Saturday, May 27, 2017

My Naumburg speech

In 2006, I was elevated (if that is the word) to the Walter W. Naumburg Chair at Brandeis. At the time, all new Endowed Chair people were feted at events honoring them, at which the Provost and Dean attended; the Provost did the introducing, and there were refreshments afterwards. This doesn't happen any more, and I kind of wish it didn't happen then.

Nonetheless. I wrote and delivered a speech. Here's what happened.


I don’t do a lot of public speaking — actually, I don’t do any — and I’ve certainly never been called on to give a talk before such an accomplished and erudite crowd such as has gathered here. I did read somewhere, though – or maybe I saw it on TV – that public speeches are supposed to begin with a joke. And since this is such an accomplished and erudite crowd, I realize I can’t use just any joke – all the ones I know are either beneath such an accomplished and erudite crowd, or are musicians-only. So I made it my summer project (along with a few other things) to make up just the right joke for this occasion. For such an accomplished and erudite crowd. I don’t mind saying I’m at least as proud of this joke as I am of the piano quintet and the flute trio I wrote this summer.

Before I tell it, I should let you know that the joke has been test-marketed. I was at the artist colony Yaddo this summer, and I ran it by the writers, visual artists and composers who were in residence there. Maybe fifteen percent got it right away. Another fifteen percent got it after long pensive stares. The other seventy needed it explained. The same seventy percent said it wan’t funny anyway.

I then test-marketed the joke to my Music 103 class at Brandeis. There was a 100 percent laugh response. Which goes to show you: Brandeis students are incredibly sophisticated — either that or they’re really good at sucking up to faculty.

I realize that it’s too late now to start with a joke. So I’ll just tell it, and move on.

There’s no “eye” in Oedipus.

I’m honored and humbled to be awarded the Naumburg Chair in Composition. The composers who have preceded me in it are in the history books – literally. Irving Fine, Arthur Berger and Harold Shapero represented the American neoclassical school along with Copland and they were represented in a substantial portion in the textbook I had when I took music history as an undergraduate in 1977. Fine’s String Symphony, Berger’s Septet, Shapero’s Symphony – all received serious disquisition. And I must note here that I had very significant encounters with the music of all of them as part of my undergraduate experience. In particular, I sang in the New England Conservatory chorus when it toured with and recorded Fine’s Hour-Glass Suite (I could probably write out the “White Lily” movement from memory); and I went nuts over Berger’s Septet when the NEC Contemporary Ensemble played it – I bought the score and record and studied it pretty closely on my own. Yehudi Wyner wasn’t in my book in 1977 but the work he did after coming to Brandeis – the Horntrio and the piano concerto in particular – most certainly has put him in the latest edition.

These are pretty daunting shoes to fill. By comparison, I feel like a beginner, someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing.For once I can say I feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants and not sound pompous. Hmm, actually, I can’t.

I also want to say that I am honored to serve in the same program that has had as faculty Seymour Shifrin, Eddie Cohen, Conrad Pope, Allen Anderson, Marty Boykan, Eric Chasalow and Yu-Hui Chang – every one a composer of great distinction, personality, originality and imagination. Despite our program’s small size, we continue to be one of the most distinguished in the country. And the unfailing support we have had from Brandeis has been crucial in gaining and retaining that distinction.

The first Naumburg Chair was awarded to Irving Fine when I was one year old. Now I’m more than twice that age, and I am tickled to report the fact that, full circle, I am now teaching Irving Fine’s granddaughter, Nina Hurwitz, in music theory. Nina declared a music major last week, on the composition track – I wonder what it’s like to enter a building and every time be greeted by a bust of your grandfather, always with the same expression. And by the way – Nina laughed at the joke. No “eye” in Oedipus.

Many thanks to Palle Yourgrau, the first Chaired professor to give such a talk as this, for his advice on what to do in mine. I can only hope one day to know as much music as he does — he already knows at least as much philosophy as I do. I’m going to say a bit about my formative years, and sorry about this, I’m going to get a little technical on occasion. Then there will be a little video.

