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San Diego composers Gillis, Bastien, Groupe, Reynolds, Sollberger, and Ward-Steinman

When the soprano hit the first high C it just blew my head off

Ron Gillis: "I started calling our group the Dead Composers Society."
  • Ron Gillis: "I started calling our group the Dead Composers Society."
  • Image by Dave Allen

“I have always been interested in music.” says composer Ron Gillis, founder and artistic director of the San Diego Choral Artists. “As a kid I always walked around with tunes in my head. I thought everyone did.” “Eventually I wanted to learn how to play what I was hearing — even when I was still pretty small. I taught myself chords on the guitar — acoustic guitar, you know. I leaned toward a folk style more than any other. It was a good way to start, picking out the notes myself.”

Jane Bastien: “The only music I write is for my students.”

Jane Bastien: “The only music I write is for my students.”

“I’ve been composing all my life,” says Richard Del Maestro, relaxing in his efficiently arranged, hi-tech recording studio at Hangup Square in Solana Beach, where he recently created and recorded Language of the Heart, a New-Age CD that has been played on more than 1500 radio stations nationwide. “How could I not? I grew up in New York, where my father is a singer and actor, my mother a dancer. Music was playing all the time. Everywhere. I mean, I was listening to opera on the Texaco Star Theater as a baby. And I don’t remember when I couldn’t improvise, you know? It’s just...well, it’s natural for me.”

Larry Groupé: "If you’re going to write music, you have to keep playing it, too."

Larry Groupé: "If you’re going to write music, you have to keep playing it, too."

What starts a person on the road to becoming a composer? What drives a person not only to love music, but also to feel the craving to write it? Most of us know that composers are seldom wealthy people; quite the opposite, music history books are full of stories of starving composers always borrowing from friends or begging patrons for money to pay the rent. The first great American composer of the 20th Century, Charles Ives, was completely frustrated in his attempts to make a living as a composer. Turning to insurance sales by the time he was 30, he became a businessman by day and a composer by night, feverishly creating some of the most original musk ever written. Unfortunately, this arrangement left out sleep, and though he became wealthy, he also ruined his health and shattered his visionary abilities.

Roger Reynolds: “We have a tremendous amount going on at UCSD, but there is little connective tissue with the rest of San Diego."

Roger Reynolds: “We have a tremendous amount going on at UCSD, but there is little connective tissue with the rest of San Diego."

I spoke with several dozen composers who live and work in San Diego County, men and women of varying tastes and aims: church composers, university professors, theater composers, university students, rock and pop performers, choreographers, New-Age stylists, piano teachers. I wanted to know how they got started, where they studied, what their thoughts are about musical creativity, what their hopes are, and how they find the musical life in San Diego.

Harvey Sollberger is the conductor of SONOR, the university’s acclaimed new-music performing organization.

Harvey Sollberger is the conductor of SONOR, the university’s acclaimed new-music performing organization.

“I always knew I’d be a composer,” declares Larry Delinger as we sit comfortably on the grass outside the entrance to the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. Larry has done dozens of scores for the Globe — he was finishing preparations for the very successful Henry IV production starring John Goodman when we talked — and dozens more as a freelance composer elsewhere.

David Ward-Steinman: “Now there is, in my opinion, far less interest in contemporary music."

David Ward-Steinman: “Now there is, in my opinion, far less interest in contemporary music."

“My dad, who was a baker, taught me about responsibility. He had to get up so early, but that’s how he supported us, you know. He told me, 'Larry, I love to get up every morning and bake bread in the shop.’

“Both of my parents had a deep love for music. Mom played the ukulele and taught me how when I was very small. And Dad? I remember one time he traded 25 loaves of bread for a mandolin. Twenty-five loaves. It was well worth it to him, too. We lived just above the bakery, and after dinner he would go down, light his cigar, and play that mandolin. He never got better at it, nor did he get worse. That wasn’t the point. He just enjoyed playing some of his favorite tunes, you know, as best as he could.

