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  April 14-April 21, 2003
An Interview with

Tobias Picker

Photo: Xavier Guardans
Tobias Picker was born in New York City in 1954, and by the age of 8 had begun to play the piano and compose. After studies with Charles Wuorinen at the Manhattan School of Music, with Elliott Carter at Juilliard, and with Milton Babbitt at Princeton, Picker launched a dazzling career. By the time he turned 24, his music had already earned public and critical acclaim, and The New Yorker hailed him as "a genuine creator with a fertile unforced vein of invention."  Before the age of 30, he had received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. 

Today he is considered one of the most important and most original American composers whose wide spectrum of works include 3 (soon to be 4) operas, 3 symphonies, 3 piano concertos as well as concertos for violin, viola, and oboe, song-cycles, a concerto for actor and orchestra and an extensive catalog of chamber music.  You’ll find a complete biography at www.tobiaspicker.com

S21:  Do you remember the first moment that you realized that you had what George Rochberg calls "a fire on the brain," that is, the ability to turn sounds in your head into a structured composition?  Can you describe how that felt?  For those of us who don't possess this gift, this process is very mysterious and mystical. 


Picker:  I'm not sure what he meant by a "a fire on the brain". It sounds like something from a movie about a composer rather than real life. I've heard  that to run for President a person has to have "a fire in the belly". I had a very high fever when I was 6. The composing started shortly after that illness. But, I doubt the fire  on my brain had anything to do with it. 

(Although, I believe it was Honneger who said "composing is an illness" ) I'd rather try to demystify this whole idea than add to an already cluttered myth . People are born with all kinds of gifts. The best gifts are the ones that keep on giving. Composing for me is such a gift. I'm still trying to turn the sounds in my head into structured compositions. I like to think that with every piece I write, I get better at controlling large forms and solving other musical problems. Papa Haydn on his death-bed said, "I finally just figured out how to really write for the oboe and  now, I must leave this life." 

S21:  What were your early musical influences?

Picker:  My parents were great devotées of Kurt Weil. I loved listening to Lotte Lenya's recordings of  Weill songs in German and in English. I learned how to put the record in the Hifi very early and I knew by heart the words to Mack the Knife in German by the time I was four.  They had a recording of the Mark Blitstein Theater De Lys version of  Threepenny Opera which I listened to all the time. My Grandfather, a German Jew, was a Wagnerite. For him, there was simply no other composer who compared. Mozart, he said, wrote "deedle deedle dee musik. Wagner was the greatest who ever lived."  I remember as a boy of four being very proud that I'd learned to dress myself. But, I could never grasp why my socks should match. They never did.  When we'd go to visit my German Grandparents my grandfather would come out to greet us, suddenly point to my feet and announce;  "Ah zo. Two different socks.   Wagner always wore two different socks.  ze sure sign of a genius!" Then he'd take me into his study and play his Kirsten Flagstadt records for me. 


Keys to the City; And Suddenly It's Evening; Cello Concerto
Composer: Tobias Picker
Conductor: Thomas Sanderling
Performer: Jeremy Denk, Paul Watkins
Chandos - #10039 
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On Being Arvo
Rzewski Plays Rzewski
Praising Lee Hyla
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Dead Man Walking
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Our writers welcome your comments on their pieces.  Send your witty bon mots to jbowles@sequenza21.com and we might even publish some of them here.  And, don't forget--if you'd like to write for Sequenza21 (understanding that we have no money to pay you), send me a note. JB

A New Music Label That Will Live On In Death This month CRI, the recording company that has championed new music through more than 900 releases, is shutting down. Time for laments. But New World Records will take over CRI's catalog and "digitize the master tapes of the complete CRI archive and keep each album available as a custom-made CD, burned to order and mailed to the buyer with the original liner notes. Not only that, New World is exploring the possibility of making CRI recordings available through digital downloads, as that technology becomes more viable. So what seems a simple act of one nonprofit's salvaging another's catalog could represent a bold step into the online future of recording." The New York Times 04/13/03 

Computer Program Can Identify Composers? "A standard PC file-compression program can tell the difference between classical music, jazz and rock, all without playing a single note. This new-found ability could help scholars identify the composers of music that until now has remained anonymous." New Scientist 04/10/03 

