~ An Interview with Robert Ceely ~

BLURR Magazine Interview with Robert Ceely by John Clay

Robert Ceely has been composing music and overseeing performances in the Boston community since the l960's. I studied music composition with Mr. Ceely at NEC from l987 to l989. The following interview was conducted by mail and printed in BLURR No. 4 in June l997.

John Clay: First, there is one biographical detail I would like to clarify. How many Rs in "Torrrington"?

RC Two

JC You have spent pretty much your whole life composing music.  For you, what is the action of composing music essentially about? And whatever it is about, why is that essential? or is it?

RC One could say that composing music is about composing music, but that would be a bit flippant. To me composing is something I feel I want to do, should do, have to do, and might as well do. The reasons change. Composing is so hard that I feel I will never get to a point where it is easy. However, some music has been relatively easy to write while other music has been excruciatingly difficult to write. And, it is fascinating to me that often -though by no means always -what comes easily is as "good" as the music which only comes after great pain. But no one wants to hear about how tough a composer's life is.

JC For the majority of active art music composers in the US, teaching is a necessary part of making a living. Does this economic arrangement cause an undue drain on the creative time and energy of the composing community?

RC Yes. Teaching is the curse of the American composer. And it is probably going to become more of a necessity as any sort of government funding dries up, and the individual patron seems so rare. I understand in Minnesota there is strong support for music both governmentally and individually. But most of the new rich yuppies' taste is music runs to RENT and other such abominations that there is little hope that the rich will support art music. Of course, there are always exceptions. the main trouble with teaching is that the composer can use it- -and does use it--as an excuse not to compose. One prepares classes rather than work on the new String Quartet. It is best for a composer to have no excuse not to compose. Then she or he will quickly find OUT THE DEPTH OF THEIR COMMITMENT.

JC How has the coupling of composing and teaching been for you over your thirty years at NEC?

RC NEC has the advantage of being very non academic. There are few department meetings, students rarely want "office hours"., and the administration is most concerned with performance which allows composition to go its own way. Not all of this is good, but it's true. Of course, along with being non academic is the lack of the perquisites associated with a real college: sabbaticals, computers in your office, intellectual students, and fat paychecks. My own time at NEC has been generally "happy". I prefer the middle of the teaching year rather than the opening and closing. I can safely hide from colleagues. I like the students for their courage and lack of well defined career goals. I find it difficult to predict success. Composition is so hard to learn that the few years the student is at the Conservatory is too short a time for them to really develop. Tens year after I hear about talented students selling storm windows and what I perhaps viewed as less talented having their orchestral works performed. One never knows.

JC It is not uncommon for aspiring American musicians to seek their fortune abroad, sometimes just to get started, sometimes to settle permanently. You have studied in Italy and Germany and have taught in Turkey. Did you ever toy with the idea of setting down roots in any of those countries? Aside from any factor of family, friends, or homesickness, has there been any particular facet of the US musician/artistic environment which you have been loathe to leave behind?

RC I taught in Turkey for two years in the early sixties and found the whole experience fascinating. We  have friends who are still in Turkey and I suspect that it is impossible for them to leave...financially, philosophically, and psychologically. One invests in a City or a country. American composers have made their reputations in Europe and then returned to America. One thinks of Roger Sessions, but it is rare. A friend just returned from Rome after living there for fifteen years. He regretted leaving, but since he had been in Italy since going there on a Fullbright he felt he must return to America this year or else he might never return.

JC I know that you did arrangements for the Jack Ring Dance Band in the l950's.
Was Ring his real name? How was it as a musical experience?

RC I think Jack Ring was his real name. His band was located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and he played pretty regularly at "Crooked Lake" which was a road house/ dance place strangely enough on a lake. I never saw it in the day time. I did a number of arrangements for the band, but they did not like all of them. But it was great experience. Nothing like voicing for five saxes.

JC What is in store for BEEP Studio?

RC I hope that BEEP will flourish!
This past summer I did a 26 minute score for a VIDEO which will play at the Boston Children's' Museum for -I am assured- the next five years. I would like to do more of that sort of music on demand along side my music which has no demand.

JC Your opera THE AUTOMOBILE GRAVEYARD had a success in its premier at NEC. Do you plan to write more operas?

RC I would love to do more operas. The experience of writing  an opera can be exhilarating, but the production can be a pain in the ass. Actually, I have this idea for an opera about alien abduction. Any readers who have been adducted by aliens should contact me.

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