Groupé composition

Groupé composition

“He liked to collect instruments. I think at one time we had five guitars, a saxophone, and several trumpets. One year there was a drum set, too. Of course, I learned to play them all.”

Larry leans toward me, remembering something special. “You know, when I was about 11 or 12, I got hold of a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach. I loved it. I read it over and over. It fascinated me. I begged my parents to get a piano so that I could get to know his music. That wasn’t so easy in Hyannis, Nebraska, with a population of 350." He laughs and shakes his head.

Ward-Steinman composition

Ward-Steinman composition

“Finally we found a married couple working in the railroad ticket window who played instruments as a hobby. He played the violin, and his wife played piano. I took lessons from her. I never got very good at it. I was just interested in how the music was made."

Erik Ulman is from Escondido. Until recently a Ph.D. candidate in composition at UCSD, he has, since our interview, moved to Europe for further studies. “I was brought up with a great deal of classical music in the home. My parents had many recordings, including music of the 20th Century by far-out composers such as Bartók and Stockhausen. At the age of four, I started to play the violin and later played in the youth orchestra and the La Jolla Symphony.

Reynolds composition

Reynolds composition

“By the time I was 14, I was buying LP recordings of contemporary music and attending concerts of new music at UCSD. I was terribly excited by what I heard,” he exclaims, his gestures underlining the recollection. “I knew composing was what I wanted to do — what I had to do.”

“Well, I for one had no idea I was going to be a composer," declares another UCSD grad student, Renée Coulomb, laughing as she remembers the circumstances that abruptly threw her in that direction. “The college I went to had a junior-year-abroad program, and I went to France.” She laughs again, pushing back a mass of curly blond hair from her face. “Because of my name, everyone thought I could speak French, of course. Ha! Actually I knew hardly a word, so when I got there I didn’t understand what was going on a lot of the time.

“Anyway, to make it worse, I was trying to keep up both ends of my double major — molecular biology and piano, something they never heard of anybody doing in France — and had to run from the university on one side of town to the conservatory on the other. That added to the confusion. Anyway, at the conservatory, in addition to rather boring piano lessons, I was put in a very large music theory class. About all we did was write four-part harmony, you know. And then one day, after a few weeks of that, they said I had to take some kind of test. I mean, that’s what I thought they said.” She laughs again.

“The next week, the class was much smaller — about 10 of us instead of 60 — and they finally were able to get it through to me that the test I had taken was the entrance exam for composition studies. Wow! We started doing electronic music that day, and I loved it. A year or so later, I was studying in New York with Mario Davidovsky, one of the great men of electronic music, and writing music like mad. I’ve been composing ever since."

In the first two decades after World War II, there was an explosion of interest in new music. Composers such as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Luciano Berio in Europe and John Cage, Milton Babbitt, and Roger Sessions in the United States gave birth to a musical avant-garde that captured the imaginations of composers everywhere.

The music that emerged from this movement was extremely difficult to perform, and the majority of traditionally trained musicians were put off by it More and more often it was the composers themselves who took up the task of presenting their music to the public.

Several San Diego composers not only recall this time clearly, they played important parts in it.

“It was in the 1960s that Charles Wuorinen and I launched the Group for Contemporary Music at Columbia University," states composer-conductor-flutist Harvey Sollberger, seated at his desk at UCSD. Harvey is best known in San Diego as the conductor of SONOR, the university’s acclaimed new-music performing organization. He is also an internationally known composer; he recently returned from hearing his In Terra Aliena for soloists and orchestra performed in Rome and Bari, Italy, and two other works for chamber ensemble played in New York City.

“The Columbia Group for Contemporary Music,” he continues, “has an assured place in music history by the fact that it took the performance of new music out of the commercial world and moved it into academia. Although universities are in many ways fundamentally conservative, new music has thrived in them ever since. Our SONOR group here is one of the best examples. Thirty years later it is a direct descendant of the [Columbia] group, introducing new music to today’s audiences in San Diego and elsewhere and, at the same time, continuing to raise the standards of performance of new music.”

