Interview: Robert McDuffie

As someone that grew up in Macon, a place that’s obviously steeped in music history but not a place that’s often associated with classical music, how did you end up playing the violin?

Well that that’s my mother. My mother was and still is kind of the grande dame of music down there in classical music. She’s a well known piano teacher and organist and choir director and been president of all the classical associations. When I was a kid, she heard me play and pick up tunes on the piano by ear and some reason she thought violin would be a good instrument for me. I still don’t know how she came to that conclusion. We were fortunate in that we had a really great teacher in town. A Hungarian that ended up in the Bibb County school system. So I started the violin at six privately and then to played for 10 years until I left Macon when I was 16 to go to up to music school.

Nice. That’s a perfect segue into my next question. So you’ve traveled the world playing the violin, obviously earning a reputation as a master of your craft. What made you come back and want to start the McDuffie Center for Strings?

To be honest with you, it was the seductive pitch by Kirby Godsey, the longtime President of Mercer University. He’s not President anymore, he’s Chancellor, but he reinforced my love of Macon. I realized how much I missed it and still romanticized the town. It was really the salesmanship of Kirby Godsey that made me realize that I loved Macon more than I thought. That’s pretty much it.

He is a pretty persuasive fella for sure.

Yeah he is. That was really the reason I started the relationship with Mercer down there. But once I started making the visits, he gave me a mandate to put Mercer on the national map with music. So it took a couple of years for me to come up with the idea of the Center for Strings to have a conservatory within the School of Music and to encourage an academic curriculum that would prepare a musician for the 21st century and for the real world and to be able to make a living. So that combination of conservatory along with tapping into Mercer University to the whole orbit there including classes and law and business in addition to the music courses. I think that’s why the thing is successful now because it’s got that particular mission.

Sure. So just to just to give me a timeline when when did that conversation with Kirby happen and when did the Center for strings actually go live?

Yeah. I think he came up to New York probably in the Fall of 2003 and I started follow the Fall of 2004. The Center started in January 2007 with two very kind home-schooled, Jesus-loving violin girls who refuse to get vaccinated. Those were my first two students at the Center and now it’s grown.

How many students do you have currently?

Well, we have we have a cap of 26 and it will always stay that way. We actually had 24 right at this particular moment.

For those people that don’t know, can you explain how and when you and Mike Mills met?

Yeah. We met in Macon and we were we were in church choir together and hand bell choir together. My mom was the longtime music director and organist at the First Presbyterian Church down there and Mike’s family moved to Macon when he was about 11 or 12. They chose the church based on the music. His parents were musicians. In fact his father ended up being the tenor soloist in the choir at First Presbyterian. So we met in church and our families became close and socialized pretty much every Sunday night after leaving the church over a four year period. The McDuffies and the Mills would hang out. The adults would imbibe and enjoy drinking and the kids would do regular kid stuff. Anything from exchanging Hardy Boys books, to listening to record collections and watching Sunday night TV.

What were those early musical conversations with you and Mike like? What kind of music did you talk about?

Even though music brought us together, the actual music conversations were more peripheral. He loved the Hardy Boys books. In fact, he borrowed a lot of mine and still hasn’t returned them. You know I had a J Geils Band recording. I do know that both loved the Allman Brothers and were very well aware of the fact that the Allman Brothers were living in Macon at the time. I know we were we were members of a music club as well. I was already playing the violin a lot by that time and I knew that he played piano, but he had not started this band stuff Bill Berry until I left Macon. I mean music was part of it, but it wasn’t the main focus of our friendship at that early time.

With this particular project, how long is how long has this one been in the works?

I came to him with the idea because I was I had just finished a project with Phillip Glass. He’d written a beautiful piece for me, the American Four Seasons, and I really loved that experience. Not playing music of dead white European males. I just enjoyed going out of my wheel house. I had such a great time with that I just started thinking, well why don’t I just push a little more. Mike and I have stayed friends over the years. So I approached him with the idea. Just took a deep breath and threw the idea out of the Violin Concerto. A rock concerto for violin and rock band and string orchestra just to see where it would take us and thankfully he was all there. We were having dinner in Athens and by the end of the conversation he said I’ve already got a tune in my head. So that’s what it started. We had our full premiere this past June up in Toronto and played a couple of times since then. We start the tour this week and that’s super exciting.

