One of the Greats: Elodie Lauten, 1950-2014

Lauten2011I awoke this morning to the rude shock of learning that my close friend Elodie Lauten has died, a fabulous composer whose music I’ve been championing ever since I was at the Chicago Reader in the early 1980s. Earlier this year I wrote her to congratulate her on winning the Robert Rauschenberg Award, and it took her quite a few days to respond. She said she had been in the hospital, lost a kidney to cancer, and was having trouble walking. We shared a couple more e-mails, and she sounded upbeat about the then-upcoming performance of Waking in New York, her lovely oratorio of Allen Ginsberg poems. Her last Facebook entry, praising the previous day’s performance with no hint of any trouble, was June 2. Apparently she didn’t recover, however, and died yesterday in Manhattan’s Beth Israel Hospital. At 63. (Born 1950, she shared a birthday with Ives, Oct. 20.)

I wrote about her music recently in connection with the award, and won’t repeat that here. I will add that she was more of a martyr to her music than anyone I’ve known. Over the past couple of decades she moved to cheaper and cheaper apartments, and worked temp jobs to make ends meet. She got an occasional gig teaching electronic music or composition lessons thanks to Dinu Ghezzo, who was a guardian angel to her. Despite her near-penury, she was constantly working on getting her big operas, song cycles, and music theater pieces produced. She was as broke as any musician I’ve known, and yet she had more big projects on the front burner than most composers in far more cushy circumstances. I can’t help but think that, on some level, she worked herself to death. It’s an incomprehensible shame, because she had once had a big piece at Lincoln Center, and she always got good reviews – she was my number one example of a composer whose music delighted critics but never seemed to catch on with anyone else. Certainly her tuneful brand of postminimalism has not been in fashion lately, which affects many composers of my generation. She deserved a much bigger career. But I’m hardly the only one who thought so, and she had a crowd of supportive musicians determined to help get her music out. Her keyboard works are charming. Her vocal works deserve a big box set on Nonesuch, if not Deutsche Grammophon. She never wrote a bad piece. She was an oddly quirky, ever-upbeat personality with a touch of Zen mysticism. I kept thinking she would finally get her due someday. She just had to.

UPDATE:This reminiscence of her at Unseen Worlds rings very true.

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Comments

  1. Mario Campodonico says

    Rest in peace my dear Elodie, thanks for everything, I will never forget you.

    • says

      On June 2 we visited her at the hospital after the premiere of Waking in New York. She was happy to hear that the performance went very successfully.

  2. says

    I remember when I first heard her quirky piano music on her own Cat Collectors label and followed her career since then. She accomplished a great deal in music and I mourn her passing. Thank you, Kyle, for letting us all know and thank you for the much deserved recognition you provided her during her career.

    KG replies: Yeah, those Cat Collectors discs and The Death of Don Juan (all available from New Music Distribution Service back in the day) blew me away. When I came to NYC I looked her up and felt I was meeting a celebrity, though she was only five years my senior.

  3. says

    Sorry to hear this news, Kyle – nicely penned appraisal and eulogy of Elodie & her career. Although I found myself over the years appreciating more her electronic compositions (“Tronik Involutions”, “Inscapes from Exile”), the release of “Piano Works” on Unseen Worlds is an unheralded and finely wrought classic. Though their aesthetics were only tangentially similar (and their approaches markedly different), Elodie shared some of the same unfortunate lack of proper recognition as my dear late friend & colleague Richard Lainhart, another minimalist, vibist, and electronic wunderkind who was never truly given his due. Unfortunately, such lack of notoriety seems to only be getting worse in this download-centric, facile society.

    KG replies: Actually, I’m finding myself thinking of her as the American Arvo Pärt: just as listenable and spiritual, much cheerier disposition.

  4. says

    Just listened with great pleasure to Tronik Involutions (the liner notes weren’t too bad either.) It’s hard to believe it was all improvised, as it has such rigor and sureness. Just as spiritual as Pärt, yes, but without his sometimes cloying religiosity.

