Snapshots from Academe

martin_modern_bigComposer Martin Bresnick gave a composers’ forum at Bard tonight that was absolutely fabulous. He played recordings of the most compelling music I’d yet heard of his – Every Thing Must Go for sax quartet, Prayers Remain Forever for cello and piano, Ishi’s Song for piano, and some faculty played his *** for clarinet, viola, and piano – and his manner of explaining his music was understated, humble, yet inspiring. When someone commented with surprise on the simplicity of his recent pieces, he replied, “I don’t write ‘modern music.’ I write my own music,” and I silently thought, “Yes! Yes! Yes! This is exactly what our students need to hear!” It  renewed my faith in the value of bringing composers to talk to students.

But what moves me to write is a story my colleague John Halle afterward told me he’d heard about the composer Ben Weber. Maybe someone can confirm it. Weber (1916-1979) was an American twelve-tone composer who managed to make the technique sound energetic and jaunty; I particularly admire his Piano Concerto, and he seems all but forgotten today, partly because he worked as a copyist rather than in academia. So the story was, apparently Aaron Copland [or apparently Virgil Thomson – see comments] met Ben Weber. Both were gay. Copland started out, “So, Mr. Weber, I hear you’re ‘one of us.'” “That’s right, Mr. Copland,” Weber said. “And I hear you write twelve-tone music.” “Yes, that’s true too, Mr. Copland.” “Well,” Copland replied, “…you’ll have to make a choice.”

It had to be the ’50s; gay twelve-toners were not so rare from the ’60s on (and Copland later went dodecaphonic himself). But it encapsulates a certain moment in American music.



  1. mclaren says

    This is why I have to respectfully disagree with several of the commenters here who proclaim: “I don’t want a composer to tell me how the music works!”

    You have to remember that we’re dealing with musical bifrefringence here. The issue isn’t a composer acting as dictator informing you how her music “works.” The real issue is that a piece of music often works for reasons completely different than the comopser thought. And guess what? The only way you can get at that schism is to listen to the composer tell you what she her music was about. Only then can then clearly see the double image twixt what the composer believed when composing it and what you believe when you hear the music.

    N.B.: birefringence is the property of double refraction that occurs when you place a piece of Icelandic feldspar over a piece of text. You get two images, doubly refracted. Pre-21st century compsoers ignored this crucial property of music-as-composed clashing with music-as-heard, but we can’t, because audiences in the 21st century exist in a world where the fundamental preconceptions of different schools of composition and different attitudes toward listening have become incommensurable with one another.

    You hit this contradiction like the Titanic running into an iceberg when one listener exclaims: “That composition sounded so chaotic!” while making a sour face…and the composer’s fans enthuse, “Yes, it was chaotic, wasn’t that wonderful?

    KG replies: Martin said something similar to that, that there were many doors through which to approach his music and he tried to open some for some people and others for others.

  2. GW says

    According to Weber’s Autobiography, “How I took 63 Years to Commit Suicide”, the story actually involves Virgil Thomson, along the lines “I’ve heard that you’re a 12-tone composer and queer.” Weber said, “Yes.” Thomson replied, “Make up your mind, you can’t be both.”

    KG replies: Ah, close enough, thank you. Of course, it’s possible that both stories happened, and that the exclusivity of gay versus 12-tone at that moment was a widely acknowledged meme in that world.

    UPDATE: Man, started looking for that book. It’s impossible to find.

  3. says

    There’s a beautiful memorial essay by Ned Rorem in his collection ‘Settling the Score’; it begins with the words: “Some of my best friends are twelve-tone composers”. But Rorem praises the constant beauty of Weber’s music, his melodies that “billow toward the sky”, and his “ever lush” harmonies so warmly that Weber might very well turn out to be one of my favorite dodecaphonists, up there with the less-than-usual suspects – the Copland of Piano Quartet and Piano Fantasy, The Harrison of Rapunzel. But his music is hard to find. Already in 1980 Rorem mourned: “Ben Weber wrote gorgeous music which was never popular. In the prewar decades he was too wild for the neoclassic establishment, while in the postwar decades he was too tame for the integral-serialist establishment. Currently as we inch toward the live-and-let-live establishment we find Ben Weber gone.”

    KG replies: That’s lovely. I will look forward to the live-and-let-live establishment. I was just listening to some of Rorem’s piano music this week, making up for having neglected him all my life. Juhani, how do you find all this about Weber in Finland, when I can barely find any information in the U.S.?