Sunday, June 12, 2005

William Albright: a lesson in disobedience

Here is a letter that I wrote upon hearing of William Albright's tragic and premature death at age 53. It was published in the SCI Newsletter by David Gompper as a tribute. Bill was a complex person who battled for 30 years with alcoholism, a disease which ultimately took his life. I encourage more people to get to know Albright's music, which is available through C.F. Peters. There's a fine tribute to him, written by Evan Chambers, which you can read here.

A Lesson in Disobedience
(Derek Bermel remembers Albright)

I've just heard the news about Bill Albright, and needless to say I am shocked and devastated. I have always held him in the highest esteem as an insightful and caring teacher, as well as a brilliant composer, performer, and scholar. But he was also a person with an enormously big heart, and that is what I will miss the most. During my last two years in New York, we would often talk at great length about life, philosophy, food, love, the arts, politics, or any number of other subjects which fired his wild imagination.

He was utterly devoted to the University of Michigan, and rightly considered himself in the teaching legacy of his mentor Ross Lee Finney. Bill leaves behind an awesome teaching legacy of more than twenty-five years, and hundreds of students all over the world. I know that I speak for many of them when I acknowledge that the world has lost some of its vivid color with his passing. As a teacher, he was masterful and penetrating, and always, always sincere. His questions reached to the very essence of the issue at hand - "But is it radical?" "So, what will you do now that you're a great composer?" - yet the ambiguous nature of his comments demanded that we solve the riddles of creation ourselves - "What a gorgeous mess!" He knew when to say "I don't know," and he said it often. But sometimes I could detect, in his enigmatic smirk, a hint that he did indeed know, but wouldn't tell. I can still hear him telling me, quite earnestly, "Derek, disobey your teachers. Disobey us!"

For me, his most inspiring lesson was his total and uncompromising musicianship. "We teach composition by example," he would often say, and he meant it. When Bill Albright was at his best, he was as powerful and ingenious composer as any; I dare say that his clarinet quintet is one of the most perfect pieces of music I have ever played - or heard, for that matter. He was a deftly skilled contrapuntist and an elegantly funky rhythmitician. But I have always felt that the stunning beauty of his writing was wrapped in the details - a quirky "off" note in the harpsichord melody, just in the most annoying spot; a dazzling and grotesque flourish in the tuba; a haunting chord in the vibraphone lingering a bit too long - for me, these subtleties give Albright's music its distinct and pungent flavor. His expressive markings are a testament both to his humor and to how passionately he felt the music in his soul: "Strident, shrill, shrieking", "spit it!": Abiding Passions (1988) "Suddenly ecstatic": Quintet for Clarinet and Strings (1987) "Apoplectically, ": Seven Deadly Sins (1974) "Maestoso Grunge": Pit Band (1993) "Half-lit, smoky ostinato": Rustles of Spring (1994)

How much poorer our world is without his many Flights of Fancy. I will miss him immensely. My heart goes out to his family and friends.

DB, Aberdeen, Scotland, Oct. 1998


Anonymous said...

I just discovered William Albright through his Joplin recordings. As I delve into his work, I'm simply astounded by his abilities; he effortlessly blazes through the most difficult rags and boogie-woogies with incredible ease and verve. Rest in peace, wherever you are, Mr. Albright.

New England

JoplinFan said...

I found William Albright in 1991 when the Complete Rags of Scott Joplin was first published. I have always been impressed by his elegant, expressive, and gentle interpretation of Joplin. So many performers race through these songs with only the destination in mind, speeding forward like a runaway freight train. Albright slowed the tempo down just enough so we could hear the inner harmonic line, frequently a descending chromatic scale. Instead of just playing a straightforward repeat, he emphasized an inner voice here, transposed an octave there, or just took small liberties with the melody itself, crafting something delightfully unexpected every time. He breathed new life into these ragtime songs and showed the world that they are so much more than mere accompaniment for silent films, they are songs to be savored, songs to be treasured, especially in Albright's capable hands.

Rest in peace, Mr. Albright. Thank you for leaving the world a great treasure - your inspired interepretation of Scott Joplin's Rags.

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No doubt, william had a struggling and difficult life. May his soul rest in peace.

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