Over the course of this past season (which is not yet over) I’ve conducted four—count ’em, FOUR—world premieres. I consider myself something of a new music guy, and to people who are vaguely familiarity with my gestalt, that probably doesn’t come as a surprise. My close friends (and regular listeners of my dearly departed podcast) might privately chuckle at that self-characterization though, since I tend to be cranky unto the point of ornery about most new music.
I don’t know if premiering four new works sounds like a lot, but trust me, it was. Every piece is different, but they all require hard work, especially when they’re written for large forces.
Huntley Beyer, World Out of Balance
Huntley Beyer is a Seattle guy who played oboe in the Harmonia Orchestra for at least a decade in the 80s and 90s. He’s a deeply spiritual person in an almost pantheistic vein; ironically, he spent the better part of his career teaching music at a Catholic day school.
This piece had an extremely strange gestation. It began life as an auction item at Harmonia’s annual fundraising gala. The winner was supposed to get something like a 5-minute chamber piece for one voice or one instrument with piano accompaniment.
Well, you’ll see from the run time on the above video (62 minutes) that things took a rather different turn. The auction winners were old friends of Huntley’s who shared his proclivity for compositions of grand spiritual dimensions and they wanted to pack the piece full of big ideas.
And they did! The piece ballooned to a 15-movement oratorio for soloists, chorus, and orchestra. This was the major work on Harmonia’s opening concert of the season, which is totally insane now that I look back at it. Usually, conductors like to get the ball rolling with something familiar, so that everyone can shake off the summer-induced rustiness and deliver an assured first performance right off the bat.
I seem to be compelled towards a different tack. In 2019, I gave the fourth-ever performance of Carol Sams’ The Earthmakers, and though it wasn’t a premiere, it had the feel of a premiere since it hadn’t been mounted since the 90s. As with World Out of Balance, that piece was also a big success, so I think there’s a good case to be made for kicking off a season with one of these insanely bold projects, “shooting the moon,” as it were.
Robert Kechley, Hard Times: Antiphonal Conversations
Bob is another Seattle guy, and like Huntley, he’s a musician’s musician who made his living teaching, conducting, performing, and doing whatever other musical hustling had to be done. His father Gerald was a distinguished professor of composition at the University of Washington who died recently at something like 102 years old.
Bob was something of a wunderkind and he maintains his facility at the keyboard and his fascinating with contrapuntal textures. He’s written tons of music for Harmonia over the course of the past several decades (he was a founding member of the group) and his work has a reputation with our musicians as being extremely challenging. A reputation, I might add, that is wholly deserved!
From a technical conducting standpoint, this piece is about as hard as it gets. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have heart. It’s not bleep-bloop music, just genuinely complex, mostly-tonal modernism. It’s scored for a bazonkers ensemble of two (amplified) solo harpsichords, 9 strings, 8 winds+another string bass, brass septet, and two percussionists.
What made this piece really hard for me was the layout of the score and the stage. Because the piece is supposed to reflect various factions of our society existing at odds with one another, the groups are placed as far apart as possible on the stage. (Originally, Bob had wanted the brass players to play from the rear balcony. Cool idea, but I had to give that bit of the concept the axe for practicality’s sake.) The score is laid out in a stunningly unfamiliar fashion, so it took much rewiring of my brain to connect a marked cue to a physical player on the stage. Somehow we managed, and this piece really connected with our audience.
Sheila Bristow, When Music Sounds
Sheila is also a local artist, and just like the fellas, she’s a working musician (a local hero, really) who wears many a hat: she’s Harmonia’s choral accompanist and orchestral keyboardist, as well as a church musician, a university teacher, a vocal coach, and whatever else comes up.
To her great credit (and my great relief) Sheila created a work that was a bit more practical in its demands upon our orchestra, chorus, and—critically—conductor. She created a three-movement work setting poetry that praises Music itself. The work moves from a Britten-esque diaphany that recalls that composer’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, through to a more Vaughan Williamsy three-quarter time waltz, and ends with a dance movement that recalls… well, I don’t know whom it recalls.
Having listed those movements though, I’ll say that the music is pure Sheila. She and I have similar approaches to our influences, I think, in that we take what we like and leave what we don’t like. I am particularly pleased that she and I happen to like the same things in Britten and Vaughan Williams (and therefore, I assume, dislike the other things.)
Quinn Mason, Symphony No. 5 “Harmonia”
Quinn Mason’s new symphony is in a bit of a different category from the first three pieces I premiered this season. For one, it’s written for a standard orchestra without voices. For another, it’s not written by a local composer. And perhaps most pertinent for my own relationship with the music, it’s written by a composer whom I consider a protégé in addition to being a friend and colleague (as are Huntley, Bob, and Sheila.)
Quinn, of course, is much younger than the rest of the bunch, and though he already has a distinct musical voice, he is still developing that voice with every piece. Of the four composers I worked with this season, Quinn and I have the most history together and the most sympathy as fellow composers. Quinn first contacted me when he was still a teenager, and he sought me out because he knew and liked my music. I responded enthusiastically to him because I was gobsmacked by the pieces he sent me for review.
Since that time, I’ve commissioned three pieces from Quinn: A Joyous Trilogy, In Memory, and now the new symphony. I’ve also conducted two of his other works, Toast of the Town and Reflections on a Memorial. I’ve advised him on all those pieces (and plenty of others) and I would say that we understand each other musically on an instinctual level. I get what he’s saying, and he gets how I say it.
