when the form only becomes clear at the end.
BD: If the form only becomes clear to you at
the end so that you
can look at it, is that form clear to the person who's
to it at the beginning, or does the listener also have to wait till the
FR: Well, of course,
that's something else. You can't know that. You write a
piece and it's
usually a good sign if you don't know if
it's any good
or not. If you think you know, it's not
very good because probably
you're wrong. I
shouldn't say "you", I should say "I." When
I've finished a piece
and I think, "Oh, this is a good piece, this is going to be very good
and people are going to like it," and so on
and so forth, I'm
usually deceiving myself.
BD: So should you
make sure that you think, "Oh, this is garbage," so that
you're deceiving yourself and it is wonderful?
no. If I think it's garbage, then I
it in a drawer
and forget about it and do
something else. In my experience, the
things that have turned out the most successfully are those things
the moment that I've done them and perhaps for some time afterwards,
I really don't know, I really can't say whether
it's any good or whether it is garbage.
BD: Do you
eventually find that you're able to say?
FR: Well, that
depends! That depends if the music
is performed and you get a chance to play it for people.
should say? Should it be you that
would say, or the public, or the critics, or the historians? Or
FR: [Thinks for a
moment, inhaling and exhaling deeply] Maybe
nobody. After all, there are so
many cases of pieces of music that everyone universally agrees
good pieces of music, but very few people actually want to hear them. The late quartets of Beethoven might be a case
in point. Or The Art of the Fugue of
Bach. Or practically all of
BD: Are we
delving, then, into the differentiation between an entertainment
and an artistic merit?
FR: No, but there you
go. How can you know? The best thing is not to worry about
it too much because it might
be an unproductive pursuit. I certainly
this experience, and I'm sure most composers have had it, to have
written pieces which they are
really good, but, on the other hand, nobody
wants to play them and nobody wants to listen to them.
I can't think of any good composers who haven't had this
at least once in their lives with one of their pieces. The Art of the Fugue
is a great piece of
music, but it's difficult
music. It's not something that you want to listen to every day.
BD: Do you want to listen to your
music every day?
FR: Well, I can't
it! [Laughs] I
have to. It's part of my job.
chastising] That's not the question. Do you want
FR: No, not necessarily. There are times
when I sit
down to work because I have to.
it's a nice day I
might prefer to go out bicycling or something, but I usually do my four
hours or so of writing every day if I
can. If I have the time and I can do it, I do it because
I know from experience
that if I don't do it it'll be that much harder if I skip a day or a
week or whatever. It's that much harder to get back to it. And there are a
lot of simple, practical questions involved. After
all, if you're trying
to be a professional composer, God knows it's difficult enough even
if you are extremely disciplined, which I'm not. I've
just learned by experience that if I
don't observe some kind of discipline, it's a very precarious and
fragile thing. At any
moment there are seven hundred and forty-nine perfectly valid
reasons for doing something else than writing music. You have
letters to answer, you have your taxes to do, this, that and the other
BD: I prefer just goofing off. [Laughs]
FR: Yes. I
have to fool myself sometimes and I have to use specious arguments.
BD: In the end,
though, is it all worth it?
FR: I think
so. Yes, I'm glad
that I chose this line of work in spite of all the
problems because it seems to have a value in and
for itself. It's important if
the work gets out, it's important if you get paid for it, it's
important if the music is performed.
All of these things are important, but even if these things
don't happen, I
don't regret having spent the time in that way rather
than in some other way.
BD: That's good.
We've kind of danced around it, so let me ask the question
straight on: what
is the purpose of music?
FR: I don't
think there is any one purpose for making music. Music
has a variety of different
purposes, and in some sense it
eludes the question of
purpose. Even people like Adorno
have pointed out the purpose of music can, on one
level, be its very purposelessness or ambiguity of
If there were no such thing, if
there were a world in which everything had to have a purpose, then you
have to invent some kind of activity which doesn't
have a purpose, and that seems to be one possible function of
provides the possibility of a
purposeless activity which seems to have a kind of
utopian significance for people.
Of course one reason for the ambiguity comes from the
word itself because everyone seems to understand
something different by
this word. If
you ask a random selection of people on the street what
their idea of music is, you will get a very wide variety of
answers. We're meeting, this evening, you and I, for the first
and we presume that we mean
the same thing when we talk about music, but probably,
if we were going to have several hours together instead of just this
short period of time, we would find that actually we
mean quite different things, and perhaps we don't understand
each other at all.
commonality is in the portion of the literature
that we're dealing with. What it means to each person,
then, is individual.
FR: When we use the word "music," I presume we're
about a lofty art form, something having to do with the European
about the music that you write, and the music that surrounds the
you write, in the venues that it's presented. So
it quite a bit in scope.
FR: Yes, but
that's our little definition of music. There
are a lot of
people around who would have no idea what we're
BD: When I
ask the purpose of music, then it becomes much more all-encompassing,
FR: I think in the
case of serious written music in the European classical tradition, it's
possible to identify several fairly specific
purposes. For instance, the symphonic
literature of the 19th century could be said
to have a fairly
narrow function, which might be the
expression, in lofty terms, of the national
of the symphonic literature of late 19th century
Europe seems to have this function.
