RIP Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

I will miss Ray Bradbury. His work has been a frequent touchstone. His books and scripts for television and films are such a surefire way to stoke one’s imagination. In addition, his nonfiction writings are often quite touching. For me, they serve as an imprimatur to go and grasp for every ounce of creativity, enthusiasm, and joy in life one can muster.

I’m grateful for the many books he’s left behind for us to continue to enjoy. But I hope I don’t seem greedy when expressing my disappointment that we won’t get to savor still more pages from his trusty typewriter.

Thank you, Mr. Bradbury, for your tremendous artistic legacy and the example of your powerful personality. 91 years well lived: rest in peace.

RIP Stefano Scodanibbio

We’re sad to learn of the passing of composer and virtuoso bassist Stefano Scodanibbio (1955-2012). He died in Mexico, a victim of motor neuron disease.

Scodanibbio premiered works by dozens of composers, pushing the boundaries of what double bassists could be expected to do. He was also a composer of a number of formidable works, often featuring his own instrument but for diverse forces.

Although his compositions frequently displayed hyper-virtuosity and a serious demeanor, below, we see him in a light-hearted musical mood, channeling Hendrix and other classic rock stars in his piece “& Roll.”

The Six Realms by Peter Lieberson

Peter Lieberson. Photo credit: Becky Starobin

Peter Lieberson’s record label, Bridge Records, has been kind enough to share some of his music with us: an excerpt from The Six Realms, one of his later and larger works and a piece that has an explicitly Buddhist programmatic element.

Here is movement 5, performed by cellist Michaela Fukacova, the Odense Symphony Orchestra, and conducted by Justin Brown. The recording is from Bridge 9178, The Music of Peter Lieberson.

The Six Realms V. The Human Realm

The Six Realms for Cello and Orchestra (2000)

Program Note:

In addition to silk and other precious goods, the Silk Road helped disseminate Buddhism, one of its earliest, and most valuable, cultural exports. For almost thirty years, Peter Lieberson has been a devout Buddhist, having studied with the great Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist master he met in 1974. Says Lieberson, “Buddhism’s appeal to me in the early 1970s was that it was not a religion in the conventional Western sense. Buddhism did not posit the existence of any external deity or savior or, for that matter, an individual personal ego…The basic message of the great Buddhist masters was: Be brave enough to experience existence without dogma or beliefs of any kind.”

Lieberson left New York City in 1976 for Boulder, Colorado, to absorb the Tibetan master’s wisdom, especially the concepts, experiences, and views of the Shambhala tradition as presented by Trungpa in his book Shambhala: the Sacred Path of the Warrior. “I went to a Buddhist seminary where I studied intensively for three months,” Lieberson has said. “When I started writing music again, my style had changed…There was less sense of struggle…the horizon expanded. It’s as if you had tunnel vision, and then you have panoramic vision. Studying Buddhism also affected my approach to composing [in that] I understand there’s a kind of journey that’s made.” After completing his studies, Lieberson directed Shambhala Training, a meditation and cultural program, for a number of years, both in Boston and in Halifax, all the while building an international reputation as a composer. Observed writer Victoria Roth in 1989: “Since Lieberson’s commitment to Buddhism is intensely personal, it is not reflected in compositions that sound ‘Eastern’.” Lieberson has devoted his time exclusively to composition since 1994. Although his musical language has not changed greatly, most of his works now deal with Buddhist subjects or concepts. It is a philosophy as life-giving for Lieberson as air itself.

At the request of Yo-Yo Ma, who had played in the 1992 premiere of King Gesar, Lieberson conceived a concerto for amplified cello and orchestra, entitled The Six Realms, that outlines a key Buddhist teaching: that differing states of mind and emotions color our view of the world and shape human experience. This philosophy is reflected in the piece’s formal structure (see diagram below); each of the concerto’s six continuous sections represents a different state of being.

