A Mockingbird Returns to the Curtis Institute

As a student at Curtis in 1982. (Photo credit: Norman Stumpf)

As a student at Curtis in 1982. (Photo credit: Norman Stumpf)

There is a moral imperative to protect the vulnerable, I thought, taking my seat that March 2011 evening where once Samuel Barber had sat—between Ralph Berkowitz and Gian Carlo Menotti—in the picture displayed on my friend Ralph’s piano in Albuquerque. I was back at the scene of a hundred character-building experiences from my youth as a composition student “singing my heart out,” as Harper Lee once described a mockingbird, at Philadelphia’s famed Curtis Institute of Music. Thirty years later, the school had commissioned me to compose a little trio called Book of Days for clarinet, viola, and piano to be toured as part of the 2011 iteration of its "Music from Curtis" program. Arriving in Philadelphia that afternoon, I’d had a note from eminent organist and theorist Ford Lallerstedt in which he had written, “I’m thinking today of Curtis, of unmerited favor, of a sense of grace.”

I inhaled the familiar smells of wood polish and upholstery, winter coats, bay rum, and Chanel No. 5 as Curtis faculty-member Ignat Solzhenitsyn, son of the great writer, dove into the piano part, joined by a student clarinetist and violist. The first movement, called Monday, began with a little chorale I had composed in 1982 for Ford during the first week of classes at the Institute. The tune was a gloss on the melody of Ring a Ring o' Roses, a nursery rhyme which has come to be associated with the Plague. It immediately morphed into an instrumental piece crafted as a tribute to Karen Hale, for whom I had composed Days Without You, a song cycle for soprano and orchestra that we’d premiered together as students. Somewhere in the Curtis library is a recording of the 1983 premiere.

Taken back in time by the music, I remembered the moment that I’d first been in the presence of talent as freely-flowing and endless as a pure, montain stream: the second movement, Tuesday, unfolded, painting with sounds the burgundies, blood-reds, and dirty vermilions a memory of the 1982 night I fell in love with my then girlfriend, sprawled out on the wine-dark, plushness of the carpet in the Horszowski Room, listening to her practice, from memory, illuminated only by light creeping in from a streetlamp outside in Rittenhouse Square, the Bartok Solo Sonata. A cadenza for solo clarinet that I called Wednesday pulled me back into the present, and then hurled me back into the past; in it I shared my musical recollection of how it felt as a student when, tears coursing down my cheeks, I had first heard Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps performed at Curtis on a student recital—purely, before learning its title, history, or program.

A movement I called Thursday followed. It was about a night during students days that I had visited Norman Stumpf, my best friend (a good, innocent, talented, emotionally vulnerable composition student at Curtis who took his life) in his hospital room. I imitated the sound of a heart monitor, "slap-tongue," in the clarinet, doubled with pizzicato in the viola. I followed it with a quotation of the tune to which Norman had set our favorite poem, Roethke's The Waking with which I memorialized him back then in a symphony. The next movement, Friday, was surely the song of the mockingbird, a tender elegy for a fellow singer of songs. Saturday began, revisiting music I had penned to give a taste of the insomnia that set in like a piton during my Curtis years. The final movement, Sunday, revisited the Plague chorale. It was meant to soothe, to draw closed the curtain on those years. If, on the one hand, one risks by looking backwards turning into a pillar of salt, one must also recall that nostalgia is often "the bread of creativity."

My song ended, I bowed, emptied, and felt nothing.

The next morning in the Common Room I seated myself next to the walk-in fireplace on the chair in which the school’s receptionist Shirley Schachtel had taken my hand 30 years earlier. I thought again of Ford’s note, which had continued, “A little boy gives all he has, everything he depends upon. No motive.” I looked around, remembering myself standing there for the first time, nervous excitement and exhaustion mingling, my stomach a-flutter, intuiting that the rest of my life was, all at once, opening before me. I could almost smell Shirley’s delicate perfume. “So, you’re brand new,” I remembered her observing gently, and smiled inwardly. Brand new. Yes.

Perhaps I looked in need of help, because a pretty child placed her hand on my shoulder. She reminded me of Filly as a teenager. Like her, she smelled of rain. “Are you okay? Do you need something, sir?” she asked. Her innocent kindness. To her, I am an old man, I mused. I looked down at my arthritic knuckles. “No. Oh, no,” I answered gently, looking up. She smiled sweetly, and sort of danced across the room toward a knot of friends. I rose, strolled to the painting of Mary Louise Curtis Bok, smiled affectionately at it, and took a final look around before leaving. I pushed the heavy door open. After the stuffy Owl Light of the Common Room, the sunshine outside dazzled. Across the street, a new café called Parc had opened. The sidewalk in front of it bristled with little Parisian-style café tables. I crossed Locust, took a seat, and turned to take one last look at the old mansion. Is this how this song ends? I asked myself. Yes. The last fragment of Ford’s letter came to mind: “No motive. Just unqualified love. The results are surprising, unpredicted. Tell others.”

Presently, the eager to please bearded boy that I once was—the one who met Ned Rorem for the first time in Room 235K, the tiny attic-classroom on the top floor across the street and intuited that he would have to be extraordinary to earn Ned’s—and by extension, what he thought was the music world’s—attention simply so that he could sing for them, joined me. I regarded the Other Daron—the brother who died after only a few days—tenderly. You know, my little Mockingbird, I said to myself, you’re the last of my dead. He smiled back at me, secure in his essential goodness. He smiled the way that I once did, the way that my sons do. At length, he rose, reached for my hand, held it fiercely in his small, strong one for a moment, smiled, nodded affirmatively, released it, turned, and walked slowly into Rittenhouse Square, never to return. He had never realized how beautiful he was.

You can listen to, and learn more about, Book of Days here. This piece originally ran in the Huffington Post on 16 August 2017. You can read it there by clicking here.

Yaddo: Transforming Sorrow into Joy

Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, New York, is more than America’s most prestigious artist retreat: it is a testament to one couple’s determination to transubstantiate loss into works of art. Like mine, Yaddo’s story is about what poet Kim Addonizio calls "the presence that absence makes." After the tragic deaths of their children, financier Spencer Trask and his gifted wife Katrina dedicated themselves to the creation of Yaddo for the same reason that my parents created me. There envelops Yaddo (rhymes with “shadow”) a profound Victorian melancholy that serves as an unspoken reminder to even the fastest of trackers in any given pack of ambitious young artists passing through the place of serious art’s immense stakes. To me, Yaddo is not just a hallowed place, but also my home.

I ended my mother's doomed gavotte with cancer at her request during the 1982 Christmas holidays, returned to school at the Curtis Institute, and unspooled my final year there as a pupil of Ned Rorem's. Upon graduation the following spring, without an address, my books in storage, my life a completely chance-ful thing as I prepared to move to Manhattan where, in a succession of sublets and rentals for the next 30 years, I'd live, I first came to Yaddo in summer 1984. I landed there at the very, very end of Yaddo's first great era, a time not long after the days that one could not even apply; Elizabeth Ames invited people directly. So it happened that Ned telephoned the President of Yaddo, Curtis Harnack (that wonderfully humane man), and his brilliant, wise wife, Hortense Calisher to arrange for my first visit. 

“Yaddo,” wrote Ned, “is necessary for you now. Don’t try so hard to be Rastignac. Perhaps a little less need to get ahead, to be a “professional”; a little more introspection and, indeed, egotism, will do you good. But who knows? One man’s meat, etc.….” Ned instructed me to ask David Diamond (with whom I would begin studying at Juilliard the following September) what books I should read before entering his studio. Along with decreeing that I spend the summer studying “Beethoven Quartets op. 59, No. 1, Opus 131, Haydn’s Opus 33, No. 1, Mozart, Brahms, Bruckner, and Berg,” David had commanded me to read Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus and Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe. I arrived at Yaddo with the need not to be Rastignac, but Orpheus; I desired nothing more than to sing my departed mother’s spirit out of the Underworld, bring her back to life.

Daron Hagen at Yaddo. Summer, 1984. (Photo Credit: Hortense Calisher)

Daron Hagen at Yaddo. Summer, 1984. (Photo Credit: Hortense Calisher)

After a train ride up the Hudson, I disembarked at the Saratoga Springs train station. I had with me the clothes on my back, Mann and Rolland in my backpack, four shirts, three pair of underwear, two pair of jeans, four pair of socks, mechanical pencils and erasers, thirty dollars, and lots and lots of King Brand manuscript paper.

Now retired, James Mahon, a courtly, red-bearded Charon with a mild voice and probing, intense eyes who gravely addressed me as “sir” long before I had any claim to it, placed my backpack gently in the beat up old company station wagon. We drove slowly through town, past Town Hall and the Post Office, and the Adirondack Trust bank. We passed the Parting Glass, where mingled during August the jockeys from the Saratoga Race Track and their tall, glossy girlfriends, the Yaddo artists, the City Ballet dancers, the Philadelphia Orchestra players, the townies, and the bettors.

