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An interview with Chou Wen Chung
Chou wen Chung Hold a Boat he made as a boy.

Chou Wen Chung holds a model boat that he made as a boy. "I would see photographs of war ships in England, America, and Japan and so on. I would try to make models of them, and at that time you would have to start from scratch. So I began to do that. As a result I used 1/1200ths without realizing that was the official ratio of the U.S. Government." (Photo: Preston Wright)

Audio Listen to the interview (2:04:16s)


[Tape begins during conversation about the changing soundscape of New York City and the relation of Varèse's work to the urban environment]

MPR: Do you think the contemporary urban soundscape has changed that much over the years since Varèse's work was first written?

CHOU WEN CHUNG: I think they have changed somewhat. I always recommend using, if possible at all, original instruments, because that is what he heard (Varèse) For example, a modern siren. In fact, I'm trying to get a modern hand cranked siren; if you know of any, let me know because I am supposed to give everything away to these institutions. Two sirens have already been given to the museum.

When I was working with the Dutch orchestra to record Varèse's works, I said we should use the authentic instruments, and then I realized that we didn't have them. They had to look around for them.

They could have called up Ligeti.

Yeah, maybe. They told me they have real steamboat whistles and all kinds of things. Then again, Varèse also used a recorder to record mechanical sounds. It was already the early 1950's, so the sound was obviously different. I would imagine Varèse was influenced by the sound of sirens. I think, though, that you would have to hear the early sirens sounds to understand what inspired him. I assume he was also inspired by, or struck by elevator chain sounds. When I first came over to Third avenue, there was another stretch of still functioning elevator chains. It made a very interesting sound.

Do you think the meaning of those sounds has changed over the years and from person to person? When we hear a siren we might think of a reference to war, bombs, or alarms. When John Cage uses a siren, maybe it's just a pitch that goes up and down. What associations are intended? Do you think that has changed over the years, and we now have a contemporary meaning of those?

Well, there are always two components. One is the abstract part; one is the subjective part. The subjective part I guess changes according to each person's experience. With Varèse yes, I tried to understand the kind of sound he heard as a child that impressed him so much. In his early works, much of which we do not know, but still in "Amerique", you get a sense of Mediterranean sound. Apparently this is one of his memories from childhood.

What do you mean by Mediterranean?

The kind of rhythm and the kind of character of the sound of the musical phrases.

His interest from childhood was mostly objectively abstract. Interestingly, in life there is nothing that can be completely blissful. There is also nothing completely disastrous. You can always gain something positive out of disaster. Therefore in Varèse's case, his relationship with his father was not always negative as some people put it.

The reason I mention this...his interest in graphic notation, those spirals and mathematical things and so on...he was very good at that. He was always working on graphs throughout his life. That's because of his early exposure to that. He was forced by his father to study engineering. He learned how to make graphs and so on.

Do you think that is why you have such an affinity for his work?

There may be some relationship but not quite a direct correlation. My choice for studying architecture also really wasn't my choice. However it was much later, that my interest really became studying music. I was studying music on my own going through high school, and when I left Beijing because of the war to Shanghai, I went to high school there, and my interest in music really grew. I started off at the top of the dean's honors list. By the time I graduated, I had dropped off completely because I was spending most of my time on music. So I actually had a lot of freedom as a child to do what I wanted to. I started experimenting with music really early, without realizing what it meant. I would play around with a musical saw and all of that. That's not so exceptional, because you know, with the Chinese fiddle... unless you are really well trained, all you can do is a glissando.

What I'm saying is that my father was not in my way. There were no pervading thoughts about what I should do with my life until I went to college. When I went to college the pressure was not from my parents, or my family, but the surrounding circumstances, the government. It was unthinkable in a war, with bombs dropping all around you to say, "Oh, I want to be a composer." It doesn't make sense. Even then, I had always been very demanding especially on myself. I said, "If I want to be a composer, I want to have the best education, to be immersed in the best environment." Imagine living in China in the Second World War. Forget it. Besides, I would be looked down upon. We were all encouraged to study something "useful."

I decided to study civil engineering because it was available in Shanghai in the only university of humanities. I was actually very naïve, and in a way this was a demonstration that nothing is ever completely negative. Because of previous British exposure, I already knew about John Ruskin; I read his books, and I read about his concept of architecture being frozen music. I thought, "Ahh ha! This may be my solution." I went to study architecture and civil engineering with the hope of eventually making a living in architecture.

This was a largely western education... Did you play the violin? Did you study...

Well, both. We tend to have a very fixed idea about how things are. Nothing is really flexible in our sense, the way we are educated. Therefore, we think that China didn't become modern until the Communists came. Yet, there was in that period of time, the 1920s, a really kind of exceptional situation in China in the cities. We had all the worst elements: the colonialism was still rampant. On the other hand, you could be exposed to anything in the world, especially from late 19'30s on, mainly because of the political situation in Russia and in Germany. A lot of old Russians, Imperial Russians, escaped along Siberia to Manchuria to Northeast China. Then they came to Shanghai. Among them were top musicians.

Because of Hitler, some top Jewish musicians escaped to Shanghai. My older brother who never was really musical, he was a scientist, studied the violin with Wittenberg, who was Strauss' concertmaster. Just imagine, in Shanghai, during the Second World War, in the midst of war! You cannot believe that, but that is true. He played Mozart and Bach concertos under him. I was too poor to study with him.

Anyway, what I'm saying is that, I found nothing exotic about anything typically Chinese, because it was simply what I was brought up with. In my family, my parents did not want to bring us to the theater, but I went anyway to experience the authentic Chinese Opera, which means you go there, you drink, you eat, and you make noise continuously for hours.

There was really nothing exotic about it. My first exposure to music was simultaneously both Eastern and Western. I've already described the Western influences. In 1937 I became aware of the death of Ravel. You couldn't imagine how anyone could know of that in China, but I heard of his death. We really heard a lot of things, so it was fairly easy.

There are a couple of interesting aspects surrounding my early story: number one is my exposure to Chinese music and the actual making of Chinese music. Two is the technology of western music. The Chinese music… At this time I was four or five. We left that city, Ching-da, on the seacoast in 1927-28 because of the nationalist revolution that was moving north, wiping out the warlords. I would often play outside in the garden, and one day I still recall, I heard strange sounds, music, coming from the servants' quarters. So I followed my ear and went into the house to find all of our household helps having their happy hour. They were drinking and eating peanuts. I still can smell that cheap Chinese hard liquor. I love that. Pungent and dry (laughter). They would always have peanuts. I love to drink and eat peanuts, you know. (laughter) It goes well together. They were singing and playing music, and then I realized, ahhh music can be fun!

