John Duffy: The Composer as Statesman

Working in the Music Industry as a Composer

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, in all those years that you were running Meet the Composer, what happened to John Duffy the composer?

JOHN DUFFY: Good question: Up early in the morning, working late at night and all weekend.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, did you feel it hurt your work as a composer, not being able to devote the amount of time to it?

JOHN DUFFY: No. Before I came to Meet The Composer, I generally wrote roughly twenty works a year. So, it was a rest! What it may have done—I may have written more music, but I think I was able to balance, because I never really wrote music unless I was commissioned and paid for it, unless it involved some event, some situation that was meaningful to me. I would write pieces for people—wedding, a birth of a child, some cause that I might be sympathetic to. So, I was working at Meet the Composer and I found it enormously challenging: I found that I had ideas, I learned through experience that I wanted to give, to speak, to realize. And so, what more can you ask for in life than that? Something that you feel strongly about and you have some intuitive sense of how it should work, and suddenly you get a change to do it.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now the tricky thing, though, in terms of that balancing act; you know, is that people always talk about conflict of interest: “Oh, you’re a composer and you’re working in a record company,” or “You’re a composer and you’re working at a radio station. You shouldn’t play your own music,” or “You’re a composer and a journalist. You shouldn’t mention your own music,” and I find what happens is that the reverse process happens. As a result of being somebody who’s helping others, in a way sometimes it’s really difficult to help yourself. If anything, what gets hurt is your own music, because you’re so busy helping other people. Of course, the music itself is its reward. And I would say, maybe it doesn’t get the recognition it should get, but I would dare say that being involved in the field no matter in what aspect it is can be just as important. And being in contact with all those composers and helping other composers and making a difference actually has to help the quality of creative work as well, because you’re hearing so many things, you’re being open to these things and it’s affecting your work. And I certainly know in the music of yours that I’ve heard—and wish I could hear more of it; there’s precious little out there that’s on commercially available records to hear—but that universe that’s out there had an impact on your creative work. Your work doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s meaningful I think because of that.

JOHN DUFFY: I would say so, very much so, and for me it was never a conflict of interest because nothing I did, of my own work, was in any way connected to Meet the Composer and it’s very severe. One instance that’s interesting… we had a series of evenings with wealthy patrons, to raise money but also to garner the donor relationship. To me raising money has to do with relating to someone. “Who is this person, what’s their kind of life?” I mean, you look at their paintings. You’re not there just for money; you’re there to connect. Anyway, we had this evening. It was all set up, but the one composer who was supposed to be there couldn’t make it, so it was a question of canceling it or finding something that was already ready. Now, I was doing showcases with Black Water, so several of the board members and composers said, “Why not do that?” and I said, “No, I don’t want to mix things up,” and they said, “Look, we’ll have to give this up. Besides it’s not a conflict with your patrons, you’re not getting paid,” and so forth, and people are interested. So I said, “Alright,” and we got singers there and did excerpts from Black Water. Wouldn’t you know it, when I was resigning from Meet the Composer, at a board meeting two people brought this up as a conflict of interest. [laughs] And I thought, “Holy mackerel! This is crazy!” You know, it’s interesting talking here because I’ve already gone into another world. So it’s interesting to recall this period of my life and when I think of it I get some of that same fire and energy and I want to go out and raise the banners for our composers.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s so interesting, and I would say to all these people who talk about conflict of interest: What better person to be an advocate for composers than a composer? You know, you live it, you breathe it, you know what the needs are, and I guess that leads me to my next question. Do you feel it made a difference being a composer and running Meet the Composer?

JOHN DUFFY: Yes.

FRANK J. OTERI: How so?

JOHN DUFFY: Well, on a practical level, I knew from experience what it was like not to have money for food, eating gizzards, second-hand bread, and so forth; to aspire to write, to feel very protective of that work and wanting to get it out to the public. I knew what a timely check meant. So, those were practical real life experiences. The other was that I was trained into a profession that I loved and I wanted to speak for it and speak for it from my experience, and also to show that in fact it was possible to connect them…

FRANK J. OTERI: In terms of the people who’ve made so much of a difference in so many of the fields that we think of—we think of the great years of Columbia Masterworks, Goddard Lieberson was behind it and he was a composer. We think of the great music journalism in American in the 20th century; and there’s Virgil Thomson—not just writing himself but hiring a whole staff of composers to write about music. Think about Lincoln Center, the first president was William Schumann, composer. Who was behind Juilliard at the time of their move to Lincoln Center? Peter Mennin, composer. Who put Eastman on the map? Howard Hanson, composer.

JOHN DUFFY: Hanson, yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: And these are people who really made a difference in such a fundamental way. Or the American Music Center, once again, founded by a group of composers. Ditto CRI: AMC co-founder Otto Luening, composer. And this is just such a key thing and I think it’s important to say this to composers out there; what advice would you give to a composer about being active and thinking beyond his or her own work?

JOHN DUFFY: Work with theater, film, dance. Write for kids. Compose for some great beauty you share with others, for aspirations that improve and enrich the world. Local, national, and world events. Connect music with a large picture of life. Work toward a better world. Greater interdependence. Education. Perform. Conduct. Be a good citizen. Like Ives, Mandela, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Jesus, Jeremiah….Today, I’d say Fran Richard of ASCAP. An exemplary citizen. Noblist voice in music. Though, how she’d holler in horror to be stuck up there with Jesus and Jeremiah! I think that we can’t live in a cocoon, in a social sense and in a professional artistic sense. And the humane, tolerant thing to do is to work with someone, help someone; that enables the profession to flourish. And you find that in science, you find that in community work. I’m very struck by the people I meet who work in community centers, who do work for refugees, doctors who go abroad and help people who are injured; who go into public service. Kofi Annan, Mandela; these people have some spark, an angelic spark in them that they make the world better, and I think we make the world better by helping composers and you see it—Copland, of course, did; probably Richard Rodgers did. Frank Loesser certainly did. Irving Berlin did. And you see it with Glass. Glass is very generous with composers, and he’s also a model of how to go about new professional business so that you retain the rights to your work; Bang on a Can and so forth. Reich is a mentor for the Bang on a Can people. Bang on a Can people are interesting because they’re people who help other composers, but they also are nurturing their own work.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s a very interesting dichotomy.

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