Guest Post: Hayes Biggs

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.

RIP Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012)

English composer Jonathan Harvey, who had been ill for some time, also passed away yesterday at the age of 73. A composer with extraordinarily wide ranging interests – Babbitt, IRCAM, electronic music, myriad spiritual traditions, and meditation - which in turn manifested in his pieces in a panoply of interactions, creating a wonderfully rich and varied body of work.

In October, I wrote “Dissonance and the Divine” about Miller Theatre’s Composer Portrait concert spotlighting Harvey’s work. Read the article at Musical America’s website (subscription required).

RIP Dave Brubeck (1920-2012)

Fond memories of seeing Dave Brubeck at Berklee, Scullers, Newport, receiving his honorary degree at Manhattan School of Music, and, best of all, going with my brother Tyler Carey to the Iron Horse in Northampton, Massachusetts to hear him. Tyler encouraged me to go backstage and get an autograph. When Dave heard that I was a composer, he had me sit down and talk to with him about classical music for a good while. A very kind soul and talented pianist, composer, and group leader.

Guest post: Aylward on Carter

We continue to receive reminiscences marking Elliott Carter’s recent passing at the age of 103. Below, we hear from John Aylward, a composer and Carter scholar. He spent many of his formative years in Arizona. Stories of Elliott’s 1950-’51 sojourn to the area to write the First String Quartet have remained influential on Aylward’s own creative process. 

In remembering Carter, I think of how, in 1950, Carter ventured to Tucson, Arizona to compose his 1st String Quartet. Tucson is where I was born, and so I’m familiar with the intense isolation that Carter must have been seeking. In those vast, expansive desert landscapes, a certain kind of depth can be had once one is separated from the noise of our culture. The Sonoran Desert that surrounds Tucson is a place so completely removed from the concerns of our world. Coming from New York City, Carter was brave to face this isolation. But his exploratory character must have drawn him to it: a silent environment where he could imagine a music all his own.

My own experiences with Carter were transforming. I first met him in New York at a concert celebrating his 95th birthday. A performance of this 5th String Quartet made a great impression on me, and I wanted to know how it was put together. Carter was notoriously shy about discussing the technical aspects of his work and with me he was no different. Soon after, I took the time to study the work’s sketches at the Paul Sacher Stiftung in Switzerland. After satisfying my technical curiosities, I realized that Carter was right to not want to ‘talk shop’ too much with me. He was concerned with being understood as an artist and not a technician: that all the rigors of his work were in service of his art.

Like the desert Carter explored while composing one of his most ground-breaking works, contemporary music itself can sometimes feel inaccessible, even to those who care about it so deeply. For those looking in, perhaps they see a window into the alienation artists can feel as they attempt relevant cultural commentary in such an abstract medium. And Carter’s music is no different, having sometimes been characterized  as difficult to access. But what Carter gave us, in the example of his life and work ethic, was the opportunity to move beyond that discourse, and into a space where the rigorous pursuit, and the excitement and adventures of creation, are valued most highly. It is certainly through Carter’s persistent search, over a lifetime, that he found an original voice. Such an artistic path might set an example for any young artist worried about staking a claim too soon.

RIP David S. Ware

Sad to learn of free jazz saxophonist David S. Ware’s passing. An astounding talent.

Here is video footage of DSW with several frequent collaborators, including William Parker and Matthew Shipp.

Below, check out an astonishing reworking of a treacly pop song into an avant jazz showcase of virtuosity and ingenuity.

RIP Nguyen Chi Thien

On 10/7, The New York Times reported the passing of Vietnamese dissident poet Nguyen Chi Thien. Imprisoned for nearly three decades, Thien had to compose his poems without so much as a pencil and a scrap of paper: he memorized them. The selection below speaks even further to the indomitable character of his spirit.

“My poetry’s not mere poetry, no,

but it’s the sound of sobbing from a life,

the din of doors in a dark jail,

the wheeze of two poor wasted lungs,

the thud of earth tossed to bury dreams,

the clash of teeth all chattering from cold,

the cry of hunger from a stomach wrenching wild,

the helpless voice before so many wrecks.

All sounds of life half lived,

of death half died — no poetry, no.”
— Nguyen Chi Thien, poet.



Also printed in the Times article:


Should anyone ask what I hope for in life

Knowing that I am in jail, you would say:


Knowing that I have been hungry, you would say:

Food and warmth!

No, no, you would be wrong, for in the Communist land

All these things are chimera

Whoever would hope for them

Must kneel in front of the enemy.

In the long struggle against the prison

I have only poetry in my bosom,

And two paper-thin lungs

To fight the enemy, I cannot be a coward.

And to win him over, I must live a thousand autumns!

More on Duckworth: Time Curve Preludes Download

Kyle Gann’s blog has more about Bill Duckworth, including news that Andy Lee’s recording of Time Curve Preludes on Irritable Hedgehog will be available for free download until Sunday night (Embed below). Label owner David McIntire is a real mensch. Gann also mentions a recently composed piano concerto; dare we hope that Lee gets a chance to program it with a good orchestra?

Speaking of the pianist, he shares his own essay about Duckworth over at I Care if You Listen.

RIP William Duckworth (1943-2012)

Earlier today, Kyle Gann reported on his blog that composer, educator, and writer William Duckworth has succumbed to pancreatic cancer. He was 69. Tom Huizenga has more over at NPR Classical.

I’ve long been an admirer of Bill’s music and writings. After a colleague mentioned his illness to me, I corresponded with him a few months ago, letting him know how helpful his book Talking Music was to my students and mentioning a former student we both had in common (Ashi Day). Bill was very gracious. I’m pleased to have told him before his passing about the great value of his work to young musicians, composers in particular.

One of the ways I’ll commemorate Duckworth’s life is by spending time with two of his best works; the first, the aforementioned book, Talking Music, a collection of interviews with composers that sets the bar high for such volumes. The other, Andy Lee’s recording of Time Curve Preludes (available via Irritable Hedgehog).

RIP Nathan Brock (1977-2012)

We’re saddened to learn of the passing of composer Nathan Brock. Nathan was on faculty at University of San Diego and did post-doctoral research at California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology.

Jay Batzner has known Nathan since they did their undergraduate studies together. He shares a remembrance on his blog.

Here’s a link to one of Nathan’s recent pieces, “Cenotaph,” a flute and cello duo.