That was one of the earliest memories I have of a personal experience with music or with music making: Chinese servants creating music, not a western tuxedo on stage. The other memory was of when my mother and I would visit her friends, and there was one lady who had a harmonium, a portable organ. My interest was not with the keyboard but with the pedal. I had not yet figured out how to pedal while you play. On the other hand, I realized that while you pedal, the volume goes up and down. If you look at my scores, they are full of hairpin signs. I was reassured when Varèse showed me a copy of Debussy's La Mer that Debussy gave to him. It had even more hairpins!

That time was amazing. There was a congregation of the dying Chinese tradition and then a sudden exposure of all kinds of new ideas from the west.

Chou Wen chung with a large collection of ships.

More ships from Chou's collection

How has that changed over the twentieth century? You seem to have had a very integrated view from an early time. Are there a lot of other composers who have taken things from the east in a more superficial way? Now recently, we have the new wave of Tan Dun, Chen Yi, etc. People maybe have a different kind of knowledge or feeling. Do you think that trajectory has changed over the twentieth century?

Yes it has changed, definitely.

For the better?

I think so. Permanently. Well, maybe permanently for a couple of generations. I think it depends on the circumstances. First of all, I will say...if I may say so, my perception of how East and West work together in music is perhaps unique, for better or for worse. I look back at say the 1920s and '30s in China, which were very corrupt times. Of course, it was not as corrupt as it is now in China. The good influences from abroad were able to come in. Meanwhile, the intellectuals and professors were still training in the old tradition. Nowadays, when I read about an old event, I remember that some of the most famous Chinese scholars at that time in the 1920s, '30s were teaching at high schools and elementary schools in unknown little towns. Amazing! These are great minds. I in fact ran into such a teacher when I was 11 or 12. I really didn't understand the scope of his genius, but his impact on me was tremendous. That was an unusual time, because China still had all of these talents, who had old training. There's nothing left of my old training today. They simply don't know. They may be talented, or have tremendous skill and be serious, but they really don't know, whatever they claim, because it's not possible.

First, the Japanese came. You have to realize the Japanese came and completely wiped out much of China. It's like in this country, if the British were to come over from New England, and go all the way beyond Minneapolis, far beyond to Colorado. All the rest, the really cultural areas were under Japanese rule, and they were just wiped out. They literally just killed all of the residents. My father was a minor collector of antique stuff. When he had to leave, he realized it was hopeless, so he got everything out. You know, the collectors would store them, and he just got everything out to display, and then he left. The Japanese came, we were told, later on during the war. They just sent trucks to take it all back to Japan.

China was completely wiped out. Talents were killed by the Japanese invasion. Art works were taken away. Meanwhile, I was a refugee student in the western part. We didn't have anything; we didn't even have books. You tried to survive, tried to be educated, and then the Communists came. And they did literally the same thing to their own people, if for another reason. They robbed you, not rob you of what you had, rather, what you had was bad for society, and that's why it had to be burned. Our family book was burned and so on. What I'm saying, is that the Chinese people, now, they have no memory. That's so frightening! In fact, even an earlier generation including my own forgets. This is not a bad thing, but you have to re-study your Chinese heritage, not purely through traditional Chinese books, but also through Western scholarly books. Unless you can combine both, you will never be able to recapture your heritage. I think it's gone, but it will come back, and I'm not the only person who says this. I always claim it takes two generations for it to come back.

Do you think Varèse was aware of some of that tradition?

Varèse was amazing. Really amazing. You really have to think back and understand what he meant when he said something. It's too bad. At that time I was too oriental, too Chinese, not aggressive enough to say, "Gimme Gimme!", to learn about his knowledge. I didn't dare ask questions, I was very passive. He didn't want to load me with his own views and ideas. He was very gentle.

Mostly, studying with him was a fight. He would look at the score intently for a long time. By that time you are shivering; you don't know what he is thinking. Suddenly he would point to one spot and say, "What is that? Is that a note or a piece of dirt?" (laughter) "What does that mean? Explain to me." You are scared. Then he says, "Well, tell me, don't be polite. You put it down, you are responsible, you explain to me!" Just like that. After an hour or two hours, I'd always get so exhausted. Unfortunately at that time he had a gall bladder operation and could not eat rich food, yet he loved cooking. Usually before I arrived he would have cooked already.

After the long struggle with him, we would go upstairs and he would finish his cooking. He couldn't eat, so he would watch me eat and talk to me. What I learned the most, was just through conversation. I would come very often, ostensibly to help with this and that, and a lot of time I would just go out with him to concerts. That's how I met John Cage, going to his home. That was an interesting event. It was in the early 1950's. 1953 or something. It was the first time Boulez came to New York, and Cage had a smallish party. Boulez played his Second Piano Sonata.

Anyway, Varèse and I would talk, and that's how you really learn, and how you realize how much he knew. To give you a very simple example: I said earlier that he might have known much more about Asian music than we assumed. He just wouldn't tell people things. He was curious about Tibetan music. At that time, with second hand information on Tibetan music, I was trying to write a piece about Tibet in a war. I was just fascinated with folk music, ethnic music. In my college days in the war, we would always sing these songs, so I had a second hand collection of Tibetan material, and he got very interested. He wanted to know about it. He had other students, but perhaps none of them were really serious composers. He would tell me about an Indian student's reaction to western music and so on. At that time, perhaps her reaction was naive, but how interesting was that young Indian woman's reaction to western music. Apparently that person did not have as much exposure to Western music as I had. Varèse was very much interested in her response.

So, I was at Columbia and took some kind of musicology course. I began to study early ancient Chinese music theory, so our conversations again touched on that. We talked about all kinds of issues. One time he said, "Do you know a French scholar's writing on ancient Chinese music?" I said, "Oh yes!" Of course, I hadn't really studied it. I never really trusted the scholar, he seemed too French. Varèse picked out a volume of the dictionary at the Paris Conservatory and said, "This volume has chapters on ancient Chinese, Japanese, and Korean music." I said, "My God! This is one of the best early treatises on ancient Chinese music." He said "Do you want it? Take it." So I have it upstairs.

I took a look at it. Either he bought it old, or he really looked at it. I don't know which. There are words that have been underlined and all that. I don't know, he might not have the patience, but when he was a young man, he was much more patient. He really knew all kinds of things. He was also very much interested in Chinese poetry. In fact we talked a great deal about Chinese poetry.