The Six Realms is structured as follows:

1. The Sorrow of the World (introduction)
2. The Hell Realm (aggression: acute, self-perpetuating anger at the world and ourselves)
3. The Hungry Ghost Realm (passion: the need to possess or continually consume; we are never satisfied because we can never get enough)
4. The Animal Realm (ignorance: an obsessive need to control or to find security)
5. The Human Realm (passion: the desire for something better, and a lessening of self-absorption, allows for the possibility of our becoming dignified humans who long for liberation from these six realms of existence. It is only from this realm that we are able to move on to achieve Enlightenment: the right way to view, and interact with, the world.)
6. The God Realm (ignorance: blissful self-absorption of our godlike powers, until doubt sets in and shatters our confidence) and The Jealous God Realm (aggression: extreme paranoia and competitive drive; we never trust anyone or their motives)

Put simply, Buddhists believe that humans cycle back and forth, endlessly, through these six states, experiencing the concomitant afflictions that attach themselves to each level. In Lieberson’s Six Realms, the cello soloist acts as emotional protagonist and the orchestra’s “guide” — a cousin to the Romantic concerto’s “hero” — leading all of us from realm to realm until we finally are able to liberate ourselves from this misery-inducing cycle. By simply letting go of the neurotic attachments in our lives, we become fully aware of our self-destructive behavioral and thought patterns, thereby achieving spiritual fulfillment as the realms collapse upon themselves. Counterbalancing this concerto’s Eastern philosophy is Lieberson’s Western, modernist musical language. Although not programmatic, the piece’s subtle use of musical imagery allows the listener without any previous knowledge of Buddhist tenets to grasp its depiction of universal human experiences.

RIP Peter Lieberson (1946-2011)

We’re saddened to learn from David Starobin of the passing of composer Peter Lieberson in Israel, due to complications from Lymphoma. He had been battling the disease since 2006 and for a time it had been in remission. But in late 2010, Lieberson travelled to Israel to seek treatment for a recurrence of the cancer.

Alex Ross has posted a touching remembrance on The Rest is Noise.

Lieberson’s music was an extraordinary mixture of disparate strands of influences. It encompassed  an intuitive post-tonal vocabulary, rooted in dodecaphonic training but also capable of lush verticals and, particularly in his vocal music, supple lyricism and sweeping melodies. In later years, his interest in meditation and Zen Buddhism contributed another layer of resonances and an intriguingly metaphysical counterweight to some of the modernist tendencies of his oeuvre.

Among the many honors he attained was the prestigious Grawemeyer Prize, which he won in 2008 for Neruda Songs. Although he was a finalist for the award on multiple occasions, the Pulitzer Prize eluded him. Back in 2004, I suggested that this injustice made him the “Pulitzer’s Susan Lucci.”

Of course, during this sad time, one can’t help but think of the passing of Lieberson’s late wife, the extraordinary mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, also of cancer. Lieberson wrote a number of memorable pieces for her, including the aforementioned Neruda Songs. If there’s a signature example to use when we advocate for our government to continue to fund medical research, I’d offer this one up: two brilliant creators in the prime of life laid low so cruelly. Both had so much yet to offer. It’s a tragedy that we’re bereft of their artistry and humanity far too soon.

NPR posts Babbitt documentary

I’m so glad to learn that NPR is hosting Robert Hilferty’s documentary about Milton Babbitt on their Deceptive Cadence blog (Video embed below).

Some scenes from this were screened at a Babbitt event I attended a few years ago at CUNY Graduate Center, but, due to Hilferty’s passing in 2009, a finished film never appeared publicly.

Today, Alex Ross ran a post about the film at The Rest is Noise, indicating that Laura Karpman has helped to edit this posthumous version of the work.

Ross also wrote his own tribute to Babbitt here. He was kind enough to include several links to other Babbitt-related media and articles about the composer. He even linked our coverage here (Thanks Alex!).

Babbitt Starter Kit?

A few people asked me which works would I would recommend to serve as a starter course for Milton Babbitt’s work. That’s a tricky one: I’d say

String Quartets Nos. 2 & 6
Around the Horn
Piano Concerti
All Set.

Any other suggested Babbitt samplers out there?

Here’s a wonderful essay in remembrance of Milton by David Rakowski.

