Corrections or additions?

This article was prepared by Elaine Strauss for the February 13,

2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Accessing Modern Music

Pianist Geoffrey Burleson, himself, champion of

contemporary

music, admits it: contemporary music is difficult to approach. In

a phone interview from his home in Valley Stream, Long Island, he

says, "Contemporary music has a reputation for being far less

digestible than concert music from the 19th century. Some pieces are

inaccessible, sometimes by design. Most famously, Schoenberg started

a society for private music performance whose members were a small

cadre of insiders."

Arnold Schoenberg, prophet of atonal music, liked to say that he was

a champion of "the emancipation of the dissonance." His

Society

for Private Musical Performances, founded in Germany in 1918, excluded

critics and prohibited the vocal expression of either approval or

disapproval. It was disbanded in 1922.

In a program presented by the Princeton Composers Ensemble on Tuesday,

February 19, in Princeton University’s Taplin Auditorium, Burleson

wades into music closer to Schoenberg than to Beethoven, music that,

for the most part, leaves traditional practices in the dust.

The Composers Ensemble at Princeton, in the university music

department,

provides an opportunity for young composers to hear, discuss, and

revise works in progress before letting them fend for themselves in

the musical world. It has nurtured a varied international music

culture,

spanning six centuries of notated music from Western Europe,

vernacular

and world musics, computer music and music technology, improvisation,

performance art, and 20th-century American concert music. It is

directed

by faculty composer Steven Mackey, and conductor of the Princeton

University Orchestra Michael Pratt.

Princeton roots are evident in Burleson’s concert program which

includes

two etudes by David Rakowski, "Horned In" and "You Dirty

Rag," and Barbara White’s "Reliquary." Rakowski received

his Ph.D. in composition at Princeton in 1996. White is currently

a member of the music department.

Burleson has subtitled the program "Memory,

Mourning,

and Machines." He drew his inspiration, he says, from White’s

"Reliquary," a set of five musical reminiscences that refer

to her teachers, favorite composers, and a song that her mother used

to sing. "`Reliquary,’" says Burleson, who premiered the piece

at Harvard last year, "was the departure point for designing the

program. It radiates out of the influences in Barbara’s piece."

"I like irony," Burleson says. "People talk about how

much irony is exhibited today. The wellsprings of present-day irony

are in the music and art that comes out of Germany’s Weimar Republic.

The Antheil sonata on my program and the Rakowski are ironic. In a

sense my concert is a historical essay. The word `memory’ in the title

refers to that. It has to do with how you think about music from the

recent past and the more distant past." From the more distant

past Burleson’s program includes music by Franz Liszt and Maurice

Ravel.

Burleson heard what he calls "the first overtly contemporary piece

I was exposed to" at age 17, in 1981. The piece was a composition

for piano and tape by Argentinian Mario Davidovsky. "My piano

teacher went to a convention in Ohio and brought back the score of

the Davidovsky for me," Burleson says. "She knew I had a

predilection

for Prokofieff and Scriabin, and she thought, `Maybe Geoff would like

to see something newer.’"

"Before that," says Burleson, "I thought contemporary

was Prokofieff. Referring to pieces written in the 1920s as

`contemporary music’ in 2002 is kind of absurd."

Burleson was born in 1964 in Downers Grove, Illinois, a Chicago

suburb,

to physicist parents, now retired, who met at Stanford University.

When Geoff was six, the family moved to southern New Mexico, where

his father taught at New Mexico State University, and also worked

in the north at Los Alamos National Laboratories. Burleson’s mother

worked in defense contracting. Both parents are amateur musicians.

Burleson’s father plays piano and harpsichord; his mother plays piano

and violin.

Burleson’s brother Chris is a computer scientist by day, and a jazz

musician by night. His instruments are drums, percussion, bassoon,

and saxophone. When the brothers were young they and their father

built a harpsichord together from a kit. The project was a tribute,

simultaneously, to good family relations, to skills of manual

dexterity,

and to serious musical commitment

Burleson earned a bachelor’s degree from Baltimore’s Peabody

Conservatory

in 1986 and a master’s degree from Boston’s New England Conservatory

of Music in 1988. He is currently a doctoral candidate at SUNY, Stony

Brook, preparing for his doctoral recital that will include White’s

"Reliquary."