Is Orchestra Touring Disappearing? Recently, musicians from a Dutch orchestra arrived in London to play a concert only to discover it had been cancelled for lack of ticket sales. This kind of thing is happening more frequently, writes Norman Lebrecht. "An awareness is dawning across the musical world that the age of orchestral touring is over, leaving gaping holes in the concert calendar and another economic nightmare. The Philharmonia Orchestra has just totted up a two-thirds drop in touring revenues over the past year. The Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields which has, for four decades, spent more time abroad than within sight of Nelson's Column, has ( players tell me) great white gaps in its diary." London Evening Standard 04/09/03 

The Dictator And The Opera North Korean dictator Kim Jong II has written a book on opera. "You might assume the book is a socialist critique of La Traviata and Carmen. Unfortunately, it's nothing so delicious, and isn't even whacked-out enough to be fun. It's just desperately prosaic and, for us, a creepy cautionary tale about what happens when someone whose favorite opera is titled 'Sea of Blood' (and whose favorite movie is Rocky III, according to another of his aesthetic tracts, 'On the Art of the Cinema') attempts to legislate the artistic process." Philadelphia Inquirer 04/13/03 

Music, The International Peacemaker In Rome, hundreds of student protesters calling for an end to the war in Iraq tried to disrupt a university performance by the famed La Scala Opera Orchestra, under the direction of Riccardo Muti. Rather than cancel the concert or forcibly remove the protesters, Muti addressed them directly, saying "The musicians you see seated here have been touring the world since 1996 in the name of peace." The protesters apparently conceded the point, sitting quietly for the first part of the performance before leaving the premises. Andante (AP) 04/09/03 

What Music Slump? Indie Labels Flourish As Majors Struggle While execs at major recording labels "wail about the industry's imminent collapse, indie labels and artists are singing a much happier tune. Profits are up - in some cases by 50 to 100 percent. That's in contrast to overall album sales, which dropped about 11 percent in 2002. You won't hear many of these labels' artists on pop radio - and ironically, that's one of the secrets to their success. By avoiding the major expenses associated with getting a tune on the air - which can cost upwards of $400,000 or $500,000 per song - independent labels are able to turn a profit far more quickly, and share more of those profits with their artists." Christian Science Monitor 04/11/03 

John Adams: Mixed Feelings About Pulitzer Win Composer John Adams is happy to have won this year's Pulitzer Prize for music. But "every year I continue to be disappointed that the Pulitzer has stayed stylistically within such a narrow bandwidth of mainly academic music. It doesn't carry much prestige amongst the composers that I know. I hope that over the years, the people who administer the prize will accept that American music is a far more universal art form than the past history would suggest." San Francisco Chronicle 04/08/03 

Why Pulitzer Doesn't Mean Much In Music The Pulitzers are prestigious. But not in the music category, says John Adams, this year's winner. "I am astonished to receive the Pulitzer Prize. Among musicians that I know, the Pulitzer has over the years lost much of the prestige it still carries in other fields like literature and journalism. Anyone perusing the list of past winners cannot help noticing that many if not most of the country's greatest musical minds are conspicuously missing," The New York Times 04/09/03 

The Underwater Symphony The German Symphony Orchestra is performing in a health club, playing a piece of music for which the audience will have to be submerged in a pool. "The cellists will be on the poolside, playing electric instruments and the sound will be put through a mixing desk and modified. There will be no sound to hear unless you are under the water." The Guardian (UK) 04/06/03 

Beethoven Ninth For Sale Sotheby's is selling a manuscript of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. "In three bound volumes of 465 pages, the offering includes virtually the complete score of that symphony in manuscript. (Two fragments of the same manuscript reside in the Beethovenhaus in Bonn and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.) The hands are mainly those of two copyists, but Beethoven scribbled corrections and changes throughout. The manuscript may have been used at the work's premiere, in 1824, and it was the basis for the first printed edition, in 1826." The New York Times 04/07/03 

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Record companies, artists and publicists are invited to submit CDs to be considered for our Editor's Pick's of the month.  Send to: Jerry Bowles, Editor, Sequenza 21, 340 W. 57th Street, 12B, NY, NY 10019  Also, feel free to nominate your favorite composer-- even if it's you--for Spotlight of the Week.

Among classical music lovers and composers, the Pulitizer Prize in Music is not that highly regarded.  Too many great composers didn't win and too many hacks have won over the years.  Once in awhile though, the committee gets it right.  This is one of those times.

