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A whiff of the pejorative floats around the term “academic composer.” This mythical individual is held responsible for many of the musical ills of the late 20th century: safely isolated in an ivory tower, forcing serialism on unwilling students, and smugly writing compositions that appeal only to a handful of other like-minded academics.
And Martin Bresnick is an “academic composer” in the most literal sense. He has been ensconced at the Yale School of Music for nearly 30 years and has taught generations of students. He has won just about every significant award that can be won by a composer, from the Rome Prize to a Guggenheim to the American Academy of Arts and Letters's first-ever Charles Ives Living award—which frees a composer, for a span of three years' time, to concentrate exclusively on composing.
Where can this august figure be found when he’s at home? Naturally, he frequents the place that best epitomizes the spirit of the academy with which he is affiliated.
That would be Naples Pizza.
Amid the dark tables, their rutted surfaces bearing the acne-like scars of generations of student carvings, before the fluorescent-lit display counter with its salads and pastries, in the pre-holiday half-emptiness of a December afternoon, Bresnick, 60, gray-haired, voracious, and utterly unaffected, holds court with the informal comfort of a student prince. He is voluble; he is boyish. He offers a visitor the bounty of Naples as if the restaurant belonged to him (regretfully noting the absence, this afternoon, of its signature rice pudding), ordering, for himself, “the usual” (antipasto). His large head is placed slightly forward on a strong upper body, with a hint of stiffness veiled beneath pure affability. He puts down his tray, sits, and uncorks a stream of conversation swirling with ideas and anecdotes, diverting into tributaries when a passing colleague greets him or when a student (knowing where to find him) comes in to confer about the library’s inability to locate parts for one of Bresnick’s string quartets.
A cell phone call. The parts are found. The student leaves. Refocus. Bresnick eats another pimiento and talks about Camille Pisarro, Harold Bloom, William Blake, Arte Povera, with a kind of down-to-earth enthusiasm that carries ideas from the realm of the intellectual elysium into the shirtsleeves world of real life. It’s rare, among the nation-states of the academic world, to find someone with so much active, unpretentious interest in fields other than his own.
“I’m not a Renaissance man, but I am a Renaissance boy,” Bresnick jokes. “A Renaissance kid; let’s not give it a gender. The greatest pleasure in life is learning things I don’t know. It’s one of the judgments I make about music, too. If I go to a concert and listen, I want to learn something that I don’t know. I have a lot of regard for quality and craft. But if I hear something that teaches me something that I could not have thought, something I hadn’t imagined could be: that’s the greatest pleasure I know.”
Classical music—elitist? Think again.
In the music world, Bresnick has conventionally been known as a teacher. His name is often invoked like a biblical patriarch's, followed by a string of “begats”: the long list of former students who have gone on to significant careers, writing music in a rainbow of dissimilar styles. Among them: Kevin Puts '96MusM, Marc Mellits '91MusM, Michael Torke '86Mus, Christopher Theofanidis '97MusAD, David Lang '83MusAM, Julie Wolfe '86MusM, and Michael Gordon '82MusM.
Bresnick is perhaps most often mentioned as the teacher of Lang, Wolfe, and Gordon, founders of a composers collective called Bang on a Can, which has become a pivotal force in New York’s music scene. Breaking away from accepted academic tradition, mingling musical styles in a hip melange, the group has spawned a performing arm, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, that has helped redefine the chamber ensemble as something that can include a Javanese gamelan and an electric guitar, as well as a crackling energy that has young audiences practically dancing in the aisles. Many academic composers still regard Bang on a Can as too funky, too playful, too unserious. Not Bresnick.
“We do look at him as our guru,” says Lang of his former teacher. “He’s a really inspiring person.”
But the label of “teacher” may have helped obscure Bresnick’s significance as a composer. So it seemed, at least, when a few events around his 60th birthday last November propelled him into the spotlight.