James turned on to broad, tree-lined Union Avenue—one of the Hudson Valley’s grandest boulevards. Flanked by over a dozen Queen Anne-style mansions built during the late 1800s, it begins at Congress Park and culminates a mile and a half later at the Northway. In 1978, the entire area was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the Union Avenue Historical District. As the car rolled by the racetrack, with its bevy of Victorian structures, I felt as though we were going back in time. We passed the National Museum of Racing. I thought aloud: “Seabiscuit.” “Ah, yes sir,” James drawled, glancing at me curiously in the rearview mirror, “that was a brave little pony now, wasn’t it?”

“Whitney,” I said, “Jerome, Vanderbilt….” “Ah, yes sir,” James drawled, “those would be some other names associated with the race track, that’s for certain.” On our right, at the far end of Union Avenue, adjacent to the track, began a dense, shadowy forest. “This would be Yaddo, sir,” James said, turning on to the grounds.

The life-sized portraits of Katrina and Spencer Trask that hang in the mansion's main hall. (Photo credit: Hagen Collection)

The life-sized portraits of Katrina and Spencer Trask that hang in the mansion's main hall. (Photo credit: Hagen Collection)

Spencer Trask, founder of the well-known Wall Street firm, and his wife Katrina had the mansion built in 1892 by architect William Halsey Wood, who did little but execute the designs provided by his clients. 55 rooms, a medieval dining hall and tower, barns, outbuildings, four man-made ponds bearing the children’s names, a rock garden, and a large formal rose garden, all laid out to Spencer’s specifications.

James slowed the car as we passed between the lakes. We veered left, and then right, then climbed the drive, and to our left the mansion blossomed into view atop the hill. I gasped. Embarrassed, I looked toward the rearview mirror and saw that James’ eyes were warm. “Yes sir,” he smiled, “that’s the Main House. We’ll be driving past West House, Pine Garde, and East House so that I can drop you at the Office.” We shook hands and he handed me my backpack after I got out.

Tears spontaneously flowed as beloved, infinitely capable program director Rosemary Misurelli (who I had never met) bundled me up in her Rabelaisian Earth Mother arms at the front door of the office. “I feel as though I have come home,” I burbled. Weeping, she covered my face with kisses, and then took me in to meet Curt, who asked me why I was crying. “I have no idea,” I said. “Are you okay?” he asked. “I think so,” I said. “I don’t understand why I’m crying.” “Oh, I do,” he said, with a kind, open mid-western smile.

Upon arrival, a Special Assistant to the President escorts every artist to his or her studio and bedroom. That summer, Doug Martin and Nancy Brett served. I was given a tour of the grounds, and then shown into the mansion’s grand hall. Hanging there were two life-sized full portraits. Before being told her identity, I was as irresistibly drawn to Eastman Johnson’s painting as I had been to the Norman Rockwell portrait of Mary Louise Curtis Bok Zimbalist. We hadn’t met, but my heart instinctively moved out to her. I felt safe here. “Yes, that’s her,” Nancy said, gently pulling me away and leading me up the sweeping stairs. “Katrina Trask?” I asked. “Yes,” she said, pointing up at the two-story tall Tiffany window atop the stairs. “That’s her, too.”

My younger son draws from the lead-lined treasure chest in the library the note that has resided there for a long time and left, as far as he was concerned, just for him. And, at Yaddo, why not? (Photo credit: Hagen Collection)

My younger son draws from the lead-lined treasure chest in the library the note that has resided there for a long time and left, as far as he was concerned, just for him. And, at Yaddo, why not? (Photo credit: Hagen Collection)

We turned left at the foot of the window, passed a large brass spittoon, and reached the sliding door leading to Oratory (a place of prayer), the room next to what had been Spencer’s den that would serve as my bedroom.

Everyone who has lived and worked at Yaddo over the past century has heard stories about the ghosts. There’s the Puritanical one that keeps watch in the bedroom on the second floor of the mansion opposite the stairs that opens the windows when something naughty is happening in the room. There’s the Testy one that slams the closet door in Katrina’s bedroom when the current occupant spends a little too much time on the fainting couch.

In May 2007, I sat before the upright piano in the Acosta Nichols Tower studio, writing with trepidation the title Amelia over what would become the first page of over four hundred pages of piano sketch of my opera about flight and rebirth. A bird flew in through the open door and flew frightened circles high above me in the white cone of the ceiling. I got up and spoke quietly to the bird, “You’ll be okay, friend. Everything will be fine. The door is open. Fly through it.” As though on cue, the bird swooped down and glided back out through the door to safety in the surrounding forest. It was the plainest sort of blessing, and a perfect example of the sort of thing that happens at Yaddo.

There are always beautiful seasonal arrangements at Yaddo built of flowers from the estate's gardens. (Photo: Hagen Collection)

Yaddo is about the work, first. My work book lists the following pieces composed all, or in part, there between 1984 and the present: four major operas: Amelia, Bandanna, Little Nemo in Slumberland, and Shining Brow; two cantatas: A Walt Whitman Requiem and Light Fantastic; my Symphony No. 3; and nearly a hundred art songs and chamber works, large and small.

Much of Yaddo’s magic derives from the effect that it has on one’s fellow artists. For example, I had learned about the extravagance, the power, and the beauty of raw talent at Curtis, that talent is like a natural resource—amoral and unearned. It can be cultivated and strengthened by its possessor, and it can be misused, of course. But I had never (and have never, since) met anyone quite as joyously talented as David Del Tredici, who I befriended during my first residency. He was—and remains—a nova.

At Yaddo with fellow composers David Del Tredici and George Tsontakis, Autumn, 2006. (Photo credit: Gilda Lyons)

At Yaddo with fellow composers David Del Tredici and George Tsontakis, Autumn, 2006. (Photo credit: Gilda Lyons)

I first met Joel Conarroe that summer. Joel, the author of books and articles about American literature and anthologies of poetry, president of the Guggenheim Foundation from 1985-2002 (and a trustee until his retirement in 2016); former chair of the English Department, Ombudsman, and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, and former president of the PEN American center, was deeply gentle, erudite, decent, and agreeable company over dinner during the weeks that our visits overlapped.

In 1994, Joel and David Del Tredici  reached out to Donald S. Rice, then Chairman of Yaddo’s Board of Directors, and together nominated me for membership in the Corporation. Subsequently elected by the Directors and Members that year, I was further elected by our brothers and sisters fifteen years later to continue beyond the restriction of a term limit as a “Lifetime Member”–an honor bestowed on only one other Member: Susan Brynteson, Yaddo’s beloved Librarian, and (now retired) Vice provost and head of the University of Delaware Library. In his letter commending me to Don, Joel described me as “represent[ing] the best of what Yaddo is all about.” I treasure Joel’s approbation and this honor above any other I’ve received in my life.

Performing with Gilda Lyons in the Music Room during the Annual Meeting. Aaron Copland premiered his Piano Variations on this exquisite instrument. (Photo credit: Angellos Ioannis Malefakis)

Performing with Gilda Lyons in the Music Room during the Annual Meeting. Aaron Copland premiered his Piano Variations on this exquisite instrument. (Photo credit: Angellos Ioannis Malefakis)

I was taught a briskly affectionate character lesson of immense value one evening at West House during the early 80s by novelist Lynn Freed. She’d been in residence long enough to observe our small society in action, but it was our first real conversation. “What do you make of so-and-so?” she asked. “And him? And her?” We compared notes. Presently, she asked, “Darling boy, why are you such a Rabbit with people in public, and so Dead-Spot-On-Brutal in your assessment of them in private? Surely there’s a balance, no?”

When at 16 I told my English teacher Diane Doerfler that I intended to move to the east coast, she presented me with the volume of John Cheever's short stories I possess to this day: “Read these,” she said, throwing me a rope. “He and Updike seem to get it right.” Only a few years later Susan Cheever and I became friends at Yaddo. I imagine Doerf would be pleased to know that I told Susan about her gift. Years later, playwright / actor Ayad Akhtar was made a member of the Corporation. He charmed me, when we met for the first time during the annual fall meeting, by regaling me during dinner with fulsome reminiscences of Doerf, whom he credited as “an essential guiding force in his early development.”

Yaddo's  Collected Balzac , shelved in West House.

Yaddo's Collected Balzac, shelved in West House.

It was at Yaddo—reading the Trask family’s exquisite 1901 Little, Brown and Company Works of Honoré de Balzac shelved in West House—that, over the course of fifteen years, I savored every word of Balzac’s monumental La Comedie Humaine, in English, and then in French. He remains to me as precious as Georges Simenon is to Ned. Rastignac—he, whose name is an insult in France, has served all my life both as a warning and as a negative example, as surely as Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe has constituted a blessing and an imprecation. In other words, on the one hand, “la vie humaine se compose de deux parties: on tue le temps, le temps vous tue,” and, on the other, “there are some dead who are more alive than the living.”