John Adams has been awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Music for
On the Transmigration of Souls, his 25-minute work for chorus, children’s
chorus, sound design, and orchestra. Adams had been commissioned
by an anonymous donor to write a work for the New York Philharmonic,
marking the somber anniversary of the September 11 attacks. On the
Transmigration of Souls received its premiere on September 19, 2002
with Lorin Maazel conducting.

The score uses recordings of ambient city sounds and voices reading
names of the missing. Its sung texts are drawn from the missing-person
posters and memorial websites that appeared in the wake of the
attack, along with eyewitness accounts.
Upon receiving word of the prize, the composer said, “Composing Souls
was a serious and very humbling experience for me, and any honor that
receiving the Pulitzer Prize may afford should be shared with families of
those who were lost on September 11 in New York. I’ll always be indebted
to those New Yorkers who so generously allowed me to use their words and remembrances to create this piece.”

On the Transmigration of Souls receives its European premiere in London
this summer as John Adams conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in
July. A performance follows in Amsterdam on September 6, marking
the second anniversary of the tragic events; Edo de Waart will conduct
the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Radio Choir at the

Music for the Harmonically Tuned Piano

Composer, Performer: Michael Harrison

Michael Harrison has developed one of the most distinctive musical styles of our time.  Working with ancient principles of harmonic resonance, Harrison's music is an eclectic synthesis of North Indian and Western classical music, minimalism, and modal jazz. 

Harrison began playing the piano at the age of six studying both classical and jazz and went on to study composition at the University of Oregon and The Juilliard School. In 1977, he bought his first tamboura, a resonant Indian drone instrument, and the following year began intensive study of North Indian classical singing with India's master vocalist Pandit Pran Nath and his earliest American disciples La Monte Young and Terry Riley .

Fascinated with the beautiful resonances created by the overtone-based tuning system ("just intonation") used in Indian music, Harrison began applying these ancient principles to the piano, creating music with sounds that standard western tuning could not achieve.  In 1980, seeking the guidance of the most innovative composer working with "just intonation," he came to New York City to study with the avant-garde visionary La Monte Young under the auspices of the Dia Art Foundation.  Young's pioneering work was a crucial element in the growth and development of Harrison's music. 

Throughout the ensuing decade, he worked closely with Young, preparing all of the specialized tunings and scores for Young’s six-hour magnum opus The Well-Tuned Piano.  In 1987, at Young’s invitation, Harrison became the only other person besides Young to perform the work, which he did from memory at Young’s 30-year retrospective concert series.

In 1986, with the help of two expert piano technicians, Harrison created the “harmonic piano,” a uniquely customized acoustic grand piano with the ability to alternate between two different tunings with one keyboard. The “harmonic piano” evolved from the unique design features of Young’s The Well-Tempered Piano custom Bösendorfer Imperial grand. 

Joshua Pierce will play Revelation as part of the American Festival of Microtonal Music at Faust Harrison Pianos, 205 West 58th Street, in New York City on Friday, April 25, Saturday, April 26 and Friday, May 2--all performances at 8 pm.  For more information about the concerts, contact Jeffrey James Arts Consulting at 516.797.9166 or by e-mail.

NWEAMO 2003: The Exploding Interactive Inevitable 
October 3-5, 2003: Portland, Oregon (B-Complex) October 10-12, 2003: 
(San Diego State University) 

Miller Theatre: 
2002-03 Season at a Glance

Previous Interviews/Profiles
Simon Rattle, Michael Gordon,Benjamin Lees, Scott Lindroth, David Felder, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Erkki-Sven Tüür,John Luther Adams, Brett Dean, Judith Lang Zaimont, Meyer Kupferman, Evan Chambers, Poul Ruders, Steven R. Gerber, Gloria Coates

Previous Articles/
Busoni The Visionary
The Composer of the Moment:  Mark-Anthony Turnage
Electronic Music
Voices: Henze at 75
Henze Meets Emenim
On Finding Kurtag
Charles Ruggles:  When Men Were Men
Ballet Mécanique
The Adams Chronicles

             EDITORS PICKS - April 2003 (In Progress)
Composer: Arvo Part 
Performers: Tonus Peregrinus/Antony Pitts, director

