David Amram, one of America's most noted living composers, will be in the audience next week when the Harper Symphony Orchestra plays his violin concerto. "He's the single most American composer since George Gershwin," said Frank Winkler, the orchestra's conductor.
Just as Gershwin incorporated jazz and the popular music of his day into orchestral compositions, Amram draws upon a myriad of influences, ranging from beat poetry and Native American songs to music from cultures around the world.
And while the diversity of Amram's influences is amazing, what's truly impressive is how he uses them to create music that's accessible to audiences, said Winkler, who lives in Glenview.
"It speaks very personally to audiences," he said.
Amram, who plays dozens of instruments, was a friend of Jack Kerouac and the beat writer's musical collaborator, playing with Kerouac at the first "jazz poetry" events. He also composed movie soundtracks, including "The Manchurian Candidate."
And he is often regarded as a father of the multiculturalism movement. The title of his 1971 two-record set "No More Walls" became something of a slogan for the idea that barriers shouldn't exist between the waltzes and concertos of Europe and the music being played in the rest of the world.
'No More Walls'
"I said the walls that were built up between those kinds of music were only artificial ones put up by people who felt that they had to appreciative or participatory in only one area," Amram said last week in an interview from San Francisco, where he was promoting his new book, "Offbeat: Collaborating with Kerouac."
Three decades after "No More Walls," the New York composer says, "What I failed to do was to (say) why that music really had something in common... What all these musics have in common is purity of intent and an exquisite choice of notes."
Some college courses on multiculturalism have appropriated the title "No More Walls," but Amram said his idea of breaking down the barriers between cultures was hardly a new concept.
"When Bach, in ‘The Goldberg Variations,' used a hunting and a drinking song, and Mozart wrote the Turkish march ... I don't think it was because they ran out of ideas," Amram said. "It was just that they liked it so much, they somehow wanted to put that in the piece, just to honor something that they felt was very beautiful."
Amram said he immerses himself in the music of a culture before he attempts to borrow from it.
"A lot of anthropological ethnomusicologists ... really don't spend a lifetime hanging out with the people who create that music so they can sing, dance, play and eventually notate the music correctly," Amram said. "What you have to do is humble yourself each time you sit down to the situation, as if you were 5 years old and you were saying A, B, C, ‘Run, Spot, run.' "
Once Amram feels comfortable playing and singing the music, then he carefully works at writing it out in musical notation.
A different 'Howl'
He said he used the same process to figure out a way for musical instruments to simulate the sound of hounds baying and wolves howling, an effect that appears in a short passage of the violin concerto the Harper Symphony will play May 18.
The violinist who commissioned the piece, Charles Castleman, gave Amram a recording of wolf howls and asked him to use it in the music somehow.
"I spent about a week and a half when I was out at the beach, just howling at the moon each night," Amram said. "When I would get a good howl, I would try to notate it and figure how to write it out so the conductor and the musicians would be able to do that effectively... just from what was on the paper."
Amram hastened to add that he doesn't normally write the sort of avant-garde music that he calls the "shock the audience and upset the musicians" genre.
"I still believe - just as all writing has to come from Shakespeare and the Old Testament - that all composing has to come from Bach and Beethoven, and then you go from there," he said.
The violin concerto, which Amram composed in the 1970s, begins with a fairly traditional first movement, followed by a second movement based on the 12-bar blues and a third movement that incorporates Irish folk tunes associated with fox hunting, as well as the hounds baying. Somehow, those disparate elements work well together, Winkler said.
"No one else except him could do it or make it work," Winkler said. Amram first met Winkler and Lyric Opera violinist Alexander Belavsky, who will perform the concerto at the Harper concert, when he was conducting the Grant Park Symphony in the 1980s and they were playing with the orchestra.
'A composer's dream'
When Winkler called up Amram and said he and Belavsky wanted to perform the violin concerto at Harper, Amram was thrilled, he said.
"A composer's dream, I think, is that somebody on the planet will pick up a piece of music that you've written or hear something that you've done, and they'll like it so much that they'll want to do (it)," Amram said.
Amram's current projects include a concerto commissioned by flutist James Galway and a musical collaboration with "Angela's Ashes" author Frank McCourt, whom Amram knew long before he was a best-selling writer.
