Composer Richard Wilson

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Richard Wilson was born in Cleveland on May 15, 1941. He studied piano with Roslyn Pettibone, Egbert Fischer, and Leonard Shure, and cello with Robert Ripley and Ernst Silberstein. After beginning composition studies with Roslyn Pettibone and Howard Whittaker, he went on in 1959 to Harvard, studying with Randall Thompson, G.W. Woodworth, and principally with Robert Moevs, and graduating in 1963 magna cum laude. Awarded the Frank Huntington Beebe Award for study abroad, he continued studying piano with Friedrich Wührer in Munich, and composition, again with Moevs, in Rome, where he also gave piano recitals. Wilson joined the faculty of Vassar College in 1966. He was appointed to the Mary Conover Mellon Professorship of Music there in 1988, and he has served three times as chairman of the Department of Music.

In the last few years Wilson’s music has begun to make a wider mark, with the help of commissions from the San Francisco Symphony and other organizations. His works have been heard not only in such American musical centers as New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, Cleveland, and Los Angeles and at the Aspen Music Festival, but also in London, Berlin, Frankfurt, Zurich, Milan, Amsterdam, Graz, Leningrad, Stockholm, Tokyo, Bogota, and a number of Australian cities.

The recipient in 1992 of a Guggenheim Fellowship, he was awarded the Elise L. Stoeger Prize of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in 1994, the Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2004, and has served as composer in residence with the American Symphony Orchestra since 1992. Recent commissions have come from the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Fromm Foundation, and the Chicago String Quartet.

-- Names which are links on this webpaage refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website. BD

When I first contacted Richard Wilson, it turned out that he was going to visit the Windy City in April of 1991, so we agreed to meet when he was here. Here is what transpired when we met that evening . . . . .

Bruce Duffie: Thank you for coming to Chicago.

Richard Wilson: It’s fun to be here. I haven’t been in Chicago since I was in college, which I hate to say, we’re talking almost 30 years ago. I came with the Harvard Glee Club and gave a concert.

BD: Were you accompanying or singing?

RW: Accompanying.

BD: Did that encourage you to write some choral music?

RW: It did at the time, or at least shortly after that time, yes. I started off with a series of a cappella choral works.

BD: You’ve been at Vassar for how long?

RW: Twenty-five years.

BD: Is that too long to be in one place?

RW: It sounds it. Everybody thinks so, but I like it there. That’s the trouble; otherwise, I would have tried to move. I think of myself as a “starting off” assistant professor, but everybody else thinks of me as part of the woodwork — some old duffer who has been there a long time.

BD: Are you teaching theory and composition?

RW: I like the harmony and counterpoint. I teach some composition. I also teach some music appreciation.

BD: When did Vassar go coed?

RW: It’s been coed for some time. My wife was in the last, as we say, “pure” class. That was in ’69.

BD: Oh, so it’s been more than twenty years! [Laughs] I’m just a little behind, I guess.

RW: I was in Omaha, and a member of the music faculty who was driving me said, “Is Vassar coed?” I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Used to be all men, wasn’t it?” [Both laugh] I love to tell that to people at Vassar, just to let them know they’re not as famous as they think they are.

BD: When you’re at one of the well-known schools, is that a problem to think that everybody knows what you’re doing and what’s going on?

RW: I don’t know whether it’s a problem. We were living in England for a year, and about halfway through, somebody said to my wife, “You always say your husband teaches at Vassar as though you thought we all knew what that was. We’ve never heard of it.” But I don’t give it much thought one way or another. We like to point to Meryl Streep or Mary McCarthy or Elizabeth Bishop; it has graduated some very distinguished people.

BD: You teach and you compose. How do you divide your time between those two very taxing activities?

RW: You get in the habit of organizing it and trying to partition it. Luckily I live very close to the place where I teach, so I can get back and forth quickly and can really sequester myself. I can dedicate certain days of the week to composition. You obviously can’t slight either one of them because you want to do a good job of the teaching, so it goes in waves. Sometimes you’re more involved with composition and less involved with teaching, such as now that I’m on sabbatical this year. But you have the summers and you have the vacations.

BD: Do you get enough time to compose?

RW: I’d like more ideas! The time is fine; I can’t complain. I get enough time, given the imagination — the one that I seem to have. What I’d like is more of the latter. Then I’d need more time.

BD: Do you find yourself really sitting there with a blank page, or a partially composed page?

RW: Everybody does; they just don’t admit it. Everybody just sits there and stares at these pages, and then you finally start drawing in empty bar lines just to give yourself the feeling that you’re making progress. It’s a slow thing, especially — for me at least — at the beginning of a piece. It gets a lot faster when you’re heading toward the end, but just starting off — say when you’re starting a symphony — it’s quite daunting to think of filling thirty or forty minutes.

BD: When you’ve got the blank page in front of you, do you know about how long it will take to perform?

RW: It’s hard to answer it in a general way. The more you’ve done it, the more sense you have of what you’re up against, or where your initial ideas are going to lead, so you can get a sense of the proportions of things.

BD: If your assignment is to write a thirty minute symphony, is it going to come out about a half-hour?