Arvo Part’s Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John is widely regarded as one of the most significant choral works of the 20th century. Born in Estonia in 1935, Part studied at the Tallinn Conservatoire, his early compositions strongly influenced by Russian music from the Shostakovich era. Thirty years ago, he began to embrace polyphonic forms linked with Gregorian chant.  Passio echos the earliest American minimalism, with short melodic and rhythmic patterns repeated to form a more extensive narrative.   The British-based vocal ensemble, Tonus Peregrinus performs solidly.  Another great bargain from Naxos

Requiem and other Sacred Music
Composer: John Rutter:
Performers: Choir of Clare College, Cambridge / Timothy Brown, director

John Rutter's gentle Requiem, written in 1985, was composed with a special affection for choral sound. If you prefer the quiet requiem of Fauré to the bombastic requiem of  Verdi, you will love Rutter's work, created from a personal selection of texts, some from the Requiem Mass and others from the l662 Book of Common Prayer.



Uirapurú, Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4, The Emperor Jones (Premiere Recording)
Composer:  Heitor Villa-Lobos
Performers: Odense Symphony Orchestra, Jan Wagner, conductor

 For years, Villa-Lobos was regarded by many as a minor composer who wrote terrific little pieces for the guitar.  Not anymore.  A veritable explosion of recordings of orchestral works shows Villa-Lobos to have been one of the 20th century’s giants.  These vibrant performances of some of the less recorded Villa-Lobos works are a jaw-dropping revelation of music at its most romantic and sublime. 

Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 17
Symphony No. 22, Op. 236, "City of Light"
Composer: Alan Hovhaness
Performers:  Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Starker, Davis
A premiere of Hovhaness’s 1936 Concerto for Orchestra and a return to print from a previous Delos release of the City of Light Symphony, conducted by the composer himself.  Hovhaness was a pioneer of that East/West fusion that has become part of the common currency of contemporary music and his music is neither as easy to love as detractors claim nor as profound as adherents would have it.  Like Martinu, Hovhaness wrote a lot of music and virtually all of it is of a high quality.  Nothing wrong with that. 

Untaming the Fury
New American Music for Guitar and Violin
Summit Records  SMT-346
As  Duo46, guitarist Matt Gould and violinist  Beth Ilana Schneider  make exciting music together. On this CD, they work their magic on ten pieces specially commissioned from composers who are not household names yet--but all of whom display great potential. Gould and Schneider are polished players who imbue these short works with a full-range of emotional context.


Baltic Voices 1
Composers: Arvo Pärt, Einojuhani Rautavaara, et al.
Conductor: Paul Hillier
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Harmonia Mundi Franc - #907311
Paul Hillier leads the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in Volume 1 of Baltic Voices — a three-year project to explore the choral riches of the Baltic Sea countries. With a special attention to the choir’s native Estonia, these recordings will highlight the mainstream tradition of the past hundred years, complemented with music of earlier periods and commissions from younger composers. Volume 1 features haunting secular and sacred works by 20th-century composers Cyrillus Kreek, Arvo Pärt, Einojuhani Rautavaara,  Sven-David Sandstrøm, Peteris Vasks, and Veljo Tormis.  Cool, ethereal, other worldly music from a hot bed of great contemporary composers.

Awakening at the Inn of the Birds, etc.
 Composer: Michael Byron
 Performers: FLUX Quartet, Sarah Cahill, Joseph Kubera, and Kathy Supove
Cold Blue Music CB0012
Michael Byron blends  minimalist and maximalist techniques and rigorous processes with freely composed music to create works that range from the hynotic to the boisterous.  Continents of City and Love and Tidal, written 20 years apart, are both arch-form pieces scored for two pianos, synthesizer, string quartet, and doublebass. This new CD collects four of Byron’s very recent works and a new recording of a piece from 1981, all performed by some of today’s most-respected new-music champions, including Sarah Cahill and Joseph Kubera on pianos, Kathleen Supové on synthesizer, and the FLUX Quartet.

Level 7 
Composer: Evan Ziporyn, et al. 
Performer: The Robin Cox Ensemble
The Robin Cox Ensemble is a unique new music group that combines violin, cello, percussion, and live electronics to create vivid performances of new music. In its first three years, this quartet with a one-of-a-kind instrumentation has already staged more forty performances and collaborated with many prominent choreographers and composers, including on this--the group's second CD--the marvelous Evan Ziporyn. 