Like Kerouac, Amram said he tries to honor "everyday experiences" through his art. Kerouac wrote novels that sounded spontaneous, and Amram strives for the same quality in his music, but neither really created art spontaneously, Amram said.
"When I'm going over what I've written, painstakingly, sometimes hundreds of times, I'm able to get it to sound natural," he said.
"So when I sit down, I don't just have a stream of consciousness, and Kerouac didn't either. He edited all of that stuff in his head, and he always had notebooks with him. So when he actually wrote, it sounded spontaneous, but it came from a tremendous formal discipline."
It's obvious during an interview with Amram that he embodies another of the characteristics he recognized in Kerouac and other people he has worked with, including Dizzy Gillespie, Leonard Bernstein and Willie Nelson.
Like them, Amram is approachable and enthusiastic when talking about the artistic process. "All these people were inclusive, not exclusive," Amram said. "And that, I think, was a very important quality that gave them the special communicative ability that they had and made them such fantastic artists."
Turning 70 didn't stop famed composer-musician Davis Amram from doing his usual thing.
Amram first came to fame during the late 1950s/early 1960s, when he became the first composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic, hung out and worked with Jazz greets like Charles Mingus and Beat icons like Jack Kerouac, penned soundtracks for classic movies like "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Splendor in the Grass" and introduced an idea called "World music," then barely heard of, to mainstream American audiences.
So it was fitting that Sunday night's celebration at the Knitting Factory was both a birthday party and the launch of the first New York Underground Music/Poetry Festival. Old and new Amram colleagues, like surviving Beats Tuli Kupferberg and Ira Cohen, jazz musicians like Rodney Jones (music director of Rosie O'Donnell's TV show), rockers like Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo and writers like Jack Newfield spent hours saluting their host and reviving the congenially loose, shambling mixed-arts presentations associated with the Beat Generation and the happenings era.
With Amram's bubbly, irrepressible personality at its core, the night meandered yet threw off warm sparks of pleasure, camaraderie regained and memories of a time when books were routinely banned, sex wasn't discussed publicly and lobotomies were a preferred method of mental treatment.
Kupferberg, feisty as ever, took similar aim at present-day America when he said, "This poem uses language, and so if language offends you, please don't listen."
By contrast, Amram is as confrontational as your favorite uncle. Seated at the piano next to a table piled with instruments from around the globe, pulling out different horns and drums and whatnots and explaining their origins end uses, improvising an accompaniment to a poet or suddenly walking over to the center stage microphone and playing percussion with his quartet, Amram embodied a kind of innocent grace and spontaneous joy in artistic creation.
Dozens of poets gave readings and many pieces of music were performed. Amram's quartet version of Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train" complete with a twin- pennywhistle harmony break, was a brilliant and neatly pointed treat - who plays Duke on pennywhistle?
In between, the birthday boy spun tales of his rich past and the hundreds of characters who enlivened it - and American culture.
LAST Saturday, with an hour until curtain time, David Amram - musician, composer, conductor, world traveler, free spirit teetered precariously atop a stool in the Paramount Theater here to hang a banner announcing his latest achievement: turning 70.
Below him, a table covered with CD's, sheet music, books and pamphlets gave testament to a lifetime devoted to educating the masses.
Still, one observer lamented, where were the T-shirts?
"I haven't gotten around to those yet," Mr. Amram said, chuckling, his feet by now firmly planted on the floor. "I suppose it's about time I start endorsing something more age appropriate - say. a walker. 1 can see the ad now: 'walk along with Amram ,' as I go hobbling by."
For those acquainted with the ebullient Mr. Amram, the prospect of his slowing down is no less than anathema. Dressed in jacket, tie and the ubiquitous rattling leis made of objects collected by friends on their travels, he resembles but a faintly faded version of himself from portraits decades old.
In the hours leading up to the night's celebration (his actual birthday was the day before), his Putnam Valley household was a hub of activity as three children, two dogs, eight cats and several visitors vied for their host's attention. Phones rang with congratulations from the conductor Maurice Peress, somewhere in Italy, and the comedian Jerry Stiller, in a jet somewhere between New York and Los Angeles. A fax from the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis proclaims Mr. Amram "one of the courageous - at the forefront of combating prejudice, ignorance and elitism."
