Composer and pianist William Bolcom was born in Seattle in 1938. He entered the University of Washington at age 11, studied composition with John Verrall and piano with Berthe Poncy Jacobson, earning his BA in 1958. He had further study with Darius Milhaud at Mills College and the Paris Conservatory. He received his doctorate from Stanford in 1964 where he was a student of Leland Smith. He won the 2e Prix at the Paris Conservatory in 1965 following his return there. He is the recipient of a BMI award (1953); two Guggenheim fellowships (1965 and 1968); several Rockefeller Foundation awards and NEA grants; the Marc Blitzstein Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters for "Dynamite Tonite" (1966); the Pulitzer Prize for "New Etudes for Piano" (1988); two Koussevitzky Foundation Awards (1976 and 1993). He holds the Ross Lee Finney professorship at the University of Michigan where he teaches composition. He frequently performs and records with his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris. Recent compositions include his opera "McTeague" for the Lyric Opera of Chicago (1992); the song cycle "A Whitman Triptych" for Marilyn Horne and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra (1995); "Briefly It Enters," a song cycle based on the poetry of the late Jane Kenyon, premiered by Benita Valente and Cynthia Raim (1996); "Gaea," a concerto for two left-handed pianists and two chamber orchestras, premiered by Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman (1996); Second Piano Quartet for the Beaux Arts Trio and Richard Stoltzman (1996); and his Sixth Symphony, premiered by Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra (1998). He scored the music for the John Turturro film "Illuminata" (1998, released domestically in the summer of 1999). His new opera "A View from the Bridge," based on the Arthur Miller play, is having its world premiere at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in October, 1999.
I spoke with William Bolcom in early August, 1999, a few days after the opening of the
film "Illuminata." He talks a mile a minute (appropriately so for a musician so much on
the go), and a chat with him is a little like taking a wide-ranging musical tour that
keeps ducking around the corner to uncover some unusual niche of classical or vintage
DB: In the last year or so, it seems that Hollywood has come a'courting to what you would call the serious classical composer. I've seen movie scores by Tan Dun ("Fallen"), John Corigliano ("The Red Violin"), Joan La Barbara ("Alien Resurrection") and now yourself. Do I smell a trend here?
WB: I don't know [laughs]. I'm the last one to tell you this, though it seems there are several different ways of knowing this. I had talked to John a couple of years ago when he was working on "The Red Violin" and that was a case, I think, where - in fact he showed me quite a bit of what was going to be in the movie - and I got this strong impression that it was almost a kind of collaboration from the word go with the director. The whole business of composing and the pulling together of the film seemed to have started from scratch-scratch together. That's at least the impression I got from John. I don't know about Tan Dun's score, and Joan's I don't know much about. Of course you'd be more likely to know more since she's out there. But in this particular case, I was called by my agent Sam Cohn, who has been my theatrical agent since - actually I was with Audrey Wood from 1961 as a composer for the theater. Audrey Wood was a very famous agent for people like Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, William Inge; all the major playwrights of that period were with her. I did a score for a play called "Red Eye of Love," which was written by my librettist ever since and before that, even - Arnold Weinstein. As a matter of fact, there's a piece in the New York Times today and last Wednesday also, they've been doing a series on "A View from the Bridge," and he's probably mentioned there. Anyway the agency went through various changes when she died, Audrey did, and now my agent is Sam Cohn, who coincidentally was also the producer for "Red Eye of Love." I've worked with Sam and known him since 1961. John Turturro evidently, from what I understand, had been looking around for a score for his new film, "Illuminata," since about January of last year. And he called Sam Cohn because Sam is a great friend of the arts and although Sam is not John's agent, he did call him for advice and Sam suggested why not me. Now I've only done one other commercial film and that was "Hester Street" directed by Joan Micklin Silver. It came out in about the late '70s or early '80s. I can't remember the date now. It featured Carol Kane and the late Steven Keats.
DB: I vaguely remember that film.
