Dual Threat Composers and Professional Hat Tricks

My previous column—meant to elicit eurekas that yes, artists do indeed have unique insights into their fellow artists, necessarily different from critics’ and scholars’—sure didn’t evoke a “shock of recognition” response; in fact, most of the puzzled threadbearers devolved into unrelated chats. Sorry if any unclarity was mine. But didn’t Arrigo Boito’s construction of Verdi’s librettos for Otello and Falstaff benefit from insight Boito gleaned composing his own operas Mefistofele and Nerone, insight that was not given to Piave? Likewise with composer Gian Carlo Menotti’s libretto for Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, which I just saw for the first time at the New York City Opera (and found a strong, worthwhile work). And don’t generic similarities of the artistic process cross-talk across boundaries? Look at the fact that Morton Gould’s primary composing and musical mentor was not a composer but Abby Whiteside, an unusual piano pedagogue; or that Percy Grainger, who studied composition with no less than Busoni, among others, averred that Karl Klimsch, an obscure painter and musical amateur, was the only composing teacher he ever really learned from? Didn’t Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko inform Morton Feldman’s music more than his composing teachers Riegger and Wolpe? How about sculptor Richard Serra’s effect on our contemporary Andrew Violette, acknowledged by Mr. Violette?

Virgil Thomson’s 1940s Herald Tribune apercus into what composers were really up to were unique among daily reviewers. Thomson was like an ex-major leaguer doing the play-by-play; he could explain with a workshop understanding why Shostakovitch wrote two-part counterpoint for a transitional passage, in a way that a non-composer critic didn’t have the tools to hear, much less analyze. And for similar reasons, a Norman Mailer, as I previously suggested, is going to see extraordinary things in a Picasso that will elude the most brilliant Ph.D. art historian. He’s a tradesman talking of a fellow tradesman.

Which brings me now to the rarest of rara aves in the annals of double-threat composers: not composers who have unique fellow-tradesmen insights into their brethren’s handiwork; not composers who double as critics or diarists; but successful composers who sustain wholly separate, successful careers as artists in other forms. I’d say the chief examples of this type in the 20th century (at least in the English-speaking realm) were Paul Bowles (well known for both fiction and music) and Anthony Burgess (well known as a writer but not as a composer), with honorable mentions to Carl Ruggles (composer and painter) and Dane Rudhyar (composer, painter, poet, astrologer…). There have been many composer-painters (Schoenberg and Gershwin are merely the tip of the iceberg) but Ruggles, a notoriously exiguous producer of musical scores, was actually quite prolific as a painter, though more famous as a composer.

Paul Bowles may have been unique among composers in pursuing two acclaimed art careers at different times of life. Until the late 1940s Bowles was known only a composer; his striking 1943 music for the Garcia Lorca zarzuela The Wind Remains is still in my ears twelve years after hearing the Eos Ensemble perform it at Alice Tully Hall. But in 1947 Bowles and his writer-wife Jane Auer moved permanently to Tangier, where he wrote The Sheltering Sky, The Spider’s House, and other remarkable fictions that garnered a worldwide readership far eclipsing the nichey numbers of his New York concert and theater audience.

Anthony Burgess’s closet composing is a fascinating case. Poets Sidney Lanier, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Ezra Pound all made stabs at composing music, but they were all dilettantes. But the hugely prolific author of A Clockwork Orange, the Enderby novels, and works on Shakespeare, Joyce, et al., set out in life to become a serious composer (he finished his first symphony in 1940) and quietly stuck at it. An English teacher and sporadic author, he suddenly dashed out five novels upon being told in 1959 he had terminal brain cancer and a year to live; the tumor proved nonexistent (or cured by art therapy?), but it unleashed a 30-year torrent of both prose and composing. Burgess penned about 175 compositions (!) of all sizes and varieties from pop tunes to massive oratorios, according to Paul Phillips, author of the Groves entry on Burgess. Phillips, a fine conductor and all-around musician, has already performed much Burgess with both the Brown University Symphony and the Pioneer Valley Symphony Orchestra (one of the best regional orchestras in the country). Phillips’s book, A Clockwork Counterpoint, scheduled for publication in late 2008, will tell the world much more about Burgess the composer, and hopefully recordings will follow. (Only one hard-to-find CD of his guitar quartets currently exists, to my knowledge.) Two months ago the Aurea Ensemble of Providence, Rhode Island, performed several Burgess chamber works in concert, and the performances were recorded.