Quinn has become highly sought after in the past few years, so it was a privilege that he composed a symphony for Harmonia (and even titled the piece after the group!) He hasn’t let his rising celebrity go to his head though, and he was more than willing to re-work the piece as he sent me drafts for feedback.
The final product is a piece full of romantic themes, smoldering orchestration, and contemplative moods. It’s cyclical, always a favorite attribute of mine in a symphonic work. It’s unusual for a symphony, in that it’s in a three-movement, slow-fast-slow form. The piece moves at its own pace, and I would call it an experimental work.
“Experimental” is a term that, for whatever reason, has gotten associated with a certain brand of new music (avant-garde, theatrical, extendedly technical, etc.) but I would beg people to keep in mind that composers who work in more traditional forms with more traditional tonal vocabularies are still finding ways to innovate and experiment even a full 200-years into the symphonic tradition.
We are very lucky for that fact, and we are very lucky to have these four pieces in the world. I consider myself a happy, accomplished, exhausted midwife.
[Before you start reading, know that this is an extremely long and intensely personal essay about my fraught relationship with a troubled mentor figure. I wrote it for myself and I might have let it get a bit out of control. It’s like twice the length of a New Yorker article, and I mean one of the long ones. I doubt that even my mother will read it in its entirety.]
Easley Blackwood, composer, pianist, professor, eccentric, died last month at the age of 89. Easley was my teacher for six years, from 2002–2008. When we met, I was a second-year student at the University of Chicago and Easley was professor emeritus, a bit of a legend in the music department. He taught one course per year; I took three of those courses: Orchestration, The String Quartet, and Acoustics and Tuning Theory.
Easley and I became close during my college years, and our association continued after I graduated and began working as a musician. I was an ambitious young person with my heart set on becoming a great composer-conductor, and I hoped Easley would be the mentor who would grant me entrée into the musical world I hoped to take by storm.
Easley himself had tremendous mentorship as a young person; his teachers read like a Who’s Who of 20th century musical titans. As a teenager, he came to the attention of Aaron Copland, then he went to Yale to study with Paul Hindemith, followed by post-graduate studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, and a summer course with Olivier Messiaen. He even got to take Bernstein’s conducting course at Tanglewood.
This all led to a rather stunning compositional début at the age of 26, when his first symphony was performed and recorded by the Boston Symphony. According to Easley, this opportunity arose via the “Old Boys’ network” into which he had been received (led, ironically, by Nadia Boulanger.) His subsequent career saw him work with many luminaries, including George Szell and Georg Solti.
When I met Easley, his star had faded considerably, but he was only ten years on from having had his fifth symphony premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and CDs of his work as a composer and pianist were being issued with regularity (produced by Cedille Records, where he sat on the board.)
[Side note: Cedille Records was founded—and is still run—by a guy named Jim Ginsburg. One night in 2006 or 2007, Easley brought me as his guest to a Cedille Records company dinner, and for some mysterious reason, I was seated next to Jim’s mother Ruth, aka the Notorious RBG.]
All that’s to say, Easley was an impressive figure, and I was an impressionable youngster. I hoped that Easley would be my protector and promoter, but in the end, he was a mentor manqué. He was happy to have me as an acolyte, but loath to assume any of the responsibilities of mentorship.
It’s strange to see a photo of Young Easley. He was exactly 50 years my senior, which meant that when I met him, he was just about to turn 70. He always seemed older though. People who knew him in his 40s and 50s said they had thought he was 85.
Easley found me as a doe-eyed, attentive young man of 19, and for him, this was an appealing proposition. I was eager to drink in his knowledge and he was a marvel in the classroom. Day one, minute one of his orchestration course, when the clock struck 10:00 am, he walked to the board and drew the playable range of the flute on a staff, launching into a disquisition on the instrument’s history, its registers, and its repertoire. There was no syllabus or textbook; he taught the entire course off the top of his head. All of his symphonies had been performed by orchestras and conductors that were among the world’s most accomplished. Who needs a textbook?
I already had a solid grasp of orchestration when I began Easley’s class, so he noticed me early on. After a week or two, we began striking up conversations in the little lobby of the fourth floor of Goodspeed Hall prior to the beginning of class. These chats soon garnered me a dinner invitation.
Dinners with Easley were a hedonistic ritual, a continuation of habits he’d picked up in his early 20s in Paris. I would pick him up in my car around 4:15 in the afternoon and we would drive downtown to one of his chosen restaurants, arriving by 5:00. (Easley had to give up his driver’s license at some point in the late 80s after a major crash involving a DUI.) Easley’s palate was eclectic; we would go for sushi or Brazilian charcuterie just as often as we would go for his true favorite, French brasserie fare.
[Another side note: in addition to the many other problematic effects resulting from my association with Easley Blackwood, I blame him for diverting me from the path to veganism. I entered college as a vegetarian, but by my junior year—after so many steakhouse dinners—I had reverted to meat-eating. It was my choice, and I accept the responsibility, but I probably could have gone vegan a good five or six years earlier without his influence.]
Dinner for Easley always began with drinks, usually two double martinis, though at Brasserie Jo (his favorite, and, truth be told, mine) he would instead indulge in a Ricard. He always ordered lavishly for his meal: steak frites, enormous plates of sushi, osso buco, whole fish, etc. (Easley rarely ate breakfast or lunch.) His dinner was accompanied by three glasses of wine. Easley never ate dessert, but he always drank two double B&Bs after dinner. (For the uninitiated, that’s Benedictine and Brandy, a truly vile concoction that most people mix with water. Not Easley.)
