Richard Cameron-Wolfe, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue [live] a career [life] in music?

In 1968, I lived in an old farmhouse outside Indiana University while I was completing my undergraduate degree there as a pianist. I shared the house with two composers – Franz Kamin and Sarmad Brody – who for our three years there hosted a weekly Sunday afternoon gathering of artists in many disciplines, which we called “Fiasco”. I had begun exploring the mid-20th century piano repertoire and often performed during the gatherings. One Sunday, Franz and Sarmad encouraged me to compose something for the following week. I did, and there was no turning back. Shortly thereafter, I began a double Masters degree: piano with Menahem Pressler and composition with Bernhard Heiden, Iannis Xenakis, and John Eaton.

My parents were folk musicians, with family roots in Wales and Slovakia – mother played mandolin, father harmonica, music they regrettably abandoned when they moved from rural Ohio to work in the Cleveland steel mills. At age six, I so brutalized the neighbours’ piano that – to get rid of me – they eventually gifted me the instrument! A few years later, having discovered Bach and Chopin, I packed away my chemistry set and began my life in music.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

My composition teacher John Eaton and my pianist sister Gayle Blankenburg.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career [musical life] so far?

Challenges: (1) From the beginning — as a pianist, transitioning to a “pianist who composes”, then to a “composer who performs”, and more recently, due to eyesight issues, to only being a composer. (2) During my long career as a Music Professor (concluded in 2002), the challenge of finding time to maintain my piano technique and sustain composing continuity.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

I prefer not to accept paid commissions. I welcome invitations from musicians and choreographers, but only from those who know my music well enough to trust my judgment and who don’t need to impose “requirements” other than instrumentation and completion deadline.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Few musicians devoted to presenting “new music” in major cultural centers (e.g., New York City, Kiev) can afford to do so without financial support from the composers whose music they might perform. (Of course, composers with ample funds have an obvious advantage in this scenario.) A composer’s honorarium to Kiev a musician might range between USD$50-100 and to a NYC musician $200-300+.

One of the joys of working with the musicians is the opportunity for collaboration. “Show me what you can do with your instrument/voice.” “Sorry, but what you’ve written can’t be done.” “But it’s what I want to hear. Is there something you can do that would fulfil my intent?” “Hmmm. How about this…..?” (etc.)

Ultimately, the composer merely devises a notated “recipe” for a musical work of art, while the performers are the “chefs” and “servers”. The result could range from “haute cuisine” down to ….. [censored]

Of which works are you most proud?

I am not proud of specific compositions, but I have been proud of numerous performances and recordings of my music.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I approach form from a time-shaping perspective, organizing micro- (rhythm, counterpoint) and macro-structures (phrases, sections) in units derived from the prime number series – irrational but, to me, more human. An individual work’s melodic vocabulary could range from folk/pop sentimentality to wide-range geometric pointillism, and harmony could range from triadic to augmented 13th-chords, from unpitched noise to tone-clusters to combinations drawn from the microtonal spectrum.

How do you work?

When I am free to work, I work devotedly, in a hybrid of disciplined continuity and spontaneity.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Musicians: pianists William Kapell and Gayle Blankenburg, violinist Zino Francescatti.

Composers: in early life – Bach, Brahms, Scriabin; more recently, Gesualdo, Beethoven, Ives, Xenakis. The jury is still out on contemporary composers, and there are so many whose music I’ve not yet sampled.

As a musician, what is your definition of success [fulfilment]?

Here I paraphrase a quote, the source of which I’ve forgotten: What did I set out to do? Did I achieve it? Was it worth doing? The only answer I need for the third question, as a measure of personal fulfilment (I don’t use the word “success”) is “Did I consistently tell the Truth in my composition?

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

For young performers: Regarding repertoire choices, only perform music you are willing to serve devotedly. Music does not exist to serve you – your “career”, perhaps, but not you yourself.

For young composers: Most of your motivation must come from within (“I must do this. I cannot NOT do this.) But as an external motivation, compose for humanity, not for audiences. (Your concert date might coincide with a major snowstorm, after all!)

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

In a state of (near-) full mental awareness and physical mobility.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Happiness is not something for which I strive. If it manifests, however, I embrace it gladly. Given its fleeting nature, I don’t believe it can ever be “perfect”.

What is your most treasured possession?

Not any of my things. Rather then, if anything, my imagination.

What do you enjoy doing most?

Sharing my music.

What is your present state of mind?

Overwhelmed.


Composer-pianist Richard Cameron-Wolfe was born in Cleveland, Ohio, USA and received his music training at Oberlin College and Indiana University. His principal piano teachers were Joseph Battista and Menahem Pressler; his composition teachers included Bernard Heiden, Iannis Xenakis, Juan Orrego-Salas, and John Eaton.

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