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Bill’s Gong Show

You want to know the history of L.A.‘s music? Ask the history makers themselves, best of all the three surviving geezers who’ve been here, done that and keep it up. David Raksin, 90 last year, came to Hollywood in 1935 to create movie music for Charles Chaplin; his later triumphs include the slithery title tune from Laura. Also in 1935, Leonard Stein, now 86, began studies with Arnold Schoenberg, became his assistant, edited his writings, headed the Schoenberg Institute until its shotgun divorce from USC and now masterminds the adventurous Piano Spheres concerts. William Kraft, the junior member of this senior triumvirate, turns 80 this year and has probably worn the most hats: percussionist (including a stint as the Los Angeles Philharmonic‘s principal timpanist), composer, conductor and teacher. This weekend’s Philharmonic program includes the world premiere of Kraft‘s Concerto for English Horn and Orchestra, one of a series of solo vehicles commissioned by the orchestra for its first-desk players. Next month (February 7 and 9) comes another world premiere, Kraft’s first-ever opera, Red Azalea, commissioned and produced by UC Santa Barbara‘s Opera Theater.

Neither work is what you’d automatically expect from a composer best remembered as a percussionist, banging his way to fame on the glorious array of hardware that constitutes the most watchable part of a symphony orchestra. The English horn is, after all, an instrument most known for lustrous, somewhat mournful melodic lines; an opera calls for the same kind of music, produced by human throats. In his spacious ranch house tucked up against Mount Wilson, the smiling, Teletubby-shaped Kraft has easy explanations for his recent compositional byways. A concerto for English horn? “Well, I‘ve written for everything else.” An opera? “It’s the only thing I haven‘t done.”

Actually, the concerto has a touch of percussion in its ancestry. Philharmonic percussionist Raynor Carroll came back from a trip to Thailand and Indonesia a few years ago with a marvelous collection of exotic kitchenware that included several dozen tuned gongs. That inspired Kraft to compose the “garrulous but endearing” (Rich, L.A. Weekly), dauntingly named Encounters XI: The Demise of Suriyodhaya for Carolyn Hove’s English horn and Carroll‘s gongs and gadgetry; it was played at a Green Umbrella concert in March 1999. The new concerto, which runs something like 30 minutes, doesn’t really crib from the earlier piece (“except in one or two tiny places,” says Kraft), but the spirit abides. “I‘ve subtitled it ’The Great Encounter,‘ and I suppose that does relate to the earlier title.”

Most of the orchestra is seated upstage. Down in front there are three smaller groups: solo violin and cello, alto flute and guitar, harp and percussion (chimes, crotales, cymbals, drums, gongs gongs gongs and down the alphabet to vibes). Soloist Hove moves across the stage, “visiting” each small group in turn. The groups hand off their music to one another and to the orchestra. The texture -- solo alternating with small ensemble alternating with full orchestra -- may remind you of the concerti grossi of Handel’s time, which, says Kraft, is part of the plan.

The opera sets Anchee Min‘s award-winning autobiographical account of her life in China in the final years of Mao’s “cultural revolution”; Christopher Hawes created the libretto. The work calls for a six-member vocal ensemble, eight players on Western instruments plus an erhu, that silky-toned two-string Chinese fiddle you hear a lot in Tan Dun‘s music. “The real story,” says Kraft, “is about an artist learning to get in touch with her inner conflicts. My wife, Joanie [composer Joan Huang], knew the author when they were growing up in China. When I first got the book, she got all excited and decided that she wanted to do her own opera. Wouldn’t that be something: husband and wife composing his-and-her operas on the same story? As it happened, Joanie dropped her plan; too busy.”

“Composing was always the center of my ambition,” Kraft remembers, “but there was always the problem of making a living.” Chicago-born, he immigrated to New York in the 1940s, studied composition at Columbia and percussion -- with the New York Philharmonic‘s legendary Saul Goodman -- at Juilliard. “I guess I had gotten into percussion first. But then I had my first epiphany. I had seen a movie -- The Maltese Falcon with Bogart and all those good people. I was walking home when it suddenly hit me: The main reason I’d been so overwhelmed by that movie was the music. Something about that score -- by Adolph Deutsch, who wasn‘t all that well-known -- hit upon the exact nature of that film, jazzy and tragic, dark and humorous. From that moment, I became aware of music’s real power over a listener‘s imagination, as I hadn’t been aware before. From then on, I knew I could never be satisfied just pounding on things.”

As epiphanies go, this one was unusually well-timed. Serious composition for percussion had become respectable since the 1930s, with Edgard Varese‘s Ionisation and the Constructions of John Cage and Lou Harrison. Even so, Kraft spent some time wrestling with the beast. He had come to Los Angeles in 1955, when there was plenty of work for a freelance percussionist. (If you have The Soldier’s Tale from Sony Classics‘ big box of Stravinsky conducting Stravinsky, that’s Bill Kraft, in 1961, on the final rat-a-tat boom-boom.) He joined the Philharmonic‘s roster of percussionists. “It was Alfred Wallenstein’s last year as conductor, and the orchestra went to Asia on tour. We got to Thailand, Korea, Indonesia, and I heard all those drums and gongs in their native settings and had another epiphany. Either I had to start composing, I decided, or I had to get out of music altogether.”

He started composing -- pure percussion stuff like the 1956 Theme and Variations and several percussion-plus-orchestra pieces of considerable extent; instrumental and vocal music, including an impressive series of settings of the Pierrot Lunaire poems that Schoenberg hadn‘t touched; The Sky’s the Limit, an electronicacoustic computerized installation for Chicago‘s O’Hare Airport; songs, chamber works and -- finally -- an opera.

Where, in these tightrope-walking times for any music that wants to be taken seriously or, at least, as “serious,” does Bill Kraft locate himself?

“I think that composers of my generation have wasted 10 to 15 years of our lives in trying to keep up with all the important issues from Europe. Whatever happened in Europe we felt we had to know about and had to practice. We had to show that we knew what was going on in the world. Consequently, we lost ourselves in that process and forgot who we were.”

And where does he locate himself on the American map? “There is no such thing as one American tradition, there are many. Everybody has his own approach. So it occurred to me: If we‘re going to compose, why not be ourselves? That makes a bigger problem for us. I think it was Mort Subotnick who said, ’The difference between a European composer and an American composer is that the European knows where he is in history.‘ We don’t. I had thought more and more about applying it to my own output and to my teaching. It behooves us to find out who we are. My background was originally jazz. In my teens, I played a lot of jazz. I played in the rhythm section, either piano or drums. Therefore, I found that I can‘t get away from pulse. The music isn’t alive to me if it doesn‘t have pulse.

”If there’s anything that‘s basic to my idea of composing music, it’s just loving to compose. I‘ve never had any intention of doing something for the first time, or breaking ground with anything in particular. It’s just to do what comes natural. I do have a great concern for idiom. In whatever piece I‘m writing, I’m very concerned what that piece is about. If it‘s a piece for an instrument, then I do every bit of investigation I can to see what that instrument is about. The piece ends up being for that instrument and no other instrument. In other words, there’s no universal style or concept I have that is applied to all of my music. Instead it grows out of the particulars of a given piece.“