A 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.

When asked about the creative process, Sydeman says, “When I’m writing, the music evolves from me. If I’m writing a slow lyrical movement, it doesn’t mean that’s how I’m feeling. I’m thinking ‘lyric’ in the abstract. You see, music has its own life and writing is a cooperative process. Your intuition serves up the music, your intelligence, will, and craft shape it like a beautiful piece of pottery. The intuition perhaps being analogous to our line of destiny and the craft representing our infinitely creative free will. Whenever I am creating a new work, I am oblivious to my outer circumstance. I could be sitting under a tree or in my studio. I could be hungry, my bladder could be screaming for relief—it’s all of no consequence as the obsessive process simply obliterates the outer world. If the phone rings and I am so foolish to answer it, and some telemarketer speaks, ‘Good evening, Mr. Sydeman,’ my fury is limitless.”

Sydeman’s body of work is astonishingly rich; he has composed steadily since 1955—short pieces, chamber music, choral works, symphonies and concerti. He has written major commissions for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood (where he held a fellowship in composition) and National Public Television. He is the recipient of many prestigious awards including recognition from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and Boston Symphony’s Merit Award for meritorious work in the field of symphonic composition.

A native New Yorker, Sydeman began his serious study of music at Mannes College of Music in 1947. He later received his Master of Music degree from Hartt College in Connecticut. Then followed a time of prolific and intense work and travel both in the East Coast and abroad. He represented the U.S. State Department lecturing in Czechoslovakia, Rumania and Bulgaria.

Modern classical music was not always Sydeman’s focus. Early on he started out in jazz. “What started me on the process was when I realized that (as Oz might have said) I needed information,” he says. “When entering music school I knew nothing of the great tradition of the classics that have survived the vagaries of time, styles and fashion. I became completely taken by my newly discovered form of expression, so much so that all my previous enthusiasms in music simply disappeared. I discovered Stravinsky, Bartok, Berg—that music struck me so powerfully I said to myself—I want to do that! Then discovering Bach, Beethoven, Mozart—a panoply of great works—what a gift for a young impressionable mind!

"At the same time, here I was in New York in the sixties, this time, this place where there emerged an explosion of creativity not unlike the great flowering in Renaissance Italy or eighteenth century Vienna. Everything was up for grabs. Like the rest of society, artists were exploring new forms, new ways of being in the world mirrored in the evolving communal lifestyles, experience in consciousness, social upheaval and the unprecedented birth of a political conscience which shouted, ‘No!,’ to an immoral war. Would that our national conscience speak now with such conviction!”

This change swept into every realm including reassessing the language of music that had gone on with Schoenberg and Stravinsky shortly after the turn of the century. This new thrust was a continuation of what had been laid down fifty years before. A radical departure from the past came when composers began using the twelve-tone technique devised by Arnold Schoenberg in the early twenties. This method ensures all twelve notes of the chromatic scale are sounded as often as one another in a piece of music, without emphasis of one over the other. This technique was highly influential on mid-twentieth century composers.

Sydeman explains, “So instead of seven little soldiers marching along (the tonal, major, minor chord-scale guys) Schoenberg elevated the five subordinates (our darker brethren, if you look at the piano keyboard) to equal status. Thus Schoenberg’s organization of the twelve pitches was diligently applied to all parameters of music—rhythm, dynamics, instrumentation, creating series within series and turning music into some sort of giant mathematical puzzle, leaving listeners even more puzzled. Heady rhythms and color resulting from this puzzle became available to the next generation of composers.”

Sydeman goes on, “Twelve-tone was the accepted avant-garde of the time in the East Coast and Europe. This serial music grew, applying the series mathematically, but serial ran the risk of sounding mechanical. A composer’s intuition had to work within a defined area. A good example is that Bach himself set the most rigid constrictions in his composing, yet produced, under these most constrained conditions, the most brilliant music ever written. So when I wrote in this way, I used the vocabulary of avant-garde, but not the technique, writing out of intuition, but within the framework. It was impossible for me, with my already established vocabulary, to say these new things without new vocabulary. Not only did you have to write the music, you had to invent the language with which to write! I felt my writing then was within that box; the box was new and different, but small, and having seen the limitations and the challenge presented to one’s imagination, I could still work with it. I was successful because I worked ‘in the box’ post twelve-tone stuff; I sounded like other people, but was able to come up with some musically valid work.

"The New 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.

“Some of the seminal works from my New York period included a concerto for expanded orchestra, Oecumenicus, written for the Boston Symphony under Erich Leinsdorf. This piece is a series of variations exploring each section of the orchestra and, indeed, most of the soloists within each section, before putting the orchestra back together again (no Humpty Dumpty here!). For another piece commissioned for the opening of Alice Tulley Hall in Lincoln Center, I chose the parody of an excommunication curse from Tristam Shandy—a parody of a parody, if you will. I was young and brazen and black comedy was very in at the time, so I chose to do this piece, bizarre as it was. It was designed to shake people up and indeed caused a mini-riot with boos and hisses mingled with bravos as it went full speed ahead for its brief thirty-minute life span. My last piece before my exodus from New York was of a political nature—three archetypes (singers) stuck in their cages (literally); they were the revolutionary, the victim, the armchair liberal, all raving and ranting about their lot. It was vaguely performed and I was vaguely dissatisfied, as the piece indicated.

“These pieces 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.

“The odyssey 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.”

Currently Sydeman 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 on?’”

Sydeman feels 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
cuts, the arts are the first to go. Technology makes everything so accessible now, the iPods are wired, there’s YouTube—the challenge is how to get young people interested and excited. I want to think some kid will be surfing the net looking for a new experience and come across some modern classical music that will hook him into wanting more.

“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 valid.

“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.

“There is 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 their place.”

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.
In closing, Sydeman says, “I must again remark on the importance of Mendocino’s Music Festival, well established with a long history and openness to all forms of music, incredible programming and a gathering for so many talented, accomplished musicians. The Festival also gives newer musicians a chance to perform to a discerning audience.”

Jay Sydeman, a man who exudes vitality and curiosity looks forward as the continuing odyssey of life and art unfolds.

Contact information for Jay Sydeman:
(Sydeman currently visits Pippa Thomas’ “Music Without Borders” show on Mendocino County’s public radio station, KZYX&Z).

Mendocino Music Festival

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