Sunday, September 22, 2013

Driving Mr. Krzysztof


As a wide-eyed and weary graduate student at the University of Michigan, I often referred to the local Kinko’s as my “second home”. Today Kinko’s has been swallowed up into the mega-vortex of a corporation known as FedEx, but at the time it was the 7-11 of copyshops, open 24 hours. These days, I occasionally find myself standing, stupefied, outside a FedEx Office storefront at 10:30pm, peering into the darkened edifice. My brain still cannot process the fact that the stores have a closing time, for in the age of portable printers, few all-night copy shops still remain. But throughout the ‘90s, the humming, fluorescent-lit, industrial-carpeted interior, featuring signs with bland fonts and pastel hues, were the comforting hallmarks of a timeless cocoon, complete with all the replicative needs of a young composer – self-service machines capable of double-sided printing (a rare commodity in that ancient era), paper-cutters, copious quantities of White-Out and correction tape, and plastic combs which could be deftly overlapped to bind tabloid-sized musical scores (the current generation of FedEx Office employees seem to have abandoned the skill – or the desire – to execute this rather mundane task, and it is therefore difficult to find a copyshop where the employees can operate the equipment with the kind of assured dexterity exhibited by a deadline-haunted composer).

I begin with this extended soliloquy merely to emphasize how many working man-hours I spent xeroxing music – both my own and others’ scores. If a particular composition appealed to me – say Berio’s Sinfonia or Vivier’s Lonely Child – I’d haul it to Kinko’s and xerox it, then later study it, after which it would linger, its pages gradually yellowing and becoming brittle at the edges, perhaps at some point in the distant future either inviting closer scrutiny or subject to a re-xeroxing as a musical example for a talk or masterclass. At the time I had selected Porgy and Bess as a focus of my oral exam, and had managed through wily means to procure a full orchestrated score, which I spent hours painstakingly copying, back-to-back 11”x17”, late at night in the Ann Arbor Kinko’s.

Returning home bleary-eyed from one such all-night sojourn, I encountered an eagerly blinking light on my answering machine, and was surprised to hear the voice of the music school’s dean, Paul Boylan, crackling through the speaker. “Derek, I wonder if you might call me tomorrow morning; I have a somewhat unusual request.”

It was already past 9am, and I decided to call before crashing in bed for the day. Boylan’s request was indeed unusual. “Do you have the next few days free?”

Actually I didn’t. A faculty member, Michael Webster, was performing my short solo clarinet piece Theme and Absurdities, which I had composed the previous year. I was looking forward to the program, which would take place at the Kerrytown Concert House. “Well, actually, I have a commitment—”

“Do you know who Krzysztof Penderecki is?” Boylan asked. Of course I did; Penderecki was a name from the music history books. All music majors were familiar with the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, his groundbreaking work for strings that had extended the textural and sonic boundaries of orchestral writing. At 60, Penderecki was already a hallowed icon, royalty in the pantheon of modernist musical gods.

Boylan continued, “He’s conducting a Polish orchestra on an American tour, and there’s an error in his itinerary; a driver was not booked between Ann Arbor and Chicago. They asked if I might be able to find somebody – like a student – and I thought of you. Interested?”

I hesitated – Penderecki or Webster? I had rarely, if ever, missed a performance of one of my compositions.

“Oh yes,” Boylan added, “I almost forgot to mention – the pay is $150 per day.” That last tidbit sealed the deal. After all, $600 would allow me to copy a hundred scores at Kinko’s, then send them to anonymously-judged competitions whereupon a jury of important composers would yawningly pore over my scrawl, assigning a random jumble of numerical values to my masterpiece.

On hanging up the phone I felt a surge of mystique and curiosity. Penderecki, a name from Larousse and Grout! A piece of history – not really a person – a paragraph of lore. Almost immediately a deep anxiety set in. I was familiar with the Threnody, Anaklasis, and De Natura Sonoris, pieces from the early ‘60s. But it was 1995; what had Penderecki been writing for the past thirty-odd years? I had no idea. I glanced at my watch. It was 9:30AM. The next day at this time I would be chauffeuring Krzysztof Penderecki and his wife Elżbieta across the Midwest. I imagined him leaning forward from the back seat and regarding me with a look of hauteur. “So, Mr. Bermel,” he would say, “pray tell, what do you know of my music?” And I would be embarrassingly stumped.

