Choosing to Remember William Albright

Albright and Chambers
William Albright (right) and Evan Chambers at the Bowling Green New Music Festival ca. 1995

“As soon as a composer dies, they’re really dead.”

-Leslie Bassett

Bill Albright died. He is really dead. The articles about him in the New Grove Dictionary and Baker’s Biographical don’t make him alive. As Leslie Bassett pointed out in a recent conversation, there is no one to make sure that Bill’s music gets played, and interest in the music of recently dead composers is at a very low ebb. The sad truth is that often when a composer like William Albright dies nowadays, even a relatively prominent one, so too does his best champion, publicist, primary interpreter, and in some cases his publisher as well. The successes and failures of a life are gone, and all that is left is how we remember the artist and their work. If we choose to remember.

I believe it is important for us to remember Bill Albright.

William Hugh Albright died young, on September 17, 1998, at the age of 53 after struggling for many years with alcoholism. The remembrances of him that came out at the time were full of shock over how untimely and unnecessary his death was. There was a keen sense of what was lost in the works he would have written if he had lived, and many of us felt very conflicted about how to remember our friend, teacher, and colleague. At that time, the New York Times obituary seemed to sum him up as something of a novelty act, someone who wrote ragtime music for the organ. He was in fact far more than that.

There is often a disconnect between what you can glean about a person from the vaguely dismissive overview which is offered all but the most imposing careers these days, and the real accomplishments of a human lifetime. We fall so often into the trap of listing awards and commissions as the primary evidence of our accomplishment and relative worth that we can easily forget what really matters once a person, an artist, a teacher, has left us. Bill had plenty of awards in his vita, but did not quite manage to cash in on the huge boom of opportunity that hit in the 1990s, and as a result he occasionally got classed as a “B-list” composer with a gimmick.

There were lots of reasons for his being somewhat passed over at the time, but whether we manage to achieve the severely limited stardom available to composers or not, we all deserve to be remembered for the real gifts which we have bestowed on our community. Six years after his death, we have reasons to be grateful to Bill Albright that don’t fit well into a list of institutional recognitions or prestige performances.

Why should anyone care about this dead guy’s music?

What did he do that really matters? For starters, he wrote some absolutely inspired music with an amazing depth and range of feeling—his music can run the gamut from pious awe to raunchy humor in nothing flat.

Make sure you hear his Chichester Mass, his Saxophone Sonata, and Five Chromatic Dances for piano solo. This is music that breaks through the limitations of language—music that reaches beyond the range of the facile or the familiar. These works also touch the center of something, like the best poetry. His student Carter Pann describes Albright’s music as “searching constantly for its core.” Another student, Gabriela Frank, believes that for Bill, composing was “an exercise in connecting with a receiving audience by laying bare (and I really mean, laying BARE) all of your facetsÉthe guy had no fearÉ”

His urge to connect also led to a continual drive to bring together all of his musical selves. As a student of both Ross Lee Finney and Olivier Messiaen, Bill was a quiet leader in a gradual reuniting of styles and genres that composers had kept strictly separate during the last days of high modernism. He insisted on holding multiple truths in his head, and instead of partitioning his lives as ragtime artist (recording the complete rags of Scott Joplin as well as creating his own rags), “legit” composer, and church musician, he streamed them all together in his work. In doing so, a lot of energy was released, and his music was full of the manic drive, quirkiness, and rough edges that sprang from the rubbing together of all kinds of musical impulses.

“What a gorgeous mess!”

-Bill Albright to his student Derek Bermel

This energy made his pieces wild and messy sometimes (“lurchy” was his word for it), but his juxtapositions were always in the service of some greater sense of overall effect. Leslie Bassett summed it up this way: “He had a wonderful sense of sound and of shape. His music doesn’t just go through the monkey-business of style and shock—it comes together—there’s a real arrival point.” One tremendous example of this is the Hoedown in Five Chromatic Dances in which the notion of open-string fiddle drones is transformed into virtuostic piano figuration, and then opens up into a succession of contrasting moods including a Haba–era, a spacey gestural landscape, and a twisted boogie-woogie bass line. He accomplishes it all without the music seeming forced or artificial, finding the intersections between these contrasting styles. It’s far more than a show of cleverness: something is illuminated.

When I think about trying to convey what is compelling about Bill Albright’s works, it is impossible to avoid participles: tearing, soaring, driving, raging. An intense physicality powers the music; he was always composing to create qualities of effort. I’ve often described his fondness for repeated notes (as well as my own) as a fascination for creating a melody of effort: bringing the physical exertion required to articulate each note right to the surface of the music as a primary element (such as in the Saxophone Sonata or Chasm for orchestra). Qualities of movement are often the real materials he was working with, and how his music is played is almost always as important as what is played. I remember talking with Tim McAllister, of the PRISM Saxophone Quartet, about coaching young players in how far “off-the-page” they had to play to get at Bill’s music. “You’ve got to break it down for them.” he said,” and tell them how this glissando is like a huge truck going by, but this one is like a crying baby.” What McAllister means is that sometimes it seems that everything in Bill’s music is filled with reference to tactile experience, and that the key to its interpretation is to understand the physical impulse that the sound should originate from.

Music from Mars

I heard Bill say once in a conversation with Ligeti that he was looking for a “music from Mars.” He searched for a way to break through the limitations of everyday awareness and ordinary expectation. One of the highest compliments he could pay something (as he often did in his low, breathy rumble) was to say that it was “very special.” The “very special” could be anything from his favorite pot roast to flavors of religious ecstasy, anything that, no matter its place in the hierarchy of things, was somehow shining, illuminated by rarity and transcendence. In his almost compulsive drive to reach past the ordinary, Bill took his considerable pain, rage, and enormous thirst for otherworldly release, and made some works of astonishing beauty.

The transformation of suffering into beauty might well be the most significant accomplishment we can aspire to as artists. Bill Albright somehow managed to use his tender heart to do just that, over and over, which is a considerable gift to us if we bother to open our hearts to it. In the end, Bill died of his emotional wounds, died of what they compelled him to do. His was a fatal case of anguish, and some of the intensity of his music springs from that. Even so, the humor, wit, power, sensitivity and shining beauty in his music is nothing less than the transformation of massive and even terrifying dark energies into something, wellÉvery special. Very special. And that is what he deserves to be remembered for.