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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

It was a tanned, clear-eyed, happily smiling Ellen Zwilich we encountered on an early summer afternoon. She was back in her painting-lined apartment in the Riverdale section of New York, overlooking the Hudson River and up towards New Jersey's Palisades. In just a few hours she would be returning to the beach house for the season to swim and walk on the sand, and to reflect on the world in general and her world in particular. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich was making an easy but nevertheless conscious effort at recharging her batteries.

What a spring she had had! Four world premieres in little more than four weeks, beginning with a trio for the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and performed by that ensemble from coast to coast; a major ballet entitled Tanzspiel choreographed by Peter Martins and launched by the New York City Ballet under the auspices of its American Music Festival; the Praeludium for Organ given its first performance at a meeting of the American Guild of Organists in Boston that commissioned it; and culminating in the world premiere of Symbolon for Orchestra by Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic.

Nor were the circumstances of the first performance of the new orchestral composition what anyone might describe as an everyday event. When Mehta and the management of the Philharmonic began in earnest to sketch out that orchestra's 1988 tour to the Soviet Union, they agreed that it would be unusual and a gesture appropriate to the significance of the visit if the Orchestra could present the very first performance of a newly commissioned score. Zwilich was chosen to become the first American composer ever to have a new work premiered by a U.S. orchestra on foreign soil. (One recalls the 1921 opening of Prokofiev's Love of Three Oranges in Chicago, but both medium and auspices differed from the Zwilich launching.) Mehta and the Philharmonic are scheduled to record Symbolon along with the Concerto grosso 1985 as part of an all-Zwilich disc on the New World label in the fall.

And now, after attending performances of her works in a single season in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, New York, Boston, Leningrad and Moscow, Zwilich has programmed a breather for herself. "I never want to get to the point where my work is like a job. If I felt that way, I'd quit. I need to feel that everything is an event and each new piece an exploration. With the performances I've had this spring and the heavy emotion I have felt, I think I need to sit back and let my mind clear and think about things and not compose, absolutely not compose. I sometimes feel, after a first performance, like a huge gong that's been struck and has to oscillate down to a resting position."

A native Floridian — she was born in Miami in 1939 — Zwilich had a broad musical education, playing piano, violin and trumpet but also composing from early childhood on. (She was 10 when she began to notate music.) She attended Florida State University, playing jazz trumpet, singing early music with the Collegium Musicum, studying violin with Richard Burgin, and of course composing. ("Everything I wrote got played immediately.") After receiving her master's degree and teaching in a small South Carolina town, she decided to take the plunge, come to New York, and study violin with Ivan Galamian. ("I had gotten to the point where I was either going to play the violin much better or I was going to break it over my knee.") Her creative efforts became increasingly compelling and she decided to enroll in Juilliard's doctoral program — she is the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in composition from that school, studying there with Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter. While at Juilliard, she supported herself by teaching and playing violin in the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. By the time she completed her post-graduate studies, she had made a decision about her professional life that she has maintained ever since: she would forsake teaching and playing, she would funnel all her energies into composing music. ("I think that teaching and playing are wonderful experiences to have had. They are very much a part of a composer's background. But they interfere with your work. Teaching, for example, is very demanding and takes a lot of the same energy that writing does. And the problem with playing is that you are immersed in other people's music. A century ago, when there was only one style of composition, playing and composing were more compatible. But with today's profusion of musical expression, it's more difficult to have the kind of remove that is probably necessary for a composer.")

And looking back, did she think that she had enjoyed a first-rate education, one that prepared her for her life's work? "Well, I'm still working at it," she said with a broad smile. Then, suddenly turning intensely serious: "I've always bristled at the notion that people are 'educated' at such-and-such a place. I think you learn habits of educating yourself, and when you stop doing that, the end is near. In learning those habits, you need associations and people older than you, whom you respect. I've learned a great deal all my life from teachers and other colleagues. I'm all in favor of universities and conservatories, but I think that education does not stop with them. It's a lifelong occupation and preoccupation."