RW: Of course you can control that. That’s a whole subject in itself, as to whether you’re really held to that. If your ideas led you to a forty-five minute piece and they said thirty, are they really going to cut it off at the end of thirty minutes? That depends on the circumstance.

BD: Would it be better for you to finish this up as a forty-five minute piece and then write a different thirty minute piece for the commission?

RW: You never know; it really depends. Sometimes the ideas are compelling and require a certain kind of realization. If that takes forty-five minutes instead of thirty, you’ve got to do what it requires. They can decide and they can delete part of it. Nicholas Maw has this huge piece that the BBC commissioned. It’s almost two hours, the longest single-movement orchestral piece, and when they first did it, they did leave out part of it. Everybody complained that that was a crazy thing to do, so then they did the whole thing. There are lots of stories about that.

BD: I take it you have a little more liberal view, that they could maybe leave out a little bit and you wouldn’t scream and holler?

RW: Oh, I would scream and holler, but I’m saying that you have to face this on a piece-by-piece case. I’ve never had a piece played that was cut, but I remember having a conversation... This is sound like name-dropping, but I once was talking with Copland when he had just been to Philadelphia. They had done one of his popular pieces — I think it was Billy the Kid — and at the last minute, the conductor — who I won’t name, but it might be obvious — muttered something about, “I hope you don’t mind the cuts.” Copland went there, and they proceeded to leave out, almost arbitrarily, a few measures here and a few measures there, in a piece that was very well known. He was quite amazed! He wasn’t angry about it. I know he wasn’t the sort of person who would throw a fit, but he couldn’t understand why a great orchestra, which could obviously play the piece and had no time limitations, should chop and cut. I’ve never had that. I’m not played that much, perhaps, but I’ve never had to face the question of leaving out something.

* * * * *

BD: When you’re in the midst of composing and you’ve got the ideas flowing, are you always in control of that pencil, or are there times when you feel that the pencil is guiding your hand across the page?

RW: I don’t know how to answer that. One would like to say that one is always in control. I’ve never felt in competition with the pencil; I don’t think that it is ever in control, but there are periods in the process where you really don’t know what you’re doing. You’re working with bits of material and trying to let them lead you in certain ways, but you don’t know how it is going to fit together. So in that sense, you’re not in control at that moment. You have to go through periods where you’re uncertain as to the outcome. This is my line on this; of course, other people might feel differently, and everybody always quotes the Mozart statement about how in a flash he understands, perceives, hears, or whatever, the entire piece from beginning to end. I know what he meant by that, and I don’t think it necessarily contradicts what I’m describing, which is this intermediate period of searching and shaping and extending, then in some cases trimming and rearranging and deciding that certain bits don’t belong in the piece that you’re writing at all, but they belong in some other piece. It’s very important to get them out of there, because they’re going to impede the logic and the flow of the work at hand. So in that sense you’re in control. You’ve done this before, you know what it feels like, you realize what you’ve got to do at that moment. You’re sure which direction you’re going in, but you’re not sure how it’s going to fit. You have to leave it open for a certain kind of improvisation — much different from the jazz improvisation. This is a particular compositorial improvisation, where you think A is leading to B, but why don’t we try A after B, and put C in there, and D might fit here, but why don’t we try it over there... this kind of thing


BD: When you’re juggling all of these ideas and you have it all down, how do you know when it’s right and when it’s finished?

RW: Luckily that isn’t so much of a problem. This comes back to how the more advanced stages of it are, in a way, easier. The much, much harder part is where you’re struggling with the initial fragment. Once you’ve got it three-quarters or four-fifths or six-sevenths of the way finished, you can tell how it’s going. You can tell when it’s finished; at least I don’t find that to be a period of distress. Obviously there are cases where, once it’s finished and performed, you listen to it and you might change something. That seems quite a reasonable thing to do, and many great composers did it. But in deciding when it’s finished there are some specific problems. You are deciding when a particular texture is complete. For instance, do you need to add a quiet cymbal in the background, or is there already too much going on at that particular passage? That’s tough.

BD: Or the doublings in the woodwinds and strings?

RW: Exactly; the thinning out, adding just a little more body, plugging up a dead spot, something like that. Those are tough decisions, but deciding when the whole piece is finished, I find, is one of the more pleasurable and not distressing points.

BD: Do you ever go back and radically revise your scores, or is it just touching up after the first rehearsal?

RW: I have to fight a certain hysteria that sets in about the end of the first rehearsal, where there is a desire to either delete the entire piece or make some very radical change. Then my wife and friends all have to say, “Well, no, just wait till the second rehearsal. Let’s give it a little more time.” Once we’ve gone through the performance, I haven’t made what I think you’re meaning in the way of radical changes. I have fixed bits here and there — tried to eliminate an awkwardness, or if I have misjudged an orchestrational detail. Something you thought was going to sound wonderful just doesn’t get off the stage; it’s too subtle or too gauche; those things.

BD: Will you let the musicians work with the piece and get into it before making suggestions, or are you there with suggestions right away?

RW: No, no. The advantage of a little bit of experience there is good, especially if you’re lucky enough to have wonderful players. You can trust them to discover things and find ways of solving problems on their own. So the less you interfere, probably, the better.

BD: Do they ever discover things you didn’t know you had put there?