WB: Yeah, black and white film and it had Yiddish with subtitles, things like that, you know. It was an interesting little movie. That was really a case where Joan - who is rare among directors in that she knows music pretty well - that she had wanted something that was not gonna be the usual thing. In other words, everybody had proposed all kinds of Jewishy types of music with lots of augmented seconds and so on. And she wanted something that was the opposite. I had just finished doing a recording with Gerard Schwarz of what's called "Cornet Favorites" by Herbert L. Clarke, who was the cornetist for Sousa and he'd written these wonderfully 1900s-y type of titles like "Bride of the Waves," "From the Shores of the Mighty Pacific" and "Maid of the Mist," things like that. They sound like names of boats. I think one of them actually is the name of a boat that takes you out under Niagara Falls - "Maid of the Mist." But I had just finished this for cornet and piano, and I was essentially playing the reduced band part. These were very fancy solos with lots of wonderful curlicues and fioritura and cadenzas and so on, which had been written by Herbert L. Clarke. There actually has been a reissue recently of some of the old recordings of him playing these. Anyway, Gerry and I did this. It was one of the last recordings he made as a trumpeter. He of course is now the conductor of the Seattle Symphony. So I had just finished this as a dub. I had a dub in my pocket when I went to see Joan Silver. I played it for her, and she said, "That's exactly what I want!" So what I essentially did was to arrange some of the Herbert L. Clarke things for brass sextet with piano, and I actually wrote a few little almost Herbert L. Clarke-y pieces where there weren't appropriate things from the Clarke opuses. That was the only other score I had ever done. Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times was very kind to the score, and I got a few calls after that, but there was never a time that I was able to drop everything and do a film. So I just wasn't called after that. You have to really be willing to set everything aside, and I just had too many things going on at the time. I just couldn't say yes, so I wasn't called. This ["Illuminata"] was a case where I was right in the middle of working on "A View from the Bridge," the new opera that will be done by the Lyric Opera this October. And when they called me and they sent me a video tape of the movie as it had already been edited - it was in work print stage, you know, final stages and so on - and I said I don't have time for this but I'll do it anyway because I like the film so much. But I also realized that I would have to have help, so I called an old friend, Arnold Black, who has done many, many commercials. In fact, he has won I don't know how many Clios. They're very high line commercials like Estée Lauder, Mercedes and I've forgotten all the other ones he worked with, but the thing that distinguished Arnold's commercials from the other ones - he's in semi-retirement now - is that he would get the very best players to play on them. It was kind of fun actually. I was involved with a few as arranger. I played on one Estée Lauder, I remember, where was paid $500 to play one arpeggio, and by the time all the royalties came in, I made about $3000 on that one arpeggio.
DB: Wow! Extraordinary!
WB: You know, but that's not that uncommon, and of course the fun was that the people you're working with are all people that you've been friendly with but as in most cases, with musicians, you don't see too often because we're always on the road. So we'd have a nice fee for playing a very nicely written commercial, go out and have a great lunch and catch up - people would show you their baby pictures and so on. It was that kind of situation. Well, I knew that when it came to the rest of doing this score that I would need to have Arnold Black Productions. He and his wife Ruth know all the best players in New York. Not just studio musicians but the best people because they enjoy working with Arnie and there all very collegial up there. He and I went down to the studio in TriBeCa and talked with John Turturro and decided with John where we needed music and roughly how much and so on. And in the meantime, I was still very busily working on the opera. Finally it came to the point where we did have a finished enough work print to begin to work with it. Arnie has all the right kind of stuff to be able to play back and to follow the movie. Nowadays it's quite different from the old days when we worked with old-fashioned movieolas. It was much more primitive in the industry days. Today it's all very computerized, and we had every day, we'd get a call from a girl named Sherry who'd give me breakdowns over the fax of exactly what happened and what frame and what situation and so on and so forth. The descriptions were there and the faxed timings so I could compose exactly to the movie. However, most of the movie was not the kind of thing where you had to worry about any what they call the movie's hits, where the music has to be hitting a particular thing that's happening on the screen. In fact, it was much more a matter of using musical forms to tie together sometimes very kaleidoscopic and disparate shots such as John wanted. What was clear also was, with a movie, you need to help it structurally. It's an excellent film. I liked it very much and so I said, "Okay, we'll do this." It meant that I had to write out the whole score to the film in two weeks. What I would do is I would write and orchestrate it as I went, and Arnold Black would actually sit down at his computer and encode all of this, which meant we could have parts. Some of the copying was done by Associated of New York, so we had after the two weeks of composing, a score ready to go for the next week where we would actually record it. During the composition of it, John with his wife Katherine Borowitz, who's also a co-star of the film, came up and played through what we had already gotten ready. They liked a lot of it. There were a few little changes that they needed of course, and so we did that. Then we recorded it the third week with a terrific roster of players, maybe 30 or so, sometimes 25 at once. The people would come in, come out. Carol Wincenc was the flutist. Seymour Barrub the violist, whom I'd not seen for years, also played on there. Henry Schuman on the oboe, and other people who had been old friends, almost too numerous to mention, that would come in. It was kind of a revolving door. This was a whole group of really A-list players, which is one of the reasons it was such fun to do. Many of them told me afterwards that they'd had a wonderful time playing, and they told Arnold too. So it was a very pleasant experience although a terrifically hairbreadth hairy rush kind of experience as you can imagine because we had to do it all in a very, very short time. Which is not uncommon with films. You have to throw things together in no time at all. This might be unusual in that it was all put together in two weeks.
