Composer's Odyssey: Notes from Jay Sydeman
Story by Maria Goodwin
Jay Sydeman is
at his keyboard in his home on the Mendocino coast. The house is
quiet and full of light, an ideal place for Sydeman’s
creative work. The renowned composer talks about the process of writing
music and the life-long journey that has brought him to this place.
He muses that, like Odysseus, the winds of chance, or perhaps the gods,
have blown him hither and yon for the past thirty years. This is particularly
poignant as his most recent opera is based on the adventures of Odysseus.
At the age of eighty he looks forward to being becalmed in Mendocino,
engaging in its vibrant musical life. He talks with great enthusiasm
about the Symphony of the Redwoods, marveling that such a small community
supports an orchestra of such high quality, clearly attributable, he
says, to conductor Allan Pollack’s outstanding leadership.
York Times wrote: ‘Sydeman
uses the whole battery of far-out techniques, but has an uncanny ability to throw
in the whole avant-garde machine as if it were the simplest, most normal way
of making music in the world…of
great effect, clever and direct, almost neo-classical avant-garde.’ The
point is that seeds sown often bear quite unexpected fruit and, for me, this
serialization was very fertile ground indeed to stimulate my imagination.
happened because I needed to get out of teaching; I had been teaching
at Mannes College for twelve years: I was tired; it was time for
a change. I needed to move on, go somewhere, do something else. The
end result was life changing in many respects. All of this tumult
affected my personal life, too, of course. I quit teaching entirely.
My wife and I divorced; she moved to California with our three children.
I bought a VW bus and took off for California also; my intention
was to relocate somewhere near my children. It was 1970.
“My first stop was a sort of Synanon-based drug rehabilitation commune
for teenagers in southern California. As I was clearly not a teen-ager and didn’t
have a drug problem, it was unclear what I was doing there. I quite naturally
took over driving the World War II dump truck acting as sanitary engineer—’My
Daddy, the garbage man,’ as my teenaged daughter would intone
with some desperation.
continued. I went to England and studied the Steiner/Waldorf philosophy
of education at Emerson College. I had a friend who wanted to live
in a tree house in Hawaii, the Big Island. I had bought a small piece
of lava land there years before and told him if there was a tree
on it he could call it home. Sad to say it was virgin lava with not
so much as a shrub protruding. I joined him to check it out and ended
up staying for five years (my spiritual bum days).
“I lived in various situations—the first year in a 1964 Chevy van
with my dispirited tree house friend, a coffee plantation, various hurriedly
constructed shacks in the woods (a tin roof supported by local ohia trees with
screens as siding—construction time about two hours). I mainly
contemplated my navel and fiddled with my fiddle. This fiddling bore
fruit when I found myself helping reconstruct an abandoned Buddhist
temple. Another reconstructee, Jeannie Doe, also played the violin
and I ended up writing a great deal of music. And, as the world spins,
it was precisely this Jeannie Doe whom I came to visit in Mendocino
thirty years later and who encouraged me to move here.
“One day, after living at the temple for two years, a visitor asked me
how long I had been a Buddhist and I replied that I didn’t think I was
a Buddhist. He asked, ‘Well, what are you doing here?’ I replied, ‘I’m
not sure, maybe to write violin duos.’ He looked perplexed and a week later
I left, returning to the mainland to set up a music program at the Rudolf Steiner
College in Fair Oaks, California. I taught about sixty students daily and we
become a creditable chorus. I set all fifty-two of Steiner’s
weekly meditations to music, which we performed. I was so impressed
with what had developed, that I wrote an opera for the chorus, which
we performed in Sacramento and San Francisco. This attracted media
attention which led to a commission from the Sacramento Symphony for
a large orchestral work based on the four elements which, in turn,
led to more commissions and so on. So I was back writing again, but
this time writing more lyric and accessible music, mainly vocal music
for singers of limited musical skills.”
In 1988 Sydeman
moved to Nevada City and developed a rich musical life there for
twenty years. He helped establish a composers’ cooperative, hosted
local public radio shows and founded a youth symphony orchestra. He was involved
with the summer music festival and multi-media events, which combined the work
of artists, poets, and dancers. “I wanted to promote an awareness of new
music; I gave a lot of lectures. I’d play a recent CD at gatherings in
private homes and we’d discuss evolution of music…a very
effective way of exposing more people to contemporary music.”
is archiving his immense body of work by entering every recording
and score into the computer. He’s been working
on this for the last ten years and is about seventy percent finished
(assuming he writes nothing new, which is extremely unlikely).
“When I look back on my life,” he muses, I liken my own sojourns
to that of Odysseus; he was blown around, against his will, ending up where Poseidon
decreed; I see my wanderings in a similar light, never planning, simply arriving
somewhere and saying ‘where is this?’ and ‘what’s going
disheartened about the decline of classical music appreciation in
America and sees the next frontier for disseminating new music must
obviously be the Internet. “If kids don’t grow up with classical music in the
home, it is less likely they’ll learn about it. There is a decline
in music in the schools as well; when there are budget
“I feel strongly that there are two forms of music. There is what I call
folk music which is all of pop music—jazz, reggae, rock ‘n roll and
so on—music that emanates from the people and reflects the social
scene, music for entertainment and dancing. The other type of music,
art music, is done purely for artistic reasons with no agenda. Both
forms have completely different reasons for being and both forms are
“Art music is there to give a deep emotional experience, and, whether we
notice it or not, provides an intellectual experience as well. In following the
thread of a well-constructed piece of music, we follow the thought of the composer
in the most ephemeral of mediums. Music, simply, is architecture in time—a
journey. This is what the composer strives for, to carry to the listener from
point a to point b in an inevitable way, bringing you that fullness, that completion.
And it’s also about the composer finding his unique voice and
that only happens with pure intent, time, and dedication.
no doubt that hearing music live is the best way to experience it.
The next best is, of course, a recording. The third level of abstraction
is the virtual orchestra, where the composer-performer has samples
of all the instruments at his disposal and creates the work using a
computer as a mini-recording studio. Though far from the intimacy of
a violin in your living room, it does give the composer tools for composing,
performing, and recording his work down to the finest detail. All have
As if to demonstrate
this immediate accessibility, Sydeman plays, via his computer, a
new chamber opera Oughtatalk (word play on “auto talk”)—a
short piece set in a Safeway parking featuring a whimsical dialogue between two
cars (a Benz and Hyundai). That so much humor and provocative commentary is contained
in this six-minute piece exhibits Sydeman’s clever playfulness
and creativity. The listener is at once engaged, amused and educated.
Jay Sydeman, a man who exudes vitality and curiosity looks forward as the continuing odyssey of life and art unfolds.
Mendocino Music Festival
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