First, Bang on a Can’s recording label, Cantaloupe Music, issued a double-disc tribute, The Essential Martin Bresnick, that includes both a CD of assorted works and a DVD of his multimedia piece For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise, a setting of a work by William Blake. (Bresnick wrote it for his wife, the pianist Lisa Moore, who is a former member of the All-Stars.) The album’s cover bears a picture of a glass of water. It’s a fine illustration for music that is clear, unadorned, and refreshing. What it doesn’t get across, though, is the richness of the content, the levels of meaning and allusion worked into the solid architecture of Bresnick’s pieces. A better metaphor might be a Shaker chair made of mahogany: something whose unassuming exterior belies both skilled craftsmanship and considerable, unexpected substance.
And the Yale School of Music’s birthday present to Bresnick in December—a concert of his music at Carnegie Hall’s underground outpost, Zankel Hall—opened many people’s ears to his importance.
“What good music!” said the New York Times’s chief critic, Anthony Tommasini '70, '72MM, happily, at intermission. His subsequent review called the pieces “vibrant,” “varied,” “wondrous,” and “inspired.” The concert, he said, “made clear that Mr. Bresnick is a major voice.”
Its creator is happy at all the attention, and a little perplexed at the idea that he’s somehow been laboring in obscurity all these years. “I won the Rome Prize when I was 29 years old,” he points out. “I also won the Berlin Prize; I’ve won just about every prize that anybody out there was giving! What more do I do?” He lapses into Catskills-comic mode, throwing up his hands, thickening the New York accent: “Where did I go wrong?”
In the same joking vein, one could say that Bresnick’s very beginnings in classical music were the result of a misunderstanding. As a boy, inflamed by the music of Elvis Presley, he pestered his parents for guitar lessons. For Russian immigrants in a housing cooperative in the Bronx, finding a guitar teacher wasn’t simple; but his parents finally managed to locate one and set their son up with lessons. The young Bresnick learned to read music, mastered fingerings, and waited, every week, for the lesson in which he would learn how to play like Elvis. Instead, he learned Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and other highlights of the nineteenth-century symphonic repertory, which his teacher, also Russian, had transcribed for guitar. Bresnick was ultimately recruited to fill in as a member of his teacher's balalaika orchestra. You could say that his earliest musical ambitions were lost in translation.
Bresnick is very much a product of a certain period in New York. He attended the High School of Music and Art (of Fame fame), where his contemporaries included a host of people who went on to notable careers in music, from Leon Botstein, the conductor and president of Bard College, to Mark Snow (then Marty Fulterman), the film composer who wrote the music for The X-Files.
There were different influences at home. The Amalgamated Housing Cooperative, where he grew up, was an example of socialism in its purest form: a community where the grocery store was cooperatively owned and residents ran the day care, schools, and small businesses. Politics were expressed through lifestyle rather than party affiliation: one could defray one’s living expenses by working at the grocery store. The ideology, as Bresnick describes it, was “basically kind of socialist anarchist, with cultural pretensions.” (The cooperative, founded in 1927, still exists.)
“The nature of the socialism in my family, which had a strong political component, is part of who I am,” Bresnick continues. “They were never members of the Communist Party; they weren’t the red-diaper babies. They were always this independent group.”
It’s not hard to see the parallels in Bresnick's subsequent musical career. As a composer, Bresnick has remained independent of compositional schools and styles, following his own path. In liner notes to the CD Opere della Musica Povera (CRI Records), John Halle, a former Yale colleague who now teaches at Bard, observed that “his painstakingly engineered and elegantly constructed works represent a species of homage—the selfless dedication of the master craftsman to his calling and its traditions, a Marxian commitment to value derived from labor over market-determined price.”
