John Cerminaro, then principal horn in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, played that virtuosic solo. He was accompanied by the California ear Unit. The nine-member new music ensemble, L.A.’s first, was founded by Steiger and others in 1981 while they were all still grad students at CalArts. The premiere of Hexadecathlon was at the 1984 CalArts music festival, with Stephen Mosko conducting. They recorded it the following week in Little Bridges Hall at Pomona College. “It is a small wooden concert hall that is famous for use in recording because Heifetz used to record there,” says Steiger, whose ear Unit has recently been praised in the Los Angeles Times as being “unerringly virtuosic, full of life and with just the right touch of attitude.” The critic went on: “Rand Steiger’s conducting, moreover, has matured from giving adequate beat to being downright impressive. I don’t think there is a better small new music group in America right now.”
His new piece, commissioned by the San Diego Symphony, is called Frames 2, and within it he has created another virtuosic part: “It’s a composition that provides a frame for an improvisation.” This time the soloist will be trombonist/improviser George E. Lewis, one of Steiger’s most revered colleagues at ucsd. “An hour and a half would only scratch the surface with George,” says Steiger, who names him as a likely candidate for a MacArthur fellowship, also known as a “genius” grant. “He goes very deep; he’s very intense. Sometimes he calls me on the phone and we start talking and the next thing I know five hours have gone by.”
Lewis is one reason why the piece was written at all. “George is very civic-minded,” says Steiger. “When he moved here [in 1990], he immediately got involved with the city. He’s much more involved than I am, perhaps more involved than anyone else in the department.” In the fall of 1999, just a few months after Lewis was appointed to the symphony’s board of directors, he went to Steiger’s house for dinner and presented to him the idea of writing something to be premiered in the upcoming season.
At first Steiger said no. So many other projects awaited him, some of them overdue. Uppermost in his mind was a commission from the Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique. This is the government-funded arts creation and research facility at the Pompidou Center in Paris, founded and run by Pierre Boulez. Steiger’s contribution is to be a work for large chamber ensemble, “with real-time signal processing, five-channel audio spatialization, computer graphics, video, and computer-controlled light.” He is also working on a solo piece for Steven Schick, the master percussionist who teaches at UCSD.
After thinking about the symphony’s offer for a few days, however, he changed his mind. He would do it as long as Lewis would play an improvisation. Lewis immediately agreed.
Steiger began to write Frames 2 during the Thanksgiving break; he finished around Christmas Day — a record for this composer. He explains why the work went so quickly. “For one thing, there was pressure, and I responded well to it.” There was also inspiration. “The idea of George’s playing cultivated my own creative spirit.
“George is always full of surprises. He has a style of playing, and that was in my ears the whole time I was writing it. It’s frenetic, energetic. He kind of invented a style of improvising. Some people call it flashing. He is constantly interrupting himself and coming up with surprising new material. I’m on the edge of my seat when I listen to him playing.”
Another factor was the extended holiday-time vacation from classes, so Steiger could devote many 16-hour days to it.
He doesn’t compose in this office; he has a small studio behind his and Sorensen’s house, in Solana Beach, with glass on three sides, overlooking the ocean. When they moved in, a few years ago, he had the tree in front of the studio trimmed, so the view would be unobstructed. But when it grew back, he hardly noticed and hasn’t had it trimmed again. Besides, he often closes the shades to keep the heat of the day out. At night, it does tend to get cold, but he has a heater.
Steiger says he also agreed to accept the commission because he “wanted to encourage Jung-Ho’s adventurousness.” He’s speaking of Jung-Ho Pak, of course, the symphony’s artistic director and principal conductor. Frames 2 would be part of Pak’s Light Bulb Series (so-named, Pak says, because of the “bright ideas” presented). The program itself would be titled Strange Bedfellows, because Steiger would be sharing the bill with an accordionist and a tap dancer. In addition, there would be a piece for orchestra and pipa (a Chinese lute), composed by Zhou Long, a Chinese immigrant who lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Steiger praises Pak for presenting such innovative performances. What the old symphony presented, he says, was “banal.” The previous management “misjudged their audience and pandered to them.” And while he regrets that contemporary music isn’t played much anywhere in San Diego, he believes there is “a young art crowd” that can be reached, as well as “the older, more conventional” group. “Jung-Ho wants to appeal to both with different programs. But I think the best formula is not to pigeon-hole anybody.”
As for himself, even though he has lived in San Diego for seven years (and divided his time between here and Pasadena for the previous six), Steiger admits his first visit to Copley Symphony Hall was within the last season, to hear some Japanese percussionists. While he has come to enjoy an international reputation in the highly circumscribed world of contemporary music, he tells me he considers the premier of Frames 2, on Saturday night, January 29, 2000, to be his San Diego “debut.”
Rand Pete Steiger (who has never received an adequate explanation from his parents about why his first two names were chosen) was born in 1957 at a small private hospital in Manhattan. “When my two older sisters and I were growing up,” he says, “my parents had a recurring joke they would tease us with. Whenever we would get petulant, they would say, ‘We’re going to return you to the French Hospital.’ It was chosen because my mother’s obstetrician practiced there. Anyway, we never went to it, and never saw it, so I kind of thought it was a joke and maybe didn’t even exist.