return to interview list

University of North Carolina Center for Public Television

July 26, 1996

Transcript of the program North Carolina People.
A conversational interview of Russell Peck, by William Friday:

William Friday:
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. All of us love great music and hear it often on University Television. Tonight on North Carolina People we're going to get to meet and talk with one who composes, Russell Peck, and visit with him in just a few seconds.

Well it certainly is good to have you join me on North Carolina People and I particularly appreciate the opportunity to talk with someone who is in the world of great and wonderful music.

When did you know first that that was to be your life, to get into music?

Russell Peck: Actually I think it was in grade school. My father (he's still alive; he's almost 90 now) was a professional singer, and he was very interested in classical music.

I remember, down in our basement we had a radio and he would get these broadcasts from the Mozarteum. All types of Mozart's music. So I would listen to those. He was always trying to lure me into it. Actually the key to it though, was when I heard Beethoven's 5th Symphony. He bought me a record of it. And I really had no idea that such emotions were possible. I mean here I was, just a grade school kid really, and all of a sudden, I'm having emotions that might be appropriate to some gigantic figure. You know what I mean, you get to invade the feelings of a person like Beethoven, at his best. And so I was just thrilled with that.

And really from that very first moment I wanted to be a composer, and try to create those effects myself because I'd been so impressed with them.

WF: Well it's very powerful music. I've had the pleasure in my lifetime of watching the state of North Carolina move to financing the first state symphony with Gerhardt Zimmerman, your good friend, and see Adlai McCall take great music into the schools.

You're a part of this now. Do you get involved with the North Carolina Symphony often, with some of their works?

RP: Oh yes, I've had a great experience with the North Carolina Symphony. First of all, it's done a lot for me. Like Jack Parkhurst, who has just retired from directing educational concerts. He took my pieces, several of them, all over the state. So that was really exciting. And he put me on some really terrific concerts. One of the concerts where I did "The Thrill of the Orchestra", he had Bob Ward on. We had three composers, actually, doing their own works. That was really a great program.

And also Gerhardt in particular has done a great deal for me. Right off the bat, when I was just getting my start in the state, he performed my saxophone concerto "The Upward Stream." And then he got together a commission that involved Doc Severinsen and the Phoenix Symphony, and pulled all that together for me.

Gee, actually if I start talking about Gerhardt ... he also took that saxophone concerto to Chicago, up to Grant Park, where I got a nice, wonderful review in the Chicago Tribune. Actually the best review I ever got.

WF: Well we'll come back to those specifics in a minute. Let's go back early in your career. How difficult is it to put yourself down to compose a piece of music like "The Upward Stream"? Does the idea come to you over time? Or what happens in the thought process?

RP: My process is maybe different from a lot of people. When I'm composing I like to have... My joke is, "I like to throw the good stuff away"... [laughter...] So throwing away things is a major part of my composing process. I'm very facile... I come up with a million ideas... but I try to hone them down, and be selective. So I spend some time just sort of collecting ideas. I'll have musical ideas that have an abstract quality. Not abstract in that they're hard to understand, but just that they could be applied to any concrete musical form. Like it could be in an orchestra piece, or it could be... whatever... could be some other medium.

So I'll develop this material, and then when it's time for me to write a piece, I'll pick through that and pick out what I think are the salient ones and develop them, and so on.

So rather than, right on the spot, trying to come up with the ideas... you know, it's like now I'm going to write a piece... whatever, say the saxophone concerto, "The Upward Stream". I'm going to start right now and just compose it from the beginning to the end. It's not really that way. At least not for me.

WF: How much discipline is it? Every morning do you get your mind to music? Is it your work day, in composing? Or do you listen a lot? Do you visit a lot? Do all these things enter into your process?

RP: Actually, it's not a discipline for me, particularly. If I have a deadline for a new work, a premiere or something like that, my feeling about it is I'm so scared that it won't be good, it's not a question of that. It's a question of waking up in the morning and ... oh no...what!..."the violins shouldn't play that... stupid, stupid... get down there, fix that!"

