Saturday, November 19, 2011

Like a peasant

Today Ross completes his sixtieth trip around the sun. I was much less famous before I met him; post hoc ergo propter hoc. Ross, as well, was much less famous when he met me. And I had a lot more hair.

For those playing along at home, and addicted to extremely slow chromatic scales — say, a semitone per year — Ross would be hitting the top 'B', five leger lines, on a portable five-octave keyboard today. Next year, he runs out of keys. Then we shift the paradigm (it would be in a clutch situation – rim shot). And brother, can we paradigm!

The paradigm responds: shift happens.

As a self-important little grad student composer, I was patting myself on the back voluminously about getting to go to Tanglewood in 1982. Come to think of it, the Tanglewood thing had a somewhat causal relationship to the self-importantness, not its anagram, the casual relationship. In retrospect, I'm sure Milton had made some calls ...

My friend Alvaro Cordero had been to Tanglewood the summer before, and he gave me the poop. I said "eww," and flushed the poop down the toilet. Then he told me what to expect. At the time, the composers were put up on the grounds of Serenak, the old Koussevitzky mansion, in the servants quarters and caretaker's cottage. Alvaro had had a corner room that he instructed me specifically to take (the light, and the quietest room). He also mentioned that a colleague of his at Brandeis would also be there that summer. A little straight-laced and he wears tweed jackets, but he's a nice guy and he writes good music. When Alvaro spoke to me in Italics, I always listened.

Thus did I recognize Ross when I first met him at Serenak, in between my own iterations, to the room-assigners, of "I want Alvaro's room." I figured I'd get more attention if I spoke in Italics, too. And at the time Ross was at the F above middle C on our imaginary keyboard. I wanted to say hi, and how did he like Brandeis, or something similarly nerdy, but I was stuck at the moment in Italics.

We composers were given a food allowance and a kitchen and had to fend for ourselves for our meals. Thus did a routine emerge: the five of us in Serenak (me (in Alvaro's room), Ross, Martler, Dan, and Nami) would write, or go to the lame-ass seminars they laid out for us during the day and congregate for meals at lunch and dinner times. Usually one or two of us would cook something, and we took turns. Thus did we discover our affinities. And thus did we listen to a cassette of The Brecker Brothers, in all its funky-disco glory, over and over. And over. And over. And over. We got quite good at singing along with one particularly badass Michael Brecker solo, though we would change octaves willy-nilly. We all liked funk.

We made as many late evening trips as possible to the only non-ferned non-touristy non-quaint joint within a forty-mile radius — it was called Mundy's, it was scruffy, there was sawdust, and dogs walked in and out at will, and there were fat smelly drunk guys on occasion. Ross, as the lone purveyor of transportation (a Dasher with license plate 606-UPU (we didn't know enough to ask about the other seven reindeer)), was our extremely generous host and driver. There was ensuement of much dwunken wevelwy.

On the evenings we didn't go out to Mundy's we went to concerts on the grounds of Tanglewood. The bug situation at these concerts was such that if you simply pressed either hand on your neck, shoulder or arm at any random time, you were guaranteed to send exactly one mosquito to its maker. Or we stayed at home and sang through the Michael Brecker solo a few dozen more times, and drank beer. Normally I was the beer procurement guy, and my taste had evolved to synchronize with that of Milton's — I liked the dark stuff. Thus about three weeks into our stay I went on a beer run with Ross, and he pointedly, almost threateningly suggested, "don't get any of those fucking heavy beers." Okay, maybe suggested isn't the word.

And did we stay up all night and talk? Yep. Not always all night, though. Those of us a tritone or a minor sixth lower on the imaginary keyboard occasionally outlasted him.

At the time Ross was a twelve-tone composer, and I was not (currently, Ross is not a twelve-tone composer, and I am not). Occasionally he and I would get down and dirty with notes, and combinatoriality, and all-combinatorial hexachords and all that. Since young student composers obsess on technique.

Ross was at work at the 'wood on an epic solo piano piece that ended up being what they called, an octave lower than these times, bitchin. It sure had a lot of notes. I had up-arranged a violin and piano piece as a concerto with about a dozen and a half instruments, and was working on adding movements to make a full-blown (okay — full-bowed) concerto. My up-arrangement was played there, and Ross made light of one particular moment (keep in mind that I didn't know what I was doing) — an oboe moving D-sharp to E under a quasi-A dominant seventh chord (I have no idea how that got in). And for the first time ever, someone (Ross) called something in my music "like the sun emerging from behind a cloud."