While speaking of the rise of performance skills I remind him that back in the ’60s he was better known as a world-class new-music flutist than as a composer or conductor. “Did I ever tell you how that started? At least one reason was that I was so struck by Luciano Berio’s Sequenza I for solo flute. I heard that it was so unbelievably difficult that only one person in the world, the Italian flutist Severino Gazzdoni, could play it. So it was a big challenge, you know?

“Since that time, I have taught the piece to many, many flutists, and other teachers have done the same. I mean, Sequenza I is an undergraduate piece now. Everybody plays it.”

With Harvey Sollberger’s metamorphosis from flutist to conductor in mind, I ask Ron Gillis how he went from guitarist and composer to founder-director of a choral group.

“It wasn’t anything I planned," he exclaimed with a grin, “but it’s a good story, and I’m glad it happened. You see, while I was a grad student at SDSU — I was working with David Ward-Steinman in composition — I was assigned as a kind of graduate assistant to teach an extension-division class called ‘Understanding the Classics.’ You know, the entire history of music in six three-hour sessions.” He grimaces.

“Well, it was a great group, about eight people, and when we finished the last session they said, ‘We can’t stop now,’ so we started meeting in someone’s home. It went on for three years. I started calling it the Dead Composers Society, you know, after the Dead Poets Society. But actually we talked about a lot of living composers, too.

“Somehow, from this contact with various wonderful people in the community, the idea of the San Diego Choral Artists emerged.” The 1995-1996 season is the fifth for the 32-voice, paid professional choral ensemble, and as artistic director, Ron is able to devote full time to it and still have time for composition. The SDCA under his direction will perform his major work for 1996, Requiem — In Memoriam Oklahoma City, on April 19, exactly one year after the Oklahoma bombing.

Becoming established — involved in a community, an organization, a school, a project — is very important. Composers know it is essential to make contacts with other musicians and also with people involved in the other arts in order to build up a network of possibilities.

Michael Roth has been the resident composer of the La Jolla Playhouse since 1983. He also worked with South Coast Repertory, Touchstone Pictures, and with many theater houses on both coasts.

“When I talk to young composers,” he says, sitting across from me at one of the tables at Twiggs Tea & Coffee on Park Boulevard (which he owns, incidentally — “I do have to earn a living,” he jests), “I tell them it is important to establish friendships with people in and out of music, just as I have done with theater people. You constantly have to be making contacts, you know, to keep your network expanding.

“When I was young, growing up in New York, I was a rock-and-roller. Even when I went to Ann Arbor [the University of Michigan], I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I hung around the theater a lot. Did some acting. People began to ask me to write music for shows.”

“How did anyone know you could do that?”

He laughs. “They didn’t. I just told them I could.

“Mostly I learned about composing by listening. Whenever I went back to New York, I went to a lot of new-music concerts and then wrote pieces — mostly chamber music — in the style of what I had just heard. That way I developed my compositional vocabulary. For the most part, I combined my early work in rock with these chamber styles. And the more I wrote for theater, well, the more I wanted to do more of it.”

When Renée Coulomb returned from France and moved to New York, she also started composing for theater. “I was asked to create music for an experimental improvisational group in Manhattan. You know, you take the chances you get. That was a real trial by fire, but for me it was a great learning experience. They wanted their new pieces now, not a week from now. None of this sitting around waiting for inspiration to come. I had to learn to put together an hour of music for a rehearsal the next day. Wow! I must have written 50 hours of music for them that year.”

Composer-pianist Myron Fink moved to San Diego in 1991 after retiring from a 25-year stint as a member of the music faculty of Hunter College in New York. I listen as he finishes an aria from Porgy and Bess with one of his wife’s voice students, after which he gets up from the piano to join me in their comfortable living room in Scripps Ranch.

“Opera is my passion,” he animatedly declares. “I have always loved it. When I was eight years old, my parents took me to see Tosca. When the soprano hit that first high C, well, it just blew my head off,” he says with an appropriately sweeping gesture. “I knew right then that I had to write operas. Well, since then I have been fortunate enough to have several performed, but you have to just keep plugging away in order to get a break, you know.”

