The tenor saxophone player is missing. While someone tries to call him on a cell phone, the horn players clear their throats and the other ensemble members make the familiar, cacophonous sounds of musical instruments warming up. Rand Steiger, composer, conductor, computer musician, is today conducting a rehearsal of a composition by one of his Ph.D. students in the music department at UCSD. Slender, still youthful at age 43, he wears black jeans, rimless blue-tinted glasses, and a blue button-down shirt, which he removes. Underneath is a gray T-shirt with Minneapolis Sculpture Garden printed across its back. When word comes that the saxophonist has a conflict — he’s at another student’s rehearsal — Steiger decides to start without him. In his hand is a baton made of plastic, nearly transparent, no bigger than a chopstick.
It’s been said of conducting that there is no profession that an impostor could enter more easily. Only since the mid-19th Century, when composers’ scores became so complicated that unguided orchestras found them difficult to play, has it been a profession for anyone. A conductor’s characteristic gestures can be learned by most people who try, it is agreed. In fact, each spring Steiger teaches a required graduate course in conducting, Music 228. The rest, as it is with any art, is something else again.
“There is a complexity to the psychology of conducting well, in the relationship of the conductor to orchestra,” Steiger says. “Good conductors must develop good rapport. They must be able to offer constructive criticism and to communicate it concisely. They need to know what they want and how to ask for it. They need leadership skills.”
Elias Canetti, the Bulgarian who won the 1981 Nobel Prize in literature, has written, “Someone who knew nothing about power could discover all its attributes, one after another, by careful observation of a conductor.” And it’s true, says Steiger, that a conductor must assert his authority. But he shuns the hierarchical “conductor-is-boss” model, as well as the conductor cult of personality. A testy Toscanini, who notoriously pummeled performers and snapped violinists’ bows, is far from Steiger’s quietly assertive, soft-spoken style. While he stresses that his “responsibility is always first to the music” and that he needs to do what he must to “protect” it, he favors a cooperative approach and is careful to be respectful of his musician-colleagues. He hopes the respect is mutual. When Steiger is in an audience, he says, he can tell when the musicians personally like the conductor and are playing for him rather than merely going through the motions. He hears “a genuine difference in sound,” although he acknowledges that “only really experienced listeners, very familiar with the music, would notice.” What truly great conductors do cannot be taught: “They get the orchestra to believe in the music.” They are, in a word, inspiring. “And when a group of a hundred people get inspired together, extraordinary things can happen.”
Only 13 people will play the student piece, Eruptive Plains, written by 28-year-old Derek Keller, of Atlanta, Georgia, who sits at a table against the wall, looking over his score for the last time before the first time he will hear it played. But the challenge for Steiger is the same. “We’ll go through the whole piece, get familiar with how it works,” he tells them.
It won’t be easy. In experimenting with spatial sound — moving the music around the room — Keller has called for an unconventional physical arrangement of the players. His design separates them into three ensembles. That will make it difficult for Steiger to give cues. Usually, no matter how large an ensemble, the performers are clustered together so the conductor can make eye contact with them. Often all a player needs is a glance to give him or her the confidence that this is the right place in the music and the beats have been counted correctly. Big demonstrative cues — pointing, for example — are usually unnecessary. In this case, however, Steiger will frequently need to turn one way and another, like an onlooker at a tennis match. Sometimes he won’t have time to turn; the moment will have passed before his head can swivel. Or two players needing cues simultaneously will be on opposites sides. He tells the musicians — graduate students, faculty, and freelancers, all of them hired by UCSD for the occasion — that they’ll “have to cope with the issue of cueing.”
Then he says, “Let’s read a bit,” as he snaps his fingers to denote the meter. The complicated tempos of contemporary music, much more than the meters of Mozart, demand the services of a conductor.
The opening is reminiscent of thunder moving across the plains of an imaginary country. The sound is made in part by one percussion player’s kettle drum fading into the other’s, on the opposite side of the room. When the pianist begins to play, he seems to be imitating the percussionists. At the same time, mournful sounds are coming from the brass instruments, trombones and muted horns, while the flute adds lift, literally — birdlike. Taken together, it evokes a feeling of open space, the bigness of the Great Plains, of the whole country, animated by life.
“It came to me two years ago,” Keller will say afterwards, “when I was moving across the country [from Georgia to California], driving across flat Texas all day, and then I woke up the next morning and still had more of Texas to go. So that when New Mexico came, with those geographical constructions on the landscape, it was very welcome.” He says the piece follows a pattern of three times reaching a new plateau, a new place. These three processes, as he calls them, feature parts for clarinet, trombone, and flute. Each plateau comes after a metaphorical gentle sloping upward. “Each time, the musical material is transformed by a disturbance, undergoes a change.” And it’s easy to see how a young composer might create such a piece after making a momentous change in his own life.
In ten days’ time, after three more rehearsals, the 17-minute piece will be performed for a jury consisting of Steiger and ucsd’s three other composition professors, as well as Harvey Sollberger, conductor of the La Jolla Symphony. Afterwards, all will be free to ask Keller questions. And then he will be graded. In the first two years of the three- to five-year program leading to the doctorate, students must complete two such juried pieces. “They are two hoops you have to jump through,” says second-year student Keller, who has chosen Steiger to work with on both of his compositions.
As the musicians play, Steiger uses his baton to make cool, disciplined, economical gestures — lines of light in the air. It comes as no surprise that his “conducting hero” is the understated Pierre Boulez, who is, like Steiger, a composer first, a conductor second. He says he doesn’t usually use a baton, because Boulez doesn’t. (“Nor does Stephen Mosko, who was my most influential conducting teacher,” says Steiger, who studied with him as a graduate student at the California Institute of the Arts, in Valencia.) But he is using one for Keller’s piece because of the spatial issues. He hopes it gives his arm movements visibility.
