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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.' I suggested 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
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.

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Copyright © 3 August 2003 Ron Bierman, San Diego, USA



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