San Diegans will have a chance to hear and see a major new work by Myron in March 1997, when the San Diego Opera premieres his fourth full-length opera, The Conquistador.

“The libretto took nine years to write," he explains. “After that, the music just flowed out in less than a single year. Sometimes it just works like that. The story is loosely based on the life of one of the conquerors of Mexico. Of particular interest to me is the fact that it involves an episode — which actually took place — in which Jewish people escape from persecution on this continent. We don’t often think of such possibilities, do we?”

Jane Bastien taught piano pedagogy and founded and administered the preparatory music program at Tulane University for 17 years before moving to La Jolia in 1975. Not wishing to be associated with a university again, she and her husband set up their own studio as private piano teachers. She is enormously energetic and active (despite her husband’s illness, which absorbs a great deal of her attention), and her teaching, books, and methods have been so successful that she is internationally known. To gain that renown, she never stopped working, planning, thinking ahead, and making contacts.

Jane is modest about her composing. “The only music I write is for my students,” she told me as we have lunch overlooking the ocean in La Jolla. “I have always written what I can use as a teacher, and that is what I would recommend to anyone wanting to be a composer. Write what you are motivated by — what you can use.

“I always want to find out how kids learn, to try out what I have written on them. And to be able to do it in San Diego County,” she exclaims gesturing at the waves coming toward us in the sunlight, “is even better.”

“How did I improve my composing abilities?” asks Richard Del Maestro. “I improvised. I improvised under pressure. When I came to California, I accompanied for dance classes in a number of studios for a living. Hours and hours, every day. I never looked at music, improvising everything as one class followed another. Every day was like a new composing workshop for me.

“By 1983 I was able to write a 20-minute ballet for a group called Three’s Company and Dancers. The music was for piano solo, and I played it myself for the first performance.

“Then three years later I put a 35-voice choir together to try out things I wrote. We called ourselves the Expansion Choir, and we performed in churches of all denominations all over this area.

“I kept learning, you know. When it became clear that I needed a recording studio for some of my projects, I had to talk to a lot of different people to learn what kind of equipment to get and how to use it.”

In his studio, in addition to his New-Age CD, Richard has created the music for two videos commissioned by the Coca-Cola Company, composed soundtracks for the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater, and created music — now used at Scripps Clinic and several other hospitals — designed to slow the heart rate and reduce stress in patients with high blood pressure and related ailments.

Nearly all these composers agreed that it is important to maintain performance skills in order to stay connected to their listeners.

“I can’t compartmentalize being a musician," says Daniel Burton, organist of the First United Methodist Church, accomplished pianist, professional pedal-harpist, composer, and music publisher. “I have always believed, as many do, that there are mysteries — profound truths. There are tools with which we can learn about them, and the best of these tools is music.

"Music seems infinitely superior to spoken language as a means to contemplate these mysteries, these matters that are called holy by the church. To be fully involved in this language, this contemplation, one listens, one performs, and to the best of one’s ability, creates.”

In a well-attended concert at his church, Dan premiered his new Concerto for Harpsichord and Organ, performed by harpsichordist Phyllis Irwin and the composer. A few days later we discussed his ideas about composing.

“To be a composer one must develop a craft, first of all, and then have a grasp of something worth expressing. If music does not express something, if it does not transmit some aspect of the human element, some kind of philosophical statement or idea, it is worthless.”

Many others echoed Dan’s words. Composer Christian Herzog, well known in San Diego as a reviewer and music entrepreneur (he established the “Noise at the Library” series at the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library in La Jolla in 1995), says, “Music is a vehicle for the expression of the emotions. A composer needs to have a life experience. I’m much more drawn to the work of those who have done so. I mean, when you hear the music of Mahler and Schoenberg, you know they really lived.”