So that's how the thing goes. And so I'll work extremely intensely. And all that time, it's not really work. It really gets to be a little more ... of an obsession, I suppose...[laughter]

WF: I want to hold this up so our viewers can see it: The Upward Stream by Mr. Peck. It's one of his great CDs that's out. You can get it at your music store, along with a lot of his other compositions. So add them to your library. I know it's great music.

"The Phoenix" and Doc Severinsen and Gerhardt Zimmerman. How in the world did all three of you get together for that composition? It's an interesting alliance, if I may put it that way.

RP: Actually it connects back to when "The Upward Stream" was originally premiered with Peter Perret and the Winston-Salem Symphony. We can talk about Peter later. He's done so much for me, too.

But the performance was really so great! I mean, it was one of those nights. They had somebody working on publicity there who had done the most fabulous job, so that it was just the biggest spectacle in the world. The performance was fantastic!

WF: Was this in Raleigh?

RP: No, this was in Winston-Salem. This is the saxophone concerto. So the performance of that was so great, the tape of that was so great, that Doc Severinsen, when he heard that, he said "I've got to have a concerto", because of that. And Gerhardt was working in Phoenix, guest conducting, And so he put that together with the conductor there. So that we had sort of a double premiere, that happened in Phoenix and also here in North Carolina. Which I remember very well. My parents came. It was thrilling really.

WF: It isn't every day, but often times you'll hear a great jazz artist like Doc Severinsen or Benny Goodman or others, can play, and play very well, in the concert or symphonic music area. There's the discipline that goes into it, but they also render an enormous service of translating music themes back and forth, don't they?

RP: Yes. The discipline, though, of being in an orchestra and performing as a soloist is really very different than jazz. It's much more confined. The trumpet player, Marsalis, he stopped pretty much playing classical concerts because he didn't like that discipline. That narrow need to play all the right notes in the right place. It's not jazz. Anyway, that's what he said.

WF: You have a manuscript there in front of you called "The Glory and the Grandeur". This is one of your really wonderful compositions. What brought that out in your mind? When did you decide to do this?

RP: The Greensboro Symphony wanted to commission me to do a work, and I had one of those unusual opportunities where I could do anything I wanted. Usually they say it's got to be an overture, or it's got to be a concerto for something or other. So you don't get much choice what you're going to do. But in this case he said anything would go.

So I knew there was a trio of percussionists who had been playing a work of mine. Actually that I'd written in college. And they had played it 700 times, they told me. Now that they were still alive after 700 performances I thought was impressive... [laughter] But anyway, they were a great percussion group. And so we got them down here to premiere that work, and they did a great job. It was just terrific!

I'll never forget - when Paul McRae [the conductor] walked off the stage there, because he was just so excited, they had performed beautifully, and we'd gotten a wonderful response - he was all bug-eyed back stage, and he said "This is it! This is it!" And it has really gone places after that. So I guess he was right!

WF: You speak of the thrill of the performer. Now you've done a wonderful piece called "The Thrill of the Orchestra". This is unusual, too, what has happened here. The chemistry that you generate between yourself and an audience, learning about music. It must be very thrilling to you.

RP: I love it!! Actually the piece, I've done it many, many times, of course. at many venues around the country, different orchestras, and sometimes repeatedly. I remember I did a tour down in the Miami area with the Florida Philharmonic that was maybe 22 concerts, day after day. A couple of weeks. A couple of concerts a day. And what I found was, actually getting out on the stage and having young people out in the audience, and having my own music which I had worked out so that it would support me on stage and be fun to be with, and then to go "Here are the woodwinds, here are the brass" and have all this wonderful spirit about it... it never seemed to flag. I always looked forward to being able to go out there and sort of "wow" the kids with the woodwind section!

