Jonathan Kramer, 1942-2004

I just received the shocking and very saddening news that my old friend, a good composer and a very important theorist, Jonathan Kramer died yesterday of leukemia at the age of only 61. (He’s survived by his father.) Jonathan was best known as a sort of postmodern theorist, hired as such at Columbia (in 1989) and for years not really recognized there as a composer as well. He was probably best known for his book The Time of Music, which dealt with goal-directedness versus stasis in our conceptions of musical time; powerfully argued with well-chosen and extensive examples, the book lent academic credence to the experience of time aimed at in minimalist music, relating it to kindred trends in European music.

But Jonathan was one of those rare people in whom analytical prowess and creativity went hand in hand. His music of the 1980s was what I’d have to call postminimalist: it used no repetition or grooves, but he would limit himself to only five or six or seven pitches with such inventiveness that you’d never realize the pitch spectrum was curtailed. My favorite pieces from this period were his Music for Piano Number 5 (1979-80), a Terry Riley-ish romp in mostly 11/16 meter; Moments in and Out of Time (1981-83), a big, Mahleresque orchestra piece that stubbornly adhered to the E minor scale; and a mercurial chamber piece called Atlanta Licks (1984). The limitation to a few pitches led Jonathan to experiment with using such limitations to subtly unify passages of otherwise widely varying style, and in his Notta Sonata for two pianos and percussion (1992-93) he achieved a true postmodernism, a fractured idiom in which unreal musics jostled each other in an impression of split consciousness. I never had the chance to hear his more recent music, but he was in the process of bringing out a new disc.

According to his ex-wife, Jonathan developed a blood disease last August which turned into myloproliferative syndrome, and only last weekend suddenly turned into acute leukemia. There will be a memorial service this Sunday, June 6, at 1 PM at Plaza Jewish Community Chapel in New York, 630 Amsterdam at 91st. He mentored hundreds of students, and was a loved teacher.

Jonathan, in a move that must have made colleagues question his sanity, brought me to teach a semester at Columbia as part of an attempt to loosen the place up and encourage diversity. He combined a roving, curious mind with blunt honesty, incisive opinions, and a genuine desire to make the music world a livelier, freer place. I had long looked forward to his someday receiving his just due as a composer. I hope it happens posthumously. For now, I’m stunned.