DB: The use of a small ensemble, was that an economic choice or an aesthetic choice?
WB: Well, I think that in this particular case, it was aesthetic. Twenty-five is not a bad sized orchestra for movies these days. The old days of the full symphony orchestra that's on call as they used to have in the studios back in the '40s, that's a longtime thing of the past. I suspect most movies these days have a smaller ensemble. And you know, we can make it sound much larger if we need to. Arnie was actually able to record Daphnis et Chloe suite for a commercial with only about 25 or 30 players, and it sounds like a full symphony orchestra because behind the strings, for example, you had sampling. So it's really very hard to tell that it isn't a full string section. I'm afraid it's not just economics. This was of course a low budget film. It was actually done under a different kind of union rule. I believe with any film that involves less than 3.5 million meant that the players made less than the next niche up. There's a kind of a stratified set of payment decisions that the union has made. So they were not being paid enormous amounts of money and many of the stars were not either because of the particular structure of this kind of low budget film. However, they wanted to do it because they enjoyed working it. And I think that was true with the stars of the film as well as the players. They just wanted to do it because they liked it.
DB: I notice that just listening through the score -
WB: I should tell you that No. 9 is not by Arnold Black, No. 10 is. There was a mistake that was put in there. And so Arnold did do a couple of things. I don't particularly like to underscore. And I've never had much experience with it either, but Arnie, as I say, has done all kinds of things. He's done many other projects before for television, for films, as well as commercials. So, he's an extremely experienced person. He wanted to do a couple of cues, so he did a few and he did them very well. I remember I actually orchestrated one of them for him as he wrote it out.
DB: I notice that just listening through the score, it has a very nostalgic and a particularly sort of Italian feel.
WB: Well that was very intentional. You've not seen the movie?
DB: I've not seen the movie, know nothing about the plot aside from what I've read in the movie reviews. But I wondered how you created that aura.
WB: Well, when I saw the movie, I immediately had the feeling that it should have a general Italian feel about it. That seemed to be very important to me. There's a whole section of titles that are done with a wonderful set of marionettes. You see this tiny little stage with these puppets very suggestively and interestingly moving around. That seemed to be where that very Rossiniesque overture seemed to fit very well. It's about a presumably Italian-speaking troupe in 1905 in New York. There were many different foreign language groups in those years before the First World War. So that was the reason. How did I get the Italian feel? Well, I think that you can feel that there's kind of a Rossiniesque cast to it.
DB: Oh, definitely! Rossini was the first name that came to mind.
WB: Yeah, well somehow when I saw the film, that was the kind of sound that came into my head. You know, with some small updated harmonic language here and there. And there was one in which I had a lot of fun. I wanted to write a little overture that would be kind of an all-purpose overture. They actually play Cavelleria Rusticana, a play and a story by Giovanni Verga, a major Italian writer of the 19th century. And so I wrote what I called an overture, "Il Generico," which means we can use it for anything. So it sounds like kind of a vaguely - I was trying to sound like a little cheap pit orchestra, and it could have been by, maybe, a provincial composer very influenced by Rossini, and it would work for anything. So I had fun doing that. The whole idea was to come off with something that would sound sort of like a generic overture by some also-ran Rossini type composer. I sure some fellow probably in Palermo or somewhere who might have composed it.