WF: Now what about older people like myself? I enjoy hearing you do that! I think it's a great talent. Don't you find senior citizens do that too?

RP: Yes! As a matter of fact I've found senior citizens to be some of my best fans actually! I think they like all of the action. So I like that quality of it. It's a really wonderful thing. And I've even had performances where that was the predominant kind of audience, and they were extremely appreciative.

WF: Now as you've gone about the country doing "The Glory and the Grandeur, or "The Phoenix" or "The Upward Stream, or "The Thrill of the Orchestra", your schedule shows that you're all over the United States. What do you find are people's attitude toward the great orchestras? There's so much difficulty today in the performing arts. What do you hear? And what have we got to do to keep these doors wide open for cultural enrichment?

RP: One of the factors that I think is maybe wrong in the mentality of people when they think about the arts, like in school. First of all, I think school, very important. What really creates a rich musical culture, or any kind of culture, is when young people grow up learning to at least respect it. And in many cases, if it's presented well, they'll really learn to love it and become a part of it. We had Detroit Symphony concerts when I grew up in Detroit. And I had so many opportunities as a young musician, that it was wonderful.

Let me just say one thing about education. I've thought about this a lot. There is a quality of discipline in learning to be a musician, like in a school band or school orchestra, that is not available on the football field or in a track situation. Because in track, or a sports situation, you learn how you can find the courage within your heart to finish the marathon. It's that sort of spirit to it, where you can push until the thing will give. You can push yourself. But in a lot of what we have to do in life, no matter how darn hard you push that pencil, it doesn't get you the right math answer. And music alerts you to that I think a lot more.

Also when you play in an orchestra, the idea that these people have to cooperate. You have a conductor, who's like the President or something, you have section leaders of each little section, you have a whole ensemble. And all these people are trying to do everything just right, at just the right moment to cooperate to make this thing for somebody else. That is a very, very profound discipline for young musicians, and I think it's extremely useful. You'd also find that the people who get involved in that in school do better.

So I think it's a very, very grave mistake to think that we're going to be saving money or something by eliminating music. I think it's a grave mistake. And I think that has eroded a little bit, the support of arts. That fear that it's a frill or something.

But basically I've found the orchestras to be pretty solid when they have people who can fill the hall with a wonderful experience inside. We have many flourishing orchestras in this state. They're doing great. So I'm encouraged by that. It's been a hard time and orchestras do fold. But we're hanging on. I don't know what the situation is currently in Charlotte. They're having difficulties right here.

WF: Yes, they've managed to hold on for awhile longer. But I know that when you go out and do "The Thrill of the Orchestra" you get a chance to feel the benefit that you create in your music for so many people. Do you find an awareness that you didn't ten years ago, fifteen years ago? An appreciation?

RP: Well, I think there is more of a willingness on the part of the orchestras to view that as a positive thing. You see you can take two attitudes about the orchestra, and they're not opposites - one wrong, one right - they're complimentary. And one of them is that we have great art that needs to be presented. And another level, we have a great institution, which is the orchestra, which is a little bit separate from the music that it plays.

So I deal with the institution of it. I point out, "look at all these fabulous musicians who've learned to play all this great music, and all the great sounds they can make." That's my job. My job's not to tell them to love Beethoven. I hope they do. That's the conductor's job. So I kind of play that role of talking about this great musical institution that's developed.

WF: Your music is different. You have developed a composing style all your own. Where did that come from?

RP: Trying really hard! [laughter] I'm serious. As a composer, at least in my experience, developing a capacity for self-evaluation, self-critique, is really the key to developing your own style. So that you can hone in on what you really do. That's one of the heartbreaks really, I think of being a composer, too. I mean, I love Bartok, and Beethoven, and just a wide range of composers that do a lot of different things emotionally with the orchestra. And I don't do those same things, you know. So my music lacks some of the things that other great orchestra repertoire has. And that's a frustration for me, but I try to do what I do well. And I don't think there are many people who are actually doing what I'm doing in the orchestra right now. So I'm in a unique situation.

