Edwin London (1929-2013)
I was saddened to learn of Ed London’s passing this week. My association with him was limited, but it also was important to me as a composer. I first met him in 1978 when I was an undergraduate at what was then Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College). I was helping to coordinate a mini-festival of new music there, and he had been engaged as the guest composer. He had at that juncture been teaching at the University of Illinois for some years. The members of the music faculty at Southwestern, many if not most of them quite conservative in their tastes, didn’t quite know what to think of him, but it was fascinating to hear his perspectives on contemporary music, and rather exciting for a young and impressionable composer to see the discomfiture it induced in some of my elders at our little school. I had only been studying composition formally for about two years with Don Freund, who at the time was teaching at another eventually renamed institution, Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis). Don already had begun opening up my ears to a wide range of contemporary musical styles, techniques, and composers, so I was primed, so to speak, to take in what Ed had to offer. A year earlier, in fact, Don had brought Ed to Memphis State for their annual New Music Festival.
Among the works that Ed shared with the musical community at Southwestern was a work for spatially-deployed multiple choirs and electronic tape (that’s “fixed media,” for you youngsters), called Wounded Byrd Song, a deconstruction of William Byrd’s “Wounded Am I,” in which each chorus, with its own “sub-conductor,” sings Byrd’s piece, each beginning at a different time, while the recorded sounds are heard, all under the supervision of a “master” conductor. His music seemed intriguing and rather outrageous then, but that piece also was quite haunting and in its own way a moving homage to Byrd’s original. During this residency Ed also talked to me about my vocal music, and seemed deeply concerned, to my surprise, with traditional concepts of prosody and declamation, at the same time that he was touting the use of extended vocal techniques that went far beyond traditional bel canto standards, by such artists as Joan LaBarbara and the Extended Vocal Techniques Quartet. In later years I came to realize that shock value was far from being the primary driving force in his aesthetic. Behind the often startling gestures and stylistic juxtapositions was a strain of genuine lyricism and a gentle sense of humor, the latter frequently displayed in his punning titles, such as that of the Psalm of These Days series.
I got to know Ed a little better during the 1990s, when I began working as Associate Editor at
C. F. Peters in New York, which had begun publishing his music. By then he had moved to Cleveland State University and founded the justly celebrated Cleveland Chamber Symphony, responsible for so many premieres and recordings of music by deserving composers at all stages of their careers, representing a broad array of styles. I was a beneficiary of his kindness. In 1995 I was asked by him to compose a piece for the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, and was able to get a wonderful first performance by that ensemble of To Becalme His Fever, my first purely orchestral music, a piece that I am very glad to have written, and an opportunity that might not have presented itself without Ed’s initiative.
A measure of Ed’s generosity is the fact that on YouTube you can find exactly one piece of his, “Recitativo Stromentato,” from Scenes for Flute and Chamber Orchestra. (At least that’s the only one my friend and colleague James Primosch could locate, and I was no more successful than he. See Jim’s tribute here.) You can, however, find a significant number of Ed’s recordings of the works of a wide variety of his contemporaries and younger colleagues, performed by him conducting the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, including — among many others — Libby Larsen, Salvatore Martirano and Bernard Rands. As we bid farewell to a model musical citizen, let us hope that Ed’s music will find a more prominent place in our musical culture. His unstinting championing of his fellow composers’ music deserves no less. Rest in peace, Ed.