"You are a wonder and a joy, a godsend to those who believe in the power of music to change lives and to inspire action. l am among the many that love you "Keep swinging." Indeed.
Three hours later, the Paramount had been transformed into a veritable love-in as friends and colleagues paid tribute to Mr. Amram's influence In the world of music, it is hard to find someone - anyone - whose life has not been touched by the man affectionately dubbed the Pied Piper of Persuasiveness for his ability to turn people on to his causes.
Mr. Amram made his first jazz recording with Lionel Hampton in the early 1950's and by the end of the decade was hanging with the writers, painters and poets of the beat generation in New York, where in 1957 he and Jack Kerouac gave the first jazz-poetry reading.
But unlike many of the Beats - a name given a group he maintains never really existed but was actually a marketing ploy - Mr. Amram created nonstop.
From 1966 to 1967, he was the first composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic, under Leonard Bernstein. He has composed more than 100 orchestral and chamber works and two operas, and early in his career wrote scores for theater and film, including Joseph Papp's Shakespeare in the Park productions, "Splendor In the Grass" and "The Manchurian Candidate." For the past 27 seasons, he has directed the young people's, family and free summer concert programs for the Brooklyn Philharmonic.
In his spare time, what little there is, he grows organic vegetables and raises Jersey cows on his Peekskill Hollow Farm, "so my kids see that hard work is not a bad thing to do," he said.
In his spare time, what little there is, he grows organic vegetables and raises Jersey cows on his Peekskill Hollow Farm, "so my kids see that hard work is not a bad thing to do," he said.This night, he delighted in being the focus of an odyssey of music and anecdotes which, in typical Amramian style, he deflected from himself, calling it "a celebration of a lot of wonderful people I've been lucky enough to be with and who continue to make wonderful contributions themselves."
As the concert began, Mr. Amram jammed with his quartet - jumping from piano to penny whistles to percussion instruments laid out on a table - in tunes that harked back to gigs with Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk.
And then the plaudits poured forth.
The Native American singer JoAnne Shenandoah praised Mr. Amram's respect for "all living spirits, including women" and serenaded him with works inspired by the matriarchal society of the Oneida Nation.
The folk singer Odetta extolled his generosity, recalling how she walked with him from his apartment in Greenwich Village to the Gaslight club, where Ramblin' Jack Elliott was performing. "Four blocks." A pause and a raised eyebrow. "Two hours. Anyone who stopped him had his time."
Among those who had his time were the brothers, writers and raconteurs Frank and Malachy McCourt, whom Mr. Amram met some 30 years ago when Malachy McCourt owned the Bells of Hell, a saloon on West 13th Street In Manhattan. It was there, amid the Irish bands with their fiddles, bodhran and uilleann pipes, that Mr. Amram conjured the third movement of his Violin Concerto, performed this evening by the man who commissioned it. Charles Castleman.
"David absorbs all the music in the air, he's as generous as he can be, and he gives it right back," Malachy McCourt said before leading the audience in "Wild Mountain Thyme," one of Mr. Amram's favorite songs.
The actor Jane Alexander, a longtime friend and neighbor, said: "It's hard to think of David as an age. Tonight, he is the Pan of Peekskill, the rest of the time the Pan of Putnam and for all time, the Pan of the Planet. He's ageless."
As the clock struck midnight. Pan picked up his proverbial flute And took center stage. "Hopefully, we've encouraged young people to see that you can devote your whole life to what you love to do and follow your heart and try to do better than is expected," he said, as he had no doubt done countless times before. "And you can not only have a great time doing that, but you can create something of lasting value and enjoy yourself and give other people joy in the process."
He continued: "I think that now there's such an accentuation on the business aspects of life that It's hard to see why we do music and art in the first place. We need to teach our young people to follow the high path and help them to set the standards. To be as good as. possible. To accentuate the excellence."
The Pied Piper of Persuasiveness had spoken, and the crowd cheered.
The composer DAVID AMRAM turned 70 on Friday and celebrated on Saturday with a four-hour concert in Peekskill, N.Y. "It was so much tun, I actually forgot it was a celebration of my birthday and I forgot I was 70," Mr. Amram said later.
