John Duffy: The Composer as Statesman

Meet The Composer

FRANK J. OTERI: You mentioned the composers who made a difference as people who were interacting with ensembles. You mentioned Glass and Reich, certainly, in recent years, but to take it a little bit earlier than that, certainly somebody who’s very prominent in the earlier years of the 20th century and throughout the rest of his life as a visible composer that everybody looked to and who helped others was Aaron Copland. And the kinds of activities that Copland did, like the Copland-Sessions concerts, getting music of fellow composers out there and in the public eye, and forming organizations that would help composers, such as this very place here, the American Music Center, which Copland founded in 1939 with Howard Hanson and Otto Luening, Quincy Porter, Marion Bauer, and Harrison Kerr. When you were in your formative years and studying with Cowell, you even came here to the American Music Center.

JOHN DUFFY: Absolutely. I would come—it was then at 250 West 57th—I would come to the AMC (and it was like coming to Mecca, it was like the wafers in the desert) and take out scores. I had a score which I carried around with me. It was a big score of Charles Ives‘ string quartet.

FRANK J. OTERI: The second one?

JOHN DUFFY: Yeah, I guess. The one where he has the drawings, his little men there, he says something like, “Tell Roscoe to go to the mountain and knock him on the head” or something like that, and he has an instruction: Allegro con rocko. You know, to throw rocks. I came here, I studied scores: Dane Rudhyar, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Walter Piston, Hovhaness, of course Harrison, Copland, Cowell, all of those composers.

FRANK J. OTERI: And Virgil Thomson‘s another person who comes to mind because he took it upon himself to get involved as a music journalist and created a scenario for composers as critics. Not only covering the concert scene in New York as a composer, but hiring other composers and giving opportunities to other composers such as Paul Bowles, who went on to almost exclusively be a writer of words, rather than music, though he kept his music up. Peggy Glanville-Hicks, whom you mentioned, and Lou Harrison were also writing for him. There was a lot in the air about the composer being an activist on some level, but I think you did something above and beyond all of these people when you founded Meet the Composer, and I wanted to talk to you about what made you decide to do that, how that came about; what is the early history?

JOHN DUFFY: Well, I’ll answer that but I wanted to make a comment. Someone who in the 20th century was able to radiate the idea of composer was Leonard Bernstein. And Gershwin. And of course it’s interesting; both of them were in the symphonic world and in theater and pop, so that they worked in a rainbow of American music, and people say, “Oh, yeah, Leonard Bernstein; he composed West Side Story,” Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue, et cetera. To get to your question about Meet the Composer: I was conducting and writing for the American Shakespeare Festival. It was wonderful because you write a score, you conduct it every day; you’re part of that 400 year tradition of people who have made their living off Shakespeare. Now this guy provided a lot of employment for people [laughs], and so I was one of them. And you write music and you can tinker with it—change a percussion part, clarinet part, et cetera; so you’re honing your craft. But everyday, you’re hearing Shakespeare which is like manna. But I missed composers… I was a panelist at NYSCA two times, and I was a very strong advocate for living composers and for jazz. And people woke up—this was Lincoln Center, mostly—on the panel, and to be speaking out that way often meant you were the only person speaking out, but if you’re firm in these things and get across your point with some passion, people listen. So, NYSCA at the time was supporting an organization called Composer in Performance but there were some issues with that organization in terms of their fiscal reporting and different documentation. So, they wanted to have the organization be part of a very stable organization, and they went around New York to talk with people, and they wound up by selecting the American Music Center. The agreement was, the American Music Center board would select a group of their board members and a group of outsiders: Steve Reich, Cecil Taylor, Greg Reeve, Eric Salzman, Milton Babbitt, although I think Milton was on both, Leroy Jenkins and other people. They were referred to as the ‘redniks” because most of them lived down in SoHo and had a different point of view. I think that Glass was part of that too, but he didn’t show up at any of these meetings. Anyway, the AMC then, under the supervision of NYSCA had these meetings to decide who would run this organization, and I came and made a presentation and four or five others made presentations. And I was in the camp of these redniks over here, because I was an outsider and they felt strongly about what I was talking about. We really wanted to do something constructive and have compatible people—it wasn’t one group against the other—it was just too strong, like I guess the Democrats and the Republicans. And, anyway, there was a vote taken, and I was selected to run this organization; and I missed composers, so I was prepared to leave Stratford and come and work here. And I spent days and days and days reading Walt Whitman and American history and poets and so forth because I thought the name “Composer in Performance” wasn’t the right name for the organization. And finally out of reading Walt Whitman came this inspiration: Meet the Composer. Whitman has this kind of immediacy, “I hear America singing,” so Meet the Composer. It sounds nice, so we called it Meet the Composer; some people objected, they said it wasn’t classy enough. It sounded like television. “Higher-Ups” from the Arts Council wrote me saying “Meet The Composer” wouldn`t do. Not sophisticated, like “meat and potatoes”! I put the letter in a draw, knowing that once the project got on its feet; once people loved it, the “higher-ups” would love it. And they did. I had faith in composers and in music! In our first two years we had composer programs in every county of New York State. In counties where the Arts Council had no presence… It was a first. And it was composers. Think of that! But anyway, that’s how it happened.