It provides an occasion for the national
bourgeoisie to meet in one place, in a secular environment
concert hall. The opera house is almost a
kind of parliament. It's an occasion
for bankers and lawyers
and doctors and the national
intelligentsia to meet in one place, to see each other, to talk to each
other, and to feel, somehow, part of a common collective
they aurally drinking from the
same trough, then?
FR: Well, I'm
no musicologist and no music
historian, but when I think of and imagine what
performances at Bayreuth might have
Wagner's lifetime, or similar events, it seems to me
that these occasions are sort
of symbolic moments in
which influential elements of the newly born or
the nation in the process of creation physically come
participate in a common experience.
you trying to write music which will fit in to this tradition, or
are you trying to create a new tradition for it?
actually don't like this tradition at all. I don't identify with
it and would gladly imagine something different, but, in a way,
this is inescapable.
BD: Would you rather have
music on a concert
with all pieces written with your same kind
of mindset, or on a mixed
program that also has old
FR: I think all those things are
the radio is a medium
in which all of these things can be mixed much
more easily than in a concert hall, because in a
concert hall you are necessarily
yourself to a very limited and
very specific sector of the
listening public; a very demanding one, usually
narrow tastes and a low level of tolerance
for departures from the tradition. Whereas
on the radio you are broadcasting, or sending
information out which is available to anybody and everybody!
in your mid-50s. Are you at
the point in your career that you expect to be at this age?
FR: Expect or expected? [Chuckles] There's a difference.
BD: Then I'll pick one. Are
you at the point in your career that you expect to be at age?
[Takes a deep breath] I
really don't know. I
given the question a great deal of thought. What do you mean by it?
BD: Are you happy with
where you are
in your profession?
FR: Oh, I see what you mean. Well, basically yes. Mm-hmm. You know,
composition is not really a profession.
to be, perhaps, and for a small number of
individuals it's possible for them to identify themselves as
composers, but I think most
composers, and especially the interesting ones, would have to admit that their livelihood is only partially provided by
this activity. In most cases, professionally they do
something else. They
teach, or they play. This
is certainly true in my case. Only
about a third of my income comes from composing or activities directly related to
you saying that perhaps composers should
be provided for, like back in the days of the
don't think there's any
"should" because there's no agreement on what composition is
and what these people are doing,
or should be doing. I don't think anybody
it's good, then, you have this immense diversity.
FR: Well, I think it's good to be alive, and anything that will further
that project is okay. In
my case, I'm
certainly glad that I play the piano. I'm
a professional musician, a professional performer,
and probably the biggest chunk of
my income comes
from playing the piano. I'm
certainly glad this is the case,
because it's not just a way
of keeping my family alive,
but more importantly, I think, it's a way
my music around.
If I didn't play my own
music, if I had to depend on other people,
if I only wrote
music and sat in a room and sent it out
and hoped that other people would play it, I
I'd be in serious trouble.
BD: I'm glad you
have had so much success with your playing, and with your
compositions. I wish you lots of continued success.
FR: Thanks! I was
be with you.
== == == ==
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== == == == ==
Frederic Rzewski (born Westfield, Massachusetts, 1938) studied music first with Charles Mackey of Springfield, and subsequently with Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, and Milton Babbitt at Harvard and Princeton Universities. He went to Italy in 1960, where he studied with Luigi Dallapiccola and met Severino Gazzelloni, with whom he performed in a number of concerts, thus beginning a career as a performer of new piano music. His early friendship with Christian Wolff and David Behrman, and his acquaintance with John Cage and David Tudor, strongly influenced his development in both composition and performance.
In Rome in the mid-sixties, together with Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum, he formed the MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva) group, which quickly became known for its pioneering work in live electronics and improvisation. Bringing together both classical and jazz avant-gardists (like Steve Lacy and Anthony Braxton), MEV developed an esthetic of music as a spontaneous collective process. The experience of MEV can be felt in Frederic Rzewski's compositions of the late sixties and early seventies, which combine elements derived equally from the worlds of written and improvised music.
During the seventies he experimented further with forms in which style and language are treated as structural elements; the best-known work of this period is The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, a 50-minute set of piano variations. A number of pieces for larger ensembles written between 1979 and 1981 show a return to experimental and graphic notation, while much of the work of the eighties explores new ways of using twelve-tone technique. A freer, more spontaneous approach to writing can be found in more recent work. His largest-scale work to date is The Triumph of Death (1987-8), a two-hour oratorio based on texts adapted from Peter Weiss' 1965 play Die Ermittlung (The Investigation). Since 1983, he has been Professor of Composition at the Conservatoire Royal de Musique in Liege, Belgium.
© 1995 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on January 19,
1995. Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in
1998. This transcription was made and posted on this
website in 2008.
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.