RW: Oh sure. There are sometimes relationships that you didn’t realize. They get an angle on something that you just didn’t notice, but is there. How it got there, you don’t know, or maybe you did notice and intended it, and then you forget all about it. That happens to me, because unlike some composers who, to my amazement, remember their own music in the most specific detail, I don’t do that. I’m often surprised by things. I forget pieces, I forget details, mainly because for me at least, when you go on to the next piece, you wipe the slate clean. Maybe this is because it’s a small slate, so you haven’t got any extra space there, but it’s also, to try to make the new piece fresh.

BD: Are you wiping the slate clean, or are you going onto a new slate?

RW: I think you’re only given one slate, so you have to wipe it clean, or else the traces of these other pieces are going to be there, and you’re going to run the risk of writing the same piece more than once. So you clean that slate off, and at least in my case, then you can’t remember what you wrote in the previous piece. By the time that piece has worked its way up to a performance, you’re involved with some other piece. You’re no longer involved in it. It’s not that you don’t care, but you’ve moved on to something else, so you come at this earlier piece with a certain detachment. I’m often surprised by it.

BD: Suppose you come upon a piece that was ten or even twenty years old. Are you pleased with what’s there, or do you think, “How did I ever write that?”

RW: I almost hesitate to say this, but I’m pleased by what I hear. I recently had a CD come out that was sort of retrospective, and I have not been horrified by pieces that I wrote twenty years ago. Now there may be pieces that I wrote twenty years ago that I would be horrified by, but the ones that are available on CD seem to hold up okay.

* * * * *

BD: You write in a much more accessible style than a lot of the other composters today. Is this the way you want to write, or is it because you want to make it more accessible?

RW: I don’t think it’s true! I think that I’m less accessible than many composers writing today.

BD: Really??? Wh


RW: For one thing, there’s very little trace of minimalism in my music, and secondly, my music is highly chromatic and rhythmically fairly complex. These are not the ingredients for accessibility on the whole. What I think is accessible, perhaps, is that I do tend to have some kind of recurring material — not in an ostinato or steady recurrence, but there is some kind of a formal design that can be understood without reference to the score itself. In that sense it’s accessible. I don’t necessarily want to get into listing names, but I could list quite a few composers who are more accessible than I am.

BD: Beyond just the minimalists? [Vis-à-vis the LP shown at left, see my Interviews with Harvey Sollberger, Ursula Oppens, and Carlos Surinach.]

RW: Yes — neo-Romantic composers; composers who are, in a way, looking back to the period of the ’40s and the big orchestral pieces of that period, being influenced by the big “orchestral statement” pieces.

BD: And yet, I would assume that you could also name, perhaps, even a greater number who are less accessible to the typical concert audience.

RW: I suppose.

BD: So then you’re right in the middle.

RW: Well...

BD: I’m not trying to pigeonhole you, but do you feel that you’re part of a lineage of composers?

RW: Oh I hope so, yes. I don’t know. That seems to me to be a very fundamental motivation, to attempt to be in some kind of lineage. You want to be working with the same materials that other composers you admire did work with. I definitely do feel that.

BD: And yet to bring something new to it?

RW: Yes, and to bring something personal and individual to it. I didn’t get involved with composition on any serious basis until the end of my college years. I had done it when I was a child, actually; I wrote piano pieces and sent them off to publishers, but thank goodness they were never accepted. I was going regularly to the Cleveland Orchestra concerts, and when I finally heard what contemporary music sounded like, I was horrified. I hated what I heard when I was eleven or twelve. I started going every week when I was rather young, which is a lucky thing because of that great Szell period in the ’50s and into the ’60s, with the Cleveland Orchestra. I learned a lot of repertoire and certainly learned what a great orchestra sounded like, but I can’t say that I developed an interest in contemporary music until I was a bit older. I loved the Stravinsky concerts that took place in Cleveland. He came a couple times and conducted his own music. I remember Markevitch coming and doing The Rite of Spring, and I remember a piece by a composer named Robert Moevs, who had a premiere in Cleveland. I was very impressed with that. I later went off to college and found that I was studying harmony with Robert Moevs. Just by the purest coincidence, I was in his class.

BD: I did an interview with him, and recently a 70th birthday program for him

RW: Yes, you did, indeed. He told me that you did. But all that youthful experience I had still didn’t do it. I was studying harmony, and a couple years later Boulez came to Harvard. I heard more of Moevs’s music and I started into a seminar with Moevs, and Boulez was there. Some of his music was being played, and I was thrilled by that. I went from being rather turned off by, let’s say, middle of the road contemporary music to being very much excited by what was at the time the most progressive contemporary music, such as Boulez. This was in ’62 or ’63, so I have since moved gradually away from the edge, so to speak. The music that I first wrote was probably more Boulezian than anything I’ve written since. I know that’s a little odd...

BD: No one would mistake your music now for Boulez!

RW: No, no, but it was the contact with Moevs and Boulez that animated me. I had been a pianist who was a pre-medical student. In fact, I got as far being accepted to medical school! Then I decided I really didn’t think that I’d be a very good doctor.

BD: Why?