It is the type of response we had read in many previous interviews with the composer, a no-nonsense balancing of studious rationality and visceral emotion, of an understandable interest in her own experiences and an all-encompassing fascination with music in the world around her. "Art," she had said some time ago to a journalist, "is not a trivial thing. It's at the center of life. It has to do with understanding ourselves as human beings."

Perhaps it is this very thoughtfulness, this refreshing mix of subjective and objective insights offered with engaging charm and wit, that has attracted a formidable corps of media people to chat with Ellen Zwilich. Between reviews of her compositions performed, published and recorded, discussions of specific works, comprehensive essays and interviews, she has become one of the most widely discussed of today's concert composers. But it was not always thus. Only a handful of years ago, she was known as a composer in only a small circle. Some knew of her as an instrumentalist, others as the wife of the late Joseph Zwilich, a violinist with the Metropolitan Opera. Her comparative obscurity ended summarily on a Monday afternoon in April, 1983 with the announcement that she had won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Symphony No. 1, the only woman to date ever to have this distinction.

Zwilich had spoken frequently about the advantages of our era, a time when more of the totality of music was available to more people than ever before in history. We asked her about the musical counterpart to the "information explosion" and how it affected today's musician. "This is a time that requires a new way of looking at things, and for the composer, a new way of existing. It's a time that I feel very compatible with, psychically like a child of this time. It seems to me that there are still a lot of people talking about whatthe music of our era is, what is the language of our day. One hears many competing claims. But that's an attitude that comes from a time when people were insulated and isolated. At that time in central Europe, for example, they had no idea as to what was going on in Asia or Africa, nor even in North America. The world they knew then was circumscribed and it was therefore easy to know what the music of that time and place was. But now, when we have the world at our fingertips, it's running away from reality to suggest that it will ever come out one way again, that there ever again will be a the music of this era, this decade, or even this year. When you have a perhaps bewildering array of choices, you must cultivate a habit not only of experiencing the pleasures of exploring, but also the burdens of choosing the existential journey, of putting yourself, your music (if you are a composer) together. And the listener can do the same thing, as can the performer.

"There's another peculiar thing about this time. There are pieces that might have a mass audience, while others have only a small audience. There's room for both, a place for many kinds of music from the standpoint of the composer and also the audience and the performer. Everybody is making certain choices. One of the distressing things, for those of us who love the great tradition of music, is that probably most people don't know what their choices are. They listen to the top 40 without even knowing that there's anything else. The choices have been made for them, and I think that's very sad. You see it especially among the young. Part of the merchandising of pop music is based on driving out other music. The pop music industry has played heavily on the adolescent need to define themselves as different from their parents, that this music is their music and everything else is someone else's. One of the reasons also is that we have witnessed a decline in what musical fare is available in school. I don't think you can really learn about music passively. All the things that really underpin our understanding of music come from an active participation in it. The person who has sung in a church choir has more basis for understanding different types of music than the person who has only read about it."

Returning to her reflection on the artist in our time, she said: "I think there may be ways in which it is necessary to go against the time as an artist. There's too much hyperbole all around us. Every product you buy in the store is `new and improved.' I seldom find that it's improved or new, just a different box with a higher price and less of the product in it. Music is about very fundamental human things. Newness in and of itself is not a real value and its quest ought to be resisted. I'm more interested in intrinsic values, in those universal values that transcend fads and fashions and that address those human dimensions that have not changed over the ages."

That Ellen Zwilich is also recognized by others as a child of her time is evidenced by the enthusiastic response her music has had, not only from musicians and critics but also from a constantly expanding public. The process of acceptance is self-generating: a work is heard and warmly praised, people have asked to hear it again — witness the many Zwilich works available on disc — and persons or organizations find the means to commission a new work from her. Even before the latest piece is publicly performed, there is an aura of interest and excitement reminiscent of largely bygone days when composers had highly involved and informed followings that eagerly awaited the introduction of a new composition. In our own century, Bartók, Stravinsky, Britten and Shostakovich are prime examples of composers who enjoyed such public awareness. It is interesting to note that these are the very composers often mentioned by critics describing the roots of Zwilich's music. "Zwilich writes in a disarmingly open style," wrote Michael Walsh in Time Magazine three years ago. "On the page her music looks as clear as Brahms'; to the ear it sounds as bold and vigorous as Shostakovich's or Prokofiev's. But it always remains her own."

