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Great American classical composers – under duress

Virgil Thomson and John Cage are two of America’s greatest classical composers; both figure crucially in new books.

This is a story about my accidental fleeting intersections with both.


Thomson (1896-1989) was the greatest combination of composer and critic in American music. Further proof of the literary side of that will come in the cornucopia of “The State of Music and Other Writing” (Library of America), when it is published in late August. It’s the indispensable second volume of Thomson’s written work and will be one of the great music books of the summer.

One, nevertheless, finds a 1974 Thomson essay reprinted from the New York Review of Books where the composer reviewed several books about jazz, including Ross Russell’s biography of Charlie Parker. Thomson quotes from it and then writes “this sentence tells you mostly all, except that the tenor sax was his instrument, and that before his early death in 1955, he had planned to study formal composition with Stefan Wolpe …”

Small problem: Parker’s instrument was the alto saxophone. He had played tenor a time or two during his life but the exact saxophone played by jazz’s greatest saxophone players is a cardinal matter of musical identity. And the alto saxophone was THE instrument of the most influential jazz musician of his era.

Thomson may have thought he was being “close enough for jazz” but he wasn’t. What he was being was so careless that he was condescending. It was an absurd mistake to have made in the New York Review of Books, one of most significant cultural organs this country will ever have.

I had other problems with that piece – the weirdly crass post-Southern tone of its jocularity for one – but getting Parker’s saxophone so howlingly wrong seemed insane in such an august publication. So I wrote the first and only angry letter to the editor of my life and the Review printed it. (It can still be found online only with the name of this newspaper misprinted as “The Buffalo Evenings News” where the inaccurate plural seemed to confirm its slapdash copy editing). There are brilliant notes all through this cornerstone volume of Thomson’s work from editor Tim Page, but they don’t correct Thomson’s ridiculous original mistake.

It was, at the time, flabbergasting to me that he couldn’t get that kind of attention at the New York Review of Books. It still is, to be frank.

I am less surprised that Thomson’s mistake was neither corrected in this book – a classic volume in every way – or mentioned in the book’s otherwise superb notes.

I have come to be a Facebook friend of Tim Page, a writer who, at 60, has been one of the great figures in American music criticism. Because of that, I know that a year ago, Page fell to the floor of a railroad station in Hartford, Conn., with an acute subdural hematoma. Brain surgery saved his life.

We have, therefore, no business expecting the transient matter of Charlie Parker’s saxophone to be corrected in either the text or the notes to this important work. Which means that there, 42 years later, after many reprints by major American publishers, that mistake remains, a perfectly preserved monument to a great American figure being careless and, probably, more than a little condescending and even contemptuous of the subject he was writing about.

And here’s what this letter writer learned with this new book: There are metaphysical laws about status and error in the world. Sometimes, error just isn’t eradicable – painful to know but any writer (or reader) who doesn’t know it may suffer unnecessarily.


Thomson admired and wrote brilliantly about Cage, as different as the two composers were. The most dramatic thing I ever covered for this newspaper was a shocking explosion of temper and bewilderment by Cage at a seminar during Morton Feldman’s first “June in Buffalo” festival. What enraged Cage was a performance of some pieces from his “Song Books” by the S.E.M. Ensemble in which ensemble member Julius Eastman “brought out a young, blond man and a young black woman and proceeded to spiel out a broadly funny new ‘system of love’ with virulent homosexual overtones. At the end of it, the young man was undressed and the subject of the performer’s (Eastman’s) gay advances.”

That’s my description of the event according to Renee Levine Packer in her new book with Mary Jane Leach, “Gay Guerilla: Julius Eastman and His Music” (University of Rochester Press, 246 pages, $34.95). I had reviewed that concert.

“Cage was furious,” Packer writes in her biography of Eastman. “In his seminar the next morning, he was visibly agitated, stamping around the room, breathlessly raising his voice in an uncharacteristic way, even pounding the piano with his fist. He expressed disappointment and immense frustration that his work could have been so misunderstood, especially by such experienced performers, and in a place where he thought surely he could rely on a knowledgeable and sensitive reading.”

His work, Cage said at the seminar I later wrote about, called on performers’ huge freedom but only if what they did was in the philosophical spirit of Henry David Thoreau. Eastman’s improv sex comedy in provocative comic service to gay liberation was hardly that.

Anyone who had marveled at Cage’s writings in his books “Silence” and “A Year from Monday” couldn’t help being shocked that a man who had devoted so much of his life to contemplative equanimity, could explode so helplessly in such rage. The emotional distance between what I knew of Cage’s philosophy and his fury that day was the most dramatic gap I have ever witnessed after encountering a major cultural figure. I was witnessing in Cage the dark side of the moon.

Eastman had previously been revered by my late colleague, classical critic John Dwyer for his vocal performances – especially of Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Eight Songs for a Mad King.” Eastman was a fascinating figure in Buffalo history. But as a black and gay man of the 1970s, he was politicized in a way Cage never could be.

Jace Clayton released a disc of Eastman’s late life music and it is fascinating. It’s called “The Julius Eastman Memory Depot” (New Amsterdam.) But when he left Buffalo for New York, Eastman’s “pushing the limits” wherever he could pushed him ever further into obscurity.

His death in Millard Fillmore Hospital was not recorded in this newspaper at the time. It was recorded after the fact by Kyle Gann in the Village Voice.

Packer in her biographical portion of the anthology of writings about Eastman called “Gay Guerilla” quotes what Gann wrote: “Julius Eastman died May 28, 1990 at Millard Fillmore Hospital in Buffalo. He was forty nine. According to his death certificate, he died of cardiac arrest. Depending on whom you talked to, it was brought on by insomnia and possible tuberculosis, starvation, exhaustion or depression (supposedly not AIDS.)”

Packer and Leach’s book is a remarkable and considered portrait of an amazing, increasingly obscured Buffalo figure who instigated the most fundamental and profoundly significant meltdown I have ever witnessed by a major cultural figure.


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