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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Little Poland

My first and only visit to Little Poland was in 1981. I believe it was in the Fall.

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Let me explain.

During my musical studies at the New England Conservatory (or NEC) in the late 1970s, I made friends with some fellow students who were quite outstanding composers in the making. It was a good time, and throughout my two years of graduate studies I connected with certain individuals who would become long-term colleagues.

Two of the leaders of the pack happened to be of Polish descent and shared similar names: David Rakowski and David Kowalski.

<---(left is David Rakowski at Princteton in 1980)

(right is David Kowalski in a recent photo)--->

While they had entirely different personalities (as evident in the photos), both of the Davids were driven to compose music, excellent musicians, and very prodigious. I would not be surprised to discover that they composed more music in a year than I have in my entire career.

The two Davids were destined for graduate school after completing their studies at NEC. David Rakowski (who was at NEC as an undergraduate) was easily accepted into Juilliard and Princeton. He aspired to study with Milton Babbitt who taught at both institutions, but ended up selecting Princeton. (Richard Danielpour, another NEC colleague who was soon to become famous, choose Juilliard).

As things would turn out, David Kowalski went to Princeton as well after earning his second Masters degree at NEC.

The connection between NEC and Princeton was longstanding and strong. The two Davids were joined at Princeton by another ex-NEC undergraduate composer, Jody Rockmaker. Former NEC graduates, Conrad Pope and Mathew Rosenblum had preceded all of them. The Princeton music department had a formative contingent of NEC alumni composers, and they liked what they received.

I was not technically part of this Princeton circle, but took advantage of an opportunity to stay in the Boston area. I attended Brandeis for graduate work under full scholarship.

The two Davids moved into with grad students to a large house near the campus. The residence took on the nickname "Little Poland.”

It was in the Fall of 1981 when I finally made a trip down from Boston on the train to visit my old friends, and contrast the educational setting of their prestigious ivy-league university against what Brandeis had to offer.

Before I recall some of my memories about my visit there, I should mention a bit about the status and reputation that department. For many decades the Princeton music department held the reputation of being the epicenter of new musical thought in new music composition and theory. It was a 12-tone Mecca, and chock full of brilliant theorists and musicians. At the center of the cyclone was Milton Babbitt, who had found synergy between the arcane disciplines of abstract mathematics and musical composition. Babbitt's presence and instruction from the 1950s through to recent times made a significant impact on several generations of American composers and theorists.

In fact, all of our teachers at NEC (Cogan, Ceely, Martino, Heiss) had studied at Princeton with Babbitt and his great teacher Roger Sessions. Babbitt's circle of influence was widespread, trans-generational, and profound. It is said that the Princeton math department presented Babbitt with a PhD degree in mathematics for his groundbreaking work in set theory. Yet, "Milton" would hang out with students and chat endlessly about sports and Broadway musicals over a beer.

I knew that my trip to Little Poland would be an adventure. I had met Milton Babbitt earlier that summer when I attended his master class at the University of Indiana, Bloomington. I was blown away by his uncanny grasp about music, and had heard so many indirect stories about him from his former students (who were my teachers).

Little Poland was a average-size, somewhat dingy house with a dark living room and dinning area. At first appearance, it was a rather ordinary student dig, scant in decorations and without much aesthetic appeal. I think I may have slept on the downstairs couch, or on the floor. It didn't matter.

I soon learned that Little Poland was a virtual Times Square of musical activity and intellectual fervor. An endless stream of graduate students would come and go, and both senior and junior music department faculty members would drop by just to hang out.

I did sit in a few classes and lessons thanks to David Rakowski. Everything was very open, congenial, and intense. Attending classes at Princeton is completely optional. Some students preferred to do their work completely independently, while others preferred to revel in the interaction of faculty and colleagues. I sat in on an analysis class with Professor Joseph Dubiel. Near the end of the class in response to a question about linguistics and music, joked that the only place where research in that area was being conducted was at a little college in Waltham, MA (i.e. Brandeis). I got his joke, since Brandeis professors Allan Keiler and Ray Jackendoff were (and remain) well known in this somewhat obscure field of music theory - although they worked completely independently from one another and on different theoretical tracks.

