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Electronic Dialogues/2
Benjamin Lees

S21: You were born in China and lived many places in the world.  How has this helped shape your musical  point-of-view?

BL:  Though I was born in China I only spent eighteen months of my life there. I grew up as a toddler, pre-teenager, teen-ager and young adult in the U.S. and am American as one can be. Strange that musicologists always seem to sense an "Oriental influence" (!) in my music if I so much as employ an oboe or woodblock. Therefore I can say quite honestly that there is no Oriental residue in my music and never has been.

While it is true that I spent almost seven years in Europe in the late 1950s and early l960s, this long sojourn did not really shape my musical point of view. I think it existed early on and I was merely an interested and attentive observer during those years  abroad. I didn't feel particularly French though I learned the language, nor did I feel Italian or Austrian or whatever. I soaked up European history and art and added those elements to my inner treasure trove.

S21: What kind of themes interest you most and why?  (I'm thinking here about how you think about, and integrate, historical events into music, which is essentially an abstract form of communication.)

BL:  As a composer I write best in the abstract, whether tonal or semi-tonal or non-tonal. Symphonies or concerti or chamber music present particular challenges which I can meet best in the abstract. Yet it is true that I have written very specific works based on historical events. For example, ECHOES OF NORMANDY, commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra to commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-Day in W.W.II, or the SYMPHONY #5 (Kalmar Nyckel) commissioned by the Delaware Symphony Orchestra to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the founding of New Sweden, now known as Wilmington. Here were historical events which had to be integrated into a quasi-tonal yet basically abstract work.

Having said all that I must conclude that what basically interests me most are abstract themes though I never shy away from integrating historical events into music.

S21: What were your earliest musical the home, a teacher, a mentor?  Did you exhibit an interest in composition as a child?

I can remember my father bringing home Chaliapin and Galla-Curci recordings when I was five years old, and playing them on a windup Victrola player, I can also remember sitting on stage at the San Francisco Opera House stage (when all house seats were sold out) and seeing and listening to Rachmaninov from seven feet away. The same with Heifetz and Elman These were seminal experiences for me.

I had a piano teacher for about nine years. He was adequate but not awe-inspiring. New York was light years away in the 1930s and no one suggested I go there to attend Juilliard. Besides, it was in the Depression era and there was hardly money for essentials. But I did experience my first genuine interest in composition and, arrogantly, thought I could write worksfor the piano at least as good as what I was studying. Years later I discovered how much I had to learn.

My earliest musical influences? I suppose Tschaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Bartok. My later influences were Mahler and Shostakovich. These formed my "crutches" and even when I shed them later I have always regarded them with a certain affection. No composer is without crutches. No composer can claim immaculate conception.

I honestly cannot say which particular work influenced me the most. There were several. Strawinky's Le Sacre du Printemps did for sure. I thought it the most powerful and exciting work I'd ever heard. It opened up new vistas for me in terms of rhythm and meter and I was never the same. Mahler's 3rd Symphony gave me insight in how to write an extended work, how to write the long phrase, how to integrate the voice with the orchestra. Shostakovich for his complete mastery of symphonic form and development of thematic fragments.

S21: One of the things that intrigues us civilians is how composers decide what form or genre a piece needs to be and also what scale?  Symphony or piano trio, choral or instrumental?  Is this an intuitive gift?

BL:  That depends on the scope of the piece and its character. A concerto takes a particular set of ideas or materials, a symphony another and a chamber piece yet another. I don't use a "scale" per se because I shift tonal centers so frequently . Is this an intuitive gift? Much of it is. The tightening in my viscera tells me I am on the right track. Always. When this does not occur I usually scrap the materials and begin anew. Nothing is so precious that it cannot be thrown away. And, in the process I often discover that less is more.

S21: Your work has been courageously tonal through a period when that wasn't all that fashionable.  You have lived long enough to see tonality re-emerge as, perhaps, the dominant direction again.  Does this sort of musical "politics" interest you or influence you in any way?  What was it like to be out there in the wilderness for so long?

BL:  It was very difficult swimming against the tide of the 12-Tone ultras and the post- Webern True Believers. For roughly twenty years I was either politely ignored or ostracized, denied access to certain commissions and performances.  I chose my own path because (1) I knew no other way and (2) I simply did not connect with the music I heard. If music does not communicate then its purpose is lost, at least in my opinion. And in those days the composers were too often seemingly writing for the benefit  of other composers of like mind. The audiences began leaving in droves. I have lived to experience a certain vindication in a return of sorts to tonality.

