Easley Blackwood, David Schrader and Ramon Salvatore in discussion with Studs Terkel about music
BROADCAST: Apr. 14, 1993 | DURATION: 00:33:38
Presenting music published by Chicago record label Cedille Records including the music of composer and pianist Easley Blackwood along with David Schrader and Ramon Salvatore.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Seated around the microphone here at WFMT are three superb artists known as, well, the word is keyboard artist, but that doesn't tell a story. Easley Blackwood, who is a composer as well, a serious composer, and a recent work is a cello sonata, and we think of Easley, of course, on the piano, the University of Chicago. Easley Blackwood, and we have David Schrader, who is a master of any number of keyboards, harpsichord to piano, organ, and we also have Ramon Salvatore, who specializes, whose interest is American music, American composers, and to a large extent contemporary. Now, we're seated around, the reason is that there's a new label. That's interesting. Cedille, C-E-D-I-double L, E. Cedille label, and then Chicago is its home, as indeed, the home now of my three guests. Cedille means, we always ask Easley Blackwood these esoteric questions. Cedille means what?
Easley Blackwood And, of course, there's [a? the?] Play on words also. Cedille sounds like "CD," and if you look at the logo for the record, you can see that it's a C with a little hook underneath it, so there are plays on words and on the written words besides that.
Studs Terkel And what the label is done, Jim Ginsburg the producer, is that it's the encouragement of the Midwest artists we have. Chicago at this moment, by the way, Easley and David and Ramon, Chicago at this moment is experiencing quite a--renaissance isn't the word, well, it is I suppose, because once upon a time there was a richness, is it not, in composers as well as instrumentalists?
David Schrader Oh, I think that's right. In fact, last September, at Fourth Presbyterian Church, I gave a program of music composed entirely by Chicago composers, both alive and, I think, beginning as early as Dudley Buck, who was active from around the 1860s to the 1890s.
Ramon Salvatore Yes, I've been doing a lot of music by living composers and had a grant a couple of years ago from the NEA that supported a series of three recitals devoted to music by American composers, both living and dead, from all periods that I did here at the Cultural Center and in New York at Carnegie Hall.
Studs Terkel We're gonna hear about three pieces, [perhaps at least?] three pieces and one is the work of an 18th century Spanish composer, Padre Antonio Soler. David Schrader's album is [unintelligible] his music, ask you about that, we'll hear an example and in the case of Ramon Salvatore, the American grain, music of the American grain, and some contemporary American composers of that. And Easley, Easley's own work for cello, which surprised me. I shouldn't, because Easley is always surprising and we think of Easley in the piano and so we'll have an example, a movement from one, from his cello sonata. Well, David, suppose we start. This Cedille label, your--this is, there are a good number of albums you have, CDs, Cedille has. And the music of Antonio Soler, perhaps a word about him and why you chose him and what we'll hear.
David Schrader Well, actually, I might say that Padre Soler chose me. A few years ago, when I first met Jim Ginsberg, he asked me if I was interested in a recording project, and I said, "Very possibly," and without hesitation he said that he was interested in the music of Padre Francisco Javier Soler y Ramos, who lived from 1729 to 1783. He was a Catalan, that is to say, a person from around the area of Montserrat, Barcelona, who finally wound up at the Escorial, the big monastery-cum-palace about 40 miles northwest of Madrid, became a Hieronymite monk, and coincidentally also the music teacher of the Infante Don Gabriel, who was the son of Charles III. Anyway, he's known for having written keyboard sonatas that are reminiscent of those of Domenico Scarlatti. Jim was very interested in getting some of Padre Antonio's music recorded and that's left us now with two albums of solo harpsichord works and one very, very new project, in fact it's the first time that this repertoire has appeared on compact disc. These are the quintets for keyboard and string quartet. There was a, I believe, a Musical Heritage recording in the '60s, but nothing done ever since. This is not only the first time on compact disc, but also the first time on period instruments for this particular music.
David Schrader A bit, actually. We know that Scarlatti would have accompanied the Spanish court on its travels, and the Escorial was on the agenda for every autumn. So we assume that probably there was some contact between Scarlatti
David Schrader I think it's very likely a diversion for the Prince Gabriel himself. He was a keyboard player and Soler, of course, was engaged in teaching him and also in writing pieces for him. And these quintets in any event appeared in 1776. And--
David Schrader Absolutely, certain other events were happening around the world. But in any event, there are six of them. We've recorded three here, and very likely they were for the Infante or the prince to play.