And in a comprehensive study on "The Music of Ellen Zwilich" appearing in The New York Times Magazine, Tim Page wrote: "Mrs. Zwilich's compositions reflect a concision and craft that appeal to both professional musicians and the general audience. Her music is complex, yet should prove accessible to those willing to listen closely. It is directly emotive, yet devoid of vulgarity, and characterized by a taut chromatic intensity that stretches the limits of tonality while rarely venturing outside them. And Mrs Zwilich's music is helping to rekindle interest in the music of our time among the often conservative established performing groups as well as the public."

When Zwilich talks about her own work-she has by now a substantial canon of compositions in all media except opera-she sticks to the broad overview and avoids minutia and technical detail. "So far I have been happiest with the concept of evolving as a composer, rather than making abrupt shifts in viewpoint. My sense of music grows out of myself and I have always moved in an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, way. There have been points in my life, for one reason or another, of fairly dramatic changes and these may be reflected in my music. I'm more interested in the moment and the future, but I think there is a rhythm to what I do, balancing things I know with things that are new for me. I don't like getting too comfortable."

"Comfortableness," the perfunctory sticking to the tried and true, is certainly not in evidence on Zwilich's drawing board. Having finished the four works premiered in the spring, she began her Concerto for Tenor Trombone and Orchestra for Jay Friedman, Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony, the first of a pair of commissioned trombone concertos with the second, for bass trombone, due for the Chicago's season following. In between, she has accepted a commission from Florida State University for a wind ensemble work to be premiered in the spring of 1989. And on her daily five-mile walks this summer, she has begun to give some thought to the chamber work she will be writing for the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

And of course she is still winding down from her trip to the Soviet Union where, as guest of Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic, she attended the performances of Symbolon. "All of my conscious life, my country and that country have been at war — if not a heated war, then a cold war with an arms race. Meanwhile, there has always been a tangible musical connection between the peoples. As someone whose life has been given to music, I feel the musical reality to be more potent than the political one. Music and the arts prove that the differences between us have to be celebrated rather than denied or combatted. We were very warmly received and I felt very much at home in the musical settings. I think that most musicians do in any concert hall around the world, particularly one with such memories as are contained in the Bolshoi Hall in Leningrad, with its connection to the past, to Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich and the young Stravinsky. But there are still enormous political problems there and I wish Gorbachev and the Russian people very well."

We asked about the role of the artist in society and wondered if there was merit in the concept that the artist be a reflector of his world. "All these things are theories about what an artist should do and, like all such theories, should be taken with a certain sense of humor. An artist's life can be very cruel. Artists with the loftiest ambitions, aspirations and intentions may not produce work that measures up to those qualities; on the other hand, a composer like Beethoven might write something just to pay the rent and it turns out to be a masterpiece."

She is clearly more relaxed talking about her own aims and obligations than generalizing on the state of the arts. "I believe my own focus ought to be on writing music and making pieces. I like to think of my work in a continuum, balancing orchestral pieces with chamber works, for example. In other words, I am involved with a body of work, with making a life's work out of composing. I happen to be very interested in the world, but I don't think of it as fodder for writing music. I do think that the society would do well to provide a soil in which the artist can thrive, and I'm in favor of all those things that tend to integrate the artist into the society-at-large, like the Meet The Composer program, for example, or those things in the National Endowment that have helped to bring art into people's lives. It seems to me that there is something very deep about music, in the same category as falling in love or a religious experience. People do things they feel to be deeply enriching, because they are totally pulled along, because they want to. I have other preoccupations that go back many years, but music for me is different. I remember my musical toys when I was a child. I can't imagine life without music at the center of it. But I don't know why."

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