Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: Goose Bumps in the Candy Shop
Although Ellen Taaffe Zwilich has received more accolades than most living composers—the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Music and the first composer chair at Carnegie Hall, as well as the only living composer ever mentioned in a Peanuts® comic strip—she believes that the pinnacle of success is hearing a wonderful performance of one of her compositions.
A conversation with Frank J. Oteri
April 29, 2011—2 p.m.
Audio and video recorded and edited by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Edited by Frank J. Oteri and John Lydon
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich has had a remarkable career as a composer that has been filled with firsts. She was the first woman to receive a DMA in composition from Juilliard (in 1975), the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Music (in 1983), and in 1995, she was appointed the first (male or female) Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall. Perhaps even more significantly, at least in terms of notoriety among the general public, she was the first living composer ever mentioned in a Peanuts® comic strip. Zwilich has never been one to rest on her laurels—every accomplishment she has had is a step toward the next project.
Her early String Quartet No. 1, which was awarded Juilliard’s Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Chamber Music Prize while she was still a student there, was one of the American works featured at the ISCM World New Music Days in Boston in 1976. That performance led directly to her receiving a commission from the Boston Musica Viva to compose the Chamber Symphony, which in due course led to her First Symphony (Three Movements for Orchestra) for which she won the Pulitzer. Her being featured in a Peanuts® strip, led to her getting in touch with Charles Schulz and to her composing Peanuts® Gallery, which was the first work she composed for Carnegie Hall during her tenure as Composer’s Chair.
For Zwilich, however, the greatest success she can imagine is hearing a wonderful performance of one of her compositions. She considers herself primarily “somebody who writes music for people to play” and her greatest joy is interacting with performers. In the end, that precious relationship between her music and its interpreters is far more important that any consideration of musical style or gender or whatever agenda might get in the way of what she is writing:
I’m very much into the whole performance scene. I love the people that I write for; I really do. I learn from them and they learn from me. There’s this wonderful circle of communication. That gets you a different set of priorities, as opposed to style or “I’m a woman.” You know what I mean? All of those things are kind of academic in a way. For me, it’s all about the making of music.
And although she has composed in a wide range of formats—from solo and chamber music to large scale works for chorus and orchestra—some things are not for her. She claims that she’ll never compose an opera, for example. Ultimately Zwilich will embark on a compositional project if it gives her those goose bumps. Yet to this day, she admits to feeling like “a kid in the candy shop” when she’s writing music and her enthusiasm is extremely contagious.
Frank J. Oteri: There were two very pivotal moments for you that established your reputation as a composer. Everyone always talks about the Pulitzer Prize for Music, since you were the first woman ever to win the award. But before that, your first string quartet received a performance on the ISCM World Music Days back in 1976, the only time the event has been held in the United States thus far. Of course, those things don’t happen out of nowhere. So, before we get to those events, I’d love to take it further back to how you got involved in being a composer, what your earliest successes were, who your champions were in that early period, and who your role models were.
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich: OK, it’s like the overnight success that took 25 years to build. I grew up in a non-musical family, but we had a piano in the house. And when I was a little tot, I climbed on the bench and found out what happened when you pushed the keys down. And there’s a part of me that is still on that piano bench. It more or less took over my life; music has always been at the center of my life since that moment. I had a perfectly normal childhood, except that I got fired by my first piano teacher, which was great because I think if I’d gotten a really good piano teacher who knew how to deal with me, I would have been a pianist. When I told her that I made up better things than she was giving me, she sort of said, “Sit down. Shut up.” So I tried this and that. I began to play the violin and the trumpet when I was quite young.
I had the great fortune of going to a high school that had a real music program. We had a music building with a large rehearsal room for band and orchestra that opened up to an amphitheater. We had offices for two instrumental teachers and across the hall, there was a choral rehearsal room, and an office for the choral teacher. We had practice rooms upstairs. And, way before this happened in the professional world, my high school had behind-the-screen auditions. I think the purpose of the behind-the-screen audition was that the seniors shouldn’t get too complacent because there’s a freshman breathing down your neck. But the result of it is that quite a number of the main chairs were occupied by girls. I was actually concertmaster of the orchestra. They called it concert mistress in those days. But I got it by audition—behind the screen. I had the opportunity to write for my school band, things that got played in the Orange Bowl. So I had quite an interesting, vital experience as a youngster in high school.
When I went to college, the only thing I knew to be was to be a music education major. After I’d been in school, I went to Florida State, which had and still has a wonderful music school. During my first year, I realized I really wanted to be in theory and composition. I was doing a lot of playing: I was playing the violin; I was playing the trumpet. But I was really more interested in the writing angle. I had an absolutely, extraordinary experience for a girl of my vintage. When I made the decision to change my major, one of my professors who later became one of my biggest supporters, sat me down and said, “You’re making a big mistake. I see that you like boys, and you’re going to get married. If you go to theory and composition, you’re going to have to get a master’s degree. What you really need is something to fall back on. And you really should stay in music ed.” The very next day, another of my professors called me into his office, and he said, “I hear you’re changing to theory and composition.” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “That’s wonderful. You’ll be great in it. This will fantastic. Skip this course, because it’s not hard enough. Take this one; it’s more challenging.” He gave me everything that allowed me to say, “O.K., I’ll take this position instead of that one.” It was really quite amazing.