FRANK J. OTERI: So, what were the original goals?

JOHN DUFFY: The goals were to foster the creation, performance, and recording of American music and to get composers out into communities, connected with the people, to revivify in a sense, re-inaugurate the composer connected with people. The idea was, as more and more people meet the composer, they commission new works, create residencies, collaborations, etc. And Meet The Composer was there as beacon, showing fees, how to commission, collaborate, etc. So composers led the way. Like Bach, and Ellington, and Charlie Parker…And in our first twenty-two years, through the Meet The Composer Fund, we supported 150,000 composer events, of every kind of music, accross the USA. The Meet The Composer Fund is the heart of MTC. For young composers, it’s a first chance for professional recognition, and a listening public. For presenters, a composer’s participation excites public interest, community involvement, and greater attendance at composer events, precisely because a composer is involved. People want to meet the composer, to hear our rich tapestry of music.

FRANK J. OTERI: Getting back to you mentioning Reich and Glass doing that with their own ensembles in the ’70s, certainly Meet the Composer is a contemporaneous creation to what they were doing with their own ensembles in 1974. And in terms of the programs that happened… I remember first becoming aware of Meet the Composer myself in the early ’80s; in the ’70s I was probably too young to pay attention to anything except the pieces of music I heard, not really having any idea of what was going on behind the scenes. But in terms of how Meet the Composer changed the landscape for composers in this country, there are lots of things that I can point to: I can point to orchestra residencies, the whole notion of an orchestra having a composer physically there. You know, occasionally an orchestra would play a piece of new music in the past, but to have a composer on board, to have that person there as an ambassador for living American music, I think that was such an important thing and it was the Adams residency in San Francisco that really put John Adams on the map which led to where he is today. And I think of a lot of the other composers who were in that program—John Corigliano, John Harbison, lots of composers named John [laughs] but also many other people too…like Libby Larsen and Chris Rouse

JOHN DUFFY: Stephen Albert.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, Stephen Albert; a real tragedy that he did not live to be the major figure that he probably would have been had he lived based on the work that he was creating in the residency program.

JOHN DUFFY: Singleton, Wuorinen, Thomas, Tower… Thomas created a Permanent Composer-in-Residence Chair with the Chicago Symphony. Quite an achievement! And look at the countless works created, performed, and recorded through the Residencies Program. Astounding! Tower learned truly how to relate to orchestral players and how to write…

FRANK J. OTERI: She’s one of the strongest orchestrators now and it’s because of that experience, and you can hear that evolution in her music. I like her early work too, but there was an arc because of this program… It was a two-way street. One the one hand, it was this vital thing for the community to be engaged with new work, but it was also a vital thing for the composer to be engaged with the community; and it improved the level of the music, it improved the level of the playability…

JOHN DUFFY: I’ll tell you something; in St. Louis, where Schwantner was composer in residence, the policeman directing the traffic said: “Hi, Joe, how are ya?” Joe Schwanter was part of that community. The second clarinet player, when Joan was there, was saying, “Look, Joan, this doesn’t lay right. If you changed it here it would sound better, and players wouldn’t be confused.” Harbison was the first composer—we had these fabulous contracts with the orchestra where everyone’s responsibility was laid out, and there were six signators: The composer, the music director, the board, the manager, and Meet the Composer, and the record company, Nonesuch. These five, six people had a responsibility and that involved highlighting not only the composing residents, but other composers, so you had a situation like the Philharmonic, Druckman, Lang—by the way, Lang got his break through there, and Aaron Kernis had his first reading through that; but Druckman put on this fabulous new music series, Horizons. This was the New York Philharmonic; they consider that one of the jewels in their crown. The fabulous work Adams did… The work that was done in Atlanta… John Harbison was the one who first completed his residency work; it was the first to be recorded. And he took up residency September 1st and the recording was some time in April or May. Previn had to go abroad, so it had to be done then. So, I went down to the premiere and also to the recording. What was interesting to me was they humanized that music, and I believe it is because he knew those players. He sat with them, they spent time together, they ate, they talked and so forth; so when he was writing for them he was speaking to them.

