The Saint of Bleecker Street

BRIAN KELLOW speaks with eighty-two-year-old downtown composer legend David Amram.

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A 1967 photo of David Amram and Leonard Bernstein, who appointed Amram as the first composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic
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Downtown composer legend David Amram
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Amram on penny whistles, performing with Symphony Silicon Valley, September 2011

OPERA NEWS: Congratulations on being the subject of a very fine documentary, David Amram: The First Eighty Years. I watched it recently and found it a remarkably comprehensive view of your life. I was happy to see that the script is by David Patrick Stearns, classical music critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer. David is someone I've had the pleasure of working with at OPERA NEWS for many years.

DAVID AMRAM: David did an amazing job. He took all of this stuff that the director, Larry Kraman, had shot. At that point, Larry had said, "I don't know…. I'm not sure what to do." David, aside from his knowledge of all kinds of music, is such a good organizer. He managed to figure out a way to pull it together. And they had this fantastic twenty-year-old kid, Dillon Poole, who was the editor. I stayed out of the way — otherwise, the film would have been thirteen hours. I think I was very lucky. Anyone else in the world would have said, "Where's the beef? Where are the reality-TV stars?"

ON: You have had such a remarkably varied career — as an opera composer, jazz musician, film scorer, author — that it must be kind of an odd sensation to see it all crammed into a ninety-minute film.

DA: I was so happy to see a lot of the people on film, including my own kids and my ex-wife, and a lot of the wonderful performers who have sung my music. C. F. Peters has many of my scores, and there are an increasing number of recordings they are making of my concert music. Everything else that you have kind of comes and goes in a few minutes. So it was really nice to see that what I've been trying to do in my life now — to embrace all these different aspects of music and share them with other people — doesn't seem like it was such a crazy thing, after all. 

ON: I love what you say at the end of the film about how young artists shouldn't feel ashamed of the struggle they're engaged in — that's all part of it.

DA: It's always going to be a struggle. I got so much from reading the letters of Mozart and Beethoven and Bach, which are primarily "PLEASE SEND ME THE MONEY — I HAVE TO PAY MY RENT." Bach was much more than that little plastic statue that we have on our pianos. I remember reading those letters about the Marquis of Brandenburg asking him to write tafelmusik for a big banquet. It was kind of a club date for a musician to provide entertainment while the dignitaries were eating dinner. And Bach exceeded the expectations of what his work was. And you think about all the composers throughout history, and what they have done. Think about what Homer did! While he was writing the Iliad and the Odyssey, I'm sure that he never dreamed that all these thousands of years later, people would still be reading what he wrote. So many terrific things have been started and done in kind of humble circumstances. But the image that we're all presented with — that young people today are certainly presented with — is that being a musician has to do with owning a certain amount of important real estate in a major metropolitan area, with an entertainment complex, so you can retire from having to work in music and do something else. That idea doesn't really have anything to do with what music is about — with the value of music. When I go to schools and try to encourage people to be creative and expressive, I always mention that what you do to pay your rent has no bearing on your value as a musician. We all should get paid and be able to make a living for the work we do. But if it's something that you really want to do so much that you just can't imagine living without it — then you should try it. If you have to do something else to pay your rent, well … so do most of the people in history whose work we cherish!

ON: In this culture of money and acquisition, is it harder than ever to get that message across to students?

DA: It's incredible how the culture has changed. On the other hand, rather than being embittered, I realized that after I wrote the score for The Manchurian Candidate, I was offered an enormous number of films in one year. I said, "I can't write that much good music in one year," and they said, "That's why you have your ghost writers and orchestrators." I said, "I'm a composer, and I'm trying to be a better composer." After that, I decided that it was better for someone else to do the film work — someone who might have a hobby he enjoyed more than music. I would rather stump along. I wrote my operas Twelfth Night and The Final Ingredient after I had made that choice. If I had it to do all over again, I would do the same thing. 

And the same thing happened when I did the film scores way before. When I did the music for Splendor in the Grass, directed by Elia Kazan — well, I had worked with him when he did a production on Broadway called J.B. They asked some famous composers to write the incidental music, and they were all busy. Lucinda Ballard, the costume designer, said there was a kid writing for Shakespeare in the Park, who wrote a kind of neoclassical music that might fit the needs of J.B. And I was also a jazz player. So Kazan called me up out of the blue. I thought it was a crank call at first, but he said, "I have the feeling you could do this." I began writing music for some of the other plays, and in 1960, when he did Splendor in the Grass, he said, "I'd like you to do it." This was over the objection of Warner Bros.

