Category: Memorials

Hearing a Person—Remembering Ruth Anderson (1928-2019)

A woman sitting in a yellow armchair cross-legged

The last music Ruth Anderson heard before she died was Judith Blegen singing Kein Musik ist ja nicht auf erden …, with which Mahler’s Fourth Symphony ends, a song which had been a touchstone for us for many years and which I had been unable to find for weeks among our record collection despite just about reorganizing the collection in my search. Then I looked among the contemporary LPs, and there it was, next to David Behrman’s beautiful On the Other Ocean—the wrong part of the century but very much the right context.

Listening to it now, again, I find I am immersed in her text piece Sound Portrait: Hearing a Person, which she created first for her students then for others, in 1973:

“In a darkened room, find a comfortable, totally relaxed position.

Listen to a piece of music.

Think of someone you love.
Do not think of the music.

When you find your thought of the person is gone, bring it
back gently.
Let other thoughts come, and then let them go.

As the music progresses, let the thought image of the person
be central.
Be unaware of the music.

Let anything which happens happen, except keep easily bringing
back, letting, the person image occupy you.

You will find explanations of the person—the music will explain the person.

The music ideas, counterpoint, extensions, contrasts, repetitions, variants,
Rhythms, textures, qualities of sound, all music elements are of the person,

sometimes very literally, sometimes suggesting, sometimes exact, sometimes
understood, sometimes leading to understanding, sometimes verging on language, always primarily nonverbal, always a known sense, a coming of a known sense.

You will find after, an understanding of the person you did not have,
and a personal relationship to the music.
The music, too, will be known.”

For her, it was always that movement of the Mahler 4th.

Ruth Anderson, composer, teacher, flutist, and orchestrator died peacefully at Calvary Hospital, New York, on November 29th, 2019, aged 91. She was a Professor Emeritus of Hunter College, CUNY, where she was the director of the Hunter College Electronic Music Studio from 1968 to 1979, the first operative electronic music studio in the CUNY system and one of the first in the USA to be founded and directed by a woman.

Our earliest meeting was in that studio, where I was to substitute for her while she went on sabbatical. Ruth had first asked Pauline Oliveros to run the studio for her, but Pauline too was on sabbatical and suggested that Ruth contact me—I was then still living in England and eager to come over here. I went to the studio to meet her, nervous, and a bit apprehensive, not having worked hands-on with voltage-controlled equipment, a key part of the studio’s design then. Ruth turned up in white shorts, a blue shirt, and sneakers with a hole in the right toe. I relaxed.

It was a very good studio, beautifully equipped, with a dedicated technician, Jan Hall, who designed new gear and kept everything running very smoothly. Ruth loved tech, tools of any kind really (hence the house we built in Montana, her birthplace), and the studio was her home. It was home to some of the students also, who brought in a couch, a lamp. Jan brought in his slippers.

She was an inspired teacher. Of her studio seminar, she wrote (in a letter to me in 1973), “I give lots of facts, and am very demanding—that they know, that they have self-respect, that they only DO—and sometimes I see it’s not yet the time to DO and they will… and leave them alone, or help when I see they need it… and from students who have been with me before, begin to understand this is not a course, but some equipment and a safe place to be. As soon as the students so-called begin to know each other, to hear a great variety of music, or also experience acoustics, experience each other through sound, like the skin-resistance oscillators, they learn and do, or dream.”

Born in Kalispell, Montana on March 21, 1928, Ruth received a BA in flute, subsequently studying privately with Johnnie Wummer and Jean-Pierre Rampal, then the MA in composition from the University of Washington. At UW she took courses with the poet Theodore Roethke, and she later came to know many other poets including Jean Garrigue, May Swenson (with whom she did Pregnant Dream), W.S. Merwin, and Louise Bogan (whose haunting poem, Little Lobelia is the source of Ruth’s I come out of your sleep). She was one of the first four women admitted to the Princeton University Graduate School program in composition, where she received a fellowship. Two Fulbright Scholarships took her to Paris (1958–60), where she studied composition privately with Darius Milhaud and Nadia Boulanger, who encouraged Ruth to also study Gregorian chant at the Abbey of Solesmes.

Ruth’s was a multi-faceted career. She toured as a flutist with the Totenberg Instrumental Ensemble from 1951-58 and was principal flutist with the Boston Pops (1957-58). As a freelance instrumental and choral arranger, she was also an orchestrator for NBC-TV and the Lincoln Center Theater production of Annie Get Your Gun with Ethel Merman (1966) and Show Boat.

Ruth Anderson

Ruth Anderson. Photo by Manny Albam.

Her establishment of the Hunter College Electronic Music Studio and her involvement with the downtown music scene brought a burst of creative activity when her studies of psychoacoustics, Zen Buddhism, and her teaching intersected, sparking a number of works for tape which are truly innovative. SUM: State of the Union Message from 1973 is a hilarious collage, a send-up of both Nixon and TV commercials, its duration being exactly that of Nixon’s State of the Union Message that year and saying, as she put it, “as little, and by extension, as much as the president, and using the one medium we all share.” Ruth was a superb analog editor, and I recall coming into the Hunter studio at some point while she was working on SUM and finding a fishing line strung across the room with an amazing number of pieces of tape, some very small, delicately suspended by splicing tape, and trying to figure out how she could keep them all straight. She knew what each was, being both persistent and precise, a perfectionist.

She wrote of her work, “It has evolved from an understanding of sound as energy which affects one’s state of being. [These are] pieces intended to further wholeness of self and unity with others.” Hearing a Person is a beautiful, practical example of this key intention, as is the classic tape work Points (1973-4), created entirely from sine tones at a time when few others were interested in so seemingly basic a waveform. But to Ruth, sines are “the basic building blocks of all sound… a sine tone is a single frequency focal point of high energy… Separate sine waves enter at five-second intervals, accumulate in a long veil on one channel while another set of sines is introduced on the second channel and continuing this way with the veils of sound shifting in and out of each other at a very low dynamic level. The high focus of energy of a sine wave, the outsize breathing interval of five-second entries, the calm of the veils and timeless quality are some of the elements I can isolate which have made this a healing piece, one that consistently generates in listeners a sense of repose and quiet energy.”

Jan Hall has said of Ruth, “She was brave,” and certainly to undertake such a challenge as a piece consisting entirely of sine tones at, necessarily, a soft level, is to work entirely exposed. Indeed, she wrote to Charles Amirkhanian in 1977, “Sines are extremely difficult to record, and then it’s difficult to maintain a copy of sines without collecting burbles on tape—this is a strong reason for wanting the piece on a record where burbles don’t collect.” Points was released on the seminal LP produced by Charles Amirkhanian on the 1750 Arch Records label New Music for Electronic and Recorded Media, which was actually the first collection of electronic music by women, in 1977. She was a bit thrown when that quote appeared in the sleeve notes, but I’ve always loved it. With that LP and two releases on Max Schubel’s label Opus One, her work began to be known in the US and internationally.

In addition to Points, a rich array of works in diverse media appeared during the ‘70s and early ‘80s, such as I come out of your sleep—a 4 channel tape piece from 1979; the text pieces Silent Sound (1978), the Sound Portraits, Greetings from the Right Hemisphere (1979); interactive biofeedback pieces such as Centering (1979) for four performers wearing galvanic skin resistance oscillators through which they respond involuntarily to a dancer who is, in turn, responding to their sounds. Ruth’s delight in play comes through in the sonic installations and games she created for exhibitions, collaborating with Jan Hall and Bob Bielecki. For example, in Tuneable Hopscotch (1975), the individual squares generate pitches as you land on them but someone else is at controls on the wall, changing the pitches even as you select them. In Time and Tempo (1984) the viewer’s biofeedback controls the movement of a clock’s hands, slowing as you approach stillness. Together we also created a number of Hearing Studies for the Introduction to Music and other courses at Hunter. Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and Creative Artists Public Service (CAPS), the Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation, the Alice M. Ditson fund and residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony supported much of this work.

To her great pleasure, Here, a solo vinyl album of five pieces, two never before released plus three works mentioned above—SUM, Points, and I come out of your sleep—will be released on the Arc Light Editions label in 2020. The test pressings came shortly before she went into the hospital and we were able to listen to them together. She was on morphine and deeply tired, but as she listened, she started moving her hands to re-shape a phrase, murmuring how she would like to have changed this or that sound, composing right to the end. It was wonderful to see, and she was delighted with the quality of the pressings. Thank you, Jennifer Lucy Allan, visionary producer of Arc Light Editions.

Annea Lockwood and Ruth Anderson

Annea Lockwood and Ruth Anderson

And then there is Flathead Lake, where Ruth spent much of her childhood and where we built our house. She needed a home of her own there, and I needed to be among mountains at least part of the year, so in 1975, barely a year after we’d begun to live together (we moved fast!) we bought about two acres on the lake, added forty feet to it when I assumed that the boundary survey stakes must have been at the halfway point of the property and started felling dead trees on adjacent land. We bought it. We mapped out a floor plan—Ruth did all the designing meticulously—and started to build. About that detailed planning, I remember going to the local lumber yard and saying we wanted to buy exactly four hundred and sixty-four six-inch nails. Tim smiled, estimated that at so many pounds, and we were then his customers for the next fourteen or so years.

Montana House

The house that Ruth Anderson and Annea Lockwood built together on Flathead Lake in Montana.

We built wall and floor frames, siding and flooring, got help with the really tough things from her family and from professionals, who would often just take off to go elk hunting mid-project, roofs (there was more than one; the place kept growing like a plant), plumbing, electricity, and finally turned the garage over to the pros, being tired of building by then. Ruth finished the interior tongue-and-groove walls for the bedroom just in time for Christmas in ’89, having spent the whole year there while I went back and forth, teaching. But what astounds and moves me very much to think back on it, is that she did that while enduring chronic fatigue, the cause of her year off!

Strong of spirit, self-reliant, a brilliant mind, Ruth loved structures of all kinds. She was also tenacious, very funny with a dry wit, and delighted in the absurd. Her last piece was Furnishing the Garden (2002–approximately 2012), installed at our New York home. Discarded chairs and an old stripped sofa frame began to appear, leaning against a tree here, planted among wild roses there, and best of all, a child’s tiny wooden chair wedged part-way up a large tulip tree. It makes a handy launching pad for local wildlife.

Chair in tree

A detail of Anderson’s outdoor installation, “Furnishing the Garden.”

I am so grateful to have been able to share her life for forty-six years. We were finally able to marry legally in 2005 (in Canada), something Pauline and Ione had done and recommended, not long before.

Ruth’s archive will be placed in the Music Division of The New York Public Library.

GREETINGS FROM THE RIGHT HEMISPHERE

“You are invited to a party.

I will furnish wine, cheese, bread and a SPLENDID opportunity for all who come to KNOW one another.

As you enter, leave your left hemisphere – all your words – speaking, reading, writing – at the door.

Let yourself be known, and know others, through your right hemisphere – YOUR SENSES – through all forms of non-verbal communication.

Have a lovely time.”
–Ruth Anderson

Ruth Anderson at Flathead Lake

Truly a Wenren—Remembering Chou Wen-chung (1923-2019)

Three people posing together for a photo

Some reflections by Chen Yi

We still don’t want to believe that Professor Chou has passed away. Tears are not enough to express our profound sadness and grief over this tremendous loss. He is a music giant who brought us to and taught us at Columbia University, and mentored us in our creative lives for decades. He has made a huge contribution to the music of our time, yet he is a father-like figure to us. He will be missed by all of us tremendously, and his legacy will live with us forever. Our heavy hearts brought us back to countless memories of his vivid voice and energetic gestures.

Chou Wen-chung has made a huge contribution to the music of our time, yet he is a father-like figure to us.