There are a lot of starts and stops — during which conductor and composer consult one another — and questions and comments come from the players.
Flutist: “I have too many beats.”
One of the horn players: “Hey, Derek. Stem all the way out?” He is referring to the mute.
“Just like that,” says Keller.
“Be very careful about counting,” says Steiger, “because you’re always in unison with someone.”
“I can’t make the change,” says the clarinet player. “Derek, you haven’t given me enough time to put down one horn and pick up another.” Then later the same player notices, “I’m changing instruments and turning the page.”
There is palpable tension here. Steiger tries for some levity. “Okay, maybe we can hire you an assistant. Or maybe you can whistle that note until you can pick up the other one.”
The pianist plays while holding a pen in his mouth, dagger style; in between playing, he makes notes on his score.
“You missed your measure,” Keller says to one of the trumpet players.
“I already played my measure,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
“We’ll arrange for a wake-up call,” says Steiger.
Flutist: “I have a very bad page turn.”
“Whoops,” says Keller.
“We’ll Xerox it and paste it on,” says Steiger.
When the tenor saxophonist arrives, Steiger helps him get set up.
One of the percussionists stretches her thigh muscles, like a dancer.
About halfway through the piece, Steiger warns, “This is a very tricky section. We’ll take it apart and work on it carefully in one of the next rehearsals.”
At another point, he says, “Just follow; don’t play,” and proceeds to conduct in silence, while he, along with everyone else, turns the noisy pages.
When he calls for a 15-minute break, Keller approaches him, “It was neat to hear all that happen. I mean, that was just, wow.”
Steiger gives him a small, quick smile and hurries down the hall to his office, where the score of his own newly completed composition is waiting for him. On the way, he compares Eruptive Plains to “a film out of focus” — for now. “There was a lot of faking because the musicians hadn’t practiced.” Gradually it will become more focused as the rehearsals progress. He also says that Keller should have scoured his score for mechanical errors. His own manuscript pages are proofed until every part is perfect. “If your rehearsal is only 45 minutes and 15 of them are wasted on typos, you’re dead.” And although he’s clearly annoyed, he reveals that he sees his own younger self in Keller as he recalls, “The same thing happened to me, in 1981.” He was 24 years old. Only it wasn’t a group of university-hired musicians who were vexed by the typos in his marimba concerto. It was the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “And they were really hard on me, and I deserved it.” But he says Keller has probably learned from the experience. He predicts, “It won’t happen again.”
The office is sparsely furnished in Danish modern. One of the few decorations is a framed copy of the famous New York Daily News headline from 1975, “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” along with a complementary one from the Village Voice, circa 1986, “New York to the Arts: Drop Dead.” New York City is Steiger’s hometown. There are also some early synthesizers, from the 1970s. One is an ElectroComp 200, owned by Steiger’s wife, Vibeke Sorensen. The 46-year-old video/computer artist used it long ago to create her first video scores. Another of the electronic relics is an Arp 2600, owned by ucsd, which is the same model that Steiger first used, in high school. “They kept it in a closet,” he says. “I spent a lot of hours in that closet.”
On the computer screen is the score, almost ready to be printed. A tricolor representation, it has the notes in black, dynamics in red, text in green. Until about a decade ago, composers wrote their scores by hand, like scribes in monasteries. Says Steiger, who has put in his years doing them the old-fashioned way, “It was like drafting. You had to use mechanical pencils.” An electric eraser was needed to correct mistakes. It could take all day to do one page. “And to get people to take your work seriously, it not only had to sound good, it had to look good too.” Now a computer program makes the job easier, but it is still painstaking.
In a makeshift archive — a jumble of cardboard boxes — he has some of his early, hand-copied scores. One is his first piece that was ever recorded, when he was 27. It’s called Hexadecathlon. “I was obsessed with the number 16,” he says, “because of its symmetrical properties of division. And I was familiar with hexadecimal numbers, because of my work in early computer music. In those days you had to program in machine code that involved using base 16 numbers. So 16 became the magic number of the piece — 16 sections, 16-note melodies, 16 in whatever other ways it was possible for me to embed it. Also, it was 1984, an Olympics year, and I had composed a very difficult virtuosic part for the soloist. So I thought of the decathlon. But since in this case there were 16 ‘events,’ it would be a hexadecathlon.”
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.
“[Then] when I was 18 I had a romantic relationship with a French-Canadian woman from Montreal whom I met through a friend of mine who had moved there to avoid the draft. It was a difficult but wonderful experience. The last time Suzelle visited me in New York, we were still very happy together, but it was clear that it couldn’t work because neither of us could relocate. She was in art school in Montreal; I was at Manhattan School of Music. And it was hard to say good-bye, because we knew it might be the last time. To make things even more like a movie, she was returning by train, so I drove her from my parents’ house in Queens into Manhattan and parked on the street near Penn Station. We had our sad farewell on the train platform, and after her train departed I ran all the way back to the car, trying to keep myself from crying. I reached my car and turned and leaned against it and looked up towards the moon, but as I did I noticed the façade of the building in front of me had large letters engraved in the stone that read ‘The French Hospital of New York.’ ”
Neither of his parents was college-educated. His father was an auto mechanic and ran a garage. For a while, too, he managed a soda-bottling factory. Later still he owned a gas station. His mother was a housewife until Steiger was 13, when she went to work as a financial secretary.
