This is the third and final installment of the posts leading up to the performance of my choral setting of Wallace Stevens’ poem Sea Surface Full of Clouds on March 3, 2024.  (at The Society For Ethical Culture, 2 West 64th street at 3:00)

Throughout most of my creative life I have felt defensively timid about my work.  It has failed to adhere to the standards of style considered mandatory for our era.  The three most recognized among my teachers, Walter Piston, Luigi Dallapiccola and Aaron Copland did what they could to urge me to abandon my predilections for continued use of tonal harmony.  My final teacher, Bernhard Heiden, did me the signal favor that enabled me to have a productive and satisfying professional career in Academe.  He advised me to change my doctoral degree program at Indiana University from Mus.D. in Composition, to Ph.D. in Music Theory.  “As long as you write the kind of music you do, no respectable music department will hire you as a composer in residence.   Get a research degree; do the research; get a position with tenure and then you can compose whatever music you wish.”    I followed his advice; it was dead on and I have thrived.     So, I think, has my music, though the larger musical world is yet to recognize it.

That larger musical world has its problems and its missed opportunities.   Classical music has traditionally provided the richest enhancement to spiritual endeavors, to meaningful celebrations and to the deepest consolation in times of grief.    It has, I think, also offered a means of seeking and sometimes finding the basis of unity and brotherhood among peoples and nations.   A prime current and ongoing example of this is the West-East Divan Orchestra in which young musicians from both Israel and the Palestinian and other Arab nations participate.    Founded and led by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, this organization helps young musicians find, in the harmony of the notes they are playing, a basis for their peoples to learn to live together in peace.     But to me, this wonderful heartwarming venture also exposes a shortcoming in our profession which stirs as much reproach in me as the exploits of the West-East Divan stirs admiration.     I have observed the programs of the group when they have concertized around the world. Several years ago they toured with the complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies..   I find nothing later than Tchaikovsky…above all, nothing by a contemporary composer let alone new music by any composer from the peoples that comprise the orchestra.  That lack, I think, severely limits the orchestra’s power to inspire and persuade.    Classical music, as it was allowed to evolve into the 20th century (let alone the 21st)  has offered nothing that can heal the wounds of the world.

Young composers who show talent are relentlessly instructed by their credentialed teachers to eschew tonal harmony.   This reached its greatest intensity in the middle of the 20th century when highly recognized critics and musicologists referred to the “annihilation” of tonality as accomplished fact.  Gimmicks such as “minimalism” allowed the individual chords of tonal harmony back in, but never in ways that the irresistible grammar of their combinations could be perceived.   And the greatest glory went to the composers furthest out from the realms of harmony.   Imagine the absurdity of Barenboim’s programming the works  of his late friend and professional colleague, Pierre Boulez, for one of these tours and the tragedy of the current situation in classical music is clear.    Alas, when the best and the brightest are led, from their youth, away from the musical language that reaches the hearts of large numbers of listeners, celebratory music, when it exists at all, is left to the purveyors of kitsch with whom, I suppose, as the academy draws its lines, I, and Sea Surface Full of Clouds would be associated.   I earnestly insist, it doesn’t belong there.  I would rather think of it as a clarion call to young musicians who love the greatest works in the repertory and want to emulate them, to stick to their guns.    Those who have prodded you to regard the exquisite language developed in and through those works as exhausted have done nothing to bring the art of music forward in service to humanity.  Humanity needs great music.   Needs it, perhaps, more than ever.    Stravinsky, in the 1960’s predicted, on television,  that by today, children will be singing 12-tone rows.   On a final note of humor, try singing “The Farmer in the Dell” in 12-tone rows.   It can be fun!

Besides Sea Surface Full of Clouds, set to the work of a poet thought to inspire only modernist composers, I have composed two operas and dozens of songs.  Occasional microtones articulate appropriate passages in both operas, but the prevailing idiom would not be unrecognizable to audiences of over a century ago.  I do not find that similarities to the language of great music past prevents my music’s relevance to the needs of the present.

Sea Surface Full of Clouds, perhaps because it is the result of my perusal of Stevens’ poems with the expectation of their compelling me in a more modernist direction (as described in the first of the preceding essays in this space)  stands, more than any other of my works, as a kind of manifesto for preserving the rich language of functional harmony as a living language for composition and not only as a look at an historic period mourned and gone.