Katrina Trask’s was one of what Rick Moody calls the “momentous and astonishing and beautiful deaths” that have taken place at Yaddo. During my first visit—summer 1984—I had spent several weeks composing a requiem, what poet and memoirist Richard McCann might call a “ghost letter” to Katrina. Richard wrote, in one of his poems, “Quiet! Don’t you know that the dead go on hearing for hours?” I believe that they continue hearing forever if they are of a mind to. I believe that Katrina Trask continues to hear what goes on at Yaddo to this day.

A photo of a Daguerreotype of Katrina Trask that hangs in West House.

Here’s how I met Mrs. Trask. Near the end of my first visit, novelist Doug Unger was sitting on the second-floor landing, around eleven-thirty in the evening, reading The New Yorker. Across from him sat a third person, whose name escapes me. That reassuring, late-night quietude (the plashing of water in the little fountain next to the front door, the soughing and whispering of the pines, underpinned by the steady thrum of automobile wheels on the Northway) unique to this house surrounded us. I didn’t know at the time that Doug was up there. I was reading in the Great Hall, next to the fireplace with the phoenix on it.

The Grand staircase. Katrina Trask is portrayed in the Tiffany window. (Photo credit: Hagen Collection)

At that instant, I less “saw” her than “felt” Katrina Trask’s presence. In the same way that one might glimpse a child streaking out of a suburban front yard and into the street, and with the same terrible wave of heart-in-the-mouth dread, perceived peripherally, intuited while focusing elsewhere, a woman descending the main staircase in what John Cheever mischievously described as “poor Katrina’s shower curtain” came before my mind’s eye. It was unquestionably Katrina’s ghost. Her right hand was slightly raised, as it is in the portrait, and in it was a telegram, a poem, or a letter. Allan Gurganus suavely describes what I saw as “some essence quorum of our souls’ intensities.” At the instant that I noticed the apparition, I heard a cry from the second floor. I leapt to the foot of the stairs to see what the matter was. Looking up, I saw ashen-faced Doug.

“What did you see?” I asked. “A woman in a white dress, so help me God,” he said.

From behind him in the darkness the third person—who couldn’t possibly have seen the staircase—said, softly, “It was Katrina.” We coughed, laughed, looked at our feet. I have seen an angel, I thought. I used to describe the feeling I took away from the moment as being exactly like the way I used to feel when I heard the crunch of gravel in the driveway that meant Mother was home. Now, as a father, I recognize that the feeling was more like the way I feel when my children are sleeping in the next room, yet I am in every way but physically with them.

My younger son at Yaddo, Summer 2016.

My younger son at Yaddo, Summer 2016.

How, I wondered as a boy, would it feel to experience happiness without dread, and, if I did, how long would it last before the inevitable happened and I ended up, at two in the morning, my ass is in the air, scrubbing again and again the same square foot of asphalt tile until I had forgotten what the question was? Now I wonder, when I’m telling my sons a bedtime story about the animals at Yaddo (who have names, and speak, and have adventures, and inhabit a world that is entirely real to my boys, as real as Yaddo is to me, and as precious), I wonder how it is possible that there is no dread in our home; how is it possible that this happy story won’t end for my sons the way that it ended for my brothers?

After much discussion, and many Yaddo bedtime stories, and Elaina Richardson’s permission, I agreed to take my son with me to attend the 24 July 2015 ceremony at Yaddo at which the mansion and grounds would be proclaimed a National Historic Landmark.

The water in the “Sleepy Naiads” fountain was cold and clear. “Brr,” said my son, now aged 6, pulling his small, perfect feet out. It was his first visit to Yaddo. To look our best, we had dressed in matching starched white shirts and shorts. But a child’s a child, and we’d decided that, before touring the mansion together, we ought to dip our feet in the fountain. I passed him his stockings. We sat in the grass. I handed him his shoes. “You make the ears,” he explained. “Then you jump through the hole, right?” I asked. “Uh huh. And then you pull the ears tight,” he said, pulling on his shoelaces with a look of satisfaction.

The Yaddo Mansion seen from the Sleepy Naiad Fountain. (Photo credit: Hagen Collection)

The Yaddo Mansion seen from the Sleepy Naiad Fountain. (Photo credit: Hagen Collection)

I looked up. At the top of the hill, framed by cloudless blue sky, sat the Yaddo mansion. My son's attention shifted from his shoelaces to follow my gaze. “Papa?” “Yes, honey.” “How did the children die?” he asked. I looked back down at the grass, deciding how much to say. “There were four of them. They all died before they were teenagers,” I said. His eyes widened. “Do you really want to hear this?” He nodded gravely. “One lived only 12 days.”

My son shook his head in wonder: “Like the ‘Other Daron,’ Papa?” “Yeah,” I answered. “No wonder you love this place so much,” he said. “More than you know, baby,” I said. “So, tell me,” he said, placing his hand on my beard the way that I sometimes stroke his cheek. “The oldest child had Uncle Kevin’s middle name, Alansson,” I began. My boy looked up at the house as I spoke. “He died of some childhood disease. The middle children were Christina and Spencer Jr. At some point when they were children, they caught Diphtheria kissing their Mama goodbye.” He turned suddenly, and asked, “Did their Mama die, too?” “No,” I answered, “their mama Katrina was okay.” He threw his arms around me, and began to cry. “It’s okay, baby,” I said, stroking his hair. He looked up at me, and asked, “What happened to the last one?” I pulled him close. He buried his head in my chest. “The last child was named Katrina,” I told him, stroking his hair. “She lived only nine days.”

Presently, we gathered up our things and walked to the car. "Can we come back, Papa?" "Not only can we return, we must," I told him firmly, digging my chin into the top of his head as I held him, tears falling into his hair's golden ringlets. "Why, Papa?" I looked at him—his tender, small frame just beginning to flesh out with the wiry strength of the man into whom he'd grow, and I thought to myself that Life is fragile, that Art is fragile, too; I thought that the Loud drown out the Rest most of the time, but that Art, so simultaneously ephemeral and eternal, like Love, can do more than prompt a tyrant's tears; it can give strength and hope to those fighting for a better world for our kids, a safer place to bring them up, a more tolerant mindset, more open hearts. I had to look away from him. and up the hill towards the mansion as I formulated a simpler answer, an answer that, hopefully, even a child might understand. "Because Yaddo," I whispered, "is a place where sorrow is transformed into joy."

My older son at Yaddo, Summer, 2014.

My older son at Yaddo, Summer, 2014.

My younger son at Yaddo, Summer 2016.

My younger son at Yaddo, Summer 2016.

This essay first appeared in the Huffington Post in an earlier form on 5 June 2012. You can read it there by clicking here. Below is a little fundraising video shot in the Yaddo Mansion's Music Room several years ago.

Suspending Disbelief

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The dog day 1981 Philly air had that sexy, crapulous swamp-tang to it that anyone who has sweated through a summer there either loves or hates. I’d arrived from the Midwest but a few weeks earlier, and I loved it. As it happened, I was wadded into a ball in the back seat of a cab like a sweaty mash note, jib to the wind, headed toward the Curtis Institute, immersed in a winsome bagatelle about composing music with the driver.

“I hear music in my head,” he said.

“Me, too,” I replied.

His eyes met mine in the rearview mirror.

“But I feel it, first,” I said.

He twisted the knob on the radio in the dashboard and the Vivaldi that had been purling from the speakers like the sound of fat bumblebees mixed with an old Singer sewing machine melded into the sound of traffic.

“On MTV I heard Eric Clapton say, ‘I feel it, I put my hands on the guitar, and I play how I feel'," he said, skeptically. "Is it like that for you?”

“Yeah,” I said. “But for me it’s like there’s static between my heart and my brain and I need to get better at notating what I’m feeling to eliminate the static,” I said.

“You gotta practice,” he said.

“Pretty much,” I agreed.

“I get home. I plug my guitar into my amp in the basement. I turn the knob to nine. I hit a chord. I feel it,” he laughed. “And for that I don’t need to practice.” He twisted his mouth into an upside-down smile and nodded for emphasis.

“That sounds fun,” I laughed.

He slammed his palms on the wheel and unleashed a stream of Punjabi at the big dude in an SUV ahead of us. I understood not a syllable. But I was swept along by the magnificent roiling emotional intensity of the sounds. They shot from his lips like illumination rounds; they stuttered and flashed, hit their mark, and ended with him hitting the horn a few times for good measure. Traffic was gridlocked. We weren’t going anywhere.

“You felt it. You said it,” I ventured.

“You bet your ass,” he agreed.

“I have no idea what you said,” I observed, "but I loved the colors, the richness, the warp and woof of it, the rhythm….”

“You loved the music of it,” he corrected me. “You don’t speak Punjabi,” he laughed. “If you did, and you knew what I just said about his mother, it would be different.”

I laughed. “You’re right. I don’t want to know what you really said.”

“Exactly. You are a poet. You want to hear what you want me to have said.”

“No. I want to hear what you felt, not what you meant,” I answered. “I got that, loud and clear.”