Remembering when I studied composition at the Central Conservatory in Beijing in the early 80s, once in a lecture given at the library, to introduce newly imported music recordings, I surprisingly heard a recording of Prof. Chou Wen-chung’s Soliloquy of a Bhiksuni for trumpet and wind ensemble. I just jumped up! Even though it wasn’t in Chinese folk-music style, it struck me as so Chinese! I was deeply impressed by the Chinese spirits hidden behind the striking sonorities. At that time, most Chinese compositions used pentatonic scales in melodic writing while using Western harmony and formal designs, but this piece was not based on pure pentatonic scales. I ran and got the LP recording and I saw his photograph. I realized then that he must have been born in China, and I was very excited by this Chinese-American composer’s music. This is the first time I heard the name — Chou Wen-chung! I discovered that Prof. Chou was involved as a US delegate to China in the late 1970s. He donated many scores, recordings, books, and other materials to Chinese conservatories. After the librarians had catalogued all of these materials, they were made available to students for study from a series of new imported record broadcasting sessions. It was at that point we were introduced to Chou Wen-chung’s music.

I was also lucky enough to have attended his lecture when he visited the Central Conservatory. His public lecture was hosted by the Musicology Department, and attended by many professors and some students in the Musicology and Composition Departments. Besides introducing contemporary American composers and their music, Prof. Chou also answered many questions about music education in American universities. We then learned that he taught at Columbia University in New York City.

It was my privilege to have the opportunity to join my husband Zhou Long to study with Prof. Chou at Columbia in 1986. After graduating with our Bachelor’s degrees in 1983, Zhou Long became the resident composer of the China National Broadcasting Symphony, and I became a graduate student at the Central Conservatory. I needed another three years of study to obtain my Master’s degree, so I came to New York one year later. When I got to know Prof. Chou more closely for the first time in 1986, which was several years after we had attended his lecture at the Central Conservatory and right before I came to the US, it was during the First Contemporary Chinese Composers Festival held in Hong Kong. Prof. Chou took all of our young composers from Mainland China to a delicious Chinese banquet at which we talked about Chinese culture, Chinese music, and its future. This also became a regular event after I arrived at Columbia. Every month, Prof. Chou would host a meeting at the US-China Arts Exchange to discuss Chinese music tradition and heritage, and our responsibility and effort in carrying it on in our culture and society. After each meeting, Prof. Chou took us to a fancy Chinese restaurant on Broadway. We all greatly looked forward to this gathering every month. However, when Zhou Long and I graduated from Columbia in 1993, Prof. Chou and his wife Yi-An treated us to a fancy dinner at a great French restaurant in Greenwich Village. We will never forget the taste and the beautiful mood of that evening. Prof. Chou became our great mentor and we had a close relationship throughout the years since then.

The most important impact of Prof. Chou’s influence on me was not only to use basic composition techniques to write music, but the in-depth study of both Chinese and Western cultures, which would provide inspiration for getting creative concepts and methods for controlling and developing musical elements. The outcome would be unique, in our own language. Prof. Chou inspired me a lot with compositional concepts that unite Eastern and Western styles and techniques. In our early years at Columbia, I also translated many program notes of Prof. Chou’s compositions into Chinese, when his works were being played in Mainland China and Taiwan. I enjoyed doing that because Prof. Chou’s notes are so poetic and beautifully written in English that you have to concentrate hard to find how to say these things correctly in Chinese, in a way that will keep their beautiful literary character and not make them just a frank, straight reciting of facts.

Zhou Long and I also produced a series of programs for Shanghai Dong Fang Radio to introduce 20th-century music. We had one and a half hours in three half-hour segments devoted to the music of Prof. Chou. I compiled all of the materials about his music, wrote the texts for the programs, and discussed his creations in various periods and styles: The first was about the early works of the late ‘40s and ‘50s, like Landscapes (1949) and And the Fallen Petals (1954), which are important orchestral pieces that have been played by many of the major orchestras. Then in the second program came the more abstract style of writing heard in Cursive (1963) and even more so in a very complex score like Yun (1969), which is extremely sophisticated. The third program was devoted to his later works. These three radio programs were widely heard in China and musicians continue to talk about them.

These experiences opened up my view and helped me to break boundaries and find my own voice – as, for example, writing in the style of Chinese musical storytelling, and the reciting tunes in Beijing Opera. I consider this my turning point in terms of new compositional language, concept, and technique. In the technical aspects of composition, Prof. Chou was very precise. He would look at any score carefully first, and he would recommend improvements; then, if I would come back the next week, he would look at it again, then circle a note and say: “Look at that note! You did not fix it. Can you tell me a reason?”

Chen Yi with Chou Wen-chung at the piano.

Chen Yi with Chou Wen-chung at the piano.

Prof. Chou was very precise. He would look at any score carefully first, and he would recommend improvements; then, if I would come back the next week, he would look at it again, then circle a note and say: “Look at that note! You did not fix it. Can you tell me a reason?”

He also showed us paintings and calligraphy, and he would tell us how he thought of these as counterpoint. He would look at brush strokes on the page and he would see the space between the inner and outer edges of the stroke and the way that it changed as a sort of counterpoint. My pipa solo piece The Points uses an idea like this. In calligraphy, every stroke begins with a point. After you set down the first dot, you turn the brush to make the different strokes that you want; so, the point, the beginning of each stroke, is very important in drawing Chinese calligraphy. Prof. Chou asked me and inspired me to write this piece, which was premiered at the New Music Consort’s season concert devoted to Chinese composers’ music, as part of the NEWworksOCTOBER concert series at Columbia University in 1991, and it won me a reputation because it has been widely performed. In China, it has been the subject of a thesis and it is now a required piece for musicians who study pipa performance at the conservatory as well as in many competitions.

When I was a DMA student at Columbia, Prof. Chou recommended me to become a part of an ISCM film production called Sound and Silence (which was co-produced by Polish National Television and French Adamov Films) and this series introduced my new chamber works to international audiences through European TV networks in 1989. This is a ten-film series dedicated to contemporary music, featuring 20 composers from 19 countries (including 2 from China: I was the one from the Mainland, and the other one was from Hong Kong). Each composer had a half-hour program with his/her music performed, with the composer as one of the performers; there was also an interview by the host, Polish composer Zygmunt Krauze, then the president of ISCM. I played the violin in my own sextet, Near Distance, and sang in my own trio, As in a Dream for soprano, violin and cello. My Woodwind Quintet was also presented in the program. The other half-hour segment along with my program in the hour was Luciano Berio representing Italy. I played two movements in his violin duet collections. Before I left for Poland, Prof. Chou’s wife, Yi-An gave me a lot of clothes – many dresses! “This one could be suitable… That one… Here, try this one…” She took me into her walk-in closet, and looked through all dresses in shelves up to the celling… You could see the dress in the film.

I also sat in on my classmate David Tsang’s private lessons, invited by Prof. Chou. Prof. Chou analyzed his own concerto for cello and orchestra and other works for us, showing us how he designed his pieces with charts. There are different colors assigned to particular aspects or music elements in the structure. One color would represent pitch material, another dynamics, some others would control tension and density, part distribution, timbre, sonority, orchestration, and so on. It was very inspiring to me because I used to write music without a detailed plan covering many aspects. This is a very different and practical method in composition experience. He encouraged us to study Western contemporary music in-depth and gave me his former teaching syllabus in new music analysis, and introduced analysis of music by Varèse, Schoenberg, Webern, Ives, and others. You can’t compose in a unique style until you really learn all cultures well and then can create your own work as a hybrid and speak in your own language.

I studied with Prof. Chou for three years, and one of those years overlapped with my work with Prof. Mario Davidovsky for electronic music composition. When Prof. Chou retired, I worked with Mario for five years until I finished the DMA program, as he supervised my dissertation work. Zhou Long’s dissertation was supervised by Prof. George Edwards, after years of study with Prof. Chou and Prof. Davidovsky. We remained very close to our professors from Columbia University. During the past three decades, Prof. Chou attended almost all concerts with my new works premiered in New York City, including my octet Sparkle and mixed quartet Qi performed by New Music Consort, my China West Suite for two pianos performed by Dennis Russell Davies and Maki Namekawa at the Lincoln Center Summer Festival in 2007, my string quartet At the Kansas City Chinese New Year Concert by the Ying Quartet, and my Si Ji (Four Seasons) performed by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Most at Carnegie Hall in 2005. My Si Ji was dedicated to Professor Chou and was selected as one of the Pulitzer Prize Finalists in 2006. Prof. Chou called me to send his congratulations when he learned the good news.

Chen Yi with Chou Wen-chung during a reception at Carnegie Hall

Chen Yi with Chou Wen-chung during a reception at Carnegie Hall following the Cleveland Orchestra’s performance of Chen Yi’s composition Si Ji on October 17, 2005. The piece, which was dedicated to Prof. Chou, was later selected as one of the finalists for 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Music.

During the past three decades, Prof. Chou attended almost all concerts with my new works premiered in New York City.

During the time I studied at Columbia University, I also worked as an administrative assistant at his Center for US-China Arts Exchange for three years, and closely witnessed his hard work, which made a huge contribution to the US-China music education and arts exchange. He was busy teaching at Columbia, but he had to raise money, write many reports for the Center and take care of administrative work. Prof. Chou never used the Center’s facilities or equipment for himself. He was very clear that every cent raised should go directly to the projects that the Center was working on. When I was working there, people would come and ask for a sample of his music. I asked him, “Can I just make one copy here?” but he said, “No. Make a copy outside and give me the receipt.” He never even made a copy of his own music with the Center’s copy machine.

During my work at the Center, we participated in two important composers’ conferences organized by the Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange and led by Prof. Chou. One was the Conference on Tradition and the Future of Chinese Music held in New York in 1988. It’s the first time since 1949 that distinguished composers from Mainland China and Taiwan, separated by the sea, each had ten representatives who sat down together at Columbia University to have artistic discussions and a cultural exchange. They found so much in common in tradition and creation! The other was the Pacific Composers’ Conference, part of the Pacific Music Festival held in Sapporo, Japan in 1990, which gathered established composers and dozens of excellent young composers from many countries and areas in the Pacific Rim. Their ages ranged from early 20s to late 70s. The festival included concerts, seminars, lectures, and exhibitions for cultural exchange. He enthusiastically supported many young artists around the world.

20 composers from Mainland China and Taiwan walking down the steps of City Hall in new York City.

Chinese Composers Conference with 10 composers from Mainland China and 10 composers from Taiwan for the first time since 1949, in front of NY City Hall on August 8,1988 following a meeting with then NYC Mayor Edward I. Koch. Prof. Wu Zuqiang is in the front row and Prof. Chou is on the right. The Center for US-China Arts Exchange organized the conference. (Chen Yi, who was one of the 10 composers from Mainland China chosen to participate, is in the middle.)

Prof. Chou Wen-chung was truly a wenren (artist-scholar, Renaissance Man). He was a great creative artist and mentor who combined literature, music, and art, all in one.

When I first came to the States, the Central Philharmonic Orchestra from China premiered my Duo Ye No. 2 at Lincoln Center in 1987, but Prof. Chou had to attend another concert with his own work premiered in New Jersey. Nevertheless, he arranged for a huge bunch of beautiful flowers made by his wife Yi-An to be given to me on stage!  He also invited us to enjoy Thanksgiving holiday and learn American culture in his country house. Years later, when he visited UMKC Conservatory where we teach, he brought me a meaningful and beautiful gift: a fancy, richly illustrated volume (12” x 10”, 4 lbs), The Path of Beauty: A Study of Chinese Aesthetics by Li Zehou, translated by Gong Lizeng, and published in Beijing by Morning Glory Publishers in 1988. He said, “I think that you would love it and need it especially for your teaching in English.” I was deeply touched when he handed the book to me. Prof. Chou Wen-chung was truly a wenren (artist-scholar, Renaissance Man). He was a great creative artist and mentor who combined literature, music, and art, all in one. He wanted to be a person who gave as much as possible to the whole world. He is my role model and has encouraged me to keep working harder in music creation and teaching for our society.