I also sat in on the weekly composer seminar, and heard recordings of several new works by Princeton composers that had been performed in the preceding summer. One work for soprano and chamber orchestra had been performed at the Composers Conference, which was then held in Vermont.

I met composer/theorist Paul Lansky, who was the computer music expert. Princeton was always a leader in electronic and computer music, and Lansky found a way to make the big digital machine sound musical. He had just released a recording on CRI of music based on his wife's voice, which I found very compelling. I mentioned his new book 12-Tone Tonality, which he had co-authored with George Perle, but he seemed uninterested in talking about it. It was clear to me that Lansky was going in new directions, and 12-tone, serial music, and set music was beginning to bore him.

Years later I'd meet Paul Lansky again at Brandeis. He was contracted to consult with the Department regarding future composition faculty appointments. In those days, composers were in demand by academia, and moved from institution to institution in a grand game of musical chairs. Lansky led a meeting with myself and several other graduate students, and asked us for our input and ideas concerning interesting composers who would potentially make a good addition as faculty to the Brandeis music department. Peter Lieberson was in the room, and he got embarrassed when I suggested his name as rising composer to pursue. Lansky nodded and made note of my suggestion. Later that year I had found out that Lieberson had received inquiries from Princeton regarding an interest in having him join their faculty, but ultimately Peter took a position at Harvard. It turns out that another colleague of mine at Brandeis, Steve Mackey, was hired to teach at Princeton - but that is another long an interesting story.

During my Little Poland grand tour, I sat in with David Rakowski for his "private" lesson with Milton Babbitt in a small dark practice room in the basement of the music department building. As I recall, David was working on a very complex and dense work for violin and piano. Babbitt would look at the score, and then mumble, "David, could you play me the chord in measure 72." David would bang out the mountain of notes at the piano, and Milton would ask about the octaves submerged within the thick chord. It led to a discussion about use of octaves - which can have structural significance, or be utilized for acoustical reasons, tone color, or orchestration. It was an interesting discussion, and I had problems keeping myself in check. I wanted to interject my own opinion into the mix, but in the end kept my mouth shut and simply observed.

Back at Little Poland, I took a look in the communal refrigerator. Food was scarce, but beer was plentiful. The early 1980s was the golden age of boutique beer and micro breweries. I gather that Milton Babbitt, in addition to his proclivity in math and music, is also a formative beer connoisseur (or beerologist). Following in his lead, Princeton graduate students took up the study of beer in a serious way, researching and discovering obscure breweries across the world to sample and analyze. Everyone seemed to know which IPAs Milton preferred, and his recommendation about beer went a long way.

In the dinning room was a small table with a computer terminal. It was a monochrome VT-100 or similar vintage hardware, and it had a connection back to the Princeton University mainframe. I think that this dumb terminal may have required an acoustic coupler for the telephone hand piece. It was manually attached for analog modem communications at 1200 baud. David Kowalski recalls “…if someone accidentally picked up the extension, that almost always dropped your connection! And yet we felt like we were at the cutting edge of tech because we could work from home.”

Composer Claudio Spies (b. 1925) dropped by Little Poland for a beer and access to the computer terminal. He sat down in front of the keyboard and screen and typed in the digits of a hexachord. After hitting , the screen displayed an ordered row along with set partitions. The computer program written by Dan Starr and called TTSL (Twelve Tone System Library). I’m told that a few years later some of the subroutines found their way (with Dan's permission & blessing) into the computer-program part of David Kowalski’s doctoral dissertation. Dan Starr was one of Princeton's distinguished graduates and author of several notable articles in Perspectives of New Music.

Professor Spies would read the numbers (0-11) on the terminal screen, and whistle the associated tone row. Then he'd take a sip of his beer and utter approval or disapproval regarding the musical value of the computed results . Spies had studied and taught in Boston, and had many connections with Brandeis faculty. He had in fact studied with Irving Fine and Harold Shapero, and knew my teacher Marty Boykan from his tenure at Harvard in the early 1950s. He commented to me that Marty made a big splash at Harvard by performing all of Schoenberg's piano works. He said that "it was just unheard of in those days." Spies has been labeled by historians as a member of a group known as "The Boston School. " He also had a close relationship with Igor Stravinsky and Nadia Boulanger.