You obviously knew Henry Cowell and other people of world music interest. Cowell seems to stake his own reputation on this great knowledge of travel, and recordings, and lectures, he was championing the cause for it. Do you think he was as knowledgeable as he claimed? Do you think Varèse had some respect for him?

They were very friendly. They were friends for decades and decades. In fact, I have to say, that Cowell was unhappy about the fact that I was studying with Varèse (laughter). Also, the person who sent me to Varèse was Colin McPhee. When I came to New York, I was studying with Martinu. I found out that he wasn't really a teacher, but he gave me one great class lesson. I came because the Communists took over China. My support was cut off. I came here to stay with my brother in 1949, Spring. I didn't know where to go. I really was not interested in Colombia, but I went to Columbia to register as a student because I had to register somewhere as a student. Subsequently I became a refugee.

So I took classes at Columbia, but thought, "I have to look for a teacher." I then read in the paper that Martinu had arrived in this country. He was invited to Princeton, but he also taught privately at Mannes school, so I thought, "Here is a perfect teacher for me." He turned out to not be a teacher, but a wonderful man.

At that time, I was so crazy about counterpoint; I was so deeply impressed by Bach. In the conservatory I was studying counterpoint and so on. So I thought that maybe I could use the Chinese pentatonic tonality, which ignores the Western tonic/dominant duality, or polarity. I was doing that, and I showed Martinu. He looked at it, played the piano for a few measures, and then he suddenly turned around. He said one word. Of course, his command of the English language was limited. "Why?!" That's a horrible three-letter word. "Why?!" I was ashamed. I said, "Oh, I forgot about the polarity of tonic/dominant." But today, if he were alive I would tell him why.

Of course, tonic/dominant polarity is man made. It's not by nature. You can have other polarities, other relationships, so it was a doubly good lesson. The first made me understand the Western heritage that some people say that that is total nonsense, but then you turn around and say, "ahh", someone set that up. Maybe in other cultures there are other counterparts to do that. That's what I try to do. Without Mr. Martinu I wouldn't be here. (laughter)

Varèse's Gongs

Edgard Varèse's Asian gong collection still hangs on the wall. (Photo: Preston Wright)

Tell me about Colin McPhee. How did you come across him, and what do you think of his music?

This is rather funny. I just arrived and was rather timid. I was really down in the dumps. I did not know what to do, my money was dried up, and I was almost done getting my degree in New England but had to give that up, and so on. Talking about hardship, a lot of you don't realize. That was after the war. Eighty years of war!

I used to answer the phone. Varèse called up, this was later - just to show you how timid I was, I was nobody. I was home, my brother went to work, my sister in law went to work, and I was home trying to solve my problems. The telephone rang, I had to answer it. "May I speak to Mr. Chou?" I said, "Mr. Chou is not home." (laughter) There was only one Mr. Chou in the family! My brother!
"Could you leave a message for him, this is Edgard Varèse who is calling."
"Varèse! No wait I'm here!"

So Varèse thought I was crazy. (laughter) It was like that. An old childhood friend called me. A girl…she and I used to fight. She was studying dance with Martha Graham in New York and she was supposed to take Colin McPhee to see a Cantonese opera. She had the flu, she couldn't go, so she said, "Will you do me a favor and take Colin McPhee there?"

We got there, and McPhee was so curious about me because I said I was trying to compose. Finally we talked about the fact that I needed a teacher. It took days before he came up with Varèse. He just kept asking me, trying to size me up. He was really very responsible. I didn't understand that. I thought he was just friendly. I enjoyed talking to him and telling him my ideas.

One day, suddenly at the Chelsea Hotel, he was living there, he said, "I think the best teacher for you, the only teacher for you is Varèse. But remember, Varèse is overwhelming. His personality is the total opposite of yours. If you let him overwhelm you, you are dead. You have to resist him. Don't let him influence you." I thought that was very funny. (laughter) To go to a teacher, and not to be influenced by the teacher!

Then he wrote to Varèse, I saw the letter, saying that he thought I had talent; that he thought it would be very wise for Varèse to teach me. He said, if you don't get him, get someone else so that he will not be caught by Henry Cowell. Henry Cowell later on made it explicit he was displeased that I didn't go to him. You know why? I already knew. Every Asian who wanted to study music, had to study with him. The pressure was so big that it was automatic. When I started as a composer everybody said, "You are a student of Cowell's?" I said, "No, I'm studying with Varèse." They would say, "Who's that?"

Who else was studying with Varèse?

There was only one person at that time. Well, I should be careful. Some people get very unhappy that I don't include them. What I mean is people who studied on a regular basis, not an occasional look at scores. The only other person on that basis was Marc Wilkinson. Have you heard of him? Australian. He was here when his father was here for a couple of years with Varèse. Then he went to England and he died pretty early. I think ten years ago.

Both of us were students with Varèse. What's interesting is that in my case I did not pay tuition. When I came here through McPhee, I came to visit him and it was supposed to be just a visit. I at that time was looking for a teacher, but couldn't pay. Even still, I was very nervous about seeing people. At that time I had started on the orchestral work, "Landscapes" which I started as early as '48, so it was in the summer of '49 that I came to visit. I showed that to him right here. (pointing to piano in corner of room) At that time the piano faced this way. I was very nervous. Again, typically, he was studying that. That got me nervous. I'm a student. My music doesn't deserve that kind of scrutiny.

Then he said, "Oh, it's beautiful, very beautiful." I didn't know whether he was real or not. He didn't really make that many comments at that time. Then, we had tea here on the couch here. This was '49, so more than half a century ago. Then, I stood up saying thank you and so on. We were both standing here in fact and said, "Next week come at the same time." Then I realized he was admitting he had a student. I got enormously nervous. I thought he would charge an arm and a leg. I stuttered and said, "I don't know how much you want to charge?" He got angry. His face was flushed, and he had those very heavy eyebrows. When he got angry those eyebrows scrunched up. He said, "Who's talking about money!" He was furious. "When I say come here, I want to teach you. When I was a young man, I benefited from everybody. I never paid anybody." That settled that. Then there was a twinkle in his eyes and he was sort of smiling, "Maybe some day you can give me a gong. An old Chinese gong." Which I did. It's an enormous one, which he loved. My brother found it in San Francisco. He always showed it off. You see a lot of pictures with this big Chinese tam-tam. That's in the French museum now. I don't have it here. So, that's the story.

The more recent wave of Chinese students that came over from the Chinese conservatory, did you have anything to do with that?

You mean the most recent ones?

Chen Yi...