Orchestral Works 4
Composer: Krzysztof Penderecki
Peformers: Chee-Yun, violin; Wit, 
Polish Nat'l Rso,  Naxos 
The two violin concertos presented here are from the 1970s when Penderecki returned from strict modernism to more traditional modes of composition. The first concerto dates from 1977, and was written for Isaac Stern, its solo writing containing prodigious technical difficulties. The second is not much easier but both violinists on this CD produce lively, impressive accounts.

Albert Herring
Composer: Benjamin Britten
 Performer: Bedford, Northern Sinfonia
 Naxos - 
In which young Albert Herring, the May King (apparently no female virgin could be found to serve as Queen) is taken into hand by the lovers  Sid and Nancy, fortified with rum, and treated to a night on the town where he does--or does not--lose his virtue.  Wonderful, gay comedy and beautifully sung.

Complete Orchestral Works 3
Composer: John Carbon
Conductor: Vladimir Valek, Marin Alsop, et al.
Mmc Records - #2120 
Recent recordings of Carbon's dazzling Violin Concerto, performed by Violinist Peter Zazofsky with Gerhardt Zimmermann conducting the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra; also a marvelous reading by Richard Stoltzman of Carbon's Clarinet Concerto, and Notturno for Trumpet, Harp, and Strings, performed by Gerard Schwarz (with Jeff Silberschlag on trumpet) and the Seattle Symphony.  Valuable recording of an unjustly neglected composer.

Works for Wind Band 3 
Composer: John Philip Sousa
Performer(s): Brion, Royal Artillery Band
Born in Washington DC on 6 November, 1854, the father of American march music was the son of a trombonist with the United States Marine Band and a true prodigy.  He began music lessons at age six and by the age of eleven he organized and led his own ‘quadrille orchestra’. The rest of his orchestra consisted of seven grown men and quickly became a popular dance orchestra in the Washington area. At the age of 25, he was chosen to become Director of the United States Marine Band in Washington. He began leading the Marine Band in January 1880, beginning a fabled 52 year career as a bandmaster. 

Left to His Own Devices
Composer:  Eric Chasalow
 New World Records - #80601 
 Eric Chasalow is Professor of Composition, and Director of BEAMS, the Brandeis Electro-Acoustic Music Studio. Two of the seven electro-acoustic works on this disc--Left to His Own Devices and Suspicious Motives--pay homage to his Columbia-Princeton mentors; the former is built from vocal samples of Milton Babbitt and the sound of the RCA synthesizer while the latter incorporates two motives from Davidovsky’s music—primarily the opening to Synchronisms #6. 
Notable also are two purely acoustic chamber pieces, In the Works and Yes, I Really Did, which reveal a consistency of vision across both musical frontiers.

Concierto De Aranjuez / Fantasia Para Gentilhombre
Composer Joaquin Rodrigo
Performers:  Socias, Pons, Orquesta Ciudad Granada
Harmonia Mundi Franc - #901764
A superb recording of one of the best-known pieces of music of the 20th century.  Finished in 1939, the Concierto de Aranjuez made Rodrigo famous overnight. It is presented here with its ideal coupling, the Fantasía para un gentilhombre, along with two much more rarely performed works. The performers here, all of them Spanish, bring an authentically Iberian coloring to these sunny, romantic works.


Etudes Books I & II
Composer: Gyorgy Ligeti
Performer: Idil Biret, piano
Naxos - #8555777
Ligeti wrote this series of fifteen studies over a period of ten years beginning in the 1980s and the result is  one of its great masterworks of the keyboard. Not for the timid, these pieces take the pianist's skill to levels that border on the impossible.  Idil Biret meets the challenges head-on and delivers an extraordinary performance.  Highly recommended.

An Hour Out of Desert Center
Composer: Chas Smith 
Cold Blue Music CB0013
Chas Smith is a composer, inventor, instrument builder, and performer from the Harry Partch tradition who creates his own musical world, complete with its own instruments he makes himself or finds. as well as a "language" His is a  world of carefully sculpted textures that never sit absolutely still, textures that evolve and are always in the process of a slow change of aural perspective. Critics have frequently compared Smith’s sometimes beautiful, sometimes brooding compositions to those of Ligeti. The three pieces on this new recording feature the composer performing on pedal steel guitars, composer-designed-and-built crotales and sound sculptures, zithers, and a 1948 Bigsby lap guitar.

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