FJO: Thanks to musicologists, there’s been a whole reconstruction of the Western musical canon over the last thousand years to the point that we can point to Hildegard von Bingen, who predates even Leonin and Perotin, and say, “The first significant composer we have a name for is a woman composer.” And we can now say, “Fanny Mendelssohn’s chamber music is actually as exciting as Felix’s; if only she had been allowed to develop.”
ETZ: And Alma Mahler, and Clara Schumann.
FJO: There are a ton of significant women composers from the past, but when you were growing up, those were names that were not bandied about. Maybe Clara Schumann was, but as a pianist not as a composer in her own right.
ETZ: This was not known. I didn’t grow up, though, in the grand tradition of: I’m going to be a composer. I just wanted to make music. And like I’ve said, I played the trumpet, I played the violin, and I played the piano. I sort of did a lot of everything. And I had a rather amazing, but typical education for people of my vintage. We actually got the best European education, because everybody had come from Europe to the States. And they were teaching our teachers, or teaching us, and giving us that tradition. Meanwhile, I’m playing trumpet in the marching band and in a big band. When I was in college, I would think nothing of going from playing violin in a Bartók string quartet and then go on to play trumpet in the band. I think that’s a peculiarly American phenomenon. A few years back at Tanglewood, there was this thing about composers who were born in 1938. I was actually born in 1939, but I was a year ahead in school, so we all had very much the same experience. There was this blossoming of people, most of whom had a rather peculiarly American education.
One of the things that I get really crazy about is that we don’t offer all children the opportunity to play music. That that’s been taken out of schools is just criminal. You now have generations of people who never had any opportunity. But when it’s there, it’s not only the people that want to go on and become musicians, it’s the people whose lives are enriched. You’re hard pressed to learn some of these things anywhere else.
FJO: This education, though, begins at home, which is another sea change in our society. You said you came from a family of non-musicians, yet there was still a piano in your household. Nowadays, most people don’t have instruments in their houses. Once upon a time, even if you didn’t play music, there’d be a piano, or a guitar, or something, even if it was mostly just a piece of furniture. I think there’s something about having an instrument in your home from a formative age, having access that allows for an entry point that you might not have otherwise. Nowadays computers are in everybody’s household. While there’s so much music you can do with a computer, it’s less obvious because you can do other things with a computer as well. You really can’t do anything else with a piano besides music. Even if you only put things on top of it or use it as a dining table, it’s still a piano.
ETZ: Yeah, yeah. It’s true. But what I was starting to say, and I kind of went off on a tangent, is that I literally have grown my whole life, and still to this day, out of the performance tradition. I’m not a “composer”; I’m somebody who writes music for people to play and somebody who spent a great deal of my life playing music myself. It’s a different perspective than somebody who’s defined as a composer very early on. There’s a different set of issues, I think. I’m very much into the whole performance scene. I love the people that I write for; I really do. I learn from them and they learn from me. There’s this wonderful circle of communication. That gets you a different set of priorities, as opposed to style or “I’m a woman.” You know what I mean? All of those things are kind of academic in a way. For me, it’s all about the making of music. I think that’s really a big difference. And I was always playing instruments that you had to play with other people. That’s a big part of my music, too.
FJO: So it’s not necessarily about wanting to reinvent what people can do, but knowing what works, and having a sense of creating music that really is idiomatic for all of those instruments. I find it interesting that your chosen instruments—piano, violin and trumpet—are extremely different from each other both in terms of how they sound and how they are actually played.
ETZ: Yeah. And I think there are things that I write where I go from my gut feelings about the brass, you know, and how it’s played.
I happen to think that we don’t have any idea what music is. There was a time when in a music appreciation text, the first thing would be: what is music. And the next thing would be the answer to the question: organized sound or something like that. I don’t think we know what it is. There’s something that happens. I have an imagination of something, and I put it on a piece of paper, and it goes to a performer, and when the performer performs, the air vibrates. And we all seem to have sometimes similar reactions to what we’re hearing. What is it? The surface has not been scratched on what music is. One of the things that’s very neglected in the academic world is the body. That’s not neglected if you’re a player. It’s in your gut, it’s in your arms, it’s in your feet, and your legs. You want to dance. You want to play. You want to put all the kinesthetic stuff into your music. People talk about this technique or that technique. Any discussion of music theory that neglects the human body—and the affect of music on the human body and the need for a composer’s music to come out of the body and the soul as well as the mind of the composer—is uninteresting to me. It’s only a very small part of the story. This to me is why at my age I still feel like a kid in the candy shop: I get to do this. I make my living doing this. It’s such a miracle in a way. I’m still kind of in awe of it.
FJO: To get back to your background performing on both stringed and brass instruments, decades later you composed two concertos for brass instruments which are accompanied by string orchestra—your horn concerto and your bass trombone concerto. You make those two worlds co-exist in a way that they might not normally be perceived by other people to fit together so nicely.
ETZ: They bring different things to the table. Partly because of computer programs, in a lot of music you see by young composers, all the instrumental writing seems to be kind of the same. They don’t have the physicality of the instruments in mind. But there are things that are inherently oboe-ish, and things that are inherently fiddle, and things that are inherently tuba, or whatever. I think that you never can learn enough about any instrument to stop and say, I’ve nailed that. It’s a continual learning process. There’s a constant improvement of this and that. And techniques change, usually for the better. But it’s not just that something can be played on an instrument; does it come out of the essence of that instrument? I’ve written a bassoon concerto. I hope bassoonists don’t get angry with me, but I always say I not only don’t know how you play the bassoon, I don’t know why. You get up in the morning, you have to put this thing together. It’s got wood, which is very temperamental. It’s got cork, which is maybe even more temperamental. You’ve got to make the reed. It’s got all kinds of issues. And before I started to write my concerto, I did so much getting into the soul of it with the help of Nancy Goeres, for whom I was going to write it, in Pittsburgh, and other bassoonists that I knew, that I woke up one morning and I had the feeling if I open my mouth, a bassoon sound was going to come out. And I thought, I’m ready to go.