WF: But doesn't it encourage you that the London Symphony records your music? And the great orchestras of America. That must give you enormous encouragement as to your style and form of the music you develop.

RP: It couldn't really be more wonderful! I mean, not only do I live in an area where ... like in Winston-Salem. When I arrived there, Peter Perret had just taken over the orchestra. Rebuilt it. (It was very modest when he got there.) Now it's a great orchestra. I just landed there, and here's this wonderful conductor, who is also technically superb, all ready to build his orchestra, and willing to take a chance with my music and make it part of that process.

And from there that spreads out, because he talks with people, and so on. That has been really thrilling. I had no idea it could be done. I didn't believe, really. I was shocked that I was able to do it.

WF: What do you say to young people when they hear you perform and listen to your narration and get into your music with you, and the concert's over, and they come up and sit down and say "Well gee wiz, how about this as a career?" What do you say to them? [laughter]

RP: [laughter] You mean composing?

WF: People have such an affinity for music. Everybody wants to sing or do something. How do you respond to them?

RP: Well I do encourage them to play music and to listen to it and to get into it. Like when I was a kid, following a score while listening to a symphony or something, there's really nothing like it. It's an amazingly thrilling and fun thing to do.

The young people, I encourage them to be involved in performing music and so on. Composing is a very special thing. There are many ways to be a composer. To be a composer for the orchestra is a very, very specialized thing. There are opportunities, though. So I would encourage them to try it, but you have to be very realistic.

There aren't that many spots on symphony concert programs for contemporary music. So to say it is competitive is almost beside the point. It's a very rare thing to do. So you really have to be serious about it.

WF: Is this a matter of just sitting down at the piano and having the blank score sheet, and just go to work when you get that inspiration? Is that the way you do it? Mechanically? To go about putting it on paper?

RP: I hate putting it on paper. There are two places that I love in composing. First of all, it's when I get an idea. It's like," Oh, I've got an idea! Great... " And then work it out so it becomes a real musical idea. That's a lot of fun!

Then at the end, when you're making the last little detail... and you're going "oh, that should be pizzicato, instead of arco... that'd be great". Some little detail, that's thrilling.

It's that first stage, when you have to write things down that you know you're going to throw away, and do all this wasted work and everything... that's the hard part. That takes discipline.

WF: But each time is a growing experience and you rise as you go. Your music, I'm sure, enriches itself as you develop each composition, and become more well-known with it.

Is music still the universal language? Everybody says this in the world today. Everywhere you go, people stop for music.

RP: I think that's really true. I really do think that that's true! It is a kind of universal language. And in my work I get to deal with people from all over the world and try to communicate about it. And it's so funny, you'll have someone from Russia and someone from China, and you're there, and you're all looking at some Beethoven Symphony or something, with an attitude about how something should be played. That's kind of fun!

WF: What do you have in progress now? What new works are you working on?

RP: Well I'm doing two things right now. I have a couple of new works, that are "in the works". Because of the way I'm having to go about organizing their premieres I don't want to actually discuss them specifically, the medium. But I am making progress on one of them, and I also am using this opportunity right now to develop, replenish myself. Suddenly I started getting opportunities very fast, after I got a certain few key breaks. Like Peter Perret commissioning "The Upward Stream", and "The Glory and the Grandeur" over in Greensboro, and "The Phoenix" with Gerhardt, and so on. Started getting things really cooking for me. So I quickly did put out quite a few works that have been very successful and stayed in the repertoire, which is a real achievement.

But you kind of "burn out". I don't have that full little Hope Chest over there where I can just pull out things, or scraps of quilt and put them together. You have to fill that box up. So I'm doing a little bit of that right now too.

WF: Is that just changing your whole frame of reference and do something very different, something unique, take yourself out of the composing style and create a whole new life for awhile to get a new inspiration? Is that the way you do it in composing?

