Composer David Schiff: Finding a musical home in Oregon

FearNoMusic's 70th birthday concert tribute this Sunday celebrates the native New Yorker composer who found creative freedom in the West.

When composer David Schiff moved from his New York birthplace to Oregon to take a teaching job at Reed College 35 years ago, he didn’t know whether he was consigning himself to provincial obscurity.

It turned out to be the best move he could have made. The Bronx native, who turned 70 last month, credits his move away from the center of America’s musical universe to Oregon for enabling him to find national renown. Oregon’s best known living composer, and probably the American composer most accomplished at creating viable hybrids of classical music and jazz, Schiff is also one of the country’s major composers of Jewish music (including klezmer) for classical forces. His music has been performed and recorded by major orchestras and ensembles around the country.

This month features the first European performances of Schiff’s Sacred Service in Berlin and Mecklenburg, and, this Sunday, an all-Schiff concert by Portland new music ensemble FearNoMusic at Reed College (where Schiff has taught for 35 years). In November, the Oregon Symphony plays his Infernal (commissioned and recorded by the Seattle Symphony) and Portland jazz and classical stars Darrell Grant and David Shifrin play a new Schiff tribute to Duke Ellington, the subject of Schiff’s most recent book.

David Schiff conducting Third Angle New Music in last year's all-Schiff concert. Photo: Tom Emerson.

David Schiff conducting Third Angle New Music in last year’s all-Schiff concert. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The tributes actually started last year when Portland’s Third Angle New Music played a concert of his music featuring New York jazz stars Marty Erlich and Myra Melford. In July, Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest (really the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in its summer guise) premiered the latest of the dozen works it’s commissioned from him over the years. Last month, Schiff’s birthday was celebrated with radio tributes in Los Angeles, Portland and the national Composers Datebook show.

None of that seemed likely in that summer of 1980 when Schiff, in his mid-30s, arrived on the West Coast. Not that fame really mattered to him at that point. “I was so happy to have a job!” he recalls. “Back then, the attitude about being a composer is what you want is a good college or university job. That was the model. I had interviewed at Yale and Reed. At Yale I was told they had never given tenure to a composer, not even [Paul] Hindemith. Nobody told me that Reed had never given tenure to any creative artist!”

Moreover, Schiff had little reason to expect that this alien city out in the provinces would nurture his creativity. After all, his entire creative career sprang from his New York area upbringing. How would he ever be able to succeed on the West Coast?

New York Nocturne

When Schiff was growing up, his family’s home rang with the sounds of Jewish music on Sundays, courtesy of radio station WEVD (named after the great American socialist Eugene V. Debs), which broadcast in Yiddish. When they went to his Conservative synagogue, he heard the modern version of ancient Jewish melodies intoned, unaccompanied, by one of the country’s greatest cantors. “I had [Jewish music] in my ear,” Schiff acknowledged, but I was never particularly attracted to it. The world of my family was so Jewish. I screamed at my family once that if the world ‘Jewish’ was banned from our family there’d be 10 years of total silence! I wanted to get away from it, but it also shaped me.”

Portland composer David Schiff.

Portland composer David Schiff.

What he really liked was the other music his family listened to: show tunes. They never went to classical music concerts, but they did see most of the shows during the last stretch of Broadway’s glory years. Beginning with Leonard Bernstein’s early Peter Pan, (when Schiff was five), he saw classics like Damn Yankees, My Fair Lady, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying and many more. His family had three albums: the cast recording of South Pacific, a Gershwin anthology, and Debussy’s La Mer.

“The biggest influence on my music is [the great Jewish Broadway composer] Richard Rodgers,” Schiff declares. “I really enjoy writing tunes, and I learned from the masters. These were tunes that went right to the heart.”

Schiff had already started playing piano at age four, then picked up tuba and bass in the school band. And when he heard a recording of Billy the Kid (written by another Jewish New Yorker, Aaron Copland) at age nine, Schiff knew he wanted to be a composer.

A couple of years later, he met his other muse. A cousin visiting from college was headed out on a date, and the eleven year old Schiff pestered him into taking him along. The show turned out to feature the great British jazz pianist George Shearing. “That was my introduction to jazz,” Schiff recalls, “and I was blown away.” He and some junior high friends formed a little occasional jazz combo, and, despite not even being high school age, their parents would let them go into New York City and hear legends like Louis Armstrong and Erroll Garner. Later, as a student at Columbia University, he got to hear the immortals of jazz’s glory years: Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus. Jazz harmonies soon insinuated their way into his own music and seldom left.

