Sperry Honored As New Music Champion



New Music Champion 2002:Paul Sperry

Paul Sperry has received the third biennial New Music Champion Award for 2002 from the New Music Connoisseur, a newsletter focusing on the work of the composers of our time. An official announcement will appear in the fall 2002 issue (available at www.newmusicon.org) accompanied by details on the presentation ceremony.

Barry Cohen, publisher of NMC, praised Sperry by noting that “no one has done more for the cause of preserving, nurturing, and inspiring a deep and abiding love for the homegrown American song than has Paul Sperry. As a performer himself, he has continually made himself available to living composers and other performers of new vocal music.”


AMC board veteran of 18 years and one-time president Paul Sperry has premiered over 80 different pieces during his career as a singer, in addition to numerous performances of American works and multiple recordings devoted to contemporary music. He is currently chairman of the board of the American Composers Orchestra and artistic director of Joy In Singing, which regularly features the works of living American composers. As an educator, Sperry is an advocate for American song at Juilliard and the Manhattan School, and the Aspen Music Festival and School. His American Encores book will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.

Candidates for the award are nominated based on demonstrated behind-the-scenes advocacy for and support of new music. Sperry was selected to receive the award through the votes of NMC readers and a special selection committee. The committee first selected 5 finalists out of 14 nominees. This year’s finalists also included NewMusicBox‘s own editor Frank J. Oteri, composer and professor Richard Brooks, Society for New Music founder and singer Neva Pilgrim, and composer, producer, and educator Laura Kaminsky.

Past award winners were Francis Thorne (1998-99) and the team of Cheryl Seltzer and Joel Sachs (2000-01). Otto Luening (2000-01) was also honored with a special posthumous award.

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In a recent interview with NewMusicBox Associate Editor Molly Sheridan, Sperry spoke candidly about the award and his career in new music, and offered his predictions for the future of the art. A transcript of that conversation is included here.

Molly Sheridan: It seems like rather a trite question, perhaps, but what does being recognized like this mean to you?

Paul Sperry: Well, I was obviously delighted and it means a lot to me. I operate from a different premise than a lot of people. I really think that the composers are the people who matter in the music business and I think it’s outrageous that performers can earn more in a day or two than a composer can earn in 30 years. That seems absolutely ludicrous and a total reversal of importance. I don’t think anybody knows or cares who premiered La Bohème. So I’ve devoted a lot of energy in my life trying to promote new music. I really think it’s important. It’s been enormous fun as well as in some way worthwhile, I hope. To be recognized for it is awfully nice. It isn’t why I’ve been doing it, but I’m not going to complain.

Molly Sheridan: What drew you into this advocacy for new music? There are obviously a lot of things you can work on in life. What spoke to you about this cause?

Paul Sperry: I would say it happened over time. It was at first a career suggestion from my manager, Sheldon Soffer, who said in about 1971, ‘You ought to be doing new music,’ and I said, ‘Yuck.’ It was sort of a severe time in new music. I wasn’t particularly drawn to it or didn’t think I was, and he said I was making a mistake, that I’d enjoy it. And he came up with an idea that I should commission Bruno Maderna for a piece—Maderna was looking to write a vocal piece as a try out for an opera commission that he had. So I did it and I got a perfectly wonderful piece, which I have performed at least 50 times in my life with great pleasure. It’s a very witty, very sophisticated piece, and it’s just wonderful and so much fun. I worked with Maderna and he cast me in his opera. After that I was worthy of consideration by Henze for a big premiere he was doing in New York and subsequently for another work that I did in many cities, mostly in Europe, and then I met Berio and sang his opera and Stockhausen, but also then things really got going here and I met Druckman. He was probably the first American composer that I premiered a piece by and it was so exciting. These people were so fascinating and musically I just…well, what can I say, it was so fulfilling. For somebody who doesn’t consider himself a bit creative to be that close to the creative process is really exciting. I really think there’s a total difference between the creative instinct and the re-creative one, and I think I’m very good at the re-creative one but I haven’t got an ounce of the creative. My wife’s a sculptor and she’ll start with nothing and make something marvelous. How you can do that is totally mystifying to me. If somebody were to put a piece of paper in front of me and say, ‘Write something!’ I’d have an anxiety attack. So it really is different and I just love this aspect of it.