Zhou Long, Chang Yi-An and Chou Wen-chung

Zhou Long (left) with Chou Wen-chung and his wife Chang Yi-An.

Additional reflections by Zhou Long

Professor Chou Wen-chung was among the first overseas composers to visit the Central Conservatory in Beijing and it made a deep impression on a group of young composers there.

In the late 1970s, Professor Chou Wen-chung was among the first overseas composers to visit the Central Conservatory in Beijing and it made a deep impression on a group of young composers there. His music immediately attracted me, such as his Yu Ko and other orchestral works. His aesthetic concept is based on the philosophy of the intellectuals from older times who played the qin, and on the ancient poetry of China. I composed Song of the Ch’in for string quartet and Su for flute and qin (ch’in) before I came to study overseas, both of which were very strongly influenced by Prof. Chou’s introduction of Chinese scholarly music to us.

After graduation from the Central Conservatory in 1983, I was assigned as the Composer-in-Residence for the China National Broadcasting Corporation. In 1985, I became the first composition student from Beijing admitted to Columbia University in New York City to study with Prof. Chou through the introduction of Mr. Li Ling, a family friend who was the vice president of the Chinese Musicians Association. On one of Prof. Chou’s visits to China, Mr. Li passed along some of my compositions including my first recordings of my orchestral works and Chinese instrumental compositions along with a broadcasting concert recording to Prof. Chou, who took them back to the composition admission committee at Columbia. There, the professors on the committee included Prof. Chou as the head, along with Profs. Mario Davidovsky, and Jack Beeson. They reviewed my scores and awarded me a full scholarship.

While I took some courses and composition lessons with Prof. Chou, he realized that I was very lonely, and he wanted to help bring my wife Chen Yi to study at Columbia University with me. He knew that she was an excellent student.

I had a cultural shock when I first arrived New York, and I encountered many ideas that were new to me. For two years, from 1985 until 1987, I didn’t compose anything. While I took some courses and composition lessons with Prof. Chou, he realized that I was very lonely, and he wanted to help bring my wife Chen Yi to study at Columbia University with me. He knew that she was an excellent student of Prof. Wu Zuqiang, who was the president of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and a close friend of Prof. Chou’s, who helped leading the US-China arts exchange activities in China. Chen Yi arrived in New York in 1986. Prof. Chou then guided me to learn not only from traditional Chinese music, but also to explore wider traditions such as East Asian cultures, including music from Japan and Korea. He also gave me concert tickets to attend the opera Einstein on the Beach and the Netherland’s ballet with Bolero during the first two years of my study in the US. He encouraged me to study with his colleagues, Professors George Edwards and Mario Davidovsky. In 1987, I started to compose again, with Wu Ji for piano and electronic sound, and a mixed quintet, Dhyana for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. The score of Dhyana is dedicated to Prof. Chou since he gave me so much inspiration and input when I composed the piece, from the concept and the philosophy, to textures and structures. After eight years at Columbia, I received my Doctoral of Musical Arts degree in 1993. When I was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for my first opera Madame White Snake in 2011, Prof. Chou called me on the phone to congratulate me warmly. I feel deeply grateful for his mentorship and support.

You must believe in your artistic vision, then your compositions can stand out.

I think the most important aspect of my work with Prof. Chou involved his theories of composition and creation. Prof. Chou’s educational philosophy is culturally oriented. Today people can accept a wider range of styles, but that’s not the issue. You must believe in your artistic vision, then your compositions can stand out. Prof. Chou Wen-chung’s vision and effort established the international status of our generation of Chinese composers.

Chen Yi, Zhou Long. Chou Wen-chung, Paul Rudy, Kihei Mukai, and James Mobberley

Chen Yi, Zhou Long. Chou Wen-chung, Paul Rudy, Mukai Kohei (then a DMA student of Chen Yi and Zhou Long’s at UMKC), and James Mobberley following a newEar ensemble concert in Kansas City featuring music by Professor Chou and his teacher Edgard Varèse in 2001.


[Ed. Note: Back in January 2013, we recorded an extensive interview with Chou Wen-chung for NewMusicBox. His “vivid voice,” as Chen Yi so aptly described in, comes across in the video presentation from that talk. You can read a transcript of that entire conversation elsewhere on this site.—FJO]

Irreverent and Profound—Remembering Christopher Rouse (1949-2019)

A man and a woman in formal attire

The passing of Chris Rouse is an enormous loss. Chris was not only one of the great composers of our time, he was also a great friend and colleague.

I first met Chris in the early 1990s when I programmed his Trombone Concerto. I was first drawn to the piece because of its dedication my mentor and teacher, Leonard Bernstein, but quickly fell under the spell of the brilliant music itself. I decided to program it at the Cabrillo Festival, marking the start of a deep and long lasting relationship between the Cabrillo Festival and Chris Rouse. (I think I remain the only conductor to program an all Chris Rouse concert!)

The Trombone Concerto remains one of the trickiest and most challenging pieces that I ever conducted. But, wow, what a payoff. And that’s how I would describe most of Chris’s music: unbelievably challenging, but worth every second of the work required.

Chris’s music: unbelievably challenging, but worth every second of the work required.

Chris came to Cabrillo almost every summer and the musicians and audiences couldn’t get enough of his crazed creativity. When they saw I programmed a Rouse piece, the musicians immediately bumped up their practice exponentially! His modesty and biting wit were always present, yet his kind heart ever evident.

Marin Alsop and Christopher Rouse during an outside pre-concert talk at the Cabrillo Music Festival

Marin Alsop and Christopher Rouse during a pre-concert talk at the Cabrillo Music Festival

Little did I know that I would end up Music Director of Chris’s hometown orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony, and that we would live just 2 miles away from each other. What a special treat to be able to run over to his house to grill him about a Prokofiev Symphony or get his programming thoughts on Orff, or bring him Oreos when desperation struck. We developed a deep friendship that would span almost 30 years. I loved his irreverence and his profundity.

Chris was a collector, and a collector of unexpected things: meteorites, records, guns. He started collecting composers’ signatures when he was a kid and amassed what I imagine is the largest private collection of composers’ autographs in the world. He knew how much I loved Brahms (because we argued about Brahms regularly) and gave me his Brahms autograph last week…kind hearted to the end.

His music is not just wild and crazy, it also grabs our hearts at the most fundamental and human core.

Chris had an encyclopedic knowledge of music (and many other things, too!) from rock ‘n’ roll and pop to many overlooked composers of the past. But his music is not just wild and crazy, it also grabs our hearts at the most fundamental and human core and moves us to feel the profundity of our existence. Many listeners have come to me after a Rouse performance to share that they finally feel relief from a tragedy or a trauma. His music captures our souls, expresses our vulnerabilities and gives us comfort.

This is what music is all about – this is the power of music. And this is how I will always remember my dear friend, Chris Rouse.

Christopher Rouse and Marin Alsop holding hands on stage in front of members of an orchestra.

Christopher Rouse comes on stage to take a bow with Marin Alsop and the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra

Fierce and Tender Humanity—Remembering Mario Davidovsky (1934-2019)

A photo of a woman and two men

I was reading various posts online and absorbing the news that Mario Davidovsky had died, when I received an email asking if I’d like to write a personal reminiscence for NewMusicBox. I was moved and said yes. As I thought about it in the days following, I felt I had pretty much summed up my thoughts on Mario’s music and values in an essay I wrote for celebrations of his 80th birthday. But I appreciate the chance to think more on his personality and my relationship with him, and to add to the wonderful flood of reminiscences, photos and stories about him.

Mario was a passionately involved member of society and the music world.

Composing modernist music is an esoteric activity within the general culture, but Mario made substantial connections with a great number of people. He was a passionately involved member of society and the music world. A lot of people have noted his generosity nurturing other artists, his integrity, his vehemently stated opinions, his volubility and notoriously long conversations that would range over world history, science, religion, politics.

In recent years I would call Mario for no particular reason, just to check in and chat. We talked about music and musicians, of course, but also Silicon Valley, environmental problems, branches of religious philosophy, the big cultural institutions, changing sources of funding. Mario played violin in his youth and that was certainly part of my rapport with him. Another commonality was the Jewish diaspora: both his family and mine (my grandfather) left Europe due to persecution and immigrated to countries in the southern hemisphere (Argentina and Australia respectively). He was always eager to hear about my “peripecias” after I’d been traveling and we’d compare Spain’s characteristics with South America, or the variety of Asian cultures, or one American city’s scene with another. He’d been to many of these places.

Mario Davidovsky (as a child) playing the violin

This old photo was sent to me by Mario’s nephew and Mario chuckled over it. It’s Mario playing violin, next to his mother and sisters.

By the time I really got to know Mario, he was mainly devoting his time to taking care of his wife Elaine, an elegant former dancer who was ailing for some years and passed away in 2017. He would say, “I hardly go out anymore, I’m at home always” and it was without question where he wanted to be, by Elaine’s side. But he’d also say “Tell me what’s happening! What do you see out there? Have you heard anything good?”  I would tell him about interesting concerts going on, and what pieces and programs I was playing. Often he would say “Oh yes, So-and-so was at the Conference in the 1990s” or some other decade, and proceed to describe their music then and whatever he had heard of theirs since, and any news or tidbits of rumors he’d heard about their doings.

He was often warm in his assessment of composers but occasionally he’d say, “Ay, but the music is sheeeet!”

He was often warm in his assessment of composers but occasionally he’d say, “Ay, but the music is sheeeet!” About music I was playing that he wasn’t familiar with, he’d ask “What’s it like?” I loved his challenge to express not just its basic characteristics or the inspiration behind it, but to describe from my observation what was happening in the music itself, how its elements seemed to relate.

I first met Mario in 2004 through composer Matthew Greenbaum, who had studied with and known Mario a long time. He invited violist Stephanie Griffin to perform the Davidovsky String Trio on a concert in New York and she asked me to play. I was enthralled with his music from the start. (Stephanie’s group, the Momenta Quartet, was formed from this and I played with the quartet in its first few years. They will perform the String Trio again on October 15 at the Americas Society).

Mario Davidovsky and Miranda Cuckson with John Harbison

Mario Davidovsky and Miranda Cuckson with John Harbison at Wellesley on November 8, 2015 (photo courtesy Miranda Cuckson).

I was very excited about Mario’s pieces and I soon explored and performed more: the Duo Capriccioso, Synchronisms No. 9, three of the four Quartettos, Romancero, the Biblical Songs, Chacona. I got to play all of these for him. As I said in that essay, Mario took many ideas he gleaned from his work with electronics and used them in his acoustic chamber music. In rehearsal he talked about the startling effects of simultaneities and blended sonorities, the singing passages. He emphasized abrupt shifts, saying the effect of switching from non-vibrato to vibrato should be sudden “like you pushed a button,” urging to press down very close to the bridge for noisy attacks marked “coarse!”, then asking for playing at the limits of extreme quiet. Contrasts were not only about dynamics but timbral qualities, from hits and snaps that were hard as stone to gentle, held tones of soft velvet.

For someone known for his work with technology, Mario’s musicality was very linked to older styles of playing.

