Steal this concerto, please: An interview with Steven Stucky

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Steve Stucky
Nicola Kountoupes/University Photography
Steve Stucky works on a composition at his studio in the Dewitt Mall, April 19.

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Steven Stucky's most commercially successful work to date is an arrangement of a piece written by a man who died 400 years ago -- Henry Purcell's "Funeral Music for Queen Mary."

"It's my greatest hit by far," said Stucky, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his Second Concerto for Orchestra earlier this month. "There are like five different recordings of the Purcell."

Despite the Pulitzer, Stucky hasn't gotten any calls from any labels -- major or minor -- for his Second Concerto.

"But I've had a lot of people asking me where they can buy it and the answer is … 'Nowhere ... Yet.'" (An excerpt is available.)

Stucky, the Given Foundation Professor of Music at Cornell University, joined the music faculty here in 1980. He has long been considered one of the leading American composers of his generation. But good luck in finding recordings of his larger works.

A trip to Cornell's music library yielded but a handful of Stucky pieces -- among them the Purcell, recorded by the United States Marine Band on an anthology of American music titled "Emblems."

In addition to the Second Concerto, Stucky's recent output includes "Spirit Voices," a percussion concerto premiered by the Singapore Symphony; "Jeu de Timbres," premiered by the National Symphony; and "To Whom I Said Farewell," a song cycle for mezzo-soprano and chamber orchestra, premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group. None is available on a commercial recording.

Stucky possesses one of the only CD recordings of the Second Concerto. So, unless someone bootlegs the Pulitzer piece (premiered by the L.A. Philharmonic in March 2004 and not performed since), the world will have to wait to hear it.

Such are the vagaries of the composing business, even in these days of Internet downloading.

"My friends and I would be honored if someone would try to steal our music -- that would be a promotion," said Stucky. "But no one has tried. …"

"Still," Stucky writes in a short statement about winning the Pulitzer, published in the New Music Box, the American Music Center's online magazine, "I can't pretend that I'm not pleased that this year my number came up …"

He adds: "A committee of respected peers found the piece worth discussing in the company of some of the other terrific pieces American composers gave us over the past year. That's enough to encourage a composer to think he hasn't been wasting his time, and to inspire him to keep trying to do his best."

Like any creative artist, Stucky would like his work to reach as wide an audience as possible. Currently, the means to that end are unviable, and the daunting economics are unlikely to change any time soon.

"The recording industry is in pretty bad shape right now," he says. "Most professional recording in the U.S. is made by smaller orchestras or orchestras that have de-unionized that part of their contract and are working for themselves now."

One option is to record outside the United States American composers have long "outsourced" to international orchestras. Not that there's any money in doing so. But recording "new" music (as opposed to pop) is not "about the Benjamins." It's about Art .

"My impression is that the economics for new music are similarly bad all over the world but that the costs are lower in some other countries," Stucky said.

The idea of an all-Stucky CD performed by a Scandinavian orchestra, "which cuts the cost way down," has been suggested and discussed with Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's artistic director, he said. Such a CD would include larger works like the Second Concerto.

In the meantime, there's plenty of work to do, and Stucky has kept to his Cornell day job consistently for a quarter century. In addition, he travels to Los Angeles about six or eight times a year. He has produced half a dozen major works for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and continues to program, host and often conduct the orchestra's popular Green Umbrella Series for new music. Back in Ithaca, he gives mostly private instruction to Cornell composition students, although this semester he's teaching sophomore music theory so his schedule is a little tighter than usual. He recently completed a piano quartet, and he remains active on campus as a conductor, an important function in his musical life.

"I am definitely a composer who conducts rather than a capital 'C' Conductor," he said. "But for me it is vitally important to remain a working, performing musician, and conducting is that outlet for me. I also find it is a great learning experience for composers, and that is still true, even at my age."

Stucky also is co-artistic director and conductor for Ensemble X, a cooperative new-music group of Cornell and Ithaca College faculty members. He was among the 11 original co-founders of the ensemble, which was established in 1997.

"I originally thought of Ensemble X rather selfishly -- as a way of coping with the withdrawal pains when I would come home from L.A. and miss the great new-music concerts I am able to put on there," he said. "But it quickly became a highlight in the lives of the other musicians, and I do think it has also raised the profile of modern composing on both campuses."

In fact, one of the group's first releases was a collection of Stucky chamber works recently recorded on the Albany Records label. The CD is titled "In Shadow, In Light," and can be ordered online through Albany Records, http://www.albanyrecords.com .

While Stucky's Second Concerto is a lush and somewhat complex piece, it is hardly the kind of modern work that gives average listeners a case of the hives. In it Stucky proudly and subtly pays respect to many of his influences, from Ravel and Stravinsky to Sibelius and Bartok.

"It really is an homage piece to the orchestra and to my heroes," he says.

While he says he has learned much from ultra-modern and experimental modern composers, Stucky is "not at all shy about joining myself to tradition."

In program notes he wrote for the Second Concerto, he further sharpens that point.

"One kind of artist is always striving to annihilate the past, to make the world anew in each new work, and so to triumph over the dead weight of routine. I am the other kind … who only sees his way forward by standing on the shoulders of those who have already cleared the path ahead."

Hopefully, the world will soon get to hear what he is talking about.