Hat tricks usually refer to threes, but here I’ll apply it to twos. The verdict awaits: Was Burgess a graphomaniac dilettante, or the genuine article—a hat trick among artists?

15 thoughts on “Dual Threat Composers and Professional Hat Tricks

  1. pgblu

    This is an excellent topic; I don’t have much to add to it.

    I will, however, say that people who can conduct well and compose well are also very rare indeed. Sometimes a double threat can exist just within one discipline, though we non-writers tend to gloss over such differences in literature (e.g., Ingeborg Bachmann becoming famous as a playwright and lyric poet but then essentially starting over by trying her hand at fiction) or in visual art (Picasso working as a sculptor as well as a painter, or using watercolor as well as oils, etc).

    Reply
  2. Daniel Wolf

    Carter Scholz is both a superb composer and a writer. I can recommend his short story collection The Amount to Carry and novel Radiance highly.

    Reply
  3. davidcoll

    just to throw in another name, boguslaw schaffer, a polish composer, is a playwright as well- and i think one other composer of the krakow school too, though i can’t remember his name…not penderecki..

    Reply
  4. MarkNGrant

    emendation
    Paul Phillips tells me that the tally on Anthony Burgess’s catalog of musical works now numbers 250, not 175, and that Burgess composed his first symphony at age 18 in 1935. I might also note Burgess’s musical autobiography, This Man and Music, an interesting, down-to-earth read, less fraught with the logodaedaly that characterizes some (not all) of his prose works.

    Reply
  5. Chris Becker

    Actually, every single musicians and/or composer I work with – as well as choreographers and visual artists – are all creative in a variety of mediums. I’d never thought about it much but it really is the case.

    Maybe the reverse of your thesis is true? Isn’t it rare to find a composer who doesn’t express themselves creatively in other mediums?

    Maybe the U.S. in particularly good at pigeonholing artists in an effort to stiffle their creative voices? Hmm. You think? You think maybe music critics sometimes do this?

    Dave Soldier – Composer, Violinist, Scientist
    Maya Deren – Film maker, Dancer, Writer
    William Parker – Bassist, Composer, Poet, Writer
    Roald Hoffman – Chemist, Poet, Playwright
    Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Pretty much everyone in Sonic Youth – Musician, Composer, Visual Artist, Film maker, Writer, etc.

    There’s a great article about Paul Chan in the NY Times and his recent realization of Waiting For Godot in New Orleans. The play was performed by members of The Classical Theatre of Harlem. Paul’s work seems to include video, visual art, social activism and teaching. Very inspiring project (you can read about it online on the NY Times website).

    We all have so much potential as individuals…and in my limited experience, it seems there is much to celebrate and not so much to worry about (i.e. is his/her poetry as good as his music etc etc).

    Reply
  6. greyfeeld

    I have a bit to add to this, being something of a hat-trickster myself. In Boston, I make a fair sum of money as an actor, but the classical music I’ve written has been performed variously and recently recorded (yadda yadda); I have a BFA from the R.I. School of Design and did 55 drawings for Slonimsky’s Book of Musical Anecdotes; and I have a 70,000 word classical-music murder mystery being looked over at the moment by a press in Wisconsin.

    Anyway, whatever. The problem with all this renaissance stuff is that in the States it doesn’t add much to your sum total; Erich von Stroheim once said that in Europe, you make one good film and you’re revered forever; in the U.S. you’re only as good as your last one. In the same way, in professional theatre you’re not supposed to list your other talents, just where you did what and whose agent you use. It’s ‘dilettantish’ to do otherwise. I vehemently resent this, and always have. To me, my paintings influence my music, and they’ve both influenced my acting (I have no training in the latter – partly, I believe, because of what the other arts have taught me); of course, I suspect I could play a composer or a painter onstage better than most people as a result – I played Degas in a wonderful play up here, Van Gogh in Japan, four years ago, and painted the 13 Van Goghs in the show; at the moment, after years of waiting, I’ve half-written a short opera based on one of the scenes, where Theodore Van Gogh is describing the kind of sentimental, misunderstanding canonization that his brother’s work will get after his death. In sum, I suppose I’m saying that it’s all good. In Cambridge, they’re putting up an exhibit of art by artists who aren’t artists (Sylvia Plath’s self-portrait, etc.).