Looking back on these bacchanalian feasts from the vantage point of my present abstemiousness, I see them as horrific indulgences. At the time, I considered them the height of old world living, and in a way, they were. Easley was clear that dinner should be an unrushed affair, and that wine and conversation should flow uninterrupted for several hours at a time.
Well, perhaps not so much “conversation” as “oration.” Easley was a monologue artist. At first, this presented no problem; I wanted nothing more than to hear his stories about the musical legends of the 20th century.
Bernstein had kicked a student out of his conducting seminar for coming unprepared to conduct Sibelius 2, yelling at him on the way out that he should at least have listened to a recording. Koussevitsky demeaned the Boston Symphony’s counting in Copland’s Appalachian Spring telling them that 5/4 was easy to count – “One two three four and five! One two three four and five!” Nadia Boulanger demanded that her students dress in mourning and visit her salon for a recreation of Lili’s funeral on the anniversary of her sister’s death every year. Shostakovich came to Chicago for cataract surgery and met with Easley, telling him that he admired the end of his piano concerto for being “a trick ending, but not a wrong ending.” Solti invited Easley up to his apartment at the Drake Hotel to discuss his fourth symphony, having marked the score to the hilt in an incomprehensible array of brightly colored pencils. Easley commissioned a solo piano piece from Charles Wuorinen with the only proviso being that he didn’t want any extended techniques involving the inside of the instrument, and Wuorinen produced a piece that instructed him to bang his hand on the strings in the first bar.
Obviously these stories made a big impression on me such that I can recount them twenty years later. Like I said, I was a sponge. Unfortunately, these stories were really just a lure, so that Easley would have a rapt audience when he launched into his true passion: hard right Republican politics.
Grand Old Party
Bet you didn’t see that one coming, did you!? A university music professor whose formative years were spent at Yale, followed by a somewhat bohemian stint in 1950s Paris, after which he toured Europe as the accompanist to an African-American soprano… not, perhaps, the most common description of a GOP loyalist. Not to mention that Easley was avowedly (and sort of openly) gay.
For whatever reason, he remained an Indiana boy at heart and he retained his parents’ Republican politics. He considered Lyndon Johnson the originator of “the big lie,” i.e. racial equality. He claimed not to be anti-semitic, but he sure told a lot of jokes about Jews! He was an avowed misogynist and, in a twist that will surprise precisely no one, he was as homophobic a gay man as I’ve ever known.
Easley toed the GOP party line. He was happy to vote for George W. Bush and was all for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He read the New York Times every day because, he said, it was “useful to know what the enemy was thinking.” Easley never had a TV, but somehow he found his way to every Fox News talking point.
As you might imagine, Easley’s political proclivities made his time in academia frustrating for him (and everyone around him.) But he reveled in antagonism, and he used his political and social stances as a tool of provocation, especially against his colleagues—in spite of the fact that what he really wanted (I believe) was their love and respect.
Be that as it may, I absolve Easely of nothing. If he was infected with GOP brain worms, it’s because he snorted them straight into his cerebellum.
The Gong Show
Spending time with Easley could be fun – at the very least, it made for great stories to tell my fellow students in the music department.
Easley’s idea of a good time was hanging out in his apartment, smoking pot (which had been a daily ritual for him from the ages of 20-60), playing his oversized tam-tam, and listening to impressionist or modern music at full blast. The tam-tam that resided in his apartment studio had supposedly been smuggled into the US from China in the early 70’s at the behest of some agent of the Chicago Symphony, but was rejected by the CSO for being “too unpredictable” (as he told me with excessive pride.)
I learned a lot of music in Easley’s studio. I vividly remember listening for the first time to the Manfred Symphony, Daphnis et Chloé, The Miraculous Mandarin, and La Péri blasting from Easley’s speakers while following along in the dusty study scores that he had bought in Paris in the ‘50s, all accompanied by his commentaries on form and orchestration.
Even Easley’s hi-fi setup was inconceivably eccentric. He had built it himself in the 60s. It was a mono system, which he claimed was better than stereo. He created this insanely powerful invention using the best hardware he could get his hands on in the mid-20th century, big vacuum tubes and amplitude gauges and who knows what else. But the crucial bit of info for your mind’s eye is that the components were uncased – they were arrayed on his carpet, covering an area of probably a couple square meters, all wired together god knows how. I’m no fire marshal, but it always struck me as being wildly unsafe.
Of course, the one body of repertoire I learned from Easley that I couldn’t have learned anywhere else was Easley’s own music. Since his death, I’ve been listening to it again for the first time in a long time. All music accrues the emotional detritus as we live with it; for me, Easley’s music is positively caked with the stuff.
Easley was a composer with distinct early, middle, and late periods (like some others) but his evolution as a composer followed a trajectory all its own. His first works (for example, the Symphony No. 1) were definitely Modernist, an amalgam of Schoenberg, Shostakovich, and maybe a little Bartók. This early period lasted about 20 years, from the mid-’50s to the mid-’70s. Starting in the ’60s, his music moved firmly into the realm of high academic modernism.
His second period, beginning in the early 1970s, was microtonal, and this period represents what is far and away his most important contribution to both the art and the science of music. Spurred by a grant from the NEH, Easley embarked upon an ambitious research project to analyze the tuning properties and tonal qualities of tuning systems that subdivided of the octave in different numbers of equal steps, and he produced an (unpublished) book about his discoveries as well as the piece which would be the most interesting and career-defining of his life: his 12 Microtonal Etudes for Electronic Media.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that a composer whose work moved from dissonant modernism to microtonality (and electronic media) was advancing further into the realms of the avant-garde, but with Easley, that’s not what happened. His goal in the microtonal studies was to find the tonal characteristics of different subdivisions of the octave.