Michael Roth adds that “living a full life" means moving beyond the confines of your immediate field of effort. “I remember talking to Pierre Boulez after he had given a beautiful talk on the art of Paul Klee. Boulez told me that in 1955 Karlheinz Stockhausen had given him a book by Klee, saying it would be the best composition lesson he ever had. Boulez admitted that he hadn’t understood this until much later but that Stockhausen was right.”

John Malashock, founder and director of Malashock Dance & Company, who collaborates often with composers and other artists in the creation of new productions, says, “I look everywhere for things with strong emotional content. My concept of collaboration between composer and choreographer is that we work side by side in a kind of seesaw fashion. The choreographer suggests an idea, the composer responds with music that leads to additional suggestions to the choreographer, and so on. I actually prefer this to dealing with music that is already complete.

“In any case, if the dancing is going to get a reaction, the music must be such that it, too, causes an emotional response in both the dancers and the audience. You know, I love working with art that defies categorization, because creativity is at its best when it is personal.”

How do successful composers learn their craft? All agree that writing music, whether it be for the theater, for church services, for rock bands, opera companies or symphony orchestras, is one of the most complex activities devised by human beings.

“Being a composer is the most difficult discipline in the music field,” insists Chris Herzog. “You have to know all the instruments, how they are played, what their ranges are, their timbres, their idiosyncrasies. Obviously you must also know the fundamentals of traditional harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration. And it’s essential to be able to write a proper score and parts; and to do that, to really get the feel for it, it really helps to play in an orchestra or at least to spend time watching from the back, learning about cues, rehearsal techniques, and so on.

“Then you have to know a huge repertoire. In my generation there has emerged an amazing plurality of musical styles. Anything goes. I mean, last year Gregorian chants were at the top of the charts. You have to know how to handle all styles, including the vernacular.

“And, of course, these days it can really help to know computer programming, too. Composing is really complicated.”

“If you want to write for the theater,” adds Larry Delinger, “you must also know about recording. For example, for the Henry IV production at the Globe, there were 45 cues, all of which had to be recorded in two three-hour sessions. That’s pretty much normal. You have to know how to be efficient in the studio. You can’t afford to make mistakes. You can’t lose time because the parts aren’t right, or the music doesn’t fit the instruments, because there are always budgetary constraints to be considered.

“When I take on a new play, my routine is always the same. I sit with the director in all of the rehearsals, discussing and sketching. The thing is, the timing keeps changing in rehearsal; you never know until just a few days before opening exactly how long the cues must be. So I wait, then write furiously for two or three days and nights in order to be able to record in time for the tech rehearsals. After that I attend previews and opening night, pack up, go home, and sleep."

One of the handful of professional film scorers who live in San Diego County is Larry Groupe, executive producer of Network Music, a music library of sounds, themes, effects, and extended pieces suitable for use in films, television, and radio. Always adding new styles to the collection, Larry is the organization’s principal composer, conductor, arranger, orchestrator, and producer.

“I received a good traditional training at the College of the Pacific as an undergraduate and then got into post-1950 music at UCSD as a grad student. But as for film scoring, I learned by doing. I got a job orchestrating for several established film composers and watched how they worked.”

Does Larry think it is important for a composer to keep up performing skills? One evening, at A Better World in Mission Hills, Larry and his wife, Cici, hook up once again with Bordertown, their popular folk-rocking, country-pop group. Larry expertly backs up this exuberant sextet on keyboards.

“Why?” He smiles. "Purely for the experience of playing and improvising live. If you’re going to write music, you have to keep playing it, too. Keeping your performing skills in order. Besides, hey, we like one another.”

I sat with Larry in his state-of-the-art home studio in Oceanside and watched as he skillfully handled the banks of computer equipment. Noting that he has immediate access to a huge library of sampled and synthesizer sounds, I asked why he still prefers using live musicians (at much greater cost) for his recordings.

“Nothing could ever sound as good as live performance,” he answers. “I’m really a realist,” he adds, pointing to a score on his desk. “See, I still write everything out.