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We’re all really excited about it for sure. What was the what was the writing or composing process like? I know you were probably only involved peripherally with that, but what was it like having one of one of your old friends from childhood coming to you with a musical idea and then you with your background in Classical music and his more rooted in Rock music. How did that interaction go?

I wasn’t worried about what he was going to come to me with because he was because he had written some of the most iconic melodies in existence. I knew that he was going to write some really beautiful music. He wrote the piece kind of the same way he did for R.E.M. and that was with Pro-Tools software and instead of having Michael Stipe’s voice in mind he just imagined that a violinist would be playing the melodies. The secret weapon in this collaboration is the arranger named David Mallamud who took Mike’s music and fleshed out the string writing and helped with the violin writing. Mike wrote the music but he doesn’t specifically write for violin or orchestra himself. So David Mallamud, who is a genius arranger and is a rock fan himself, basically just took Mike’s music and made it work for violin and string orchestra.

I’ve had the distinct privilege of listening to some of it already and it’s all really incredible. How do you approach your performance on something like “Night Swimming” which is obviously an iconic song in and of itself. How is that different than approaching the work of a “dead white European composer”?

It’s the same way. At the end of the day we’re just these musicians trying to trying to play real pretty. “Night swimming” is already in my inner ear. It’s beautiful music. I didn’t want to and I didn’t want to try to copy the way Michael Stipe interpreted it. I played it the way I would approach any great piece of music. And that’s with respect and it’s just treating the piece with the with the respect that it deserves and that was it. That’s a great question. Yeah. It’s just great music and I’m interpreting it the way I feel as my own musician.

I love that and I completely agree. Great music is great music. I feel like as human beings and even as music fans, we try to compartmentalize everything and draw lines in the sand that are unnecessary oftentimes.

I mean how can I say this? And we certainly don’t feel this. Sometimes you see a lot of classical artists interpret music just for the sake of checking off that box. You know Placido Domingo singing with John Denver or something made me nauseous. Do you remember the old Christmas tape of Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing Little Drummer Boy?

 Yeah. One of the most awkward music videos ever created.

[laughs] But that was still sincere. That’s my point. That was really sincere.

I wholeheartedly agree.

It’s a genuine appreciation of each other styles and worlds and music and that’s why I think the experience will be real and meaningful and relevant. Because we believe in each other. I sense that with the process. I’m not saying I want this to be like the Crosby-David Bowie thing. I remember those guys I mean total opposites but still musicians. I just remember that being the real heartwarming experience.

For sure. You can hear the mutual respect between those two guys. I mean Bing Crosby was never gonna go to a Stooges show with David Bowie. That was never going to happen, but the mutual respect is palpable.

But Pavarotti singing with Barry White. That didn’t work. What we’re doing this is is pretty natural and genuine.

Who do you think is the target audience for not only the tour and the performance but the recording as well? Like who do you think would be into this? Who should check this out?

Well I think anybody who wants to dance and enjoy music and see something that they don’t see everyday that’s not what they don’t have any expectations. I don’t you know the classical world is so uptight in many ways. Audience is not expected to clap you know in certain spots, which has always bothered me. I mean this in this case, you know we want you to clap throughout the whole thing or scream if you want. We certainly found that at the Aspen festival. We think it’s going to hopefully break down barriers. I think rock fans who want to see you know an American icon on stage will love it. Seeing him just you know producing really beautiful music and classical fans who hate feeling restricted and intimidated by the music and the expectations that come with classical music.

What’s the significance for you of doing a date on this tour in Macon at the auditorium?

Well…talk about an iconic place. I got a little taste that the other day when I played for Otis Redding’s 75th at birthday party. I knew that he got had such a great experience there and just kind of feel the spirit. I think while we’re in the trenches of making music it won’t matter where we are, but I think it’s really going to hit me especially and I’m sure Mike as well down the road when we look back at not only what he accomplished and what we did what we did together but also the significance of us playing in Macon together.

Agreed. Like I said, we couldn’t be more excited about it.

For more information about the event and to purchase tickets, head over here.