Nor did either have musical training, but his mother, now 80, loved musicals, and his father, 86, loved swing-era jazz. “He revered Benny Goodman,” says Steiger, who recalls the elder Steiger pointing out parts that particularly moved him as they listened together. More importantly, both parents were “really enthusiastic” that their son wanted to be a musician, unlike the skeptical parents of some of Steiger’s friends.
He marvels that they put up with the rock bands of his youth. “Eight hours of drumming practice in the basement.” Indeed, his parents, who retired to North Miami Beach, might have named the first band — the Basement Blues. His last one, which he refers to as “the good one,” had no name. He describes it as “a power trio, like Cream.”
But his life changed after he was accepted at New York’s prestigious High School of Music and Art, whose students gain admission by audition. (In the early 1980s, it was combined with the High School of Performing Arts, celebrated in the movie Fame, to become La Guardia High School.) There he got involved in orchestral percussion. Meanwhile, his fellow rock-band members wanted to play in clubs, for money, five and six nights a week, and Steiger simply didn’t have time. He was given opportunities to play with less demanding bands but says they “weren’t interesting enough.” It was time to drop the whole rock-band thing.
Anyway, his music tastes had changed. He had discovered more sophisticated music, both classical and contemporary. He names a fellow student as the most important influence of those years: Daniel Druckman, son of the Pulitzer Prize–winning American composer Jacob Druckman (1928–1996). “Dan turned me on to 20th-century music. He was more influential than any of my teachers.”
When Steiger was a senior, he wrote a vibraphone solo for Dan. “It was a turning point in my life when Jacob took the time to call me and tell me to take my composing more seriously. Coming from him at that time allowed me to believe that composing was something I could make a life out of.”
After high school, while at Manhattan School of Music, he rented an apartment with Dan, who went to Juilliard. It was a great time to be growing up musically in New York. “Boulez was at the New York Philharmonic. Steve Reich and Philip Glass were emerging in Soho. The Group for Contemporary Music could be heard in Upper Manhattan [conducted by Harvey Sollberger]. The Mahavishnu Orchestra played Central Park, the Allman Brothers played Madison Square Garden. I could go on. I remember, among so many other things, Boulez’s Rug Concerts,” which succeeded in attracting a young, hip crowd. “They would take all but the balcony seats out of Avery Fisher Hall. For very little money you could sit on the floor and groove to Stravinsky.”
He had opportunities to see Leonard Bernstein too. “I love that he could be totally self-indulgent and get away with it because he had such a musical soul. I really like his risky interpretations and how completely he gave himself over to the music. He could sometimes be vulgar but was often inspired because of those risks that he took. On the other hand, some of the things he does in his recordings are just silly — extreme tempos, for instance.” Steiger recalls a story from one of the biographies of Bernstein that describes his reaction to seeing Koussevitzky conduct for the first time. “He collapsed in his chair and could only say, ‘I’m so envious!’ I could relate to that. When I was an adolescent discovering 19th-century music, I too felt envious of those who were able to achieve the position of conducting the great orchestras.”
But Steiger never was “ambitious to follow a conducting career.” True, in addition to conducting grad students’ juried pieces, he also conducts the ucsd faculty ensemble, sonor; leads the grad students’ new music ensemble; and, until recently, conducted the ear Unit. Still, he considers himself, like Boulez, a composer who “ventured into” conducting.
One might say he also ventured into composing. Jacob Druckman’s comments on his high-school vibraphone composition notwithstanding, he began college as a percussion major, intending to become a performer. When he found the composing classes more interesting than those that led to his specialty, he switched. He had much to learn — his is considered a late start for a composer — but being “filled with curiosity,” he simply dug in.
It wasn’t entirely new territory. “For the rock bands I wrote tunes and encouraged creative arrangements and long improvisations. Only I didn’t call it composing. And I always created music for the instruments I was playing. When I was growing up, I had a piano in my bedroom and improvised. So when I started playing in orchestras and percussion ensembles in high school, it was only natural that I would think of composing for them.”
His computer-music composing, too, had a precursor. “As a kid I used to experiment with tape recorders. I was a gadget junkie, making multitrack pieces by recording noises on one machine, playing it back and recording onto another machine, while adding other noises. But I didn’t think of it as music. Now I would say that I was experimenting with musique concrète, but then I just thought of it as having fun with junky old tape recorders.”
There would be a smarmy swan song to his popular music-making. To help pay his tuition, he signed on as a drummer with the Noblemen Orchestras, based on Long Island. He played weddings and bar mitzvahs, sometimes three and four in a weekend. As a result, the drums, which had previously given him so much musical pleasure, became “a mechanical device, like a device in a factory.” What was worse, since he never knew which other Noblemen Orchestra musicians would be playing with him until he got to the event, he himself became an interchangeable part. He began to hate drumming, at least that kind of drumming.
As his undergraduate years concluded, Yale University accepted him into its graduate school of music — an enticing opportunity, especially since Jacob Druckman taught there. But Steiger had become intrigued by the music scene in Southern California after reading pieces by critic Alan Rich in New York magazine, and an offer by CalArts proved more tempting. “Yale would have given me some financial support, but CalArts was more assertive and offered me complete support. And Jacob did not say outright, ‘Come to Yale, it’s much better.’ ” Rather, Steiger recalls that he said, “Check it out. Draw your own conclusions.”