Schiff at last year's Third Angle concert with jazz saxophonist Marty Ehrlich, who'll play his music at FearNoMusic's concert. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Schiff at last year’s Third Angle concert with jazz saxophonist Marty Ehrlich, who’ll play his music at FearNoMusic’s concert. Photo: Tom Emerson.

But while he enjoyed listening to jazz throughout his childhood, Schiff never really thought of himself as a composer-performer like those giants. (This year, that would change, somewhat nerve-wrackingly.) And in college at that time, the model for a composer was quite different.

Beyond Category

While he was imbibing jazz in nightclubs, by day, Schiff studied modern European classical music, which he also treasured — Igor Stravinsky’s (his favorite composer) powerful twelve-tone ballet score Agon, atonal avatar Arnold Schoenberg’s thorny Variations for Orchestra, his pupil Alban Berg’s music. One of his college mentors was the American apostle of complex modern music, Elliott Carter. (Another was very different — John Corigliano, whose music could veer into neo Romanticism.) During his second year studying with Carter, “I made a deliberate decision to write music in his style,” Schiff remembers. “I wanted to face it. I didn’t want to say I wasn’t doing it because I was a coward.” He wrote three major works — a song cycle, a setting of Hart Crane poetry, a string quartet — in that knotty but then-regnant (in academic musical circles at least) style, and won awards for the last one. “But even as I was doing it, I realized I was making different choices than [Carter] would make,” Schiff says. “I wanted the melodies to be stronger, the emotions clearer. And I realized that this was not the idiom for me if I wanted to do that.”

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 2.51.29 PMThe idiom that he did choose emerged from his childhood. Schiff began to work on an opera based on a story by the great Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, about a naive Eastern European Jewish baker who’s mistreated and taken advantage of by everyone. Rather than avenging himself, Gimpel becomes a wandering holy man. The subject matter suggested various Jewish liturgical songs and popular styles, including klezmer music, and Schiff found himself enraptured. Writing Gimpel the Fool “was a revelation,” Schiff says. “I didn’t know I had all this Jewish music in me!”  He would go on to write plenty more, including sacred music for temple services. But Gimpel’s folk-influenced style — tuneful, danceable, delightful — didn’t sound much like his mentor’s.

Schiff didn’t see a conflict between his allegiance to Carter and European modernism on one hand, and his affection for the non-academic music of his childhood (jazz, Jewish, show tunes); his vision was capacious enough to embrace it all. But in New York in the 1970s, and throughout much of the academy, others did. This was a fraught time in American music; the city was a battleground of ideological conflict between the so-called “uptown” composers (mostly academic modernists ensconced in universities and conservatories) and downtown composers (ranging from Laurie Anderson to John Zorn to the early minimalists and beyond) who drew on popular, experimental and other influences beyond the European modernist tradition. That rift affected the careers of many composers who lost opportunities by refusing to commit to particular camps or who changed the way they wrote to fit one approach or the other, whether it suited their natural inclinations or not. The lines were never quite as clear as some imagined at the time — plenty of composers partook of influences from various sources. But Schiff felt trapped.

“New York music was split between uptown and downtown,” Schiff remembers. “I was torn between the two because by training I was uptown, but I was never really attracted to [notoriously dissonant modernists Milton] Babbitt and [Charles] Wuorinen. I was interested in Carter and [Stefan] Wolpe, but I had also discovered the music of [Steve] Reich and [Terry] Riley.”

Schiff conducts Third Angle. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Schiff conducts Third Angle. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Along with their colleague Philip Glass, those pioneering young minimalist composers, only a decade older than Schiff, disdained academia and embraced influences from jazz and world music. Like many rebellious composers of his generation, Schiff was quickly seduced by the antithesis of Carter’s complexity. Schiff attended the opening performances of two of the greatest works of early minimalism, Glass’s Music in 12 Parts and Einstein on the Beach, as well as early live performances of Reich’s Music for Mallet Instruments and Six Pianos. “Music for 18 Musicians changed everything for me,” he says about Reich’s masterpiece, a landmark in 20th century music. Reich (along with, crazily enough, Carter and Corigliano, who pretty much represented the major polarities in contemporary classical music at the time) all attended Gimpel’s 1979 premiere at New York’s 92nd Street Y, a haven for new music.

Having already written a book about Carter (he’s working on his third now), “it would have been hard for me not to be just the Elliott Carter guy” in New York during that line-drawing era, Schiff muses, even though Carter himself always encouraged Schiff’s composing regardless of idiom. “But I was not ready to sign on as a minimalist either,” Schiff says. His tastes were too eclectic to fit snugly in any musical pigeonhole. As was famously said about his idol Duke Ellington, Schiff’s music was beyond category — in a time and place where he felt compelled to choose one. New York was indisputably America’s musical capital, and it had given him all the music he loved — but it seemed to have no comfortable place for David Schiff.