Studs Terkel In listening to this movement of the Soler quintet, I noticed that Paul Henry Lang, the critic of, in "High Fidelity", writes "This recording always comes as something of a surprise. Imagine a monk (that's Soler, Padre Antonio Soler) a monk ensconced in the forbidding Escorial." Which what, this was the palace?
David Schrader Well, when you look at the redecorated rooms in the Escorial, the Bourbon monarchy of course had bucolic tapestries by Goya designed for what had of course been a stone renaissance palace begun by Philip II. The whole thing is dedicated to St. Lawrence and, of course, is therefore in the shape of a gridiron, because St. Lawrence was martyred by Roman soldiers by being grilled to death, he's the one who said, "Turn me over, boys, I'm done on this side."
Studs Terkel Par-boiled.
Ramon Salvatore You say it was begun by Philip II, isn't that, wasn't he rather an austere emperor who decided that there should be plainness and not a lot of ostentation and that explains part of the reason that the Escorial is rather severe in its architecture and its decoration?
David Schrader In its intent. And yet, when you see the paintings and some of the tile work, it's actually--it's not frivolous, but very elegant. No indeed, he was a very, very conservative Catholic. He's set himself, really, up as--
Studs Terkel Philip.
David Schrader Exactly.
Studs Terkel So, but here is this monk, though, who composed this sort of music in that atmosphere. That's interesting. So that's what Cedille is doing, this label, also capturing some music hitherto not caught. We're talking to Easley Blackwood and David Schrader, who we just heard with the quint--who were your colleagues on the?
David Schrader The first violin was played by Christopher Verrette, the second violin by Michael Shelton. The viola was played by Peter Slowik, who teaches up at Northwestern University, and the cello is John Rozendaal.
Studs Terkel Chicago up to this point and Ramon Salvatore is here, too. Easley Blackwood, David Schrader, Ramon Salvatore. We think of them as keyboard artists. That is, aside from being in the case of Easley a composer. In the case of David, you have a variety of keyboard instruments in your own apartment, don't you?
David Schrader Actually, I don't have a modern piano. I have a Viennese forte piano. Copied after Anton Walter, a French double manual harpsichord after Toscan, and one small quite portable Renaissance clavichord.
David Schrader Yes.
Ramon Salvatore My early teaching at the undergraduate level, my teacher was always very interested in supporting and performing contemporary music and in music by living composers. She would always say, "We are children of the 20th century. We must play its music and we must be familiar with it." So I had sort of had that imbued into me from the very beginning, and as I got older I felt it even more important not only to look at contemporary American music, but also music by composers of, American composers whose careers were established before 1950, because that's even more neglected than many of the living composers are now. Many people say it's derivative music and a watered-down kind of thing, and obviously one gets more familiar with this music by knowing it and then individual personalities begin to emerge.
Ramon Salvatore Absolutely.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Ramon Salvatore And won the Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for his first piano concerto. Student at Eastman, studied with Howard Hanson, and the sonata that you'll be hearing was written while he was a student there and did this in his bachelor's degree recital, although he written before he was 20, it has a tremendous confidence in it and elan that one doesn't think of it as a student work.
Studs Terkel So again, this is interesting. Anybody can pitch in here. I'm thinking, the idea of American composition today, this also is something happening more than it did before the recognition of American composers.
Easley Blackwood And oddly enough, an undergraduate at the University approached me very, very cautiously and wanted to know what I thought of Howard Hanson, and he happens to be a Howard Hanson enthusiast, and it turns out that that is not very fashionable these days among what we might call musical academics. Well, I will grant Howard Hanson is rather derivative of Rachmaninoff, and it is also the case one hates to say, I happen to like Rachmaninoff, but he does sometimes get very, very close to that line that divides romanticism from sentimentality. But I like sentimentality.
David Schrader I think that's right, though it's a line, though, that Rachmaninoff treads very, very well. Just the same that Poulenc so often treads the line between extreme good taste and the cabaret, and he manages almost always to stay on the good side.