One reason why CalArts wanted him was to run its electronic music studio. Yale’s offer came with the same expectation. “Jacob said, ‘You can come to Yale and be exploited by me, or go to CalArts and be exploited [by them]. Of course, I really want you to come to Yale, but the feeling is that things are really coming of age out there, and if you think it would serve you better, then you should go there. I’ll be disappointed, but you can always count on my friendship and support no matter which you choose.’ Like the phone call when I was in high school, this was an extraordinarily generous thing to do. Had he said to me, ‘There are a bunch of kooks out there, just come to Yale,’ I would have.”
Steiger still believes CalArts was “the more interesting place to be.” Of course, he says, “People couldn’t believe I would leave the East Coast.” He couldn’t quite believe it either. For several years, he kept his New York apartment, always intending to return.
Today he tracks the careers of composers who would have been fellow students at Yale. He calls them his “phantom classmates” and sees in them his alter ego. One is David Lang, a founder of New York’s celebrated Bang on a Can new music festival. Citing Lang’s piece titled Eating Living Monkeys, Steiger says, “They give their pieces slightly goofy, postmodern titles. I admire David and am always amused by his titles. In the old Tin Pan Alley days of the songwriting factories, they used to have people called ‘idea men’ who would come up with concepts for songs, like, ‘Hey, I got it! Pennsylvania Eight Five Thousand’! And then that would go to the lyricist and the composer. I always thought David would make a great idea man.” Steiger imagines that if he had gone to Yale, he might be titling his pieces similarly. From this distance, however, he finds such titles distracting.
“I try to choose titles that say something meaningful about the piece and maybe have a bit of poetry or wordplay in them. But I prefer serious titles, because even though I sometimes embrace humor or irony in the work, on the whole I am very serious about it and want others to be.”
Quintessence is the title of a 13-minute composition he completed in 1980 while still at CalArts. A chamber concerto, scored for cello, piano/electric piano, percussion, clarinet/bass clarinet, and synthesizer, it’s an early composition that still makes him proud. It can be found on California ear Unit’s first, eponymous CD, produced by New Albion Records in 1989 — conducted and co-engineered by the composer.
Number five is his obsession here. It works numerically on several levels, not the least of which is the number of musicians required to perform the piece. Steiger says the title also refers to “what I think of as the quintessential element — heavenly ether — of music, the life and spirit that performers bring to it.”
Even listeners unaccustomed to contemporary music will be able to follow the pattern as each musician in turn plays with the tune, passing it around, trying out the variations. It’s like a musical game of hot potato. That’s appropriate for California ear Unit, which was founded as a collective, with the players taking turns composing, conducting, improvising, directing, and staging performances. Undercutting the playfulness, however, is an edge — anxious, agitated, busy-signal-like — that creates suspense. The players seem to be trying to make contact, fail repeatedly, until eventually they do come to a resolution in joyful duo cadenzas.
Quintessence was hailed as “the standout piece” when it was played at Merkin Hall in New York as part of a program sponsored by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers to showcase its young grant recipients. Steiger himself was hailed by the New York Times as “the CalArts wunderkind.” He has gone on to make good on his early promise; his compositions are performed around the country and the world.
But he is under no illusions about his general-audience appeal. He knows many symphony subscribers want to hear familiar music. “They want music that makes them feel good, that they can relax to, that doesn’t challenge them, that just washes over them. I don’t really have an answer for them. Music changed when recording was invented. Now music is largely a passive experience for many people. It’s background. And the idea of sitting still and giving all your attention to a piece of music is not something that everyone knows how to do.”
He knows, furthermore, that some people actually get “pissed off” when exposed to something unusual. Visual artists and writers working in new ways meet the same resistance. “But if it’s art, you can walk by; if it’s writing, you can close the book. With music, once you’re at a concert, you’re a captive. Some will leave quietly. Others will purposely leave in a way that disrupts the attention of the rest of the audience.”
To potential listeners, who may be skeptics, he has this to say: “All I can ask for from anyone is an open mind and to approach the music without expectations and to try to find something that interests them in it. People with sensibilities similar to mine who have been listening to the kind of music that I have been listening to will find an easier way into my work. But I don’t mean to suggest that it’s the only way in. At the least, I would hope that in listening they would appreciate the energy and color and virtuosity in what the performers are doing. It is not calculated to reach everybody. But it is sincere and honest. I can’t always guarantee that a great number of people will like it. But it is the music that I most want to hear and that I most appreciate.”
An optimist, he believes resistant audiences can change. He says it happened in L.A. The people who attended the Los Angeles Philharmonic used to be “very close-minded and rude,” Steiger says. And they were “notoriously so, famous for demonstratively walking out.” Then in the mid-1980s a series of pre-concert talks was instituted by Ara Guzelimian, at the time artistic administrator for the Los Angeles Philharmonic (today he has a similar title and position at Carnegie Hall). “L.A. audiences want to drive and park, and the people who came to the talks got good parking spaces.” That was part of the appeal, but it surely wasn’t the whole reason why a thousand people would show up. “What happened was that they began, if not necessarily to enjoy the music more, to be more open-minded, and much more attentive. Ara gave the audience something to listen for, a reason to try harder at getting into unfamiliar music. Often he also interviewed performers and composers at these talks so that people made a personal connection, which went a long way in getting them to open their minds and ears. They didn’t always like what they heard, but they were much more patient with the unfamiliar and much quieter and more polite.”
In 1995, Steiger’s concerto for orchestra, The Burgess Shale, was premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His inspiration was a book by Stephen Jay Gould, professor and curator of invertebrate paleontology at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Called Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, the 1989 bestseller takes as its subject the controversial story of the fossilized remains (530 million years old) that were found early in the 20th Century high up in the Canadian Rockies. Nurtured in that ancient quarry of limestone, formerly a sea, were “more varieties of life than can be found in all of our modern oceans,” writes Gould.
