Lewis Spratlan: Beyond the Pulitzer Prize

Lewis Spratlan: Beyond the Pulitzer Prize

An Identity as a Composer

Lewis Spratlan
Interview Excerpt #9

FRANK J. OTERI: I guess this is in sort of the advice to the rest of us composers department, what to do? How do you make people aware of your music?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: I think there’s a prior question: what do you do to write good music?


LEWIS SPRATLAN: That’s the first question. Well, this goes a little bit back to the discussion on Mel Powell. I think you just dig deeply down into yourself to find out what is special that you have to say. I think that’s has irreplaceable value in composing. It’s the most important thing. Second thing is to hope that you are taking the art somewhere, you know, that you’re contributing, that some stone is being turned over by your work. But as far as getting out there, I have hooked myself up with various wonderful performers fairly early on and cultivated those relationships. John McDonald, an excellent pianist and also a fine composer, has performed my Toccapsody a number of times. Boston Musica Viva did several performances of works of mine very early on after I came here in the beginning of the early ’70’s and after that the Dinosaur Annex Ensemble in Boston, who has done 3 different pieces of mine over the years in multiple performances of all of them, I have been extremely pleased with these performances, and I haven’t felt a tremendous need to go out and find others. The one area where I felt frustrated is in orchestral performances. I’ve sent orchestra pieces around to all the big orchestras and I’ve had very little success, the exception being the Florida Orchestra. You know, it’s not a major symphony orchestra; it’s a very, very good one, by the way. An excellent young orchestra…

FRANK J. OTERI: You wrote a major piece, In Memoriam, about the 500th anniversary of the conquest of the Americas, as it were. The so-called “discovery”; I won’t use the term discovery, and this is a work that’s been done…


FRANK J. OTERI: One time. I mean, the score, this is a significant thing to spend your life working on for one performance.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Definitely. I’m sure hoping the Pulitzer‘s going to make a difference in that regard, too. This is one of the pieces that Schirmer doesn’t have in its catalog that I want very much for them to get in there quickly and to distribute around. I’m a slob. I should have sent this piece around a lot more than I did. Partly, the thing that I regret, my worst quality is self-promotion, and that devolves mainly from laziness. And also, I have a lack of discipline. I’m very disciplined in certain regards. My wife is after me constantly to set aside x hours a week to do self-promoting things, and I just don’t do it. I hate it so much. And if I hadn’t been hearing my music, I think it would be a different thing. But I’ve heard it, and I’ve heard good performances of it. But I’m very bad about that, I should have made up, you know, 50 copies of it and sent it around to everybody. And I’m hoping that because of this new association with Schirmer, that they’ll take on some of that. I realize that, you know, you can’t expect your publisher to do everything. But I plead slovenliness on that front a little bit, and I guess… Look, you know, if it hurt enough, I would do more of it. It just doesn’t hurt quite enough. Which I guess, means that, on some level, I don’t care that much. Although I do! I mean, this is very, very complicated because… I got a pretty good performance of this piece. It wasn’t a great performance. It’s a very demanding piece. It was entirely local. Entirely local. I mean, nobody came in from the outside to do it. I used most of the really good musicians in the valley, and I wouldn’t say that I haven’t heard the piece, but I certainly haven’t heard it in an optimum way.

FRANK J. OTERI: And certainly, you know, the world hasn’t heard the piece.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: The world hasn’t heard it. There’s no public recording of it.

HAROLD MELTZER: This brings up a question because you said that your interest in having a piece go out there flags at little bit after you’ve feel that you’ve had a good performance of it – begs the question of your relationship to audiences.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Begs the question?

HAROLD MELTZER: Well, in a way, if you feel comparatively satisfied, once you’ve heard it, the question is, who are you writing for? And, you know, what is your interest in your piece having a life past the premiere?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Very great, but as soon as I say that, it’s obviously not great enough to get me off my ass more… Not great enough to get me off my ass to do more about it than I do do, so it’s a vexed question. I mean, I would… I have no interest in privacy. It’s not as if I love having only 6 people hear my music. Nothing would make me happier than for everybody to hear my music. I would love that to happen. But obviously I don’t love it enough to do more about it than I’ve done. So, I don’t know, there must be some psychiatric commentary on that, which I don’t know about.