They were all brought out by me. It was an active act on my part. I began to set up the center for the US/China Arts Exchange. They were not part of that. I was also in charge of the doctoral composition program in Columbia, and I wasn't really thinking of necessarily putting them in the doctoral program, but I felt immediately after the first visit to China, that these are very talented people. At that time they were in their early twenties. They would need the right kind of exposure.

My idea was to bring out the most talented ones here, to have then get some kind of exposure or education, but not really to be here functioning as composers. Not even to have them study to the end, so to speak. In China at that time, composition was so Russian, the Soviet style. They were all writing that kind of music. They were not informed completely. Especially someone like Tan Dun. I recognized their talents, so I brought them out one by one. I had to find the money for them, either through foundations or, if they could qualify, to put them into the program.

At first, when I began to recognize the talent, I didn't even know what I could do. Some of them, frankly, helped personally or got other people - friends - to help. Sometimes I got foundation money for them. I thought maybe some of them were more accomplished and could go to Columbia or other places.

I always looked at Columbia when I went there. The whole idea was to make it a cultural, international institution. They wanted to attract students from other places. We had students from other places, but not from Asia, certainly not from China. There were other people that wanted to study at Columbia, but they didn't have the needed liberal arts education. We couldn't accept them. But then we set up this doctoral program at the School of the Arts, which is not based on a liberal arts requirements. It's a professional degree, so it would be easier to bring them in. So, what happened the first time, there was one person, Ge Gan Ru, I thought he was interesting, but his music at that time...the best piece was a violin concerto, and it was really just Berg all over the place. At that time, I had an admissions committee. I was chairman of the program. One major member was Mario Davidovsky. I showed it to him. He was overwhelmed by Ge Gan Ru. I said, "What do you mean? Don't you see that it's really a knock off from Berg?" He said, "Yes, but in China under Communism he can do that?! That's talent." (laughter)

I wasn't sure, but I said, "Well, if there is a chance for Ge Gan Ru to come in, why should I say not." I said, "Okay, maybe." There were only three members of the committee. That's how the first person came. Of course, people like that work hard, and some of them got scholarships and so on.

Later on, with the School of the Arts program, we were able to find scholarships for these people. So I was able to bring all of those names here. The only one person who was not treated as a student was Qu Xiao Song. His English was not good enough. By that time I was a little disillusioned about being in the program, so I said, "Why not let me try to find a fellowship for you to visit composers and so on." So he came here, and we introduced him to all kinds of people. We got commissions for him to write music. He was not a student as such. Then, Tiananmen happened on June 4th, and as a result nobody went back. I don't think they wanted to go back anyway. That raises a lot of very large questions. You can look at it from many different angles. Is it a good phenomenon or not so good? It depends, but anyway that's how they all began. At Columbia, I taught everybody, and they all studied with me.

Of course, then you get someone like Tan Dun, who really didn't want to come to class. One of my colleagues complained to me, "Where is that Tan Dun, we never see him." I was told about one story, people were analyzing a score and Tan Dun suddenly dropped in. Tan Dun didn't have a reputation yet, but he was already behaving that way. He looked down upon everything. Then he made the parting comment, "You guys are still talking about pitches?" By that time he had discovered the New York Downtown scene.

Among all of these students, only one person really worked hard academically. That is Chen Yi. I was the chairman and principle advisor to all new students, and advisor to most of their dissertations. They would have to talk to me about what courses to take and requirements and so on. I said to Chen Yi at one stage after she had taken some difficult courses, "This course is not required. We always hope that our students will take it as a second year of theory." She was the only one who took it. I told her that it was challenging. She took it; she weathered through that. All of the others didn't want to get close to that.

I'll show you a list of people who were on the San Francisco Orchestra series just in case a name pops out and you have personal recollections.

So far I know everybody. Duke Ellington though? Nancarrow I don't. Meredith Monk I've only heard. Terry Riley I don't remember, I might have met him.

Did you ever meet [Carl] Ruggles?

Yes. I knew him well.

We should tell you this, we were reading through the Cowell archives and found a five page letter from Henry Cowell talking all about Varèse. It was Ruggles writing to Cowell. Ruggles kept going on and on saying, "Varèse writes the worst melodies I've ever heard in the world, he doesn't know how to write a melody. He should just stick to percussion." Do you have any reaction to that?

Not really. I'm not suprised at that. First of all, if you listen to Ruggles music, it's Wagnerian, it's linear. Varèse's lines are very similar to nature. The line is not on a single instrument. The two concepts of what a line means is different.

Secondly, Ruggles is very salty. He looked like a New England sea captain. He was a fascinating person. There is truth in that, but also Ruggles's character in that. He also knew whom he was writing to. They were all great friends, but I have a feeling that Cowell probably didn't really care for Varèse's music to a degree. Likewise, Varèse didn't care for Cowell's music to some degree. In fact, I don't think Varèse was ever that much interested in Cowell. He was interested in his ideas. In fact, I take the same view. I think he's a fascinating personality. I still love his very early piano pieces. Later on, he became insufferable. He thought he owned the whole world, especially Western music.

Painting of Varèse

A painting of Varèse keeps watch over Chou's music studio. (Photo: Preston Wright)

Did you ever meet Charles Ives?

No, unfortunately not. He died before I arrived. Like Bartok. I never met Bartok. I missed him because I wasn't in town. He actually came and had this first famous performance on Varèse, and he came with a big stretch limo taking Louise Varèse and my wife to the concert on 14th street. Louise Varèse couldn't figure out what was going on. I was out of the country so I never got to know him.

Laurie Anderson, I don't think remembers me. It was a long time ago. All these people I know.

After Varèse died, you finished a few pieces for him, a few notes and things. I'm curious as to how you went about that, and how you feel you kept yourself out of it.

Keeping myself out of it was most of it. With all these pieces, I didn't want to touch them. There were two, and on the third, I made slight instrumental arrangements. Varèse, unfortunately, is like me, very often rushing a work. I know the disease as a composer. If you have good ideas, you live with it and nurture it too long. All of a sudden you have to produce it, and as a result you have to rush out to your own regret. I think Varèse was like that.

I think this happens to people who have unusual ideas, ideas that are not general. As you work on your ideas, you see doors opening into all kinds of possibilities, and you don't want to let go. You want to explore, and then you realize that your time is limited and you have to write it out in one sitting. That happened with Varèse.

I refused to do anything at all for years with all three of Varèse's works. That doesn't mean I wasn't thinking about it, because I knew I had a responsibility. The easy way out would be if someone else had done it, if he or she had wanted to do it, but then you say, "I'm in a position where I have some memories. Should I do it, should I not do it?" It's hard to say no.