I want to start by relating a personal story about the beginning of my formal education in composition. I came to New England Conservatory in 1976 as a composition major from St. Albans, Vermont, deep in a dairy farming region, not exactly wild about the arts, and a city economically depressed since the railroad business it used to do moved to Canada. I knew very little music, but my ears perked up at the gentle “modern” music I played at music festivals – what I was writing in high school blithely imitated that music. When I got to NEC, I was told that composers sang in the chorus for two years, and that I would have to audition to sing a really tough piece that was being done with the Boston Symphony in a mere month and a half. It was a large atonal piece called “Chronicles” by a composer named Seymour Shifrin from some nearby college called Brandeis. In the audition I had to sightread some frightfully disjunct lines with difficult rhythms, but I made it through, and I was admitted into the chorus. Lorna Cooke deVaron drilled us mercilessly, got us to feel and sing the lines as real melodies, stopped often to tune the strange chords, and slowly whipped us into shape. It was a real challenge, especially for the voice majors who would rather have been singing Mozart arias, but the more we rehearsed, the more natural the music felt. Eventually we were ready to sing our part for the composer. A nice looking man came to a rehearsal, sat in the back and nodded and smiled while we sang, and afterwards said only, “Thank you. I know it’s hard. Bravi.”

Then were the not enough rehearsals with the BSO and Ozawa. Hearing an orchestra in front of us playing that music that we had hitherto associated only with a rehearsal piano was quite amazing. The way the last movement moved to the final eight-note chord – an A minor seven in the men’s voices – I had the G at the top – and a second inversion E-flat minor 7 in the women’s voices was glorious. I had heard nothing like it before, and there’s no adequate explanation for the feeling of singing that note, being in the middle of the big sonority, and knowing, just knowing it is right, in every sense of the word. The week after that performance I changed my writing style completely. And the cool chords from Chronicles were still in my head and were all over what I wrote. That last chord – I’ve used it or a derivation of it at least ten times. If not a hundred.

I tell that story to emphasize how much an encounter by a young musician with just one piece can change everything. The experience I had with Chronicles and other pieces is always in the back of my mind when I teach pieces in music theory or music appreciation, and it is most gratifying when I am able to be the one who changes someone’s ideas about art, about music, or about life — with something as simple as an encounter with a piece of music. I suspect that my story of becoming a composer is very much like that of many others – you hear a piece you like, and imitate it. Then you write that piece over and over until you hear another piece with stuff you want to steal, and incorporate that, and so on. Every once in the while the encounter is so intense as to cause an epiphany. Chronicles was one such piece for me.

A few words about my DNA. There is no history of musical aptitude on the Polish side of the family. Indeed, my father was tone deaf, which made singing hymns in church something of an excruciating experience. His father grew up in Warsaw; the reason the family moved to America was that in 1918 my grandfather had a, um, difference of opinion with someone in a poker game, shot, and killed him. Shortly he was living in Springfield, Massachusetts raising a family. He scrimped and saved to send my father to Northeastern University in 1940 to study chemistry.

The English branch of my mother’s side of the family came to America in 1823, a Mr. Benjamin Hill who was brought from London to teach at a new conservatory established in Rochester, New York. His daughter Julia was a piano prodigy who toured the European continent at age 14, played for royalty and the great musicians of that time. When she turned 21, the city of Rochester gave her a piano with the stipulation that she present a free recital on it. Then she married, stopped concertizing, and began the domestic life that made me possible. Julia’s granddaughter sent her daughter – my mother – to BU in 1940, to major in vocal performance.

My parents met at a mixer, went out for two years, and my father was drafted. He spent the second world war in Burma, by his account mostly getting drunk on grain alcohol. After the war, he finished his degree and moved to my mother’s hometown to take a job at a paper mill. The two offspring who preceded me into this world were forced into piano and violin lessons, which they hated – my brother told stories of being chased across a playground because he had a violin case. My parents learned their lesson: the baby – me – would not be forced into music lessons. It was a good move.

So my sister, older by 6 years, apparently had no friends her own age to play with: she spent her play time teaching me to read music, to play the piano, and to read – I have no memory of not being able to do any of those. We had a piano in the house, and I tinkered endlessly. We also had a meager collection of classical records – just the stuff that the local supermarkets sold as weekly subscriptions to the “World’s Greatest Classical Library in Your Own Home!” Nonetheless, the only classical music we ever listened to at home before I got to college was Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and The Messiah.

For school band, I picked up the trombone and became serviceable at it without practicing much. I got good enough to go to All-State and All-New England festivals, where I had my first encounters with so-called modern music. In retrospect it was very tame stuff, but at the time it perked up my ears, simply because it was different. When I learned that our All-State festival had a composers competition with actual money prizes, I wrote a piece – my first piece ever -- for my high school band – it pretty much stole all the licks from what I played at music festivals, and it lost the competition (I got to conduct the premiere with my own high school band, and the third clarinetists were all drunk) – but I got hooked. I asked my band director, Verne Colburn for advice on where to find new strange music that I should be listening to, and he gave me his Time-Life collection called Music of Our Time. I find it hard to believe that in this day and age Time-Life would do something like that again.