DB: Sure. It starts with a cello solo that sounds like the "William Tell" overture.
WB: Yeah, well there's a little of that kind of thing in that solo, but actually you're talking about the opening cut. "Il Generico" is later on, and that's the one that's trying to sound like a kind of generic overture. The other one, I think, which is that string quartet at the beginning, it does have a little bit of that feeling of the opening of "William Tell." And then you get into the whole full orchestra, which is what covers with the titles, which are interspersed here and there in the opening part of the first reel. They're all stuck together, as a matter of fact, for the overture that you hear in "Illuminata." But there are little sections in the movie. The first section is a rather longish part where you see most of the titles, and later there's an interspersing of another trailer and then there's a little bit more of the marionettes and back up to the overture again, but we stuck them together, of course, for the recording.
DB: How did the commission for "A View from the Bridge" come about?
WB: Well, I'd already done an opera - and by the way, as I said, there are two articles that have already been in the New York Times - actually today and a week ago Wednesday. There is an inaccuracy. "McTeague" was actually performed again after the performance at the Lyric Opera of Chicago by Indiana University. They did four performances, very well attended. I couldn't go. I had concerts, but I did go to the dress and what I saw was excellent, I thought. So I need to write to the Times about that error. But this is probably why it all worked out. I was asked way back - I actually have to go back to "McTeague" to cover some of that history. In 1986 - this was after I had already met Ardis Krainik, who was then the head of Lyric Opera of Chicago - they did a full evening extravaganza, a sort of what you'd call oratorio of Songs of Innocence and Experience. It takes enormous forces, and they did it with the Grant Park chorus and orchestra in Chicago, an outdoor series that is during the summer. And I remember one of the performances right during July - no, it wasn't for the July 4th firecrackers, but I remember during one of the more turbulent parts, you could hear all kinds of firecrackers and fireworks coming from across the lake somewhere. It was funny. Very appropriate to that part of the piece, but it was not planned, believe me. Anyway, Ardis came and she was very impressed. She and Bruno Bartoletti, who was then musical director of Lyric Opera, asked me for an opera. So to make a long story short, that is how "McTeague" was commissioned in the first place. That opened on Halloween in 1992 at Lyric Opera and ran for nine performances. They felt it was a success and wanted another opera. So what happened was we were looking for the subject, trying to cast all kinds of ideas, and two serendipitous things happened either the same day or just about the same time. I was called by Bruno Bartoletti - no actually, I was called by the Lyric saying that Bruno had come back from Italy and said, "Why don't you write, what do you call it in English, Un sguardo del ponte." [Laughs] At the same time, I got a call from Arnold Weinstein. He's been friendly with Arthur Miller for a number of years, and Arthur is fairly often approached by people who want to make operas out of his plays. Sometimes, they've already done quite a bit on them and he then will hear it and not particularly care for it. In fact, it turns out that somebody, a couple of protégés of Alan Jay Lerner, had started a musical of "A View from the Bridge" in the '50s. That was when Arthur was married to Marilyn Monroe. They played through this thing and Arthur said, "I hate it," and that was the end of that. I don't think he felt that it was supposed to be musical anyway. Anyway, somebody had started working on "Death of a Salesman." So Arthur called up Arnold, who's of course a specialist in librettos and said "Look at this thing and tell me what you think." I don't know what they thought in the end about "Death of a Salesman" as an opera. I guess they didn't feel it was necessarily a good subject for an opera, but I believe that Arnold then said, "Well, you know, 'A View from the Bridge' would be an excellent opera and I know just the guy. In fact we have a commission all ready to go." And so he called me and said, "Both Arthur and I would like you to write 'A View from the Bridge.'" That's how that happened.
DB: How familiar were you with the play?