Musical politics is always, and has always been played. Today it is in the realm of the composer-in-residence. What began as an honest program to benefit the composer has evolved into a career, with a composer who can go from orchestra to orchestra seemingly for years. He chooses what he or she thinks the conductor should consider for programming. I need not elaborate further. Finally, to answer your question - no, I am not interested in musical politics. I need time to write, not scratch backs. I am not a committee person by nature and operate most effectively alone.

S21: Who do you like among the younger composers around today?

At the risk of sounding quite impossible - no one. The music is often flashy and/or filled with quadruple fortissimos. Or it reverts to processes that engage the ear momentarily and then leaves one feeling empty. A sandwich with but one very thin slice of meat.

To me, composition is not equated with "expressing one's self." Composing is a cry from the heart, a sum of a lifetime of experiences and impressions and, finally, a need to compose  which is so overpowering that without it life would lose all meaning. I do not hear this in the younger group of composers.

S21: Several critics have noted that you like to open large-scale works with a part for solo instrument.  Is this a particular signature of your work and, if so, what is the thinking behind it?

BL:  That was so, in the past. I did not regard it as a signature in any manner, and it just happened to come about quite naturally as an effective way to open the door, so to speak. Once open, I felt very comfortable in stating and developing my material. I hardly employ that any longer. In general I like to open any large-scale piece slowly and then work up to the peaks.  At least this has been my trend in recent years overall.

S21: You studied with George Antheil, the self-styled "bad boy of music."  What are some of your memories of that experience.  Can you confirm or refute the story that he used to pull a gun out of his pocket and put it on top of the piano before beginning to play--just in case the audience didn't like his music?

BL:  I worked with George Antheil for almost five years, and while certain details have become hazy with the passage of time I still recall many memorable incidents. George never considered himself a teacher per se. His role was one of analyst. He and I would go over a section of whatever I was writing and having trouble with, and he would then offer suggestions as to how the problem could be  met. Never did he actually put his pencil to my manuscript. Never He would often begin by saying "Doctor Antheil senses that there is a weakness  in your development," or "Your seams are showing."

Our lessons could last an hour or ten hours. It could be once a week or three times a week, whatever the "patient" needed. My wife and I often had dinner at his home after I had experienced eight hours or so of an exhausting lesson. Not that he was at my side all that time. He would be answering correspondence or working on his own piece. It was a true master/apprentice relationship.

The story of the pistol is true, but relates to only one particular concert in Berlin in the 1920s. George was a fine pianist and his programs mostly contained new works by Copland, Strawinsky, Antheil, etc. The audience at this particular event grew restless and George whipped out a revolver, shouted "I'll kill the first person who tries  to leave!" and then placed the weapon on the piano in full view of a cowed audience .

He could be kind, sarcastic, impossible and irrational. In the end he always remained faithful, and therein lay his strength as a person. He loved women  -- all women. But that's another story.

S21: What are you working on now?  How is it going?

BL:  At the moment I have about four projects. One is a theatre piece while the others involve a large-scale orchestral work, a new string quartet (#5) and an additional section to an on-going opus for piano entitled MIRRORS. The first seven sections have already been played by the pianist Ian Hobson, who recorded the first six sections for Albany Records. I have no idea how large a piece this will finally be. Perhaps ten sections, perhaps more. I feel like a juggler at times, always hoping that an idea for one piece will not somehow fall into another  piece. As of this moment all is going about as smoothly as I can expect. With my Russian genes operating at all times I tend to look upon smooth progress with suspicion.

S21: You have had a long and remarkably productive career.  Do you have any personal favorites among your works?

BL:  That's difficult to answer, since I feel like a doting parent to all of them and tend to protect and defend those who are weaker than the rest. I have many favorites. The Fourth Symphony, ("Memorial Candles" ), of course, followed by the 3rd  and 5th Symphonies. 

The Passacaglia for Orchestra and Concerto for Brass Choir and Orchestra. The Piano Trio #2 ("Silent Voices"). And now the newly premiered Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra. I believe that covers it.


Albany Records Troy 138
Ellen Orner, violin; Joel Wizansky, piano

Albany Records Troy 227
Ian Hobson, piano

New World Records 80503-2
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Loren Maazel, conductor; William Caballero, hornist

Polytone Records 136
Rafael Druian, violin; Ilse von Alpenheim, piano

VoxBox CDX 5158 The American Composers Series
American Symphony Orchestra, Kazuyoshi Akiyama, conductor; Ruggiero Ricci, violin

SWF-Sinfonie Orchester, G. Brott, conductor; Ruggiero Ricci, violin

Americus AMR 19971005
Eugene Barban, piano

Portland Youth Symphony, Jacob Avshalomov, conductor

SYMPHONY #4 ("MEMORIAL CANDLES")(reviews)(sound clips)
Ukrainian National Symphony, Theodore Kuchar, conductor; Kimball Wheeler, mezzo-soprano; James Buswell, violin

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