A Pulitzer Prize-Winning Composer Takes 'FLiGHT'

Why you should care

This is contemporary music and art that manages to defy genre.

On the program it’s called a “concert.” But anyone who attends the March 8 performance of FLiGHT might have to invent new vocabulary. Yes, four string players from the JACK Quartet will bow their instruments at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. But only after a quartet of actors recites lines going back to the early, tragic days of flight: Icarus of Greek mythology and his wax wings melting under the sun. A medley of drawings, photographs and video images will project on boxes — screen-covered frames — that the actors will move around the stage, while computer-embellished acoustic sounds zing around the room.

Welcome to Roger Reynolds’ latest creation. Who is he? Call him a composer. After all, he won a Pulitzer Prize for music composition in 1989, and he’s taught dozens of composers from his home base at the University of California, San Diego. Gandalf-like — minus the beard, but with crazy silver hair — and 80, he hasn’t slowed, or given up his quest to push his art into areas limited only by imagination. “One of the things that defines Roger is his indefinability,” says Robert Kirzinger, who writes program notes for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Reynolds keeps changing his game, but his influence on music began to build in the 1960s, with a theatrical, musical rendition of Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” in which he moved sound around the stage by passing voices among eight singers. That, perhaps, is the Reynolds signature: pushing the boundaries of sound creation, later with the aid of computer processing, as he incorporated theater, text and visual images. “He’s breaking the barriers of technology and its relationship to music,” explains Harvard University composition professor Chaya Czernowin. Of course, Reynolds puts it differently: It’s using technology to realize the sounds that his mind can imagine — increasingly, these days, with the help of a few friends.

Contemporary music is a big global endeavor. Yet, at least in the United States, modern music has failed to win popular audiences.

Reynolds was way late to music, at 14, when his father brought home a Victrola console in 1948, and gave him $10 to buy a few records for a house that Reynolds says lacked music or art. The only book, Moby-Dick, went unread. One record, given away by the shopkeeper as the sole survivor of a smashed set, was the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz playing Chopin. “I was overwhelmed,” he tells OZY. “I wore it out.”

Fast-forward a decade: Reynolds set his sights on a modest career teaching piano at a small college. He’d started too late to succeed on the concert stage. Training to teach came after a detour — when he earned an engineering degree and then quit a job working on ramjets in California. He couldn’t keep his hands off the piano. Then, by chance, he signed up for a course on music composition for noncomposers.

Contemporary music is a big global endeavor — Reynolds has worked in and has collaborators in Europe and Japan. Yet, at least in the United States, modern music has failed to win popular audiences. “People aren’t interested in straying from their comfort zone,” says Thomas DeLio, composition professor at the University of Maryland. It’s in university campuses, music conservatories, festivals and smaller venues like the Library of Congress. Snippets appear in film, usually of the horror variety. Millions parade through museums to see the modernist artwork of Jackson Pollock or Andy Warhol, while the musical works of John Cage, Arnold Schoenberg or Iannis Xenakis are for self-selected aficionados.

Reynolds thinks the difference owes at least partly to the fact that the wealthy spend millions on artwork, but can’t do the same with music. Yet he managed to get a 2013 commission of the multimedia work george WASHINGTON for the National Symphony Orchestra, which was considered a “jaw-dropping” achievement, says Kirzinger. While audience response was enthusiastic (yes, I was there), some critics did not agree. The Washington Post found it “worthy of respect,” but not successful.

Speak with Reynolds and he’ll tell you that receptivity to contemporary music has run afoul of ingrained expectations in vogue since the 19th century, epitomized by the classical tradition of Beethoven. “I don’t like to talk about it in terms of problems,” says Reynolds, who refers to the excitement Mozart expressed to his father in a letter over his biggest-ever audience (at least at the time) of 174. Perhaps that’s because Reynolds has repeatedly succeeded in putting together audiences that pursue the art that he loves, whether it’s a weeklong festival celebrating his friend and mentor John Cage or staging a contemporary music festival at James Madison University (where FLiGHT premiered in February).

Reynolds has sought to take music out of the concert hall and into great public spaces — like the National Gallery — “that are open to experiences — open to the visual, to sound, to movement — that are not prepackaged.” Why, he wonders, can’t listeners open themselves to creations made by people of their own times who share their same experiences? “It’s not beyond the reach of an open listener,” he says.

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