Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Andrew Imbrie

Dealing with the shock of the death of Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose Deutsche Grammophon LPs I reduced to dust by playing them incessantly on my pitiful portable picnic player, I somehow missed the fact that Andrew Imbrie had died, my last remaining composition teacher. I'm quite saddened by this. I met him through my first teacher, Robert Gross at Occidental, who had premiered his violin concerto back in 1958, just a few months after I was born, in the heady days of the space age. From the Time magazine review, entitled "New Star:"

Slim, tweedy Composer Imbrie worked intermittently on his concerto for four years, completed it in 1954. As performed last week by the San Francisco Symphony, with Robert Gross as violin soloist, it proved to be a propulsive, clamorous virtuoso work in both twelve-tone and traditional diatonic idioms, with its limber solo line woven through the big sonorities of the orchestra in a stirringly unfolding tapestry of sound. The first movement, in alternating slow and fast tempi, built to its main climax by echoing the solo violin nights with orchestral figurations set at closer and closer intervals. By turns, the second movement was complex and agitated, waltzlike and melodic, with muted violins and then muted trumpets repeating the soloist's refrainlike theme. The third movement opened with rich orchestral tone clusters, built to a brilliantly frenzied solo violin flight near the close. The 700 concertgoers called Conductor Enrique Jordá and Soloist Gross back for half a dozen bows, twice drew Imbrie from his seat in the audience.

Both of them were wonderful teachers, both masters of insight, not gurus pushing their package of answers to all questions, but mentors, able to peer into the mind of the student and guide them to a better version of their work. I remember a class with Professor Gross (yes, don't forget the 'Professor' - both of these men wore suits and ties every day) where he first helped me achieve a proper discordant cacophony and arrhythmic nonsimultaneity in a section of my setting of The Waste Land (have I burned that score yet?) and then immediately turned to help the next student achieve the ultimate in sentimental maudlin kitschiness by adding just the right bass note to his three-hanky oversugared stack of thirds. And all this even though he had accepted the serialist way and maybe even the dogma of its historical inevitability.

But dear Dr. Imbrie could do the same. At the time I met him - in late 1978 - I had reached my pinnacle of unlistenability: a concerto for contrabass playing in 8th tones accompanied by a trombone quartet in 6th tones and chorus singing slowed-down IPA transcriptions of the screams of the insane. He dug into the score, somehow sight-reading an approximation of it at the piano (which I had never even attempted), pointing out some structural imperfections along the way, noticing a bare fifth in the score (Heavens to Betsy!), talked to me - seriously - about who might be able to perform this unperformable piece and so on, never questioning why I would be wasting perfectly good staff paper on such a horrid odious slag heap of nonsense.

But I think that's what a real composition teacher should do, especially since the twentieth century destroyed any notion of right or wrongness or direction or mainstream or anything. We've all become pioneers in our own fable of the Wild West, especially those of us who actually live here on the left coast. To meet someone along the way who can read the signs and help us find our way - this is quite special. To have been attended by two such special people - well, this simply makes me embarrassed that I haven't done more with what they gave me.
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