“But since you ask about it, I want to say that I think it’s just great that technology has allowed more people than ever before to become involved in music-making. I mean, you can turn it on anytime during your life rather than, as in the old days, having to start studying the piano or the violin when you’re four years old or you’re out of luck. With digital keyboards and computer resources of all kinds available, it’s just easier to make music on whatever level and at any age — to fool around with it for fun or to get deeply involved.”

Some musicians are concerned with the potentially negative effects of technological advances. James Whitsitt, at age 71 a member of the older generation of San Diego composers, studied with Ingolf Dahl, a close associate of Igor Stravinsky, and with Halsey Stevens, Bela Bartók’s biographer. Whitsitt, who composes electronic music as well as music for traditional instruments, has assembled an impressive computer-music studio in his home. After demonstrating the studio’s resources, he also confided his worries concerning it.

“I have to tell you that I find the interface between the composer and electronics to be very difficult sometimes. You see, you have all this control, control of every aspect — the pitch, the timbre, envelope, rhythm, everything — of each sound you make. That might seem great, but sometimes all your energy gets wrapped up in the mechanics, and intuition suffers. You know, the music gets forgotten because you get so involved with dials and wave forms and all that. You have to learn not to get caught in that bind.

“I’ve been a performer, you know, everything from playing trombone at Disneyland to conducting the orchestra at Mesa College, so I know what that means. As a performer, I know my audience,” he adds, “and as a composer, I try to write things that people understand.” He laughs quietly. “You know, I like to do music that has tunes.”

Another composer who performs regularly is Chris Cook, dean of the San Diego chapter of the American Guild of Organists, organist at St Luke’s Lutheran Church, and youth-concert organist for the Spreckels Organ Society.

“I give 32 concerts a year on Fridays for 250 to 300 children on the Spreckels organ. The concerts are done in conjunction with San Diego City Schools and the Balboa Park program. We get a mix of kids from all over town. After all, we are a multicultural city. I try to show how songs come from many different kinds of people in different parts of the world and demonstrate that such-and-such a style wouldn’t have happened if musicians didn’t work together. I make music a model for working together.

“I honestly believe that the original purpose of music was to express the life of the spirit. I try to bring that to people in the music I write and the music I perform. My role in society is as a visionary.”

Several educational institutions in San Diego County are internationally known for the role they play in the nurturing of young composers, and would-be Beethovens come from all over the country and the world to study here.

At San Diego State University, the prolific composer David Ward-Steinman has devised and developed a program for undergraduate music majors called Comprehensive Musicianship. The program has been so successful that each year at least a half-dozen observers come from this country and abroad to see it in action.

“I’ll admit right at the start that establishing this program was triggered by my reaction to my own college theory training, which was academic and stifling,” David says after handing me more information on the subject than I can read in a week.

“The Comprehensive Musicianship program is not just for composers, though it’s good for them, too,” he explains. “It’s designed for all of our undergrad music majors. I mean, why should only composers get to compose? You see, I feel that to be active as a musician involves three things: composing, performing, and listening. I often refer to this as a triangle and feel that everyone should develop skills on all three sides of the triangle.

“At SDSU every fourth-year [music] student has three senior projects, and two of them involve both composing and performing directly. Each senior music student, no matter what his or her major, must first compose a piece of chamber music for whatever instruments are available in class, copy the score and parts, and conduct a performance. So they are composing — writing out the score and parts; they are conducting their own piece — a pretty intense performing experience. The final project is similar but bigger; it involves writing a large-ensemble work for one of our major student ensembles and conducting that, too. And, of course, everybody listens to everyone else’s work, so the triangle — composing, performing, and listening — is complete.”

The program, introduced more than 20 years ago and aided by a grant from the Ford Foundation, is seen by many as a model of its kind. Nevertheless, David Ward-Steinman and his colleagues have continually revised and refined the curriculum. The most recent revision was completed in 1992 and will, therefore, finish its first four-year cycle in 1996. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the new revision is called simply “the lab.” Meeting for two hours weekly, it includes performance in a non-Western ensemble such as Balinese gamelan, Japanese gagaku, or African percussion ensemble, an experience that most students find both fascinating and revealing.