WB: Oh, I'd seen productions of it. As a matter of fact, there was one way back at Circle in the Square, which I'd seen. And I thought it was a wonderful play. My biggest problem was why make it into an opera? What can you gain by making a successful play or a successful film into an opera? "McTeague" was not, for example, made from the movie "Greed," although it was certainly inspired by the fact that I had known the movie "Greed" as I'd played a made-up silent film score for it when I was a student at Stanford. They had a whole series of silent films and I improvised or sometimes played whatever they sent. If they didn't send me scores, so I'd sort of improvise a score. I didn't use anything I improvised for that film. Of course, there's 25 years between the time I played for the movie "Greed" and when I did "McTeague," which is the same story. We really used the novel as the basis for text. Robert Altman turns out not to have been a fan of the film, so that isn't how it came about. The thing about "A View from the Bridge" is that it was a very successful play. It's been played all over the place and probably is playing in some country right now as we speak. So I had to figure out what would make it really viable as an opera. Why should I do this? The most recent production that I saw was one done by Michael Mayer that was done for the Roundabout Theater in New York. My feeling was that if we were going to put it into opera form, I think the main thing that was important is that we needed a much more increased role for the chorus. The chorus are the townspeople, the people who are right around him [Eddie] in the neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn where the whole thing takes place. That is what I asked Arnold and Arthur to do. To give me an increased role for the chorus, give them lines, give them in fact some smaller characters that are only touched upon [in the play]. You know, have a little more to say in the opera than they did [in the play]. Like his [Eddie's] friends, Louis and Mike, who were other longshoremen. Mike actually has a speaking part. All he ever gets to say is "Yeh!" That was something that I think Arnold probably had fun doing. The most important thing about Arthur Miller's very, very deepest of tragedies - I just saw the revival of "Death of a Salesman" in New York, which was terrifically powerful - but even in the very last scene before Willie Lohman's suicide, there is a terrific laugh. It's very important to Arthur that there was always humor in his deepest, most tragic plays, and sometimes directors don't pick up on it. They go for the solemn side of it. I think a lot of people have misunderstood Arthur Miller. In fact, if ["Salesman"] seemed terrifically clunky and heavy, it was because I realized in the end that I felt he'd been ill-served sometimes by directors who would go for the morose and solemn rather than the global point of view. It's like you need the porter's speech in "Macbeth" to have some relief against the unrelieved bloody tragedy in that play. Arnold has a terrific sense of humor and so has Arthur. So one of the things about "A View from the Bridge" is that we did want the tragedy of it to sneak up on you. At first you see this very engaging story. However, it's framed, as was the first version of the play, as if this whole thing is a kind of ritual that the people of Red Hook go through as telling the story of the bridge. There is an introduction of the lawyer Alfieri and the chorus telling this whole story, and at the end they come back after Eddie is killed, and you have a feeling that this is what we've been seeing. In fact this is the end of the story. Goodnight. That's the end that was in the 1955, almost blank-versed, one-act version of "A View from the Bridge" that Arthur wrote originally. So there are certain elements of that first version of the play that we've done in the opera.
DB: Could you give a description of the music? Is there a period sound to it?
WB: Yes. I mean it is 1950s. In fact, the tune "Paper Doll," which actually turns out to be an old tune from about 1915 by Johnny Black - it actually turned out to be owned by my publisher, so I had to go and get the rights for it plus it is out of copyright - I use it. I even use it the way that Arthur wanted when the young Sicilian immigrant Rudolfo sings it. He sings it as if it were one of those big Neapolitan popular songs that was very current for many years. People like the late Ken Hicks used to sing it. There's a place in the first act where Rudolfo and Eddie's young niece Katherine are dancing - and I am going to be recording next month a little, almost typical sort of 12-to-the-bar rock n' roll version of "Paper Doll," which is what they dance to. There's a lot of the flavor of the popular song composer Harry Warren in many of the tunes. That was very much intended. Harry Warren was an Italian-American. His born name was Salvatore Guaragna, and Harry Warren wrote enormous numbers of standards like all the things from "42nd Street," "I Only Have Eyes for You," "I Had the Craziest Dream," "Jeepers Creepers" - an enormous number of very important tunes that everybody knows. "Shadow Waltz." Oh gosh, the old joke used to be if there was a great American tune and you didn't know who it was by, it was probably by Harry Warren. I feel that what's important about Harry Warren is that there is a kind of underneath-the-surface Italian vocal implicity that is everywhere but it is definitely very American. These are second and third generation Italian immigrants, so I wanted to have something of that sort of feeling in the actual vocal lines. But the music goes from very tonal, very simple to quite complex and rather shattering dissonances whenever it is appropriate for the story. In fact, it gets denser and denser, but there is still a very strong kind of tonal element behind it.