FRANK J. OTERI: Which is essentially how Ellington created for his big band, that’s how Bach created his cantatas. With specific people in mind, it wasn’t this abstract process.

JOHN DUFFY: When composers connect with people, their music gets richer, both personal, in the inner sense, and expansive, in the outer sense. Bach, Mozart, and Ellington are good examples. And when communities commission, great pride in community takes wing.

FRANK J. OTERI: And there were other programs that Meet the Composer engendered like the Composer Choreographer Project. Once again, another amazing application of this notion of collaborating to create…

JOHN DUFFY: Absolutely. And interestingly, in that program, one of the first teams to get a commission was Cage and Cunningham. That was the first time they were paid a professional fee. They didn’t know what to do with it. They said, “What the hell… we’re not used to getting money. Very often we work for nothing or for little fees.” We said, “Well, you are cherished professionals, and these are your fees, and we are honored that you are a part of this.” And Cage was very moved by that, as was Cunningham. But also, there were young people: Bill T. Jones. There also were people like Martha Graham and Leonard Bernstein. And I remember there were people on the panel who said, “Well, they don’t need money and they’re famous and they’re old hat,” and blah blah blah and so forth. And we said, “Well, look! These are people who contribute to our culture. Take a look at their work; have some tolerance. And besides, the money is going to the organization that applied—they need the money to pay them.”

FRANK J. OTERI: And subsequently one of the last programs that you were involved with when you were at Meet the Composer, the New Residencies program which emerged from the orchestra residencies, which is really to my knowledge one of the first programs on a national scale that was about positioning composers in communities; not just in musical settings, but also dealing with chambers of commerce, rotary clubs, community houses, radio, schools; it was a very, very different way of looking at what the composer’s role is in society. It was looking at the composer really as a statesman on some level.

JOHN DUFFY: Statesperson, speaking for the community, absolutely. My dream was to have a composer-in-residence with something like the Abyssinian Baptist Church, a hospital workers’ union, and a theater or dance company. And in fact there was such a composer who applied with a choreographer who’s the head of a company. But when I suggested the union, he said, “People will think it’s too radical or too left wing. You’ll never get invited to the White House.” [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: That was during the ’80s, alas. [laughs]

JOHN DUFFY: Yeah, it was, right. [laughs] We were just working day to day with one goal in sight, and that goal was the composer, and how can the composers earn a living and contribute to society. That was the thing. And composers came into the office. There were contracts, presenters came in, people from upstate, from Kansas City, from Mendocino, we were traveling… This was a glorious time. It was a great joy.

FRANK J. OTERI: There was a metaphor you often used about what you saw Meet the Composer as doing, this sort of Johnny Appleseed metaphor—sewing seeds all over the country; that I think is a very beautiful, very homespun image.

JOHN DUFFY: It is, yeah. And that’s what it is, seeds that grow, kids that experienced it, it’s deeply meaningful and can often make a change in their lives. And people in the audience. I mean a library in upstate New York, in Cattaraugus County—they built a new library and had a work commissioned for it; people singing, the composer there conducting… I’ll never forget that. Composers, fellow musicians, dancers and theater people made Meet The Composer work, made Meet The Composer flourish. And funders, too… But the initial idea was to people the country with composers. Let every town, city, mountain, and valley ring with composers. I saw that very clearly. Knew it would awaken people to our composers and their music…the full gamut of American music: theater, jazz, salsa, concert. From Seeger, Coleman, Zorn, Adams, knowns and unknowns. No holds barred! Let the people pick. And it succeeded,because composers went out and spread the word, gave of their music and presence with a richness and variety singular to this nation. What a beautiful thing it was, too. A rare gift.

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