The knot of traffic loosened for an instant and we shot forward. He glanced at me again in the mirror. “I didn’t mean to offend you,” he said.

“I’m not offended,” I said.

“You said ‘take me to Curtis Institute’,” he observed. “I assumed.”

“What? That I was a poet?” I asked. “I know lots of musicians who aren’t particularly poetic, humane, or even intelligent.”

“But you said you feel music,” he said. “That makes you a poet. I hear other people’s music in my head. I feel things when I hear music, or when I play my guitar, but I do not hear my own music,” he said. “You hear instruments. And voices—.”

“Not exactly. I think that would make me psychotic,” I teased him.

“No. Not crazy,” he said, seriously. “Poet,” he insisted.

Rittenhouse Square stood before us, Rindelaub’s bakery to the right. Traffic was awful. He reached for the meter and shut it off. Twisting around in the seat, he said, “This ride is on me. You stay in the cab, and we’ll talk until I get you to Curtis. That’s how you’ll pay the fare.”

“Okay,” I said. “Thanks.”

“I’ll bet I make more money than you,” he observed.

“I’ll bet that you do,” I agreed.

“I sit in my cab all day and I think, you know?” he said. “I think about what the people in the buildings that I drive past do all day. Do you think that they think about me?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “I doubt it.”

“Me, too,” he sighed. “Can I tell you something?”

“Of course,” I said. "It’s your time, now.”

He laughed. “I will tell you why I came to the U.S. from Pakistan.”

“Okay,” I said.

“I saw on television a movie called West Side Story. I thought to myself look at those hoodlums, they are so beautiful flying across the screen like that. Then I realized that of course they are actors and it is a movie, but I thought how amazing that a movie should for a moment make me forget that.”

We turned right and began circumnavigating the square. Then, traffic snarled again, and we were stopped in front of Henry McIllhenny’s townhouse. “You know how the fellow who lives in there made his fortune?” I asked. “By mixing jalapeno peppers with water and selling it.” The driver leaned over and looked out the passenger side window.

“Amazing,” he said.

“America is amazing.” I warmed to him. “The amazing thing is that he has spent much of that money supporting the work of playwrights like Tennessee Williams, painters like Renoir, composers like Rorem, who teaches at Curtis.” We crawled forward towards the Barclay Hotel.

“What makes you a poet, my friend,” I ventured to the cabdriver, “is that you are self-aware enough to have marveled at, to continue to treasure, maybe, your own ‘suspension of disbelief’ and to want more. For a moment, you didn’t see the hoodlums, you saw their souls in flight. An appealing ‘American Dream',” I observed. "Suspending disbelief is more than just the sacrificing of realism and logic for the sake of aesthetic enjoyment; it is an extension of faith on a person's behalf in an artist's ability to illuminate human truths and to help us regain (and maybe even improve upon) our humanity." He didn’t answer.

"Honestly," I concluded, "I think that in today's world it takes courage to knowingly enter into a work of art." We turned left in front of the Barclay and stopped at the corner of 18th and Locust.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe.”

I un-scrunched myself, grabbed my tattered boy scout knapsack, yanked the door handle, and slid out of the cab. I rapped twice on the roof of the car to signal that I was clear, and he stuck his head out of the window.

“Don’t stop feeling the music,” he said.

“Don’t stop suspending your disbelief,” I replied.

This essay appeared in the Huffington Post on 3 May 2017. Click here to read it there.

Farewell to Little Pete's

Little Pete's Restaurant. Cash only. A Philadelphia treasure, in October 2014. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

Little Pete's Restaurant. Cash only. A Philadelphia treasure, in October 2014. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

Closure #1: OCTOBER 2014

This is a piece about Closure and the closure of Little Pete's, a belovéd greasy spoon across the street from the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia. A wrecking ball is set to fly through Little Pete’s. Progress commands that a 300-room hotel must take the place of the parking ramp at 219 South 17th Street in whose corner nestles one of Center City Philadelphia’s treasures. We’re not talking Bookbinder’s (which is now, ignominiously, an Applebee's), chock full of tourists and overpriced, or the smattering of trendy boutique restaurants that surround Rittenhouse Square like hipsters lounging on the margins of a poetry reading. We’re talking about a Genuine 24-Hour Greasy Spoon, Home to Collars Both White and Blue, an Insomniac’s Oasis in the Night, a Caffeine Addict’s Last Resort, a Trusted Purveyor of that mysterious mélange of grill top odds-and-ends, Scrapple. We’re talking about Little Pete’s, for Pete’s sake. I'm afraid that the news is grim.

I’ll forever associate Little Pete’s with my youth, not just as a composer coming into his own, but also as a person whose world was opening up in one Big Bang. My life as it was then, almost impossibly full, was discussed, vivisected, celebrated, dreaded, and mourned at Little Pete’s.

Autumn 1981. This Wisconsin Boy, a tender nineteen years old, had only just moved to Philadelphia. The Grace of Whomever had handed me a lottery ticket in the form of an invitation to study at the legendary, preposterously intimidating Curtis Institute of Music. I was a Brooks Brothers shirt and blue jeans sort of guy. I grooved to Stockhausen more than Rorem, Berio more than Barber, and Bernstein even more than the Beatles. 

Little Pete’s was the setting for countless post-lesson symposia. During my lessons, my mentor Ned Rorem casually dropped priceless aperçu and dry, acerbic criticisms while slashing through my compositions, his pencil waving this way and that like a rapier. Afterwards, a bit shell-shocked by the enormity of Ned’s self-assurance, my best friend, and fellow Rorem pupil Norman Stumpf, and I would head for Little Pete’s, where we would debrief. “Did he tell you that you succeeded in being boring?” I asked Norman, over Pete’s wretched, perennially burnt Joe, one afternoon. “Not this time,” Norman replied. “But he told me that William Flanagan wrote my song better in the late 50s.” “Who was he?” I asked. “That’s what I said,” replied Norman. I already knew what Ned’s answer had been: find out.

I didn’t yet have a telephone in my apartment. I’d use the payphone in Little Pete’s to call home for reports of my mother’s gradual submission to cancer back in Wisconsin, and then drink with a cellist friend until four or five in the morning, attempting to slake the thirst for silence in my head. I cannot recall how many dawns I greeted, my body still young enough to absorb the alcoholic gut punches dealt it during the previous hours, doing my counterpoint exercises at Pete’s lime green counter, “scrambled eggs and“ a few inches away, untouched, the dread of disappointing Ford Lallerstedt in class a few hours later by presenting mediocre work pulling me back from the edge.

I celebrated my first critical triumph as a composer at Little Pete’s; I also received my most gratuitous wing clipping by a music critic there. In 1983, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s august music critic, Daniel Webster gave my string orchestra work, Prayer for Peace, which William Smith had just premièred with the Philadelphia Orchestra, a glowing review in the paper. I’ll never forget my brother Kevin, who had come to town for the performance, spreading the newspaper on the table between us, skimming it before reading it to me, so that, if necessary, he could spare me the worst bits. Seventeen years later—a lifetime, really—my alma matercommissioned a piece to celebrate its 75th anniversary called Much Ado. Made careless by the standing ovation the piece had received the night before, I spread the Inquirer out on a table at Pete’s expecting at least a casual nod from the critic. Instead, my frothy showpiece was dealt a pasting. Composers do read reviews. Well, I used to—until that day, anyway.

I courted my girlfriend for months by walking her each day from Curtis to her train at Suburban Station. The day that she allowed me to carry her violin for her was the equivalent of moving from “vous” to “tu.” Afterwards, a little giddy, downcast, yet hopeful — the way you can be when you are in your early ‘20s and in love and have time and health and just enough money to get by, I bought the Daily News and the New York Times and worked my way through them at Pete’s until I felt the urge to compose percolate up within me like a welcome fever. Then, a man with a mission, I’d head for a practice room at Curtis and spread notes on music paper like jam on bread. God, that felt good. In time, the love affair sputtered. Music did not.

This morning, an old school chum posted the news on Facebook that Pete’s shall soon be no more. The comments following her post were lovely, and they’re still coming in. I shouldn’t be amazed by how much the place meant to all of us. 

No more sentimental reveries over crab cake sandwiches when I return to Philadelphia for the occasional master class, performance, or lecture. One less skein of memory holding me to one of the few places on the planet, and one of the few times, when I was able to summon both the elegia of James Agee and the earnest and callow drive of Thomas Wolfe. “Aw,” a Philadelphia-based friend told me on the phone just now when I called him to confirm the news, “just drive on, old friend. It was inevitable. It had to happen. And it all began the day that they let people throw up buildings taller than William Penn’s hat.”

At "Little Pete's" on 27 February 2017. The restaurant got a reprieve, and is now scheduled to close in May 2017. (Photo by Neil Erickson)

Closure #2: February 2017

Fully three years after I first contributed the article above to the Huffington Post, still accepting "cash only," the diner holds on. The final closing date has been officially announced and accepted by management, and a steady stream of customers has been coming in to say goodbye for months, said the owner when I stopped in this morning.

