John Duffy: The Composer as Statesman

Role Models and Mentors

JOHN DUFFY: So, anyway, you were asking which of these classical composers had an effect on me, influenced me. Well, they’re not all American. Stravinsky. In fact, curiously enough, outside of the theater and jazz, most of the composers that I cared deeply about were Russian.

FRANK J. OTERI: Of course, Stravinsky became an American citizen, so…

JOHN DUFFY: That’s right. And Prokofiev and Shostakovich, those composers. At a certain period in my life I loved Ives‘ work: The wildness of it, the Concord Sonata. Henry Cowell‘s work, I was intrigued. He played often and it was just a remarkable experience just to be in his presence and to see him do all these things, and the wonderful sounds.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, you studied with Cowell.

JOHN DUFFY: I studied with Cowell over a period of about three, four, five years. He taught at the New School, he taught a course called “Music of the World’s Peoples,” and you can imagine in the ’50s he had Indian, Tibetan, Muslim music from various Arabic countries, folk music of Appalachia, music of the Eskimos and so forth. It was an extraordinary class and he was a tremendous teacher. Then I studied modern music techniques with him: 12-tone, tone clusters, everything like that. Then, harmony and counterpoint and orchestration, and his orchestration was quite interesting—very often there were only two or three people in his seminars—but he started his orchestration class with how you get a harmonic on an alto saxophone. These were people who may not have been sure about the open strings on the viola, you know? So Cowell had an encyclopedic mind, but also he was interested in things that were unusual.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, the thing about Cowell that was so remarkable—and having him as a teacher and a mentor I think influenced you in this regard—he was so open to so much different music, and not just in terms of his advocacy for it, but his own compositions. There are pieces of music—we always talk about the Asian influence in his pieces—but there are also pieces that are highly modernistic and experimental, but at the same time really beautiful, almost old-fashioned. That series of Hymn and Fuguing Tunes are among the most gorgeously moving pieces—that Hymn and Fuguing Tune for oboe and strings is as beautiful as the Barber Adagio, I think, and yet very little of his music is played by people today.

JOHN DUFFY: That’s right. Well, he was not self-promoting and he didn’t have a promotional apparatus behind him. But you touched on something there, Frank, which is interesting to me, that he was open to all kinds of ideas, musical expressions and so forth. If you think of what qualities one hopes to find in a teacher, friend, and community, tolerance is high on the list for me, courtesy of course, and kindness. Tolerance means that you’re open to things. You might not want to follow it, but you want to hear, you’re curious. “Oh, is that your music?” or, “Is that your idea? I’d like to hear more of that.” That you’re tolerant, and that’s one thing Lou Harrison had, enormous tolerance, and I think tolerance must be a state of the human spirit—the brain—that is one of the aspects of the human personality that allows us to grow as creatures. Don’t you think?

FRANK J. OTERI: Absolutely.

JOHN DUFFY: You know, Cowell had that.

FRANK J. OTERI: But a lot of composers don’t. A lot get lopped in a box. And I think this ties into the question of community in terms of what you’ve decided to do outside of your own creation of music, by being involved with the community. I think a lot of composers by their very nature—the process of writing music is a very solitary act, can be a very solitary act. And certainly in the 19th century and before and in jazz when you’re a composer and you’re writing for your own ensemble and you play the music yourself, you have an interaction with an audience, you have an interaction with other musicians. But in the 20th century something happened with a lot of composers, and they were not active with other members of the community. They would earn a living teaching. They would interact with students, yes, but maybe it would be only a handful of students and it was not a position of equity. It was a position of stature. Having that interaction I think is so key and even in your own creative work early on, before you got very involved with the music industry you worked in theater and you were in a position where you had to collaborate with other creative people. And I think that led to a very different way of perceiving the creative process. It wasn’t the commandments being handed down to Moses so much as it was something you were working toward with other people for a common good and a common artistic goal. So, how did you get involved with writing music for the theater originally?

JOHN DUFFY: Well, I’ll answer that but let me say first that to me models for community involvement are Bach—his writing for the church… and by the way, prolific—Ellington’s another example. He’s got a band, he’s traveling, he’s writing; they’re creating works together. He’s prolific. Also, Parker and Gillespie, Rodgers, Hammerstein, so forth. I think in the 20th century in America that the symphonic world was entirely European so there were no openings for American composers, or very few. The theater and jazz people weren’t considered as the real stuff, you know. That was not bona fide art music. So, that was the situation. Reich and Glass have done an enormous amount to change that, as have some other composers.