True confessions I: Promising beginnings

January 30, 2006

Many of my readers, seeing that I have a Ph.D. from Harvard, and am a Professor at UCLA, assume that I’m a stuffy, grey-haired dweeb/nerd who always speaks in perfect sentences, thinks only scholarly and proper thoughts, and have a lovely wife, with 2.3 children and a faithful old bassett hound that sleeps by the fire while I smoke my pipe. Uh, yeah. That’s it. Such a nice image.

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I’ve done a lot of things that a sensible composer of contemporary classical music would have done very differently. Ok, I got a degree from some good schools. I built up a great portfolio of music while still a graduate student. I got an exclusive publishing contract from a major east coast publisher; I had three records (read: LPs) released within two years (1982-83); had a list of great commissions; had great reviews from the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and the New Yorker among others; and was a co-founder of the Boston-based new music ensemble, the Composers in Red Sneakers. All sounds very promising, yes?

I received a John Knowles Paine Travelling Fellowship from Harvard, a grant that previous recipients had used to go to Paris and study with Nadia Boulanger. What did I do? I went to Hollywood to find out whether I wanted to be a film composer. John Williams and Lionel Newman heard my demo tape and John said: “Roger, you’ve got everything it takes to be a great film composer, but I’ll warn you: the first 15 years are the hardest.” Not trusting Hollywood, I went back to Boston, finished my degree, applied for, and got, a job at UCLA at the bottom of the heap. UCLA was cool as it was the place that Arnold Schoenberg taught, but I wasn’t in a Schoenberg mood. I was sick of the emperor’s-new-clothes-music. I wanted to write something that normal people could understand; something that could make you smile, have goose bumps, make you cry, cry profoundly; dance, move, and feel a range of emotions that seemed to be missing in so much “modern music.” This was sadly the beginning of my “downfall.”

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