“What I found most compelling in Gould’s book,” says Steiger, “was the eight unclassifiable creatures found in the shale — Gould calls them ‘weird wonders.’ They are weird and wonderful and inspired awe and wonder in me.”
Steiger met Gould while California ear Unit members were musicians-in-residence at Harvard. At the museum he met the curator of fossils who had been in charge of the Burgess fossils at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. But as much as the piece is about the mystery of the earth’s creation, it is also about the mystery of artistic creation. Says Vibeke Sorensen, who often collaborates with her husband on projects, providing visual images (and she would provide them for Frames 2): “[The piece has] a mythic structure. It’s understandable that a creative artist would be interested in [the Burgess Shale], because artists are creating something out of nothing all the time.”
The Burgess Shale is not easy going. It doesn’t even begin invitingly. “The introduction is thick and murky and hard to get into,” Steiger admits. “Instead of being short and small and really delicious, it’s a heavy entrée.” But that is exactly what he wanted it to be: “a kind of fossilized music that later breaks apart and comes to life.”
Steiger named parts of the composition for eight of the weird wonders: Opabinia, Nectocaris, Dinomischus, Anomalocaris, and so on. “Each creature has a particular kind of musical material associated with it, defined by instrumentation, pitch, and tempo,” and each recurs, interrupting and commenting as the music progresses.
Dinomischus, for example, is a slow, delicate music featuring a flute duo, with harp, synthesized harpsichord, and string accompaniment. Anomalocaris, by contrast, features what Steiger calls “a monstrous concoction,” played by tuba, along with contrabass clarinet, horn, and lower strings. They’re the right choices, since Anomalocaris in reality was by far the largest and fiercest creature found in the shale, and these instruments can make the sounds that evoke that size and ferocity.
At the end of the piece comes a huge crescendo. Steiger calls it a “musical earthquake.” Then it gradually diminishes until it leaves “a chord very similar to the opening chord of the piece hanging there.” Finally, a solo cello plays ascending tremolos, “as if it were a creature carving its way out of the muck and rising to the surface.” This corresponds with the conclusion of Wonderful Life, in which Gould writes about a little creature called Pikaia, the only one found in the shale that relates to Homo sapiens. Gould believes it was an accident that it survived the decimation (a mudslide, he guesses) that destroyed the others. Says Steiger, “We may not have evolved had Pikaia not miraculously endured. This suggested to me an unexpected ending, a bit of gentle music, different from the rest of the piece, with the image of little Pikaia rising.”
Steiger worried about his heavy opening; in fact, he worried about the reception the whole composition would have. “But I had a very enthusiastic response in L.A. And I was convinced it was because I had the opportunity to talk to the audience [at a pre-concert talk] and meet some people beforehand. Also the program notes were very detailed and illustrated [with drawings from Gould’s book]. I don’t think anyone left, and many people had very kind things to say to me afterwards. And I learned a lot about how if you trust and respect your audience, and if they see that you are a regular human being with a sense of humor…” His voice trails off.
Los Angeles Times critic Daniel Cariaga wrote a rave. At the same time, he unintentionally countered Steiger’s conviction that the audience had needed prompts. “Steiger’s kaleidoscopic but tightly organized orchestral showpiece, commissioned by the Philharmonic, seems to contain everything but the kitchen sink — and perhaps that, too, is part of the percussion battery at the back of the orchestra,” he wrote. “Yet it all fits. Written, according to the composer, specifically for these players, it is a virtuoso romp that moves along at a cinematic pace, ending in a huge symphonic climax nearly 27 minutes after its beginning. The composer’s fascinating annotations, included in the program booklet, added spice to the performance, yet the piece succeeds without literary help. There is logic and continuity through its length and a compelling rhetoric, too. Second, third and tenth performances are called for.”
When word got around that someone had written a piece on that theme, it created excitement in nonmusical circles too. Articles about The Burgess Shale appeared in Science magazine and in The Journal of Petroleum Geologists.
Steiger also posted it on www.mp3.com, as an experiment. He was astounded when over 2000 people listened to it in one three-day period.
Those who disseminate music via the Internet must accept compromised sound quality. Steiger does temporarily, while he awaits the technology’s improvement — even its perfection. And he looks ahead to other innovations for musicians and composers as a result of the confluence of art and science. For example, he foresees an end to music publishers as we know them, imagining instead a huge computer data bank of scores, classics as well as pieces too rare to be in an orchestra’s library. Computers would not only deliver them; they would apportion fees properly — among composer, publisher, and retailer.
What is more, he envisions traditional music stands being replaced by flat computer displays. “I imagine that in less than ten years, music stands will actually be lcd screens with network connections. The musician will type in a url for the composer’s website, and there they will get the most up-to-date version of the score direct from the composer, displayed electronically. If composers want to charge money for this, they can, or they can give it away for free.” He predicts, “The dreaded page turn will be gone forever.”
Steiger believes that what the piano was to the 19th Century, the computer is to our time. But he sees computers as more than merely music-making devices. He sees them as genuine catalysts for change.
When what he calls “passive music” was invented — that is, recorded sound — people for the first time had music at home without playing it themselves or engaging someone else to play it. This he sees as a “strange anomalous moment” in music history. “So much was lost as people turned away from folk and chamber music performance. But computers have the potential to reverse the passive trend.” So-called artificial composers — programmed to generate music spontaneously, either as audio or notation — will invite performers or even listeners into the creative process. “They will be given a way to make decisions about the music that go far beyond the bass, treble, play, and pause controls of today. They will enter into the sonic detail and even the structure of the work, should we composers be so inclined. The role of folk and chamber music in the local village would then be taken up by music collaboration in the global village. All that stands in its way is our willingness to engage in the process.”