As a citizen of the music world, Bresnick has consistently played an active role in the communities of which he’s a part. At Yale, this has meant encouraging his students and guiding undergraduate ensembles like “Sheep’s Clothing,” an eclectic group that mounted everything from chamber concerts to avant-garde performance happenings. It has also meant actively cultivating relationships with professors in other fields, such as historian Henry Louis Gates '73 (now at Harvard) and art historian Robert Farris Thompson '55, '65PhD. Bresnick is a frequent member of the Whitney Humanities Center, through which a rotating group of scholars from different fields meets regularly to exchange ideas. “If I feel that someone is potentially interesting, I will make my way to them,” he says.
Seeing Harold Bloom walking down the street near Naples one afternoon, Bresnick accosted the English professor to tell him about the Blake project, which he was working on at the time. Bloom was sufficiently intrigued to listen to the piece and get involved. The DVD of “For the Sexes,” in which Moore plays, speaks, and sings while images from Blake's book move across a screen behind her piano, also includes a 12-minute video clip of Bloom discussing Blake’s work.
Another example of Bresnick’s extra-musical frame of reference is his seminal Opere della Musica Povera, a cycle of 12 pieces that range in length from two minutes to twenty, in style from near-minimalism to choral harmony, and in scale from full orchestra to a trio of clarinet, viola, and piano. (The trio is the enigmatically named “***,” one of Bresnick's best pieces.) The title of the works as a whole is a nod to the Arte Povera school in Italy, a group of artists who turned to elemental, simple materials to explore the relation between “art” and “reality.”
“One of my favorite unknown Arte Povera works was by a guy I knew, named Paolo Icaro, in Italy,” Bresnick says. “One day he saw that a little building of the tribunal was kind of falling down, so he went off and got his plaster and fixed this thing; and that was his piece [of art]. I thought, That’s what I want my music to be. Make the community whole again. Instead of marble and bronze, how about using concrete and grass and sand. That’s what I’m after in many of those pieces; they start from principles of a kind of music that is materially graspable, though in the piece it happens to be very complicated. Open the door: my house has many mansions. You come in that door, you may find a lot to do. I’m not going to put up a barrier. All I ask is that you pay attention.”
Bresnick began composing while still in high school. Matriculating at 16 at Hunter College, he transferred the next year to the University of Hartford. He was so active at the affiliated Hartt School of Music that, he says, the Hartford administrators lost track of him; when he returned to get an honorary award later in life, the institution seemed to believe he was a Hartt graduate. Yet a teacher at Hartt nearly got him to quit composing altogether: Arnold Franchetti, the resident eminence grise, whom Bresnick was finally allowed to study with his senior year.
“He was a teacher of the old school,” Bresnick says: “very repressive. The first time I came in to his studio with my music, he clucked, ‘Bresnick, Bresnick, what are you doing?’ The second time: ‘No, Bresnick, this is not right.’ The next time, he erased my music and wrote in his own music. One of the next times, he said, ‘Bresnick, how dare you bring me this abortion!’ and he threw it on the floor. I was staggered by the hostility to what I was trying to do; I was ready to throw myself off a bridge. But a wonderful teacher named Edward Miller took me aside and said, ‘Don’t worry, don’t lose heart; keep going; you’ve got something.’”
Years later, in the early '80s, Bresnick was at a concert where a piece of his and of Franchetti’s were on the program. “I liked his music,” he explains. “It was always lyrical, charming. I sought him out in the lobby and said, ‘Maestro Franchetti, it’s wonderful to see you again and I really enjoyed your piece.’ He was very old; he could hardly see. He peered up at me and said, ‘Bresnick, Bresnick, I hate your music; it’s terrible!’”