I was dead tired from my all-night Kinko’s-fest, but I’d need to spend hours in the library, boning up on the Maestro’s recent oeuvre. I had a few hours before an afternoon class, then a few more before the evening concert he was conducting in Hill Auditorium – Penderecki, Mozart, Beethoven – the same program he was taking on tour. I imagined horrific scenarios: “So Mr. Bermel,” he would ask haughtily, “how did you enjoy last night’s concert?” “Uh… unfortunately I didn’t hear it, Maestro; I was too busy studying all that music of yours that I’d never bothered to listen to over these years.” No way! I’d have to somehow do it all.

It was the ‘90s. There was no internet, I couldn’t surf YouTube, browse Spotify, or log in to Rhapsody. There was only the University of Michigan Music Library, with scores, LPs, and a few CDs. Students were not allowed to check out recordings, so I spent most of the day with headphones glued to my skull, my nose buried in operatic and symphonic scores – St. Luke Passion, Rex Ubu, Canticum Canticorum, Lacrimosa, Polish Requiem, various concerti and symphonies. I learned that Penderecki had “invented” Neo-Romanticism (although today I could attribute that claim to at least a dozen other composers), that he loved large forms and had adopted a somewhat reactionary musical persona over the years, perhaps partially due to a complex and tortured relationship with the avant-garde (his predecessors Boulez, Stockhausen, and Xenakis, among others). An early enfant terrible, he soon perceived his own innovations in extended techniques to be an artistic straitjacket and yearned to incorporate them into a more expressive musical language. Later that night I read two biographies and an interview which touched on various details of his personal life, his relation to Catholicism, his love of nature, his early years spent playing violin and composing film scores.

So when I arrived at the Campus Inn the following morning at 7:30am, where the Lincoln Town Car awaited me – the same hotel, incidentally, where I would stay 12 years later when receiving, of all honors, the Paul Boylan Award – I felt as though I had known the maestro for years, my brain literally crammed, as it were, with trivea related to Penderecki’s life and work.

His wife Elżbieta greeted me warmly, though somewhat exhaustedly, as I opened the car’s rear door for her. I held it for her husband, but to my surprise he opened the front door and climbed into the seat next to mine. “Krzysztof!” he declared, extending his hand. Was he really going to ride shotgun? I think I shook it, but my face must have betrayed astonishment, because Penderecki nonchalantly explained, “My wife likes to ride in the back and read. In the front seat it makes her nauseous. But I prefer to converse.” So that was that; I was going to be chatting with Penderecki for several days!

I felt cheerfully overprepared for conversation but didn’t know where to start, bursting as I was with a zillion factoids about his music and life. As we veered onto Route 23, heading south towards Toledo, I ventured: “So I understand that you are a connoisseur of trees. Did you happen to check out the Arboretum while you were in town?”

“Yes, I do indeed like trees, but I didn’t visit there,” he replied.

“Oh, that’s too bad!” I exclaimed. “It’s such a beautiful place, and it has 93 species of trees,” suddenly unsure both of the statistic’s accuracy and of why I had even recalled it in the first place (perhaps it had been drummed into our collective student unconscious).

“My arboretum in Switzerland has over 900 species of trees,” he mused distractedly. A lengthy silence ensued. I gazed glumly ahead at the open landscape. “It’s gonna be a long trip,” I thought.

Perhaps Penderecki was simply unimpressed with my opening salvo of idle chit-chat, but he seemed to bear no ill will, for when the conversation turned to music he became lively and congenial, and by the end of the trip we had hit it off.

He appeared amused at my familiarity with his extensive catalog, though his smirk betrayed an inkling that I had crammed last-minute for the ride. Along the way, I couldn’t help professing my admiration for Ligeti’s music. Penderecki considered that for a moment, then said, “Ligeti, yes, he is a fine composer. A miniaturist.” That was all he had to say on the subject, and I filed away this characterization for future consideration.