Then Portland called.

Oregon Trails

Plunging right into teaching a few weeks after he and his wife arrived at Reed, Schiff barely had time to recover from his first year of teaching when he discovered Chamber Music Northwest, Reed’s annual summer presenting series that hosted visiting New York musicians — including several (Ani and Ida Kavafian, Fred Sherry, David Golub, and more) that Schiff and his wife (a Juilliard grad) knew from New York. They went to every concert, and Schiff sent newly appointed director David Shifrin several recordings of his music. The clarinetist, impressed by Gimpel the Fool, suggested that the composer make an instrumental arrangement of some of the music, a common strategy among opera composers. Premiering at CMNW in 1982, it’s still his most performed piece. And CMNW followed up with commissions regularly after that.

Shortly thereafter, Schiff called up the director of Virtuosi della Rosa, which evolved into Third Angle New Music, and quickly secured another outlet for his work. In 1987, Oregon Symphony music director James DePreist called Schiff to commission a new orchestral work. After only seven years in town, Schiff had a corps of top musicians playing his compositions both locally and nationally, a situation comparable to Ellington’s band and Haydn’s orchestra at Esterhazy.

Schiff and fellow composer John Steinmetz at Chamber Music Northwest this summer.

Schiff and fellow composer John Steinmetz at Chamber Music Northwest this summer. Photo: Jonathan Lange.

“In Chamber Music Northwest, I had this venue where I could develop as a composer,” Schiff explains. “Shifrin went for anything I asked for: an hour-long song cycle with two singers, an hour long piece for klezmer clarinet. It was wonderful to have the Chamber Music Northwest audience who had followed my development.” Like so many East Coasters, Schiff found in the West a freedom from old conflicts and constraints. “When I came to Portland, I found nobody cared” about New York’s tribal musical schism, he says. “It was much easier to be myself here than in New York, where the politics were tricky and I would have had to choose sides somehow.”

Nor did he lack for national exposure. Schiff parlayed earlier New York acquaintances like George Manahan (today probably the most prominent conductor of new music in the US through his work with various orchestras, and who also serves as musical director for the much more conservative Portland Opera) and Gerard Schwartz (who became a strong advocate of American music during his long tenure at the helm of the Seattle Symphony) into opportunities to have his music performed outside Portland. He went on to write a jazz violin concerto premiered by the Detroit Symphony and violinist Regina Carter, a clarinet concerto for Shifrin, a timpani concerto for a childhood friend who happened to be an orchestral timpanist. CMNW has performed 18 of his many chamber compositions, two thirds of them commissions. He’s written songs and other vocal works (many premiered by his wife Judith, a soprano), orchestral and choral music, works for improvising soloist, klezmer and, increasingly, jazz-inflected works. (“If I had a big band at my disposal, I’d just write for that!” he insists.) His music found its way around the country and even to England, where he studied for a couple of years and which he considers a second home.

Or make that third. Because Schiff, like so many Northwesterners, native or not, quickly embraced the region’s natural beauty, hiking at Black Butte many summers, camping, cross country skiing.

“The first time I went backpacking, I mentioned this to Mr. Carter,” as Schiff still calls him, two years after his mentor’s death at 103. “He said ‘the most important thing when sleeping out in the woods is to bring earplugs because the woods are so noisy.’ I happen to think DEET is more important than earplugs!”

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 2.51.04 PMInevitably, Oregon themes began to seep into his tunes and even titles. “When I’m composing much of my music, I love to think about a very specific time and place and try to capture that in the music,” Schiff explains. “It’s not something anybody else has to know about but it gives me a target. At a certain point I had enough of [Oregon’s natural beauty] in my past that a lot of the music I’ve written lately comes out of moments like that here, in the woods or on the river,” including his most recent CMNW commission, a Nonet that he described as reflecting a city boy rafting the Deschutes.

“That’s been the big surprise in my life,” Schiff says. “By training and background and education, I should be a hard-line East Coast composer. But even when I was back there, I never thought of myself that way.” Nevertheless, “people out here still think of me as a New Yorker,” he admits. “My voice, my attitude — I haven’t lost my edge.”