ON: Was it through Kazan that John Frankenheimer invited you to write the score for The Young Savages

DA: John Frankenheimer was doing Turn of the Screw on TV, and he wanted music that wasn't written with a construction crew of six other people all throwing in music cues. I was fortunate. His wife went to the theater and saw all these plays I did music for. She said, "You've got to check this guy out," and he decided to have me work with him. He had me work on that, and when they did The Manchurian Candidate, the same thing happened. I worked with Kazan again on a film called The Arrangement, which was a pleasure. Teri McLuhan made a feature film called The Frontier Gandhi, which just won the Middle Eastern Film Festival Prize, and I did another wonderful independent film called Isn't It Delicious?, which is being taken around. And there's another film, about Mali tribesmen. It's still something that I really love to do. I have pretty broad tastes. I'm not a snob, but to be a successful composer in Hollywood, you have to take anything and everything that comes along. And you have to have a crew of ghost writers, and you're the foreman or the building contractor. I still use a pen and paper. I don't wear a white powdered wig, but I still write it out the old fashioned way! I have a wonderful music copyist who still copies out the parts in the old fashioned way. Now that my music is getting played all over the place, the parts are perfect, and the players can read them. They're so legible. That's something that really makes me feel better than anything.

ON: You were a great friend of Jack Kerouac. A lot of people don't know how much he loved opera and some types of classical music.

DA: When I speak at universities, part of what I try to do is tell them how much Jack loved Bach, and how much he loved opera. There's a wonderful part in a book he wrote, Visions of Cody, where he describes going to the opera in Central City. And the reason it's nice to mention that is that in the stratification of trying to put everyone in their little slot, no one would think of Kerouac as being interested in opera or anything else, except going to parties and being nuts! 

The reality is that classical music is something that is part of so many people's lives, and opera is the ultimate. I'll never forget seeing the first rehearsal onstage of my opera, Twelfth Night. I forgot that I had written the opera. I was just sitting there experiencing the whole thing. Opera was declared to be dead music from old Europeans of yesteryear, and now it has blessed the hearts of the people at the Met when they started having those theatrical presentations in the movie theaters. Those things are jammed all over the country! And more important, it means the small opera companies are now being able to realize that there is a way somehow to keep that going — theater groups and small orchestras and arts groups will realize that it can become more communal and more local. When I was in the Army in Europe, I spent all the time that I could going to operas in all the cities in Germany and France and Italy, where every small place had its own company. Seeing La Bohème for the first time live, sung in German, was incredible, after wearing out the recording with Bidú Sayão. 

ON: How did your opera Twelfth Night come about, exactly? 

DA: Joe Papp asked me to do it, because I had written music for Shakespeare in the Park. So in 1958, he said we should make an opera out of this. He had heard the three songs that I set — "The wind and the rain" and "O mistress mine" and "Come away, death," and the music for Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and he said, "Every night, I like it more and more." He cut the play way down. Finally, he handed me thirty-two typewritten pages of the libretto and said, "Here it is." And that was it. We had a wonderful reading with Ezio Flagello, and all these wonderful performers came. Lawrence Leighton Smith played piano, and I was conducting it. We did it at this incredible elegant party and didn't raise even a dollar, and Joe said, "Don't worry — someday this piece will be done, and the same people will say you're a genius!" (Laughs) I kept plugging away, and finally we did have it done. It was hard. I realized, again, that I had a choice. I guess that's what we have to do with everything. Somehow, it's about approach.

ON: How did your work as a side man with so many great jazz artists influence your work as an opera composer?

DA: I was definitely trying to do what all the jazz players do when the singers or the soloist is doing a solo — you listen to them and try to do something that's appropriate to support what they are doing at the moment. So really, I wrote all of Twelfth Night singing it, and frankly if there were ever a recording of what I sounded like trying to sing it, I would file a lawsuit against whoever brought it out. It was pretty frightening. But that helped me figure out something intuitively that would complement the music that was already in the poetry, and then refine that so it wouldn't just be a whole evening of half notes or diminished seventh chords, but actually some music with all the counterpoint stuff. I think what I learned from playing with the great jazz artists is their love of all music and appreciating everyone at the moment, and also their deep appreciation of harmony and listening and clarity and expression. So I always felt that the toolboxes that we have for learning counterpoint and all the things we learn from masters of the past are things that you use when you get stuck. Problem solvers. But the real inspiration comes in the moment. spacer  

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