Easley Blackwood Well, I wonder, just the other day for no good reason I took out the Poulenc "Improvisations" off the shelf, and started playing through those, and those are truly bagatelles. I mean that in the literal sense of the word, they are trifles--
Studs Terkel You know, Hanson's name is controversial in some circles. And I remember now a number of years ago, Aaron Copland was a guest on the program and somehow he brought up the name of Hanson, and not too complimentary a way.
David Schrader Well--
Easley Blackwood There were a lot of people that didn't like him for a variety of reasons. He was a very prominent figure when he was director of the Eastman School of Music, which he ran with a completely autocratic hand and he was a conductor of the conservatory orchestra, which was a first-class orchestra, and he did not have very many good things to say about his colleagues. On a couple of occasions I connected with him there was a big symposium that was held in Rochester probably in about 1950, '51 or so, and he walked out on the podium to conduct the batch of the student works, turned around and addressed the audience in no uncertain terms and told them that he thought the pieces were terrible, that they were incompetently orchestrated, the parts were badly copied, and that he was only playing this out of a sense of duty, and--
Studs Terkel Everybody.
Ramon Salvatore Goodness.
Ramon Salvatore At that particular time, yes, but he's gone on to write completely music, you know, 12-tone music and music with influences from a lot of different sources also. So he's certainly done a lot of experimenting
Studs Terkel The first movement. Ramon Salvatore, and I'm trying to think now of what was said about John La Montaine's piece you played. The various composers heard it in advance and they were raving about it. Bowles was about his piece, and Johnson about his piece, and La Montaine, too. Your interpretation they particularly liked. You were the guy to look for this stuff.
Ramon Salvatore Yes.
Ramon Salvatore Multifaceted.
Ramon Salvatore Tangier.
Ramon Salvatore Bowles is interesting because of his novels are very dark and nihilistic, but the music, on the other hand, is just the opposite of that. And I asked Mr. Bowles about that at one point and he said, "Well, they come from two different compartments of the brain."
Studs Terkel A large, very large following of people whose tastes are somewhat--I don't want to put it so--not esoteric, but different to the extent than that of what might be described as mainstream.
Studs Terkel Always has been. What's interesting about this fascinating, Ramon, is here's Bowles, known for the dour approach and bleak sort of writing of his novels, of his prose, and yet musically, as you point, another, there's another department. Another compartment.
Ramon Salvatore Yes, so this was the" Carretera de Estepona", written about 1936, and Estepona is a small fishing village on the southern coast of Spain. And that piece is written as I mentioned in 1936, that was the place where Franco first met opposition on the mainland of Spain. And I think that had the reason for this particular piece.
Studs Terkel So that's Ramon Salvatore and then that album, [unintelligible] in the American, music in the American grain. And that's again, that's from that label that new label that's very adventurous, Cedille. David Schrader, Ramon Salvatore and Easley Blackwood. You've been teaching at the Music Department at the University of Chicago for some years now.
Studs Terkel Thirty-five. And I'm thinking about your influence, your influences on others, aside from those influenced you. So we come to, you had the legendary, I guess she was a legend, certainly. Nadia Boulanger.
Easley Blackwood Yeah, I studied with Boulanger between '54 and '57 in France. And one curious thing you find out if you compare notes with other Boulanger students, no two people tell the same story. She had a way of adjusting her personality and her approach to any individual that she dealt with. With some people she was very authoritarian, with others she was very permissive, with some she was demanding, with others she would say, "Don't overdo things."
Easley Blackwood As far as, well, as far as composition was concerned, she had an unerring instinct for where there was something that wasn't quite right, and she could point out other things about it. I remember at one point she said, "This passage right here. You were not quite convinced of that, I think, 'cause you wrote it, it's different from the rest of the piece. There seems to be something tentative about it. It's very forceful just before, it's very forceful just after, but there's something about this transition that is unlike the rest of
Studs Terkel But as you say this, isn't this something, you guys can chip in here, what a teacher, she was not bawling him out, she was not lecturing him, she was making it seem as you're telling it as though it were your idea. Well,
Easley Blackwood Well, she was right, too, because as a matter of fact I needed a bridge between the two sections in the piece and I very hurriedly wrote one, and it was written at a different pace from the rest of the piece, and I have discovered since then that if the composer suddenly changes pace in the process of writing the piece, the piece changes character abruptly just at that point. So the message here is, if I get into the composing groove and I am doing it three hours a day, five or six days a week, if I get close to the end of the piece and suddenly say, "Well, I see where I'm going now, let's just wind the whole thing up in a couple of days and go at it six or seven hours those two or three days, the ending is not like the rest of the piece."
