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  April 21-April 28, 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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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

Is Music Better With An Explanation? Why do we need theory to explain music? "Actually, theory can be beautiful and illuminating (as opposed to complicated, obfuscating, quagmired, self-important, self-absorbed). And nothing could be more human: the desire to create systems out of chaos or near-chaos is a natural and (usually) noble expression of humanity's ability to reason. And there are theories about everything: Goethe had one about color, Einstein had one about gravity, Eisenstein had one about film montage... Freud about dreams. Darwin even had a pet theory (literally). But music theory is surely the strangest. That's the burden of trying to make sense of the most ethereal, ephemeral, abstract–one could argue the most free–art form." NewMusicBox 04/03 

Rachmaninov - A Shrink-Wrapped Talent? Did psychotherapy turn Rachmaninov from "a composer of ambitious discordances into a tinkler of popular tunes?" So maintains a new book. "It was a kind of unconscious Faustian pact, in which he was seduced into giving up his revolutionary rage in exchange for peace of mind and endless pleasanteries." London Evening Standard 04/16/03 

Red In The Black Large orchestras may be facing massive deficits and concern for their future across the country, but some smaller ensembles with less overhead and fewer staff are actually thriving, despite a dismal economy. One case in point is Red, a Cleveland-based chamber orchestra specializing in contemporary music. Red, founded a year ago by Jonathan Sheffer (of Eos Ensemble fame), "is ending the season with no deficit on a budget of $407,000," and has apparently been a hit with Cleveland concertgoers. The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) 04/13/03 

Cleveland Ensemble May Fold Even as Red thrives, another Cleveland-based ensemble specializing in new music is in danger of closing up shop. "The Cleveland Chamber Symphony, the admired professional ensemble in residence at Cleveland State University since 1980, is in turmoil and in danger of closing at the end of the 2003-04 concert season. Members of the Chamber Symphony are scheduled to meet today with Cleveland State President Michael Schwartz to discuss the ensemble's future. But its fate might be sealed. By May 2004, when founding music director Edwin London retires, the group could be out of money." The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) 04/16/03 

Opera Doesn't Work On TV. Does It? "Whenever the coverage of arts on the box is discussed, an assumption is voiced that opera is a cornerstone of public-service broadcasting which doesn't feature strongly enough in the schedules. I'm not convinced. The fact is that there has always been quite a lot of opera on BBC2 and Channel 4, and it rarely draws the viewing figures of a million that can, crudely speaking, justify the time and expense. Opera does not normally make very gripping or alluring television." Yet, it can work... The Telegraph (UK) 04/16/03 

Creativity On A Deadline (And Sometimes You Miss It) "Creativity is hard to schedule. Yet orchestras today have to plan their seasons months, even years in advance. This leads to a disparity: on one hand, stringent deadlines; on the other, a process of creation that requires flexibility and can never quite be pinned down. For when you commission a piece, you're never sure what you're going to get — or when you're going to get it." The New York Times 04/20/03

Is Music Better/Worse Depending On Who Wrote It? Does a piece of music's back-story change the way we hear it? Of course. But "do we serve music as a whole by giving attention to pieces whose qualities, taken by themselves, rarely rise above the competent and the agreeable? In other words, does a life that resonates with profound circumstances justify the reputation of music that falls short of such depths? Music moves the spirit in a way that other arts do not. Dare we compromise its integrity, no matter how moving the story attached? Some would say not." The New York Times 04/20/03 

Music Education, Interactive Style The Philharmonic of New Jersey's "Discovery Concert Series of interactive music-appreciation events is attempting to extricate classical performances from the miasma of modern life, where it plays second fiddle to everything from linguine to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Since it began last year, the concert series has proven to be a huge success, selling out months in advance. Concerts take place in Newark at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and are aired on local and, increasingly, national PBS stations. The concerts are interactive in the style of a college class in music theory and have covered pieces by Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, and Claude Debussy." Christian Science Monitor 04/18/03 

A Thoroughly Modern Quartet The setup is a familiar one: talented young string quartet is heard by wealthy donor who, taken with their skill and enthusiasm, sets the foursome up with priceless old Italian instruments which they could never otherwise afford. But in the case of the Miró Quartet, one of a small number of headline-grabbing young quartets vying to be the next Juilliard or Guarneri, their benefactor was a North Carolina musician who wanted to see if a collection of specially crafted modern instruments could elevate the group in the same way that four Strads could. The result was a specially commissioned set of two violins, viola, and cello, tailored to meet the Miró's needs. And the results? Well, it depends on which player you ask. Hartford Courant 04/17/03 

Spike Lee On The Essential Marriage Of Music And Film "One must come to music with complete respect. I don't know how directors can do a film and after the script's been written, and the film's cut and all this money's been spent - it's like, well now let's get the composer. It's just insane to keep the composer out of the loop until so late." The Telegraph (UK) 04/15/03 

Women Composers Gather In Seoul Last week Seoul, South Korea, hosted the largest-ever gatherin of women composers from around Asia. Some "300 composers and musicians from 22 different countries presented research, participated in panel discussions, and performed 69 works in nine venues scattered around Seoul..." Korea Herald 04/14/03 

 Last Week's News
Advertising and Sponsorship Info

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.
Michael Nyman Makes Rare NY
Appearance With EOS Orchestra

Michael Nyman makes a rare U.S. appearance with the Eos Orchestra this week, performing and conducting his own works at Concert Hall, Ethical Culture Society,Thursday and Friday nights 
at 8 pm. 

Featured on the program is the World Premiere of his new score Manhatta accompanying the screening of a 1921 film by American Master Photographer Paul Stand and Filmmaker Charles Sheeler. Also on the program is Indian Electric Mandolin virtuoso U. Shrinivas performing the U.S. Premiere of Samhitha: Compilation of Colours. 

Nyman followed a traditional music education at the Royal Academy of Music and King's College London. Apparently turning his back on Classical Music traditions, he spent some time collecting examples of Romanian Folk Music before moving behind the scenes to work as a musicologist and critic. It was as a music critic that he first applied the term "minimalism" to Cornelius Cardew's work "The Great Digest" in The Spectator. This was just one expression of his interest in Experimental Classical Music which culminated in his writing the book "Experimental Music, Cage and beyond".

As a composer, Nyman has reached his largest audience by way of his film scores, most famously for Peter Greenaway, with whom he collaborated on eleven movies between 1976 and 1991. Other directors with whom he has worked include Jane Campion (The Piano, 1992), Volker Schlöndorff (The Ogre, 1996), Neil Jordan (The End of the Affair, 1999) and Michael Winterbottom (Wonderland, 1999). He also collaborated with Damon Albarn on the music for Antonia Bird's Ravenous (1998).

Sangam: Michael Nyman meets Indian Masters
Composer: Michael Nyman 
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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