    I don’t think
    it’s sentimental to want to see Mendelssohn’s landscape sketches … if you keep an open mind, and don’t go into either paeans of praise –or censure– given the works’ provenance. everbest, robert bonotto

    Reply
  7. MarkNGrant

    Maybe the reverse of your thesis is true? Isn’t it rare to find a composer who doesn’t express themselves creatively in other mediums?

    I entirely agree with you, and with the other similar comments above noting how common it is for composers to be artistically multifarious. Perhaps I should have made clearer that when I referred to successful composers who sustain wholly separate, successful careers as artists in other forms, I meant well-known composers whose other art careers became as well known as their composing. It is not uncommon for composers to be productive multiple threats; it is uncommon, always, for any composer to become truly renowned. And it is very, very rare indeed for a renowned composer to achieve equal renown in some other medium. Paul Bowles is almost unique in that regard, in that both of his outputs are almost universally (except by Bernard Holland!) regarded as having parity with the other pros in the field.

    More typically, history tends to recall such a double-gaited artist for only one of his/her two-or-more talents. Case in point (and I should have thought of him in my original post): British composer Cyril Scott, once thought an “impressionist” on a par with Debussy (Debussy himself liked Scott’s music). Scott was not only a prolific composer but an extraordinarily prolific writer: he published 41 books on every conceivable subject, including five volumes of poetry, wrote his own lyrics and librettos, and was an early proponent of what is now called alternative medicine. But he is not remembered as Cyril Scott, composer and writer. Paul Bowles is.

    On a somber note: Anthony Burgess’s widow Liana died in Italy on Monday– the day of NewMusicBox’s post of my column discussing Burgess. Synchronicity, anyone?

    Reply
  8. MarkNGrant

    John Philip Sousa, composer and writer
    Perhaps a more dramatic example of the point I was trying to make above about Cyril Scott is that of John Philip Sousa. The March King wrote and published several novels and a fair amount of poetry as well. In his day some of his books sold very well. Sousa thought enough of himself as a writer that he penned his own lyrics for “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Who now remembers Sousa as a writer?

    Reply
  9. palong31

    I understand that Takemitsu also wrote detective novels. Warren Benson wrote poetry – and quite a lot of it, although I am aware of only one book of poems that he published. It’s called “And my Daddy will Play the Drums”. It’s a whimsical book of limericks about percussion instruments, and a must-have for percussionists who have played his music. Benson was a hyper-creative guy. He would have lunch and come back with a cartoon and a poem drawn on a napkin. Then he’d have his assistant (me in the mid-90s) type it up and mail it to some friend somewhere.

    And, to bring this together, I was working for Benson when Takemitsu died, and Benson wrote a poem for him. They were good friends. I wish I could find it now.

    Reply
  10. philmusic

    “…should have made clearer that when I referred to successful composers who sustain wholly separate, successful careers as artists in other forms, I meant well-known composers whose other art careers became as well known as their composing. …”


    Mark perhaps you should just let the blogging flow

    and let the bloggers thoughts go where they might go

    I know you don’t like to be misinterpreted

    or have your blogging space perverted-ed

    You may find this to be irrelevant

    but you can’t control every element.

    not every response will be true

    but you will be understood by quite a few.

    Respectfully, Phil Fried

    Reply
  11. Garth Trinkl

    david coll –

    Boguslaw Schaffer is equally well known as a visual artist and art theorist, as he is a composer (and playwright).

    (I can’t think of whom from Krakow that you might also be thinking of; but I’d be very curious if you happen to remember.)

    I’d wager that John Cage will also, ultimately, be known as a visual artist as well as a composer. (His visual art achievement being, I believe, more significant than, say, visual artist Lyonel Feininger’s musical achievement. — I’ll leave the judgement of Gloria Coates’s visual artistic achievement to others only due my unfortunate unfamiliarity with a large body of her work.)

    Reply
  12. Frank J. Oteri

    I’d wager that John Cage will also, ultimately, be known as a visual artist as well as a composer.

    Agreed, and also don’t forget that Cage’s own writings are among the treasures of American experimental literature, a worthy heir to Gertrude Stein. And his myriad mesostics include some extraordinarily beautiful poetry.

    Reply
  13. Garth Trinkl

    Excepting for his ‘Silence’, I am unfamilar with Cage’s American experimental literature and all but a handful of his mesostics. (I am familiar with Cage’s Roaratorio and Europeas.)

    On the other hand, I have read all of Busoni’s and Partch’s librettos (as well as Messiaen’s libretto to his Saint François d’Assise).

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.