Enough time has passed that the Warwick Hotel across the street has passed back into private hands and out of the clutches of the chain that had demolished its once elegant lobby and replaced it with a hideous, Euro-trashy, neon-blue fishtank affair.

My wife and I had checked into the Warwick the day before, our two sons in tow. I'd returned to Philly to hear a performance by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia—Michael Ludwig had given a lovely account of the violin concerto I'd written for him a few years earlier. After Michael's vivid, glowing performance of my concerto with Dirk Brossé and the orchestra, I'd dined with my belovéd writing mentor (whom I'd first met as a student at Curtis in 1982) Emily Wallace and her husband Gregory and discussed my memoirs; I'd enjoyed a quick brunch with my good buddy, rising composer and Curtis faculty member David Ludwig, at Pete's the next morning.  I'd even taken a moment to stretch my legs out before me in a favorite chair in the Common Room at Curtis for a few moments before walking to Little Pete's, spreading the Inquirer out on the green formica countertop, and reading a respectful review of my concerto by the same critic who had panned me all those years back. 

June 2017. The original Little Pete's is literally no more. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

June 2017. The original Little Pete's is literally no more. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

A few nights before, I'd sung my "Elegy for Ray Charles" at World Cafe Live in University City, a few blocks away, putting over my good friend Stephen Dunn's lovely words breathily into a hot mic and accompanying myself publicly in this town for the first time since the last time I touched the keys as the lounge pianist in the Barclay Hotel lobby in fall 1982. Then, I was about to make my Curtis debut, conducting my music with the Curtis Orchestra next door, Mother dying of cancer, my life just beginning. The other night, my wife and young sons sat at a nearby table. First, she took the stage and rocked the joint with a spiritual, and then rocked it again by singing the trumpet part(!) of Charles Ives' Unanswered Question in an arrangement by local composer Andrew Lipke. When Gilda and I laid down my new arrangement together of John Henry, I knew that I'd finally licked my ghosts in this town. 

I was awakened this morning by the sound of my son's voice: he was singing the trumpet solo of the Ives as he relieved himself in the bathroom. I knew at once that it would be a good day. After checking out of the Warwick, we celebrated by visiting Little Pete's a final time. The four of us squeezed into the booth in which I first sat tha September 1981—the night I first hit the east coast— and ordered breakfast. The waitress who had presented me with a free piece of blueberry pie and said, "Welcome to Philly, honey," has long since passed away, and the boy I once was has become a man who can no longer eat most of what is on the menu. I couldn't resist introducing my eldest to the mysteries of Scrapple.

I love him anyway.

This essay originally appeared in its original form the Huffington Post on 31 October 2014. Click here to read it there.

Being Frank: Composing "Shining Brow"

Muldoon and Hagen in 1993.

Muldoon and Hagen in 1993.

In 1989 I  began composing Shining Brow, an opera in two acts and a prologue about architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It explored the intersection of Life and Art, self-actuation and selfishness. At the time,  I asked my librettist to make this conundrum one of Wright's foremost concerns. Consequently, our Man asks a question that the actual One may never have asked himself: “Can a man be a faithful husband and father and still remain true to his art?”

My librettist Paul Muldoon was born in 1951 in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, and educated in Armagh and at the Queen's University of Belfast. The Times Literary Supplement described him as “the most significant English-language poet born since the Second World War.” From 1973 to 1986, he worked in Belfast as a radio and television producer for the BBC. Since 1987, he has lived in the States.

I met Paul at the Saratoga Springs artist retreat Yaddo during summer 1988. He was brilliant, ambitious, quick to skewer pretension, and impatient with mediocrity. Already it was obvious that he had every intention of becoming a celebrity poet. His hair back then looked as though it were trying to escape. He did not speak English; he produced it. You could practically hear him listening to himself as he talked. Paul was and is a virtuoso performer of his own poetry. He could read a list of names, or ingredients, and, through line readings alone, move an audience in any direction he pleased. 

In summer 1989 I received a call on one of the MacDowell Colony pay phones from conductor and artistic director of the Madison Opera Roland Johnson asking whether I might consider composing an opera about Wright. Paul was reading the newspaper a few feet away. Without thinking, I leaned out of the booth and quipped, “Say, Paul, do you want to write an opera?” A beat later, he replied, “Sure.”

When Paul and I began Brow, we first read everything we could lay hands on about Wright. We reconvened a few months later to co-author at Paul's home in Amherst, Massachusetts a filmic treatment consisting of a dozen pages describing what would happen in each scene. 

I then determined how long each scene (and each section of each scene) would last, and the sort of musical form I would use to underpin the action of that scene. Giving the outline to Paul, I asked him to create a number of core images and literary motifs that I could then graft to musical ideas, along with some “parallel” poems for related characters, so that when I shared their music, the words would be easier to adapt. At one point I needed a straightforward hymn, and he responded by creating his beautiful Goethe gloss, Hymn to Nature.

Over the course of eight weeks that winter at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I composed the music for the first act. I wrote the most important sections first, beginning with the last three minutes; then the music that would be associated with the four or five most important dramatic spots (what I call the “emotional nuclear reactors”) in the act; after that, I wrote the connective sections, which could and should be the least musically interesting. Each character existed in a “home” key: Wright in B-flat major; Mamah in E major; Edwin and Sullivan in A minor; Catherine in C major. The lovers’ keys were associated, of course, by the tritone, the “forbidden” interval, and the harmonic fulcrum on which modulation depends.

The most affecting, emotionally expressive tool in an opera composer’s kit is the ability to modulate. Aside from being crucial to maintaining large formal structures, it unlocks “gateways” to new emotional states and signals emotional evolution. I did not really learn how to modulate fluidly until I composed Brow, each of whose characters needed to interact with one another harmonically. I have used the modulatory practices used by Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner in their operas ever since I realized just how eloquent they really are, no matter what the surface style of the piece.

When composing opera, my compositional process has changed little since the early 80s. I retype and reformat the libretto to reflect the underlying musical form in which it will be carried, storyboard it on the wall, and illuminate it with various colored pens and pencils—say, red for one character, blue for another, orange for another; musical / poetic themes and motives that I want to “track” also get colors. Standing before the entire opera tacked up on the wall and dreaming on its entirety is as close as I’m likely ever get to understanding how a painter must feel working on a mural. A real sense of the pallet of ideas at hand is literally rendered in the colors arrayed on the storyboard.

Once the entire opera is “on the wall” I decide what the most important dramatic moments (the “emotional nuclear reactors”) are in each scene; I specify what the climactic moment of the opera is, work downwards in triage fashion to the least important moment. I do not compose “from left to right.” I compose the music for the most important half dozen moments in the opera first. The music for the rest of the piece then spreads outwards from these key moments like concentric ripples.

Robert Orth and Brenda Harris as Wright and Mamah Cheney in a concert performance by the Buffalo Philahrmonic released by Naxos.

Paul and I accepted an invitation from Richard (Dick) Carney, Wright protégé and then managing trustee of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, to stay at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, for a few days. After lunch with members of the Fellowship (during which Wright’s recorded lunchtime conversation from decades previous played on a boom box), Paul and I settled into the little house Wright built for his daughter. The sun set as we traded impressions and prepared for a formal dinner at which I sat beside architect and Wright protégé Wes Peters, with whom I had a long, intense conversation about Wright’s relationship with Olgivanna. “Was Mamah Cheney the love of his life?” I asked Wes. “She must have been,” he replied, “but I can only say that after her death, for the rest of his life, he never allowed her to be discussed in his presence.”

After dinner, Dick and I took a long walk in the desert and discussed the sort of opera I intended to compose. A fatherly bear of a man, he gestured to me to sit down on a boulder with him. Sighing, he said, “Well, Daron, I don’t think any of us here want you to compose a dishonest piece. Mr. Wright could be a bastard. Promise me you’ll try to convey his essential ‘greatness’ along with the rest.” I didn’t tell Dick that anybody who sings is rendered sympathetic. Instead, I shook his hand. “A promise, Dick.” He picked up some dirt and threw it. “Fine. Come and stay with us as long as you want to. Soak up the feel of the place. Make Mister Wright sing. I promise you that we’ll not stand in your way.”

Shortly before Christmas, I finished the vocal score of the first act. I needed a “green light” from the Madison Opera board before beginning the second. The next step was to present it to the commissioners in Madison.

“Just two hours ago,” President Bush began, “allied air forces began an attack on military targets in Iraq and Kuwait. These attacks continue as I speak. Ground forces are not engaged.” It was 16 January. The United States had just invaded Iraq. In a huge rehearsal hall customarily used for symphony rehearsals, halfway through playing and singing the first act of Brow for the members of the Taliesin Fellowship and the board of Madison Opera, conductor Roland Johnson asked me to stop at 5:45 so that we could all gather around a portable radio to listen to our President address the nation. “Tonight, as our forces fight, they and their families are in our prayers.”