Remembering Milton Babbitt (1916-2011)

I’m very saddened to hear of Milton Babbitt’s passing. He was the first composer I ever encountered and the one who’s most fascinated me. Doubtless there will be some articles written this week which more thoroughly critique Babbitt’s aesthetic stance and prognosticate on his legacy (be kind folks!). And there are, of course, many former students and colleagues who had much closer and more extended relationships with Milton than did I. But as a way of remembering him today, I’d like to share a few memories of some of my meetings with Milton.

I first met Milton when I was in high school. He was giving a talk about his piano music at a high school on Long Island (Robert Taub was on hand to demonstrate). Knowing that I had made some fledgling attempts at composing, my mother suggested we go to the talk. It was mind blowing. I’d never experienced music – or discourse – like it.

Hearing his music without any previous exposure left me baffled, but eager to learn more. I went to the local public library, checked out Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music and study scores by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Ives, and Babbitt (his 2nd Quartet and Philomel – still two of my favorites) – and began to teach myself about Twentieth Century music. I can honestly say that without attending that event, a whole world of music might not have crossed my path.

I later got to hear several of Milton’s lectures when I was an undergraduate student at the Juilliard School. He was also kind enough to look at my scores. Even though I wasn’t writing particularly post-tonal music at that point in time, he didn’t try to “convert” me; on the contrary, he was very kind and constructive in his comments. That was my first clue that the whole “serial tyranny” jeremiad was bunk, at least where Milton was concerned.

Milton, Christian, Bob Thomas, and Luke Palmer. Cincinnati, 1999.

Another fond memory comes from the summer of 1999. By that time, I was studying with Charles Wuorinen at Rutgers and was busily honing my twelve tone chops. At the Music X festival in Cincinnati, Bob Thomas, Luke Palmer, and I – being the only burgeoning dodecaphonists among the assembled composers – got to spend a great deal of time with Milton. He gave us lessons, lectured, gave masterclasses, and even went out to eat with us. I remember him getting a sausage and peppers sandwich and a good domestic beer!

Charles Wuorinen, Elliott Carter, and Milton Babbitt in 2005. Credit: Fred Sherry

After writing about Milton’s music and writings on several occasions for Splendid Magazine, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity in 2006 to interview him for a print feature celebrating his 90th birthday that appeared in Signal to Noise Magazine. We titled it “He Cares if You Listen.” One of the things that I’ve been most glad to write was that long overdue correction!

Milton and Peter Jarvis at WPUNJ's Babbitt 90th birthday celebration

In the liner notes for a Bridge release, William Anderson wrote that he once heard Milton say, “We transcend nothing.” I remember being profoundly unsettled by that quote, not just because I disagree with it philosophically, but because I hoped that Milton realized how many lives he’d touched. No matter what one’s persuasion in terms of  spirituality or worldview, we do transcend our own mortality in this sense: memories of us live on in those we have affected.

Milton’s work as a teacher, eloquence as a writer, and his beautiful music have affected many: multiple generations of scholars, performers and, of course, composers. Our memories of him will live on and not just in our own reflections. They will also live on in the work that we do. In that sense, Milton’s life has been profoundly transcendent.

Thank you Milton, and Requiescat in pace.

RIP Charlie Louvin (1927-2011)

We were saddened to learn today of country singer Charlie Louvin’s passing. One of the signature voices of the Grand Ole Opry, he was perhaps best known for his work as part of a duo with his brother Ira, billed as the Louvin Brothers. Their repertoire spanned the gamut from gospel to bluegrass to traditional country music.

After Ira’s death in 1965, Charlie continued to perform and record as a solo artist. During the 2000s, he experienced something of a late career recording renaissance, releasing several CDs for the Tompkins Square imprint.

Here’s the 2007 video for “Ira,” a late song he dedicated to his brother.

RIP Billy Taylor (1921-2010)

We’re saddened to learn of the passing yesterday of Dr. Billy Taylor. He was one of the towering forefathers of jazz education and a fine pianist. An articulate spokesman for jazz, in later years he became well known for raising awareness of the genre as a television personality, notably as a regular contributor to CBS Sunday Morning.

Here is Taylor in a duo setting with John Lewis.