Extracts of an interview with Norman Sherman which appeared in the Dutch program magazine Script. It took place in The Netherlands shortly before Sherman left The Hague, where he had lived and worked for many years. The interviewer is Eddo van der Hoog and the translation follows:
NO NEED TO PUT THE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA IN THE ARCHIVES
In former centuries it was customary that the functions of composer and performing artist were were united in one person - that a musician was both productive and creative. In our age of specialization this is not so self-evident anymore - in most cases the one or the other predominates. However, for Norman Sherman, solo bassoonist of The Hague Philharmonic both functions are equal; he considers himself as much a composer as a bassoonist. He has a complete musical training for both facets; not only did he study his instrument in his native country, America, but he also majored in composition.
That his qualities as a composer are being acknowledged is evident by the fact that several of his compositions have been well received by the press and the public. The Hague Philharmonic has recently performed his Two Pieces for Orchestra ( a short while ago the Radio Philharmonic recorded it for future broadcast) and two years ago he performed his Sinfonia Concertante for Bassoon and Strings in The Hague. Last year his orchestral piece Through the Rainbow and/or Across the Valley received its first performance by the Rotterdam Philharmonic.
Although these compositions were written in a serial technique, they appeared to be comprehensibly accessible to a larger public - which proves that, as one critic wrote after a performance of Two Pieces for Orchestra,-"the serial technique, which in the hands of so many others usually degenerates into a puzzle construction, has been applied in a most musical way."
A talk with Sherman is not only interesting because of his experience as a musician, but also because he is an American. Although The Hague Philharmonic has been in America three times, and American soloists and conductors perform regularly in Europe, there is still a great deal of ignorance over here about American music and American musical life. Therefore it is certainly worth while to take notice of the facts about these subjects, which Sherman puts forth in the following interview:
v.d.H. -Where did you study?
S.------At Boston University. I majored in composition and studied bassoon at the same time.
v.d.H -Can you study those subjects at a university in America? As a matter of fact, only musicology can be studied in a Dutch university.
S.------In America the professional training of musicians is undertaken in universities as well as music schools and conservatories. As a matter of fact, the largest part of the cultural and artistic life-certainly as far as music is concerned- is in the hands of our institutions of higher learning. They have a great amount of money and consequently can organize a great many things.
v.d.H. -Aside from your university studies did you study somewhere else?
S.------During my studies at the university I had three years of private instruction in composition. I was also a member of the composition class at Tanglewood and finally studied analysis and aesthetics in the class of Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatory.
v.d.H. -Messiaen is known, among other things, for his special interest in rhythm. Do you share this interest? I believe that in your last piece rhythm and percussion play an important part.
S.-----That piece was writen for large orchestra, and one sees a lot of percussion on stage - many bells and so forth, but I don't think I have used them to excess. Percussion is very modish today, but the more intelligent composers know that you can't use it incessantly and without discrimination.
v.d.H. -But someone like Boulez, he writes well for percussion, and he has a great interest in it.
S.-----Yes, and nobody realizes more than he that you have to use it with discrimination. He has a quality in his compositions which I admire very much, and that is his feeling for textural balance.There is even something in his music which sounds French; in the second movement of his Doubles there are places - wonderful music, by the way - which remind me of Messiaen, and which give it a sort of French sound.
v.d.H. -Does "typical American music" exist?
S.-----Well, for instance take the third symphony of Roy Harris. It could only be an American piece. He wrote it many years ago and to my mind it is one of the best things he has written. In America it is a classic. I don't know why it is never played over here. And then there is Carl Ruggles, a contemporary of Charles Ives, a real Yankee, from New England; his ancestors were among the first settlers in America. His music, too, could never have been written anyplace but in America.
v.d.H. -Is Ruggles another "undiscovered composer" such as Ives had been for so long a time?
S.------His music is not on the "hit-parade" but it was not completely unknown either. Actually Ives was not an undiscovered composer. There were people who knew of him many years ago.
v.d.H. -A large part of the public still doesn't appreciate modern music very much. Could this be a question of musical education?
S.------I think it is mainly a question of time. The more music is played and the more any type of sonority becomes commonplace, the more it is accepted. An interesting example is the following:When the average concertgoer nowadays sees a piece by Schoenberg on the program the usual reaction is "why don't they play something by Brahms?" But in 1883 when the third symphony of Brahms had its first performance in America more than half the audience walked out of the hall before the orchestra had reached the third movement. This shows that new music needs time to be accepted.
v.d.H. -Do they perform much modern music in America?
S.------As far as concerns the larger orchestras certainly not as much as in Northern Europe. If you look at the yearly programs of the big orchestras - Boston, New York, Philadelphia - you don't see many modern compositions scheduled, at least not the kind we play here. The reason is that these organizations are subsidized from private sources, not from the government as in Europe. Now an orchestra is a very expensive noise, and rehearsals cost lots of money and so they can't spend much time preparing pieces which are commercially unprofitable. In this respect it is very advantageous that in Holland and Germany the government subsidizes most musical endeavours. That is very important because new compositions all have to be played. They must be heard at least once.
v.d.H. -Some people believe that we should have a separate orchestra only to play the modern repertoire.
S.------ I don't agree and I'll tell you why. When you play
an instrument you try to play well in tune, with a good tone and to create
a good ensemble - in short, a refined manner of playing. One of the ways
to achieve this refined manner of playing is to play the classical and
romantic repertoire. If you were only to perform a certain type of modern
music all the time you would not be able to play Mozart or Hadyn in a very
refined manner. For this reason orchestral musicians must always continue
playing the standard repertoire if they wish to retain mastery and control
of their instruments. Apart from this, I think that as far as concerns
composition, the possibilities of the "traditional" orchestra
and "traditional" instruments are far from being exhausted. There
is still a lot that can be done - it is not yet necessary to put the symphony
orchestra into the archives.