Carolann Page, creator of the role of Mamah Cheney.

"Shall we continue this another time?” I asked Ann Stanke. She looked to Dick, who asked me, “Do you have a problem with moving ahead with this presentation?” It seemed absurd to me, under the circumstances, but I needed the money, and would not get paid unless, by pulling off this presentation, I fulfilled the terms of the commissioning contract. “No,” I lied, resuming my seat at the piano and picking up where I had left off.

Dick then pledged that the Fellowship would support my creation of the opera, and Roland “green lit” my moving on to the second act. It was my first taste, at twenty-nine, of what the life of a viable opera composer might be like, and I relished it.

I spent some time at Taliesin, in Spring Green. Edgar Tafel, the best known of Wright’s disciples, decided that he was going to see to it personally that I experienced what it was like “really to live in a Wright House—to duck when you pass through doorways, discover your feet hanging over the bottom of the bed at night, feel the rooms flowing from one to the next in the dark.” He conjured for me the poetry that Wright seems to have been able to spin for clients.  His impersonations of Wright’s speaking voice were—aside from being incredibly funny—crucial to shaping my vocal characterization—particularly Wright’s stilted line readings, and what David Diamond, in a letter to me, described as “…the pontification, the affected dress-ugh-y, like Stieglitz.”

My friend photographer Pedro Guerrero’s reminiscences of Wright’s gentler moments also helped me to firm up the conviction that part of his appeal must have been the ability to project immense vulnerability in private. Dick Carney's descriptions of the tenderness that Wright could display also informed my decision to create the gentle music that underpins Wright’s soliloquies. Dick was a humane and generous man. My treasured former pupil and copyist Christopher Hume had a degenerative spinal condition that required his settling in a town with excellent medical facilities. I suggested Madison. I asked Dick to look out for Chris. He took him under his wing. They remained close for the rest of their lives.

Michael Sokol as Wright in the 1993 Madison Opera production.

Michael Sokol as Wright in the 1993 Madison Opera production.

The following autumn, in a tiny efficiency apartment at the corner of Amsterdam and 74th Street just off Verdi Square on Manhattan's Upper West Side, over the course of a few months, I wrote in one long delicious stretch the second act. Darynn Zimmer, the soprano who years later recorded the role of Mona in Bandanna under my baton for Albany records, was kind enough to sing through the role of Mamah for me as I composed it.

Like baseball pitchers, most composers have rituals. Mine consisted then of making my world very small and simple when I was writing so that I could keep all of the various motives and ideas suspended in my mind. My scrupulously maintained routine began with morning coffee and a chocolate chip scone from the Korean Market just below my apartment at 303 Amsterdam while reading the New York Times seated on a particular bench in Strawberry Fields. While composing—for exactly four hours by the stopwatch—I drank two bottles of San Pellegrino. Then I would run around the Central Park reservoir (twice: 3.2 miles), and then drink a bottle of San Pellegrino afterwards while walking home. I’d devour two slices of Freddy and Pepper’s pizza (an excellent joint in the basement which is still in business) sitting in Verdi Square, and then spend the evening making a fair copy of the sketches I had made during the day.

Kevin Kees as Wright in the "Fallingwater Brow."

I've written elsewhere about what it was like to consult with Leonard Bernstein while I composed parts of Brow. One example of how he “got” the musical rhetoric of the opera merits repetition, I think. During Wright’s Act 1, scene one pitch to his future mistress, I quoted the New York, New York rising fourths motive that he had first used in Trouble in Tahiti, and then in On the Town, on the word, “suburbia.” Bernstein chuckled appreciatively.  “Nice lift,” he said, “very Strauss. But you followed it up with stuff that sounds like Ned’s [Ned Rorem] little Frank O’Hara opera. Did I steal that from him for Tahiti or did he steal that from me? I can’t remember. In any event, I know you’re talking about theft by putting stolen music in his mouth, so you should come up with something else there.”

At some point, I pointed out that I had been modeling the character of Wright musically on him, and the relationship between Wright and Sullivan on him and Blitzstein. He got it: “That’s Maria. No, it’s the orchestral play-in to the first scene of Marc’s Regina,” he mused aloud. “Well, yes, I stole it from Marc.” Silence. Sudden grin: “But he stole it from Aaron!”

The Madison Opera had asked me to suggest a stage director for Brow. I asked Bernstein to suggest one. He suggested Stephen Wadsworth, with whom he had just written an opera called A Quiet Place.

“I’ve written an opera about Frank Lloyd Wright,” I told Stephen on the phone. “I’m looking for someone to bring it to life on the stage. Lenny says that you’re that person. Would you like to come over for coffee and talk about it?” I knew that would get his attention.

That April, we sat cross-legged on the floor of my tiny studio more or less under the piano and in front of the six linear feet of opera scores on the bookshelves and began sounding one another out by pulling scores at random from the shelf and discussing them.

It helped that we both had been compelled to figure out how to work with Bernstein—Stephen as collaborator, me as pupil. Stephen could survive (even enjoy) Bernstein's intellectual death marches; I thrived on his musical pop quizzes. We shared an appetite for conversations that functioned on multiple levels.

I know now that our first meeting was typical of Stephen’s special way with everyone—warm, clever, completely at ease, and intellectually competitive. His probing eyes habitually sought out mine; his compassionate face was extraordinarily expressive. His long fingers moved restlessly when he spoke. I found charming his ability to italicize what he was saying by giving you a hard, quick stare, and then releasing you. He was fun.

The Fallingwater premeire by Opera Festival of Pittsburgh in 2013.

At first, it was the confidence and maturity of his opinions as we stuck our thumbs into scores and played “what’s the most important moment in this scene” that impressed me most. In time, as we grew to know one another better, I realized that what I had interpreted as competitiveness was instead an urgent desire to understand: if an idea intrigued him, he reflexively craved an explanation.

The talents that have served him so well in his illustrious career were already in full play as, over the course of six very long work sessions at the apartment in the Village he shared with baritone Kurt Ollmann, I played and sang through Brow’s score. I was defensive, and needed to be “sold” on every one of the dozen or so alterations to words and music (I had to my mind “finished” the score months previously) that he suggested. I’m not certain now why I fought him so hard—especially since I knew even then that his criticisms were always spot on. Possibly, it was because I wanted to see just how right he thought he was.

Robert Orth as Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago Opera Theater's revival, directed by Kenneth Cazan.

For the workshop, the cast and company of Brow gathered at the Bernstein family’s apartment at the Dakota to give for Madison Opera’s donors and staff a workshop performance (piano and two dozen singers) of the complete score. Ann Stanke, The company's founde and the driving force behind the commission, worked the room as Roland powwowed with the singers.

At my suggestion, the company had capitalized upon the New York press’ interest in visiting the apartment one more time to fill the room with eyes and ears (particularly the national press) that might not otherwise have had any interest in a commission, however laudable, of an unknown composer by a small Midwestern company.

Tim Petty as Wright in the Tulsa Opera revival.

The boundary between life and death blurred in a familiar—even comforting—fashion as I listened to the music I had provided for the character of Wright—consciously referring as it did to Bernstein’s music at key points—was performed in Bernstein’s home. It had been impossible, strolling around Taliesin with Dick (like me, an insomniac) in the wee hours, not to feel Wright’s presence. It had been impossible at Yaddo not to feel the Trask family’s. It had been impossible to walk through the Common Room at the Curtis Institute as a student without feeling the benevolent spirit of Mary Louise Curtis Bok. And it still felt, at the Dakota, as though Bernstein slouched still in the chair in the den, sipping a scotch, pulling on his plastic cigarette holder, growling one of the last things he said to me: “Play and sing that part again, baby—the part that sounds like Marc.”

Everyone involved with the April 1993 opening night of Brow knew that it was going to be a success. 25 years and 7 operas later, I now am acutely aware of how rare that is. That night, at “the rail” of the house, behind the audience, where authors traditionally are allowed to pace, fret, enjoy, and suffer, performances of their work, with Stephen, as the tragic ending of Madison Opera’s première production unfolded.

Daron Hagen and Stephen Wadsworth at the premiere of "Amelia" by Seattle Opera in 2010. (Photo: Alan Alabastro)

Daron Hagen and Stephen Wadsworth at the premiere of "Amelia" by Seattle Opera in 2010. (Photo: Alan Alabastro)

Stephen said, “Look!” “Eh?” I said. “Look at them,” he said, sweeping a hand over the audience, who were experiencing the last few minutes of the opera. “They’re all weeping.”

“Yes, that’s where we want them,” I said. “No,” he said. “That’s where they want to be. You did it. I did it. Paul did it. The performers did it. Communion. We all did it. Together.”

The next morning a telegram from Ned arrived at my hotel, saying, “I always said that you would arrive at twenty.” The reviews were strong, and the consensus was that my career had begun.