FRANK J. OTERI: It leads to an odd question to pose to you at the very end of this discussion, rather than at the beginning, but, when did you first think to yourself, growing up, “I’m a composer. This is what I want to do”?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: In a formal way, probably not until halfway through my undergraduate years, although I was writing music a lot before that, but I didn’t have an identity as a composer. It was just something I did because I felt like doing it. I hadn’t hung out my shingle, so to speak, to myself. But, I guess about halfway through my college years… It’s when I switched from being an English major to being a music major because I realized I was spending all my time doing music. And then once I switched to being a music major, I thought, I considered myself, well, I was an oboist. A very, very active oboist. I played a lot. And then, all right, there was a time when I was thinking about, should I become a professional oboist, and reeds convinced me, I mean, just the horror of, oh, the life of an oboist is just one precarious day after another precarious day…

FRANK J. OTERI: And I’ve been told that you’re a fabulous conductor as well.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Yeah, well, thank you, I am a conductor. But I have never had any interest in being a professional conductor. I did think about being a professional oboist but never a conductor. And so, so, it came down to say, you know, which way am I going to go? The thing is, I was writing more and more music. It just… It’s not as if I suddenly one day said, oh, well, I’m hereby going to be a composer… It just sort of, you know… When I applied to graduate school in composition, I guess that meant that I was a composer. I was an honors candidate as an undergraduate in composition. So, by that time, I guess I identified myself…

FRANK J. OTERI: And when you thought of yourself in terms of that vision of what a being composer was, did you think, well, that means having works performed by orchestras, recordings, new music ensembles, a teaching career – what did you think…

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Teaching was certainly not part of it. Teaching is just what I did because I decided, well, that was a big fork… Do you go and wait tables in New York or…? I got married fairly early on, and, I don’t know, I can’t retrace all of this, but at some point, the decision to go the academic route was… Those were my models, after all, you know, these academic composers. Well, they were certainly more than academic composers but that’s how they made a living.


LEWIS SPRATLAN: Mel Powell, Gunther Schuller, and Yehudi Wyner. Yeah, so that was the model that was around me. They seemed to have the best of both worlds. They had time to write. They got good performances, and they got a paycheck. There was a paycheck coming in. They all seemed to enjoy teaching, too, which I reckoned I did, you know, I did a certain amount of TA-ing in graduate school and I was very good it. I kind of fell in that direction… It wasn’t a huge tug and pull, it was just sort of the course things more or less naturally took. I have frequently had second thoughts about it. My wife and I have plenty of “what if”-type conversations…

FRANK J. OTERI: And she’s a singer, she’s a performer. And you’ve written a number of pieces for her over the years.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: You know, I wrote good music when I was in high school. I had a saint of an oboe teacher, a man by the name of Dominique-René de Lerma, who was far, far more than that. He was a great, great musician – a student of Tabuteau, this fount of all oboe playing in the United States, who was in Philadelphia… All modern oboe playing derives from Tabuteau, and my teacher was a student of his. He was a Corsican madman, Corsican American, a fabulous person. I would go for these 3-hour oboe lessons, about 1 hour of which would be oboe playing. The rest, he would say, “Now today we’re going to look at the St. Matthew Passion by Bach.” I was nine. You know, it was a huge, huge part of just my musicianship, not particularly my identity. After a few years, you know, he said, “you should write something.” So, with absolutely no more than that as a go, I would scribble down something and bring it to him at my next oboe lesson. They weren’t composition lessons, but he would approve or disapprove of this and that, and he was able to arrange things, I had some performances of mine when I was still in high school. But, again, I just wasn’t thinking about career at that time. But on the other hand, you can’t not count these things…

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