Burleson has served as pianist in a variety of chamber ensembles,

and between 1991 and 2000, when he began to teach at Stony Brook,

he taught in France and Switzerland, and at a fistful of universities

in the Boston area. He is currently teaching at Princeton.

Five individuals find a place on Burleson’s list of mentors. "I

was lucky enough to have worked with them in the right order,"

he says. He describes Tinka Knopf, his first teacher at Peabody as

"an all-around technician" who "expanded my approach to

color and tone-production." Lillian Freundlich, his second Peabody

teacher "taught me how to listen to myself," he says. "She

taught me how to respond in real time to what I was hearing in my

head and how to deal with the seamless playing of melody."

Veronica Jochum, Burleson says, "was the daughter of [German-born

conductor] Eugen Jochum and was important because of her tradition.

She imparted to me something about the idioms of German and Austrian

music that made me feel a cultural connection to this music. She also

turned me on to the music from the Weimar Republic and the Bauhaus

period. She conceptually tied together music and culture. She taught

me what I needed to do physically and in terms of coordination to

pull off pieces. It was a physical-technical approach."

Leonard Shure, a student of Artur Schnabel, says Burleson, "taught

me how to deal with the syntax of music, and with phrasing. The piano

is made up of hammers hitting strings, but it’s important in classical

music to phrase like a singer."

Burleson studies with Gilbert Kalish at Stony Brook, whom he calls

"a sage mentor." Like Burleson, Kalish also studied with

Leonard

Shure. Burleson is particularly grateful for Kalish’s willingness

to work from the musical outlook of each student. "All of Kalish’s

students play differently," Burleson says. "He takes each

student’s own approach as a departure point and pursues what they

need technically or interpretively."

The music of Germany after World War I, in which Burleson immersed

himself while he studied with Jochum, has found a permanent place

on his musical map. "The time and place that fascinates me the

most and compels me the most is Berlin during the Weimar

Republic,"

he says. "It was such an incredible flourishing of groundbreaking

experiments in art, culture, and society. Even the government was

experimental, although on pragmatic levels it was a failure."

"The Weimar Republic was significant for integrating the various

arts," Burleson adds. "There was experimental theater.

Kandinsky

and the Bauhaus integrated art, architecture, and life."

"The artistic life of Weimar Germany was a combination of irony

and poignancy because economically it was such a horrible time. You

needed millions of marks to buy a loaf of bread. In the face of

adversity,

sometimes the best art is created. Cabaret was part of the

picture."

Weimar Germany’s cabaret music has proved to be a hardy

transplant in the United States. The bittersweet desperation of

Bertholt

Brecht and Kurt Weill attracts ardent American listeners for whom

the dark side of urban life has a nostalgic patina. Burleson and his

wife, soprano Maria Tegzes, have captured the cabaret mood on the

CD "Urban Cabaret."

"Performing with my wife is the ultimate personal-professional

relationship," says Burleson. "We don’t have to discuss in

words whether to speed up here or slow down there. We innately respond

to each other’s musical ideas. We both like the same pieces, going

back to the baroque."

Burleson makes no distinction between mastering avant-garde music

and traditional music. Asked about the difference between learning

contemporary and classical music, he says, "Not much, although

the initial process of decoding the compositions is not identical.

The first problem is that some contemporary pieces have hellatiously

complex rhythms. Decoding the rhythmic language is difficult at first.

After that the impulses become the same. I want all pieces to sound

organic, interesting, and clear to the listener. That’s especially

important with contemporary music. Exactly what is going on in the

composition is often difficult to make clear."

"The second problem," he continues, "is the pitch

language,

the question of tonality compared to atonality. Contemporary music

is in a different language from classical music. But you hear it all

the time in movie scores, especially adventure or horror movies."

And yet, concert halls are full of listeners reluctant to listen

beyond

Brahms. Burleson believes that those with traditional musical horizons

can extend their musical scope by adopting an open attitude. "I

encourage students to go to concerts that have unfamiliar composers

on them," he says. "Contemporary music has not yet stood the

test of time. It’s like going to a gallery opening. The work might

be great or it might be terrible, but it’s always interesting. Having

a lot of preconceptions makes for difficulties. You should go in and

think `Surprise me!’ That can lead to fascinating discoveries."

— Elaine Strauss

Geoffrey Burleson, Friends of Music at Princeton,

Taplin Auditorium, 609-258-5000. "Memory, Mourning and

Machines."

Free. Tuesday, February 19, 8 p.m.


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