Of course, he sees danger ahead if these innovations are driven only by commerce. “We need to make sure the cultural and intellectual communities get involved in the new media so that they evolve in more inclusive, flexible, and even subversive ways.”
Steiger misses his own personal music-making, as a performing percussionist. “The thing that I miss more than anything is playing drums in a rock band,” he says. “It was such a visceral experience, accompanied by a lot of ego gratification, because I was playing important venues in the neighborhood and receiving the admiration of my peers.”
At CalArts, after his insipid experience with the Noblemen Orchestras, he picked up percussion again. “There were a lot of percussion students there, but they were mostly drawn to playing nonwestern music. A very important Javanese musician had a Javanese gamelan orchestra. Nyomen Wenten led a Balinese gamelan. Taranath Rao, a master teacher from India, taught tabla. And the Ladzepko brothers, leading musicians from Ghana, led an African drumming ensemble. So most of the percussion students weren’t that interested in playing western contemporary music, and as a result I was often asked to play. And I was delighted to do it. I became very serious about playing percussion again, and that continued until around 1984, when I had to phase it out. I was so busy composing, conducting, and teaching, I didn’t have time to keep my chops up. I started getting sloppy. And I realized I wasn’t going to be able to play up to my standards. So I stopped. I don’t even have a drum set anymore. I regret having given it away.”
On the first day of UCSD’s winter quarter, Steiger meets but briefly with his composition students. Six are enrolled; only four are present. The others are involved in rehearsals of juried pieces soon to be performed, as Derek Keller’s will be.
The room is long and narrow and holds a seminar table around which everybody sits in purple chairs. At one end of the room is a Yamaha piano, black and very shiny. There are no windows.
One student stays after class to say he may miss next week’s seminar. He already has professional engagements around the world. He will need to make five trips over the course of the quarter, to New York, Berlin, and Tokyo, among other places.
“I hope you’re not afraid of flying,” says Steiger.
The student, tall and rangy, with a German accent, says he has applied for grant money but needs more, going on at length about his finances and tangled travel plans.
“Maybe you should buy a plane.”
Students from all over the world are attracted to the reputation of the department’s graduate program. The application process is onerous. One hundred apply each year; only six or seven are accepted. Many of them are already experienced. Steiger describes the student with the travel problems as “one of Germany’s most accomplished young composers.”
It is always a group from many cultures. In this class of first-year students are, along with the German, a student originally from Kazakhstan who lives in Stockholm now; a Japanese; and three others from the United States. “A student from Iceland graduated last year,” says Steiger, “and now he is teaching at the University of Reykjavík.”
Other recent graduates of the program are in Tokyo, Paris, and Amsterdam, as well as in Latin America. Of course, they are all over this country too.
In 1993, Steiger was asked to be department chair and found himself torn — “between my concern for the department and that for my creative life.
“I knew I could be a good chair but I also knew it would affect my musical productivity.”
When he discussed it with Stanley Chodorow, then dean of Arts and Humanities, now special associate of the president for Instructional Technology, he expected to hear a pep talk on why he should do it. “Instead, he warned me that if I did get into university administration, I could ‘end up like him’ — making a career of it. He told me to think carefully about how this would affect my creative career. I will always appreciate how generous his advice was.”
He also consulted composer Bernard Rands, who was at ucsd but is now at Harvard. “Again my expectations were wrong. I thought he would tell me to forget it and concentrate on composing. Instead, he said to me, ‘You must do it!’ He helped me see it as a way to nurture an institution that has made an important contribution to the contemporary music world.”
In the end, after “a lot of other advice and soul searching,” he decided to take it on. And although the job did have a negative effect on his creative life, he is proud of what he and the department accomplished during his four-year tenure. These achievements include rebuilding the physical facility; improving the computer-music program; founding the Critical Studies/Experimental Practices program; and increasing the diversity of the faculty by recruiting Chinary Ung, Anthony Davis, and Ravi Shankar.
Steiger doesn’t claim that those years were entirely unproductive for him creatively. After all, while serving as chair, he composed The Burgess Shale, which he considers his “most significant work” — “a landmark.” But even as ex-chair it took him a while to return to the level of concentration that musical composition requires.
One of Steiger’s teachers believed composers should have composition notebooks whose pages could not be torn out. That isn’t his way. He doesn’t even write down his embryonic musical ideas. He thinks a long time before committing anything to paper. Perhaps it wouldn’t matter if he did write them down. He says, “I tend to be disorganized with documents.” This inclination did not work well when he and Sorensen shared one large bedroom that simultaneously served as studio for both of them. (They were living in Carlsbad, before they bought the house in Solana Beach, having met when they were both teaching at CalArts in the 1980s.) But he has not found the method an impediment to his work as a composer. “Things I care most about I commit to memory. If it’s not something that’s really engaging and it doesn’t come back, that’s okay.”
Significantly, he doesn’t keep an appointment book either, preferring to commit important times and dates to memory. (To his credit, he made every one of three interview appointments with this reporter.)
After he has the general musical idea, he might work at the piano a bit, or might not. “It’s easier for me to imagine now, without going to the piano, than it was when I was younger.” Only in the process of notation does he start to refine.
To his students, he suggests they find their own way — “the way that is the most fun, the most pleasurable experience, because if it isn’t fun or pleasurable it will be that much harder.”
Compared to The Burgess Shale, his current project, Frames 2, is not a major composition, but it is “an important transitional work.” He says that while he “asserted more” in The Burgess Shale, he “experimented more” in Frames 2.