Ramon Salvatore Identify--
Studs Terkel What?
Easley Blackwood A Stravinsky disciple, and one of the most fascinating things I have ever seen in my life was the day that the Stravinsky "Canticum Sacrum" arrived at the sight-reading class at the conservatory, and with trembling hands as she anticipated what this piece must be, she opened the score, set it on the piano, called to the piano the best sight-reader in the class, and he began playing the "Surge, aquilo" movement, which is one of the first twelve-tone pieces Stravinsky wrote. I have never seen such a look of shock and disbelief on anyone's face. She obviously did not like the piece, and yet she could not reveal that to the rest of the class. She simply sat there staring and without comprehension.
David Schrader Boy.
Studs Terkel See, as Easley tells the story, it's very dramatic, and we have a picture of a certain kind of teacher, don't we? A remarkable teacher at the same time reveals herself. See, to Easley, maybe his own awareness, but reveals, you remember the moment she was shocked, and you got the idea it was too much for her.
Easley Blackwood Well, the fact that it was so unanticipated, too. Now, she had some other very unrealistic views of composers. She detested Rachmaninoff, and the story one hears there is that there was a personal tragedy involved, that her sister was ill in St. Petersburg and was due, I think, to play accompaniments at a lieder recital, and Rachmaninoff was asked to pinch-hit at the last moment and refused to do it, said that he couldn't learn an entire program on 24 hours' notice, and the sister went on and played the concert anyway and died a few days later of some kind of a severe--
Easley Blackwood Yes.
Easley Blackwood Well, Nadia at one point confided to me in a private lesson without anyone else there, she said, "The tragedy of my life is, I know how it goes, but I can't do it." She said, "I cannot play expressively. I cannot compose." She said, "My piano playing is dry, mechanical, and out of style no matter what I play, my attempts to compose, I can't even compose a figured bass exercise that makes any coherent sense." She said, "It's my purgatory on Earth that I have to endure this."
David Schrader One of the greatest organ teachers in America, a woman named Mildred Andrews, could, she also knew how it went, was a wonderful teacher, very effective. Many of her students made or went on to a very active concert and other sorts of careers. She herself really couldn't play her way out of a paper bag. She couldn't follow her own methods.
Easley Blackwood Well, Hindemith was a hands-on teacher, if you know what I mean. Students would bring compositions to Hindemith in a partially completed state and he would start making changes, and he was, of course, a composer. He had very sneering, contemptuous views of other composers, and he particularly disliked modernists, and that was unfortunate as far as I was concerned, because at that time I was in a very ultra-modernistic phase.
Easley Blackwood Yes, I think there certainly was. I at the time denied the Hindemith influence and couldn't see it. Now, as I listen to pieces that were written shortly after that, I can very definitely hear it. As far as the Boulanger influence is concerned, since she wasn't a composer herself, I think the effect there is much more subtle. I don't see any influence of Stravinsky in my music, didn't at the time and still don't now. But many of the students that studied with her became Stravinsky copycats.
Easley Blackwood Copland was a rabid modernist at the very beginning and not very much appreciated, and was an exponent of modernistic music all through the '30s and '20s and '30s when he came back to this country. But Copland's success is all based on the Western ballets and the "Appalachian Spring". He was not known before that.
Easley Blackwood And then Copland goes into a modernistic phase in the '60s and begins to write 12-tone music and suddenly the public vanishes. And I must say, I think the "Connotations for Orchestra" is one of the ugliest pieces of music ever conceived by the mind of man and with ghastly shrieking fanfares over clattering percussion, rather the same gestures as found in the "Fanfare for the Common Man". Or "Fanfare for the Commonplace Man" I've heard it unflatteringly called.