The music department at the University of California-San Diego is designed primarily, though not exclusively, for graduate students. Internationally famous composer Roger Reynolds, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and many other honors, makes no attempt to hide his enthusiasm for the school with which his name has been linked for several decades.

“If you are a young composer who wants to learn,” he declares, “there is no better place in the world than UCSD. I mean that very seriously. We have a unique kind of environment, in that we have agreed on the curious notion that the arts should be presented by the people who make it, just as scientific knowledge has always been passed on by scientists. And just as science is taught at its cutting edge, so we endeavor in this department to begin with the music of our time. Where else can you do that?”

In an intense discussion in his university office, a room hemmed in on every side with scores and recordings, he returns, over and over, to the strengths of the school's composition program. Elbows on his desk, arms and hands gesturing, he describes a milieu that attracts young people who are genuinely innovative and capable of getting the most out of what is clearly a unique environment.

“I’ll say right away that it may not be politically advantageous to be here, because we’re not trying to get you discovered. Rather, we are going to help you to learn to discover. You’re going to become more disciplined, you’re going to develop a methodology. I tell my students, ‘You can have a strategy in your work. Here’s how you can get it. Here’s how you can develop it to the fullest.' "

What about music today? In the United States. In San Diego. “When I was young, back in the 1960s," reminisces SONOR conductor Harvey Sollberger, “I honestly thought that by the 1990s, we would have developed our artistic culture fully in this country. I guess I was impatient. Now I understand that such development, such as exists in Europe, takes hundreds of years.

“At the same time, I am amazed when three or four hundred people show up for a SONOR concert in Mandeville Auditorium. There's still a certain enthusiasm for what composers are doing today.”

Composer Pam Madsen also has a hopeful view of musical life in San Diego. Balancing her life evenly between her husband (he is finishing a Ph.D. in composition at UCSD), their three-year-old daughter (already improvising at the piano), her own schooling (she is finishing work on a Ph.D. at Yale), promoting her music, holding down a teaching job at the University of San Diego and, oh yes, composing, is a problem she faces every day.

Stealing a moment, Pam speaks to me by telephone. “San Diego has a good core group of musicians and composers and people who like to be challenged by new music,” she says. “If there is a problem, it’s that there’s a feeling of transience here. People are always leaving, the audience is constantly shifting. I just wish the audience for new music were as well developed here as it is for art and theater.

“My husband and I would like to stay in San Diego. We hope there is a place for us as musicians, and I do see windows of possibility. And my daughter plays for me every day. That’s so great. I listen and encourage her to make up her own compositions. Creativity is so important.”

David Ward-Steinman, who has been in San Diego for more than three decades, is concerned with the direction the city’s musical life has taken during that time. “When I came here in 1961,” he explains, “there were real opportunities fora working composer. There were many, many kinds of musical and music-related organizations, some of them just getting started, and I received commissions from all these organizations.

“Now there is, in my opinion, far less interest in contemporary music, more conservative programming, and not enough local support for the arts. For example, performing groups and concert presenters should be celebrating important musical anniversaries by commissioning and producing new works. That doesn’t happen, and little by little those of us who work in universities are driven back into our ivory towers. I keep hoping the situation will get healthier again.”

Roger Reynolds agrees. “We have a tremendous amount going on at UCSD, but there is little connective tissue with the rest of San Diego. Perhaps that is partly our fault, but there seems to be no serious dialogue in the city — in the press or elsewhere — concerning the music of our time. There is for the theater. There is for art. Why not music? It’s a shame.”

Indeed, it cannot be questioned that in cities here and abroad where new music thrives — New York, San Francisco, Paris, London — there is a constant and often impassioned public discourse that is carried on in the press and other media. This serves to awaken responses from listeners, educating even as it provokes, challenging ears and minds, immeasurably enlivening the musical scene for everyone in the process. With the wealth of creative resources to be found in San Diego, could such a discourse find fertile ground here?

David Burge

David Burge, author of Twentieth Century Piano Music, is former director of the piano department at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.

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