I’m talking about the karma of the instrument, the physicality of it, the weight. I’ve just written a piece of chamber music that calls on the contrabass to be an equal partner with the violin. And I have been so interested in dealing with the weight of that instrument. These are all things you never find in a theory book. How to bring the other instruments into that orbit, because of how much it weighs and how it moves. Maybe it moves in a slightly different way from a smaller animal. A larger animal will do certain moves quite differently. This is all about the physicality of instruments. I think they also tend to have a kind of a soul, a personality. But I don’t ever want to be limited by my knowledge, or my current knowledge, or my ability to play. When I’m writing for instruments, I want to go to a slightly new place.
FJO: But despite your background, by the time you entered a graduate-level music composition program, there were these huge stylistic chasms. The 1938 generation was the generation that knocked down a lot of the barriers, but the so-called uptown versus downtown thing was still going strong. Some people had very meticulous, exact formulas for constructing music—every note had 25 reasons for being there—and others wanted to throw open everything and have music just occur and it was never the same way twice. And in addition to these two very opposite polarities, at the same time the rock revolution was happening and free jazz was happening. All of this was going on at the same time. You mentioned that you had played in a jazz band. But all of a sudden you’re now in a university music program, and you get a whole other message about lineage and music history. Or maybe you don’t get that message. But how does that affect you?
ETZ: Well you know, I think everybody has to have a little bit of a sense of humor. I think, vis-à-vis uptown/downtown, that John Cage had the very last word. He said he would only be discussed by his zip code. You know it’s really foolish, all of these people trying to decide what I’m supposed to do. It’s hard enough for me. I don’t want them to decide what I should be doing.
When I was at Florida State as a freshman, two of my older colleagues introduced me to very interesting things. One of them said, “Bring your trumpet in on Sunday. We have a jam session every Sunday.” And there were some really, really knowledgeable people and good jazz players. And the school in those days was closed on Sunday, the instrumental room was closed, but miraculously people seemed to have keys, and it was an all-day jam session. And it was the kind of learning where they’d say, “Have you ever heard of this guy named Clifford Brown play the trumpet?” So then I’d go out and I’d get a record and my god, this was wonderful stuff. Another colleague of mine said, “Ernst von Dohnanyi has this conducting class, and we have this little orchestra for it. Bring your fiddle and come in.” So my freshman year, I went to two very, very different places. I ended up being very close with Dohnanyi, playing chamber music with him and things like that. And I was also in this sort of jazz orbit. There were people from each of those places who kind of looked askance at the other side. But that didn’t make any sense to me; I wanted everything. So when I was writing the first piece that I thought was an actual, real piece—a piece for trumpet and piano that I wrote for my boyfriend to play—I didn’t write it to satisfy some stylistic thing. When I was introduced to some of the stylistic wars, I found it hard to reconcile with how I felt about music, and what I thought music was, or what I was discovering about music. It never was a really important thing in my life.
FJO: Yet you pursued graduate degrees in composition and were one of the first women to receive a doctorate in composition at that point in time.
ETZ: I was the first at Juilliard to get a DMA. There’s probably somebody who got one somewhere else. I don’t know. But I was kind of lucky. I really got into a nice swim of things when I was in high school. I was also very lucky in college, and when I first came to New York, it was very interesting. I started working for Stokowski in 1965. Just a couple of days ago I saw a clip of him conducting the Chicago Symphony in 1962. I’d know the gestures anywhere. But there was not a woman in sight. I mean the harpist was a man. This was the norm. There was an occasional woman here or there. I think Orin O’Brien was already in the Philharmonic and occasionally there’d be a woman in a symphony orchestra, but not very often and, and a very, teeny, teeny, teeny, tiny minority. When Stokowski started the American Symphony which was about that same year as this program I saw, he opened the door to not only women, but Asians. You didn’t see Asians in orchestras, and now you know, look at the women and Asians in orchestras. We had blacks in the orchestra, we had Asians, and we had a large contingent of women. So this was available to me when I moved to New York. And I auditioned and I got in.
FJO: So were you involved in the premiere of the Ives Fourth Symphony?
ETZ: I came to the orchestra the year after that. But I did play it another time with Stokowski.
FJO: That must have been something to be a part of when it was just new in people’s ears.
ETZ: Oh, I know. Yeah. Absolutely. We actually made a recording of a number of pieces by Ives.
FJO: So when did the transition happen from actively playing as well as composing music, to just composing music?
ETZ: Very late. By the way, I was involved in a wonderful symposium—they called it a Composing Symposium—at Florida State last season. I was a composer, and there were visual artists—a painter and a sculptor—and there was a poet, a wonderful novel writer, an architect, a pure mathematician, and a marvelous archeologist. And everybody got up and spoke. We all spoke for a short period of time, and then there were some questions. And almost everybody got up and said they had been advised against following this particular path because these were all a little bit unique and individual, people who combined one kind of study with another. A person who didn’t just want to study Tyrannosaurus rex, he wanted to understand the mathematics of it, you know. Almost everybody had been discouraged from following this path. And almost everybody’s life kind of came into focus around 30. And I’m listening to people talk, and it’s kind of like my life, because I was doing this and doing that—I was teaching and I was playing.