Hmm. Grad students didn't usually talk in such down-to-earth metaphors. To me, it was probably an ornamentation or gfornafratzification of something earlier in the piece. 'cause, like, you know, mod composition was all about the notes and its many gfornafratzifications. It's not about the sun.

Ross, meanwhile, had two-thirds of a trio performed at T-wood. Here I simply sigh about that clarinetist.
After the 'wood, Ross and Martler and I shonuff kept things up. He wrote a piece that Beff played in in Princeton, we visited, etc., etc. And he brought his dog Frieda and stayed with us for a few weeks in Princeton. At that time I was writing a complicated and chewy little opposite-of-crowd-pleaser for eight instruments, called Slange. That piece sounded pretty good in its premiere, and Ross liked it. He started singing the first tune of the piece (arpeggiating an E-type all-combinatorial hexachord, of course, because it's what I did) to me whenever possible — especially over the phone. And he insisted the piece was too short and needed another movement.

Thanks, Ross. More work is just what I need. Drat, but he was right.

Beff and I — who, by the way, were not dating or even attracted to each other (as far as I recall) at the time — moved to Boston, Beff got Ross's old apartment and Ross bought a house. The three of us and a few others went to IHOP in Brookline and started a new music ensemble! Thus did we see much of each other for a few years. And thus when we called meetings, Ross would be told the meeting time was a half hour earlier than it actually was — as Ross was always precisely thirty minutes late to every meeting.

At the time, Ross was director of the Brandeis Jazz Ensemble, and he extended no small largesse to me and Martler — we got to write whatever we wanted, for a full jazz band. And to honor that, I wrote my first and only twelve-tone piece, called Overderive. A pattern in titles began ... Martler, meanwhile, wrote a straight-up jazz funk piece called Toad in the Hole. I'm afraid my piano part, being fully notated, and did I mention twelve-tone? — was a bit much for the group's regular pianist, so Ross up and hired someone to play the part! I had feared the group would be resistant to playing some atonal funk, but Ross somehow got them at least to hold back on any hostility they would have toward the composer. And in that gig I played fourth trombone. Because, as I always say, I was worth it.

More largesse ensued. Ross was the first winner of the Hinrichsen award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a prize of which was the publication of one piece by CF Peters — the publisher with the really big names on their scores. Ross's bigass piano piece from T'wood was the piece (if I recall correctly), and Stephen Fisher, Peters's President, invited Ross to lunch. At this lunch, Stephen asked Ross if there were other composers or pieces he knew of that Peters should know about, and Ross brought up Slange. When Ross told me to send Slange to Peters, I said yeah, right, like a publisher would be interested in me. So I didn't. And then Bruce Taub at Peters wrote to ask where Slange was because they were expecting it. Sigh, I sent it. And they took it! But I said, not so fast. It needs another movement, according to Ross. And that movement was ready three years later.

Ross was the first of our group to make the quantum leap from impoverished post-grad student to impoverished faculty — he got a job at Stanford. Among his responsibilities was running the new music ensemble. For which he learned real conducting! And cues! (as a performer noted, his cues often looked as if he were offering you a plate of canapés) His confidence in his conducting and in his players developed such that he asked me to write a Pierrot ensemble piece for them. Some of the group are students, so don't write as you would write for Speculum Musicæ (I knew what he meant, since I had written for Speculum). So, keeping it simple, I wrote a piece that, at the music of unusual excitement, a torrent of repeated notes in the piano burst forth. Eventually, that passage morphed into my first piano étude.

The performance of my piece was scheduled near the end of the school year, and I came out for it. By that time, Ross had accepted a job at UC Davis, and there was no one yet in place to do his job the following year. As an example of more incredible largesse, Ross pushed hard for me to take this position — despite my lack of experience, lack of a doctorate, and thinning hairline. Ross set up an informal colloquium for me during one of his classes, at which I was supposed to demonstrate my seriousness and appropriateness for such a position. I was anything but, and no faculty showed up anyway.

And Ross had turned into an actual conductor! He had great ears, make comments about phrasing, and dealt swimmingly with the performers who thought my writing was a bit challenging ("You come and play this!", directed at me, was a notable outburst from the pianist). The performance was very good. And I had written something at least a little bit fun.

Less than a month later, on the exact day that I reached the F above middle C on the imaginary keyboard, Stanford called and offered me the job. I called Ross, dumbfounded and elated. And of course, thankingly. His first response: ask for more money. They expect you to.