Studs Terkel "Fanfare for the Commonplace Man". Easley, the Cedille label is a good number, and one is the very exciting one, it's a sampler and it's your cello sonata with Kim Scholes the cellist and you at the piano. A word about that, this is something wholly unexpected from you.
Easley Blackwood Well, let me give you a little historical analysis, if you will. There's some composers that write in a similar style from practically the very beginning through to the very end, and I think Brahms is a case in point. It's very hard to tell whether a piece of Brahms that you hear was written in 1860 or 1890. Other composers show a very consistent and continuous evolution in their style. Start out, for example, as conservatives and then gradually become modernists. Scriabin is a case in point. Elliott Carter is another case in point. Other composers flit capriciously from one style to another for a variety of reasons. Stravinsky has a case in point. There's another case in point. And I think I fit into that last group. Now, I started out as a modernist and in Indianapolis in the 1940s my teachers were appalled. They thought that it was indicative of adolescent rebellion, but as a matter of fact we had a large record collection in the house and my father was interested in modernism. I have known the Hindemith "Mathis der Maler" symphony since I was 6 years old. I've known the Berg violin concerto a similar amount of time, I've known the Hindemith Opus 24 number two wind quintet. The collection was constantly--
Easley Blackwood They were musical but not professionals. I've known Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" since I was 12 or 13, and upon hearing that, I rushed to the composing table and tried to imitate it. And at the same time I had taken out every modern score that the Indianapolis Public Library had, and that included, among other things, a "Casella sonatina." And I knew the "Casella sonatina" not terribly well, but I did play it some when I was 13 and 14, and to go back and look at that old piece, which is a very conscious effort to imitate "Pierrot Lunaire" and the "Casella sonatina" looks very strange [these days?].
Easley Blackwood Well, having been a harmony teacher now for 35 years and having done a great deal of research into tonal and modal behavior of other tunings besides the 12-note temperament, I've suddenly found that I have the capability of writing in older styles, and having tried it, it turns out that it's really a great deal more interesting and rewarding, at least for me to do it, because the harmonic vocabulary is much more extensive, and you have to make it rhyme and scan, as it were, and then an atonal or polyrhythmic style, it's much more of the character of prose. And another problem is that, at least to my ear, the successful atonal pieces are all perverse in some distinctive ways such as "Pierrot Lunaire" or Schoenberg's "Erwartung", or the Webern Six orchestra pieces or those big Varese orchestral pieces, and I don't mind a little perversity once in a while, but the Schoenberg four-string quartet was a piece that I did not like when I first heard it. I think that abstractions linked the abstract pieces in an atonal idiom simply don't have the interest to sustain them, and besides that, the material they are made of is really not all that attractive. Now, if it's a dramatic piece of some sort that depicts the deranged ravings of a madman or some kind of crazy social goings-on, as in Berg's "Lulu" or the indignities heaped upon a, who you say, pusillanimous soldier as in "Woyzeck", or that crazy woman wandering around in the woods who finally stumbles over the body of her lover as in "Erwartung", or the crazy Golden Calf episode from "Moses und Aron" of Schoenberg, these things are very compelling, but the number of purely abstract modernistic pieces that are successful seems to me to be very small.
Studs Terkel So, is this side, this questioning side of that, not the dramatic stuff you named, but the other stuff, abstract just for the sake of that, is what impelled your doing something like the cello sonata.
Easley Blackwood Well, you know, there's a peculiar history to that. A guitarist approached me some time back and asked, would I be interested in writing him a guitar sonata. And I said, "Well, honestly, I think that the guitar is singularly unsuited atonal polyrhythmic music, would you conceivably be interested in a piece in a much more conventional idiom?" And he said, "Well, in substance, yes, I have no objection to that." So I got a big handful of guitar music and looked through the various solo guitar pieces and found that there is not one single instance of a solo guitar piece written in a style that would have been current in 1820. And, so, I tried actively to recreate that style, and since then, whenever anyone is interested in a piece, the first thing I say is, "Well, what kind of style are you interested in?" And so where the Cello Sonata is concerned, the commissioner of the piece said "Well, I'm open to any ideas." And it turns out that there is no significant Cello Sonata written in a style that would have been current in about 1845. So in this piece I tried quite consciously to recreate the style that I think Schubert might have discovered if he had lived until 1845.