    KG replies: She was a great believer in improvisation, and did it beautifully. Once she improvised a piece for Lois Svard to play, and recorded what she played via MIDI. As you can imagine, the MIDI readout she gave Lois looked incomparably more complex than what Elodie had effortlessly improvised. I forget which pieces of hers are improvised.

    • says

      The 4 mvmts. of the Variations on the Orange Cycle was a piece she had already been playing as an improvisation, but she recorded it via MIDI for me to play. MIDI didn’t quite understand the distribution of right and left hand in the piece, so you’re right, Kyle, it looked incredibly complex. So complex, in fact, Elodie had to rewrite it, and then added to the score. It’s a great piece to play!!

  5. says

    What very sad news! I met Elodie in the mid-90s, when she was revising and transcribing the Variations on the Orange Cycle for me, which I eventually recorded. She made a comment during that weekend visit that has always stuck with me. We spoke at one point about what it meant to be successful. Elodie said that as long as she had one gig to look forward to, she considered herself a successful composer. I wish that she had received the recognition she deserved. I always felt richer as a musician for having been able to play her music.

    KG replies: Hi Lois, I was just remarking to Nancy that I was waiting for you to weigh in.

  6. says

    I’m stunned, and deeply saddened to hear this. Elodie was a brilliant composer and an uncompromisingly authentic person. She was so full of life that it’s difficult to imagine she’s not with us any longer. Fortunately, her music still is. May we hear much, much more of it.

  7. says

    This is sad news. I discovered her music through your pdf of post minimalist music recordings, and I ordered a double CD on your recommendation alone. It was wonderful, a really refreshing voice I wish I had discovered earlier. It must have been wonderful to here her live.

    “May light eternal shine on her, may she rest in peace”.

  8. Chip Scott says

    We who have been teaching with her at New York City College of Technology will miss her singular voice and unending drive. She taught the Music Technology classes for us.

    Chip Scott

  9. says

    I am shocked and saddened by this terrible loss…just when things were happening for Elodie and her moving, original work. I met her when she lived in Albuquerque and really enjoyed our friendship and collaborations. Thank you for these words, Kyle. You’ve certainly been called on lately to do some difficult writing.

    KG replies: Nice to hear from you all the same, Melody. The death of friends brings the rest of us together.

  10. says

    Having worked with Elodie over the past year preparing for the debut (this past Sunday on June 1) of her now-definitive score of “Waking in New York,” I represent the cast and orchestra who rode with glee, the wave of her spirituality, musicianship and visionary artistry. Indeed in this her final testament, she so devotedly-excellently united her own musical identity: superbly lyrical melodies so expressing the brilliant texts, with a “classic” orchestra – strict counterpoint and idiomatic instrumental colors always at work – intending to join proudly the other master composers on Parnassus. This is one of the finest and moving scores I have ever had the privilege to conduct. Her music lives on, recognized for its artistry, sensibility and impact.

    Hmmmm… Uncanny (or not?) that she died on the birthday of her beloved friend, mentor and “Waking in New York” librettist Allen Ginsberg (Born June 3, 1926)

  11. Scott Young says

    Elodie Lauten was a fierce musician. Singleminded, she joyfully put her time to maximum use. She worked very nearly right to her last moment here. The number of wondrous compositions, albums, and concerts that Elodie did is staggering. She was also a great keyboardist.

    Throughout our 40 year friendship, Elodie was uniformly kind. She had a generous heart and she acted accordingly. Elodie was determined, but she was a gentle person. Even though I don’t live in New York now, we continued to frequently speak on the phone. She had no professional need for that. It was simply a matter of friendship.

    Elodie’s many friends love her and deeply rue our loss of her. She will be remembered. I also predict that Elodie’s music will become more widely known and enjoyed in years to come.

  12. Joe Kubera says

    So sad to hear this news. I didn’t know Elodie well, but once played part of the Variations in a piano concert she organized. As you say, she was always in the trenches, always doing the work. We’ll all miss her.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Kyle Gann reports the death of the American composer Elodie Lauten, of cancer, aged 63. ‘She was as broke as any musician I’ve known,’ he writes, ‘and yet she had more big projects on the front burner than most composers in far more cushy circumstances. I can’t help but think that, on some level, she worked herself to death.’ […]