So I did. And they gave me more money. Because they expected to. Yes, my first full-time job, Lecturer in Music Theory, non tenure-track, paid the princely salary of $24,000 plus benefits. It was a bit more than three times than I'd ever earned in a year (because, you see, the Slange royalties had yet up to pile).

I told myself I'd try out the academia thing for a year to see if it was something I really wanted to do. It turned out I liked doing it so much (it beat word processing, my day job of the previous four years) that I dragged myself into dissertation-writing mode in order to have the credentials to continue at it. This is apparently when I lost all my hair, as I can remember pulling it out, strand by strand, while writing 120 pages of verbal diarrhea that said nearly nothing, but had nice charts. Ross was nice enough to agree to read and comment on it (and to help me glue some of my hair back on), and when he talked about it, he danced around the central point: this is verbal diarrhea that says nearly nothing, despite the nice charts.

I did not actually learn how to write something cogent about music until I had to teach a graduate seminar — say, on 20th century music, and at Stanford — at which time I finally got it.

Although my dissertation reader at the time begged to differ. Wafa.

Ross, meanwhile, had gotten a Guggenheim fellowship and was about to take it. Unbidden, a Guggenheim application showed up in my mailbox, with a letter from the foundation: Ross Bauer suggested you apply ...

I up and got the Guggenheim. Woo hoo!

By now the reader is beginning to ascertain that, as of 1989, every time Davy gets a little bit upwardly mobile, Ross had a hand in it. Duh.

I got married. Ross was Best Man. Ross got married. I was Best Man.

Ross conducted the premiere of the newly two-movemented Slange with his group in Davis, as well as the premiere of Cerberus, with Beff as soloist, and two performances of Sesso e Violenza. And he conducted the recording of Cerberus. Which was a real trip because the recording session was at Skywalker Ranch. It was raining. Wow.

As faculty in composition graduate programs, I occasionally get to see Ross's recommendations for his students. They are very generous and particular; one in particular I remember went on for a page and a half, and instead of dealing in platitudes, got very specific — it pointed the reader to a specific piece, a page number and measure number, and commented on how beautifully the phrase was written. Right. There. I haven't seen any other recommendations — ever — that are that generous and thoughtful. I wish he'd been writing letters for me.

I've really loved new pieces like Thin Ice, Stone Soup, Ritual Fragments, Symbiosis (tonal chords at the ending!) and Split Infinitives. Not just because they sound good (they do) or they have the long line ethos (they do) or the tunes are nice (they are), or because there is real, honest-to-goodness counterpoint (who does that nowadays?). You get the sense that every note matters. Gee, I wish I could do that.

Ross Bauer, resident note pusher
I don't get to see Ross as much lately owing to the time zone issue (Eastern and Pacific and all). We do exchange recordings, and frequently, an e-mail exchange that's a little like a composition lesson (a little comment he made about space in the tango from Stolen Moments actually got me on my current kick about breathing in music) So Ross is always giving composition lessons, whether or not he tries.

Less than a month ago Ross was in town for the premiere(s) of his new song cycle The Waters Wrecked the Sky, on Emily Dickinson poems, with Lois Shapiro and Sarah Pelletier. It was some of the most varied, beautiful, sensitive writing I've heard from him — or from anyone else, for that matter. I hope to get a recording one of these days.

So every once in a while, one takes stock in where one is creatively (I think that one would euphemistically be Davy, who can't seem to get out of third person here (how could we be out of third person? Didn't we just get more yesterday?)), and come to a realization on how many people's shoulders you've been standing all these years. Would I even have a teaching job, or a publisher, if Ross hadn't gone out on a limb to recommend me? Sounds like a job for Midlife Crisis Man!

Answer: ask again later.

What a generous soul. And a true friend.

Less than a year after the 'wood, I came to Brandeis to hear the then-very-young Lydian Quartet play Ross's string quartet. At the time I had gotten to a structural break in that violin concerto and was at a loss for what to do next. A passage in tremolos in Ross's quartet was that which was stolen by me, and at the new structural section just referenced, I put in a proliferation of such tremolos. Eager to acknowledge the source of the theft, I marked the passage Alla Bauer, and brought it to my lesson with Milton. Milton remarked What do you mean "like a peasant"? And why are you mixing your languages?

Ross, happy B natural. And thanks for all the shoulders.