"Can a man be a faithful husband and father and still be true to his Art?” In the years since I've come to my own conclusion about the Life vs Art paradigm. Art is to my Life as the MacGuffin is to a Hitchcock movie. While I have become music, my family is my Life. So much so, that I've experienced a parting of ways with most of my colleagues who’ve concluded otherwise. Perhaps Wright came to that conclusion sometime after the point at which our opera left him, pledging to rebuild Taliesin in Mamah Cheney’s memory. Perhaps not. In the long run, it shall probably only have mattered  to the people he loved and who loved him. 

First published in the Huffington Post on 8 August 2016. Read it there by clicking here.

On Marc Blitzstein

This essay was originally published in the Huffington Post under the title "Obsessed: Marc Blitzstein" on 14 May 2012. Click here to read it there.

Marc Blitzstein, American composer (1905-1964)

Marc Blitzstein, American composer (1905-1964)

Marc Blitzstein’s music is not exactly an obsession of mine, but I do find the musical DNA of which it is composed indispensable. Strands of that DNA — strict adherence to economy of means, a passion for combining words and music, the belief that music can promote social justice, an abhorrence of pretension — are woven contrapuntally, inextricably, into the music that I compose, and have been, nearly from the start. Here are six dramatic beats about Marc Blitzstein.

One

Marc’s music is powered by the ironic marriage of opposites. A fierce advocate of the poor and disenfranchised, he was born in Philadelphia in 1905 to affluent parents. Determined to write music popular with Regular Joes, he studied composition and piano at the Curtis Institute. Then he went on to Berlin to study with Arnold Schoenberg and to Paris where he worked with Nadia Boulanger. He began as a modernist, but he turned populist in the 1930s, shortly before he (an openly gay communist) married novelist Eva Goldbeck. Three Portuguese sailors in Martinique beat him to death in 1964 after a sexual encounter. In 1937, he entered Broadway history when the Works Progress Administration shut down The Cradle Will Rock — an opera presented as a musical. As the story goes, director Orson Welles and producer John Houseman walked the musicians, cast and audience from the Maxine Elliott Theater to the nearby Venice Theater, where — in order to evade union restrictions — they performed the piece from the audience, with Blitzstein (not a union member) accompanying from an upright piano onstage.

To some, Marc’s signature gambit of destabilizing tonality by throwing a suspended fourth in the bass was crude. But, like a beat cop’s billy club to the ribs, it got things moving. Minus Blitzstein’s example and inspiration, Leonard Bernstein might have been a very different, possibly lesser, composer.

Two

One rainy November 1980 day Karlos Moser, then head of the opera program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I was an undergraduate music major, and I were working through some songs that I had contributed to a revue he was concocting. My introduction to Marc’s music had come when Karlos cast my older brother Kevin as Ben Hubbard in his production of Blitzstein’s Regina during the late 70s. Karlos mentioned in passing that the State Historical Society possessed the Blitzstein papers. Thrilled, I had sprinted across the street to the archives, filled out a request to see them, and was astonished to be granted immediate access. Within thirty minutes, I held in my hands a Photostat of the manuscript of Blitzstein’s fair copy of the first page of Cradle. I was 17.

Odd it was, only a year later, to find myself a student of Ned Rorem’s at the Curtis Institute, composing and practicing on the same pianos Marc once did, passing his graduation portrait (along with everyone else’s — Leonard Bernstein, Ralph Berkowitz, Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss, and on and on) on my way each week to my piano lesson. Odder yet to have landed there in part because of a letter from his friend Bernstein to my mother, telling her I was “the real thing,” and encouraging her to send me to Juilliard (that’s another story) to study with another of Marc’s close friends, David Diamond.

John Houseman tells the story of opening night of The Cradle Will Rock.

Three

John Houseman’s production of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock at the Fairbanks opened on 30 July 1983. I was there, seated in the first row. I still weighed about 160, sported a Blitzstein-esque moustache, and was still a student at Curtis. Before the performance, Houseman took the stage to tell the story of the night the show opened — Blitzstein at the piano, Orson Welles dashing around the theater, playing multiple characters, everyone afire with the moment. Ordinarily too abashed to importune, I threw myself at Houseman afterwards. “You captured lightning in a bottle, didn’t you?” I enthused. “Yes, my boy,” he drawled in his Professor Kingsfield voice, “I’m acutely aware of that.” I laughed. He was disarmed. “You look like Blitzstein,” he remarked. I flushed with pleasure. He frowned. “He ended badly.” I waited. Beat. “Yes, I know,” I said, “I’m a composer.” He thrust his chin upwards theatrically as though searching for answers among the klieg lights: “Dear God,” he said, exploding the G, extending the O into a melisma, and plucking the final D like a pizzicato. “What does one do with a composer?” I laughed again, shook his hand vigorously, and thanked him for his time. “Not at all,” he said. “Good luck.” He stared at me, hard, for three long beats. “You’ll need it.”

Four

Summer 1985. Saranac, Serge Koussevitzky’s home overlooking the Berkshires across the highway from the Tanglewood grounds. Late one evening, after hearing me improvise at the piano in Marc’s style and a discussion about Blitzstein’s music, Bernstein asked me to have a go at completing Sacco and Vanzetti, the unfinished opera for the Met found in the trunk of Marc’s car after he died. I told him I’d love to have a try, but couldn’t afford to do it for no fee.

A few days later, at Bernstein’s behest, Jacob Druckman approached me on the back patio and put a little money on the table for the project on behalf of the New York Philharmonic, for whom he was then serving as composer in residence.

My instinct was that, as I did when offered by Ellis Freedman and Sylvia Goldstein a job as Aaron Copland’s final amanuensis, I should refuse it. I told Druckman that I felt that if I wanted to establish myself as a composer, then I needed to be known for my own music, not for what I had done for others’. He said that I had a point, and was impressed enough by the professionalism with which I handled the situation to speak to his wife Muriel about a ballet commission.

Having my hands on Blitzstein’s sketches was just too inviting an invitation to refuse. After spending a few days with them, I concluded that the most responsible thing to do was to leave the thing alone-they were just too fragmentary, too raw. The finished score would require the creation of too much original material to make it coherent.

That May, Eric Gordon helped me to find the manuscript of Marc’s Piano Sonata, which hadn’t been performed publicly since the 20s so that I could program it on the concert series I was putting on in Philadelphia and New York.

Five

During spring 1990, I was fortunate enough to work on my first major opera Shining Brow with Bernstein. As Bernstein once did for Marc with Trouble in Tahiti,I did for Lenny: I would play and sing the scene from Brow that I was working on. He’d amble over to the bench, push me to the side, and start playing off of my manuscript, squinting, sort of wheeze-singing as he briskly double-checked parts he wanted to speak to.

“Okay, baby,” he’d begin. “Try this.” He would “put over” a few bars of what I had written and veer off in a new direction, improvising an entirely different line reading. Then he’d stop, suck on his plastic cigarette holder, quickly page to a different part of the sketch, find something, and say, “Or you could have used this from before, like this.” He’d play a few bars.

“No, that wouldn’t work,” he’d think out loud. I’d improvise a different line reading. “No, no, you can’t do that!” he would laugh, “Marc did that in No for an Answer! Do you know that one?” He’d noodle a few bars. “No, that was Tender Land. Ugh. God.” (Laughter.)

During Wright’s Act 1, scene one pitch to his future mistress, I quoted the “New York, New York” rising fourths motive that he had first used in Trouble in Tahiti, and then in On the Town, on the word, “suburbia,” “Nice lift,” he said, “very Straussian. But you follow it up with stuff that sounds like Ned’s little Frank O’Hara opera. Did I steal that from him for Tahiti or did he steal that from me? I can’t remember. I know you’re talking about theft by putting stolen music in his mouth, but you should come up with something else there.”

At some point, I pointed out that I had been modeling the character of Wright musically on him, and the relationship between Wright and Sullivan on him and Blitzstein. He got it: “That’s 'Maria'. No, it’s the orchestral play-in to the first scene of Marc’s Regina,” he mused aloud. “Well, yes, I stole it from Marc.” Silence. “But he stole it from Aaron!” (Generous, warm laughter.)

It still felt, a few years later, at the family’s Dakota apartment (the day Brow received its workshop run-through after Bernstein’s death), as though he slouched in the low chair in the den, sipping a scotch, pulling on his plastic cigarette holder, growling one of the last things he said to me: “Play and sing that part again, baby—the part that sounds like Marc.”

Daron and David Diamond in the music room at Yaddo a few days before Diamond's death in June 2005. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

Daron and David Diamond in the music room at Yaddo a few days before Diamond's death in June 2005. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

Six

“Before I forget, I want to tell you that Marc used to like to sit over there,” said David Diamond, squeezing my hand and pointing at a spot far down the lawn near the rose garden. We were sitting on one of the pews in the Yaddo Music Room. Life-sized full body portraits of the Trask children loomed over us like gravestones. The June 2005 air was lively. Late afternoon light streamed through the leaded windows.

