Month: February 2009

Composer’s Holiday

Lukas Foss, my old teacher, died at the age of 86 yesterday. I was going to write about what he was like as a teacher, but it turns out I already did, in the comments section of an old post:

He was style-agnostic (actually pan-stylistic) and could immediately pinpoint weak spots in any piece, no matter the vocabulary. Other teachers I had would look at what I was trying to do, and offer suggestions as to similar pieces in the repertoire that I could go study. Foss, though, would go through and say no, this note should be up an octave, you need to clean up the voice leading from this harmony to this harmony, this chord should come a beat later, you should separate these contrapuntal lines into separate octaves, etc., etc. And damned if he wasn’t right every time. Every so often I’ll still send him a piece that I think he might get a kick out of. He sent the last one back with a note: “I’m not convinced by the harmony.” Know what? Neither was I, but I thought I could finesse it.

As a person, he’s charming and mischevious, and yes, absent-minded, albeit with a crucial caveat. If I see him, I have to re-introduce myself, but if I send him a piece of music, he remembers everything I’ve written. Every so often, I’d have a lesson where I hadn’t actually written anything new; I’d pull out a sketch from a couple years previous and try to pass it off. He’d look through it for a minute, then turn to me and say, “I’ve seen this.” Another student of his and I used to theorize that he deliberately forgot non-musical things in order to pack more music into his brain.

One other highly entertaining thing: he’s met everybody. In fact, that same student and I once decided that we would name-drop in lessons, just to try and find someone he didn’t have a story about. Bernstein? An endless fountain. Cage? Great material there. I once brought a copy of The Magic Mountain to a lesson; turns out he used to play soccer with Thomas Mann’s son. Finally, one day, I was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Katherine Hepburn on it. “She’s seen me in my underwear, you know,” he said. Turns out that he once rented her guest house, and she turned up one day and forgot to knock first. I gave up after that.

Here’s another story, macabre in a way he would have liked: for a while, I was Professor’s Foss’s first lesson of the day (he would fly from New York to Boston every Monday, and pack all his week’s teaching into one day). So one morning I show up at his office, next door to the faculty lounge. No sign. I push the door open and go in. No sign. I peek into the faculty lounge, and there’s Foss, curled up on the floor, not moving. “Oh, great,” I think, “he’s dead.” But I give him a nudge, and he wakes up—and I mean instantly, completely awake, as if he’s been up for hours. “It is time?” he asks. He was amused over this for about ten minutes.

He was amused over a lot of things. He loved wordplay—nothing could summon a grin like an outrageously punning title. He enjoyed tweaking expectations of humility or self-deprecation. I first discovered he was teaching at Boston University—thus sealing my grad school destination—when I read an interview with him in the BU alumni magazine. “How often do you see genius?” the interviewer asked. “Every time I brush my teeth,” he replied. (If you knew him, you can hear the grin.) I realized once that I had seen Foss tired, seen him bored, even seen him disdainful on occasion—but I don’t think I ever saw him angry.

Foss’s music, probably because he was hard to categorize, never got as much attention as it deserved. He did avant-garde crazy better than anyone, mostly because his theatrical sense of humor was the final arbiter instead of some conceptual framework. Paradigm, with its theatre-piece vibe and its “insane” percussionist, matches Mauricio Kagel at his own game, and American Cantata was possibly the most atmospherically accurate Bicentennial commemoration the country ever got (which is why it’s never, ever performed). And Baroque Variations still remains one of the all-time great—maybe the great—orchestral deconstructions. (It was, in fact, the old Nonesuch record of Baroque Variations, with Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra on the flip side, that got me hooked on the avant-garde in the first place.) But even The Prairie, with its uncanny stylistic Americana, always gave me the sense, at its core, that it was as much a witty commentary on the artifice of that style as much as a paragon of it. He was a composer for whom “cleverness” was an unqualified virtue.

Foss’s music, though, defies a lot of analysis, simply because it’s so bound up in performance—he was a composer as fascinated by how you get an idea realized by musicians as what the idea was in the first place. The craftsman side of him valued elegance and efficiency; the mischievous side of him valued the ability to tap into the chaos of live performance, feeding off that chaos, rather than trying to alleviate it. He loved music that purposefully sounded “wrong,” music that made you unsure of just how well the performance was going: repetitive figures that start to go down irreverent alleys (as in Solo), entire chunks of counterpoint or harmony thrown out of phase into dissonant multiplicity (as in his Renaissance Concerto). There was a Mozart minuet that he adored simply because at every turn, it zagged instead of zigged. He prized any reminder that music was more fantastic and unpredictable than we could guess.

The last time I saw him perform was at Tanglewood, where he played the keyboard part in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 5 (on a modern piano, a cheeky old-school move) with, among others, James Galway. For much of the piece, you could hear that Foss and the ensemble wanted different tempi; finally, Foss just went with his own speed, ensemble or no ensemble. The thing was, it wasn’t angry or vindictive—it was as if Foss decided that, if people wanted two tempi, well, bi-temporal Bach might just be fun, so why not give it a try? That’s the image of him I’ll remember: in the midst of the scramble, everyone else trying to keep up, while, smiling, he cheerfully ran on ahead. Thanks for the help, Professor Foss.

To please the dull fools

I’m sitting in the library today, and next to me on the shelf is this oddly addictive First-Line Index of English Poetry, 1500-1800, in Manuscripts of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, edited by Margaret Crum and published by the Index Committee of the Modern Language Association of America in 1969. (Reference works always have such enjoyably expansive bibliographic information.) Skip to page 575, and there’s a meta-poem about music:

Music dear solace to my thoughts neglected
And to thy voice, her voice atone.

Music the master of thy art is dead
Let’s howl sad notes stolen from his own pure verse.

Music, thou queen of souls! get up and string
Strike a sad note, and fix them trees again.

Music thou soft uniter of our hearts,
By whose almighty charms the heaven and earth were made.

Music thou soul of Heaven care-charming spell
As thou enchantest our ears.

Music, tobacco, sack and sleep
The tides of sorrow backwards keep.

Musical sounds some calls harmonious charms
The spark of grief into a sable blaze.

Music’s a crochet the sober think vain,
To please the dull fools that give money for wit.

First stanza from an air by Francis Pilkington; second stanza by William Lawes; third stanza by Thomas Randolph; fourth stanza by John Chatwin; fifth stanza by Robert Herrick; sixth, seventh, eighth stanzas anonymous.