Our very first Artist of the Month is a longtime friend of NYFOS: Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom. He answers our questions about song, singers, and his history with Steve in advance of our NYFOS@Juilliard concert in celebration of his 80th birthday.
Steven Blier has mentioned you and Joan as one of his inspirations when he founded NYFOS. Can you tell us about your first experiences working with Steve?
In the late 70s Joan was hired to play Polly in a Guthrie Theatre production of A Beggars’ Opera, done while Alvin Epstein ran the place and they were together in Minneapolis. About that time I had been working with Alvin and Martha Schlamme doing a Kurt Weill evening, and Steve inherited the job and went much further with it than I had. We’ve been close ever since. He coached my wife Joan Morris in my 4th Symphony on Roethke’s “The Rose” in 1987.
You had a very diverse musical education, both formal and informal.
I take it you mean conservatory-style and outside, and I was always interested in everything
Is there any particular experience that had an outsize impact on your life; that was a greater influence on your work than you had expected?
In 1966 I taught briefly at the University of Washington School of music, where I’d been as a young 11-year-old and didn’t want to be there as an oldster of 28 — but I needed the job. I used to go to hear him whenever John Cage came back to Seattle, where he had been booted out from Cornish College. The regular profs at U-W loved to walk out in a huff whenever he came, and I was sometimes the only one left (at age 13) in the audience. Finally as a young prof in 1965 I was asked to interview him for a local Pacifica station, and as I left to go, an old colleague said “now you go out there and demolish him!” We talked for three hours. I was conflicted then: was I going to be an avant-garde hardliner (which was the thing to do) or was I going to be more comprehensive in my stylistic outlook? In the midst of the third hour he asked me about my problems as a composer and I mentioned my conflict. He said, “some people divide the world into things that are good and things that are bad. Others take it all in and let the inner organism decide.” That opened my eyes and heart. It was probably my landmark experience. Meeting and working with Eubie Blake was another, and I’m grateful for my long association with Darius Milhaud.
You are known for working closely with certain singers: Joan Morris, of course, and others like Catherine Malfitano. How has that influenced your compositional process?
Very much. I love singers most of all, possibly because I can’t sing.
Who are some of your favorite singers (of the past or present day) that you wish you had the opportunity to write for or to work with?
I loved Di Stefano, and Fred Astaire, and Mabel Mercer, and Catherine and and and… where shall I begin? Joan Morris is for me the ultimate singing actress (I’m prejudiced a little of course) because she balances word and note better than anyone.
Are there any popular musicians of today that you listen to or who you think are doing interesting work?
I’m not really up on them now. Most strike me as personalities rather than artists. Too much self-promotion now, and it is even being taught in music schools — ugh!
What was the last music you listened to before answering these questions?
The last performance of my latest opera Dinner at Eight, just done here at the University of Michigan four times, and well done too.
When you aren’t making music, what is your favorite way to spend your time?
NYFOS is devoted to ‘song’ and the wide variety of styles that term encompasses. What is special about ‘song’ to you? Is there anything about this particular form that is significant to you?
What isn’t? If it’s alive I’m on it.
What is your favorite song? (Qualify your answer to this possibly impossible question as needed.)
It is impossible. Forgive me if I don’t answer.