In Search of Robert Palmer
Pianist Adam Tendler spent more than a decade researching the life and work of Robert Palmer and made an album of his music “when no one asked for it. But in my mind, I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t imagine being the only one who knew what this all sounded like.”
It was after midnight, the recording session was in two days, and the AirBnB I had booked wasn’t nearly as close to downtown as it had promised. The last time I came to Ithaca, New York, to look through Robert Palmer’s archive—months ago, just before my first Palmer recording session—I stayed in a nondescript house just next to the Cornell campus, its walls breathing generations of college students. I had easily grabbed my key out of an unlocked mailbox in the entryway.
This place, however, was somewhere in the fields surrounding Ithaca, farm country that betrays nothing of the fabled town just a few miles down the road. I stumbled in the dark trying to find the host’s key using my iPhone flashlight. It wasn’t the first time I wondered what the hell I was doing out here, hours from New York City, upsetting my schedule, eating Burger King and keeping the receipts—for what? To see if such-and-such note had a sharp next to it? Well, yes. And to snoop through his letters.
By 1 a.m. I was in bed, absorbing the soft intrusiveness I always feel when staying in an AirBnB, when I heard a pounding at the door. I thought it might be my imagination until it came again. Pounding. This is how I die, I thought. For Robert Palmer. The pounding came again. I crept to the door. “Yes?” Am I ready to die in Ithaca? A man’s voice answered, saying I had left my rental car’s lights on. I went outside to meet him. He held a can of Bud Light Lime-A-Rita. The car was dark. “I guess they go off automatic,” he said.
Robert Palmer lived between 1915-2010, mostly in upstate New York. He produced more than 90 works, was a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fulbright Scholar, a National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient, and the first American composer published by Edition Peters, the publisher later associated with John Cage and the most experimental of modernists. His star rose in the 1940s and ’50s after a string of energetic, introspective, “metaphysical” works, as Aaron Copland called them, driven by a strong emotional current and built with complex counterpoint and layers of tight rhythmic structures. Hindemith meets Bartók meets Brahms meets Lou Harrison meets…
The relative obscurity that followed his promising debut is as puzzling as one wishes to make it. It could be as simple as his reputation soaring just as the focus of contemporary music shifted toward the seductions of serialism, chance, and minimalism, with Palmer eclipsed and his listeners fractured amidst a world of new curiosities. He might never have been as famous as mid-century tonalists such as William Schuman, David Diamond, or Roy Harris (a brief teacher of his), but they all suffered relatively the same fate.
Perpetually an underdog, most biographical summaries written during his lifetime acknowledge how seldom Palmer’s music ever saw performance even then, and yet I’m one of a motley crew of artists who, since the late 1930s, have been drawn to his work. Pianist John Kirkpatrick, himself skyrocketing to fame after premiering Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata, became a kind of pen pal, coach, and the first real ambassador of Palmer’s music, to whom the earliest scores are all dedicated. Palmer, at the time, was an Eastman School of Music graduate and grocery store clerk. Copland included him on his famed 1948 list of seven composers who were “the best we have to offer,” which also included Cage, Lukas Foss, and Leonard Bernstein. Elliott Carter called Palmer’s music “firm and definite; its dissonance resembles that of younger Europeans whom we never hear in this country,” while describing its “impressive seriousness and great musicality.” Yvar Mikhashoff, a pianist equally at home with the pioneers of American music as he was with David Lang, recorded and commissioned Palmer, while Palmer’s piano music was also performed by classically-bent virtuosos like William Kapell and Claudio Arrau. Julius Eastman played Palmer’s Three Epigrams on his Town Hall debut (the piece was mentioned in the resulting New York Times review) and later approached pianist Joseph Kubera to play his Sonata for Two Pianos. “Robert Palmer’s the man,” Joe remembers him saying. Kyle Gann blogged about him in 2014, and one year later Steven Stucky wrote a memorial in his honor on this very website.
