Thursday, September 29, 2016

After a Lynching

I caught my first glimpse of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series as a teenager, when my mother brought me to the Museum of Modern Art.  During the first decades of the 20th century, millions of African-Americans in the rural South had boarded trains headed northward, resulting in massive demographic shifts across the U.S.  The Great Migration had been ignored in my school history books and was absent from classroom discussion, so Lawrence’s paintings were my first exposure to this important historical movement.  But it was his personal artistic interpretation – his bold and urgent rendering of the story – that made such a singular impression and would keep me returning to his work over subsequent decades.

Through a confluence of technique and form, Lawrence responded to a major historical event in a way that was distanced yet highly stylized.  The figures he drew danced, the gesture and posture of the bodies paramount, imbued with poise and attitude.  Faces were nearly devoid of detail, but the shapes were crisp and the colors bright and blunt in shades ranging from burnt umber to cadmium orange.  The paintings called and responded to one another – hues, angles, kinetic energy assembling disparate scenes into one narrative.  By dint of this economy of means Lawrence fashioned a language, a rhythm, a perspective that focused the viewer’s attention like a laser.

Below each painting was displayed a short caption, largely informational in nature, e.g. “In the North the Negro had better educational facilities.”  Some were chillingly direct: “It was found that where there had been a lynching, the people who were reluctant to leave at first left immediately after this.”  But though the language could be severe, it was not preachy but rather descriptive, simple, and often understated, mirroring the directness of the paintings in The Migration Series.

In 2004 my dear friend Sheron Wray introduced my music to the brilliant trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis.  Soon thereafter Wynton requested a piece for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra that would combine the forces of jazz band and orchestra.  The instrumentation resembled that of his own composition All Rise, a striking oratorio that makes use of both ensembles plus chorus.  I decided that the form of my piece would comprise five movements linked by three interludes, exploring various aspects of improvisation, drawing together and recombining melodic and harmonic motives, themes, and textures.  I chose to cast the jazz band as “group soloist” subsumed within the larger sonic palette of the orchestra, a sort of concerto for big band. For inspiration and guidance I turned to the work of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Gil Evans, Gunther Schuller, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Bob Brookmeyer, and others.  As I composed, I found that the interwoven form was recalling Lawrence’s The Migration Series, so my piece became a tribute to his epic work.  I adorned the movements with titles that illustrated my impressions of overarching themes in the paintings: “Landscapes”, “After a Lynching”, “A Rumor”, “Riots and Moon Shine”, “Still Arriving”.

There’s a great deal I could, and should, document about the exhilarating and overwhelming experience of the premiere.  It was a unique opportunity to work with brilliant musicians versed in different musical traditions; in the process I learned a great deal about the advantages and perils of melding the two ensembles.  Often I found myself navigating a hazy boundary between two distinct genres, formulating a kind of Venn diagram where the languages overlapped.  But documenting in detail those anecdotes of epiphany would require a separate essay; what I want to relate now alludes to a darker side of human nature.

In the years since the premiere in autumn 2006, Migration Series has been programmed by half a dozen orchestras and jazz bands around the country.  This good fortune has allowed me to hunker down post-performance with the score, striving to make the work stronger, tighter, and clearer.  As I’ve written about before, I’m a chronic reviser and a fervent believer that composers can glean a great deal from the musicians who make the music come alive.  So during the revision process I consult not only the conductor’s score, but also the individual musicians’ parts, to seek out valuable info marked in the margins.

On one of these occasions I was perusing the violin parts, and I noticed some unusual penciled-in indications. Next to the title of the second movement, “After a Lynching”, appeared a crudely drawn, smiling stick figure with a rope around its neck.  Following a section marked “Heavy Swing” was written ‘from a noose’. The title of the third movement, “A Rumor” carried an addendum: ‘That He Wrote a Very Pretty Movement About a Lynching’.  Likewise in the fourth movement, following the tempo indication “Madly swung” was scrawled ‘by his neck’.  The title of the fifth movement, “Still Arriving”, had been altered; ‘arriving’ was crossed out and replaced with ‘dead’.

I gawked at the drawings in disbelief. I felt disembodied, almost violated.  What startled and disturbed me most immediately was the context and source.  What motive had spurred an orchestral musician to deface their violin part?  Was it an attempt at humor, fueled by a dislike of the piece, or a more general resentment?  Was it a protest, a sort of anti-graffiti with intent to delegitimize the narrative of my – and perhaps, by extension, Lawrence’s – narrative?  Could it be interpreted as an ironic commentary on my music, or was it simply an act of naked racism?

