A Loss of Originality

The passing in recent weeks of Ralph Shapey (at 81) and Earle Brown (at 75) -- strong-willed American composers, originals both, unalike in style but comparable in stature -- inundated me in another wave of the nostalgia that is one of the more benevolent afflictions of old age. Musical New York in the 1960s -- when both men were casting long shadows, and mine was considerably shorter -- was wonderfully astir. New names carried new hopes: Pierre Boulez, Lincoln Center, the National Endowment. Every month, or so it seemed, there was something new from Shapey, most of it for small groups performing at the New School or Carnegie Recital Hall: bristling, fierce, ill-tempered pieces (like the man, who described himself as a ”radical traditionalist“). In 1969 he came to the conclusion that the world didn‘t deserve his music, and he withdrew it all from circulation in what turned out to be a seven-year embargo. There was lots of it on records at that time, however. Now thereisn’t nearly enough.

Earle Brown in those years was best known as a John Cage co-conspirator, part of that marvelous mutuality known as the New York School, in which composers and artists -- Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, Robert Rauschenberg -- shared ideas and inventions. Brown‘s music had begun to circulate worldwide. In 1964, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic embarked on an ”Avant-Garde Festival“ with which neither he nor the orchestra was capable of coping; Brown’s Available Forms II, an ”open-form“ work using chance operations and two conductors, was on one program, cynically introduced by Bernstein and miserably performed. ”Mr. Bernstein tried everything short of a Flit gun to kill off the avant-garde movement in music . . .“ was the way I began my review in the (sob!) Herald-Tribune the next day.

Bernstein‘s Philharmonic had little to offer the cause of musical progress, as did the other components of the slick supermarket for the arts that Lincoln Center soon became. (After Boulez acceded to Bernstein’s podium, his most adventurous programming took place when he moved the performances to other, less formal venues in the Village and elsewhere.) Shapey had come to New York (from his native Philadelphia) in 1945; like Brown, he fell in with the forward-moving crowd that included artists as well as musicians; Willem de Kooning was a close friend. So was Stefan Wolpe, the expatriate self-willed iconoclast who took Schoenberg‘s 12-tone methods into strange, intensely emotional regions.

Shapey’s music from the start seemed to reflect that same combination of high passion and harmonic abstruseness. The music I most remember from those years was pretty scary stuff, jabbing and restless, with a powerful oratorical sense, especially in the music he wrote to celebrate the Israeli nationhood. Later on he moved to Chicago, where for his last 27 years he led a chamber ensemble devoted to new music, and taught composition -- memorably, according to students I‘ve spoken to. He never lost the power to make waves.

That was conclusively proved in 1992, and it spawned a tidal wave of responses and commentaries in newspapers throughout the country. The Pulitzer Prize music jury -- George Perle, Roger Reynolds and Harvey Sollberger -- unanimously chose Shapey’s Concerto Fantastique for that year‘s award. However, the Pulitzer board rejected that recommendation, choosing instead the jury’s second choice, The Face of the Night, the Heart of the Dark by Wayne Peterson -- whom you‘ve never since heard of, and neither have I. The music jury responded with a public statement avowing that they had not been consulted and that the board was not professionally qualified to make such a decision. The board responded that ”The Pulitzers are enhanced by having, in addition to the professional’s point of view, the layman‘s or consumer’s point of view.“ The board did not rescind its decision.

(You can, if you wish, invoke that event to date the start of the whole dumbing-down process that has now spread through the classical-music industry. It was recently manifested at the Hollywood Bowl, by the way, when John Williams led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in what was listed -- and described in program notes -- as Copland‘s Lincoln Portrait but which actually consisted of only the last five minutes of that 15-minute piece.)

Brown, already a strong-minded, innovative composer with a background as well in jazz and mathematics, was invited by Cage to join the New York circle in 1952. Jackson Pollock’s painting methods had also been an early influence; throughout his career, Brown worked in a complex of attitudes toward musical freedom vs. musical discipline. Like Cage, he became fascinated with alternative forms of musical notation; both men produced manuscripts that deserve regard as artworks in themselves. Unlike some of Cage‘s works, however, Brown’s musical notation -- squares, graphs, squiggles and actual notes -- gave the performers specific information about pitch and rhythm, as well as information about when to ignore that kind of information and take off on their own.

Everything fascinated him. As a teenager he fell in love with Charles Ives‘ Concord Sonata and wore out the one copy available at the local shop; studying engineering and math at college in Boston, he played trumpet with big bands on weekends and later befriended the legendary Zoot Sims. Every early experience seemed to find its place in his own art later on: the Abstract Expressionist painters, Merce Cunningham’s choreography, Gertrude Stein‘s poetry, Henri Bergson’s philosophy. In 1980 he was at CalArts -- for one of several visits -- and oversaw a performance of his Calder Piece, extraordinary pan-sensual music for percussionists beating the bejesus out of 100 instruments that included a sculpture created by Calder for the occasion. Hearing it contributed to my own decision to remain in California.

If Cage‘s impact on the avant-garde community was basically philosophical, Brown seemed to recognize the need for contact with the outside world. To this end he founded the remarkable if short-lived label Time-Mainstream, whose 18 LPs gave American record buyers their first hearings of the music of the new Europeans Nono, Maderna, Kagel and Boulez, along with several Americans, in definitive performances. As president of the Fromm Music Foundation, he commissioned works by almost every major American composer you’d want to name.

Skier, tennis whiz, aviation buff, collector of Porsches and first editions of Gertrude Stein, Earle Brown remained restless and joyous, even as poor health clouded his last few years. As with Shapey, too little of his music is readily at hand: a piano collection on New Albion and a valuable disc on Newport Classic covering 25 years of music for small ensemble -- elegant, iridescent, not immediately friendly but generous at repaying the effort. Conflict note: I wrote the program booklet. But I didn‘t write the music.

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