Beaser takes composing beyond the music
June 15, 2005
Robert Beaser has a one-word explanation for why he is in the odd, fairly obscure business of composing concert music: “Stupidity,” is his good-natured response.Probe further, however, and one finds a very intelligent reason for having made a career of composing. Creating music satisfies the 51-year-old Beaser on virtually every level he can think of, and the gratification is multiplied when he sees that others are affected in a similar way.”When you’re writing, and it’s good music and you know it’s good, and you’re saying what you want to say, that’s all the reminder in the world,” he said by phone from his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “And enough people listen and hear what I hear – and that sustains me for a long time.”It was anything but a shortage of brains that pulled Beaser toward music. When Robert was 4, his older brother began piano lessons, which Beaser was dying to emulate. A year later, at his brother’s recital, Robert took center stage, performing a piece of his own music.
“I guess they figured, OK, we should give this guy lessons,” said Beaser, referring to his father, a doctor, and his mother, the chemist who invented Elmer’s glue.Growing up in Boston, Beaser was drawn in a similar way to anything musical. Drums were the main attraction: He pounded out the rhythm in rock bands and jazz combos, and played timpani in the Boston Youth Symphony. He branched out into music theater, both as an actor and writer of incidental music. But the path toward classical music was laid when a friend turned him on to Bartók’s “Microcosmos.” To a teenager who loved both rock ‘n’ roll and Rimsky-Korsakov, “Microcosmos,” a series of keyboard pieces loaded with dissonance and shifting rhythms, had a profound effect. “I asked who Bartók was, and he said he’s a man who makes ugly sounds beautiful,” recalled Beaser, who spends the first half of the summer as a composer-in-residence with the Aspen Music Festival and School. “I listened, and I was pretty much hooked.” Beaser had his first orchestral work performed when he was 16, by the Boston Youth Symphony.Beaser studied literature and political philosophy as well as music at Yale, with music winning out as his chosen pursuit. He earned a master’s and a doctorate degree from the Yale School of Music, and spent the summer of 1975 studying at the Aspen Music School. At positions including co-music director and conductor of the contemporary chamber ensemble Musical Elements, with which he premiered more than 200 new works at the 92nd Street Y, and composer-in-residence and then artistic director of the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Beaser established a reputation for embracing a wide range of influences.”There are a lot of composers in my generation, and the younger generation, who are a lot more rock ‘n’ roll-oriented” than himself, he said. “My music has elements of Western classical to Western vernacular – and that includes everything from Jellyroll Morton to the Beatles to Appalachia. I tend to freely take from sources. That’s a trademark of my style, and it manifests differently from piece to piece.”Aspen audiences will get a sense of that breadth as three of Beaser’s works are included in the 2005 Aspen Music Festival, which opens this week. The first concert by the Aspen Festival Orchestra, on Sunday, June 26, opens with “Manhattan Roll,” conducted by Aspen Music Festival music director David Zinman, who also conducted the piece’s 1998 premiere. Beaser will join the festival’s artistic advisor, Asadour Santourian, in a talk preceding the concert.
Beaser’s brass quintet will be performed by the American Brass Quintet as part of the July 12 Juilliard Centennial Salute; the American Brass Quintet premiered the piece in Aspen in 2000. (Beaser is chairman of the composition department at Juilliard.) “Souvenirs,” written in 2003 for piccolo and piano, will have its premiere performance on clarinet and piano in a July 18 chamber music concert, with clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas.”Manhattan Roll” is an ideal example of Beaser’s style. (It is also evidence of his sense of humor: The title refers to a menu item at the New York restaurant chain Empire Szechuan, a gathering spot for classical musicians.) Beaser wanted to get maximum impact out of the seven-minute work, commissioned for the 150th anniversary celebration of the New York Philharmonic. Meaning a little bit of everything, and loads of drums.”I wanted to do something absolutely electric and very big,” he said. “It’s a kitchen sink, everything thrown into a very small, New York-style kitchen. Lots of percussion, which I love. Percussion becomes with me part of the fabric of the orchestra rather than something that highlights.” He may have gone overboard: “There was a bit of a riot in the percussion section. They felt they had too much to do – which I’ve never heard of before.””Manhattan Roll” has a Latin feel that comes not only from the wealth of percussion, but also from the time and place in which it was conceived. Just before composing it, Beaser had curated a series, Sonidas de Las Americas, for the American Composers Orchestra, which focused on a different Latin American country each year. The actual composition process began as Beaser was driving one night through Latino-heavy upper Manhattan on a sweltering summer night, with the car windows open. “I felt all of New York was vibrating around me,” he said.Beaser’s fondness for “Manhattan Roll” is evident in how he speaks of it, and the fact that he has continued to make use of it. Beaser said the music from “Manhattan Roll formed” the cornerstone for his first opera, “The Food of Love,” part of the Central Park Trilogy and with a libretto by Terrence McNally.Not surprisingly, “Souvenirs,” a series of songs without words, comes from a different place. Different places, actually. Two of the pieces are based on American folk tunes, another has a Spanish influence and three are in Beaser’s very own “mishmash” style. In restructuring the pieces, Beaser took a similar approach as he did for 1986’s Grammy-nominated Mountain Songs, where he took Appalachian folk tunes “and gave them a different architecture, for a weird hybrid.”
The brass quintet had no explicit influences. “Just music,” said Beaser.Beaser has his time in Aspen mapped out. He will be writing a piece to be premiered in Minnesota in the fall; currently he is in “panic mode,” a state he expects will continue through the summer.Beaser has found such moments of panic, and the lack of respect composers receive, and the marginalization of classical music generally, outweighed by the rewards.”The music that has moved me, been a powerful force in my life spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, is a certain type of music,” he said. “My dream is to create a body of work that hits all those realms. I’ve managed to do that in the face of apathy and the feeling that it doesn’t really matter.”Beaser has found comfort, even cause for optimism, in the small community of musicians who think as he does. “Seeing so many young composers with so much enthusiasm, in the face of such overwhelming odds, makes me optimistic,” he said. He also sees reason to believe that the world may become more responsive to such efforts. As people are exposed to more types of music, listeners are developing more stratified palates. Somewhere in there is room for formal, composed music.”My 13-year-old son listens to atonal music with vectors, and a guitar piece of Brazilian pop – and he can put them on one page and have them make equal sense,” said Beaser. “People are listening to music in a much more open fashion. And that will lead to a good future.”
The Aspen Music Festival opens with a recital by the Takács Quartet on Wednesday, June 22, at Harris Hall. The Colorado-based Takács, a quartet-in-residence with the Music Festival, will be joined by Andreas Haefliger for Dvorák’s Piano Quintet in A major. Also on the program are Haydn’s “Emperor” quartet and a Borodin string quartet.Pianist Vladimir Feltsman is featured in a special event on Thursday, June 23. The all-Brahms program also features clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas and mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer.The Benedict Music Tent opens for the season Friday, June 24, with Nicholas McGegan conducting the Aspen Chamber Symphony and violinists Gil Shaham and Adele Anthony. The program includes works by Haydn, J.S. Bach, Britten and Beethoven.The Takács Quartet performs again on Saturday, June 25. The concert, with Haefliger and violist James Dunham, marks the last Aspen appearance of the quartet with violist Roger Tapping, whose seat will be taken by Geraldine Walther at the end of the summer.The first concert by the Aspen Festival Orchestra, on June 26, features Jonathan Biss as soloist on Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, and Strauss’ Symphonia domestica in addition to “Manhattan Roll.” Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org