Molly Sheridan: Well, I was going to ask you what stands out as you look back over your career but it sounds like there was a lot…

Paul Sperry: Yeah, obviously premiering Bernard RandsCanti Del Sole, which won the Pulitzer, has to be pretty high on the list. The sort of excitement plus amusement of singing at La Scala when most of my opera-singing friends weren’t but I got there doing Stockhausen. That was kind of fun. But also, it’s just been a continuing thing. I keep on meeting composers and when someone asks if they can write something for me, I’m always thrilled. I haven’t had very many experiences where the pieces I’ve premiered were things I wouldn’t want to do again. There have been a few, and I won’t name them, but mostly it’s just been an exciting process. And yes, some of the pieces have been very difficult and I would curse the composer roundly while I was trying to learn it. But once it’s learned and I can really get into the music, it’s almost always been terrific.

Molly Sheridan: I know that you do quite a bit of teaching and that part of that is new music. I’m curious how you go about introducing this repertoire to your students and what their range of reactions have been…

Paul Sperry: Well, what I’ve been teaching most recently has been American song. I teach classes in it at Juilliard and at Manhattan and at least half the year I devote to living composers. The song composers, by and large, have not been writing in the farthest out avant-garde styles of the ’70s and such, because that generally hasn’t been what attracted them. Most of the music there would be vocal chamber music written for ensembles and sopranos where you could do a lot of things that weren’t the sort of intersection of poetry and music that seems to move the songwriters more. So it’s not a big reach actually, though the students may think it is. It’s not a huge traversal from Schubert to Beaser or Musto or some of those who write songs that are actually quite difficult to write and perform but the form is recognizable. What they have to do if it’s a 12-tone piece or an atonal piece…it’s harder for a singer to learn atonal music. I don’t know any singer for whom it isn’t harder even if you have absolute pitch, because you tend to hear harmonically—that’s how most of us were raised—and if you take that crutch away, to pick a note out of an atonal cluster is much harder so it takes more time to learn. And likely you’ll find trickier rhythms in 20th-century music than you would in the 19th, say. So you have to get them used to the idea, sort of get them into the feeling that this has already happened and they’re tools that they have to have. And I find that if they can master rhythms in a composer that they’re bound to love like Bernstein, and get around the tricky rhythms, then they find the next time they come to a piece with tricky rhythms it won’t be so bad.

Molly Sheridan: As you consider the future of the field I’m curious where you see this particular kind of music fitting into American society at large…

Paul Sperry: Oh, gosh. Well I think there are all kinds of new things that we’re only beginning to look at. NewMusicJukeBox is certainly one of them. I mean, an opportunity for a composer’s music to get out there, easily accessible, without the backing of a major publisher, is a colossal step in the right direction. I think what will have to happen is the training of the performers and presenters to explore this technology, find out what’s out there, realize how they can use it, and so on. I think the whole distribution of music is just going to change. We’re going to have much more self-publishing, I believe. Computers are making that easier and easier, and we’re going to have new forms of distribution and all kinds of downloading of recordings rather than going out and buying them. That will make the process of getting things recorded cheaper, and I think there’s a huge potential future. How that actually gets translated into the marketplace and into the awareness of young musicians I don’t know. The musicians who are going through conservatories now are less and less frightened by the difficulties of the music between 1950 and 2000. They’re just tossing it off. Once it’s out there and enough people start looking at it the problems get solved and we move on. I think the real problems for the music I’m supporting or trying to, the problems exist in the dumbing down of American society—the constant lessening of standards and reducing of curricula and music being regarded as a fringe activity rather than a central one, as are all the arts. That, I think, is a real problem that we need to address and I don’t think we’ve had anybody in power for a long time who really cares much. We’ve been an easy whipping boy and it will be quite a while before we recover from it, unfortunately.