DB: Since we're touching on "A View from the Bridge" and "McTeague," we see that opera companies are starting to - maybe begrudgingly - commission new operas, new works from composers like yourself. The flip side is that what would help these operas survive is recordings. But we all know that opera recordings are enormously expensive to produce. What are the chances of "McTeague" or "A View from the Bridge" getting recorded?
WB: Oh, I just don't know. What I would hope for I think maybe, and maybe they could find a way of recording from the archival site. Perhaps at some point, this will happen just as the New York Philharmonic is bringing out a whole series of archival recordings including my clarinet concerto, which will be essentially reproductions of the broadcast tapes. I think the same thing may happen to "McTeague," but I don't know when, with whom and how they would pay for it. Even though the tape may exist, you still have a lot of mechanicals and artists' royalties, so it would be an expensive project for any company to come up with even though they wouldn't have to record. So I have really no idea what's going to happen down the road. The second performances have always been kind of a problem with new operas, although one of the things that Ardis Krainik emphasized was to try to bring up more second performances of new works as possible. I think it was as much the - I wouldn't say it was begrudging, it was that there were several problems when people tried doing extensive opera commissioning, particularly in the early part of this century. The Met with its director Gatti-Casazza used to commission new operas every year, which is what he had done back as an opera house intendente in Italy. The only trouble is that nothing that came out of them was necessarily going to hold the stage, and in many cases they actually decided they were unperformable. The only one that seemed to have any kind of name was Deems Taylor's opera "The King's Henchman," and I don't even know if that got revived, but it was done and made some kind of impact. It ends up in the "Victor Book of the Opera," which is where I read about it. That's the only time I've ever heard of it. But the fact that we didn't really have an opera tradition to grow out of that the Italians had had, there are several things behind it. One of them is that the style of singing in English - diction style - had been artificial up until quite recently. You couldn't understand it, it wouldn't have mattered - for the amount that you would actually understand what you were hearing. Now there are surtitles, even sometimes used in operas in English as they did with "McTeague." But I was told by many people that they didn't need to look at it hardly ever because of the fact that the diction of the singers and the style of singing has now come to the point where you can actually understand most of what you hear on the stage. I've made a point of writing music for words all my life to try to work out a way of writing so you could hear and understand. Especially, I think, from all the years I've had in theatrical training. There's also the fact that many people have a strong acting ability now in ways that probably weren't common beforehand, and I think Americans demand this of their operas. So it's not just the fact that the opera companies are getting hip to the idea that there are new and different versions of other things. The training and technique have changed enough now and the intention is enough changed that it makes it a lot more interesting to write for regular opera. I've written other operas for actors because at the time I was doing this in the '60s, I didn't understand most singing from opera singers and I didn't enjoy thinking of doing all that trouble for something that would turn out to be just a big white elephant. I think there's some possibilities that we are starting something of a repertory and a tradition that will, maybe, have some pieces that will have a life. "McTeague" was revived by the Bloomington people a year or two after. In fact, I'm waiting to get the dates on that. Carol my assistant is calling in pretty soon to give me (the dates)
DB: Oh, for the New York Times letter.
WB: Yeah, yeah. I'm going to write and tell them what the times were. I mean, people should know that. But for example, Lyric Opera did "Ghosts of Versailles" again, and they were at least planning to do "Great Gatsby," John Harbison's new opera also in the next season. They have, in other words, made a point of doing second performances. If you get a second performance, the third, the fourth and fifth will be a lot easier to do. It's harder to get them funded because you don't get the ballyhoo that you will get for a first performance.
DB: With performances of your works happening here and there, are you fairly well aware of where they're taking place all the time, or do they just happen without your knowledge?
WB: Many times, I don't find out about them until quite late. Sometimes [laughs] they treat you as if you were already dead. But they do show up... In fact, it's very funny. We have a website and just for fun, my secretary went on a search to find out that there are several recordings that I was never made aware of of my own music! People never bothered to tell me!