I had come to New York because I really wanted to experience the broader world of music. I always wanted to be the littlest fish in the biggest pond. I was the player that wanted to sit next to the violinist that could play rings around me, because I always wanted to grow. So I was doing a lot of different things. And I had never written a piece that I really thought was exactly what I wanted to do. I won prizes and that kind of thing, but I had never gotten to the end of something and looked back at it and said that’s exactly what I wanted to do. So I decided to try to really go further with composition. That’s when I went to Juilliard. I figured the worst that could happen is that I’d have a better qualification for teaching. And the best that I might be able to really get hold of writing music. I was about 30 when I finally wrote a piece where I said, “That’s just what I meant.” It’s called Einsame Nacht for baritone and piano. It’s a piece that I wouldn’t write the same way again. But I wouldn’t change it because it was me at the time; it was just what I wanted.
FJO: So Juilliard definitely helped you to find yourself as a composer and helped give you the confidence to be proud of the music you wrote. But the composition faculty of Juilliard itself was divided between composers of very different aesthetic persuasions. On the one hand, Elliott Carter, and perhaps even more so Babbitt, represented the future, whereas David Diamond, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin who ran the school, represented what is arguably a more traditional approach to musical composition. Sessions, though a traditionalist, had adopted twelve-tone technique by the time you were there. How did all of that shape the information that you were getting at that point?
ETZ: Well, I worked mainly with Sessions and I worked for a short time with Carter. But I have always had an inability to pinpoint what I got from Sessions. All I know is that I became who I was while I was working with him. He was an enabler. He was so slow to speak that he must have had nerves of steel. Most people have to jump in and talk about your compositions. My first lesson and a half, he hardly said anything. I was working on an orchestra piece, and he’d ask a question like, “Is this E-flat clarinet or B-flat?”. And I’d tell him. And I went away thinking he must hate my music. When we got to the middle of my next lesson, he closed the score and he said “Well, I’m really getting what you’re doing. Now let’s talk.” He had the ability to remove himself from what you were doing, somehow or other—I don’t know how or why. I know that while I was working with him, I really developed my own persona as a composer, my own voice, which I think is a big, the big step.
FJO: What about Carter?
ETZ: Carter is a very, very interesting man. We’re still friends. Elliott’s a very searching person. Somebody once asked me [to describe something] about Elliott Carter that [no one] would have any idea about. And I said, how about a guy walking down the hall with a Schütz cantata under his arm. As a matter of fact, I went to a late Mozart opera—I can’t remember which one—at the State Theater, and walked out at intermission and Elliott was there. The two of us both said, “What are you doing here?” [laughs] He is a person of great depth and interest in all kinds of things. I like him very much. But, as I said, Sessions was the main person that I worked with.
FJO: One of the most fascinating things about Carter is his deep interest in so many things beyond music, like poetry and visual art. Your apartment is filled with these amazing paintings everywhere. You just talked about recently being on a panel with a poet, a novelist, a painter, etc., this idea of composers existing in a community of other creators rather than just with music people. In some ways, composers in the past were a little bit hermetically sealed off from other kinds of creative artists to the detriment of music making. You are clearly interested in the other arts. And Elliott Carter is an example of someone who clearly has always lived in all of the arts. So, I’m wondering when those interests first developed in you.
ETZ: Well, I’ve always had other interests. I had a pretty serious interest in philosophy. I was reading Alfred North Whitehead’s Process in Reality and other people who were logical positivists.
When I got my degree at Juilliard, I went for an interview for a teaching position. I liked the department chairman and the other people I met. But then I thought, I just don’t want to do it. I had never been all together on my own schedule in my whole life. I had never been able to put what I wanted at the center of my life. I remember I got on the phone and I called the department chair, and I said, “I think you might be going to offer me this job, but please don’t do it, because I don’t want it. I want to see what I can do as a composer.” When I went to the phone to make that call, I was shaking. But when I put the phone down, I just felt so free. It was just really wonderful. And so I literally sawed that limb off behind me. I was able to keep a little bit of freelance violin playing. I left the American Symphony when Stoki went to England which was 1972, I think. So I sort of tapered off on the playing thing. But I found that I just loved it. And it’s just been wonderful. Of course, when I made that decision, I was left with the question of “Can I do this? What will it be like? Will I just sit here and eat popcorn and get fat or something?” But it turned out to be just the right thing for me.
FJO: So getting the string quartet done on the ISCM World Music Days, how did that come about?
ETZ: Well, that was in 1976, and it was going to be held in Boston.
FJO: It was the only time it was held here.
ETZ: And our president didn’t write a piece. [laughter] I love your story from Zagreb. That’s really wonderful.
FJO: So Gerald Ford didn’t write a piece.
ETZ: No, he didn’t, although he actually started the standing ovation for my horn concerto when it was done in Vail.
ETZ: With David Jolley and the Rochester Strings. And they said that in the newspaper the next day, and I went over to him and said, “I’m sorry, I’m embarrassed that they put that in the papers.” He said, “I’m happy.” He was a nice fellow. But he was not a composer.
FJO: So getting back to the World Music Days in Boston, how did you get involved with that, perhaps through Gunther Schuller, who had helped to organize it?