I first heard Robert Palmer’s music as a teenager on a scratchy live recording by the aforementioned William Kapell, the first pianist I ever fell in love with, playing the Toccata Ostinato (1945). I would dance to this piece in front of the mirror as if singing into a hairbrush. Despite the poor sound quality, the subdued applause, and an electrifying but imperfect performance that ended with an exasperated cluster across the keys—and how I hoped that the score called for such an ending (it doesn’t)—I was hooked. Long before finding a score required but a few clicks, I hunted for months, and when the music finally appeared in the mail, I already felt like a detective discovering clues. It turns out that Palmer had dedicated the piece to Kapell before the pianist’s tragic death in a plane crash. I later discovered that he played it perhaps only twice, including that recorded performance. It looked fiendish to play. I didn’t touch it for years.
When I decided to finally hunker down and learn the Toccata, it was to serve as an encore for an otherwise meditative recital program. People would approach me after the concert wanting to know nothing about the proper program, but only about Palmer, my encore. Realizing I had nothing to tell them, I started to scratch around for even the most basic information. So began the trip down the rabbit hole that found me, years later, in a bed somewhere outside Ithaca as a stranger pounded on the front door with a Lime-a-Rita.
I scoured the internet for Palmer paraphernalia. He wasn’t unpublished, after all, and several scores remain in print by Presser, Peer, and Peters. But many scores—including some of the most interesting—are out of print or were never published at all. I later discovered in his letters that Palmer attempted to publish his sublime Second Piano Sonata, composed in the mid-1940s, as late as the 1980s, with no luck. It’s a masterpiece, and as of this writing remains in his own hand in the Cornell manuscripts archive.
I ordered whatever works I could find online and began having others scanned from Cornell. Each one seemed like a revelation, some incredible secret that I had personally discovered (of course I hadn’t) and was eager to share. These pieces, as I saw it, should have been part of the core American piano repertory. The music was as difficult as it was exhilarating to play. I would fall back from the piano after certain pieces laughing, sweating and exhausted, like stumbling off of a roller coaster. After others I’d sit in stunned silence, my eyes welling and my heart aching. I could already tell that the payoff in learning this music would be worth the work, and started programming Palmer’s music whenever I could. Realizing that so little had been recorded, I also started thinking about making an album, though like most of my big ideas, I didn’t know how or where to start.
In 2015 I visited Yale to sift through Palmer’s materials in John Kirkpatrick’s archive. In his letters to Kirkpatrick, I met a man who, sentence to sentence, swung from insecure to confident, pious to prideful, who would confess his demons as much as guard them. He scorned allies, Copland and Carter in particular, for their so-called “decadent” tastes, all too ready to burn important bridges on artistic principle. He casually mentioned in one letter that the military had permanently disqualified him from service “for psychological reasons,” and in the same breath reported that this would free him up creatively for the coming year. That, along with his vague, coded language about intimacy and a kind of crippling shyness has led at least one researcher (in a book about Kirkpatrick, as it were) to queer Palmer. Looking through the same letters and many more, and being quite familiar with the closet myself, I’m not totally convinced. Still, it came as a relief when Palmer’s stoic facade, which seemed so unlike his heart-on-his-sleeve, red-blooded music, began to melt. Suddenly the music, and my attraction to it (and to him), made a little more sense.
But I still couldn’t figure him out nor ascertain why his work vanished from concert halls. Should Palmer have better networked his way into history? Is that a thing? Or was he just happy enough teaching at Cornell, in the country’s first PhD composition program, which he indeed had created? It’s a life that satisfied him, after all—“I liked teaching!” he said in a late interview—even if it was a life that may not have satisfied others. Copland wrote, “Too much of [Palmer’s] energy has gone into his teaching… but teaching is a familiar disease of the American composer.”