I tried to project my awareness backwards in time, to envision a 23-year-old Jacob Lawrence sitting down to mix colors in his Harlem Studio in 1940.  What unspeakable indignities had he suffered at his young age?  What ‘commentary’, not to mention other strange fruit, had already been hurled in his direction?  What inner demons was he summoning, what burden was he casting off as he painted The Migration Series?  And by what means was he able to resist both bitterness and humiliation and create a work so liberated from proselytizing and from cynicism?

Perhaps Lawrence was simply enthralled by the notion of documenting an untold story much larger than his own. Painting The Migration Series may have been the most incisive way for him to affirm that those unacknowledged lives mattered.  “All artists are constantly looking for something,” he mused in an interview, “and they don’t always know what.”  Hiding beneath the frugality of his lines, hues, and shapes, lurking behind the spare, elegant depictions of his subjects’ everyday lives, is the timelessness of the narrative, its continual rebirth; as his final caption proclaims, “And the migrants kept coming.”

I’ve kept the defaced violin part on my desk, and the hangmen continue to grin derisively at me.  I had imagined that confronting their unsettling gaze on a daily basis might reveal some profound truth upon which I might expound in an enlightened discourse.  But it’s hard to find truth in murkiness and innuendo, and therefore I feel compelled to relate this troubling episode, if only to add my voice to a vast and churning dialogue about the complexity of race in America.  I decided against displaying the images here, as they could easily be appropriated in unpredictable ways. But consider encountering Lawrence’s Migration Series, which opens at the Phillips Collection next week – an American masterpiece whose theme is largely still absent from school textbooks seventy-five years later.  As Wynton Marsalis once affirmed, “Art engages you in the world, not just the world around you…but the bigger world of ideas and concepts and feelings of history and humanity.”

with Sheron Wray and Wynton Marsalis, after the premiere of Migration Series

Monday, June 30, 2014

Glass Half Full (Bad Reviews and Mortality)

My first really bad review appeared in my hometown newspaper, The New York Times. The piece that garnered this unique honor was my string sextet Soul Garden, which I had composed for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. I had written it specifically for a virtuoso violist, Paul Neubauer, to perform with the cellist Fred Sherry and the Miami Quartet. At the time I considered it my finest composition to date.

Apart from one short notice when, as a 15-year-old, I performed the Copland Clarinet Concerto (“A truly exceptional talent!”) it was my second review from the Grey Lady. The first was a brief mention of my clarinet concerto Voices, which I had performed with the American Composers Orchestra three years earlier at Carnegie Hall. The review had been lukewarm at best, but I managed to excavate a favorable clause. “If you can eke out one good quote, that’s all you need,” my Dad cheerfully reassured me.

The premiere performances of Soul Garden went well, better than I had expected, considering the difficulty of the piece. During the previous decade I'd been developing a personal system of musical notation, using quarter-tones and glissandi to evoke the expressive microtonality of gospel music. It took a good deal of work for the performers to fully integrate these stylistic techniques into their playing. With Soul Garden I felt that I had begun to create my own language, manifest in the harmony, melody, and counterpoint; it was an important aesthetic and conceptual jump forward for me.

So late that Monday evening, I was hanging out with my buddy Dave at a bar on the Lower East Side. Before biking home to Brooklyn over the Williamsburg Bridge, I decided to stop at a bodega to check the early edition Times. I lingered on the street corner, paging impatiently through the newspaper: Water wars in Bolivia… environmental catastrophe at Superfund sites… political corruption in Queens politics… horse racing… where was the classical music? Finally I located the arts section, a slim sheaf of pages near the back. My review! Well, actually, it was Paul Neubauer’s review. And it looked quite favorable… until I reached the section about Soul Garden, where the tone took a sour turn.

Each victim recalls this traumatic moment differently. Some remember every reprehensible word, taking a masochistic pleasure in reading aloud the cruelest phrases, perhaps hoping that the brutal edges will gradually soften. Others, optimists, scour the few lines of text for all they’re worth, seeking to dredge from the muck a vaguely positive – or even neutral – spin. With what other experience can it be compared? Perhaps a sudden, bitter breakup…a few stark words etched instantly into the jilted lover’s brain. In this particular instance, I retained most vividly the summing-up: “Bluesy notions hardly worth a sideways glance.”

I felt a keen pang in my stomach and my mouth dropped open. There it was: the public record of my piece, the final word, all that would remain for eternity. Naturally it would never be played again; this bad review would hang around Soul Garden’s proverbial neck like a weighty albatross. I couldn’t fathom it. How could the reviewer write this, believe this? Bluesy notions, hell no! It was a finely wrought piece, and a creative one.