This next bit is technical, but it’s really what Easley’s known for, so I’d like to give a bit of explanation. As a point of departure, let’s start by analyzing the tonal properties of the 12-note equal-tempered chromatic system that we’re all familiar with. In this system, the twelve notes can be divided into four discrete augmented triad sonorities (starting on C, C-sharp, D, and D-sharp), three discrete fully-diminished 7th sonorities (starting on C, C-sharp, and D), and 2 discrete whole tone scales (starting on C and C-sharp.)
Now imagine that you instead divide the octave into 18 steps instead of 12. You now have six possible discrete augmented triads and three discrete whole tone scales. But fully diminished seventh chords don’t exist, because 18 isn’t divisible by 4.
Easley wrote one étude for each of the divisions of the octave from 13-24 notes. He wrote the music for electronic media because that offered him the only means of realizing his creation. He wanted the music to sound as “normal” as possible, both in terms of sonority and timbre; ironically, what he created sounds like an alien simulacrum of human music.
After creating the microtonal études to study the tonal properties of these exotic tuning systems, Easley realized there was one system whose tonalities he had not yet explored: 12-note equal tuning. This launched the final phase of Easley’s work as a composer, his arch conservative neo-tonal period.
You’ll see written sometimes that Easley’s traditionally tonal music was his worst. I disagree, though I acknowledge that some of his tonal music is mediocre. Too often it sounds like he’s completing a harmony exercise assigned to him by Nadia Boulanger. Having said that, some of it is exquisite, and I think that all of his best pieces come from his tonal period.
At the risk of playing the armchair psychiatrist, I’ll say I believe there were subconscious motivations for Easley’s return to tonality. His oddball foray into the world of math, science, and physics had separated him from the world of professional composition for something like a decade. Whereas he’d had some heat in his career during the 50s and 60s, during which time he split his weeks between Chicago and New York and was published by Schirmer, by the 70s, his career had stalled. (He always referred to a composer’s mid career as “the bad years.”) He bought back the rights to all his music from Schirmer and became his own publisher.
Easley had been successful as an atonal composer, meaning that he had garnered the respect of the academic-based musical establishment—a notoriously fickle and backstabbing bunch—but of course, atonal modernism has never garnered the genuine affection of concert audiences. So when he lost ties with the elite musical world, he didn’t have much left.
Writing tonal music, I think, gave him the two things that he sought the most: the genuine appreciation of music-loving audiences and the opprobrium of the academic cabal. It’s not hard to see his goals as a musical conservative aligning with his goals as a political conservative. I say that with caution, because I do love a lot of Easley’s tonal music, and I’m of course a bit of a neo-tonalist myself. I don’t think that writing traditional classical music has to mean that a composer is a reactionary. In Easley’s case, the two went together.
When I first met Easley in 2002, he was firmly in the tonalist camp, and his confident stance made a big impression on me. I had read everything Leonard Bernstein had to say on the matter of atonality v. tonality, and whatever Lenny did was right by me. The fact that Easley was on the side of good, and that he proclaimed the gospel with a convert’s fervor drew me ever more to him.
It was winter of 2003 when Easley contracted the illness that nearly killed him.
He had complained about numbness in his fingers and toes for a couple weeks, and he was getting progressively weaker when he finally scheduled a doctor’s appointment. I drove him to his appointment at Northwestern’s downtown medical center. He could barely walk the few yards from the car to the front entrance, even with my assistance.
Upon seeing Easley, the doctor immediately transferred him to the hospital, and his condition worsened quickly. It was Easley’s tremendous good fortune that a member of the medical staff happened to have experience with Gullain-Barré syndrome and was able to diagnose it within just a couple days.
Guillain-Barré syndrome is an auto-immune disease whose cause remains mysterious. It may be bacterial, but its course is likely influenced by genetic predispositions. The autoimmune system attacks peripheral nerves and damages their myelin insulation. It’s quite rare, appearing in only 1-2 out of 100,000 people. It’s more common in men than women, and more common in older people than in the young.
I don’t know exactly what treatments Easley was given, but they worked, and it was something of a miracle. According to Easley (never the most reliable of sources, but in this case, I have little reason to doubt him) his medical team examined the literature and could find no other case in which a person of his age responded so well to treatment and had such a complete recovery.
That’s not to say that he had an easy time of it. His hospital stay was complicated by the fact that didn’t have access to booze, so on top of his Guillain-Barré, he had a bad case of the DTs. He would frequently hallucinate a tiger prowling around his room, among other mysterious visions.
I have to admit that we enjoyed a certain morbid humor listening to Easley’s ramblings. I remember that at one point, a Vivaldi concerto was playing over the radio in his hospital room, and Easley talked about how pleasant and dance-like it was. I was there with a fellow student and we both cracked up, because that was just so un-Easley.
Easley’s recovery took a long time; he lived in a rehab center for at least two months. During this whole ordeal, I was looking after his affairs. I visited his apartment every day to feed his disgusting cats, who were both over 20 years old. Easley had long ago given up trying to get them to control their bowels. I gave the place a deep cleaning (the most disgusting feat of my life; think Hercules cleaning the Augean stables) and tried to get his affairs in order, checking his mail and handling certain matters on his behalf.