Or perhaps he was just too scattered and immature for the limelight, destined “to be permanently a child,” as he phrased it in one anguished letter. (This, too, has been read as a code for queer.) Kirkpatrick, in a conspicuously missing letter, had apparently challenged him on his decision to marry so young. Palmer wrote back, “I hope you will be more specific in exactly how… I am young for 24. It will help me to help myself, and I am the only one who can help.” For Palmer, self-betterment and musical perfection seemed to go hand in hand. He did mature and did change, at least stylistically, perhaps to the disappointment of others. Many, including myself, have sensed that the breathless momentum and passion of his music, the quality that attracted such early attention, began to cool as he, well… grew up. I read several letters in which performers pined for the old days when Palmer’s music came out as a flood of notes, impulsive and intense, with hardly a rest. Did he feel like he “overshared” in his earlier works, and thus distanced himself in later ones? Did he feel the intellectual heat from his contemporaries, a self-imposed pressure to “smarten up” music that, I assure you, was already tied in intellectual pretzels? Or did his style… simply change? We all change! And sometimes audiences drift.
Eventually I approached a record label about Robert Palmer. There was no strategy to my label choice; I simply knew the name. They said yes, and I was elated. I filled out a grant application and the label applied for it on our behalf. We got the grant, and I was elated again. The label, however, also required a “sponsorship fee”—not unusual in classical music. I’d heard about this from other artists but naively thought it couldn’t possibly apply to my Palmer project. It did, and the grant funds didn’t even cover that cost, leaving me with less-than-zero to pay for the actual recording. Whenever anyone asked, I’d say the Palmer album was stalled. In truth, I considered it dead.
A couple years went by when one Sunday evening I volunteered to turn pages for Joseph Kubera, now a friend, at a private New World Records pre-recording concert. Paul Tai, the director of the label, asked about the state of the Palmer project, which I had told him about in its earliest days. I explained the situation, knowing by now that New World would have been the perfect home for the album. “Ask them to release the project,” he suggested, regarding the original label. I laughed at the idea. They’d never go for that, I argued, and besides, the grant funds had surely expired. “Ask your granter to extend the deadline,” he suggested again. He made no promises, and it all seemed quite crazy, but also I had nothing to lose. I reached out and, to my astonishment, both the label and granter agreed to my requests. Once the coast was clear, New World took over. Legendary producer Judith Sherman signed on, and we would record at the American Academy of Arts and Letters with Steinway providing the pianos. My brilliant friend Daniel Johnson would write the liner notes, and in a perfect full-circle moment, Kubera agreed to play the Sonata for Two Pianos that Julius Eastman had once asked to play with him. He used Eastman’s score, his fingerings still penciled in. The album went from doomed to best-case scenario.
By summer 2018, I had the program learned for what would be the first of two recording sessions—the second taking place in the fall—and went to Ithaca to finally visit the Palmer archive.
I hadn’t sat with Palmer’s actual papers since my visit to Yale three years earlier. It was worth the drive, the overnight stay, the upturned schedule, and the loss of practice time, because where else could I see that he wanted me to “slam [the] hell out of” that one chord in the First Piano Sonata (1939/40)?
Where else could I see Ned Rorem’s West Village address scrawled on a program at the Tanglewood premiere of Peter Grimes?
Where else could I feverishly snap pictures of scores that exist, as of this writing, only in that archive, or see Palmer’s self-penned autobiography?
I slowly drove by what was once his humble home, where he had lived since moving to Ithaca in the early 1940s. I wondered if the people inside knew a composer once lived there, one of Copland’s “best we have to offer.”
I met his old friends, folks who still called him Bob. “This guy’s recording Bob’s music!” said one of them to a co-worker. I met his daughter and son-in-law, and listened to their stories—like the time Palmer accidentally received a royalty check for the other, “Addicted to Love” Robert Palmer. He was furious, they said, but couldn’t have been surprised to see the royalties this other Palmer earned. Despite apparent urgings, the composer Robert Palmer resisted adding his middle name to separate himself from the pop star. “He hated his middle name,” his daughter told me, and I recalled seeing in the archive that Palmer had crossed a line through his middle name when editing an encyclopedia entry that included it, just as his Wikipedia entry currently does.
