Musical Memoirs

Sometimes I carefully select the books I read; other times a book appears by happenstance. I came upon the text for my song Shadow Memory because my eye lit upon Susan Orlean’s book My Kind of Place while I was waiting in the check-out line at my neighborhood library and near the end of that book there was a paragraph that had to become a song. I came upon something quite important to me simply by luck.

I won’t derive any song texts from my recent reading, but quite by coincidence, I happen to have come across several musical memoirs lately:

I Sang the Unsingable – Bethany Beardslee. With world and U.S. premieres of music by Babbitt, Berg, Boulez, Dallapiccola, Maxwell Davies, Krenek, Nono, Perle, Ruggles, Shapey, Stravinsky, Webern, and many others to her credit, Bethany Beardslee made an enormous contribution to the musical life of the 1950’s into the 80’s. I ate up this book because my own time in NYC put me in touch with the traditions in which she worked. While a student at Columbia, I saw her sing Babbitt’s Philomel – in its original 4-track version; I set up music stands for a Schoenberg rehearsal led by her first husband, Jacques-Louis Monod (with whom she gave pioneering Webern performances 30 years earlier); and composers she writes about were having their pieces played at concerts I attended, or were simply present in the audience. I found the book fascinating, not least for its insights into the author’s craft. I liked her observation that singers need to sing intervals, not pitches.

Building Bridges with Music – Samuel Adler. Reading these “stories from a composer’s life”, as the subtitle puts it, I was struck by how prolific Adler has been, while maintaining an extraordinarily busy and lengthy teaching career. I had not realized the considerable extent of his work as a liturgical musician, both as a composer and a choral conductor, nor his contributions to the field of educational music. At the moment, anybody writing a grant proposal connected with new music is expected to include a “social impact” component to a project (as though excellent music excellently performed does not already have a social impact), but Adler found ways to put his skills at the service of his community – in the synagogue and the school –  long before grant givers started insisting on it.

“The Broadway Sound”: The Autobiography and Selected Essays of Robert Russell Bennett. The arranger/orchestrator of most of the greatest Broadway musicals from before Show Boat through Camelot, Bennett was much more active as a composer of original works than I realized, with multiple performances by major orchestras. In fact, the book is a glimpse into a sort of alternative history of 20th century American music; as a footnote by editor George Ferencz points out, on a radio series that Bennett programmed, in which he featured pieces by many living composers, “…several native composers receiving frequent symphonic performances at the time (including Copland, Barber, Piston, Hanson, and Harris) went unperformed” while those who were performed include a number of Bennett’s colleagues in commercial music, as well as people like Oscar Levant and, unexpectedly, William Grant Still. The book is fascinating, with amusing anecdotes throughout, though the prose is a bit disjunct. Some short essays round out the book, offering technical insights into how Bennett and his colleagues got their job done.

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