“Although I’ve been interested in improvisation for a long time, most of my pieces over the past 20 years have been completely specified in almost every detail. But since I’ve been around very gifted improvisers in the department, particularly George Lewis, I’ve been increasingly interested in composer/improviser collaboration. In an earlier piece, Frame(s), a central section is a structured group improvisation, led by the percussion soloist. In Frames 2, I went further. About 80 percent of the orchestral writing is specified, but the solo part is completely improvised. So as I imagined the orchestral part, I imagined what George might do. And so it became a kind of imaginary duo, as if I were improvising along with him.”
When Lewis is asked about “flashing,” the word that Steiger uses to describe his style of trombone playing, he says, “It’s definitely about that.” But he doesn’t explain or elaborate. He does seem pleased to hear that Steiger tried to write to accommodate his style. “I see a certain compatibility there. It’s like I was a guest and he put out the right silverware and the chair that he thought would make me feel comfortable.”
An African-American, born in Chicago in 1952, Lewis sees “two historical paths merging” in Frames 2 — “the notated, precomposed stuff, with the improvised stuff.” He also says, “Spontaneity is basically oversold. It’s the jazz example. It’s the romantic ‘noble savage’ myth.” Asked to give a definition of improvisation, he demurs. “I asked one of my students to do it, and she wrote 50 pages and still couldn’t. I’m not sure it can be done. But I can attempt an off-the-cuff definition. It’s the creation of music in immediate response to conditions, including your own personal history and your own cultural history, all coming together, to a point, in the moment.”
On the night of the performance, Lewis says, he could simply improvise without keeping in mind what the orchestra was doing. “But it would be boring, and it would be very arrogant.” So how will it work? Two weeks before the premier he and Steiger are still inventing their method. “If this was a settled cultural technology, we’d know better what to do. Let me say that there is something called real-time and something called real-world space. Real-time is the score, and real-world space is me, and they are coming together, along with my knowledge of the piece, of myself, and where I came from.”
He adds, “Somebody who comes to the concert knowing that will really get something out of it. But then you might say, ‘Doesn’t that sound too intellectual? Can’t we just come in and dig it?’ It’s a complete fiction that you could do that. There has to be some mutual territory. It’s like The Dating Game. You have to make links with the other people. It’s not the corporate model: ‘Just buy it and shut up.’ ”
Lewis isn’t comfortable with the term “adventurous” to describe the kind of music Steiger composes or that he himself creates — in improvisations and in his own compositions. “It doesn’t reflect the variety of what’s out there. What makes me uncomfortable about it is that the word ‘adventurous’ gets to be identified with a certain kind of music — 1950s modern — that isn’t itself particularly adventurous. It’s just an updated form of exclusivity. I’m interested in adventurous music in the real sense, not just in the approved way of being adventurous.”
When Lewis was asked by Jung-Ho Pak to become a member of the symphony board, he wondered about his motivations. “I don’t have any money, either inherited or otherwise. I don’t know anybody with money, inherited or otherwise.” Was he to be a token of some kind? Then gradually he realized that Pak was sincere. “He was ready to try to make change. He was starting with very basic questions. For example, there needed to be a reason why an orchestra should exist, because the old reasons don’t work anymore. If the reason is to bring great music to the masses, it isn’t working.”
Now Lewis wants to get other kinds of people on the board with him — “people who were born here and grew up here and who are not white. People from the community who know nothing of symphonies or who have completely crazy ideas about them.”
Speaking metaphorically, he says, “It used to be that everybody was sitting in a circle worshipping the same luminous object in the middle of the floor. But it’s gone now. There simply isn’t any longer that centralized, worshipful object, because some folks just didn’t sign on. Some people think that we’ve hidden it, or even that we’ve thrown it away. But that didn’t happen. It just disappeared.”
Steiger’s Frame(s), a concerto written to showcase ear Unit percussionist Amy Knoles, has a visual component. When Lewis presented the symphony board’s idea to Steiger that fall evening in Solana Beach, he said that the board wanted a visual element too. In performance, Frame(s) featured lights on an electronic console twinkling as the music was amplified and sent around the theater à la surround sound — a Steiger invention. What the board hoped for, however, was something more than twinkling lights. They wanted computer-generated images — that is, the “visual music” Steiger and Sorensen have created together in recent years, combining musical performance, real-time computer music, computer graphics, and video.
Chair of USC’s Division of Animation and Digital Arts in the School of Cinema-Television, Sorensen has had her video and computer art exhibited in museums here and abroad, broadcast on TV, and featured on the Internet.
According to Lewis, “Everyone felt that Vibeke and Rand were very well positioned to put this together.”
In the final days before the premier, Steiger does the computer programming, while Sorensen works at editing and generating images. They are aided by their frequent collaborator, mathematician Miller Puckette, who is associate director of ucsd’s Center for Research in Computing and the Arts. Work would go on right up until the day of the concert.
Averaging five hours of sleep a night, Steiger also has several meetings with Lewis. “I tried to leave George as much freedom as possible,” he says, “and really didn’t want to get involved with his thinking. Interestingly, he wanted to talk with me about it.”
At one of these meetings, Steiger conducts Lewis through the piece — for practice. Jung-Ho Pak would be conducting the actual performance.
Steiger and Lewis meet with Pak at the symphony offices. The three of them sit around a table and talk about the piece. Then Pak conducts Lewis through it. That is, Lewis “sings” the solo, while Pak and Steiger “sing” the orchestral accompaniment. “It was a very useful and productive rehearsal,” Steiger reports, “but the singing sounded absolutely hilarious. I wish I had a tape of it.”
