Obituary: Donald Martino (1931-2005)



Donald Martino

[Ed. Note: December has been a very sad month for the new music community. Shortly after we ran our memorials to Stephen “Lucky” Mosko and Soong Fu-Yuan on NewMusicBox, we learned of the death of Donald Martino. This one particularly hit us hard as we were planning to feature Martino as our Cover next May in honor of his 75th birthday. We asked his former student, Steven Mackey, to reminisce about this important composer who remained a rugged individual to the very end.]

I had only been in the New York City area for a couple of months when, in November of 1978, I attended the premiere of Donald Martino’s Triple Concerto for three clarinets (Bb, bass, and contra). The piece begins with an explosion (piano clusters and tam-tam) and like some primordial creature emerging from the Big Bang, the contra-bass clarinet gradually makes its presence known on a low fundamental and then rises up a twelfth. Never before or since have I heard such a liquid connection between two notes—more of a cross-fade than an ordinary legato. As a clarinet player himself, Don knew how the 2nd note was contained in the first note and coaxed it out under cover of the decaying thunderclap.

In subsequent months I literally wore out the grooves of my Speculum Musicae recording of Notturno (the piece for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973). The timbral trills on the flute accompanied by strummed cello pizzicati were seductive, atmospheric, and exotic. There are parts of that piece that sound like backwards music. My housemate literally threw books against our shared wall out of frustration induced by my listening, over and over again, to those passages.

This is not dry music. In the generally arid landscape of late ’70s American academic serialism, this music was dripping wet with sensuality, color, affect, and drama—schmaltzy even. By the standards of the self-referential world of post-Schoenbergian American serialism, Don was quite eclectic. He harvested major triads and arioso melodies from his rows, and one got the feeling that, while he embraced the structural functions of the row, he fought with some of the incumbent sounds. He used to say, after tennis and a beer or two, that he thought Robert Schuman was looking for a way out of the tonal system (I think I know what he means) and I always wondered if Don was looking for a way back in.

In 1981, I made the pilgrimage to Brandeis to study with Martino. He was not the world’s greatest classroom teacher. We spent the mornings pouring over his writings about set theory; mostly articles that I had already read. The material was fascinating and the narrative logic inherent in his ideas about derived sets and combinatoriality continue to influence me, but in these seminars he basically read the text and paused occasionally for questions. Mondays started looking up around noon when the whole group of us, including Don, would have lunch together at the local hoagie joint. This is where we learned that he wrote those articles because that was the only way a “serious” composer could earn a reputation at a time when the state of new music performance was abysmal; new work was rarely performed and when it was, difficult passages would sooner be cut than rehearsed. Things got better for Don in this regard with commissions from the Boston Symphony and the Julliard String Quartet, but in the time I was close to him he never lost that scrappy attitude. It was part of his charm. I always got the impression that Don had even been a much tougher cookie before I met him. This I heard from Stephen “Lucky” Mosko who studied with him at Yale. (Lucky also died in the past week.) Don’s marriage to Lora and his professional success had sweetened and mellowed him by the time I arrived on the scene.

As uninspired as he was in the classroom, he was a gifted private composition teacher. Composition lessons in the afternoon were never about the hexachords we excavated in the morning. He was focused on the vividness of the surface of the music, the phrasing, the color of the orchestration, the drama, the intrinsic expressive potential of the form, and all the other things that made his music stand out. I still think about his advice in making a transition, “If you want to slow down, first get too fast; and if you want to speed up, first get too slow.”

After my first year at Brandeis Don moved to Harvard, but our shared interested in tennis kept us in touch. We played once a week which meant an hour or more on the court, then another hour over a beer or two, and occasionally as much as five hours with a big bowl of pasta from Lora in our laps in front of a Davis cup match on TV…good times!

When I heard that Don died, the first thing that popped into my head was playing tennis with him in the rain. Yes, it was pouring down rain, but we wanted to earn our beer so we were smacking soggy balls around a shallow lake with a net. It was kind of miserable and neither of us said a word until, after about 45 minutes Don shouted, “I don’t think any girls are gonna show up, so we might as well go home.”