What I did, I did out of love and respect, and what I really wanted in return was for Easley to take this miracle for the once-in-a-lifetime chance that it was and use it as an opportunity for a fresh start. For a very limited time, he did.
In rehab, Easley learned to fry an egg for the first time in his life (a feat of which he was quite proud) and other basic domestic arts. Not long after he finished rehab, one of his cats died and then the other, and he took advantage of the chance to replace his carpets and buy new furniture (THANK GOD.) He owned the apartment adjacent to his and he hired a contractor to knock down part of a wall, connecting the two units into a suite.
[Easley never gave me a satisfactory answer as to why he owned both units; the best I could piece together, he was threatened with eviction by the condo association—either because of the foul odor emanating from his living quarters or the endless banging of the piano and ear-splitting stereo system (probably both)—and I think he was forced to purchase a buffer unit between him and the rest of the hallway.]
But soon enough, Easley reverted to his old ways, his absinthe and his wine, his lavish spreads, his droning political discourse, his accusations against his many perceived enemies. I had wished that he would change his outlook on life not only for his mental health, but just so he would be more tolerable to be around. I had my own sanity to look out for.
Alas, even a brush with death could do precious little to change Easley Blackwood.
Easley’s bout with Guillain-Barré had interrupted his work on a composition for unaccompanied choir, his A King James Magnificat, a work that would turn out to be crucial for our relationship.
From an aesthetic point of view, it is utterly baffling that Easley would have taken on this project. He had never written anything for choir and he could barely even tolerate the sound of the human voice. Plus, Easley was about the least religious person you could ever hope to meet.
The piece was a commission from a friend and former student, whom I believe had taken music courses with Easley in the ‘70s, but had gone on to become a high ranking district judge. Easley claimed that the judge—a married man, whom, one presumes, was quite pious—had been in love with him for decades. If so, I suppose that commissioning a piece of sacred choral music was his love language.
As soon as he could, Easley returned to his work on the Magnificat, and he had finished it by the spring of 2004, the end of my third year of college. The commission hadn’t had a performance attached to it, so the premiere was up for grabs. I proposed to my choir director that I could conduct it with the U of C Motet Choir, and he was game.
[Another sidebar to mention Randi Ellefson, our choir director, who was both a fantastic musician and a great person, and who was the one truly selfless, supportive mentor I had at that time. He gave me conducting instruction and let me conduct Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb as a sophomore, the single most important project in my Bildung as a conductor.]
Easley didn’t have any better options, and I think he was genuinely delighted with the idea that I would conduct the premiere his piece. Telling him that the project had been approved is maybe the one time I can remember him seeming happy and proud of me. The premiere took place in December 2004, when I was a fourth year.
Easley’s Magnificat is not a great piece of music. It’s square and a bit homely, and the choral writing isn’t particularly brilliant or inventive. It takes advantage of none of the innovations of 20th or 21st century choral writing, and, truth be told, not many from the 19th century either. More than any of his other works, this piece suffers from his Achilles’ heel as a composer of writing music that sounds like a harmony exercise.
There is one interesting little innovation in the piece though: Easley begins it with the words “And Mary said.” That’s clever and unusual, and gives the canticle a narrative framing and an in media res quality that, as far as I know, is unique among the thousands of Magnificat settings composed over the past 500 years.
Now allow me, if you will, to shift the focus of this tract further from Easley and more onto my own story.
By the end of my college career, I knew that I wanted to pursue a graduate degree in conducting. My top school was Juilliard (whose isn’t?) and even though I hadn’t studied at a conservatory, I thought I had at least a bit of a shot at getting in because the director of Juilliard’s conducting program was James DePriest, the very conductor who had premiered Easley’s fifth symphony with the Chicago Symphony 15 years earlier.
The application was due on December 1, I asked Easley for letters of recommendation sometime in October or November—plenty of time for a normal, retired, unencumbered person to complete them. An emeritus professor—say—recommending—perhaps—a young man who admired him deeply and devoted his little free time to socializing with him, after having given over six months of his life (during which time he remained a full-time student) attending to said professor’s health and affairs, and whom said professor had entrusted with the premiere of his latest composition.
You can see where I’m going with this, I’m sure. Easley did not write the recommendations—at least not in time for the deadline. He would mention writing them when I saw him, but December 1 came and went. Sometime around January 15, when I hadn’t heard anything from Juilliard, I called and asked about the status of my application. They told me was not complete, because they were waiting on letters of recommendation.
[In fairness to Easley… well, maybe not so much fairness to him, but in equal discredit to another of my recently deceased so-called mentors, I had also asked Michael Jinbo, the Monteux School’s music director, for letters of recommendation, and he also neglected to write them. I found out later that Michael had something of a reputation for this dereliction of duty. Michael, notably, had also been one of Easley’s students.]
Long story short, I did not matriculate to Juilliard in 2005, nor to any other graduate program. I kept living in Hyde Park and continued my relationship with Easley for another three years, at which point I applied to grad school again. That time, I made sure Easley wrote the letters. [And I didn’t ask Michael.]
In Spiritum Sanctum
To my own credit, I did launch my career as a full-time professional conductor immediately following my graduation from college. My two gigs were conducting the Hyde Park Youth Symphony and (much more lucratively) serving as interim choir director at a church in Barrington, IL, a far-flung exurb of Chicago.
I’ve talked a bit about my time in Barrington in other contexts, but suffice to say, the way the church saw it, they were hiring a substitute choir director for about six months; the way *I* saw it, I was coming in as Johann Sebastian Bach II and it was my duty to compose service music prodigiously, culminating with a grand oratorio during Holy Week.