RW: I had a certain tendency toward absent-mindedness and improvisation, as I was speaking of before, so it probably wouldn’t have been any service to humanity. There are probably people alive today who would be dead if I had gone in that direction! At least my music hasn’t killed anybody. I backed off of that, and the addition of composition to activities as a pianist seemed to do it for me. That felt like the kind of life I might wanted to have — plus teaching, which I knew I would be doing. So I went in that direction and I continue to play, so it makes a package — the teaching, the playing, and the composing.

BD: Do you also conduct your works?

RW: I have, yes, on occasion. It’s not an ambition of mine to be a conductor, but I’ve done it over the years, on and off as necessary, with some pleasure and apparent competence.

BD: Are you the ideal conductor of your works?

RW: No, I wouldn’t say that at all. I don’t think that anybody who just conducts once every two or three years would be an ideal conductor of anything. I do it when there’s nobody better available.

BD: When you leave the music to other people, how much leeway do you put in the composition and expect them to interject their own ideas into your work?

RW: There I would say I’m quite a traditionalist. That interpretive element which is supplied by the performer is absolutely essential. You only have to go regularly to student recitals and hear people playing Beethoven sonatas who aren’t ready yet to be playing Beethoven sonatas to know how terrible a great piece can sound if it is not played well. So you understand the necessary role of the interpreter and the performer. You don’t have to go so far as was the case being experimented with in the ’60s of allowing the performer notational choices or things like that. The performer has their role to play right from the start, and it is very important; I rather count on it. I know that a great composer like Stravinsky, having been burned enough times, felt that it should be minimized. “Just play it the way I wrote it,” he might say, but the truth of it is you have to trust your performers. Even in Stravinsky, you can hear a great difference in performances of The Symphony in Three Movements. It can sound like a magnificent piece, or it can sound like a dull piece, given the performance.

BD: But given performances on a certain level where it won’t sound bad, can it sound good but differently?

RW: Oh, sure. I’m all for the art of the performance. That’s a type or recordings I tend to collect — Szigeti or Schnabel, the great interpreters, or at least what I think are the great interpreters.

BD: The landmarks of the previous generation, essentially?

RW: I love comparing one to people who are playing today, and comparing them, not always unfavorably, to these great figures who are in the past.

BD: Are there landmark recordings of the current generation? You don’t have to be specific about names...

RW: Oh, I do think there are. Yes, I do. Yo-Yo Ma’s solo Bach recordings are marvelous, just to pick one. Also András Schiff has made some wonderful recordings.

* * * * *

BD: Are you optimistic about the future of mus


RW: No, in sense that the one thing that concerns me so much is that I don’t really think that colleges and universities are doing what they should toward building a listening audience for classical music. For about twenty-five or thirty years, the emphasis has been off of what used to be called “music appreciation.” The emphasis has gone in a variety of directions, some of which are quite understandable, but the effect of that has been that we haven’t done our job. I don’t think the young are as involved with this music as they should be. The thing that makes me worry is whether, in a certain period of time, it will all be gone. It’s their parents who also didn’t grow up on classical music, so I’m afraid it’s a kind of music that the current young associate with their grandparents, if at all.

BD: If the parents did have it and the kids rejected it, perhaps eventually they’d come back to it; but if the parents didn’t have it, then their kids will never have anything to come back to?

RW: I think that might be the case. After all, Vassar is a rather, shall we say, elite institution, and yet you get the great majority of students go through without ever taking a course in music appreciation.

BD: What should the colleges be doing?

RW: They should be doing a better job of those courses, and in some cases trying to build them into a basic core curriculum, which they’re not doing. It’s nothing against the field of Black Music, but that field is flourishing. You can get 100 people for a course in Black Music, and twenty for a course in Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. It’s more fashionable to be involved with black music.

BD: So maybe twenty years from now, when Black Music is completely understood, we’ll have to have a special course in White Music?

RW: I don’t know. That brings up the whole question of rock, and so on. I don’t have any large philosophical position on this; I just am concerned about the kind of music that matters most to me, and whether it be supported. After all, most orchestras are in some measure of difficulty in fundraising in the moment, but what is it going to be like in thirty years when the current audience is all dead?

BD: Should rock be considered music?

RW: It’s certainly a sociological phenomenon that is in some way related to music, and it’s important. I’m sure it’s sociologically important. I have to say that it doesn’t mean very much to me as music, but it does to some people who are involved with classical music, and it does impinge on the music that they write — not, in my opinion, to advantage, but that’s just my opinion. It goes in one ear and out the other, as far as I’m concerned. Most of the time I’m not even aware. I just don’t even notice it.

BD: Obviously then, rock doesn’t touch you. Should the music that touches you touch everyone?

RW: If they were to get involved with it, they would be touched by it. I’m not going to say that it should happen, but if they’re exposed to it under favorable circumstances, the music will take care of itself. It is so powerful and in my opinion so important, it will touch them, and once they’re touched, then we’ve got them. I’ve seen that happen; I’ve seen students come in, and the last thing in the world they want to do is get involved with an opera. Then you present them with Carmen and they’re knocked out by it.

BD: So then you essentially believe in the power of the music itself?

RW: I do. Yes, I certainly do.