The first piece was "Nocturnal." Right after his death, I explained to Louise why it should not be done. One day I came down the staircase, this was in the early '70's. I did not really live here until '72. Suddenly this door opened. She caught me. I knew something was wrong. She said, "Are you going to do it or not?"


"If that is the case, I'm going to get someone else to do it."

I said, "I know who you are going to ask. In that case yes."

That was the decision. I had to do it. The reason I didn't want to do it was, as you know, if you study the score, you see that much of that material that Varèse used, came from his earlier works. I wasn't sure how I was going to borrow work from the past and all of that. I couldn't think of anything that would have genuinely been in his mind to put in there. I just didn't have a good enough roadmap to do it. Not even an outline. Louise really pressured me. I finally decided that yes, it was true and possible to provide an end. The last few measures were lost. For some reason, I was not in New York when it had been done. Someone else copied it. It was a disaster. Varèse obviously didn't like to write music in that fashion. I knew Varèse wouldn't want to use the strings for this piece. That's another big story. So he was unhappy, and he couldn't work things out. His mind had all these instruments, electronic things, and so on. He had to finish it. The last few measures were supposed to be a finish without really finishing it. Concluding it, without finishing it. It got lost in the process for the performance, for the premiere.

So the piece just suddenly stopped. There were just these long held notes, and nothing happened after that. How do you finish a work like that? In the end, what I did was I recognized certain aspects of the work, such as his way of using voice and his long standing interest in certain types of sound experiments with words and so on. I began to do a lot of research. Those were really sketches for the piece, those were sketches that he collected as reference, sketches that really bear resemblance to the work as a whole. I went to all these types of sources to put together a couple minutes of music. I thought that was safe. I tried to stick to the character of the first section. One can never be sure. He might have something totally different in mind. I tried to stick to that. The whole idea was to make it playable.

I think that one positive aspect of my ending is that it contains certain types of aesthetic views about the way Varèse uses voice and so on. I think that comes through. Actually, at the time, I thought it was a terrible thing; I was depressed about it for years. The person who recorded it and was in touch with me... I tried to explain to him how tricky this piece was, and in the end he wasn't able to invite me there for the rehearsals. It was a disappointment. I thought maybe I did something atrocious that I shouldn't have done. Recently, though, I heard two good performances of it. I feel now I'm glad I did it. It can be played.

I heard another live performance in France; I actually helped during the rehearsals for this performance. Now, I didn't think that in this situation the performance was quite ideal… I didn't like the voice; I don't think the singer got it. Nonetheless, the instrumental part... you hear it... I think it's an important piece.

Very often with older composers, everything gets distilled, and you really have to concentrate very hard when you listen. If you use your skills in listening to Varèse, and you think, "Now I'm going to compact it very tight and listen to that piece", you see all of the Varèse is there. Very concise work. He doesn't need a lot of statement. That gives you the history. The other work is even worse.

It's totally different Varèse. It's a fun piece--Imagine Varèse writing a fun piece, using quotations and all that! His publisher when he was alive, Columbo, wanted me to do it. I really didn't like Columbo. He did some service to Varèse, publishing Varèse when nobody did, but he did a lousy job. My dislike stemed partly from the fact that Varèse was unhappy with him, so I imagine I inherited that because Varèse talked to me right here how unhappy he was. I tried to help him get out from under Columbo. After Varèse's death, Columbo immediately came to me with the request. I said no. I knew he wanted to do it just so there would be a new copyright that he could use for income. I said to myself, "I don't want you to make money out of that."

"Nocturnal" was a fun piece to work on. The material that I had to write was altogether less than a minute, but if you think about it, that's really a lot of material. It's one of those occasional pieces that are abandoned now and then. How is one supposed to evaluate what to do with that? So, for years, I said no. Then again, periodically out of curiosity I would look at the sketches and so on. It's a process. You become more and more familiar with it. You also engage in a dialog with the sketch. It tells you what to think.

Literally I believe your material comes alive. You communicate with it. As things change, gradually something begins to form in your mind. I don't believe in the sixth sense or superstition, but I have to tell you, when I finished "Nocturnal"…I would come here after dinner and work until 1 or 2 o'clock and then walk across the park to my home on 10th street. Often times nobody was in the house. Louise Varèse at that time was in Philadelphia visiting friends. I was alone there. I don't like working like that, but it's what I'm used to. Putting yourself... You want to purge yourself. You become another person. Without realizing it, you start to lose yourself and it's hard to be objective. You think so much about him, you are training your ear and listening to this and that. Initially you bring in all the intellectual effort. Eventually the intellectual effort becomes part of you. Only then do you think, "ahh this is it." Sometimes you fool yourself too.

On one occasion I was thinking so hard, I really forgot everything. At that time it must have been 1 o'clock or 2 o'clock. All of a sudden I was sitting there with my back to the wall. I felt like someone was standing behind me, looking over my shoulder. I've never been so scared in my life. I jumped up and ran away. It's the fact I was so concentrated. Sometimes I don't think it's so healthy to do that. That experience was very scary. The point is, after the piece was done, Cathy Berberian the singer, flew in a rage saying "How dare he, this is not Varèse?!" (laughter) She thought Varèse was only making noise. She forgot the fact that when Varèse was eating, when the Met was broadcast on the radio, he would stop teaching and listen to the broadcast. He loved those voices and he loved operas. He apparently remembered many of these operas. He would sing along with it.

If he were alive today, what kind of materials would he be using, would he be working with electronics?

If he were young today?


I think that Varèse would feel very disappointed with the current scene. What many composers are doing today is not what he had in mind. What he had in mind was forever searching for things. What we do now is we manipulate what hardware can offer. Young composers are limited by software that's available. I visited Illinois, where students come to show me work. One person wasn't happy with what he was showing and I asked why. He said, "Oh I'm forced by the software." That answers the question.

Today that's part of the commercialism I was talking about. An artist has to be open. You may have many ideas, but you have to continue to search to make it work economically. You have to package ideas. What composers are manipulating is the packaging of ideas. That's not what Varèse wanted. He would scream if he knew what was happening today.

I'm only talking about Varèse, because for another composer this situation may be perfect. For Varèse, it's like his beloved spirals, it's not contained, it's open. His ideas are open, his views and musical possibilities are open. And this is also interesting: he was so advanced at that time when I met him in 1949, that he was just waiting for the equipment to make his ideas possible. His mind was so lively. Here I came, and early on I felt that I didn't want to just write Western music. I wanted to start off from my heritage and open up into interacting with the West.

