American Composers, Postscript

Thank you to all who took the time to check in during the month of July and see what I was scribbling regarding American composers.  Mike, my musical brother and fellow composer, suggested I write about George Crumb as a tribute to a professor of ours, who recently passed away.  If you will forgive me this personal anecdote, I think Mike had a good idea.

Dr. Lettie Beckon Alston
Dr. Lettie Beckon Alston

Lettie Beckon Alston was a teacher of ours.  During her career, she taught theory and composition at several universities in the Detroit area.  I was saddened to hear the news that she had passed away.  I had not kept in touch with Lettie, but really have only fond memories of her.  She was always pleasant and kind, and accepting of more of our tomfoolery than she should have been.

Lettie came up as a composer during a very experimental time during the 1970’s and 80’s.  Composition students were exploring early electronics, spending hours in the recording lab splicing ¼ inch reel to reel tape into loops to synthesize soundscapes.  Those who weren’t electronically oriented could be found at the hardware store buying nuts and bolts and pie plates to put inside a piano strings with great precision, to make a prepared piano piece with new and strange sounds.  Everyone seemed to be groping in the darkness for originality.

Mike is reminding of a time that he and I were in Alston’s office for a lesson, listening and trying to follow the score to George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children.  It’s a piece from 1970, with lots of experimental sounds and text from some obscure poet in Spanish.  You can look it up on Wikipedia as well as I can. It’s a famous work for a group of ragtag instruments who all double on pots, pans and the kitchen sink or something.  The sounds are original, but foreign to human ears.  The score is a giant, inscrutable folio with notation in spirals and fragmented parts in each corner. Simply put,  a nightmare for a student to decipher.  Imagine my buddy and myself, semesters of harmony, counterpoint, melody, orchestration under our belt, here trying to groove to some cacophony of sound in an alien language.  Lettie was enthusiastic about her attempts to broaden our horizons, and baptize us into the avant-garde.  I don’t think we were having it.  Crumb is an important American composer, and should be known, but I will have to admit I am probably not the person to introduce him to you.

The last time I saw Lettie Alston was in a record store in Detroit, (back when they had record stores), where she was signing copies of a new CD of her keyboard music.  I hadn’t seen her in ten years, but she remembered me and honored me with a hug and a smile.  I never got much from her lectures, I always had to just read the book on my own.  But Lettie Alston always treated me like I had more talent and potential than I ever did, and was warm, welcoming and encouraging in a world that has little of those things.

I heard  that she was suffering from a brain tumor, and had to stop teaching.  She moved with her family to Hawaii, to live what turned out to be the last few years of her life.  Not a bad place to watch the sunset if you only have a limited amount of sunsets to watch.  Truth is we all have a limited number of sunsets.  My music may not be cut from the same cloth as Lettie Alston’s, but I hope I am half as kind to those around me as she was to a couple of brash composition students.


8 thoughts on “American Composers, Postscript

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  1. RIP Lettie. The last time I saw her was in the MTD office at Oakland, about 2-3 years ago when I came back to ballet classes. Even without my mane of heavy metal hair she recognized me,and we had a wonderful conversation. I expressed my gratitude for her understanding of a very incorrigible young man and she laughed and said it was all in a days work!
    I remember attending the premiere of her piece “11th Hour” at Varner Hall with Rich,Rachel, and Pam Merle(where is She now? lol) I had been partying all night, and the piece preceding Lettie’s work was this tiresome Divertimento in D by Brahms,whom I absolutely despise. One minute I was struggling to keep my eyes open,the next my head fell back and a huge SKNNNXXXXXX erupted from my face! People around turned and stared,I thought Pam was gonna crawl under the seat! Haha!
    Not so Lettie’s piece. It was quite interesting,not nearly as atonal as I thought it would be. There was a part in the middle that was quite exciting,very percussive like a ticking bomb,and a great explosion of sound at the finale,with an open handed glissando on the strings of a grand piano.
    She must have taken I’ll quite suddenly, very sad. But she made her mark on my life,and others I’m sure.

  2. Mike, correct me if I’m wrong here. “11th hour” was her orchestra piece she wrote, taking inspiration from a recent hurricane. Hurricane Andrew, I think, the one that caused so much damage through Florida. It was loud and stormy in places, and of course that was right up our alley.

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