Elaina Richardson had asked me to curate a recital of music by composers who had worked at Yaddo. Michael Boriskin and his Music from Copland House players performed. I wanted to honor David, with whom I had studied, so I programmed his early Flute Quartet. I also suggested that he be invited and, to everyone’s astonishment, he agreed to come. He told me that he had wanted to visit Yaddo once more. I looked at David: his impeccably tailored gray serge sit hung loosely over his diminished frame. His blue shirt’s collar was crisp. There was a large New Zealand-shaped liver spot on his scalp over his right eye. What remained of his hair was colorless. His skin was papery and luminous. His rheumy eyes brimmed with tears. A few days later, on 13 June, he died.

That day, however, David’s observation was piercingly clear: “Marc cared,” he whispered urgently. “When he composed Regina here, he could sing and play every note. He knew words. You remember I told you once that he rewrote the entire libretto for Lenny’s Tahiti without needing to change a note of the music?” (When David reminisced, the facts could sometimes be sketchy, but the point was always clear.)

In May 2007, I sat before the upright piano in the Acosta Nichols Tower studio, the one at which Marc had written Regina, writing with trepidation the title Amelia over what would become the first page of over four hundred pages of piano sketch of my breakthrough opera about flight and rebirth. A bird flew in through the open door and flew frightened circles high above me in the white cone of the ceiling. I got up and spoke quietly to the bird, “You’ll be okay, friend. Everything will be fine. The door is open. Fly through it.” As though on cue, the bird swooped down and glided back out through the door to safety in the surrounding forest.

It was the spirit of Yaddo, yes; but it was also the spirit of Marc.

 

Confessions of a Teamster Monk

This essay originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 13 November 2014. Click here to read it there.

Daron Hagen copying the full score of his opera "Bandanna" in Milwaukee in winter, 1998. (Photo: Ryan Hagen)

Daron Hagen copying the full score of his opera "Bandanna" in Milwaukee in winter, 1998. (Photo: Ryan Hagen)

The Gospels were copied by hand. Every scroll in the Library of Alexandria was. The knowledge that survived the Dark Ages did so in manuscripts that were hand copied, mainly by monks. Came the revolution in the 1450s: moveable type (placed by hand) and the printing press. Gutenberg’s Bible changed everything. Shakespeare corrected galleys or proofs. The next revolution: the linotype machine, which made it possible to type words onto slugs of hot lead, a technology that originated in in the late 19th century and persisted until the 1970s. Came the computer....

Music was also copied by hand. In the late 15th century, “plate engraving” (carving the music, with a variety of metal styluses, into sheets of soft lead) became the preferred method for published scores, and it remained so until the early 1980s.

As late as the ‘80s, EC Schirmer sent my first published compositions to Korea, where non-English speakers engraved them on lead plates. Correcting proofs could be hilarious. A composer had to know all of the standard proofreading symbols back then if they were published by, or worked for, a music publisher. Sometimes, the red ink of corrections covered more of the page than the black ink of the music. “Rivers of blood,” we used to call proof sheets.

When an orchestra performs, each player reads a score that includes only his “part.” The only person on stage who sees what everyone is playing at the same time is the conductor; he reads what is called a “partitura” — Italian for score. From the beginning, the parts had to be “extracted” from the partitura by hand. This was an expensive, labor-intensive process that required a high level of expertise on the part of the copyist. Unless a piece was wildly popular, these parts, until as late as the early ‘90s, were still copied by hand.

Computer software “engraving programs” like Score, Finale and Sibelius have now rendered mine the last generation of American concert music and opera composers who shall have had the opportunity to serve our musical apprenticeships in the ancient, traditional, and I think honorable manner of extracting, by hand, using quills, India ink, and vellum, the individual parts from whence the musicians play. 

Every musician should do it once. It is possible to copy music mechanically, without really engaging intellectually — sort of like driving while having a conversation. Sometimes I did marathon jobs during which I would listen to every Mahler symphony in order, go back, and begin again. But, if one is really engaged during the process of copying another composer’s parts, one is actually “playing” the composer’s process the way a pianist “plays” a composer pianist’s piece — your brain and fingers are going through the same motions that the composer’s did when he wrote it. Several of my employers’ styles and methods grew so familiar to me during those years that I blush to admit that I could still probably compose something in their style that would be pretty hard to spot as ghostwriting.

The money was good, the work was always interesting; and there is absolutely no substitute for learning a piece by another composer from the inside out by extracting all the parts by hand.

We professional music copyists during the 80s were like monks — only we were teamsters, too. Seriously — we were. (I still have my old union card.) We were a band of brothers who would run into one another at Associated Music just south of Columbus Circle when we stuck our heads out to pick up supplies, meet with our clients, share “secret saves” and anecdotes from the trenches.

###

I recall a lesson (on the down-low, as I was a pupil of David Diamond’s, who would have been livid with me had he found out) in 1986 with Vincent Persichetti. His bird-like eyes shone as he spoke; his sentences came out in staccato, conspiratorial bursts. The score of my first symphony was spread out before him on the table that separated us. His cigarette smoldered, forgotten, between his fingers; the long, drooping ash hanging from the business end was on the verge of falling off.

“Golly, you’ve got a handsome hand, Daron,” Vincent said, paging through my score one last time. He got to the point: “Arnie tells me you won’t take his class.”

Arnold Arnstein, appreciated and respected by an entire generation of American composers, including Bernstein, Harris, Schuman, Barber, Piston, Persichetti, and Diamond, among others, was generally believed to be the finest living American music copyist. He really was. Years of the work had destroyed his eyes, which were reamed in red and watery, hugely enlarged by the thick glasses he wore.

Arnie taught a class in music copying at Juilliard that all of us composers were required to take. I had been working already for five years as a professional copyist, and had some pretty heavy clients, including Diamond (a sadistic employer), George Perle, Ned Rorem (an excellent, patient employer who — without telling me — customarily paid other copyists more than me), and others, and so I had figured, with casual ignorance, that I should be exempted from attendance.

“We’ve got to figure out some sort of way to work this out, Daron,” said Vincent. “Arnie’s a great copyist, y’know; he could teach you a lot.” He shot me a quick, inquiring look. “But, but,” he not so much stuttered as drew quick gulps of air, “y’know, if you weren’t so talented, I’d say, uh, sure, y’know, go ahead, take these copying jobs. But, I think you’ve gotta not do that. Um, do anything, uh, be a garbage man; just stop copying other people’s music for them.”

“But I need the money,” I replied.

The cigarette ash fell on my score, as I had feared it would. “Yeah, I know. Oops,” he said, brushing off the ash, “Sorry.” A quick, sweet smile, “Plus, you get half the money up front and all that; then you have to work it off,” he sighed, looked at the floor. “Well. Maybe I could ask Arnie to put you on his crew for this Menotti opera he’s copying right now. I hear it’s pretty wildly behind schedule and he needs extra guys. Then you could learn from him, y’see, get paid at the same time, and not have to take his class. How about that?”

I never took Arnie’s class, but I know that I should have. Despite Vincent’s advice, I went on to serve as a copyist, proofreader, or editor on hundreds of projects over the next fifteen years. Sometimes I hear a piece of music on the radio I’ve never “heard” before and realize that I copied the original set of parts for it during my salad days. It is even stranger to attend a rehearsal of one of my pieces and see yellowed, dog-eared, old rental library parts on the players’ stands next to mine for someone else’s piece that I don’t even remember having copied.

###

Copying the score of "Sappho Songs" at Bellagio in 2004. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

Copying the score of "Sappho Songs" at Bellagio in 2004. (Photo: Gilda Lyons)

I haven’t copied anyone else’s music for about fifteen years, now. I don’t regret having done it, though. I learned humility at the back of colleagues’ hands as a copyist, and I learned the hard way that printed music serves as an imperfect mirror through which the performer steps in order to enter the world of the piece itself. The performer turns around and faces outwards, from whence he came, and performs what he has discovered for those of us listening on the other side of the bars, the other side of the mirror. I am amazed that anything comprehensible, let alone moving, results.

Measures, bars of music, attempt to cage the bird of song in an effort to preserve it, just as mad King George attempted to rescue his sanity by placing himself in his doctor’s care. 

I found then and still find the transaction between composer, performer and audience that musical notation hopes to enable enormously puzzling. It is the reaching without end for the elusive note just barely heard in one’s imagination and just beyond the grasp of one’s conscious mind, what Schreker called Der Ferne Klang, Mahler Das Lied von der Erde, that is to me endlessly enthralling.

After all, music, an abstract art, doesn’t in itself mean anything; a composer can attempt to create through notation a psychological context in which the performer sings, but the resulting song in performance is as much the performer’s creation as the composer’s.

Music streams endlessly whether we are aware of it or not. It is a manifestation of the “world without end” described in Ephesians. In sadness, a composer comes to understand that as surely as the scorpion in the parable is compelled by his nature to sting the frog and drown them both while fording the stream, a composer must attempt to notate what he hears, and by so doing, clip his songs’ wings.

Even for Charlie Parker, the Bird himself, the chart was a cage; inspiration during performance was the key. The key.