True confessions II: Tanglewood and Red Sneakers

January 30, 2006

Allow me to backtrack a few years (summer, 1978): I was chosen as a small pool of composers to attend the Berkshire Music Center, aka, Tanglewood. There I met composers and performers from all over the country and studied with Gunther Schuller. I was fortunate enough to win the coveted Koussevitzky Prize in composition for a work entitled “Seven Pollock Paintings.” For me this work was the pinnacle of my avante-garde explorations and inspired by three of my teachers: Schuller, William Thomas McKinley, and Les Thimmig. The piece was to be my entre into the contemporary music world in the US and in Europe. I received commissions from quite a few groups: the commissioners undoubtedly wanted me to composer “Seven Pollock Paintings II.” Little did they know that this piece was an exorcism. Hidden in the work were TRIADS (gasp!!), movements that ended on the stable sonority of a perfect fifth (O my god!), and the last movement quoted the Christian hymn, played by a soprano saxophone, “How great thou art” albeit with an Ivesian chromatic web that hid it. I was coming out as a tonal composer. I was sick of trying to be Elliott Carter, or Karlheinz Stockhausen, or Luciano Berio. I had to be myself. That move took as much courage as coming out of the closet as a gay man.

Fast forward to 1980 where, with composers Bob Aldridge, Thomas Oboe Lee, Christopher Stowens, Amy Reich, and Gary Philo, we formed a Boston composers collective called the “Composers in Red Sneakers.” Our gimmick was that if you wore red sneakers you got into our concerts for free. With a fabulous Sunday Boston Globe article by Richard Dyer (where I was quoted as saying anyone could win a Pulitzer in composition by copying backwards, any piece by Elliott Carter, for any ensemble [sic]. Our next concert sold out and we had to turn away over 300 interested but angry listeners. The series is still alive today (2006) and I doubt whether any of them even remember the original group. I became know as the guy who wrote tonal music. I also seemed to always get good reviews. This irked my cohorts to the extent that when we presented our 8th concert (“Concert 8 1/2”) we all agreed to present our pieces anonymously, as the theory was that the local critic was prejudiced towards me. I still got a good review.

After getting the job at UCLA, I spent a few months in Athens (Greece) orchestrating a music for Manos Hadjidakis (composer of “Never on Sunday”) whose sense of melody changed my life forever. My final concert with the Sneakers featured my “Hadjidakis Suite” where the final movement featured the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus all wearing every kind of foot apparel imaginable. I came out as a gay composer to Boston and to my colleagues. They were glad to see me leave.

Composers in Red Sneakers Concert X

“There are no concerts quite like those of the Composers in Red Sneakers. The trappings are endearingly silly. Typically, there was an unexpected interlude of Tex-Mex singing and guitar playing by a group called the Trio Los Treboles. One of the conductors was greeted with wolf whistles. The chorus in the final number sported a bizarre array of footwear, flippers included. If anyone is asking just what all this has to do with contemporary music, the answer is: it gets people to come and listen. And more than that, it gets the people to come back … ” Richard Buell, The Boston Globe, July 23, 1983.

I have turned OFF comments as this post and the next few posts will be autobiographical. Poster by Madeline Leone.

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