So imagine my music. I felt so embarrassed when he was looking at my music. It's based on a simple pentatonic tonality. Without realizing it, I was moving in a direction that had not been taken before, but I just felt so embarrassed. Here was a man with such wide-open views. I knew this as a student... I studied that, but I didn't think that it was for me, and I said, "Who am I to show him this stupid piece?" I felt so embarrassed.

I wish he were alive. He would have shown us a lot of more of himself. There were so many things that weren't recorded. He wrote "Deserts". I love "Deserts". To me, this is his magnum opus. On the other hand, I hate ------. I know it's not what he had in his inner ear, but that's the only thing he could have done with a tape recorder. By the time he went to Paris and went to Schaeffer, his tapes are full of surface noise. It had nothing to do with what he heard. He didn't have the technology to do what he wanted with that. For Stockhausen who had it easy, he turns his nose up when people ask him. His memories were, "This man doesn't know a thing about how to use this equipment." Sure! He was in his seventies, late seventies. He was my age! He never had the equipment.

Varèse should have had a studio with assistants working for him. Then we would really see the real Varèse at his full potential. He did have the opportunity to do "Poeme Electronique". He ran into people who were totally unsympathetic to his ideas. There was one engineer at Philips who always wanted to record based on his own ideas, and Varèse was so miserable. "Poeme Electronique" was also somewhat ruined because of that. We don't know how much of Varèse's recorded work is produced with that kind of compromise. The tech was only interested in issuing him all the gimmicks that you get in studios, labs. He wanted Varèse to use all of that. I still remember, Varèse wrote me a post card saying, "I thought we got rid of all the prima donnas, but here they are in the form of engineers."

Why do you think people still write for the symphony orchestra?

I still want to.


There are so many reasons. It's not good for me to answer that question, because even though early on I did a lot of work with orchestral writing, but it was never my own original work, it was other people's. So people say, "You don't have that kind of track record." Generally, I don't say anything.

My usual answer is that I have so many ideas for the orchestra. I have not exhausted the possibilities for the orchestra. Why should I give that up for something else? I need it.

My real answer is... Ultimately it's a combination of things. I've spent my whole life dealing with culture; I believe culture is something that's continuous. You would not be here without your ancestors. Music is the same way. There is continuity; there is no cut off point to its development. We are just a point in the continuous musical world. For that reason, the orchestra is like the zither, Chinese Qu-cheng, for example... It represents a major slice of the European heritage. That should not be denied, but there is no reason to put it in a museum, which is something that Varèse once hinted at. I disagree. It should be kept alive. That's what I've been trying to do for the past twelve years. It's a matter of principle. Also for me, it's a test to see how it can be done.

I was talking about zithers. That instrument will come alive again. Musicians have to make it a real living instrument; it's not quite living yet. It's been preserved. I was interested in the zither quite early on, in the '50's, but no one around was using it. I did consider writing for Chinese instruments, but who was going to be there to play it?

Speaking of audiences, I like to humor myself. My audiences are always multicultural. I don't want to limit myself to one type that will likely be receptive to my music. Instead, I use the principles involved rather than the instrument itself. In the future, why not? As more musicians can play that, as the musicians are trained to interact with other aspects, there is no reason why not. I see no reason to stop writing for orchestra, and that's one side of it, the cultural continuity, the face of what has been achieved in the past.

The other aspect, which is another important aspect to me, is the human element to a performance. Especially if you use electronic stuff like software... that's not you... that's not me...it's artificial. I find that when many composers use electronic elements in their performances, it's like speaking in a different language, like speaking English or speaking Chinese. Varèse for example, when he turned to French, he became eloquent in that language. When he spoke English, I thought it was because he was living in the Village, which was dominated by gangsters. Initially, his English was really kind of early gangster English. I always felt uncomfortable listening to him giving lectures. I think there is something to that.

Anyway, I cannot afford to create software on my own for my piece. That can be solved eventually; I think people are working on solving that. Once that's done, you still have to say, "Do you want accuracy ?" You can't have something that's natural because it's too perfect. That's the question. I like the interplay between precision and personal feeling. The precision should be such that it serves as a guideline for the well-trained musician. The well-trained musician is not just comprised of technique, but of heritage, culture. The well-trained musician is someone who can respond instantly. That is what no software can give me. No equipment can give me that response. If, in a string quartet, the cellist does something, everybody else immediately adjusts. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about.

Besides, the third point is, what is art, what is music? It's an interactive act. I don't want to interact with a machine, especially a machine designed by someone else that I have never interacted with. I want to interact with my musicians. Although the truth is, you never do. (laughter) I could tell you a story about interacting. (laughter)

I wrote piece for Stokowski, the second piece he played of mine. I went to the rehearsals and the dress rehearsal. I arrived and he was on the stage. He said, "Good you are here, now do you have your pencil, your paper, your score?" I said, "Yes. Yes." He said, "Sit there and take notes carefully. Afterwards we will discuss it." I thought, "Great! That's why he's a great conductor." I was busy writing notes, longer here, softer there. Trying to interact. He finished, turned around, and said, "Are you satisfied?" Dismissing me... I said, "Oh it was wonderful, but there is something I want to tell you." I went up to the podium and said, "The clarinet was playing the wrong pitches." He said, "Ahh... the composer now decides that that note should be this!" Immediately he accused the composer. Or else, he just didn't here the wrong notes. I have other funny stories about conductors.

I had that piece played by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Again, I came to the dress rehearsal. The moment the piece opened up, it was wrong, and I realized that the clarinet part was a major 2nd away from the rest. The conductor waved about and the clarinet played the wrong notes for the whole piece. Afterward, I went up to him and said, "could the clarinet play what's written, it's already a transposed part". The conductor said "Oh, that's simple, I'll tell him afterwards." I went to see the clarinetist and said the part was transposed. He said, "Oh I didn't think composers knew how to transpose!"
That's what I mean, that kind of attitude. He thought he was doing me a service by transposing it.
Anyway, I don't know how we got on to that. I forgot your question now.

Bust of Varèse

A bust of the teacher sits on top of the piano. (Photo: Preston Wright)

Why write for orchestras, and also what kinds of new audiences does that lead to? New audiences for new music. Orchestras have their own economics, their own standard conservative bias, because they are a business that exists to do classical music. Anything new that comes to them challenges that, so not a lot of new music gets played. Then there is the question, assuming it is performed, who's interested, who is the audience and how do we generate more? Is there just the right amount of audience, is it too much?

