Music Preview – Composer Michael Colgrass is a master of reinvention

Michael Colgrass: Michael Colgrass’ music often channels the spirits of Western masters like Bach and Mozart.

Michael Colgrass: Michael Colgrass’ music often channels the spirits of Western masters like Bach and Mozart.

It’s probably just as well that composer Michael Colgrass, who will be in Louisville this week for the University of Louisville School of Music’s New Music Festival, never contemplated a career in politics. It’s not that he isn’t articulate and diplomatic, but he’s one of those rare folks who throughout his career has demonstrated a genuine willingness to utterly reinvent himself.

The pivotal moment in his career happened in 1967. By then, he was already a well-established composer and percussionist who had received positive notices in the national press and was working at a feverish pace — such a feverish pace, in fact, that one night while walking from Carnegie Hall to the subway, he stopped to ask himself: “Am I going to the concert or coming from the concert?”

Colgrass now refers to that moment as “the incident on West 57th Street.”
In a telephone interview from his Toronto home, he recalled, “I suddenly wondered how it was possible to play a concert with a great orchestra and forget about it 10 minutes later. That was the state I had come to.”
In response, he decided to remake himself. Because he was interested in composing for the theater, he took a year off to study acting, dance, mime and ballet. “It broadened me greatly,” he said.

And it had an enormous impact on his music. “At that time I was not exactly a card-carrying member, but I was very much involved with the New York atonal music mafia. Back then, if you didn’t write atonal music, nobody would put you on a program. You couldn’t get a teaching job. If you wrote a piece in B-flat major or minor, people would say, ‘Why are you still doing that? Don’t you know that melody and tonality is dead?’”

And Colgrass himself had embraced 20th century atonality, steeping himself in the musical styles of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, all major proponents of early 20th century 12-tone techniques.  
Though he had mastered those modern styles, he wasn’t ready to abandon the rest of Western musical tradition. “I loved Mozart, and what was I supposed to do? Abandon Mozart because Pierre Boulez said that melody was dead? We had gotten ourselves into a kind of trance state, where we weren’t talking the language of music or art. Instead we were in the realm of politics or religion. If you did certain kinds of things as a composer, those things were sins. And if you did other things, you went to heaven, meaning you might get tenure.”

But after his year off, he said, “The admonitions of the musical world didn’t mean anything to me anymore. I decided to look at music from the standpoint of an artist, and my music just opened up like a flower.”
His music began to blend elements of tonal and atonal music. He began intentionally evoking the spirit of Western masters like Bach and Mozart, and by 1978 he had earned a Pulitzer Prize for “Déjà Vu,” a work commissioned by the New York Philharmonic. Since then, he’s earned an Emmy Award, a couple of Guggenheim Awards and numerous other recognitions, commissions and grants.

And though he’s now in his ’70s, Colgrass continues to break new ground. After a lifetime as a professional composer working with elite musicians and ensembles, a few years ago he accepted a commission unlike any he had ever taken: The American Composers Forum asked him to write a piece for an eighth-grade band. “Nearly all the great composers of the past wrote for amateurs,” he said. “But when I tried to write for that age group, I suddenly realized I didn’t know how to write music that they could execute but that also had emotional depth and meaning for me.” Over the past four years, that challenge has become a joyful obsession, he said, and one that has brought him into contact with passionate music educators all over the country. In response, he’s developed a teaching method specifically designed for helping young players create music in contemporary styles and has become an outspoken advocate of building connections between the sometimes rarefied world of contemporary music and the world of music education. 

Folks interested in the vast range of contemporary musical styles have a rare opportunity to hear an eclectic selection this week. Wednesday night’s concert features premieres of works by U of L School of Music graduate students. Thursday is given over to works performed by faculty artists and composed by faculty and internationally renowned composers like Grawemeyer laureate Krzysztof Penderecki and the Czech Vitizslava Kapralova. Friday’s concert includes works for flute and guitar, and features the New Music Ensemble and the Collegiate Chorale. And Saturday’s closing concert features the University Symphony Orchestra and Wind Ensemble in a concert that starts with no fewer than three world premieres, then closes with two works by Michael Colgrass (whose works also shows up on Thursday and Friday) and a work by Bright Sheng.