WB: Yeah! Yeah! This will happen.
DB: Are you receiving royalties for these things?
WB: Oh, well eventually sometimes you have to do a little bit of sleuthing. But you don't really get much royalties anyway. I don't get much money for my music in royalties and from recordings ever. In fact, I don't think I can say I ever had any. But they do seem to sell well. It's funny that recently now, I know the New York Philharmonic and also the Omega people have asked me if I would waive my royalties and I said, "No I won't waive my non-existent royalties" because it might start a precedent and that's very bothersome. The fact that I haven't gotten anything anyway makes it seem like it doesn't make any difference. But I'm not gonna waive my non-existent royalties out of principle because they may someday come in and that would start a precedent for other people to be asked, and that's a bad idea.
DB: The reason I ask the question about performances here and there is because I stay up with what happens in the Los Angeles and Southern California scene, and I see a great big disparity between what plays in the major East Coast centers and what plays here. To be honest with you, I don't see much of your music played around here. Have I been blind to it or is L.A. not really getting to hear it?
WB: No. I think most of these things tend to be pretty local. Unfortunately, the whole East Coast situation where I am played pretty often seems to be very separated from the Los Angeles scene, and there's very little connection between the coasts. It's really curious. Even when it comes to things like the American Academy of Arts and Letters, we have very few members from any of the Western states - at all! It seems to be very strange. I don't know why. I get the impression that you guys out there are way off somewhere else. They did, however - the Pacific Symphony Orchestra in Costa Mesa did do my "Gaea," which is a piece involving Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher - and I do know that once in a while, there are things here and there. But I don't think I get an awful lot of performances on the West Coast. My wife, Joan Morris, and I have played sometimes in California and up and down the coast. But we don't have anywhere near the number of concerts that we have in the Midwest and the East.
DB: It seems like for a composer who has, what, six symphonies now -
DB: - we certainly don't have the opportunity to gain fluency with them the way you can be familiar with, say, the Shostakovich symphonies.
WB: All of them except for one, which I never have had played after its premiere, have all been recorded. The only one still in print that I know of is the Fourth. The Fifth was on the Argo recording with my violin concerto, and they deleted all of that about three years ago. First Edition Records, which the Louisville Symphony - the house CD company I think has now gone out of business - that actually had my First and Third Symphonies.
DB: Have you been involved in festivals where they played a broad swath of your works?
WB: Oh, sure! The Cabrillo Festival. I was featured there several times in Santa Cruz. I was composer-in-residence most recently there, however, in 1986. They did nine of my Twelve New Etudes, and I was so inspired by Marc-André Hamelin's performance of them that I finished the other three. Then he played them that year, and that's what won the Pulitzer.
DB: And the rest is history.
WB: But you know, Dennis Russell Davies certainly has been championing my works almost all over the place. And so has Leonard Slatkin. I must say I've been very well treated by both those people. James Levine, too! The Vienna Philharmonic - I have a piece for him with the smaller orchestra, which is completed. And now I will be doing a large symphonic-sized piece for the Met Orchestra.
DB: It seems like a lot of your work has been collaborative efforts with artists that you work a lot with. Benita Valente comes to mind. Marilyn Horne. They just keep coming back to you.
WB: Well, Benita has commissioned two things from me. One was a cycle called "Let Evening Come" - all of this will be out next year on Centaur Records - and a cycle of poems by Jane Kenyon, a wonderful poet who was my friend. That's a cycle called "Briefly It Enters." On that same recording is my wife Joan Morris doing the last dozen of my "Cabaret Songs." We recorded it years ago on RCA - now deleted. It's still on Crystal Records with Jody Applebaum, Marc-André Hamelin's wife, on a record that also has the cabaret songs by Schoenberg and I believe the Britten ones.
DB: Let me ask you about "Gaea." This is two concertos in one?
WB: Actually, three in one.
DB: How does that work?
WB: David Zinman was on my tail to do this for several years. I kept telling him no, and then he kept coming back and upping the commission until finally it didn't make sense not to do it, but I also began to figure out how to do it. What he had wanted was something that would involve - you know the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Quartets of Darius Milhaud, my teacher?