ETZ: Well, I wasn’t an official representative, but because it was in Boston, and it was the first time that it was ever going to be held in the United States, there were a number of concerts of American music. And my quartet was on one of them. And it did very well, which is very nice.
FJO: It was heard by people from all around the world who came here for this. The magic of that festival is that it is a way to instantly reach people who are involved in contemporary music in most of the countries that have active contemporary music scenes.
ETZ: That’s right.
FJO: So how did that performance lead to other things?
ETZ: The main thing is I had really gotten very, very good reviews.
And I was naïve enough to think that that would really make a difference. The next thing that really made the difference was that people in the music world heard the music. And one of the people in the auditorium that day was Richard Pittman who conducts the Boston Musica Viva, and he liked my work very much. So he told me the next time they got a commission, he’d ask me to do it. And I said, I’d love to; that’s how that relationship started. And that’s when I wrote my Chamber Symphony for them. They also commissioned a work called Passages for soprano and large ensemble, which he just did again this season. It was one musician hearing another musician and wanting more, as opposed to anything magical and quick.
FJO: Now we talked about this question of style. And you saying that it’s really about writing music for the players and that style is not even something you think about consciously.
FJO: But to my ears, there’s definitely something different about the music you were writing then and the music you have written since. Between the String Quartet and the Sonata in Three Movements for violin and piano, on the one hand, and works starting with the Chamber Symphony, and then Three Movements for Orchestra, Celebration, and the other pieces that followed there seems to be a shift of some sort. The sound world of that string quartet, as powerful a piece as it is, is not a sound that most people would associate with the music you have written since then. It’s a very different sound world; one that is much more austere and forbidding. It’s very powerful, but it doesn’t have the same emotional directness of your later music.
ETZ: It took me a long time to admit this. I was married to the violinist Joseph Zwilich, for whom I wrote the Sonata in Three Movements. And he died suddenly as I was working on the Chamber Symphony. I was pretty much unable to do anything for a number of weeks. And when I went back to it, I was such a different person, I had to start all over. And I think that in the course of that, I found how deep music was inside of me. And what it meant to me. One of my good friends came with me to Boston for the premiere, and when they got to the end of the piece, she turned to me and she said, “I hear acceptance in your music. And I haven’t heard a peep out of you that accepted any of this.” And she was absolutely right. I mean, my music was ahead of me in terms of my psyche. I do think it made me appreciate more the values that I was talking about earlier, the soulful values, the kinesthetic values of music. And it made me appreciate that kind of thing much more. I think tragedies either ruin you or make you stronger. In the scheme of the world, how unimportant certain things are, like what kind of style of music you write. I mean, really.
As a matter of fact, when I was working on the piece that became my First Symphony, I was at the MacDowell Colony, and I always liked to have a sense of the temporal element. The line of the piece of music is more important than anything else. I always write on full score, even when I was doing it by hand. And I had pasted all along the walls the whole opening of this piece. And one of my colleagues came into my studio at MacDowell and he was walking around the wall reading it, and he said, “I like it.” He said, “But you’ll never get away with this.” There was that kind of thing in the air still you know. But I didn’t care. I got away with it or I didn’t get away with it. As it turns out, I did get away with it.
FJO: Yeah, you won the Pulitzer Prize.
ETZ: But, by the way, apropos art, I had always said that all I needed to work is a good light and a good chair. When I got to the MacDowell Colony, they gave me a secretary’s chair, which is very good for the back, and an architect’s lamp, which is very good light. And I’m sitting there, and I sat there for a whole day, and I feel like I’m frozen or something. All of sudden, I realize that they go to great lengths to make sure that there’s no color or visual interest in the studios. They’re just very bland, nothing on the wall you know. And I realized I need something visual in my environment when I’m working. That it does something for me. So I went out and went to an antiquarian store and got some old maps, and I hung them up on a wall, and I picked some leaves, and put them around. And there was a painter there whose work I liked very much. And he lent me a large canvas, and they gave me an easel, and I put that up. And now the place was visually stimulating. And I went to work. But I didn’t know that about myself until I got there.
FJO: Interesting. But that harkens back to this thing you were saying about the soul, this other thing that’s there that you can’t necessarily express. Your Symphony No. 1 was initially called simply Three Movements for Orchestra. Before you wrote that, you wrote the Chamber Symphony which we were just talking about. But at this point, there are now five symphonies, and if you count the Chamber Symphony, six works that use the word symphony.
FJO: That word is such a loaded-gun word.
ETZ: I know.
FJO: So much a loaded gun that your First Symphony wasn’t initially called a symphony.
ETZ: You want to know why? I think it was Nancy Shear who wrote the program notes for that, and I was in Pittsburgh, copying the parts. I was there for a performance of something, and I was sitting there copying the parts madly to get ready for the ACO performance. And I think it was Nancy Shear who called me, who I knew through Stokowski years before. She called me and said, “We’re going to press. I need a title for your piece.” And I said, “Well it’s in three movements, and it’s for orchestra.” You know, I didn’t want to spend the time thinking about whether I should call this a symphony. What does this say? You know, so that’s how it got called Three Movements for Orchestra. I said, “It’s in three movements, it’s for orchestra. Call it that.” And after rehearsals got under way, Gunther said to me, “You know, this is really a symphony.” I said, “Yeah, I know, it’s really a symphony, but I didn’t want to deal with the issue when the program was going to go to the press.” And he said, “Well, you know, it really is a symphony.” I said, “You’re right, so I’ll call it a symphony.” I don’t really have a problem with that because I don’t really think the name conjures up anything really that specific. It just says that I’m somebody who is interested in the tradition of music. Not that I repeat it, but I love it, you know.