It was a time for feeling the beat of a long-ago generation and reminiscing with old friends, including ED SHERIN, who until recently was executive producer and director of the television series "Law and Order." They met to the 1950's when Mr. Sherin was an actor In Joseph Papp's fledgling New York Shakespeare Festival and Mr. Amram was the music director.
And then there were Mr. Amram's Collaborators: the author PRANK McCOURT, with whom he is working on a new musical work, "Missa Manhattan," and the actress JANE ALEXANDER, with whom he is working on a book about working with yet another pal. The title is, "Collaborating With Jack Kerouac." "I'm still able to put in a 16-hour day," Mr. Amram said. "About a week ago 1 did this seven-hour concert with one break. At the end of the night, I said, 'I feel like I'm 70 right now.'"
Last night In the East Village, variations on several themes floated above the audience at a benefit concert for David Amram: that the young can gain much from listening to the old; that the community of artists is rich beyond paychecks; that music and generosity of spirit are closely linked.
Mr. Amram, 69, the composer, French horn player and former accompanist to Jack Kerouac, suffered a major setback in October, when fire nearly destroyed his farmhouse in Putnam Valley. When his artist friends learned that the house had not been covered by insurance. they decided to help with a modern barnraising, collecting money to help pay for renovations to the 80-year-old house, which needed to be gutted.
Mr. Amram recalled running back into the house, past a firefighter who tried to stop him, to retrieve the last movement of the flute concerto he was writing for James Galway.
"You'd walk through fire for James Galway?" the firefighter asked.
"Only once," Mr. Amram told him.
He lost many pictures and papers, and all the belongings of two of his three children, but no one was hurt in the fire, and he remains buoyant.
"If you want to hear someone sing the blues, I recommend getting some Bessie Smith records," he said.
Artists on last night's program at St. Mark's Church in the East Village Included Matoaka Little Eagle, a storyteller and singer (Mr. Amram took part in a memorial benefit for her father, Swift Eagle); Estelle Parsons, the actress, for whom he wrote a score for a production of "Oedipus"; and Paul Krassner, editor of "The Realist." Mr. Amram estimated that he and Mr. Krassner had been in 70 or 80 benefits together. This year is the first time he is the one to benefit.
In an interview before the show, Mr. Amram let loose an ornate riff on the community of song and how improvisation is necessary in life as well as in art. "If you stay in the music for the true meaning of the music - which is a celebration of life and a sharing of good feelings and a sensitivity towards others and realizing that like life itself, anything can happen at any moment - your job as a musician, even a composer or conductor, is to turn a catastrophe into something beautiful, and to become, as Muhammad Ali said, a master of disaster."
Mr. Amram said that when he was composer in residence at the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein told him that part of his work was to contribute to the repertoire, to compose for musicians of the future.
"That's something very hard for a lot of young people to be aware of now," Mr. Amram said. "We don't live in that kind of a world, where those concepts are ever expressed in a public way."
Jason Eiisnberg, who performed last night as Lord Buckley, the comedian philosopher, calls himself an Amram acolyte. He had been helping with house repairs before the show.
David spent a good part of his long career doing the same kind of thing for other people." Mr. Eisenberg said. "When You do good work, what goes around comes around."
Mr. Amram said that the people he associates with believe, as did Kerouac and the poets Sonia Sanchez, Langston Hughes and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, that their role is to be inclusive rather them exclusive. "We came along at a time when, as young people, we were encouraged by a handful of older people, and we realize now that that's our job." he said. "And it's our mission and our joy to be doing that."
David Kellet, a tenor, met Mr. Amram when he sang in the composer's opera "Twelfth Night" "I feel he's always given us so much, we want to give back to him." Mr. Kellett said last night. "He generally, I believe, surrounds himself with people who look for the joy in music, who look for it to be something very special, not pedestrian.'
On June 21, Mr. Amram will be appearing In Chicago, at a benefit for homeless children, and on June 30 he will play in Battery Park with Pete Seeger, for the International Celebration of Clear Waters.
In a way, this can be expressed more concisely with the symbol that tells a musician to go to the top and start it all again.