Easley knew little about my personal life or professional activities. He was so self-absorbed, he just couldn’t bring himself to care. I would mention things to him and he would distractedly listen for as long as he could tolerate not talking. Then I’d get an earful about George W. Bush.
Once Easter 2006 was over, and all my music had been performed and recorded, I worked up the courage to present him with scores and recordings (an act that—quite obviously—should not have required even a shred of courage!)
It remains a minor point of pride that, having been confronted with my accomplishment, Easley was impressed. Up to that point, he had never taken me seriously as a composer, which was fair enough, because I hadn’t shown him many of my compositions, feeling that they were not presentable enough to merit his attention.
But after seeing all the church anthems and fanfares and such, he took note, and this led to the final chapter in our relationship.
American Choral Premieres
Now back to the Magnificat.
After the premiere, Easley wanted to have the piece recorded, and he proposed a project to his label: a disc of contemporary American choral music which he would curate, centering around his Magnificat.
Naturally, I hoped that I would get to conduct the recording, but Easley was not in favor of the U of C motet choir. The premiere had been successful (basically), but the U of C is hardly known for its performing ensembles, and the choir sounded like a student choir. Plus, Cedille had a relationship with the William Ferris Chorale that both parties were eager to develop.
The Ferris Chorale was a fine choral ensemble that had its own well-established music director, Paul French, who naturally was not going to cede his place at the helm of an important recording project to a random college student. But now that Easley had seen my work in choral composition, he dangled a new prospect in front of me: that I might have a work of my own included on the album.
I can’t remember exactly whose idea it was for me to write a Nunc Dimittis, but it made sense, since it’s the canticle that pairs with the Magnificat in the evening service. As I wrote the piece, I remember trying very hard to include certain overt acts of homage to Easley’s Mag while also proclaiming my own independent voice as clearly as possible.
As I mentioned above, I thought that Ealsey’s piece had one really charming feature: his “And Mary said” framing text. I decided to take that concept and run with it, so I dug even earlier into the biblical narrative preceding the Song of Simeon (the Nunc Dimittis text.) As with Easley’s Magnificat, this feature ended up being the most interesting thing about my piece. My Nunc Dimittis has a few things that I’m still proud of, but it’s not nearly up to the standard of the church music I had written the year before.
Easley had dangled the prospect of including some of my music on the album, and dangle is the operative word. Nothing was definite, and as far as I can tell, he didn’t even mention my name to the conductor or the producer or the record label during pre-production. Maybe Easley was as unimpressed then as I am now with my Nunc, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Easley had cottoned onto the fact that my patience with him was waning, and that he was using the prospect of including my work on this disc to keep me in his orbit.
In November 2007, I reapplied to grad schools, and this time I didn’t leave my recommendations to chance; I sat down with Easley and wrote the recommendations with him, taking dictation at his own computer, insisting that we not leave for dinner until they were completed. And of course, it took all of ten minutes, which is all that it ever takes to write a recommendation. To this day, whenever someone asks me for a recommendation, I write it immediately.
With the recommendations written and my applications submitted, Easley had lost a key lever of control over me. That may sound callous and instrumentalizing, but I hope I’ve it made clear that it worked both ways with Easley. All he had left was the prospect of including the Nunc on the CD. And as it turned out, that wasn’t enough.
My relationship with Easley came to an end on a night in mid-December of 2007. We went out to dinner and I think Easley got even more drunk than usual. I probably had a drink or two myself, but I was scared sober while on that drive home, because there were already several inches of snow on the ground, and it just kept coming.
My car at that time was basically fit for the scrap heap, and that winter it had lost power while I was driving in a couple terrifying instances. I had mastered a number of little tricks to keep the car alive in dire circumstances (never turning on the defroster at the same time as the heat, for example.)
Easley didn’t sense the immense amount of stress I was under on that drive. He kept yelling at me to crank up the heat, to run the windshield wipers faster, to get out of one lane and into the other, to drive faster. It was all I could take, and that night, after I had safely conveyed him to his residence, I resolved never to speak to him again.
To this day, I feel badly for Easley that I broke off with him; I also think it was the healthiest decision of my life and I harbor no guilt whatsoever.
After the rift, Easley had one last card to play and he played it. He emailed me saying that the producer and conductor of the album had accepted my work for inclusion on the album. It’s pathetic and revealing that this is what it came to. It wasn’t until exerted my independence from him that he lifted a finger to help me, in the hopes that it would bring me back into his life.
It didn’t though, and what’s more, I found out from the record label that this was an unfunded opportunity, meaning that I would have to pay for the choir’s rehearsal and recording time myself.
I scrounged together the money and the session was secured, but it was scheduled at a time that I couldn’t be there. Paul French reviewed the piece in depth with me, and I remember being so taken aback by how much time and attention he had given to interpreting what I had written. As should be obvious by now, I was not accustomed to such treatment.
The singers did a professional job, but this was a last-minute add-on, and without my having been there in person, nobody was there who really cared about the results. Alas, the recording lacks the nuance, style, and pacing that I was hoping to get out of the piece, which to this day remains unperformed.
The following spring, I was accepted into the conducting studio at Indiana University, and I moved to Bloomington during the summer. “American Choral Premieres” was released the following year. I was smart enough to keep my misgivings about the piece and the performance to myself, and having my music included on a commercial release gave me a major confidence boost at an institution where I basically assumed that everyone around me was thrice the musician that I could ever be.
