Forty years ago, as a grad student composer, I had learned about Elliott Schwartz’s more heretical works from the mid-sixties to early seventies—Elevator Music, for example, with twelve groups of student musicians on twelve floors whose music waxes, blends, and wanes as audience members ride up and down with open elevator doors; or Telly for TVs, radios, pre-recorded tape and a variety of conventional instruments. At that point I thought of Elliott as one of the more aggressive, proudly disruptive composers of the day (usually assumed to be a good thing among my peers at the time). But it was after reading his refreshingly informal, conversational Listener’s Guide to electronic music that I began to realize that Elliott had a different passion, which was to welcome everyone—whether aficionado or skeptic—into his own personal, life-long exploration of the physical, cultural, and psychological spaces where music reveals and transforms who we are. Ever since then, in my periodic association with him as co-author, presenter, and friend, I’ve come to marvel at, aspire to, and now mourn the loss of Elliott’s unique mix of intellectual brilliance and guileless generosity in wanting to let the whole world in on music’s big secrets.
Those who have watched him speak to a group—of students, colleagues, or especially “lay” listeners—will always remember with delight those signature moments when Elliott (demonstrating from the keyboard with his Mephistophelean goatee and thick glasses) suddenly catches himself in mid-sentence, looks straight out with widening eyes, and proclaims “but instead we find something quite surprising…”
There is much that he hoped would surprise, enlighten, and delight us all: that music can make perfect sense and be completely unexpected in the same instant; that musical perception can be radically altered by what our other senses encounter when we hear it; that performance ritual and the norms and values it projects are as central to the experience of a live performance by the New York Philharmonic as to, say, an Ashanti healing ceremony; that the future of music flows mysteriously but inexorably from a sometimes affectionate, sometimes fractious conversation between its past and present. These are among the ever-unfolding discoveries that animated Elliott’s life and career, and he was convinced that a deep dive into such phenomena could make the music of any tradition, old or new, vitally interesting to anyone.
For Elliott, though, such pursuits were most urgent in his own journey as a composer. And since about 1990, the most consistent feature of his music has been an interweaving of past and present musical languages through collage, quotation, improvisation and moments of theater. These are integrated into a musical discourse—by turns hard-edged or lyrical, brutal or whimsical—in which the historical emerges from, recedes into, and otherwise haunts the new, as if today’s music were in a dreamlike, at times nightmarish internal struggle with its antecedents. There have always been high points in Elliott’s repertoire, but to my ears, his music has become more focused in this direction with time, and ever more clear-eyed and compelling. He did indeed have, as he said shortly before he died, “so much more music to write.”
Until his artistically gifted and beloved wife DeeDee left us unexpectedly about three years ago, Elliott continued to travel the country and the world by invitation, his music being recognized both overseas and at home as iconic and exemplary in the musical library of American modernism. Given the long and distinguished list of composers, performers, and scholars whom he has mentored and with whom he has collaborated, I can only believe that his music will be kept alive and inspire us for decades to come. My hope is that, after the grieving, all of us who remember the persistent (if somewhat mischievous) twinkle in Elliott’s eye and who live our lives in music will carry that big-hearted spirit—and that deep and relentless curiosity—into all our future endeavors.