FJO: And the kinds of pieces you wrote that are called symphonies are very different from each other. The second heavily features the cello section—
ETZ: —To such an extent that they’ve always had to take a solo bow, the whole section! A symphony could be anything. I feel my life as a composer is like I have one foot on solid ground, and I do feel my own history particularly. Not so much the history of music, but my own. And then the other foot is dangling over something, and it’s maybe six inches down and maybe 600 feet, you know. It’s a combination of stepping out, taking some kind of a risk, and being on some kind of firm footing. So I don’t mind calling a piece a symphony. I wouldn’t do it for a small piece. The Fourth Symphony ended up having large chorus and children’s chorus, and handbells. And the Fifth Symphony is like a concerto for orchestra. The Third Symphony I wrote for the New York Philharmonic, which has a killer viola section. And in the standard repertoire, the violas are usually kind of neglected, so I wanted to feature the violas. It’s not as much as the Second Symphony is for the cellos. But they really carry the argument many times.
FJO: So if a symphony can’t be a small-scale work, why did you use the word symphony for the Chamber Symphony?
ETZ: I really can’t even tell you why because that was a very odd point in my life. One of my composer friends said to me after I said this has got to be a memorial, “Just write the thing. Get to the double bar and stop.” I don’t even know where that title came from. But I tried not to worry too much about anything. Just let it come out. I don’t know that I would call that piece a symphony today. It probably is in a way. It’s a one movement piece, but it does have this very long, narrative line. And I’m just so interested in that. That’s the thing that is at the heart of music to me, the fact that you can take something and see where it goes. And if you start with something that’s like DNA, it wants to do certain things. And that piece does, so I guess it’s O.K.
FJO: Now these terms—symphony, concerto, string quartet, piano trio. In your history as a composer, you’ve written a lot of these pieces. I found it so interesting you were saying before that you have a problem being in a colony with nothing on the walls, just the chair, and just the desk. And in a way those titles, they’re a reference to other pieces in music history that have done that, but they don’t really give the listener too much to go on in terms of what they are, other than that they’re big forms. They are the title equivalent of an empty wall. A symphony is a big form, presumably for orchestra. You know, a concerto is a big form that has a solo instrument with the orchestra. But they don’t really evoke moods. They don’t evoke the soul. Yet they’re the terms you use time and time again to create music that is very emotionally engaging. Why these formal names?
ETZ: Why not? To me the worst thing in the world is when you go to a concert and you love the title, and you don’t like the piece. I don’t know. I’m almost uninterested in what I call a piece, almost. Not a hundred percent uninterested, or disinterested I guess is the word. I don’t think what you call a piece has much to do with what the piece is like. For instance, if you look at the Beethoven piano sonatas, they’re all called piano sonatas. And they are more alike, let’s say, than a lot of my pieces are from each other. But within that range, you have all kinds of pieces. And they’re all just called sonata number this, number that. You have all these things with the same title. It wasn’t a handicap. I’d rather put my emotion into my music instead of the title.
FJO: My favorite piece of yours still is Rituals, which is a concerto for percussion ensemble and orchestra, but you chose to call it something else. You give it an evocative name.
ETZ: Well I’ll tell you why. When I got this commission, I had no idea what I was going to do. That’s something I enjoy. I like to do it, and I don’t know how I’m going to do it. That to me is one of the pleasures. I went up to Toronto where Nexus has most of its instruments and where they rehearse. I spent a day or so with them and listened to them rehearse. I asked them what their favorite setups were. Things they particularly like to play. And I was immersing myself in all of these instruments, and most percussion instruments are connected very basically with some kind of ritual, whether it’s Asian, or American, or African, or whatever, they evoke things. Even one of my movements reminded me of the old movies in the ’40s and ’50s where somebody dies in the town and the church bells ring to announce to people that something has happened. So what I wanted to do in that piece is to dwell on the fact that these are ritual instruments. And not try to be something I wasn’t. I’m not Asian. I’m not African. I’m not a Hindu. I’m not necessarily a part of that, but to bring my feelings to each of these things. The first movement is called “Invocation.” In a lot of these cultures, before you play an instrument, it has to be blessed, or you have to be blessed. And they invoke spirits. The second movement is called “Ambulation,” and it runs through all kinds of things: dancing things, marching things, things that have to do with the kind of movement that you hear percussion with; they’re the very basis of those kinds of movements. The third was called something like “Memorial”; I don’t remember what I called it. And the last starts out as a friendly competition and ends up kind of like war. In another words, I wanted to get into the instruments in that way. I really do feel that the instrument has to tell you what kind of piece it wants. And these instruments told me they didn’t mind playing together. They came from all over the globe to one place. They like playing together, but they had a certain karma, and I wanted to sort of get into that. So that’s what that piece is about.
FJO: And that last movement even had sections that are improvised, which is unique in your compositional output thus far. Performances are never the same way twice.
