John Duffy: The Composer as Statesman

Duffy's Issue-Oriented Music

FRANK J. OTERI: Well I want to take this and talk a bit about your own work as a composer and one of the things that I find so interesting about your creative work is how much it ties into your advocacy work. Almost every piece of music of yours that I am aware of has some kind of connection to an important issue in our world. And for me, one of the most gorgeous pieces of yours is that first symphony, the Utah Symphony, which was commissioned by the Sierra Club and is so much about conserving nature and about celebrating nature. That wonderful, monumental first movement of that piece…

JOHN DUFFY: It’s very touching to hear you speak of it that way.

FRANK J. OTERI: And it’s one of the pieces I recommended for a list for radio, music that they should be playing on the air that’s accessible, that’s new; that has something fresh to say, new to say, yet is immediate for people. But, I guess the question becomes, and we’ll talk about this more when we talk about vocal music and opera, because you’ve been doing all these operas in recent years, but a piece of instrumental music, a piece that’s abstract… How can you convey a larger message through this music? Now, this music attempts to do that and I think it does, but how do you do it?

JOHN DUFFY: You do it through music as a language of human ideas that expresses the gamut of human emotion; of grief, of joy, of promise—all of these qualities that humans express. For 9/11, they played Barber‘s Adagio. They played Bach‘s “Sheep May Safely Graze.” And they play Beethoven‘s Eroica, which is one of the giant steps, and the 9th for historical, momentous times. Finlandia became the national anthem in Finland. In our own country, when people sing, “Oh beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,” this is so moving.

FRANK J. OTERI: But those are words.

JOHN DUFFY: Words, but it’s a melody, too. I get your point, but I think it’s safe to say that music carries a power that no other human expression carries to hit the guts, the heart, the center. Don’t you agree?

FRANK J. OTERI: Absolutely, and it’s what you can’t verbalize, and when you use words—it’s interesting that you used the word uncensored—because when you use words, even unconsciously, you’re censoring yourself. And there are things that you can’t express in words; there are emotional states. And so many of your pieces do involve words, or as a result of collaboration, involve music being used with images, with film; and one of your most successful works, a work that Leonard Bernstein in fact conducted, music that you wrote originally for Heritage. This was originally part of a 15-part TV documentary on the history of Jewish civilization from the very beginning to now. Now, you’re not Jewish, but you very much took this history and made it your own through your music. And that music was very, very socially charged, even to the point where you take the music away from the film and present it as concert music and do a suite from it. And you can hear the emotional impact of this music even without seeing the images that it was originally designed to accompany.

JOHN DUFFY: Well, first of all, it’s wonderful to hear you respond that way and articulate it because you are saying things that kind of ratify, in a way, the idea that music can express ideas and feelings. But you said something else there. You said there are some emotions you can’t express and don’t want to express and don’t need to express in words. There are certain things that happen in life where words get in the way; that we can—now this is interesting, I think of it in terms of theater—that very often the best thing is to pare things down and sometimes don’t say anything; that is a colossal expression in human spirit.

FRANK J. OTERI: I want to talk about the work that you did commemorating the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor: Time for Remembrance. That was a very unique piece because you essentially created a musical time capsule by taking letters that soldiers had written home to loved ones, to their mothers, to their girlfriends. A lot of these guys died in the war and these letters are their legacy. We remember them by these letters and you made this into a musical statement. And you also, years before, did the music for MacBird! which was a play that pokes holes into Lyndon Johnson and his policies toward Vietnam and everything else. And we’re sort of at this time again in history, with the war that happened or is still happening, we’re not really sure. What can music do either to encourage patriotism on one level or to discourage demagoguery on the other? Music is such a powerful, powerful tool. And what is the role of the composer now in the year 2003 with all the things you mentioned? You mentioned September 11. Certainly tons of composers have written works commemorating that. John Adams wrote a piece that won the Pulitzer Prize last year. And now there are composers writing anti-war pieces again. What sorts of things should a composer be writing now in response to what’s going on. What sorts of things should a composer maybe be staying away from? Is there anything a composer should stay away from?

JOHN DUFFY: Well, let me just comment on the 50th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor and Time for Remembrance. That was a work obviously to commemorate the anniversary but for me it was a piece in time. I spent months researching texts. I read all of the reports from people, from the New Yorker who were reporting from Europe, but are from the Pacific. I looked through pages and pages of Japanese poetry; I couldn’t find one poem with any reference to Pearl Harbor. American poets, because the war played a very pivotal role in their lives… I researched all of this and then I researched all of the speeches of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And, which you’re aware, finally in that one scene when you come to the letters, which was sung, to the death; I felt that the best way to express that—and it came to me partially… I happened to go to the bookcase in my studio, and my hand came down on a collection of spirituals. I took them out, and there’s this spiritual I love: “I Want to Die Easy,” and I thought—yeah, that is a way to express the pain and grief of someone who is caught on a ship. It’s horrible, you’re dying, there’s no escape, and “I Want to Die Easy” becomes the voice of that feeling. And it was interesting that when that was performed—it was performed right after the speech by President Senior Bush—there were all vets in the audience, mostly vets. Clamma Dale was the soprano, and Senator Inouye was the speaker, and you know he had lost an arm in the war. But anyway, it made a powerful impression on me, these soldiers and sailors, and I was very mindful of that, to honor them and respect them and not to take something like this lightly. Now how can people respond to the terrible goings-on in Vietnam, the war in Iraq, the situation in Asia and the Middle East, the terrible conflict between the Palestinians and Israel, what’s going on in Africa, Latin America. A composer like Pete Seeger writes his songs, he goes out and he speaks up. He sings anti-war songs. Someone writes music for a film, the kind of film that deals with the intolerance and injustice and horror of war. You write works that express how you feel about this, and if it’s a patriotic work it probably is for a large ensemble—a band, a marching band. If you write a work which is about peace, you find the right text; you find the right venue, it’s important that the music be played. It’s a social art, back and forth. There are countless ways that composers can be involved. They can also, I mean composers—I’m way up in Maine and I’m writing now an opera about biblical David, which of course deals with conflict and the warrior, and the warrior/king who has to unite a kingdom. So, that absorbs me musically, but the content also is there. But I also get on the phone or e-mail and write to Senator Snowe and Senator Collins and there’s a fabulous assemblyman up there. His name is Tom Allen. I write him, I write the President. I think certain things—it’s interesting, Ives. I don’t know if you’ve seen Ives‘s letters to the president.