For someone known for his work with technology, Mario’s musicality was very linked to older styles of playing. In modern music, glissandos are often played gradually and evenly to draw out the sliding effect, but Mario repeatedly said that his glissandos were a “real portamento,” that is, a quick slide coming at the end of the note, in the style of Fritz Kreisler or Mischa Elman. In a number of Mario’s pieces, such as Duo Capriccioso and the Quartettos, there are spurts of fast spiccato passages or arpeggiated ricochet bowings, and he’d say they should be tossed off “like in Wieniawski, Sarasate.” Sometimes as Mario listened to his music, he would sway his upper body and make expressive gesticulations, as if he were playing along. It makes me think about my former teacher, the violinist Felix Galimir, who was often described as playing like he composed the music himself. To me, Mario composed like he was playing the music himself—the character of his music came so much from the physicality of playing the instruments, even (or especially) when striving for dramatic effects inspired by electronic music.

Mario Davidovsky (Photo by Thomas Roma)

One of the few promotional images of Mario Davidovsky who was not very cooperative with photos. (Photo by Thomas Roma, courtesy C.F. Peters.)

Mario’s cultural roots were the core of his being, as was his own family. He was immersed in the music community, ready to wade into the thick of things, but if his family needed attention, he would drop everything to be with them. After Elaine passed, he said he was very lonely. There were people calling him, coming by to visit, and he was very appreciative. But he felt sad and alone without his dearest companion and I think was also, in his philosophical Jewish way, dealing with his existential sense of being a solitary soul in the world.

Mario’s cultural roots were the core of his being.

Once when I wrote him something sympathetic, he replied “I never suspected that loneliness could be so overwhelmingly infinite….God must be the utmost lonely thing in the universe—he only has himself…. At least, I have Zabars and can get some cheese and bagels!!!!”  It was a joking nudge because we sometimes ran into each other shopping at Zabar’s (indeed often in the cheese section).

I will miss his vast and loving support, his calling me “Querida Miranda” and saying “Heyyyyy!” when he recognized my voice on the phone. I hear the sounds and piquant cadence of his voice all the time now, just as I hear his fierce and tender humanity in his music.


[Ed. note: Back in 2006, we recorded an in-depth conversation with Mario Davidovsky which is one of the treasures of the NewMusicBox archives. Below is a film of highlights from that talk, but the entire transcript is also still available online. —FJO]

Mario Davidovsky in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded on February 15, 2006, 11:00 a.m., in Davidovsky’s New York City apartment
Video presentation by Randy Nordschow

From Folk Song to the Outer Limits of Harmony—Remembering Ben Johnston (1926-2019)

A Caucasian man with his head titled, glasses and a white beard

I first saw Ben Johnston when I was a student at Oberlin, maybe 1976. The composers at the big Midwest music schools were in continual rotation as each other’s guest composers, which in itself was an amazing education. Ben lectured and played a recording of his Fourth String Quartet, based on the song “Amazing Grace.” He was a Quaker-bearded, good-humored, gruff, not very talkative fellow, and there was a peculiar contradiction, I think we all sensed, in this composer who had invented his own pitch notation and 22-pitch scale and written a score nearly black with ink using all these crazy polyrhythms of 35 against 36 and 7 against 8, 9, and 10 – all at the service of an old folk song anyone’s grandmother could sing. Conservative versus avant-garde was how we divided the music world up at that time. Where the hell did this fit?

Ben Johnston sitting and writing on a piece of music paper.

Ben Johnston in 1976.

Forty-odd years later, several of them spent working with him, I still think there’s an essence to Ben that in the current musical climate can only be seen as a paradox: he was a down-to-earth, populist visionary. I truly think that he thought there were no limits to what pitch and rhythm relationships musicians could learn to play, as long as the approach to the difficulties was gradual and intelligible. Famously, the third movement of his Seventh String Quartet contains more than 1200 pitches to the octave. It is structured around a 176-note microtonal scale that glacially traverses one octave over 177 measures, and, written in 1984, it remained on the page until the Kepler Quartet recorded it a couple of years ago. But it is carefully written so that if the players can get their perfect fourths and seventh harmonics in tune, they can creep securely, interval by interval, through this free, gridless, infinite pitch space – astronauts of harmony, floating beyond the gravity of A 440. The conceptual achievement leaves Boulez and Stockhausen in the dust. Moment by moment, the music can sound as mild as Ned Rorem.

The conceptual achievement leaves Boulez and Stockhausen in the dust.

Ben had a strange mind, and I say that up front only because he often frankly said so. He thought he had some kind of mental disorder, possibly caused by being taught to meditate wrong by the Gurdjieff cult in the early ‘60s – this is what he repeatedly told me, even in interviews. He was always trying various remedies. When I studied with him privately in 1983-86 (post-doctorate), he was on medication that made him very quiet. He would look at my score for fifteen minutes without speaking, and then say something incisive and profound. A few years later he was controlling his problems via diet. I went to a conference with him, where I was going to interview him onstage: the night before, he kept me up until two in the morning, talking nonstop. His Catholic priest in Champaign-Urbana recommended he go to a Zen temple in Chicago, and so for a couple of years that’s where he and I met, and I started going through the Zen services with him. Those were wonderful, and the lessons afterward took place in a blissful haze.

Ben Johnston in 1962

Ben Johnston in 1962

I do think that, whatever was strange about Ben’s mind, it was what made his music possible. At age twelve, attending a lecture on Debussy, he was introduced to Helmholtz’s On the Sensations of Tone, the foundational treatise on acoustics that first appeared in English in 1875. He spoke about it as though it confirmed for him what he already sensed: that the music we play has something wrong with its tuning. At age 17, after a concert of his music, he was interviewed by the Richmond Times Dispatch (where his father was managing editor, admittedly), and predicted, “with the clarification of the scale which physics has given to music there will be new instruments with new tones and overtones.” This was 1944. Harry Partch’s Genesis of a Music wasn’t even published yet. By 1950 Ben was in grad school at Cincinnati Conservatory, and someone gave him a copy of Partch’s then-new book, with its outline of his 43-tone microtonal scale and perceptive history of the vicissitudes of tuning over the centuries.

Thrilled to find another musician who shared his misgivings about tuning, Ben wrote to Partch asking to study with him. Partch, who once wrote that he would “happily strangle” anyone who claimed to have been his student, took him on as an apprentice and repairman instead, and so Ben went to live for six months on Partch’s ranch in Gualala, California. Partch liked to have only young men in his orbit, and was affronted when Ben’s wife Betty arrived in tandem, but Betty Johnston was a powerhouse, and eased her way into Partch’s reluctant affections. Ben later wrote that Partch

could have wished for a carpenter or for a percussionist… But he had one thing he had not counted on: someone who understood his theory without explanation, and who could hear and reproduce the pitch relations accurately.

Ben Johnston, wearing a jacket and tie, sitting outside with Harry Partch in 1974

Ben Johnston with Harry Partch at Partch’s home in 1974.

Ben’s preternatural ability to hear and reproduce exotic intervals was the one intimidating thing about studying with him. My brain not being strange in the same way, I spent years training myself to hear eleventh harmonics and syntonic commas using primitive digital technology, and to this day I would never attempt to coach an ensemble to play one of his string quartets. When I came to his house he liked to play me whatever he was working on. Once, in the early weeks, it was a piece for trumpet and piano called The Demon-Lover’s Doubles, of which he played me the piano part. His piano was tuned for maximum consonance in G major with some peculiar pitches outside that diatonic scale, and as he started, it seemed like an oddly homespun, tuneful little piece. Then, magically, his piano started going sourly out of tune and got weirder and weirder, and I was thinking, “Man, you’d think Ben would tune his piano.” Finally, of course, he returned from his modulations into distant keys, and in G major the piano sounded fine again. I just remember sitting there thinking, “Huh.”

In that experience is the alpha and omega of Ben’s vision. What fascinated him, I think, was how vastly just intonation and the higher harmonics expand the range of consonance and dissonance, in both directions. You can have so many flavors of harmony: triads purely in tune, edgy Pythagorean triads, chords with exotic upper harmonics, dark chords from a subharmonic series, excruciating chords specifically out of tune by a comma here or there, bell-like chords related by higher harmonics, grating seventh chords with deliberately mismatched ratios, tight clusters – the route from purity to noise is no longer a line but a large three- or four-dimensional space.

One of Ben Johnston's pitch charts.

One of Ben Johnston’s pitch charts.

Many, many microtonal composers, I think, are looking for a total alternative to our tuning system, total exoticism, experimenting with how far we can adapt to new intervals, adding new complexities beyond what twelve-tone music provided. Ben wasn’t. Ben was never disappointed in the major triad. For Ben, the tonal music system that we’d developed over the last few centuries was a template, a first draft, a worthwhile approximation, but only a fragment of the universe he could hear. Seventeenth-century theorists like Marin Mersenne and Christiaan Huygens had argued for including the seventh harmonic as a consonance; Giambattista Doni (c. 1594-1647) wrote music using the eleventh harmonic. Theoretically, Ben goes back to that era and accepts those arguments. Keep the system, but add back in what was prohibited. Thus, unlike the general run of modernists, he could envision a brave new world without ever having to reject or exclude anything.

Cage and Xenakis may have wanted to reinvent music, but Ben saw a way to keep the foundation and keep building.

And so we have “Amazing Grace,” which so anchors one of the most avant-garde works of 1973 that the audience can hum along with it the first time they hear it. Also the sentimental old tune “Danny Boy,” which gradually emerges from the last-movement variations of Ben’s Tenth Quartet, and the folk song “Lonesome Valley” which is the subject of his Fifth Quartet, and the folk tune in The Demon-Lover’s Double. Cage and Xenakis, whom he knew well, may have wanted to reinvent music from the ground up, but Ben saw a way to keep the foundation and keep building.

Ben Johnston with The Kepler Quartet in 2015

Ben Johnston with The Kepler Quartet in 2015 (Photo by Jon Roy).

What’s amazing about his use of old folk tunes is how devoid of nostalgia it is. He’s not like Charles Ives, with “Beulah Land” faintly heard above the dissonant chords below; there is no modernity with which the songs’ innocence is contrasted. His “Amazing Grace” grows step-by-step from five pitches to twenty-three as though all those pitches were implicitly in there to begin with – which I imagine to his ears they were! It is difficult, probably, for most of us new-music types to take “Danny Boy” as seriously as he did, but for him it was simply a familiar item of our culture from which new implications could still be drawn. He didn’t have to renounce the naïve perspective on music to see through to the other side of the musical universe. And this is why some of Ben’s works will always appeal even to people who don’t like abrasive modernism.

That’s certainly not to deny that Ben’s music could be thorny. He kept writing twelve-tone music, in just intonation, and I once asked him why. He replied, “Well, I had learned all that theory, and I didn’t want it to go to waste.” Since he said almost everything with a slight smile, I’m not sure I ever knew when he was kidding. His Sixth Quartet draws the principle of endless melody from a twelve-tone row that consists of the first six non-repeating harmonics of D and the first six subharmonics of D#. The row matrix for the piece contains 61 different pitches. Even though it uses a twelve-tone row, though, each hexachord is actually a tonality in itself, so you do hear the harmony shift back and forth between major and minor – or between otonalities and utonalities, as we microtonalists say. At the time I wrote a rave review of the Sixth Quartet for the Chicago Reader and Ben said, “I think you like that piece better than I do.”

One piece I analyzed had some repeated pizzicatos in the cello that didn’t fit into the structure, and I asked him where they came from. He looked, and said, “Oh, that was to give the audience something to listen to while I worked out this contrapuntal problem.” That was a lesson: that the composer and the audience could want different things from a piece, and that both could be satisfied.

The composer and the audience could want different things from a piece, and both could be satisfied.

As with Partch, I also insist that Ben should get credit for his rhythmic innovations as much as for his microtonality. In the Fifth Quartet “Lonesome Road” floats above a bobbling sea of polytempos, and in the Fourth Quartet there’s a long rhythm of 35 against 36 (analogous to what we call the septimal comma), involving different meters in the various instruments. Back when I was younger and smarter, I once successfully parsed it, but I’ve never figured it out again since. He was a great proponent of Henry Cowell’s theories that pitch and rhythm, both being number based, could be developed analogously and in the same directions – that was the principle, of course, of his first hit tune, Knocking Piece, which became a percussionist’s standard. That he was focused on extending musical language in terms of both pitch and rhythm has limited his influence among the mass of composers who think there’s nothing new to be done in those directions, but when we’re ready he’s left us a foundation for a radically new music.

