Artist Profile and Interview by Matthew de Lacey Davidson, October 31, 2021
Dr. William Bolcom celebrated his 83rd birthday this year. Few musicians can compare with the diversity of his abilities. He has studied with Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen. He also became an admirable pianist, recording music which had been heretofore neglected—both as a soloist, and as accompanist to his wife, singer Joan Morris, with whom he shares an abiding interest in American popular song of the late 19th century to the late 1920s. He even studied poetry writing with Theodore Roehthke. And he was the first Pulitzer-prize winning composer to win for a piano work instead of an orchestral, or so-called “large-scale” work.
While his musical activities may be diminishing, in the following conversation, I found both him and Ms. Morris (with whom I spoke a little), to be delightful, engaging, and witty. The purpose of this interview was to attempt to delve a little into Dr. Bolcom’s musical and personal relationships in the arena of ragtime.
Matthew de Lacey Davidson: In what specific compositional ways did Alban Berg’s music influence you? Did he influence your piano music?
William Bolcom: I remember a major early experience—I was 11 years old and heard the Julliard Quartet play Berg’s Lyric Suite. They were touring in the 1950s, and I listened to them [live while I was sitting] in the balcony [of a concert hall]. As I heard it, I followed the score at the same time and I was absolutely entranced. I felt that he [Berg] had created an expanded complex tonality with strict tonal references, wherein the ear is attracted to certain tones. I also played his one movement [piano] sonata. It’s a beautiful piece.