I don’t know what happened to Easley in the years following our break. I presume that he kept to his usual patterns of overindulgence, that he wrote some more music, and that he repelled many more people than he endeared himself to.
In the wake of his death however, I have learned some very sad things about his final years. Sometime around 2019 or 2020, he was committed to a nursing home, suffering from progressive dementia. According to a person who remained close to him, Easley spent much of the past three years lying in the fetal position, acting aggressively toward visitors and healthcare workers. (Unless, I am told, they really buttered him up for a long time with encomia to his genius, in which case, he could pay attention for a little while without snarling.)
Easley’s story is depressing—not just his death, but his life. He had prodigious gifts, professional success, and he had stashed enough money away that his intense end-of-life needs could be taken care of adequately. But he just couldn’t get past himself, in spite of the fact that some people (i.e. me) genuinely wanted to like him and connect with him.
On that note, I want to emphasize that I cared about Easley a great deal, in spite of his intensely dislikeable qualities and actions, including a lot of stuff that, for propriety’s sake, I have elected not to include in this essay. In 2003, after I dropped him off at the hospital, I was inconsolable, positive that he would not live to the end of the week. I remember being profoundly embarrassed when I ran into one of my friends in the stairwell, sobbing uncontrollably.
I guess I’ll miss the man Explain it, if you can His face was far from fine But still I’ll miss his face And wonder if he’s missing mine.
Some days he wouldn’t say A pleasant word all day Some days he’d scowl and curse But there were other days When he was really even worse.
He never smiled enough But though his words were gruff I liked his shy, sad glance I never told him so But then, I never got the chance.
Some men are heroes Some men outshine the sun Some men are simple, good men This man wasn’t one.
And I won’t miss his moods His gloomy solitudes His blunt and thoughtless style But please, don’t get me wrong He was the best to come along In a long, long while.
There is one bright spot in the ongoing story of Easley Blackwood, which is that Easley’s microtonal compositions—surely his most important works—have found a devoted following in the age of the internet. A small but zealous community of online microtonal enthusiasts have formed a YouTube community based around it. I watch their videos and read their comments. These are Easley’s people, and it gladdens me to see that his music has allowed them to find each other.
I’ve written this essay piecemeal over many weeks since Easley’s death, and during that time, I’ve re-listened to all of his recorded output. It’s taken me back to the time I spent with him, more vividly than I had expected.
My favorite thing that Easley ever wrote, alas, is not one of his original compositions. Rather, it’s his adaptations of two songs by Erik Satie, “La diva de l’empire” and “Je te veux.”
Easley had nothing but scorn for Satie’s technical skill as a composer. When he was hired by Cedille Records to orchestrate these two songs for a small instrumental ensemble, he took the opportunity to “fix” them, adding intros and outros, correcting the harmonies, and even rewriting bits of the melodies.
When you compare Easley’s versions to the Satie originals (here and here), you can hear just how superb Easley’s improvements are. The songs are now voluptuous, idiomatic, and polished. When I listen to what Satie wrote, frankly, I’m embarrassed for him. When I listen to Easley’s versions, I smile. This was the one time where Easley’s instinct for pedantry (nurtured by Nadia Boulanger) was actually a benefit rather than a hindrance. He took these breezy parlor songs and turned them into miniature masterpieces.
Easley always said that he didn’t care what happened to his music after his death. But I’m glad that the microtonal nerds have his études, and I’m glad that I have these songs.
I was at a party a couple nights ago — like, an actual party, not just a post-concert mixer, which is extremely out of character for me — and since it was an assemblage of musicians, there was some talk of putting YouTube videos on the home TV system.
At this suggestion, someone chimed in “yeah, but then we’re just gonna have to spend every other minute listening to ads.” This was met with general agreement, but I found it deeply shocking and troubling. I can not imagine living in a world in which I did not avail myself of the YouTube Premium service, and I think it is literally insane that the rest of the people at that party would subject themselves to a pre-2015 level of internethood.
With YouTube Premium, you get YouTube without the ads, you get the ability to download videos to your device, and you can turn off your screen while you listen to just the audio from a video.
Why do I consider this of paramount importance for musicians? Because YouTube is simply the best place to go for classical music on a number of fronts:
It’s the only service that lets you search for composers, compositions, and performers in the way that classical musicians intuitively think about music.
Basically every piece of music has been uploaded as a “scrolling score” video. I can not overstate what an advance this is over the state of affairs I was in college, when you had to go to the library and take out a score and then find a CD in order to study a work, or even over the situation just a few of years ago, when you could use Spotify + imslp to do the same.
The “skimming” function is far and away the best of any service because of the visual medium. It’s very easy to find a specific spot in a recording, even more so now that YouTube has added a sort of audio map at the bottom of its videos.
You can also find multiple live performances of every work, most of them contemporary but many of them classic performances by performers of yesteryear. This is invaluable study material as it allows you to look at fingerings, bowings, performance style, etc. and make comparisons.
The discovery mechanism, via the Suggested Videos and Home Page algorithms, is second to none, and an improvement even over the old experience of browsing the shelves at the record store.
Plus, for the price of one YouTube family membership ($22 / month) you can share the gift of YouTube Premium with five other people.
At a fundamental level, I think it’s hard for younger musicians to grock that this is a good deal. But from the ages of 14–25, I probably spent $50-100 every month on CDs alone. These days, people think you shouldn’t have to pay for anything that’s freely available online, even if it comes in a degraded form where you get interrupted all the time and can’t use its full functionality.