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh yes.

JOHN DUFFY: They’re great.

FRANK J. OTERI: They’re amazing.

JOHN DUFFY: Yeah, so I wrote to the president; I find his policies, some of them, to be abhorrent, and I tell him so.

FRANK J. OTERI: Any response?

JOHN DUFFY: Just that they got the letter, and when it’s appropriate I say that I’m a combat veteran and that I’m concerned out of respect for this country and other countries.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, the realm of opera, which is the realm where you can really make the most direct statement—opera or music theater. We’ve talked about a lot of works today, not just your work but others, like The Cradle Will Rock by Marc Blitzstein, which was a very provocative music theater piece. You in your own operatic works have dealt with some very, very controversial topics. I’m thinking of Black Water, which you wrote with the novelist Joyce Carol Oates, which deals with Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne and the tragedy of Chappaquiddick, which is very operatic. When you hear it, it’s a very operatic story but it’s not the kind of story that very many composers have been drawn to. We talked about this genre of so-called “CNN opera,” works like X or The Death of Klinghoffer. There need to be more works that deal with these contemporary issues. Now what was the position that you took in writing a work about Ted Kennedy?

JOHN DUFFY: A couple of things: First of all, a lot of writers and composers don’t want to stick their necks out. There’s an interesting film; it’s called Taking Sides. It’s about art and action, art as a social vehicle and so forth. And it applies to this question. MacBird!, when I decided to do that—I wanted to do it and it was a wonderful experience—I told the people at the American Shakespeare festival, “Look, I’m going to do music for MacBird! and it’s very controversial, and I want you to know that if you want me to resign, I will,” and they said, “No. Go and do it.” When I agreed to do Black Water, I received a number of calls from organizations that I shouldn’t do this, that Ted Kennedy supports the arts, that it would play into the hands of conservatives, by the way, which it did. I got calls from the Christian radio stations; they wanted to do Black Water. I said, “No.” I don’t want to use this as a vehicle against, in this case, Kennedy. In fact, that has been a lodestone on my work because people either want to do it to show him up, or they don’t want to do it because it’s not good to pull him down. The curious thing about this is I had to get Ted Kennedy out of this for a number of reasons. He is a strong advocate for social programs, a kind of Jeffersonian enlightened point of view in terms of governance. The other thing is personal. Although he comes from a rich family and I don’t, he comes from an Irish Catholic family and I felt I was doing something horrible to my brother, you know, and this was a struggle for me. And I struggled with it. I finally said, this is about a powerful man and a very idealistic man. The idealism gets destroyed. The powerful man is tired; his words don’t mean anything. He’s speaking words that don’t have any feeling in them. She, on the other hand, can recite all his talks, giving her something to live by. And she falls for him, believes in ideals he once espoused. He has a cetain vampiric quality, you know? Once you get on the neck, you need some young blood to keep you alive. I don’t know on that same magnitude if Kennedy’s like that, but this character is… I was dealing with these characters and all the other stuff I had to discard.

FRANK J. OTERI: And there are certain characteristics, sort of the characteristic of somebody who is such a public figure, who is a politician. There are characteristics that almost require you to be larger than life and ‘vampiric,’ to use your phrase. And it’s unfortunate, whether it’s the bad guys or the good guys. They all have that quality. Maybe we need to start running composers for office instead!

JOHN DUFFY: Right, not bad. There’s a composer in Estonia, or was it in Russia, who is very much involved with the transformation there.

FRANK J. OTERI: Landsbergis, in Lithuania, is a pianist and a musicologist. I met with him when I was there recently. He was the President of the country and he showed up at the new music festival…I wish that would happen here!

JOHN DUFFY: And then in Poland, their first president—Paderewski, a pianist.

FRANK J. OTERI: And composer.

JOHN DUFFY: And composer, yeah. And in Ireland, Yeats was a senator in the first Irish parliament. You have Sophocles—these were big public figures. He was a general, and he wrote Oedipus Rex. There’s a story of his sons coming to court and they wanted his inheritance, so they said, “This guy is senile,” and they had a court hearing and Sophocles brought in his latest play. And so the judge said, “Ahh,” to the two sons, “You’ll just have to wait; this guy is pretty good.”

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, that’s something for all of us to live by. John, thank you so much. It’s been a remarkable conversation.

JOHN DUFFY: My pleasure. For me it’s reaching back into a wonderful history. It’s interesting to put all this together.

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