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.
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.