DB: No, no I don't.
WB: Well, these are made so they can be played separately or together as an octet. And David figured that because I had studied with Milhaud, that I'd be able to do the same thing with two one-handed pianists, Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher, who at the time was only playing with his left hand. That I would be able to do one concerto for Gary Graffman and use half the orchestra and the other concerto for Leon Fleisher, use the other half of the orchestra, and the third concerto would be the two concertos being played simultaneously. That is what I did. That is the "Gaea."
DB: And how is it performed?
WB: All we ended up doing all the times - we didn't know we were gonna do this - but actually by common consensus, both the performers and even the orchestra - when Baltimore first did it, they actually did 'em both. They unanimously decided they were gonna do it this way. What we ended up doing in most of the performances of this was Gary Graffman would play Concerto No. 1, which was mostly winds and percussion and a few strings as that orchestra. That was about 19 or 20 strong. And then the Second Concerto would be mostly strings and the two winds - horns - that would be more somber piece and Leon Fleisher would play that one. The Third Concerto was the combination of putting the two together simultaneously. It was really kind of a big exercise in very fancy counterpoint. The big problem I had, which I didn't know - I'm not even sure I completely solved it - was the tendency of course of sounding terribly glutted with everybody going all the time. I had to find ways to put musical air in there so it wouldn't be so overwritten when we had the third concerto all together. I finally figured out a way to put in windows. In the third movement particularly, there are places where if you play Concerto One, you can jump from Bar 10 to Bar 20, and that will work out as a piece also. But if the other concerto is being played at the same time in Concerto Three, there is a section which will be played if that happens. And by that method, I was suddenly able to have just the winds be heard instead of the strings and winds and all the rest of the mix problems. Putting in those windows made it slightly longer so that when you played the Concerto Three, it's like about a minute longer than the other two. But that allowed me to put a little air in the piece.
DB: And so you performed all three versions on a single night.
WB: One, Two and Three. That would take a half an evening 'cause they're all about 20 minutes long.
DB: It's nice to be able to hear it that way.
WB: Yeah. What I think I would rather do with them, I would do something to open the concert and put Concertos One and Two before the intermission and come back after the intermission and do Concerto No. 3. That's what I think I would prefer if it ever is done again. It was done by the Philadelphia Orchestra with the same people with David Zinman conducting last November also. It was done first by the Baltimore and then by the St. Louis where they actually, because of Gary Graffman's schedule, did Concerto One one night and Concerto Two the second night and Concerto Three the third night, which was the original idea. I think that it's good to see it all put together, and people were fascinated to see how it all fit together in the third one. It was interesting for the audience.
DB: I think I probably have about two minutes of your time left, and I wanted to ask just a quick question. I have to have a ragtime question with you.
DB: Whenever we hear ragtime on classical radio, the announcer always talks about the resurrection of ragtime and the part that Joshua Rifkin played or Gunther Schuller or yourself. But nobody ever talks about Max Morath. How about that?
WB: Oh, that's a darn shame. Max certainly was one of the people who had had a lot to do with keeping it alive all those years. In fact, Max, Joan Morris and I are going to be going on a cruise for the QE II doing Gershwin and pre-Gershwin very soon. We're all very close. I've been very close friends with Max since 1967.
DB: I didn't even know if he was still around playing stuff.
WB: He still tours. He still does that kind of thing, but I think people look at him more as a pop figure, which I suppose in a way he is, but he is also very much of a historian. It's because of Max that I was first able to order the Scott Joplin rags 'cause he had put out a private publication of a bunch of rags, including about a dozen or so of Joplin.
DB: When was that?
WB: About 1966 or '67. There's a new recording of all my piano rags - I wrote 22 of them - by a young
man named John Murphy. It's out on Albany. And on the notes in there, it gives you a little of the
history of how I got involved in ragtime at all. Norman Lloyd had mentioned an opera by Scott Joplin
that nobody had ever heard. In fact, it was very hard to find, but there was a guy named Rudy Blesh
who wrote a history called "They All Played Ragtime," which I had. It'll tell you a lot about the
whole history of ragtime. Rudy and his partner, Harriet Janis, went out and did a lot of research
in 1950. It's a terrific book.
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