At that moment I proposed to Professor Spies that the composition departments of Brandeis and Princeton begin a concert exchange program. It would be an opportunity for composers from both institutions to hear what each other is working on. His reaction was muted and vague. He replied that Princeton Music Department is relatively poor, and does not have the same generous endowments that Brandeis is blessed with. He nixed my idea solely on monetary grounds.

Near the end of my whirlwind visit to Little Poland, I had a long discussion with Dan Starr. Dan was one of the regular hangouts at the house, and seemed to have a lot of spare time on his hands. Although he had already obtained his PhD from Princeton, he enjoyed the company of composers and liked to talk about investments and politics. He suggested that I borrow as much as I could in student loans, and invest those dollars in Microsoft stock. Had I listened to his advice, I would be independently wealthy today. He also went on, and on, and on about the evils of Totalitarianism, and showed me articles from Readers' Digest about the evil Soviet Empire. I played him a recording of my solo violin work, and he seemed bored. I got the impression that he was burned out with 12-tone music theory, and searching for a new science or religion to grasp on to.

At that moment the door bell rang. It was Portia Sonnenfeld. She was a conductor that I had met at Dartington in Devonshire England in the summer 1980. (I had also met a young flutist named Willemien at the music camp that summer who was drafted by Sonnenfeld to play timpani in the Dartington symphony orchestra. Years later Willemen and I would get married). Sonnenfeld, a cellist, was well-known in Princeton. In 1980 she founded The Little Orchestra of New Jersey which would soon become the Princeton Symphony Orchestra.

Dan Starr, Portia Sonnenfeld, and myself talked for a while in the dark, musty living room. Dan was very talkative. The conversation ended when Portia turned to me and asked if I would be interested in coming to her music class a Princeton High School the following day as a guest composer! I took her up on this offer, and spoke to her class the following morning. It was a blast. I regret to say that I did not stay in touch with Ms. Sonnenfeld, and just recently learned of her untimely death in 1986. I also just learned via the web that Portia Sonnenfeld was the mother-in-law of Obama's Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner (small world).

The unsanctioned and unofficial Little Poland Princeton-Brandeis Composer Exchange Program (LPPBCEP) did continue, albeit briefly. The following Spring, David Rakowski was invited by me to play recordings of his music for students and faculty at an informal colloquium at Brandeis. He received a pretty good turn out and a warm welcome. Little did we know that "Davey" would end up as a tenured senior professor at Brandeis in the years to follow.

Perhaps LPPBCEP provided the all-important initial introduction to the Brandeis faculty, and enabled an early connection that would ultimately lead to his being hired. He has subsequently had a fruitful academic career at that little school in Waltham where he can be found today.

Another inter-campus music department encounter occurred in 1985, when a new music ensemble comprised of Princeton-based musicians/composers was contracted to perform a concert at Brandeis' Slosberg Hall. The musicians included Beth Weimann (a Princeton composer and future significant-other of David Rakowski), and the late, great lyric soprano Michelle Disco (1956-1994). Michelle was married to David Kowalski. On that program I recall that they performed works by Milton Babbitt (“My Ends are my Beginning” for solo clarinets), and Conrad Pope (a Princeton Alum and Brandeis Associate Professor). In addition British composer/pianist Martin Butler played one of his works. Michelle Disco sang David Kowalski’s soprano and tape piece, "Echoes." The performances and music were excellent, and we were all very impressed.

I remain in touch with Dr. Rakowski (a.k.a. Davey), and recently reestablished contact with Dr. Kowalski via the LinkedIn social networking site. Kowalski, like myself, found post-university employment in the Information Technology industry, but continues to be active as a composer. There is no crime in working outside of academia.

David Kowalski sent me CDs of his music, and I really had a great time listening to them. He writes in a diversity of musical styles - from Princeton-School serialism to Progressive Rock. I can clearly hear that his music has developed vastly since the already impressive pieces I got to know at NEC in the late 1970s. David Kowalski is a composer who does not shun complexity, yet he is always willing to experiment and try something that has never been done before. He thrives on unusual combinations of instruments, and extended instrumental techniques.

I'll never forget my excursion to Little Poland.

What a trip.