There were a lot of different styles of music on that compilation, but the very, very modern pieces by Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez stood out as completely unlike everything else. I was mesmerized by them, even though I didn’t really understand them. And I listened to them over and over. Mr. Colburn also lent me his theory textbooks, where I read about some of the technical aspects of this weird music, but had no idea how to imitate it. I did some pretty serious wearing out of grooves, though.

Then came my encounter with Shifrin’s Chronicles. I knew what to do next.

My undergraduate years were spent mostly acquiring technique and learning pieces. I would listen to pieces like the Rite of Spring, Messiaen’s Chronochromie, Berger’s Septet, Davidovsky’s first Synchronism, study the scores, to try and figure out what was in them that I could steal (you’ll note this preoccupation a lot with composers. Stravinsky is said to have remarked, “good composers borrow. Great composers steal”). I wrote music by the bushel, and I wrote it very fast. Most of it was complicated, and most of it was about technique alone. Which is to say, if anyone asked me what I was trying to “do”, or what my piece was “about”, I would present a disquisition on where the notes came from.

Then in my junior and senior years both my parents died, a little more than a year apart. My mother’s struggle with depression ended when she took her own life; and my father died when the car he was driving struck a train at an unmarked intersection. In the time after my mother’s death, my father and I got much closer, which made his passing even more tragic for me. I stopped writing music for quite a while, and when I did write it came out very slowly. I don’t know, maybe I was finished with learning mere technique and now I realized that what I really needed in music was – something to say. Or maybe what I really needed to learn was enough technique to express grief.

It turns out I didn’t have to wait very long for my answer. When I got to graduate school, Berg’s opera Lulu was being produced at the Met, and Princeton grad students were allowed to sit in on the rehearsals. I made it to six of them, getting to know this glorious opera really well, and in the last rehearsal, I had my epiphany. At the end of the opera, Lulu is forced to London to escape the law and becomes a prostitute. Her three clients are played by the same singers that played her three now-dead husbands, and the music associated with those characters returns. If you know the opera at all, you know that her third client is Jack the Ripper – yet he looks like Doctor Schön, the only man Lulu ever loved. While the gorgeous “love music” plays, Lulu and Jack yammer about the price of the trick. The many layers of meaning and irony to this scene and the music itself somehow overwhelmed me, and when the opera finished I was so full of emotion that I literally could not move for several minutes. My compatriots seemed to be similarly effected, as the car trip home was uncharacteristically silent.

For a graduate seminar on the opera, I analyzed the “love music” which I just mentioned, and found it to be so tightly constructed that you could bounce a quarter on it. Moreover, the melody was written simply by repeating, several times, the rhythm that is associated in the opera with death – yet Berg’s treatment of the melody with the accompaniment made it sound anything but repetitious. What I think seeped in gradually from listening to this music was a sense of how counterpoint works in music, most specifically what is called in music theory the “fourth species” of counterpoint. Put simply, a tone is stable with its surroundings, and sustains while the surroundings change, thus making it unstable, or dissonant. The tone then has to move in order to fit with the new surroundings, which then change again, etcetera. Imagine by analogy being in a space and being comfortable, and the space itself changes to something forbidding, and you don’t belong. You have to move to where you belong. The continual artful use of such a device is part of what makes great music move, and is a big part of what gives it, for me, affect and expression. Berg had figured out how to get that affect in an atonal context, and I thought that was revolutionary.

I know it’s boring to talk continually about acquiring technique, but this was a big one for me. Without technique it’s hard to say anything with eloquence; but technique by itself is worthless if an artist has nothing to say. Meanwhile, while I was figuring this stuff out, everything I wrote for the next ten years bore the unmistakable imprint of Berg. Within a few years I had written an elegy for strings for my parents that worked – I had learned how to write good slow music. It is the first piece I wrote that “worked” from start to finish without any dead moments. Now I just had to figure out how to write music of other speeds.

After graduate school I did crap word processing jobs and wrote very little music. I had decided not to try for a teaching job, but then another Brandeis connection comes in – a job landed in my lap. My friend Ross Bauer, with a PhD from this department, was leaving a lectureship at Stanford for another job at the last minute, and he recommended me to replace him for a year. I was offered the job on my 30th birthday, and I decided to try a year of teaching to see if it was for me.