A week later I was sitting at a grand piano on the darkened stage at the American Academy of Arts and Letters on the first morning of the first recording session of the first-ever album devoted solely to Palmer’s piano works. Judy’s voice came through a speaker a few feet from the piano. “Ready when you are!” It was a long way from dancing in front of the mirror to Toccata Ostinato.
Palmer has remained to me throughout this process a kind of mystery, and I’ve tried to strike a balance between respectful and nosey when it comes to fleshing out the man. When his daughter and son-in-law met me for smoothies after my first Cornell visit, I confessed that it felt funny talking to her after having spent the afternoon reading the passionate letters her father wrote her mother during their courtship, often marked by his paralyzing loneliness. When she alluded to her father being complicated, I didn’t ask for details, though I recently asked her over email about his favorite Christmas traditions, his favorite restaurant, his politics, his religious beliefs. Did he teach her piano?
But considering the many people I’ve prodded for memories, few say very much, maybe because Palmer himself didn’t say very much. “He was quiet till he got going,” clarified his son-in-law, “Then watch out.”
I regret not putting a few follow-up questions to composer Steve Stucky when we met one morning for breakfast to talk about Palmer, about a year before Stucky’s own untimely passing. I wish, just a couple of times, I’d asked, “What do you mean by that?”
I wish when I first heard Palmer’s music as a teenager that I had reached out, instead of functioning under the assumption that all composers were famous and needed no advocates, let alone fan mail. And I’d already learned Toccata Ostinato in 2010, the year Palmer passed away. He had suffered a stroke and couldn’t speak, “but he could still play the piano,” I was told. In my imagination I might have found a way to tell him, in those last years, that I loved his music and would find a way to share it. He might have liked that.
Palmer’s last big project was a Concerto for Two Pianos, Double Strings, Double Percussion and Symphonic Brass. Despite National Endowment for the Arts funding and dreams of a Pulitzer, the project was abandoned in a stack of sketches. But I remember staring at those numbered pages, black with pencil—even a stage scheme—thinking: He’s the only one who knew what this all sounded like.
Part of my impulse to record Palmer’s work, particularly as the new music community challenges itself, rightly, to gaze beyond the white male composer archetype (of which Palmer certainly qualifies) is because the life of Palmer, and fate of Palmer, and the puzzling, inscrutable, what-happened-ness of Palmer, is something every creative person I know wrestles with every day. We rage against our work vanishing in the face of indifference, but mostly feel our way in the dark, finding our AirBnB keys with an iPhone flashlight in the middle of nowhere. Palmer’s story would be a cautionary tale if only we knew what we were cautioning against. Meanwhile, I’m hard-pressed to think of a composer who lived as strongly by his own creative convictions.
Whether our work is well established, gaining attention, facing oblivion, or long forgotten, we in the new music community find ourselves adrift in the same capricious tide of history. Part of our shared role in this community is to show up however we can for each other—to listen, perform, share—even as we all see and do things so differently. I look at Palmer’s life and work and am reminded that an artist’s greatest, and maybe only, power comes in giving shape to the fire inside them and tossing that work, over and over, into the void of the future. Maybe someone will someday be perfectly positioned to catch it. Or maybe not. Maybe the work will spin into the orbit of concert programming, or land on a recording for posterity, or wait for discovery in an archive. Or maybe not. People may listen to my Palmer album—perhaps some teenager will dance to it in front of their mirror like I once did to Kapell—and maybe some of the pieces, still in manuscript, will finally be published. Or maybe not. It could all—even this article—sail completely under the radar, as his work has for so long.
But just as Palmer created work nevertheless, we create work nevertheless—all of us giving shape to that fire inside us. And this act of creation, this calling, this need that exists in the present, far outweighs the promise of our work’s hypothetical future. Showing up, listening, connecting and realizing how alike and fragile we all are, is at least one way we can honor our shared humanity as artists, especially when our lives can feel so isolated, and like one unreasonable creative act after another. I spent more than a decade searching for Robert Palmer and made an album of his music when no one asked for it. But in my mind, I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t imagine being the only one who knew what this all sounded like.
Robert Palmer: Piano Music is available now on New World Records.