ETZ: That’s right. Boulez used to say that when performers improvise you hear the music they know. But it’s very appropriate for these instruments you know, because that’s part of their karma. They’re not just laying down a drum track. They have this little flexibility and fluidity, and so there is some improvisation in there. I kind of gave them nuggets to work from. But I was happy, and I’m always happy when I hear another performance is different from the last one I heard because that means it’s living and breathing. And then breathing is something else that you don’t hear about in much of the discussion of certainly 20th-century music. Music has to have breath. It has to have line, it has to have breath, it has to have gut feeling, it has to have all of these things that are in us as humans. And that affects this thing that we call music.
FJO: You say that it doesn’t really matter to you what a piece is called, and that anything could be a symphony. Beethoven wrote all these sonatas and they are all very different pieces. But you’ve written several pieces for piano and orchestra, and you only called one of them a piano concerto.
ETZ: I can’t bring myself to having piano concerto number two. Millennium Fantasy is based on a folk song that my grandmother sang to me as a child. It’s a different kind of piece. I have a piece for two pianos and orchestra, called Images, based on paintings in the National Museum of Women in the Arts. I’ve just written a piece called Shadows for piano and orchestra. I could call that piano concerto number two, but the title Shadows is better. In Peanuts® Gallery, the piano has a prominent part, because of Schroeder. But it’s not a piano concerto.
FJO: The evolution of that piece is pretty interesting.
ETZ: Well, actually I was in a Peanuts® cartoon in 1990. Still, when I think about it, I think I’m so lucky that I didn’t pick up the newspaper and see this. I was warned because I was away for the weekend and there were a lot of frantic messages. I read The Times; I don’t read the other papers. I had to go to the garbage room to get the day earlier paper to see it. Marcy and Peppermint Patty were at a concert, and Marcy turns around and she says, “This next piece is a concerto for flute and orchestra by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, who just happens to be a woman.” And the last frame has Peppermint Patty standing on her chair going, “Good going, Ellen.” It’s totally shocking. And that stuck. It’s amazing. I was at a performance of my Third Symphony with Philadelphia Orchestra in Saratoga, and after the concert one of the violists says, “Good going, Ellen.”
Anyway, when I had the composer’s chair at Carnegie Hall, Judith Arron and I were talking. She was the director [of Carnegie Hall], a very far-sighted person who put Carnegie Hall back on the map, really. And I knew I was going to have three commissions. We thought it would make a statement if my first commission was for a family concert. I had never done anything like that. One thing led to another. And we got in touch with Charles Schulz to see if he’d be interested. It turned out he was very interested. So he did drawings for the publication, and he did a Sunday cartoon about the piece, and came to Carnegie Hall twice. It was just really quite a wonderful experience. And we got to be very, very good friends.
So the piece had to feature the piano because of Schroeder. And it’s you know, “Lullaby for Linus,” and “Snoopy Does the Samba,” and “Lucy Freaks Out.” It has cute titles. But I would never, ever write down to a child. The only concession I made was all the pieces are short. But I wanted to write something that I wanted to hear.
FJO: But there’s definitely a different element in Peanuts® Gallery than in other pieces of yours. There are overt references to earlier music.
ETZ: I think most musicians kind of used to follow Peanuts® because they had wonderfully funny musical things. And one of the amusing things was seeing Schroeder sitting at his toy piano and you see in the balloon, the beginning of the Hammerklavier Sonata you know, by Beethoven. So that’s why I quoted the Hammerklavier Sonata because obviously it was in his repertoire. And then I figured Snoopy had to do a dance. And I called one of my hard-core composer friends one day, and I said, “You’re never going to believe what I’m doing today.” And he said, “What?” And I said, “I’m trying to think what kind of a dance Snoopy would want to do.” And I figured Snoopy wanted to do a samba, because it’s hot and cool, and all of those things. That’s the only samba I’ve ever written.
FJO: Now a piece like that, if you talk about, if you talk about success, having a piece done on the ISCM World New Music Days is a kind of success. Winning the Pulitzer, incredible accolade and it gets in all the papers, but in a way, getting mentioned in a Peanuts® cartoon is the most successful of them all.
ETZ: It’s pretty weird I would say.
FJO: It doesn’t generally happen with composers who write the music you write. It doesn’t really happen with composers of any kind. But it begs the question: What does it mean to be successful as a composer? What does it mean to be in the public consciousness? You talked very early in the conversation about what a shame that most people don’t grow up playing musical instruments anymore. What can you do in this 21st-century world where there are so many things distracting us?
ETZ: What I consider success is hearing a wonderful performance of a piece of mine. That to me is the pinnacle of success. I’m not denigrating any of this. Winning the Pulitzer Prize is very nice. It’s wonderful. But to me, success is getting that kind of feedback, really getting a wonderful performance. That’s what really drives me. That’s kind of what I aim for. You certainly can’t aim to be in a Peanuts® cartoon, or to win a Pulitzer Prize or to do this, or to do that, or get this prize or that accolade.
FJO: So what hasn’t happened yet that you might want to have happen?
ETZ: Well I have a wish list of pieces I want to write before I go.
FJO: What’s on that wish list? Will you share?
ETZ: Maybe. I don’t know. I’ve had the Schubert Trout combination on my wish list for a long time, and I have finally been able to write a quintet for that combination for performers I know and love. But I’ve done things like a quintet for alto saxophone and string quartet and that was never on my wish list. But when the subject came up I thought it really sounded interesting, and the extra added attraction was my not really knowing much about the saxophone. So here’s one thing that was on the wish list, and one thing that wasn’t. I can be inspired either way. I loved writing the saxophone piece. And as a matter of fact, I figured I needed to know so much about the instrument that I didn’t know that I took a lot of time preparing before I was supposed to write the piece—another year—and the piece just started coming. I ended up finishing it two years early. Fortunately it was for the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music and they were able to schedule a performance a year early. So, that worked. But whatever it is, I call it the goose-bump test. Somebody says, “Would you like to write X?” And if I get goose bumps, I say “Yes.” If I don’t get goose bumps, I say “No.” I only want to do what I love doing, where I feel I can just throw myself into it.
