<< -- 2 -- Ron Bierman TO BE A COMPOSER
When he taught at Julliard and other music schools Lees found composers too were
afraid of looking foolish. 'They didn't want to be ostracized by their peers. So they
all wrote the same way. It all sounded the same. And of course the people who taught
were terrified.' They had a traditional background and hardly felt comfortable with what
their young students were writing, but they'd pat them on the back and tell them,
'"Very good, very nice, very nice," instead of saying [the emperor has] no
clothes ... this whole thing was perpetuated for ... twenty five years, maybe longer.'
it was still going on. Lees said, 'Southern California is the last bastion of both the
twelve-tone and serial techniques. Everybody else has taken up a certain form of tonality.'
I pointed out, 'But tunes are still out of fashion.' He replied archly, 'Unless you make
direct quotes. If you make a quotation, that's all right. You just have to be very careful
that it suddenly doesn't become plagiarism.'
If Lees is correct, and I think he is, the main players in the classical music business
are largely responsible for their own difficulties. Reductions in funding and educational
attention are symptoms of the more fundamental problem -- for a long period of time composers
were writing music few people will ever want to listen to. The genre will survive, but I
may be less sanguine than Lees about how far along we are in repairing the damage. The
reviews I find in The New York Times and elsewhere tell me Southern California
isn't alone in fighting a rear-guard action.
Benjamin Lees (left) with pianist Joseph Bloch, New York, 1964
Lees' comment on 'tunes' reinforces my belief. When Prokofiev was asked what he felt
was the most important single aspect of music, he said it was melody. That may be
arguable, but when is the last time even another composer came out of a concert tapping
a complex rhythm, harmonizing with several friends or imitating tonal qualities. And yet
most composers are still afraid to write a straightforward melody for fear of being labeled
pandering or shallow.
Through all of last century's musical turmoil and present recording industry travail,
Benjamin Lees has continued on his own creative path, largely independent of academically
fashionable trends. Next I'll be describing some recent recordings of his music.
Copyright © 3 August 2003
Ron Bierman, San Diego, USA