That's a very large question. In fact, I addressed that issue when I went to San Diego. I ought to give you a copy of my speech for that. They wanted me to talk about the future of music. They were looking at the future in terms of education, etc. They were very thoughtful. It was the first time I had ever heard of a department that was preparing to look for a new professor, deciding first where education is heading. That's very forward way of looking.

I gave a speech that took me little over an hour to read. It's a long thing. It's enormously complex. It had to do with society, with our whole social system. It's a tough subject. It also has to do with history. Part of it is history. We are part of history. We are making history. We are doing things to ourselves, not really because we want to, but because history forces us to. Look at the Near East, in China and so on, and think of how its thousands of years-old history has shaped its society today. In art it's the same thing. We have to look at our society at large to understand what is happening in the art world.

The question is, where is music heading? To a large extent it depends on the composers, and to a lesser degree, on the performers. We composers need the boost of them to survive. The composers are fundamentally responsible, but composers cannot function in the dark, on their own. They are very much a social animal; without performers to play their music, or audiences to listen to it, they have no function. Therefore, their ability to develop as composers depends heavily on the interaction with the society, with the people.

Now, our public, our audience, has to deal with the economic set-up of society. What's available to them has to be economically viable for them to obtain and for us to produce. That can then gradually be reduced to the concept of whether it is profitable for a composer. The two don't have to be parallel. There lies the problem.

That's in terms of the demand. What about the demand? This is the public; presumably, these are people who really want to hear something--but you really don't know what you want, other than what the society makes you feel you want. Part of that comes down to education, how you are brought up. If you don't have that special, certain kind of environment, you will be late in developing your style. I've never been so impressed by a statement by a composer, as I was in this case by George Crumb. He said that he had never heard Beethoven until he was in college. That's impressive that a major composer can emerge without being aware of that kind of early history. That's fascinating. It also tells you that if George Crumb had heard Beethoven at the age of five, I'm sure he would have been a different composer, for better or worse. I don't know. I'm just saying that these things matter. I'm not saying one needs to be exposed to this history early on; you can be exposed to it late when you have the faculty to absorb and digest it. Some people hear it early and become traditional minded. They cannot break away from it.

That's what's so amazing about Elliott Carter. He came from the shadow of tradition, and really broke away from it. In his case he also has a tremendous discipline.

What I mean, for better or for worse, with those examples, is that clearly we need better musical education, or arts education. I cannot understand any society not considering education in the arts a primary responsibility. I remember starting in the late '50's and the '60's, there was a flurry of activities in stimulating education, mostly because of the newly established foundations. They give a grant for composers to go teach at schools, and so on. We don't have that now. Therefore, thank God we have the Internet, where adventurous minds can look. Don't you think it's the societies responsibility to have the kids search as much as is available, as much as is possible?

That's what the American Composers Forum does.

Right. Back to that question, what you see today is the result of stopping that type of subsidy to schools to teach the arts. It makes so much difference. Each of us may remember our first exposure to that type of thing. Ultimately it depends on the individual. Early exposure is not necessarily the best. There are plenty of people who had the exposure Mozart had, but how many Mozarts are there? I don't mean that. What I mean is that you need that interest in the arts; you need that stimulation to happen early on.

That's why you're lucky if you grow up in England, every village has its choral society that can sight read Messiah or Carmina Burana and every small town has its symphony orchestra. There is a musical interest, so when it does get more complex, there is a level of understanding that comes with it.

Right. That's a basic issue: education and the question of availability. Nothing that's non-profit is that widely available. You cannot compete with a profit-making corporation, and that is the problem. It also goes beyond that. It goes beyond letting people hear different types of music. If you spend your career in teaching, you realize this thing spreads around because it affects the students who want to do whatever their ambitions may be. You may want to be recorded; you want your music to be played, and before you have even become an artist, you begin to make compromises. You say, "this is what's in demand, this is readily available," and then in turn you influence the teachers. Gradually the teachers must teach what the students need to survive. Certain things are not right to tell the students. This thing can move ahead very fast.

I've noticed that with schools, it takes decades to build up a particular department. It only takes a few semesters to drop it. We are at the stage where we have dropped it a level. I pity the kids. All they hear is that works are created for accessibility. That stifles the imagination and the aspiration. I think education and commercialism are the two big issues that we are dealing with.

Three desert islands disks, what would they be?

That's tough. (sighing) I don't know. I don't even know if I would want to take one, to tell you the truth. I like music to be stored in my mind; I just review it in my mind. To answer the question in general terms, my answer may not be what you would predict I might say.

I would look for music that somehow has extraordinary strength to make me moved. That strength often withstands the test of time. For example, if you ask me whether I were to take a piece by Varèse or Debussy or someone else, or even my own., instead of a piece by Beethoven or even Mozart, my answer is, I'm not too sure. The reason is, there is something in those pieces that makes them survive so long. The pieces of Varèse and myself are just too new. Maybe one day they'll achieve that level. There's no word for that other than inspiration. I once shared this with an American conductor, Saul Johnson. I think it was in '56. I don't know why, but we talked about Mozart's string quartet in G minor. I said, "I could die with that." He said, "You too!" (laughter) It's simple music. It's old-fashioned music, but it has that exceptional quality. Or Beethoven's C minor string quartet.

Ohh! I can think of a Chinese zither piece, the piece I sent out to space called "The flowing water." I contributed that piece for the discs that were carried out on that project. What was it called-that project in the 1970's? Presumably that space ship is still in the universe traveling around. It has two golden discs of songs from the earth. I was asked to suggest one piece from Asia, and I guess I was chauvinistic. I picked the Chinese piece. Honestly I believed that was one of the greatest pieces of music in all of humanity.

I need something with spirituality. I don't use that word regularly. I think those are works that inspire.

Maybe I should have asked not for desert island discs, but outer space discs.


What are your current fixations?

Right now, I'm so upset about my compositions being so slow. I'm writing a string quartet, a commissioned work, which has a quadruple fugue with quadruple countersubjects, meaning eight subjects. The way I work it out with my theory, is that it actually has sixteen subjects.

It's not a fugue in the usual sense of the word. The reason is that I have my own concept that has been worked out for decades that's based on a synthesis of ideas and principles from different heritages. To a large extent, my ideas come from Europe and East Asia. I find that in terms of European heritage, certain basic concepts are really manifestations of the Chinese concepts of yin and yang. Chromaticism is very much a matter of yin and yang, as is the concept of change. I-Ching. You can see the interrelationships in the model structures of different cultures. In doing that, you realize that certain contrapuntal principles are a manifestation of that kind of a cultural coming together. I'm preoccupied with that idea day and night.

