Interview with Composer Allen Shawn

Allen Shawn © 2018 by Cynthia Locklin

Recently, I had the great pleasure of talking to Allen Shawn. I had reached out to him in the context of my research on Benny Goodman, as he had received a composition commission from Goodman in 1983, resulting in a double concerto for clarinet, cello, and orchestra. Apart from that, Shawn has been working with numerous other performers throughout his career and his work is strongly influenced by such collaborations.

The subsequent interview presents a transcript of a Zoom call I had with Shawn on 20 January 2021 and is published with his consent.

On your website you indicate that you write “whenever possible for specific performers.” How did performers inspire and influence your work? Would you like to name some examples?

In a way, my work list is like a diary of the people I’ve known. Some of those people have become lifelines to me. The cellist Maxine Neuman, for whom I’ve written about 20 pieces and with whom I’ve been working closely for many years, is an example of a musical collaboration that is also a close friendship. The many pieces I’ve written for Maxine, starting with my cello quartet, and including my first cello concerto, wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for her. But even more than that, she helped sustain me in my belief in myself during the long stretches when I didn’t get much positive feedback for my music. She has always been eager to play anything I wrote, and performing music with her, my own as well as great works from the repertoire, has taught me so much, and made me a better musician. I made a CD  of my cello music so that there would be document of our collaboration – also simply to thank her.

Also, I’ve written a lot of flute music because I’ve just known a lot of flutists. I grew up with my brother playing the violin and I wrote a lot of music for him when we were kids. This left me with a special love of the violin. I chase after violinists – I grab them when I meet them. So, a lot of my music comes from personal contacts. Sometimes I have a piece that I want to write and then I find a group or person willing to promise to play it. It’s not a commission, but it is an opportunity and a goal, and it is inspiring. I could list at least 20-30 pieces that were composed in this way, including my sextet for piano and winds, and my piano concerto. My Piano Concerto came about because I wanted to write it and Ursula Oppens agreed to play it in advance of its existing. Then the Albany Symphony signed on to perform it and record it. No-one actually commissioned it.

The internet has helped a lot in establishing new contacts. The pianist Julia Bartha, for example, just found my music online and liked it. Then I wrote her a piano sonata. Since then I’ve written her more music, and she made a CD with my piano music. Our acquaintance had started remotely. Then she came over to the US with her husband, a wonderful bass player. Just last year I wrote a piece for bass and piano for them. The piece I wrote for Julia, even before we met, was affected by her pianism, insight, by her literary mind, her humor, and her interest in jazz.

The truth is that these symbiotic creative relationships can only flourish if they are also friendships, and if there is genuine mutual admiration. They are a part of one’s life.

How would you describe the role of the performers during the composition process – are there discussions, for instance, on stylistic or technical aspects?

The Benny Goodman piece was entirely affected by who he was, by his and also Nathaniel Rosen’s playing. (The fact that they didn’t perform it, doesn’t change that.)

In the case of my two cello concertos, they are totally different from each other – the personalities of the pieces are influenced a lot by the players. Everything I write for Maxine Neuman, for instance, is in “the world of Maxine” – not consciously though. I’ve also written for a lot of pianists, and you can tell from the pieces for whom. But it’s not deliberate. I’m just picturing the performer and that’s inspiring the music. I wrote for Elizabeth Wright, Daniel Epstein, John Van Buskirk, Amy Williams, Eunbi Kim, my wife Yoshiko Sato – six pianists, and they’re all completely different idioms.

Some people asked me for a lot of changes in the music, others just plough through. Some also drive me crazy with demands. But later I realize it’s helping them be comfortable with playing the piece and I forgive them. The piece has to fit a performers technique and the instrument, or it will not sound good. Sometimes it’s a negotiation.

Most of your collaborations are inspired by friendship or some other sort of personal relationship. Were there also any formal commissions in the course of your career?

I’ve had a number of commissions over the years—although most of them on a small scale. The Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble has commissioned me several times, as has the Vermont Symphony, the Monterey Symphony, The Atlanta Ballet, The Sage City Symphony, and many solo performers. Oboist John Ferillo  commissioned three oboe pieces from me. Cellist Nathaniel Parke commissioned my Second Cello Concerto. I have had two wonderful commissions from the Rochester Philharmonic through the generosity of an old friend, Ron Fielding. In both cases, the orchestra put me together with a soloist. There were also contracts – not with the performers, but with the orchestra. But the two soloists, violinist Juliana Athayde, and oboist Erik Behr, who is her husband, were phenomenal, and became treasured friends. Soprano Ida Faiella commissioned me to write a song cycle for her group “L’Ensemble”, and the group “Cygnus” commissioned a work for soprano and six instruments. Although this may sound like a lot, it is spread over more than forty years. Most of my work was self-generated, and not commissioned. And the word commission can mean many things. Sometimes it means that the commissioner agrees to pay for the copying costs, not the work itself. Often the commission is just a small honorarium, $200, say.

Was the Goodman piece a commission?

Yes, it was a commission. I met Benny when I was maybe 33 through a mutual friend. I gave him some music to listen to, including my early piece Cabaret Music. Benny liked that and said “Why don’t you write me a concerto for clarinet and cello?” He generated the project. And he wanted me to meet Nathaniel Rosen and to come over to his house to read through some music. Rosen was such a phenomenal cellist – I knew he would be able to play anything.

I went over, and we played the Beethoven Trio, and the Brahms Trio. We did that several times and I brought over sketches of my concerto as I was working on it, and we would read through it. It became a pretty huge piece. By the end of the process, when I was writing the last movement, Benny said: “I don’t think I can do this.” I think he expected a smaller scaled work from me, but he never said that.

I felt bad about that. I said to Benny: “I’m gonna finish it. And I think you should pay me.” Benny said: “Okay” – and I said: “What about 1.000 dollars?” And then he paid me 1.000 dollars.

I finished and orchestrated it. And then I made a trio arrangement. I thought it was a bad piece, because Benny didn’t play it. The Trio was first performed in Bennington in May, 1988 by an incredible student clarinetist, Claudia Friedlander, Maxine and myself. It was Claudia Friedlander who actually organized the concert so that this piece would be heard. (I was still assuming that it wasn’t worth performing.)  So she not only played brilliantly, she actually was responsible for the premiere of the Trio version. Then it was recorded by David Krakauer, who was a friend of mine, and Maxine. I still always wanted to hear the original. John Snavely, actually, had put together a reading of the slow movement in Tucson, Arizona. Then Maureen Hurd took an interest in it because of her research [cf. her article “Benny Goodman – The Classical Clarinetist” in the magazin The Clarinet, 34 (2007) & 35 (2008)] and she instigated the eventual première of the orchestra version in September 2019. She was a terrific soloist, she plays with such conviction and heart, and she was joined by a fine cellist, Jonathan Spitz. It was so exiting to hear it, and I was frankly  ecstatic, because I felt that most of it worked and that it had the wild and youthful energy I remembered from thirty-five years earlier.

Belated world premiere of Shawn’s Concerto for clarinet, cello and orchestra (1983), on 28 Sept. 2019: Jonathan Spitz (cello), Maureen Hurd (clarinet), Tong Chen (conductor), Rutgers Symphony Orchestra; with courtesy of Rutgers University, Mason Gross School of the arts

Check out Allen Shawn’s biography, music, and literary works on his website!

Cite this article as: Elisabeth Reisinger, "Interview with Composer Allen Shawn," in Performers as Patrons of New Music, 20/02/2021,

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