It was a moment of epiphany, in which I realized the futility of imploring an artist to comment on the work of a contemporary. Even the most charitable responses can seem obtuse, and not always for reasons of malice or even indifference. For what perspective can one really offer on one’s peers? The context in which their work has been created – i.e. the present age – is so close to home that it is probably wiser to avoid either praising it effusively or dismissing it cavalierly. Of course, many artists are quite openly nasty in assessing the work of their contemporaries and recent forebears, but with hindsight such observations often appear foolish and small-minded; certainly a healthy dose of egoism is needed to imagine that one’s own opinions – good or bad – about peers are particularly useful for others (outside of pure curiosity or gossip value).


Penderecki listened closely to my music and made pointed observations. “You are an opera composer,” he said at one point, after hearing to my clarinet piece SchiZm. This echoed a similar statement George Crumb had made to me two years earlier, and I filed this away too, for later mulling over and general angst. He also spoke at great length about his own musical evolution as a composer, and before we parted ways he presented me with a stunningly beautiful facsimile of his sketches that his publisher Schott had compiled in honor of his 60th birthday. Before beginning to compose a piece, I learned, he would paint an abstract watercolor that helped to articulate the form of the piece and various events inside it.

On the last day, after his concert in Indiana, we drove through a small forest, a fertile valley in the vast, flat Indiana heartland, and he reminisced about his own schooling. “At the Academy of Music in Kraków, we had no access to the modern music from the West. It was the early 1950s, and Poland was occupied. We had mostly 19th-century scores, practically all of them German and Russian. And of course we had Symanowski…” He spoke often and fondly of the great Polish composer Symanowski’s music, reminding me of a recent lecture I had witnessed by Gorecki, in which he traced his lineage from Chopin to Symanowski to the present day, stunning me by skipping over composers whom I considered seminal. I had also read an interview with Messiaen in which he offered a history of music that traveled from Bach, Couperin, and Rameau to Berlioz, Fauré, Debussy. And so it goes….

Penderecki continued, “Then one day Luigi Nono came across the Iron Curtain to give masterclasses. And he brought with him dozens of scores from the West, so many new, interesting scores; we didn’t even have Bartók’s and Webern’s music; we were very deprived. You have to understand… we needed these scores, we needed them more than you can imagine. So before he returned to Italy, we made sure to copy them all.”

I nodded empathetically, mentioning that I too had recently spent all night in Kinko’s, copying scores. “Do you know Kinko’s?” I inquired. “It’s kind of a composer’s paradise. Sometimes it’s my second home.”

He gazed at me unblinking. “I don’t mean copied like…that. I mean we copied them. With a pen, by hand.”

He registered my disbelief and softened a bit. “You see, there was no other way. He was leaving to go back to the West. We didn’t know whether we would ever see that music again.”

There was a long silence, but this time it was my silence. I considered that vague word: copying. I suspected that Penderecki had absorbed more from copying – note for note – a Webern bagatelle than I had gleaned from those mountains of xerox copies over the years. For his was a willful act of internalizing, of transference, as opposed to a simple, mindless replication. After all, wasn’t copying a score – really copying it out – so much more valuable than xeroxing it and “studying” it?

Gazing out the window at the continually arriving landscape, my long nights at Kinko’s suddenly seemed capricious and self-indulgent. I felt guilty as we whizzed by the islands of trees, distant relatives of those felled in the name of my own enthrallment with the superficial trappings of being a Composer, instead of with the essential transference of ideas – of raw knowledge – from hand to hand and mind to mind, across generations, resisting geographical and political boundaries, a legacy without end. Those dead trees would sit inert on my bookshelf, their lineage dry and denied, with no descendants to blossom anew in some faraway arboretum, large or small.

1 comment:

Frank La Rocca said...

Simply fascinating, Derek. I met him only once when I was 21 and was so awestruck I could not say very much. How terrifying and thrilling those few days must have been.