Andrew Imbrie (1921-2007) – A Role Model for Composers


Andrew Imbrie

I was saddened to hear of Andrew Imbrie’s passing. I haven’t been in touch with Andrew for many years, but for a brief moment in the early 1970s, he was a teacher who provided me with a model for what it might mean to pursue a career as a composer. Though I eventually developed a very different aesthetic than Imbrie, his example of deep musicianship and commitment to following his musical ideas helped me find my own way as a composer.

In 1973 I moved from Vermont to San Francisco to join a friend’s rock and roll band. Though I’d been playing rock and jazz through my college years, I had just recently started to study classical piano again, and my interest in composition was sparked by exposure to works by Schoenberg, Webern, Stockhausen, Ives, and Rudhyar. When my rock band fizzled, I decided to apply to the San Francisco Conservatory to study composition. Though I studied some with a young composer named John Adams, I was particularly interested at the time in studying with Andrew Imbrie, whose music was much more embedded in the modernist style which fascinated me then.

Throughout 1973 and ’74, I met weekly with Andy in his studio in the Berkeley Hills. The studio was a beautiful sanctuary nestled in the trees, with walls of scores and books on music and a piano and writing desk. Each week we would sit together at the piano while he read through the scores I brought in, bringing my notes to life in a way I never could with my limited skill as a pianist. I remember his hands as being long and flexible, easily reaching a 10th, and, if I remember correctly, even being able to stretch to a 12th.

What I most recall is his careful study of what I wrote, and his suggestions for refining my ideas and developing my own approach to composing. I remember one discussion in particular, as I was trying to develop a piece which would embody total serialism, organizing all aspects of the piece around a particular row. After we’d looked through my work, I asked him if he found this way of working exciting. Much to my surprise, he said he didn’t. He told me he found it mechanical, and the discussion led us back to look at the work of his teacher, Roger Sessions. Imbrie saw Sessions’s work as the height of American 20th-century modernism, using the techniques of Schoenberg to make a uniquely personal and American statement.

Until this discussion, I’d assumed that a young composer should be following whatever was the most “new” and “avant-garde” styles. Imbrie, whose own music was beautifully crafted and seemed to flow from his personality, gave me a lesson in writing what I heard, not what was in fashion.

When I moved on to graduate study at UC Berkeley, I didn’t study with Imbrie again, though he was on the faculty. By that time I’d begun to search for my own musical voice in the popular music and jazz which I’d grown up with. Though this took me to an aesthetic realm which no longer was of interest to Imbrie, I credit that discussion of serialism and Sessions with empowering me to look beyond current musical fashion to find a voice of my own.