Franchetti “was a very good example of the teacher I decided never to be,” Bresnick said. The teacher he wanted to be appeared after he got to Stanford for graduate school, where John Chowning introduced him to computer music and to the works of the composer who was to become his towering idol—and later his teacher—the Hungarian Gyorgy Ligeti (best known to many for “Lux Aeterna” and other pieces that were used on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Though Bresnick’s music sounds nothing like Ligeti's, they share an awareness of the importance of tradition, and both seek to synthesize the musical past and a unique voice of the present. “He was probably the greatest composer of the era,” Bresnick says. “And as a teacher he set a standard that was bracing.” After a first failed attempt —Bresnick won a Fulbright to work with Ligeti in Vienna, only to arrive there and find that Ligeti had won a grant to go work somewhere else—Bresnick was able to study with him after Chowning managed to lure him to California for a year. Bresnick’s identification with Ligeti speaks to the bond between teacher and student—a bond, avers David Lang, Bresnick’s student, that has special strength in the field of music. “Like medieval stone carvers, you can tell which guild you belong to,” Lang says. “We trace our lineage back.”
At Yale, almost every composition student works with every teacher, so Bresnick by default works with nearly every composer who comes through the School of Music; it’s not altogether surprising that he’s had some successful protégés. But few teachers enjoy such widespread admiration for their pedagogic abilities.
“The thing that’s great about Martin is that he really wants you to be better than you are,” Lang says, “no matter where you are or what you are doing. If you are writing beautiful music, he wants it to be better beautiful music. His view is that ‘If I ask the right question, your eyes will open a little and you will do something one inch smarter.’ He found a way to make lots of different people think lots of different kinds of things. Like a good psychoanalyst, he wants the little things that you do to be examined. I think that’s the reason his approach works on so many different kinds of music and people.”
Of course, Bresnick has had a very good practical reason to keep his teaching skills in good shape. The Yale School of Music, like Yale’s other art schools, doesn’t offer tenure. After all these years, and even with his recent promotion to an endowed chair—Bresnick is now the Charles T. Wilson Professor of Music—he is still an adjunct professor on a five-year contract.
Yet an advantage of Yale’s music school is that, unlike Stanford or Harvard, there is a whole pool of performers the composition department can draw on. “Over the years, I’ve gotten to know some incredible students, whom I not only teach in classes, but then they play the pieces,” he says. “One of the great things about working here is it’s like Esterhazy,” the summer castle of Haydn’s patron, where the composer's new works were played by the house orchestra. “I get to try things with the students who are not jaded; they’re not burned out yet.”
Burnout is an oft-cited ailment of academic composers, too. But Bresnick appears to have staved it off—not least by continuing to focus, at least part of the time, on creating vital new work. “Pine Eyes,” a two-act puppet version of “Pinocchio." “Grace,” a double concerto for two marimbas inspired by a Kleist essay. “My Twentieth Century,” a poignant work in which the musicians take turns speaking aloud the verses of a simple poem citing a range of specific, personal events from a century now over.
“I feel it’s more important to be ambitious for your music,” says the composer, “than to be ambitious for yourself.”
Setting (2001) for piano and voice—the pianist’s own speaking voice—of a William Blake work, For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise
“The piece was written especially for me, and it does take aspects of my musical personality that I wanted to extend, mainly those of a theatrical nature. In the last eight years or so I’ve found pieces where I can speak and talk and play at the same time, and I’m finding that audiences really relate to that, because the spoken word, as opposed to even the sung word, is a very real element that we all understand and that people respect and are drawn to. So this piece is a tremendous vehicle for me as a dramatic work.”
The orchestral work Pontoosuc (1989)
“One of my great orchestra pieces, which I wrote for the ACO [American Composers Orchestra] back in the late '80s, called Pontoosuc, is based on this poem by Melville. I don’t know how many people know Melville was a poet as well as an author; he wrote some wonderful poetry. I think I was supposed to take a total of 120 credits over the time I was at the University of Hartford; I must have taken 180. I took everything. That’s been my thing. That’s why there are so many literary and pictorial and other references in my work; that’s what I do, it’s very important to me.”
“The Bucket Rider” (1995), from Opere della Musica Povera (“works of a poor music”)
“The beginning of ‘Bucket Rider’ is a solo melody on bass clarinet, written in such a way that it’s basically out of [the instrument's] range. Because of where it is, there’s no way for it not to be fragile. It’s always going to feel like it’s right on the edge of disappearing.”
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