It was never a possibility that Steiger would conduct it. He is just as glad. “Many musicians are suspicious of composer/conductors. They don’t think they’ll be any good. I think this is because famous composers are from time to time asked to conduct their music, and many have not been trained as conductors, aren’t experienced, and aren’t as good as the better professional conductors. Great musicians crave conductors who are on their level of music-making ability, and there are many composers who are gifted creators but awkward performers. Stravinsky is a notable example.”
He is glad to have Pak conduct for another reason. He sometimes has trouble conducting his own work. With other people’s works, it’s easier because when he needs to be demanding, “it’s not self-serving — it’s for the music.” With his own, “It’s difficult for me to remove myself from ownership, so being demanding is complicated. I always feel as though performers are giving me a beautiful gift by performing a piece of mine, and I want to show my appreciation.” He says that dynamic makes it hard for him to be “stern and assertive.”
A final consideration is this: “When a piece of mine is first performed, I prefer to be able to listen, without the distraction of conducting, so I can note errors and miscalculations and make changes where necessary. After the first performance I enjoy conducting my own pieces.”
Two days before showtime, Pak conducts the first rehearsal with the orchestra. Then, on the morning of the concert, they have a run-through with the computer graphics.
The audio-signal processing and graphics follow the natural gestures of the performers. Steiger explains how it works:
“Sensing software controls the display of the images so that some of them change size, color, and move in response to subtle movements and gestures of George. Small video cameras, mounted on his hands and instrument, display a visual correlative to the sonic gestures that he creates. Computer-controlled lights allow for a shifting visual landscape, sometimes fully illuminating the ensemble, other times darkening the stage and focusing light more narrowly on George. At the same time, computer-processed images are projected onto a screen above the ensemble.”
For that rehearsal run-through, Steiger reports, “Everything worked well. George was very inspired in his playing, and the orchestra gave him a rousing ovation. It was nice to see how much they admired him.”
Only at that point does Steiger say he is happy he wrote the piece, reflecting, “I almost didn’t do it, because there was so little time. But I’m very pleased with it and delighted by the interaction I’ve had with Jung-Ho, the orchestra, and the orchestra management.”
Steiger and Sorensen take a rare break. It’s a Friday lunchtime, and Sorensen has finished her commute to usc for the week. (One reason she and Steiger chose Solana Beach to live in is its proximity to the Amtrak station and the train that takes her back and forth to L.A. when she doesn’t want to drive.) It’s their idea to eat with this reporter at their favorite restaurant, the Pamplemousse Grille, in Solana Beach. In fact, Steiger, who usually speaks so carefully, in quiet, measured tones, declares it to be his favorite restaurant “in the world.” A stylish place, it is where he and Sorensen go for celebrations and special occasions.
They talk about their upcoming project in Paris. Later in the month they will go there to meet with the technical staff at the Pompidou Center to begin their collaboration. That trip is a prelude to their residency from September to November, to be followed by another in fall 2001 and the rehearsals and final performance in spring 2002.
They also talk about their neighborhood, where they have come to feel at home and where both like to take walks and runs along the San Elijo Lagoon with their dog, Shiva. Steiger says long ago his heroes tended to be famous people. Today he draws inspiration from some local people who have stood up to developers who want to overbuild in Solana Beach. He mentions his neighbor Dean Pasko, who is a leader of Save Old Solana; city councilman Tom Campbell; and Jerry Hargarten, who led the group that fought the relocation of the Marine helicopters to Miramar. “I admire people who make personal sacrifices for the good of their communities,” says Steiger, who, if you consider his stint as music department chair at UCSD, could be talking about himself.
Someone once suggested to Steiger that he become more single-minded about the advancement of his career, devoting himself a couple of hours a day to “the business of composing” — the letter-writing, networking, and self-promotion. He does let his correspondence get away from him. For example, he is sorry he has lost touch with Stephen Jay Gould. Ultimately, however, he has decided he doesn’t believe in being “a selfish composer.” He wants to compose but is just as committed to “making opportunities for new composers,” like his students at UCSD. He sees it as “helping to make the kind of music world where I want my music to be played.”
Besides, being single-minded isn’t best for his music, he has learned. In 1985, he was honored to win the prestigious Prix de Rome from the American Academy of Arts and Letters that allowed him to spend a year in Rome. For the first time all he had to do was to compose. And while he was very productive, he says, “I realized then I was not an ivory-tower composer. I missed performing and the day-to-day engagement with active music-making that my life in Southern California represents.”
In fact, he says, he is “perfectly happy” with the way his whole life is going at the moment. “I am living a lifestyle that I never dreamed of. I make a good salary at the university, so I don’t have to make money from my compositions. And my anonymity has a certain value to it too, because I’m not faced with as many demands as I might be if I were well known.”
It’s no wonder, then, that within the next week, he would make the following decision, when faced with “an interesting fork in the road,” as he calls it. “I was nominated to be considered for a provost position of the new college we are creating at ucsd on the theme of Art and Science. I was on the committee that chose the theme, and I care deeply about it, so I thought long and hard about the inquiry. But I quickly realized that this is not the time to get back into academic administration. There is too much music to make!”
Steiger says he realized early on that if all composers ever did was write music and send off their scores, eventually there would be no one, or no place, to send the scores to. “We all have to make our contribution to the creation and care of the institutions that support our work. I chose to make my contribution early in my career.” Now, he says, he does feel he deserves to be “a bit more selfish.”
“I’m going to try to hole up in the ivory tower for a while. But I’ll be peering out the window, keeping an eye on what is going on.”