BD: Where is music going these days — or is it too multifaceted to pin d


RW: I’m not the right person to ask; you need some historian of music who specializes in it. All periods in the past were confusing, so you had cross-currents and fashions and fads and so on; so it’s probably not that much different at the moment. But one is tempted, a little bit, to say that we’re in a slightly dull period only because it’s a reaction against the period of great experimentation of the late ’50s and ’60s. In some peoples’ minds, that drove away an audience from contemporary music, although I’m arguing that the whole audience for classical music is reduced — not specifically contemporary music. But in any case, “accessibility,” the word that you used a few minutes ago, has become the watchword for many composers. They want their music to speak on the first hearing, and that is, in my opinion, risky because the very point of classical music is that the more times you hear it, the more involved you get with it. Very often, even the greatest pieces don’t capture you on the very first hearing, unless somebody is carefully presenting it so that you’re listening for the right things, or at least have some landmarks. It takes work or exposure to get involved with classical music. So if your objective, as a composer, is to get it all the first time, I’m not sure about it.

BD: Is this what differentiates the levels of music, as far as being great or less great — how much depth they have to plumb? [Vis-à-vis the CD shown at left, see my Interviews with Robert Starer, Janos Starker, and Richard Wernick.]

RW: It might be; I don’t know. I don’t like to get involved with what’s greater. Is Tchaikovsky less great than Josquin? I don’t know. You can’t really compare things like that. Some great composers, such as Tchaikowsky, do make an immediate impact on people; there’s no doubt about that. Elliott Carter’s music does not make the same kind of impact as a Tchaikowsky Fourth Symphony. What I’m saying is that the more you listen to Elliott Carter’s music, the more you get out of it.

BD: Is this perhaps because we’re brought up on it? It seems like all of the music that pervades our society — the TV jingles, so-called easy listening, everything, even the rock music — is somewhat based on Tchaikovskian tonality and rhythms and structures?

RW: I wouldn’t blame him for any of that. It’s more of an offshoot of the simplest kind of pop music — the basic three chords that go in the same order all the time. Tchaikovsky had far more than three chords. [Both laugh] The great thing about less accessible music is that it’s an escape from the trivial music that is everywhere — in elevators and supermarkets and all over the radio as well as in advertising and everything. One seeks an entirely different kind of music from that. It’s fine that the strongest argument for so-called “atonal” music is precisely that kind of music is not used in elevators and supermarkets. It’s not therapy; it’s not mood music; it’s not Muzak. It doesn’t pretend to be; it’s not. It’s a completely different world from that.

BD: We’ve kind of been dancing around it, and you even touched on a moment ago, so let me ask straight out... What is the purpose of music?

RW: I think it’s to elevate the spirit, but that seems a bit trivial. It’s what comes to mind, but whatever the purpose of it, it’s intrinsic to humanity. It’s so amazing to me that you can go back century after century and find people doing it, and on such a very, very high level. In the 15th Century or the 14th Century or the 10th, whatever it is, it’s been taken very seriously for a long time, and is associated with the very highest sort of spiritual values, as well as entertainment and play and dance, and so on. So it’s very far-ranging from sacred to profane, but it’s very much a part of our world. It was probably more of a part of a less-noisy world, maybe, because I’m afraid I would categorize Muzak as part of the noisy aspect of modern life.

BD: Making some sounds to mask other sounds, which, of course, adds more sound to the existing sound.

RW: Yes. When you say, “What is the purpose of music,” it’s very hard to answer that, because I’m an individual, and obviously this is something that transcends individuals because it’s gone on for such a long time. “What is the purpose of an individual to write music?” would be different from “what is the purpose of music?”

BD: Why do you write music, then?

RW: There’s nothing better to do. [Both laugh] That is to say, it is something that you feel, that if you can do it well and leave a little bit of a record, you passed through this life and this is what you left behind. The tantalizing thing is that it could survive you, not in some tremendous way, but just a little bit. If you wrote one piece that contributed in some significant way to the repertoire for some instrument so that the players of that instrument would go on playing your piece after you’re dead, there’s something fascinating about that. It may be some ego thing, but I don’t know. It’s just a sort of a nice idea that it would go on, and that you would make your little contribution to that long tradition that has included some extraordinary figures. You’re not saying you’re on the level of those figures, but that you should have any relationship to those figures is a remarkable thing, if it happens.

BD: Are you in competition with the remarkable figures, either of previous generations or this generation?

RW: That’s one of the crazy things — you are! You don’t want to be, necessarily, but I remember when one of my quartets was being played in New York with a Mozart quartet starting the program and my favorite Brahms quartet ending it. There I was in the middle. This is not what I had in mind! It’s like you were invited to play tennis, and it turns out that you look across the court and it’s Jimmy Connors. There are television cameras, and suddenly you’re playing with some world champion. That isn’t what I had in mind, and I certainly didn’t think of myself as going on there with Mozart. Other arts aren’t quite like that. If you write a novel, you aren’t programmed next to Henry James or Proust; it isn’t, somehow, that you’re in a direct relationship to them. Of course, if you survive this, it’s kind of fun, also. Maybe some lunatic comes up and says they liked your piece better than Mozart and Bra


BD: I assume that you would like people to say that your piece fit in very well between the Mozart and Brahms.

