Donald Martino (1931 – 2005)

April 29, 2006

Donald MartinoI studied with Donald Martino at the New England Conservatory of Music from 1977 – 78. Although we were very different people, I learned a great deal from him in that one year.

Don was a hopeless smoker. He told me he even smoked in the shower. He said that he smoked for the first third of his life, would quit for the middle, and start again for the last third. He had this bizarre tick where he would make a short loud, intense snort, like a inhaled honk, that would pop out at odd times.

As a teacher, one has to deal with how close you get to students, specifically, socializing outside of school. I fondly remember going out for beers after concerts at NEC with Don. In my second semester, I went to his house in Newton for my lessons. He had a great office, large square first floor room with lots of dark wood on the walls and books. Or at least, that’s what my memory holds. These days teachers are discouraged in having lessons in their homes for insurance reasons as well as fear of litigation for whatever reason.

Martino won a Pulitzer in 1974 for “Nottorno” a piece I loved with a passion. The piece, like most of his music, uses the serial technique, but in his hands, it always sounded wild, untamed, fantastical, and magical. Never academic or derivative of the Viennese masters. The hilarious thing for me, was that in the 70s, he seemed hell bent to rediscover tonality using the 12-tone technique.


The choruses from his magnum opus, “Paradiso Choruses” and “Seven Pious Pieces” were examples of the “12-tonal” works that I loved. I imitated them in a few sketches in 1980, and then imitated the sound of them in my “Three Dark Paintings.” As a teacher, Don didn’t teach us only the party line regarding 12-tone technique, he shared with us handouts of all possible 3 note sets, 4 note sets, 5 note sets, all the way to 11 note sets. My problem with so much 12-tone music is that it the notion of mode (“mood”) is lacking. Just as each of the diatonic modes on “the white keys” has its own mood or sound, each of the other sets, by NOT having all 12 notes, has its own aesthetic flavor as well. This notion of using a mode to govern all melodic, harmonic and textural aspects of a piece was explored in my “Seven Pollock Paintings” and many other of my paintings pieces. To me, limiting the number of pitches in a piece was akin to sticking to only a few colors in a painting. It was Don Martino that opened this aspect of exploration to me.

Don started his own company, Dantalian, which publishes he own compositions. Another item of interest that he sells is the “stringograph” where you get piece of cardboard that resembles the neck of a violin, viola, cello, or bass, so that you can test the fingering of a passage. He gave us photocopies of these, and I have passed them on to my students who paste them up on sticks of wood.

After NEC, Don was hired by Harvard, the year after I graduated. It was an amazing deal he got: he taught fall semesters and had the winter/spring semester off. What a deal!

I bought a desk copy of his “Piano Concerto” which he autographed: “with great expectations.”

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