Ben never proselytized for microtones or just intonation. He imposed no stylistic dogma. Like so many American experimentalists, he himself was stylistically multilingual: he wrote chance music, twelve-tone music, conceptualist works, a musical, and a surprising amount of his output is in a neoclassic vein, with standard forms like sonata-allegro and variations. Neo-romanticism, I think, is the only idiom he avoided, which is not to say his music couldn’t be deeply moving; he just wasn’t sentimental. In 1983 I asked to study privately with him because I loved his music (I never attended the University of Illinois where he taught for 35 years), but I didn’t want to get into microtonality, which seemed like too much work. That was fine with him, but at my first lesson he looked at a chord I’d written and remarked how beautiful it would be if tuned properly, and he reeled off the ratios. With a shock I realized I understood just what he was saying. It was as if a huge iron door had slammed shut behind me. I was in his world and couldn’t go back.

I didn’t need to. The microtonal notation he invented opened the universe to me, and I learned to think in it fluently. My own microtonal music, more single-minded and homogenous than his (not to mention more cautious – god, that Seventh Quartet!), inherited his worldview of microtones as an extension of tonality rather than an alternative. I would be remiss here if I failed to mention another of his microtonal students, Toby Twining, who, in his Chrysalid Requiem (2002), developed Ben’s ideas into one of the most impressive feats of musical architecture ever perpetrated, incredibly complicated yet unearthly beautiful. That’s a legacy.

Ben Johnston as a child driving a toy car.

A 10-year-old Ben Johnston in 1936. He was already eager to explore.

I remember once in Ben’s medicated days we had him over for dinner, and he played solitaire obsessively while we were preparing dinner. After he retired we visited him in Rocky Mount, where Ben and Betty, equally strong characters, practically barked at each other, but clearly with no lack of affection. He was a crucial link between me and several other people I didn’t meet until later, all of whom were devoted to him: Bill Duckworth, Neely Bruce, Bob Gilmore. I last saw Ben in 2010 at a microtonal conference. He could barely get around. After I delivered a paper about his music he tottered up to say “thank you,” and I replied, “No, thank YOU!” He looked up from his walker with a big grin and gruffly growled, “YOU’RRRE WELCOME!” That meant the world to me: I needed him to acknowledge how much he had done for me. A few years later I called to tell him that he appeared as a character in Richard Powers’s novel Orfeo, about the University of Illinois’s music department in the 1960s. His mind was deteriorated by Parkinson’s, and the next day his caretaker called me saying Ben was under the impression that some kind of copyright infringement had taken place and he needed a lawyer. I set his mind at rest and assured him it was a compliment.

And once when I was a young, new home-owner with a lawn to keep up, I was driving Ben somewhere and we passed a vacant lot covered with blooming dandelions. I made a slighting reference to the plant, and Ben just said, “But they’re awfully beautiful, aren’t they?” That was a lesson too. He was a lovely soul, and a caliber of musical mind we will not see again.

Ben Johnston and Kyle Gann c. 1994 (Photo by Bill Duckworth)

Ben Johnston and Kyle Gann c. 1994 (Photo by Bill Duckworth, courtesy Kyle Gann)

A Few Things You Might Not Know About Vivian Perlis (1928-2019)

Two caucasian women and a man at a concert

Most NewMusicBox readers probably already know a few things about Vivian Perlis. She founded Yale’s Oral History of American Music (OHAM) after interviewing dozens of people who knew and worked with Charles Ives. Using those interviews, she wrote the award-winning book, Charles Ives Remembered: An Oral History. She later conducted interviews with some of America’s most prominent composers, including extensive work with Aaron Copland. Their interviews became the basis for his autobiography, which Vivian co-authored. She co-produced documentaries about John Cage, Eubie Blake, Copland, and Ives. Musicologists Carol Oja and Judith Tick commented that Perlis was “an intrepid chronicler of the American musical experience and has done so by honoring the voices of those whose story she tells. She has accomplished this as an amiable powerhouse, fusing the roles of scholar, archivist, administrator, fundraiser, film-maker, and writer—not to mention wife, mother, and professional harpist. In the process, she established Oral History of American Music . . . forging a hybrid field and an equally visionary and distinctive professional identity.”

Here, perhaps, are a few things you might not know about Vivian Perlis:

Her career in oral history almost ended before it began.

Vivian was in a serious car accident as a young child. She sustained injuries to her face that required multiple surgeries. Her mother was concerned these injuries might prevent young Vivian from speaking properly. It’s emblematic of Vivian’s determination that she not only spoke, but made a career out of having conversations – and that these recorded conversations contributed mightily to American music history.

She grew up with a Theremin in the house.

Vivian’s father had a wide range of interests and accomplishments. He ran his own company, the Applicator Brush Company and was an inventor who owned a patent related to artist brushes. He played a number of instruments. He made delightful sculptures out of matchsticks. And he became a master of origami. Well before science fiction movies brought the theremin to popular attention, her dad brought one home for the family to play.

She was a master of disguise.

Vivian, a glamorous woman with a keen sense of style, recognized she needed to tone it down.

Her first interviewees for the Ives Project were some aged, conservative people in Danbury, Connecticut. Vivian, a glamorous woman with a keen sense of style, recognized she needed to tone it down with these Yankees. She wore white gloves and no makeup, and she forced herself to drink tea rather than her preferred coffee.

She played a gig with Cat Mother & the All Night Newsboys at the Electric Circus in the East Village around 1971.

Vivian was an accomplished harpist who played with the New Haven Symphony. When the country rock band Cat Mother & the All Night Newsboys needed a harp for one of their pieces, Vivian got the gig. She performed at the legendary hippie haven, Electric Circus, wearing an outlandish mini dress and a flowing hair piece. She probably left her white gloves in Danbury with the Ives interviewees!

She met Mel Brooks, who had a big crush on her.

Vivian would regale us with the tale of meeting Mel Brooks when she was in Los Angeles. Apparently, they hit it off. Surely Mel recognized Vivian’s ready sense of humor. She mentioned that Mel would call every so often, and if her husband, Sandy, answered, he’d berate Sandy for staying married to Vivian when she was indeed Mel’s true love. It seemed all in good fun. Anyway, Mel Brooks didn’t stand a chance. Vivian and Sandy were a dazzling couple. By all accounts, these two very good-looking, intelligent, and cultured people shared a story-book romance and marriage.

She foraged for mushrooms with John Cage.

Cage was one of Vivian’s favorite composers.

Cage was one of Vivian’s favorite composers. She befriended him and documented his work at a time when it was more often embraced by artists and choreographers than by musicians. While making the engaging documentary, I Have Nothing to Say and I am Saying It, Vivian traveled to France where she filmed Cage’s hunt for mushrooms. She described in mouth-watering detail the gourmet meal they shared after presenting Cage’s bounty to the local chef in Fountainbleu.

She managed OHAM with kindness and compassion.

We hired a young mother to work at OHAM. One afternoon, she sat down on the office couch and fell deeply asleep. I surreptitiously nudged her, trying to coax her awake before Vivian, the boss, discovered her slumbering employee. Before I succeeded, Vivian noticed, and said, “Poor thing. She’s got three young kids at home. She must be tired. Let her sleep.”

Another person was hired for a job requiring a great deal of flexibility and multi-tasking. It quickly became apparent that this person was not at all suited to such work. Vivian found a way to restructure everyone’s assignments and to find a job that was perfectly suited to this employee’s skills and temperament. Would this be the approach to management taught at business school? I don’t know, but I do know that it inspired fierce loyalty and a highly productive work force.

She was a voracious reader.

Vivian was a fast and voracious reader. One of the last books she read was John Harbison’s What Do We Make of Bach? It sat on her bedside next to The Daily Zen Journal, a book written by her grandson, Charlie Ambler. And it was near Richard Powers’s The Overstory, a great yet demanding book she purchased when well into her final illness. Powers’s moving and ambitious work, The Time of Our Singing, was one of Vivian’s favorite novels.

She envisioned herself in service to the composers she interviewed.

An example of this would be her extensive work with Aaron Copland, a gay man born in 1900 who had been persecuted by Joseph McCarthy. Understandably, Copland refrained from discussing his sexual orientation in the interviews. It would have been unthinkable and somewhat tawdry for someone in his position to discuss this matter publicly at that time. The Copland/Perlis autobiography, which was based on these interviews, was later criticized for this omission — an easy judgment to make decades after the interviews, when societal norms and gay pride had changed the way the world viewed homosexuality. Vivian was aware of Copland’s homosexuality, but she made the hard choice to refrain from this subject and stood by her decision to serve the composer’s wishes.

She was open to new adventures.

At an age when many are contemplating a quiet retirement in Florida, Vivian joined her longtime friend, Wes York, and his husband, Bob Scrofani, in traveling far and wide to music festivals, art galleries, botanical gardens, and parties. I joined them for a meal before a Composer’s Portrait concert at Miller Theater. The fabulous food, fine wine, and animated conversation inspired my exclamation, “This is such convivial company!” Without missing a beat, Bob replied, “That’s because we’re the ConVivians!”

She recognized the magic around her.

Vivian savored experiences, had a great appetite for enjoyment, and saw the magic around her.

She returned from a concert and gushed about the marvels of this particular performance: “Such artistry! Such thrilling and innovative compositions! An unforgettable evening!” A colleague later mentioned that he went to the same concert, and it was only okay. I always felt that these alternate realities revealed a lot about each person. Vivian had a zest for life and a lively imagination. She savored experiences, had a great appetite for enjoyment, and saw the magic around her. Wouldn’t we all prefer to go through life that way? Those who were privileged to know her or to read her scholarly work and insightful interviews continue to benefit from her embrace of joy, culture, and good living.

Vivian Perlis outside a building at Yale.

Brilliant, Funny, and Fueled by Passion—Remembering Dominick Argento (1927-2019)

Dominick Argento in the audience for a performance in 2014. (Photo by Bruce Silcox, courtesy of VocalEssence and Boosey & Hawkes)

If you were a kid growing up in Minnesota in the 1960s and you were a kid with an intense hunger to create your own music, you found yourself growing up in a kind of Coney Island of creativity There was Big Reggie’s Danceland, a big old barn of a place where every weekend you, and as many of your friends as you could pack into your car, would dance to music of the hottest young rock groups like the Beach Boys, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Rolling Stones. Minneapolis was ground zero for the big bands of the Upper Midwest like The Trashmen and the Underbeats.  Some of your friends were even in those bands and they were producing big hits like “Surfin’ Bird” and “Foot Stompin’”.  It seemed that everyone was creating their own original music.

Every church in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul had at least one choir and everyone sang in at least one of them. If you had season tickets to the performing arts series at the newly opened Guthrie Theater, no matter where you sat you were no further than 52 feet from the stage you were awash in the energy and musical air of Janis Joplin, James Taylor, Mose Allison, and Miles Davis.

When you went to plays at the Guthrie Theater, the music for each play was newly composed and performed live.  If you had student season tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra, yes of course you would hear standard repertoire, but your head exploded with new works by Penderecki, Legeti, Skrowaczewski, and Lutosławski.

If you loved opera, you wrangled some tickets for the Center Opera (which you knew always produced new work) where you heard Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All, Carl Orff’s The Story of the King and the Wise Woman (Die Kluge), Eric Stokes’s Horspfalseason after season of newly conceived work.

Dominick Argento’s name was never on the programs at Big Reggie’s Danceland, but at the time it seemed that in the season of every other major performing arts organization, there he was!