FJO: So how long have you had this wish list?
ETZ: Oh, a long time. I don’t where it goes back.
FJO: Well I’m curious to go back to some pieces. Was the solo harpsichord piece on your wish list? Or did that just come up? That’s a curiosity.
ETZ: Well, that piece was a commission. It was not on my wish list, although I was around at the point where harpsichordists stopped playing this Wanda Landowska, Pleyel thing that sounded like a really bad piano. And I love the harpsichord, so I had a marvelous experience. It was written for Linda Kobler; it was a Concert Artists Guild commission. Linda had an apartment in what is now the Beacon Hotel in New York on Broadway. She and her husband were going to Europe for three weeks, and they just gave me the key, and gave me the tuning thing, and let me come in anytime I wanted to work with the instrument. One of the reasons it starts as quietly as it does is I did a lot of improvisation. First your ear goes into the sound of the harpsichord. I remember one of the first harpsichord concerts I heard with the older style instrument, it sounded very far away at first. Then after a little bit, it sounded like it was in your lap, because your ear adjusts. And of course this room being on Broadway, when a fire truck went by—or an ambulance—it was like a shot in the head. It was a terrifying sound because you get into that world. I was determined to stay in that world, make the ear come to it, rather than a lot of contemporary harpsichord pieces that try to be as big as possible. I wanted to bring the listener into the world of the harpsichord, rather than the other way around. I enjoyed that. It was really wonderful. And I also wrote for the harpsichord in my Concerto Grosso.
FJO: Is there an opera on your wish list?
ETZ: No. I think you’ve got to do the things that you love. You can’t just follow somebody’s idea of what a composer ought to do. I do think there is a deep love for the theater in some people, and a deep love for instrumental music in other people. I enjoy opera, but I just don’t have a desire to write one. I used to play in the stage band at the Met. And it’s a big world, and it’s a world occupied by a whole variety of collaborators, including the stage director which has come to prominence in recent years. I don’t get the goose bumps. I had a really good opportunity to write an opera, but it just didn’t light my fire. It’s not me.
FJO: Earlier on we talked about finding an identity, having mentors and important teachers. You mentioned Roger Sessions being able to get out of himself and deal with you. You’ve been a mentor to so many composers over the years, and now you’re chairing the BMI Student Composer Awards which is an early career boost for a lot of composers, in the same way that being on the ISCM World Music Days was for you 40 years ago. What kind of things do you want to impart to younger composers? What sort of things do you want to get across to nurture younger composers? What makes you get involved with this?
ETZ: Well, it’s a great honor. I’m very happy to chair that. But everybody has to remember, particularly today, but it was even true of Mozart who was the most prodigious composer ever. Look at how he grew throughout his lifetime and what he became at what, for him, was late in his life. I think it’s very hard to predict how anybody’s going to turn out, or how far they’re going to go, or they’re going to be able to go, or if they’re going to want to go. And I think basically the thing I feel about young composers is I love the idea of getting out of their way. Trying to help them find out who they are and not coming to any conclusions about them that would affect the way you would talk to them. You know what I mean? There will be eleven kids sitting there when we give the awards this year. The history of those awards is there are people that went on to major careers, and other people that became physicians or whatever, you know. I think the idea is enabling without prescribing, trying to give honest feedback to young composers without imposing anything on them.
We’re all a little bit crazy to do this. I mean, this is not a normal thing in the real world. I like to sort of just encourage people to go for it, you know. One of the things that I have often said to young composers is success is more difficult than failure. When I won the Pulitzer Prize, I knew it didn’t mean anything about my value. I was happy to have it. It was wonderful. It helped my career tremendously. But I didn’t take it as a reflection of who I am. When you fail, when all those times you try to get your foot in the door and the door slams so tight it breaks your foot, all of the things where you fail to achieve whatever it is you’re looking for, if you can pick yourself up and go on, you’ve become much stronger. So I sometimes say to young composers, I hope you experience failure and learn how tough and how strong you really are. I think there’ve been people who have been hurt by early and continued success the first time they encountered a failure. One thinks of Sam Barber, an immensely gifted man. I think the whole idea that you’re standing on firm ground and you’re at a point of precipice at the same time is a pretty good description. It’s not that you’re going to take a course telling you how to do it, but you’re going to take this course, and then this course, and somehow or other you’re going to put it together.
I’ve noticed in recent years we’ve been buying Christmas presents for kids, and suddenly it seems like the bookstores have all these things like how to draw a flower, how to draw a person, how to make a cartoon, how to do this, how to do that. I want to give a kid a bunch of paper and crayons or ink or watercolors and let them imagine so they don’t feel at this point you have to be guided every step of the way. It’s all an experiment. Everybody’s who’s ever done it is on some kind of solid ground and also dangling over that little cliff. I don’t like for people to think there’s a way you learn how to do this and you do it. That’s an awful way to spend a life. I prefer, at my age, being in a position where the next piece I’m going write, I’m not quite sure how I’m going to do it. I have lots of ideas about it, but it’s going to have to develop.