What I'm saying really has meaning. I have a decades-long interest in that. In this case, there is a presence of this yin and yang today in music and art. There are so many different possibilities. Composition has different ways of hitting us, of interacting with us. Fundamentally there are really two elements: the subjective element and the objective element. Whether a work is successful or not depends on how well the two interact. There are always both elements there. There's always the structure. Nothing can stand without structure. On the other hand, art is not structural, nor is art an emotion. The fact is that, art is simply an 'artwork'. The way it's been put together has structure and order, and the interaction of the two is so important. Today as a reaction in this society, we tend to snub our noses at anything with any sort of structure. That's how ethnic music has come into the fold as a more popular form. In our mind, ethnic music has no structure... it's pure emotion. I feel we all need to understand that art is about balance, not just emotion.

That's why I pay so much attention to structure. As in the case of Varèse, Mozart, Beethoven, and Debussy especially, it disappears. That's why it is so important. That's why I'm so preoccupied with it. The trick is how to create the best structure possible and then make it disappear.

Can you name a single mind altering work of art? Visual, poetry, one piece that changed your life?

In my life there is never a single thing. Off hand, there is nothing I can say. Maybe there's not a particular artwork, but rather a category of art. What has, I wouldn't say changed my life, but made me discover my life, is Chinese calligraphy. It has everything in it. Otherwise, there are plenty of things that have really had impacts on me, but I can't think of a single piece artwork or a piece of music that has changed my life.

Do you write calligraphy yourself?

As a child we always had to, but I really studied it. I've learned so much from calligraphy. That's why I cited calligraphy. It really is different because it's the act that matters. The way you appreciate calligraphy, your mind senses the motion, the movement, the feeling that was brought forth by the part of the calligrapher. It's to me, a genuine kind of an action art. The action is captured, even though what you see is flat on paper. When you know how to view it, you sense the calligrapher's motion.

Above all, a calligrapher will look at a piece of paper. Immediately there has to be structure, balance, texture, density, everything has to be there. That to me is a supreme moment of creativity. The moment comes from in here.

These people are trained of course. I'm not talking about the calligraphers that as a child would do, just repeat the motions of calligraphy. I'm talking about truly creative calligraphers that don't do it the same way every time. They look at the paper, and depending on their mood, they know what to do. That is the kind of thing that I think is so great. It has both tremendous discipline and the spontaneity. Not just spontaneity alone, nor just discipline alone. Again, it's the balance of the two.

Do you have a vital daily ritual?

(laughter) Well, I don't. Other than that my body requires me to exercise it. Other than that, no.

How do you spoil yourself?

Spoil myself? I indulge in my composing.

If you weren't making music, what would you be doing?

Well, I actually have done so many things that take me away from music. A lot of unsympathetic people think, "Oh, he's dried up. It's an excuse to avoid composing." I just feel that composing, contrary to people's ideas, is not a lonely act. Composing is a kind of activity that you are continuously a part of. You are part of the overall cultural ambience. You cannot detach yourself from that.

I have to think about music everyday, because I don't have time to compose music everyday. I don't have time to compose music everyday because there are other things I must do. Even as a composer, most composers don't believe this, but I think composing or being an artist has no meaning unless you are part of the cultural flow, the historic motion. You have to think of the future as well as the past. Therefore, I can't just sit at my piano or desk and compose. Especially when you see things happening around you, you have to do something. Therefore I spend a great deal of time doing other things that I think are important. I don't think per-se, I just emotionally feel I have to be involved. Then I have to struggle to find time to compose.

There are some people who are so generous and giving of themselves. They provide a service for the community. You've had students over many years just like Henry Cowell. You were a part of CRI. Varèse, the Guild, the Composers Forum, whatever creates a community of artists. There are others who don't participate in that, but are narrowly focus on what they do. Maybe Harry Partch is one of those. Is there anything to be said about that?

I think that to a large extent it's peoples personalities, their own interests, and very often it's your cultural background. With someone in my position, it's probable to go to extremes. Either I'm doing what I'm doing, or saying, I don't want to have anything to do with that. It depends on personality. To a large extent, I believe an artist - the very fact that you are creating art means that you are creating something that is not in people's minds - for that, it is not essential to win an award. For, me, trying to become a composer was a very important contribution.

You don't know what is essential and what is not. People think that being an artist is not essential. On the other hand, people think that as an artist, all I do is create. I don't think you can create in a vacuum. You have to be part of life. Therefore you must live it. Live it, I don't mean going to nightclubs or going to restaurants or going to a beach. I mean you must live as a member of society. You cannot avoid that. To me it comes naturally.

Unfortunately in my case, that's taken a lot of time away from me. I used to be frustrated about the amount of work that I could produce. Maybe that is responsible for the quality of those few works you do produce. If I had written hundreds of works, people might have said, maybe all of that is trash. As Varèse said, "They belong to the trash can."

I do feel, and this is also very Asian, very Chinese, very Confucianist, that an artist is in fact the conscience of society, of culture. So you do have a responsibility. In Chinese history, all the great writers, artists, and so on functioned in some other capacity. In that time they were government officials, but today they would function in different capacities.

As a result, some of the greatest artists and poets did not write enough, but what they wrote was their experience. They were functioning, playing a role in the society.

Winston Churchill, during the war, an official came up to him and said, "The country's in ruins, we have no money and we're going to cut the arts budget." He said, "Hell no, that's what we're fighting for."

That's right exactly.

What's your greatest fear?

My greatest fear is that I don't fear. (laughter) I don't know. My greatest fear may be that I don't have enough time to produce enough work. Not because I want to produce endless works. Contrary to most people's thoughts, not every note I put down is sacred, but rather I don't have enough time to concentrate on what I want to think about. I'm afraid I won't have enough time to bring out the kind of work I want to produce.

Other than that I don't know if there is any other fear I have. My fear really is that I might not be able to concentrate on everything I have to do. It's because of my involvement in things over such a long period of time; as a result I've accumulated so many ideas. I want to have a chance to carry them out. In my music, it's always, one piece begets another and another and another because the ideas are continuing. I'm constantly exploding in different directions. I can't jump the gun and say I'll write ten pieces today to fill the vacuum. No. Each one has to come out of the ideas in the others. This all takes time; it's a genuine fear of mine. You think, "If I can't move ahead all of these things will be lost." But I guess that happens in history all of the time.

You'll always compose more than Carl Ruggles right?


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