RW: That it did not cause a horrendous embarrassment, somehow, would be nice.

BD: I assume it did stand that test on this particular occasion?

RW: I can no longer remember the answer to that, but I’m still alive, so...

BD: You must have a printed review someplace!

RW: Maybe somewhere buried in my s


BD: [Laughs] What do you expect of the audience that hears your music, either on a concert of all new music, or one that features you and Mozart and Brahms?

RW: Copland said this all better than anybody could. He said that you ask the audience to lend a willing and curious ear. You’re not presenting yourself in the way of replacing beloved pieces of repertoire that people have grown to love; you’re just wanting your little place to be heard, and that your piece reflects the time in which we live. That is something you can’t ask from Mozart or Beethoven. Great as they are, they didn’t live in the end of the 20th Century. Your music does convey something about our own time. It’s well known that people who are curious about the visual arts of our time are sometimes strangely resistant to the music of our time. They may collect modern painting, but they won’t go to a contemporary concert. It’s an odd thing.

BD: Is there a correlation between the visual and the aural?

RW: There often is with composers. I’m very often inspired by visual images, and I certainly know painters who listen to contemporary music while they’re painting. But it’s the question of education. People are more apt to have been introduced to painting or to the contemporary arts in college than they are to music. At least in the milieu in which I exist, there are many more people taking art courses than music appreciation.

BD: Just on a very superficial level, it would seem that you go into a hotel room and there may be a couple of paintings, perhaps even an abstract. Whereas you go into a hotel room and you’re not going to get a piece of new music.

RW: Right. There’s a whole other side, of course, and that is that contemporary artworks are commercial properties that can be sold at a profit. You can invest in modern art; you can’t, in the same way, invest in contemporary music. A CD of my music will not skyrocket in value.

BD: Might not the manuscript of the music on that CD?

RW: I can hope that would happen, but I don’t think that I’m going to count on it. There are some complicated tax considerations involved with that anyway, but you understand what I mean. It’s not an investment element, so it doesn’t have that particular attraction.

BD: We should get composer cards like they have baseball cards, and start trading them.

RW: That could be a nice idea.

* * * * *

BD: Let me ask about your recordings. You’ve had quite a number of your pieces put on disc. Are you pleased with the sound that comes back off the plastic?

RW: Yes. Most of the recordings of my music are ones where I’ve been involved in some manner. Usually I’ve been at the session, and I’ve been involved with the editing. It’s one of the surprises with a piece. We were talking about when the piece is finished, but it’s never quite finished until it’s been performed, and then it’s been recorded and it’s been published. What I mean by “not finished” is that the composer is faced with all kinds of stages of horrendous decision-making. You have a recording session and they do five or six versions of each passage. Then, because they think that since you’re the composer you know more about this than anybody else, you are sent these tapes, and you have to listen to each fragment phrase by phrase, five different times, and say which one you think is best. The sheer bookkeeping to keep track of what you’re doing is quite awful. So with each piece you acquire a great backlog of material — all of the editing “takes” with the recording. Then when it gets published, you have proofs — several, sometimes three or four sets of proofs loaded with errors — and you have to try to find those. Then if there are errors in the recording session, you have to find those. If you write many pieces, each piece, potentially, has this great kind of burden attached to it. I’m not complaining, because it means if you’re getting recorded and published, that somebody’s interested in that piece, which is to the good. But there’s a lot of potential to tear your hair out with this kind o

f work.

BD: I would think it would be better for the performers or the producer to assemble what they think is the best performance, and then let you decide if there’s something you want changed.

RW: That’s the way that it’s done in standard repertoire where you’re more apt to have a very experienced producer. But the kinds of recording companies that specialize in contemporary music can’t afford the most experienced producers, and with good reason. After all, the composer does know the piece better than the other people. But the composer may not be as adept, or as adroit at this kind of thing. It takes something to keep track of different versions and so on. But I’ve been lucky. I think that the recordings of my music are really quite good. I’ve been pleased with them. I’ve been very lucky over my career to have wonderful performers right from the outset.

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

RW: Oh, no. I remember one time a choral work was under-rehearsed. It was chorus and two percussionists — one on either side. They got mixed up as to whether the conductor was conducting in two or four, so one percussionist played the whole piece twice as fast as the other one.

BD: So when he got to the end, he went back to the beginning?

RW: He got to the end ahead of everybody, but meanwhile, in quiet, expressive passages, there would be a tremendous cymbal crash that made no sense at all. That was a horrible! I’ve had that kind of thing. Every composer can tell stories of just the lamentable, under-prepared, well-meaning, of course, but just not well-rehearsed.

BD: What happens when you get the review that says, “Such a brilliant stroke, in the middle of that quiet passage, to put the cymbal crash.”

RW: I’ve never had that. I’ve never had a review that praised something that shouldn’t have happened in the piece. I know composers who have, but luckily, so far I haven’t had that.

BD: If that happened, would you leave it — redo the piece so that you put the cymbal crash in?

RW: Certainly not. You don’t mean to think that a critic would make a suggestion in a printed review that I would take??? I would never do that!

BD: Do you read the reviews at all?