Dominick Argento’s name was never on the programs at Big Reggie’s Danceland, but at the time it seemed that in the season of every other major performing arts organization, there he was!  He was a founder of the Center Opera company, opening their first season with his Masque of Angels and creating numerous chamber operas for them, including Postcard from Morocco, The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, A Waterbird Talkand many more.

At the Guthrie Theater we heard Dominick Argento’s scores for Shoemaker’s Holiday and House of Atreus. On the Guthrie Theater’s music season we heard Dominick Argento’s Letters from Composers and on the Minnesota Orchestra’s seasonDominick Argento’s Variations for Orchestra and Ring of Time. Not only did we hear his music, but he was always in the audience, listening, talking with people, part of the same world he was addressing with his music.

Being 17 years old then, and certain that I would go to the University of Minnesota, study voice, and become the next, biggest star of the Metropolitan Opera, it didn’t occur to me that Dominick Argento was also on the music faculty there.

At age 19, discovering that I loved to compose and, if I would take myself seriously, I could study composition with the master composers at the University of Minnesota, Dominick became my teacher and I became his student.

Dr. Argento (everyone called him this and nothing else) was a legendary professor.

Dr. Argento (everyone called him this and nothing else) was a legendary professor. He passed us in the halls, smiling (shyly?) but rarely stopping to engage any of us in conversation. We admired his focus, and his devotion to his work.  We students jockeyed for coveted positions in his classes, especially his History of Opera class. His lectures were brilliant, funny and fueled by his passion for and love of opera. Class after class he regaled us with stories about each opera, always colored from his composer’s perspective. He loved the human voice and would praise various singers who inspired operatic roles in the works we studied. He loved composers who loved the human voice. Be it Verdi, his hero, or Gounod, not his hero, we were transported into each composer’s world and immersed in the circumstances that influenced the creation of each opera.  I learned the operas, of course, but perhaps more importantly I learned that a passion for something can light a powerful fire. Dominick’s passion for opera and the human voice resulted in 14 operas, numerous mono-dramas and song cycles, his Pulitzer Prize, and the Center Opera Company, now the Minnesota Opera.

Such a ferociously quick wit Dominick had!  No gathering of Dominick’s students goes by without one of us re-telling the story from his orchestration class on percussion. On one particular day we were immersed in the lecture on metallophones. He held up a vibraslap, looked at it for a moment, looked at us and said “elephant contraceptive.”  We were too in awe of him to laugh, but we’ve been laughing ever since, and we all know and orchestrate the vibraslap in original ways.  Or the lesson on harp, one of his most beloved instruments. In just one class we learned that the pedals were D-C-B-E-F-G-A, Dominick for “D”, Argento for” A” , plus “your pinky finger is for tea drinking, not harp” and “you never hear the attack of a note, only the decay—what you hear is the air.”

Dominick believed that it wasn’t possible to teach composition.  Rather he worked to guide a (student) composer’s natural gift to its best iteration.  You couldn’t look to him to tell you what to do or how to compose. You were expected to establish your own practice techniques and work habits and arrive at your lesson with your piece in shape.  Individual lessons with him were an adventure in silence.  I would bring him my score, which he would lay out on his desk and read to himself before making any comments.   He expected me to come ready to spar with his huge intellect, his razor-sharp wit, and his undeniable professional experience. And spar we did—only the conversation between us took place in my head as I perched on the wicker chair with the blown-out seat that he set by the side of his university-issued grey metal desk, and I watched the ash of the newly lit cigarette in his hand burn longer and longer and longer. I thought, “Will that damn ash fall into that glass ashtray?  No, no, concentrate on the composition he’s reading!”—which he read to himself, not out loud, not commenting. But then he would zero in on the one, most important issue in the work that day—which I knew already because I sat there questioning everything about my work as I tried to imagine what he would say. It took me a while to understand that his teaching style instilled in each of his students three essential gifts: creative courage, critical evaluation, and self-confidence.

I watched the ash of the newly lit cigarette in his hand burn longer and longer and longer.

The lesson ended always with good humor, his cigarette snuffed out, and a deep sense that we, teacher and student, had met at the cross-roads of respect for the art form we both hoped to serve.

I think the most important lesson Dominick gave to me, and to all of us who were fortunate to have worked with him, is that there is a profession – composing music – and while it poses deep challenges the work itself is not work, it is pleasure.  The pleasure lies in the community of musicians, performers, writers, concert producers, and audience who come together in a huge joy-fest around the composers’ work.  He modeled this for us every day and continued to model it throughout the years. Many late nights, as I work through a difficult part of my composition, not feeling pleasure in the moment, I invoke his lesson—the work itself is not work, it is pleasure.

As I joined the profession and became a musical citizen contributing to the community by panel work or sitting on a Board of Directors, more often than not during a discussion which begged the advice of people who were not in the room at the time, Dominick’s name would be invoked along with a bit of his advice and wisdom.  Always sage and ethical, his advice was remembered, quoted and always welcomed.

Libby Larsen, Dale Warland, Dominick Argento, and John Neuchterlein seated at a table in a restaurant.

Dominick Argento (top right) and Libby Larsen (bottom left) with Dale Warland (top left) and then ACF President & CEO John Neuchterlein (bottom
right) at the St. Paul Hotel Grill in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014.

Over the past forty (really…forty?) years I would often run into him during intermission at concerts.   These were happy, brief encounters, where our talks were always shaded with his insight and wit.  We asked after each other’s health. He always asked what I was “working on” and I always asked him the same, because we both knew that we were always “working on” a new piece – that was our mutual bond.  We would exchange thoughts on the latest compositional trends.  We would pat each other on the arm and head back into the concert hall.  During the last few years, when Dominick’s hearing began to fail, our intermission and lobby encounters were still happy and brief though his verbal witticisms were shorter with their meanings understood through our years of association.

The work itself is not work, it is pleasure.

Now, as I finish a letter of support for the University of Minnesota Archives to document his work on digital technology, I recognize again and permanently Dominick Argento’s mastery of his talent, his times and his culture and his determination to put his music into his world.  In doing this he taught  each of us who had the good fortune to work with him how a professional classical composer in this country lives and works, how work is pleasure, how pleasure is in community, how community contributes to life, how life is joy, how joy is music.   Thank you, Dominick.

An Unassuming Musical Polymath with Great Curiosity and Knowledge—Remembering André Previn (1929-2019)

A photo of two Caucasian men, one in a red shirt and one in a blue shirt, sitting in a house together

André Previn died before completing his final commission and, since his death, I’ve been absorbed in realizing it for the premiere at Tanglewood on August 3 of this year. The work is a monodrama about Homer’s Penelope, with text written by Tom Stoppard and a surprise actor in a speaking role. Commissioned by The Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Ravinia Festival, Aspen Music Festival and School, and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Penelope is to be performed by The Emerson Quartet with pianist Simone Dinnerstein and soprano Renée Fleming. Now that it’s in shape to get to rehearsals, I have time to think and write about André.

André Previn kept his four Oscars on the floor behind chairs at the dining table.

I think of the years I spent with André with great joy. His deep musicianship accrued many accolades, yet he was unassuming, if pleased, about the honors and awards. He kept his four Oscars on the floor behind chairs at the dining table. At Christmastime he’d tie red ribbon bows around their necks; a half-dozen of his Grammys were piled on a high shelf gathering dust and tarnish while his OBE and Presidential Medal of Freedom were sometimes out and other times in a drawer somewhere. If one asked, he would show them with pleasure, but it was conversation about music, and playing it, that most animated him.

He was a musical polymath with great curiosity and knowledge of all manner of music. Some, knowing only the externalities of his musical life, may be surprised at the breadth of his curiosity. Once when I went to see him he opened with, “Do you know the music of Wallingford Riegger?” “Yes,” I said. “Well, it’s devilishly difficult. I’ve been studying it, and I’d never write anything like it but it’s fascinating!” I never heard him disparage any other composers or styles of music; the worst he would say was, “I admit that the very experimental music, I just don’t get it. And I get nervous when it gets played because I don’t know what the point is.”[1] Interestingly, he was much more free in his critique of movie music, especially from the movies he’d watch on TCM during bouts of insomnia. He once recounted to me how he had turned on the channel and watched a movie, becoming enchanted by the music. He wanted to get to the closing credits so he could see who wrote it, and it was he! He got a good laugh out of that.

Commission or no, André was always writing. He was always looking for things to write for Renée Fleming, and he wrote all manner of works for Anne-Sophie Mutter because he loved the way she played. Let him speak to this:

…[I]t was Carnegie Hall. They were doing commissions for an anniversary. And they said they wanted me to get together with Toni Morrison. And I said, ”Wonderful!” And I wrote some songs with Toni Morrison’s words. And I played them for Anne-Sophie and she said, ”Will you write me something?” I said, ”Sure. I’d love it.” And I wrote her a piece called Tango Song and Dance, which has been done a lot, and I never looked back. I’m always writing something for her; always. And she always plays them. It’s very dear of her.[1]

And … with Renée, my recommendation to all composers is, if they write something for voice, write it for Renée.[1]

André hated writing program notes; he always preferred letting the music speak for itself. However, there were times when he felt very pressured to do so by commissioners. One time, he came into the office complaining about needing to write a program note and I fed him a line to start one. He looked askance at me and we continued speaking about his next commission. About five minutes into that, he stopped, looked at me, and gave a second line. From there we were off and running, composing a program note which was fabricated out of whole cloth and which, not surprisingly, figured in the newspaper critic’s [positive] review. That always makes me think of Martha Graham renaming the piece Aaron Copland wrote for her; the myth of the music which her name engendered carries to this day. Years later André would tell the story of that note as if it were the honest truth; who knows, maybe he sublimated it.

On one of his orchestral works the opening tempo is “Tempo I”. In another there’s no opening tempo at all.

He was also extremely sparing with tempi and dynamic markings. I often get phone calls or emails at work telling me there’s been some kind of printing error because these things are missing. On one of his orchestral works the opening tempo is “Tempo I”. In another there’s no opening tempo at all. I had a phone call from a conductor about that latter one while André was in Japan. He wanted to know what the opening tempo was. I told him to hold on a minute while I got the score. I started reading and turned to page 2 where there was a run in the clarinets which made me think, “too fast.” I started again, then told the conductor, “I’d say about q = 108.” When André returned from Japan I called him and asked him what speed he’d opened the piece at when he conducted the premiere. He thought a moment and said, “I think around q = 112.”

I always thought André just trusted that people who were schooled in the same art and discipline as he would be able to infer from his scores what he wanted. I like that idea. But when I asked him specifically about this habit he said:

Well, you see, I learned as a conductor, if you’ve got a good player playing, leave ‘em alone. First. And then if he does something that you don’t like, then you can suggest, not tell him, maybe a different way. But there are so many conductors I know, really good conductors, like [deleted] is a marvelous conductor, but he used to, you know, the first chord, ‘No, no, no!’ Please, let them play, because they’ll fix something long before the conductor will anyway.[1]

André Previn just wrote for the love of writing. He never revised…

He also just wrote for the love of writing. He never revised, and if he didn’t like a piece he’d written he wouldn’t have to hear it again so he’d just go on to the next one. He once told me, “I write music I like; I don’t expect it to last.” But he did admit to liking some of his music: He liked Owls, “And I liked two of the three trios that I wrote. I wrote a trio for oboe, bassoon, and piano, and I like that. That was a long time ago. It was very Poulenc-like. But I enjoyed that very much. I don’t know, I’m so primitive.”[1] André was generally loath to name works of his that he liked, and was generally dismissive of many things he’d done–or, a la Schubert, he’d ask, “I wrote that?” Still, I know from other conversations that besides the Poulenc-like trio, he was quite fond of his Violin Concerto [the Anne-Sophie] and the Nonet (which he also wrote for ASM), as well as Honey and Rue and Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. André also very much liked his operas A Streetcar Named Desire and Brief Encounter. I would personally add to my favorites list the Harp Concerto (which he enjoyed at the time), and I think both the Concerto for Orchestra and Penelope, which are yet to be premiered, will be keepers as well.