Or was it? Maybe it wasn’t… I pondered furiously. It needed minor revisions, it’s true; that middle section especially needed a few bars added. Or subtracted. But no, it was basically ready for prime time. The critic just didn’t comprehend it, that was the bottom line. Or perhaps it wasn’t so much the piece he had disliked, but the performance. Or the notes I had written in the program book. That might have been the deciding factor… I suppose I hadn’t fully explained that I was trying to do something as yet untried, that I wasn’t using quarter-tones in a “stereotypical” way, that I had found a novel method of embedding jazz embellishments into notated music, a brand new approach to melodic contour. His ignorance was at fault. I fumed that this so-called aficionado was incapable of grasping the significance and future ramifications of my experimental techniques and ideas.

I flashed back to the pre-concert discussion on the stage: had I spoken too casually about my innovations? Perhaps the critic thought I wasn’t serious enough. Maybe I hadn’t articulated clearly what the piece was about. Had the moderator neglected to ask pertinent questions? (I tried to remember — what were those questions again?) Somewhere out there in the audience this critic, armed with a pen, had lurked, plotted. He misunderstood my musical language, and now he was punishing me, taking revenge, determined to ruin my reputation. He was my enemy, vengeful and cackling! Why did he detest me and my music?

Overwrought, I watched yellow taxis filing onto the bridge. On a sudden impulse, I reread the review – twice. Slowly, and with grim intensity, I recognized that he hadn’t hated it. Hah! If only he had hated it… In fact he had dismissed it, trivialized it. He had chosen a noun, a plural noun that evoked banality, a label that reduced my music to an insignificant distraction, that brushed away my precious, hard-earned notes as if they were fluff, detritus, random dots on a scrap of manuscript paper. I conjured the main theme in my head. I carefully considered the cadenza. Maybe he was right, maybe the piece only added up to a few worthless, bluesy notions. I racked my brain: why “notions”? Why had he chosen that particular word?

I don’t remember the ride home over the Williamsburg Bridge, nor do I recall locking my bike on South 2nd Street and lumbering up the stairs to my second floor apartment in the silent, wee hours of the morning. I vaguely remember phoning my girlfriend; she listened to me babble for a while, and finally sighed exhaustedly, “Jesus, just get over it!” (I had woken her up and she had work at 6am the next morning.) Most of the night I lay suspended in bed-ridden time, trapped in an endless spiral of thoughts: the review, the performance, the pre-concert talk, the composition, the misunderstanding, my career, the shame of it all.

The public shame! Everyone would know, and if they didn’t already, they would eventually find out. They would read the article in The New York Times, of course. They would flip past tales of world wars, economic crises, sports victories, endearing human interest stories, cutting-edge scientific advances, and like homing pigeons they would inevitably race to section C to seek out those few sentences in a review of a viola recital. A review with no photo, even, just a few terse paragraphs comprised of phrases, one of them deadly and dismissive, and belonging solely to me. Bluesy notions. Not even worth a glance….hardly! Hardly worth a sideways glance….

I was referred by sympathetic friends to the Lexicon of Musical Invective, Nicholas Slonimsky’s witty compilation that recaps centuries of harsh reviews of masterpieces, beginning with Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony. I glumly checked out a copy from the public library the following week and devoured the generations of vitriol, chortling vociferously to myself as I devoured pistachios. Unfortunately the panacea ultimately proved less effective than envisioned. Though I too had received a lousy review in a prestigious journal, I remained unconvinced that this misfortune automatically placed me alongside the likes of Debussy, Mahler, and Copland.


As my Dad had suggested, artists probably put too much stake in reviews. The composer John Corigliano once told me that he hadn’t read them for years. John must be one of the few who doesn’t at least sneak a peek. I don’t have his strength; like most artists I possess a morbid fascination with critical opinion, especially when intelligently articulated.

Almost 20 years ago, writing in The Paris New Music Review, a sardonic journal that I co-founded with several friends, I attempted to review a recently-released CD recording of electronic music. It took an agonizing month to complete the article, which ran no more than a few paragraphs. In the end I reluctantly recognized that I was a lousy critic; I couldn’t bring myself to write anything negative, being overly empathetic with the composers and unconvinced that my opinion – informed as it may have been – carried any real validity or importance.

It would be ten years before I was exposed to the viewpoint of the “other half,” at a lecture by Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times on the role of the music critic. Tony made several assertions that surprised me; first of all, he mentioned that all other attributes being equal, it was more important that a critic be an engaging writer than a musical scholar. His audience was the general public, Tony insisted, not necessarily other musicians (Tony is also an accomplished pianist). Of course, any journalist would have found these statements to be self-evident, but to me, who read reviews as personal vendettas, they were a revelation.

And what about a seasoned composer’s perspective, one who actually reads reviews? Philip Glass once came in to speak with the young composers in my Making Score seminar at the New York Youth Symphony. During the talk one student, not particularly known for tact, raised his hand. “Mr. Glass,” he began earnestly, “I googled you and realized that you’ve had a LOT of bad reviews.”