What I’ve always said about streaming services is this: for the price of one CD a month, you can have immediate access to every CD for a month. I’m also a Spotify user, but only barely, as it has been supplanted in every conceivable way by YouTube.
This isn’t a paid commercial; it’s just a declaration of love. I sincerely believe that every serious musician and music lover should avail themselves of this resource that is a total game-changer in so many ways for what we do.
I have a feeling that I don’t write often about conducting, but since I recently delivered some conducting performances that I was vaguely satisfied with, I’ll expound a bit:
For one thing, it’s always great to conduct from memory. It’s hard and it takes long hours to imbibe the score to the point where you can ethically ditch the music, but I like it for a number of reasons: 1) it allows you to be more connected and attentive to the performers, 2) it forces you to learn the music to your maximum capacity and 3) it’s fun.
[I have a secret fourth reason for memorizing masterpieces: since my goal as a composer is to write masterpieces, it’s the best way to learn my craft.]
Memorizing choral-orchestral works is particularly challenging, and this is only the third time I’ve done it with a major, multi-movement work. The first time was with Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem, a piece I did not choose to conduct, nor would I ever, because I don’t particularly care for it*. But I learned it unto memorization because a) I wanted to give the piece the benefit of the doubt and b) I was doing it with young musicians and I wanted to be able to give them my full attention. The next time I did it was with the Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”.
Learning the Dona nobis pacem was particularly challenging because I don’t much care for Whitman, and make no mistake: if you conduct a vocal work from memory, you’d better start by learning every last word of the text.
With the Mozart Requiem, lots of the text was straightforward, because it’s part of the regular mass: Kyrie eleison, Sanctus sanctus, sanctus Benedictus qui venit in nomine domini, Agnus dei, etc. But the weird thing about the requiem is the “Dies irae.“
The “Dies irae” is a genuinely weird text. It’s what’s known as a “sequence,” which is a genre that essentially grew out of vamping. (“Vamping” as in stretching a musical phrase to cover stage action, not as in Hard-hearted Hannah.) Sometime around the 12th century, some person or person wrote this spooky-ooky 18-stanza poem all about hellfire and damnation, and the church elders were like, “hmm the mass for the dead needs some spicing up… let’s go with it!”
The “Dies irae” has proven to be catnip for composers, of course, since it’s full of earthquakes, trumpets, infernal flames, tremendous kings, and tearful pleas.
You’d think it would be fun to memorize a text like this, but it’s kind of not, because the order of these various images follows no logical progression. It’s not like you can memorize it a stanza at a time by thinking “ok, first the fires, then the floods, then the king, then the queen of heaven” etc.
But hey, it definitely improved my understanding of the Latin case endings, so that’s a win!
*With each passing year, I become more and more convinced that Herbert Howells was the only truly great 20th century English composer. It’s a shame that nobody knows his music, but if you’ve always sort of liked RVW and Britten but felt that they were lacking something important, you might want to look into his stuff.
I wrote rather extensively about Tár in the Classical Gabfest Newsletter this week. [If you haven’t been paying attention, my beloved podcast, The Classical Gabfest, is sadly on a hiatus that is probably going to be permanent, but never say never. However, it has morphed into The Classical Gabfest newsletter on Substack, so if you’re hankering for a weekly dose of news & opinion about the world of classical music, head on over and subscribe!]
I have still more to say, but first, the trailer:
Things I can identify with about Lydia Tár:
She sits in her faux bois-lined childhood basement watching VHS tapes of Leonard Bernstein, crying at his genius. Extremely relatable content.
She demands that matcha lattes be delivered at a moment’s notice.
She unthinkingly and illogically switches between languages while running a rehearsal.
Lydia’s style — and the actual scenes of bespoke tailoring — are one of the true highlights of the movie. Major props to the costume designer, Bina Daigeler, whose other credits include Volver and Todo Sobre Mi Madre!!!
Did I cringe watching Cate Blanchett conduct?
Actually, no. That’s not to say her conducting wasn’t bad — it was terrible. But there wasn’t much of it, and in a way, when she was conducting, it functioned as a bit of comic relief and distracted me from the utter insanity of the rest of the movie.
The REAL cringe moment was the scene wherein Lydia addresses her orchestra and proposes that they pair Mahler’s 5th with Elgar’s cello concerto. It would actually be a bit of a spoiler to explain the circumstances surrounding this, but suffice to say, nothing in the real world works this way, and I was chewing my knuckles in discomfort.
Other things that don’t make sense
In a pivotal early scene, Tár criticizes a Juilliard conducting student in the context of a masterclass for conducting a work by an Icelandic composer (Hildur Guðnadóttir, the actual composer of the score) for a small, 7 or 8-instrument new music ensemble. And here she was right — it did suck — but then she asks him why he didn’t choose Bach’s Mass in B minor.
This is just patently absurd. For one, when you participate in a masterclass, you don’t get to pick the repertoire. But let’s say this wasn’t a typical masterclass — perhaps this young conductor was preparing for a performance, and the rehearsal was used as the setting for a masterclass. But even then, I can not emphasize the absurdity of the idea that the student’s repertoire choices would have been a) a contemporary chamber work, or b) a sprawling, hours-long Baroque oratorio for voices and orchestra.
If she wanted him to conduct Bach, she should have suggested a Brandenburg concerto!
What’s my motivation?
My lingering question is this: Was Todd Field trying to express something about contemporary society, and then decided that the classical music milieu was the correct setting? Or was he attracted to the world of classical music and decided to explore it, and this is what he came up with? I guess I could read an interview or something, but I don’t feel like it.