The other André, of the popular world… I once told him I had found his album, A Touch of Elegance, at a Goodwill store near his apartment. He asked me how much I paid for it. I told him, “a dollar” and he immediately said, “Oh, you paid too much.” And he meant it. There was much schmaltz in those days. Then there was his long relationship with Oscar Peterson, whom he admired greatly:

Oscar Peterson was some kind of really towering pianist. My God.…he liked me and we were friends. And the last time he played at a club in New York was at the Blue Note. And I went to see him. And they gave me a table which was as far away from the piano as I am from you [about three feet]. And Oscar played, played his usual amazing things, and he looked up and he saw me. And he stopped and he pointed me and he said, “I thought I got rid of you.” Nice. Nice compliment.[1]

If you’ve never seen the BBC4 hour-long show with André interviewing, and then jamming with, Peterson you should look it up on YouTube; the complete show is here:

I’m cueing and extracting parts from Penelope now. Soon we’ll start rehearsals for the premiere. It will be a pleasure to “speak” with André once again.


NOTE:

Direct quotes from Previn in Conversation, with David Fetherolf, Editor/Production Manager, G. Schirmer/AMP, original edit.

Other quotes from memory.

Contrarian Spirit—Remembering Randy Nordschow (1969-2019)

A man in a grey t shirt posing on the beach

[Ed Note: For many years, NewMusicBox has published memorial essays honoring significant people in our field, written by people who had an important connection to that person, either as a student, a long-term collaborator, or—in a few cases—as a member of that person’s family. Reaching out to those authors has long been one of the most emotionally difficult aspects of my work here, but I realize it pales compared to what those authors experience while writing these essays. In fact, many of the memorial essay writers have told me this. But now, I feel the weight of this first hand in trying to shape my thoughts about composer and bon vivant Randy Nordschow, who was a key member of NewMusicBox’s editorial team from 2003 to 2008. It was with shock and great sadness that we learned of his passing on February 15, 2019, after a brief illness. There will be a memorial concert honoring Randy on Saturday, September 14, 2019 at Sunny’s Red Hook (253 Conover Street) in Brooklyn featuring pianist Jenny Lin.]

I still remember the first time I met Randy, which was the day that he interviewed for the position of production coordinator at NewMusicBox. From the moment he started talking to NewMusicBox’s then associate editor Amanda MacBlane and I, more a cantankerous conversation we would have with someone in our new music community than a job interview, she and I instantly knew that he was the right fit for our team. Soon after Randy was hired and started working alongside us, he seemed to disagree with just about everything I said or wrote. But that only convinced me further that he was the perfect fit for NewMusicBox because our goal has always been to embrace all perspectives and our challenging of each other on every possible approach—whether aesthetic, journalistic, or organizational—made NewMusicBox even stronger.

Though my primary connection to him was as a co-worker for this very publication, since that is the prism through which I got to know him, he was also a treasured compositional colleague and eventually became a friend.  So before describing some of my own personal encounters with him, I’d like to ruminate on Randy the composer.

Though he clearly went down the path of maverick American experimentalism, Randy never lost his connections to and obsessions with popular culture.

Born in Los Angeles on December 28, 1969, Randy was literally a child of 1960s California, even if he actually lived for only four days during that decade. Although he would be horrified that I am recounting his academic pedigree, Randy’s years at Mills College (where he received a master’s in music composition) as well as his private composition studies with Alvin Curran and Pauline Oliveros clearly led him down the path of maverick American experimentalism. But his undergraduate degree, from the Berklee College of Music, was in film scoring and Randy never lost his connections to and obsessions with popular culture. The fact that his two biggest heroes were John Cage and Andy Warhol should give you some idea of his aesthetic orientation, though once again Randy—ever the iconoclast—would be mortified at my claim that he had heroes, even though he talked about both Cage and Warhol all the time, perhaps more than any other artistic figures, except perhaps for Peaches!  Before moving to New York City and shortly thereafter joining the NewMusicBox editorial team, Randy was a fixture of the San Francisco Bay Area new music scene, where performers of his music included Fred Frith, John Shiurba, and Matt Ingalls. Although the most dedicated performer of his music was Randy himself, which he did with élan on acoustic and electric guitars, piano, toy piano, trumpet, and a wide range of percussion, as well as amplified cellular phone, integrated email messaging and voice mail system, computer voice synthesis software, CD player, live digital and analog effects processing, space heaters, and beer!

Randy had made some significant inroads into the international new music scene as well, having works of his performed at the 2000 Gaudeamus Music Week in the Netherlands and the 2001 Ostrava New Music Days in the Czech Republic. One of his most provocatively named compositions, This May Not Be Music, which is oddly one of his most conventionally scored works (it’s a quartet for flute, clarinet, cello, and piano, albeit with an added CD of pre-recorded sounds), received its world premiere in London in 2001.

Clever, often snarky, titles are a hallmark of many of Nordschow’s compositions; among his most memorable are John Cage Memorial Barbecue, an electric guitar quintet from 2000, or You Don’t Love Me, You Just Love My Doggie-Style, a transdisciplinary work from that same year. But sometimes his titles are a pathway into understanding his compositional intent (something which Randy who eschewed all analysis and advocated for “just letting the music wash over you” instead, would probably have denied). For Randy’s 1998 Drawing A Line As Far As I Can Reach, a not so subtle reference to La Monte Young’s Fluxus-era conceptual pieces, a wind player is instructed to sustain extremely high tones and extremely low tones in alternation while consuming as much beer as possible. As per his performance note, “Once the performer has reached their limit, the empty beer bottles are arranged into a straight line and candles are inserted. After lighting the candles, the performer attempts to extinguish the flames by blowing through their instrument. The piece ends after this goal is accomplished, or the performer gives up from exhaustion.”

A conceptual process is also at the core of Randy’s most widely performed piece, Detail of Beethoven’s Hair, which exists in two versions—the original for piano and percussion duo that was commissioned by Essential Music and premiered at the 2002 MATA Festival and the dazzling virtuoso solo piano showcase that was recorded by Jenny Lin.

Although this music sounds nothing like Ludwig van, it is derived from mapping actual strands of Beethoven’s hair (from a famous portrait) onto a musical staff and playing the result.

Detail of Beethoven's Hair

Randy’s compositional output is fascinating and it was a joy to hear him describe his pieces from time to time.

If you haven’t already figured this out from what I wrote above, Randy’s compositional output is fascinating and it was a joy to hear him describe his pieces from time to time. But it was also extremely frustrating, because he would inevitably do a volte-face at some point and say stuff like, “It’s a waste of time to pay attention to music.” Randy once famous bragged that he watched TV or listened to other music on the radio while he wrote out his own pieces. He often claimed he was more interested in the way his scores looked than in how they actually sounded when played by other people. In one of the most perplexing exchanges I ever had with him, he claimed he could not make additional copies of one of his scores because he could not obtain the same size paper he wrote the original manuscript on. When I suggested making it fit onto a more standard paper size by reducing it and adding extra margin space, he balked and claimed it would no longer be the same piece. Despite Randy’s fixation with pop culture, he claimed he was not at all interested in writing music for audiences and that his music was written only for performers. Randy was a heap of contradictions. He loved to say that he hated copyright, yet today I’m looking at a score of his composition combinations for two cellos, singing bowls, and piano and see “© copyright 1996” printed clearly on the cover.

Sometimes I think Randy just liked to play devil’s advocate to shake things up.

Sometimes I think Randy just liked to play devil’s advocate to shake things up, take an opinion that was the exact opposite of everyone else in the room and see how long he could keep the fight going. From the sparks that flew during some of these debates, great ideas emerged for NewMusicBox and, I imagine, that same contrarian spirit inspired much of his music.

Yet, it wasn’t all disagreement. Randy was a joy to hang out with. He made the strongest margaritas I ever had in my life, although his favorite Mexican restaurant had some of the weakest I’d ever ordered. He liked the place because it was dirt cheap and so he carried a flask of tequila in his signature scuffed yellow messenger bag to remedy the situation for himself—and, if you were lucky, his friends.

I’ve held on to an email he wrote me before I took a trip to San Francisco about 15 years ago. Here’s an excerpt from that:

Best crazy ass bartender who will slowly and obsessively create old school cocktails tailored to your individual tastes (read good sazeracs, mint juleps, etc. be sure to ask her if she has any cucumber infused vodka, definitely ask her to concoct you something, anything!):

The Orbit Room

1900 Market St (at Laguna)

Go in the afternoon, or before 8pm when Alberta is there (dark hair, retro glasses, and stains allover her shirt from shaking mean cocktails)

And for the best sushi in the world (and cheap!). Go to Sushi Zone on Peal St—a small one block street between Market, Deboce, Valencia, and Guerrero (I used to leave on Peal and Pink, named after prostitutes!)

venues of interest:

7hz (www.7hz.org)
three feet off the ground (probably dead, but check with gregory cowly’s organization :test: www.testsite.org to see where it has been reborn)

Have fun!

Randy

No one can tell the story of Randy better than Randy himself, so I’ll conclude this with some of my favorite quotes from the hundreds of essays he wrote while he was part of NewMusicBox. Follow the links and read them in their entirety. I’m so honored and pleased that we have such an important part of him to share here with people for as long as we exist. Life is precious and fragile and fleeting. My heart goes out to Randy’s husband Colin Conroy, all his friends on both coasts and around the world, and the numerous musicians and fellow travelers he touched with his ostentatiousness and wit.

John Cage Memorial Barbecue

SOME RANDY NORDSCHOW QUOTES

“I decided to give the general public yet another chance to love me.”

https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/got-no-friends/

*

“Like many so-called young composers (ugh, don’t even get me started), I’m not into labeling and pigeonholing…”

https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/historical-disengage-or-dissing-cage/

*

“Like other artists, composers are typically a little more self-centered than, say, Montessori schoolteachers.”

https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/the-fairest-one-of-all/

*

“It’s not just my inner child that enjoys annoying people; it’s been my artistic modus operandi for decades. … My approach to composing music is, more than likely, grossly misguided.