Words and Music

While teaching and composing, Schiff also found a voice in print. His literary education at Cambridge and Columbia gave him the confidence to adapt Singer’s story into his Gimpel libretto. An article about Carter’s music written for a New York friend’s nascent arts journal led to the invitation from the composer to write his biography. Then one day in 1992, his phone rang, and the New York Times’ esteemed music editor, James Oestreich, asked him to write a column for that Sunday’s paper when another writer fell through. He’d been recommended by two of the country’s most esteemed classical music historians, Richard Taruskin (whom Oestreich had also cultivated) and Joseph Horowitz. After a series of well-received articles for the Times, the Atlantic called, offering more room and more money. Schiff’s clear, non academic writing and often contrarian stances (praising Leonard Bernstein at the moment his reputation was lowest, urging the appreciation and revival of big band jazz) earned him a reputation as one of the most readable and astute writers on music.

Schiff conducts the Reed College orchestra.

Schiff conducts the Reed College orchestra.

He’s since authored books on Ellington and Gershwin, and written for The Nation, Opera News, and more, including London’s Times Literary Supplement, for which he recently reviewed autobiographies by Glass and jazz composer and pianist Herbie Hancock — possibly the only writer who could authoritatively cover those two greats (who shared elements such as Buddhism) in the same story. “Journalism took me a lot of places I’d never have gone as a composer,” Schiff says. That witty way with words (which Schiff attributes to his professor father, whom he recalls as a terrific lecturer with a great sense of humor) also informs his talks about music, including his popular lectures at Reed.

With his facility for writing both words and music, and his much-praised Gimpel on his resume, opera would seem to be Schiff’s ultimate creative expression. But like so many contemporary composers, he’s so far found it impossible to surmount the barriers (primarily economic) that prevent most opera companies, including Portland’s (which did apply for a big grant to commission one, but failed), from staging anything but hoary chestnuts. “The biggest frustration I’ve had is that I think I’m an opera composer,” Schiff says, “and it’s been very frustrating that I haven’t been able to get those projects going,” including operas about Charles Ives and Wallace Stevens and a setting of James Joyce’s magnificent story collection Dubliners.

Schiff works with members of FearNoMusic for this Sunday's concert.

Schiff works with members of FearNoMusic for this Sunday’s concert.

Strong at 70

Let’s hope that dream is realized before Schiff’s next decennial celebration. In the meantime, there’s much to enjoy now, thanks to the creative freedom Oregon afforded the erstwhile New Yorker. Chamber Music Northwest has just issued a second CD of his compositions, and the Nonet the festival premiered in July showed Schiff at the height of his considerable powers. Sunday’s fEARnoMUSIC concert will showcase his nostalgia for his old hometown in the piano trio New York Nocturnes, and the jazzy Singing in the Dark for string quartet and alto saxophone, featuring New York jazzer Marty Ehrlich, who also performed in last year’s Third Angle shows, which also featured a very nervous composer on piano in a piece that required some improvisation.

FNM artistic director and violist Kenji Bunch, a Portland native who also spent a couple decades in New York, will perform Schiff’s 1981 Joycesketch II, drawn from sketches for that as-yet-unheard Joycean opera.

“Blending multiple stylistic influences into one piece of music, in a convincing way, is never easy,” Bunch says about Schiff. “Specifically, working the vocabulary of an American vernacular (like jazz) into traditionally notated concert music is much harder than it sounds. Harnessing intangible qualities like timing, inflection, and ‘feel’ into a formalized structure that can be reliably reproduced without any loss of energy or credibility is really difficult. Doing so while crafting an original work of art music that still maintains a distinctive personal voice is even harder still. As any casual listener can tell, this is a challenge I often pursue with my own work, so I intimately understand the potential hazards involved. For my money, I don’t know of any composer working today who handles this exact challenge with more craft, sensitivity, respect, artistry, and soul than David Schiff. His is truly a distinctive voice, and a distinctively American one. Having the chance to collaborate and work in close proximity with this master craftsman on his own work is a real honor. FearNoMusic is excited to celebrate David Schiff’s music in this way, and personally, I’m excited to continue to learn from one of the greats.”

David Schiff CD Cover ImageWe Oregonians are fortunate to have been able to enjoy those lessons for decades. Schiff’s unexpected career here has been a blessing for both composer and Oregon music lovers alike. And maybe it shouldn’t seem so unlikely.

“I remember as a kid we would either spend the summer at the beach or in the mountains — the Catskills,” Schiff says. “I always dreamt I would live someplace close to the ocean and the mountains.” We’re all lucky that dream came true.

FEARnoMUSIC plays music of David Schiff at 7:30 pm this Sunday at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd. Portland. Tickets ($10-$30) are available online. Reed students, faculty, and staff are admitted free with valid Reed ID. Schiff will appear before the concert at 6:45 pm for a talk with All Classical Portland radio host Robert McBride.

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