I cringed. Philip, however, smiled gently and replied, “Yes, that’s true; if you do something interesting and individual, you’re bound to get plenty of bad reviews.”

“How does it make you feel when a writer doesn’t like your music and just keeps hating and hating on you in their reviews?”

Philip considered this question for a few seconds. “Well… of course, it doesn’t feel good, not at the time, I suppose. But you know, the thing about critics is…” and here he paused. “Eventually they die.”

The kids laughed, and I did too. But Philip’s face bore a faraway look.


About five years before Philip’s visit, I had traveled to Los Angeles for a very cool gig. John Adams conducted my concerto, Voices, with the L.A. Philharmonic, with me as the soloist. From my vantage point, the audience seemed to dig it; they brought John and me back for several bows. The next morning both local papers were delivered to my hotel room door. Complimentary newspapers, featuring bad reviews…. really bad! Both were deathly dismal. The meaner of the two was from Alan Rich in the L.A. Weekly. “Silly symphony of squeaks and squawks!” he railed. I can’t deny that I felt embarrassed, but for some reason, this time I couldn’t manage to summon the bitterness sparked by “bluesy notions.” In fact, I remember thinking, “Wow, this guy must have worked pretty hard to come up with that alliterative phrase.” I was impressed. And suddenly, I burst out laughing.

Had I reached a new level of maturity, acceptance, or maybe cynicism? Perhaps some combination of the above. Whatever the case, this first unsavory notice from Alan Rich was – unbeknownst to me – merely the opening salvo in what was to be a battery of harshness flowing from his typewriter for the next few seasons. Each time I returned to L.A. I was further lambasted: “A gooey conceit!” he wrote the following year. “A time-wasting piece!” he thundered. Now I was faced with a new challenge: a serial critic, out to murder my career! Alan Rich had it in for me; I felt sure that he arrived at every concert itching to launch poisonous barbs in my direction.

And Alan Rich wasn’t just any critic. He was an important writer who had been reviewing concerts for decades and had championed such revolutionary composers as Feldman, Nancarrow, Reich, and indeed Bolcom and Adams, all musical heroes of mine. So I couldn’t easily dismiss his dismissal, or at least I didn’t feel that I had the right to do so. Betty Freeman, the photographer and philanthropist who commissioned my orchestral work Elixir, took a more belligerent attitude. “I am so angry at Alan Rich with all the nasty stuff he writes about you, I’ve stopped talking to him!” she snapped. “Oh, it doesn’t matter, you know,” I shrugged. But of course, secretly I loved hearing Betty rant on my behalf.

Despite the Rich diatribes, L.A. did not give up on me. I was appointed composer-in-residence for three years with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and shortly thereafter I received an invitation from the L.A. Philharmonic to write a work for their 2009-10 season. I was excited for these back-to-back performances, though somewhere in the back of my brain I envisioned Alan Rich gleefully preparing to eviscerate me. But at the opening of the L.A. Phil concert at Disney Hall, a P.A. announcement took me by surprise. “We are dedicating this concert to the memory of Alan Rich, devoted music critic for the L.A. Weekly, who died last week.” I half-gasped in my seat. Strangely, there was no feeling of victory, no schadenfreude, just a raw emptiness as the eulogy continued. “Alan supported contemporary music faithfully, and we have no doubt he would have been delighted that we’re featuring a world premiere tonight, by composer Derek Bermel.” Oh, irony of ironies. Need I mention that this process was repeated a month later, when the L.A. Chamber Orchestra presented my work, similarly dedicating the evening to Alan Rich?

What a strange, ghostly rendez-vous at these concerts, Alan Rich and me. I felt no compulsion to dance on his grave; instead, I found myself moved by the tribute and applauded his mettle along with the rest of the audience. We then communally feasted our ears on that Bermel composition he surely would have detested. I had almost come to relish facing my nemesis, and perhaps I even harbored a perverse longing for the challenge; After all, I couldn’t be the bad boy in the room without an adversary present.

“Eventually they die.” A witty retort; it sounded almost capricious! But no wonder Philip had stated it mirthlessly. In the end, critics are the only folks who convey to a wider public what we artists do. The absence of the music journalist, more and more common, cannot possibly be a positive development for us. By the nature of their profession, critics are marginalized — even ostracized — and yet they stay focused, independent from the allure and echo chamber of the “music biz,” mapping out the truth as they understand it. As the music critics disappear, so too does the public’s awareness of what we make, why we make it, and who we are. So as the bad reviews roll in, I try to seek a modicum of Zen, grateful that — at least for the time being — when my tree falls in the forest, it doesn’t fall on deaf ears.

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.