“The work I’ve created up to this point spurs from a rather skeptical aesthetic standpoint, fostered by a barrage of things I just don’t buy into, such as: Music has the ability to communicate something ‘meant’ by its creator; music is inherently emotional; yada, yada, yada—you know, stuff like that. For me, music is a byproduct of artistic ideas haphazardly materialized in the form of vibrating air. It’s the artistic impetus behind the will to set those vibrations into motion, and not necessarily the sonic results of whatever is written on the page (or not), that matters more to me. There’s a certain amount of artistic cynicism that I harbor in order to tap into the concepts and materials that I use and the ways in which I use them when throwing together a new composition. Yes, it’s all so self-aware and postmodern, which I actually enjoy.”

https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/A-Ripe-Idea/

*

“I’ve attended performances where crucial cues were missed, mistakes were made, etc., and I’m usually fine with it, as long as the musicians save face and pretend that the piece is supposed to sound exactly how they’re performing it at that moment. Besides, I’m the only person in the audience with the ability to recognize if my train wreck is sounding too much like a car accident instead.”

https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/On-Having-Never-Written-A-Unison/

*

“I’ve already entered the eclipsed territory where composers over 35 years of age go to hibernate for a few decades. The classical music machine is predominately interested in the youngins and the octogenarians, which affords us in the middle some time to hone our craft or experiment out of the spotlight, or maybe come to our senses and take the LSAT.”

https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/Knowing-When-to-Stop-or-Not/

*

“[C]omposers who close themselves off from a particular sonic possibility—especially a ‘new’ or ‘popular’ one—are doing themselves and their music a disservice.”

https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/Deaf-to-the-Backbeat/

*

“I’m not a big believer in inspiration. I write music (and texts) in an inspiration-less state all the time—it’s my job. Commissions have to be delivered on time, funders have follow-up reports that you have to file by a certain date, and magazines have hard and fast deadlines, so no matter what, be it art or life, the show must go on.”

https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/Come-and-Knock-On-My-Door/

Randy Nordschow and Roddy Schrock

Randy Nordschow and Roddy Schrock (seated at the piano) performing at SFMOMA

Devotion to a Personal Vision—Remembering George Walker (1922-2018)

Photo of a BIPOC man sitting in a chair with his shoulder facing the camera

Nineteen seconds of silence are suddenly broken by timpani drums and a dissonant brass fanfare.  Like the majesty of Aaron Copland’s Common Man, but with a trenchant angularity which conjures perhaps a different Americana than Copland could have envisioned.  Now envisioned through the eyes of my father, the son of a West Indian immigrant, the grandson of a slave.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

The first image in Frank Schramm’s documentary Discovering George Walker is of an old Maxell cassette. Its typed label reads, “George Walker: Sinfonia No. 3.”  My father delivered an envelope with this cassette to the filmmaker’s doorstep when they first met in 2004.  Audio cassettes were a little archaic even in 2004, but consider my father’s first forays into audio technology dated back to the 78s and cactus phonograph needles of the 1930s.

“George Walker, Pianist and first Black American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1996.  A trailblazer who wrote more than 90 works.  He is 95 years old.”

With these subtitles, the documentary begins.

Frank Schramm’s 2017 documentary Discovering George Walker

For my father, too, the “pianist” came first.  Even his 1937 Dunbar High School yearbook entry audaciously announced the goal: “To be a concert pianist.”  Audacious considering that my father’s father, whose name was Artmelle George Theophilus Walker, had emigrated to America from Jamaica with $35 in his pocket, though he himself went on to graduate from the medical school at Temple University and became a prominent northwest Washington, D.C. physician and property owner.

“His silence in a room created an aura of Olympian authority,” my father said.  “He seldom initiated a conversation when he was at home, preferring instead to listen to our conversation with critical ears.”

But Sunday evenings when my father would play through dozens of hymns on the upright piano in the parlor, his father, mother, and grandmother would leave whatever they’d been doing, file in, and hum or sing along.

“The poor and middle class had a piano in their home and parents made their children take lessons, and it was always classical music. This is what I’ve always tried to make clear.  This taught us what was good, what was proper, what was desirable, what was cultured, and what was not cultured,” my father would say, his voice rising.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

George Walker left Washington, D.C. for Oberlin College on a piano scholarship at age 15.  At age 18, he would graduate from Oberlin College with the highest honors in his class. He then went on to graduate from the Curtis Institute with artist diplomas in piano and composition in 1945, and in 1956, he became the first black recipient of a doctoral degree from the Eastman School.   He received a Fulbright to study with Nadia Boulanger, famed teacher of Aaron Copland, at the American School at Fontainebleau in Paris.  During his first lesson, Mlle. Boulanger looked at the first of his songs.  She said, “This is a masterpiece.”

It was at Fontainebleau that my father met a young Canadian pianist named Helen Siemens.

“From my second story window I can hear him practicing and composing in the practice rooms in the basement,” my mother wrote in her diary.  “He is writing a new sonata and as he noodles and works out the ideas, I can hear it taking form.  I love it!  There’s a passage in the first movement variations into which he has inserted a little pattern which he calls ‘sputnik,’ after the space vehicle the Russians have just put into orbit.  I hope he lets me play the sonata when it is finished.”

In that spring of 1958 they explored the coast of France and Italy, Monaco, Monte Carlo, the yellow stucco of Pisa, Maria Della Spina, the Basilica of Assisi, and the old fortress town of Lodi, seeing Ingrid Bergman in Tea and Sympathy, Verdi’s Macbeth, and Menotti at the Spoleto Festival.  She did premiere his second piano sonata when they returned to Fontainebleau.

Later in New York, amidst sustained protest from both families, the interracial couple married on July 23, 1960.  They divorced thirteen years later, and he never publicly mentioned her again.

One minute, twenty-seven seconds into Discovering George Walker, we see his face for the first time.  Black plastic glasses slightly askew, as are the bookshelves in the background, heavy with counterpoint and orchestration tomes and his old childhood hymnal, his reedy taut voice is careful, painstaking.  It’s critical to state his ideas clearly so no one will confuse them.  His thoughts don’t need to be explained because if they’re precisely worded, those words will speak for themselves.

“As a matter of fact, I don’t think in terms of creating beauty,” he once said.  “If the effect is such that people get a sense that this is beautiful, that’s fine.  I want to create elegant structures.”

Frank Schramm the filmmaker can be seen hard at work in our Montclair, New Jersey home around the five-minute mark.  Even as he partitions our living room with a black scrim for the photo session, his second camera captures background details that in retrospect feel iconic to me.   The gauzy, translucent curtains throughout the house that I can still smell somehow seemed to veil rather than reflect or refract what little light there was.  The heavy brass locks on the front door; the two spun in opposite directions, but which was which?

And his wicker-backed, red velvet chair.  By the time my brother, Ian, and I were in elementary school, he’d lost patience with the local churches for one reason or another.  Instead of going to church Sunday mornings, he’d call us down from our rooms to his chair, take out the Bible, and give us a single scripture to read.  One morning it was Psalm 23.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

He’d tell us what it was all supposed to mean.  Then the sermon would veer off into what’s wrong with people today.  Then why there’s so much bad music in the world.  There were “maudlin melodies” of composers like George Gershwin.  From Minimalist composers, it was “tedious repetition.”  From renowned performers including Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz, the worst were the “rhythmical distortions.”  Then things would spiral back to memories of his parents and their values and he would bring himself to tears.

  • When my father would play through dozens of hymns on the upright piano, his father, mother, and grandmother would leave whatever they’d been doing and hum or sing along.

    Gregory TS Walker, composer/violinist, remembers his father, composer George Walker
  • His thoughts don’t need to be explained because if they’re precisely worded, those words will speak for themselves.

    Gregory TS Walker, composer/violinist, remembers his father, composer George Walker
  • The sermon would veer off into what’s wrong with people today. Then why there’s so much bad music in the world.

    Gregory TS Walker, composer/violinist, remembers his father, composer George Walker
  • Such belief in a musical aesthetic, vision, and the sheer vehemence of George Walker’s personal drive, was uncommon.

    Gregory TS Walker, composer/violinist, remembers his father, composer George Walker
  • Any musician or music lover who’s willing to challenge themselves can share with us what he was.

    Gregory TS Walker, composer/violinist, remembers his father, composer George Walker

Six minutes or so into the documentary, there’s a photograph of what had been the family dining room, now filled with cables, high-end audio equipment, and an enormous Steinway D.  We hear a recording of George Walker playing his Piano Sonata No. 2 which he recorded in that very room.  It’s the sonata Helen Siemens first performed at Fontainebleau over a half century before, when they were together.  The recorded sound is bone dry, an unflinching representation of what a piano sounds like from inches away, to a composer hunched over the music rack.   Certainly different from the sounds ringing through the house when he used to practice Liszt and Brahms before one of his European tours, resonating up through the floors of our bedrooms as we fell asleep at night.

“One hates to think in terms of just Western civilization, but this accumulation of techniques has not only been discovered, but has been found to work so well,” he once said.  “Although so much has been done, it seems to me that there’s still the possibility that one can find ways of extending what has already been done.”

As George Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Lilacs for Voice and Orchestra plays, there’s a picture of him in Carnegie Hall.  Camel brown fedora firmly atop his head, bulky Brooks Brothers coat and scarf mid-flap, he’s making his way through the backstage labyrinth for an appointment with Sir Simon Rattle, music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, in the Maestro Suite.  The opportunity to meet and show compositions to an important soloist or conductor like Sir Rattle was a rare coup, only possible because of, or in spite of, months of unrequited and increasingly impatient emails and phone calls.  The unresponsiveness of so many classical music industry gatekeepers could be called simple preoccupation; after all, the world is filled with dazzling musical talents.

This preoccupation could be called racist, if racism is an inability to look at a black man and see genius.

But such belief in a musical aesthetic, vision, and the sheer vehemence of George Walker’s personal drive, was uncommon. Yes, the music, like the man, was challenging.  Relentless meter changes that reflected each phrase, complex rhythmic eyefuls that exerted his rubati onto each instrumental line, and Lord help the unprepared masterclass student.  But while it’s too bad composers have to rely upon the sustenance of the flawed, prosaic humanity around them, Sir Rattle himself was warmly supportive and my father’s smile in these pictures could not be more genuine.

Frank Schramm is also visible in a second, outdoor shoot in the backyard at the seven-minute mark.  My father sits on his red velvet chair, the very picture of old world elegance in his suit and tie, autumn leaves scattered around his shoes.  Behind him we see the tall hedges that insulate the home where he has now lived in self-imposed solitude for almost fifty years, and the open wooden gate out to a secluded driveway shared with the neighbor, between their houses.

Then he and the chair are back in the living room, positioned between a pair of stereo speakers that tower over his head.  These technological marvels were spoils of his financial success, capable of the most nuanced sonic realism, and also ear-splitting volume.   At first, a range of familiar classical records and CDs were on steady rotation: the organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Stravinsky.  Anything with violinist Jascha Heifetz.  Later he gravitated to his own piano CDs, Chopin and Scarlatti, some of which he’d just recorded. During the last years, it was his own works.  He listened back to one after another, listening sessions with any accomplice willing to brave the decibels, cranking up the monoliths in hopes of a new perspective, a new detail within his creations.

Towards the end of the film, we see our old house blanketed with snow at dusk.  Uneven foot prints are visible in the white powder.

There had been one night when my father fell in the driveway and discovered he wasn’t strong enough to get back to his feet.  He called out for help, but secluded there far from the noisy street, nobody heard him.  The temperature was below freezing and it was becoming more and more difficult to even make a sound.  But there was a house behind the backyard where an older woman lived.  She had left one of her windows open and heard his voice.  She called the firemen who took him to the hospital and saved his life.

Many years ago when this woman was young, she’d hosted a party with loud music that was not Chopin or Scarlatti.  The police received a neighbor’s anonymous tip, arrived, and my father’s piece of mind had been restored.

George Walker, still dapper in his cardigan and tie, is climbing the long stairway to his bedroom.  It always looked like a herculean effort, because just standing without a cane had become difficult for him.  We hear the Cantata for Soprano, Tenor, Boys Choir, and Chamber Orchestra, which was recorded by the Boys Choir of Harlem and a conductor he was not impressed with.

“He had them stand for this tedious rehearsal,” my father remembered.  “I was horrified that here is an institution for youngsters concentrating in music, but they were treated like convicts. His physical dress was also unprofessional. The boys had nothing to look up to.”

The Cantata contains a desolate setting of Psalm 23.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

In our day and age of dazzling musical talent that’s available at the push of a button or the click of a link, the music and legacy of George Walker may represent possibilities that are more and more difficult to find:  The devotion to a personal vision at a time when many composers conform to an extant musical scene.  The musical expression of an artist, who like masters of the past, was obviously cut from a different cloth.  And a connection to past masters’ seemingly ageless historical tradition that could conceivably outlast us all.

My brother and I will never forget what it was to be loved by our father.  But today any musician or music lover who’s willing to challenge themselves can share with us what he was.

Gregory T. S. Walker standing and holding a violin with George Walker seated on a red chair.

Gregory T.S. Walker and his father, George Walker