An Interview with Richard Burgin 

Interview conducted by Ann McCutchan

Prior to the publication of Richard Burgin’s eighth collection of short stories, Hide Island, ALR Editor-in-Chief Ann McCutchan interviewed the author about his life, work, and the genesis of the distinguished literary journal Boulevard, of which he is founding editor.  In addition to shared literary interests, McCutchan and Burgin come from musical backgrounds, which set the initial tone of their conversation. 

Ann McCutchan: You’re a writer, and you’ve also composed many songs. I’m very interested in your musical background. You know I am a musician, too, and was coached in chamber music with both of your parents, Richard Burgin and Ruth Posselt, who were well-known violinists. I’m curious about your background in that musical household, and the effects of that upbringing on you as an artist, in general.

Richard Burgin: Well, next to not having more children, as I only have one, the biggest regret of my life is that I didn’t go into music, study and pursue it seriously, so I have to begin with that.  I never studied music, except when I was very young.  I played the piano with my aunt, who was my mother’s sister — she had a number of sisters who were also professional musicians.  I studied with my mother, too.  One of my earliest childhood memories was crying because I wanted to go out and play, and not practice the piano.  My parents were both kind of liberal softies; they gave in and I never studied piano again.  Everything I do in music is by ear; I have no training whatsoever.

AM: What kind of teacher was your mother?

RB: She was a perfectionist. It was probably a big mistake to study with her.  I was 6 or 7 years old when I stopped, and my main memory was her perfectionism.  That decision really shaped the rest of my life, because I’ve always loved music more than literature.  Maybe this is overstating the point, but it’s a little like being a person who feels they’ve been born with the wrong gender.  I’ve had what success I’ve had as a writer, but have always yearned to be a professional musician.  That was the life I didn’t live, because of the decision to stop studying the piano and other psychological factors.  When I got older I made a few attempts to study, but it was too late and not psychologically possible.  So you know, it’s one of those road not taken things.

AM: Can you tell me a little about the music you compose, and the composers or pieces of music you love the most?

RB: I have written over one hundred songs and pieces, and I have self-produced four CDs and been paid for doing two others.

For the Ontario Review Press, Joyce Carol Oates wanted to have a CD of my songs as part of a book of mine, so that was kind of a thrill for me (I had been sending her tapes of my piano pieces for awhile). The book consisted of twenty stories and twenty songs, with a CD.  It was called The Identity Club: New and Selected Stories and Songs. That was the first time I was ever paid for my music.  And then I became friendly with Gloria Vanderbilt, and she asked me to write a song she produced to help promote a doll she designed, and she appeared with me on the Home Shopping Network to sell the doll, so I wrote the song for that. Recently, I’ve done more pop music, heavily influenced by jazz and classical. My 2008 CD, The Trouble With Love, got a nice response, and a couple of good reviews. So I have done probably a hundredth of what I could have done had I ever studied.  I add that to make myself seem not so pathetic, which I have a knack for doing, as anyone who knows me knows.

AM: It’s part of your charm.

RB: In classical music, my favorites, besides the usual Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, are Stravinsky and Mahler.  One of the great musical experiences of my life was seeing my father conduct Mahler’s Second Symphony.  He had a great success with it at Tanglewood [Music Center], and my sister was singing in the chorus.  Also Das Lied von der Erde, his fourth symphony, and his uncompleted tenth are all profound musical experiences, among the great works of art of all time.

To me, Stravinsky is the greatest composer of the 20th century; he seemingly never makes an aesthetic mistake. He has so much wit and charm in every line that he writes.  I love everything he wrote from Le Sacre d