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To be a composer

RON BIERMAN met and talked to Benjamin Lees


I met with American composer Benjamin Lees for several hours recently at his home in California. In articles over the next few weeks I'll report what he had to say about his training as a composer, how recent recordings of his work came about, and the state of classical music. Finally, I'll survey the recent recordings, describing the pieces and performances.

Benjamin Lees
Benjamin Lees

Even long-time classical music lovers seldom give much thought to what it takes to be a composer. The movie Amadeus showed a little of how it probably was for Mozart. He made sure a big pile of quill pens was close by, connected his unconscious to the soul of the universe, then let his hand have its way, pausing only to blot completed measures. Mozart's facility is inexplicable. Even Beethoven's manuscripts are filled with revisions. For anyone but Mozart, learning how to set down a work and then revise it to achieve the imagined effect makes composition among the most demanding of professions. The road begins with training.

Benjamin Lees had his first piano lesson at the age of five (and 74 years later the piano in his living room still gets a daily workout). Harmony and theory studies supported his first compositional efforts as a teen-ager. After World War II service he entered the University of Southern California where he majored in composition. When I asked which experiences were most valuable to his development as a composer he said, 'The early study of scores of well-known composers and then my work with George Antheil.'

Lees analyzed the harmonies and structures of important works by Beethoven, Mozart, Stravinsky and others, asking himself how they achieved their powerful effects. He concluded, 'Each of those works has an air of inevitability to them.' Each measure is the logical outgrowth of the previous one. 'In each case I discovered the piece went the only way it could. That particular note can only be that note.'

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Copyright © 15 June 2003 Ron Bierman, San Diego, USA


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