RW: Sure. I not only read them, but once I had a quartet played in London, and I was so nervous about the reviews because several critics came, that I had to take a tour of the printing plant of the Sunday Times. I had been advised that the paper came out on Saturday evening at a certain hour, and when I arrived it hadn’t come out yet. They wondered what I was doing there, so I signed up for a tour of the facilities. Some very nice man led me through all the stages, and then I saw the very first print of the paper coming, way in the distance, as it threaded its way through all the mechanism, and finally down a chute and into my hand. He said, “Would you like to keep that?” and I said, “Yes, thank you very much.” I left and tore it open looking for the review, and the critic who had come was bumped that week. It didn’t appear; it never did appear to this day.

BD: It was cut for space?

RW: Right. I think he’s dead now, so I’ll never know what he thought of that quartet. There were other reviews, but that’s the kind of anxiety, at least at that point, that I had over it. Not that you can really trust them... I’ve had people say — and I think they may be right — that it’s even worse when you get a good review. That is, if you start to believe them. It’s hard to say whether it’s worse to get a bad or good one, and it would be wonderful to be able to ignore that entirely. But frankly, you can’t do that because in your effort to interest people, which you have to engage in — you have to do a certain amount of sending tapes or scores around — it’s handy to have something to include with it, if it happens to be a good review. The recipient probably doesn’t trust the reviewer any more than you do, but still it’s something to read about. It’s the idea of the disinterested party, however competent or incompetent they may be. At least they’re not a member of your family and they’re not in the inner circle of the concert-givers. They have some detachment, and you’re getting a report of how the thing impressed them.

BD: Which, theoretically, should be how it could impress the average concertgoer?

RW: Right. Whether they’re a brilliant critic or not, they usually have some experience, so there’s some context, and it’s not uninteresting to see what they pick out. Over a period of time, you can actually learn something.

BD: Is it better to get a review by Andrew Porter [famed British critic and translator, then writing for the New Yorker magazine] or Donal Henahan [then senior music critic of The New York Times] , rather than just someone in some paper, or even a stringer in a big paper?

RW: I don’t know if I want to discuss individual critics, but the two that you name are very, very, very different. Andrew Porter is an extraordinarily intelligent and learned critic, who has set an altogether higher standard in New York than anything I ever heard of before that. Of course he has his biases and he has his particular interests, but he’s a most impressive critic. The thing about him that’s impressive is that he seems to know everything anybody could conceivably know about opera, and then you discover that one of his great interests is organ recitals. He knows everything about organ recitals. Then it turns out that percussion ensembles have long been one of his favorite things, and he knows everything about that. Then it turns out he’s really an expert on ballet. And of course he’s heard every premiere — all over the world — of Henze or Carter, or whoever. He’s just amazing.

* * * * *

BD: When you get a commission for work, how do you decide if you’re going to accept it or perhaps postpone it, or even turn

it down?

RW: I suppose there are certain instruments that I would turn down. I’m not fond of the bagpipes. I’m not fond, really, of the organ, so I would have trouble with that. But I recently did a commission that involved the harpsichord, which I was worried about because I didn’t think that I could make friends with the harpsichord. I had written for it in the past, but this was to be a piece that featured it, and I was a little concerned about that — though the commission itself was prestigious enough that I didn’t feel I wanted to turn it down. I didn’t consider turning it down; there was no question of that, but I was worried. Eventually I converted. In the course of writing it, I got over my worries about the harpsichord, so it was a very good thing to have done. In the end I would have been wrong if I had allowed my concerns to stand in the way of that. For most people, whether you take a commission or not really has to do with the time frame. Whatever you’re being asked to do, can you do it in the time that you have to do it, to the level that you want to do it? If somebody asks you to write an opera and the performance is a year from the day that you’re having this phone call, that really is, for most people, out of the question.

BD: [With a sly nudge] You couldn’t just grind it out in three weeks?

RW: Well, you wouldn’t want to. At least, I wouldn’t want to. It depends on the style. If you write a kind of music where it’s dependent on the ostinato and you can generate large quantities of music fairly readily, then it’s not such a problem.

BD: Have you done an opera?

RW: No.

BD: Are you going to? [Note: This interview was held in 1991. Wilson subsequently did write an opera. Photo from the recording is shown above at right.]

RW: I think about it a lot, and some friends have been urging one or another subject on me. You have to find your own subject, and I don’t seem to respond to these suggestions from other people. But I’ve been looking into it. More or less I just trying to keep myself looking by attending newer things in New York. I keep reading and looking for things, but what it amounts to is such an enormous time commitment, and also the fierce expense of production. It’s not the sort of thing you start off on without any hope of a performance. You really have to have some inkling that there would be interest somewhere. It’s a trap many composers have fallen into.

BD: But you’ve written other things for voice?

RW: Yes. Not a great deal. I started off, as I said when we were talking before, as a choral composer. Then I went into chamber music and piano music, and only fairly recently have I done songs. I did my first three songs in ’84, and then a couple years ago I did a set of five more songs. I had a tenor and harp piece, actually, in the ’70s, which I suppose that was my first solo voice piece. That’s a fairly extended piece,


BD: Being a pianist, do you write better or more convincingly for piano?

