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
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
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
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
spanning six centuries of notated music from Western Europe,
and world musics, computer music and music technology, improvisation,
performance art, and 20th-century American concert music. It is
by faculty composer Steven Mackey, and conductor of the Princeton
University Orchestra Michael Pratt.
Princeton roots are evident in Burleson’s concert program which
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,
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
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
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
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
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
and to serious musical commitment
Burleson earned a bachelor’s degree from Baltimore’s Peabody
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
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
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
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.
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
sometimes the best art is created. Cabaret was part of the
Weimar Germany’s cabaret music has proved to be a hardy
transplant in the United States. The bittersweet desperation of
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
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
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
Taplin Auditorium, 609-258-5000. "Memory, Mourning and
Free. Tuesday, February 19, 8 p.m.
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