I think you know what the answer was. By virtue of having to figure out pieces of music in order to teach them, I rediscovered stuff I hadn’t thought about for years. Since I was engaged with music full time, I was drawn back to composing in a big way. Soon I wrote a big Romantic symphony that all my friends called “Berg’s Third Symphony” – my friends aren’t very subtle – and when I finished, another Brandeis connection came calling: Rhonda Rider, who used to be the cellist of the Lydian Quartet, got her piano trio to commission me. I don’t know why, but the music that came out had an unusual rhythmic freedom, very strongly referencing the rhythms and gestures of be bop and even of rock and roll, yet harmonically it sounded like me. I had figured out how to write fast music. Moreover, it was fast music with fourth species counterpoint. With this piece I think I found my voice – at age 33. 33 is the number on the Rolling Rock bottle. Coincidence? I think not.

I’ve brought the story up to 1991 and don’t have much more to say about my development as a composer. I have been constantly looking for new challenges, and ways to grow as a composer, and I’m fond of saying the only way to do that is to approach each new piece as if I don’t know what I’m doing. Because, as I have found out the hard way, convincing myself I know what I’m doing leads to laziness, sloppiness and to repeating myself.

Speaking in such abstract terms about music, which is already abstract, is getting tedious, I think. Rather than talk a lot more, I’d like to share with you a teeny sliver of my music.

I have several parallel strands in my output – there’s the serious, long pieces; the not as serious serious smaller pieces; pieces for children; and a whole mess of piano études. Piano etudes are for me sort of a compositional playground. I enforce very strict rules when I write one: it must be written quickly (within six days), have no a priori ideas about its form, and something once written down cannot be revised. An etude is by nature an obsessive piece, so by trying to do as much as I can imagine, and quickly, that is about just one thing keeps my chops sharp. And because the pieces are written so quickly, I feel like I can have as much fun as I want. And explore different aspects of piano virtuosity – make no mistake, these are really hard pieces. Some things from the etudes have made it into my larger pieces, but I’d have to do another technical disquisition to say what.

To date I’ve written 73 piano etudes. More are on the way. I’m going to play the 14th, called Martler, on a video screen for reasons that will become apparent.

Traditionally etudes are about some particular aspect of piano technique – parallel intervals, pedaling, broken chords, particular accompaniment figures, specific fingering patterns – and one class of etudes is about crossing hands. It’s not uncommon to find piano music in which the right hand plays an accompaniment figure and the left hand switches back and forth between bass and treble, thus crossing over the right hand. Probably the most well-known crossing hands piece is found in the movie of The Music Man in the scene that sets up the song “Goodnight My Someone”.

I wrote Martler at an artist colony. Both I and my wife Beth were resident at the colony, and we showed each other our sketches daily. On the second day of writing my piece, Beth suggested I slyly quote something I might have played when I was in a rock band in high school. I protested, but I liked the challenge of sneaking something nearly incongruous in there. So I quoted “Smoke on the Water” and hid it within some long notes in a very busy texture, and I showed it to Beth. She said the quote should be more obvious. Well, I couldn’t take my really subtle quote back – remember, the rule is no revisions – so I then made a second, more obvious quote. It is okay for you to laugh if you recognize it.

Writing an appallingly virtuosic piece for crossing hands means that there is not only musical structure to think of (by the way, the two dueling tonics of A and E-flat are suggested by the first two sonorities of the piece, which fly by like the wind), but also the ballet of the hands themselves. So it ends up being a very visual piece. It is a real treat to watch an artist of the caliber of Amy Dissanayake play this piece – I have been very lucky to find players of her artistry who like to play my music, and who can pull it off with such fierceness. You will note that about two-fifths of the way through Amy stops looking at the music and plays from memory. Amazing. The video was made at the American Academy of Arts and Letters after Amy had spent three grueling days making a CD of 22 etudes of mine, all of them with similar technical demands, and she did this performance because the recording engineer asked to watch the piece being played.

By way of conclusion, I simply want to say, somewhat tautologically, that I want to make music that is everything that it can be. I’m sure my colleagues share that philosophy, and it has been my teaching philosophy as well. My new goal in life – now that I wrote my joke – is to write something so good that the next Naumburg Chair says in his or her speech that it was one of his or her formative pieces. Or at least that he or she could bounce a quarter off of it.

I want to thank Marty for hosting this event, and Rick Silberman and Trudy Crosby for taking care of the logistics. I also want to thank Adam for giving me the courage to wear this tie. I want to thank Brandeis, for throwing wonderful undergraduates into my classes and for the support and space it’s given me in the decade I’ve been here. The last ten years have been the most productive and exhilarating of my life. I’m honored to be awarded this Chair, but still I ask for your patience with me. I’m still learning.