RW: For a long time I stayed away from the piano, thinking that you would fall into the sort of clichés and so on. But then when I did, I do think it helps to be a pianist and certainly to know the repertoire to try things. I do a lot of work at the piano, whether the music is for piano or not. I fall into that category of a composer who uses the piano, knowing what its limitations are and what is possible, and the kinds of adjustments that you need to make.

BD: You’re just using it as a tool?

RW: Yes, but it’s a very helpful tool.

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

RW: I never used to understand what was meant by the technique. You’re not talking about a specific technique — let’s say the twelve-tone technique, which is really very specialized and I don’t do that, anyway. Very few people at the moment do write strictly serial music, but I’ve never been involved with that. So what is meant by technique?

BD: The craft which is involved.

RW: Mm-hm. It’s really hard for me to tell what the difference is. I’m sure that there is some meaning to this, but I’m a little bit puzzled as to what it is. It all pretty much fuses together.

BD: The music comes to you as a piece, rather than having to work it out?

RW: Working it out may involve inspiration. You may have bits of material that you have thought of and written down, and you can’t figure out what to do with them. Then you get an inspiration and you see how they might fit together or relate. It comes to you what would be the key thing that you haven’t written that, if you were to write it, would all make it all fit together. Now is that technique or inspiration? I don’t know. Right up to the last moment is the potential for inspiration. I’m sure it’s true with great composers. I’m sure Beethoven may have added a grace note to the theme of the last movement of the Second Piano Concerto and that made the whole thing wonderful — which, if you take it out, it’s a little dull. You have to be open to the last minute things. Obviously there are techniques. If you write for instruments in a way that the instrument can’t play what you’ve written, or it’s out of the register, or it’s so awkward that they can’t finger it, that would seem to be a lapse in technique of a certain sort. But once you start talking about the music itself, I suppose technique might be defined as your ability to make the music really actually sound the way you want it to sound, so that what comes off the stage is exactly what you intended. That’s the ideal, after all, which doesn’t always happen. Certain distinguished composers had to do some adjusting. People forget that Mahler insisted on trying out his orchestral pieces with his own orchestra, and then making lots and lots of changes. Ravel would hire an orchestra and try out, in private, his orchestrations to see what they sounded like.

BD: Are you, then, the beneficiary of all of their labors?

RW: Of course. You study their scores and see what it is that they arrived at and how it sounded. They did advance the art of orchestration by doing that, but it’s no flaw, really, in their technique that they needed to try out things. That’s only reasonable.

BD: Has the proliferation of recordings changed this kind of balance for the composer at all?

RW: The proliferation of recordings has both a positive and negative effect. The positive thing is that you can listen to so many different kinds of things. Any kind of thing you might want you can immediately hear, whereas in the end of the 19th Century, you might have to wait months and months to hear one performance of a given Beethoven symphony. However, that one performance was indelibly registered on your memory because you had to wait for two or three months for it. The concentration of listening, when it was the only time you could hear it, produced a human effect that is so intense. It’s not that way now. We can put on a CD and stop in the middle, go make a phone call and come back. It’s just not the same kind of thing because it’s so accessible.

BD: Is this diminishing its importance to us?

RW: I would just say it has both a positive and a negative side. You can’t really return to the past, but there was some positive musical side effect to having to learn a Beethoven symphony in the four-hand piano arrangement, in preparation for the only opportunity you might have in a given year — or two or three or four — to hear a live orchestral performance, which might not even be that well done. But you prepared yourself for it, and all of that was very good for people’s e


BD: Is composing fun?

RW: If you asked my wife, she would report that it is not fun; that it is agonizing and terrifying and so on because I make these constant complaints about it. But if I found it as awful as I say I find it, then I don’t think I’d continue to do it. It’s frustrating, but it’s exhilarating at the same time. The great thing that you are waiting for is that unexpected connection, the unforeseen relationship that you can then project in your music, and make it come out in a way that is better than you thought you were going to be able to do when you got into the project in the first place. That is the nice thing, when it happens — which doesn’t always, but you hope for it. Let’s even say you sketched the piece out and you thought, “This is really what I meant to do.” All of a sudden you think, “What if I did this in addition to that?” Or, “What if we combined this and that?” Or maybe it could be just something that elevates it above what you aimed for. If you can bring that off, then that’s very satisfying. Fun? I don’t know, but it’s very satisfying.

BD: I’m glad you’ve continued to do this throughout your career.

RW: Well, thank you. I am, too. There’s never really been a moment where I thought I was going to give it up, strange to say. It has an intoxicating effect, like driving a superhighway. You get into it and it’s hard to stop doing it.

BD: You’re at your 50th birthday. Are you where you expected to be when you got to be fifty?

RW: I’m alive; I’m not sure I expected that. I don’t think long into the future. I’ve written more pieces than I am years old; that I consider some kind of crazy accomplishment. I’ve written sixty pieces, but I’m only fifty years old, so that perhaps is more than I expected.

BD: Thank you for coming to Chicago and sharing some of your ideas with me.

RW: It’s a pleasure.

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© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at his hotel in Chicago on April 22, 1991. Sections were used (along with recordings) on WNIB the following month, and again in 1996, and on WNUR in 2007. It was transcribed and posted on this website in 2012. Subsequently, more links and photos were added.

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.