RP: Well that's partly true, too. Actually that is true. Like for example, right now I have - I won't get into the details of that too - it has it's ups and downs. I got, I guess you might call it, "skunked" on a piece I was suppose to write because of some copyright problems with the poetry. But what happens when you stop for awhile, and you're not actually writing a specific piece for a concert - like right now - when I'm back into it I'm just sort of gushing with ideas. It's sort of like you haven't eaten for a really long time, or something. It tastes really good!

WF: Are there places in this country where you see the arts really booming? Like I've always heard in the southwest America, in Dallas and Fort Worth area that people really invest in the arts and the people who compose and the people who do dramatic things with music? Is there any of that going on in our world since the Federal attitude's what it is towards the arts presently? I hope it doesn't last long. But we've got to have this for the culture to survive.

RP: Sure. Oh sure. Yeh, it actually gets kind of silly, to be honest with you. We get into a "penny wise/pound foolish" type of attitude about things. I get a little impatient with that.

I think there was an attempt to send a signal, if you want to call it that, to the arts organizations - that they need to really focus on filling the hall. Get people there. Let's have some efficiency, in the sense of people coming to concerts. A little bit of that is good. I think actually it's helped me. Because I'm a somewhat popular composer. So I fit in with that idea.

However you do end up with places where the arts support is too rigid. In Europe, for example, they'll do concerts for two or three people in the hall. You'll have this enormous outfit, and they'll do anything they want to. And they'll have nobody in the hall. And this just goes on all the time. That's not good either.

So I think that there's a fundamental vigor to the way we're handling it in this country, although I do think that, like I said, it just gets kind of pathetic. The penny-pinching with regard to something as important as this. And so that kind of bothers me, I must say.

WF: What do you see as the next great step then in your kind of music in our country, the contemporary symphonic piece? What will happen next? Adaptation and the use of it, like Mr. Williams has done with the Boston Symphony? And some of the things he's done? Motion pictures?

RP: Well that's always possible. I think the quality, for example, of the musicians in the orchestras in North Carolina would be perfectly capable of doing a film score. Because I know there is some movie work being done in the state. So I don't think that would be inconceivable at all.

My own interest is not very much in film. The reason being, I have a unique talent. That is, not for doing works for CDs or movies or anything, but really for the concert hall. So that when you go to the concert hall, I will deliver you something. There'll be an event there - that you'll notice. It's going to make an impression. So that's where I try to keep my efforts.

But everywhere around us I think we see symphonic music more and more evident, and supporting a lot of different kinds of activities.

WF: What do you do just for the sheer recreational rejuvenation of a man as busy as you are? How do you take yourself out? What do you do for the fun of it?

RP: I have a canoe. My wife Cameron and I go out. You know we have lots of lakes.

WF: Are you a whitewater man?

RP: Oh, I love whitewater. Oh, yes! She's grown a little bit less enthusiastic, for the, you know, five and six rapids ... [laughter]

WF: Do you get to the Nantahala Gorge to make that run from time to time?

RP: Oh yes. And the French Broad River. And we've been up to the New River in West Virginia. And many places actually. There are lots of rivers over here. And they're really fun. Love that, I just love that.

WF: Do you feel good about what you see happening in great music in North Carolina? You get around so much. Is the state on the right road?

RP: Oh yes. It's really wonderful. I think we can be really very proud of it. As a matter of fact, I think we actually probably might even be a net exporter. Who knows...? We really do have a strong classical music world here. And I really feel great to be part of it. I just was so fortunate to have these truly wonderful conductors of great talent and ability in the state, willing to go with me, and wonderful musicians. So I feel very good about the state.

WF: Well I want to hold this up one more time, friends. "The Upward Stream". Russell Peck's great composition. Thank you for joining me on North Carolina People, and all good fortune in the future.

RP: Thank you Mr. Friday. Wonderful being here.

return to interview list