Ralph Shapey, certified genius - a story of hidden talent

The couple sitting two rows behind Ralph Shapey were making their intermission plans. They had just heard a soupy chanson and some watery Mozart. Now, they planned to duck out for a quick bite and come back in time to catch the Bartok at the end of the program.

Just in time to miss the performance of Ralph Shapey's ''Discourse I.''

It is doubtful that Shapey heard this conversation. But even if he had, the fiercely individualistic composer is used to the slings and arrows of a world. His life has been a mixture of critical praise and yawning public indifference.

Shapey has been singled out by a number of critics and musicologists as one of the two or three greatest living composers in America. The term genius has floated around his concerts. Still, his name is not exactly a household word, and his music is shrouded in an obscurity seldom interrupted by performances with the major orchestras.

After that couple and a handful of other concertgoers left the church on a corner of Bowdoin College, the Aeolian Chamber Players sat down and played music that all but tore a hole in the roof. Not because it was loud (it was). Or dissonant (it was that too). But because it was powerful and majestic.

During the performance, Ralph Shapey was sitting right behind me, a tiny man whose face is surrounded with a nimbus of white hair and beard. And he had written this incredibly large music, music of our times.

Music that listened into the future through the prism of the past.

Shapey was in Brunswick for the Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music.

The concert at which ''Discourse I'' was played was part of the Aeolian Chamber Players' regular Thursday evening performance in First Parish Church.

The rest of the festival played to tiny -audiences in Kresge Auditorium.

This auditorium and the college that houses it is a typical refuge of the modern composer. Shunned by the major orchestras, unable to find a paying audience, contemporary composers have found their principal outlet in the world of academe. And much of the music seems perfectly at home in this environment.

There were exceptions, but the great volume of stuff played during the Gamper festival bore the stamp of one academic talking to another in a language of scientific shorthand.

I said there were exceptions, and I have to mention William Matthews's ''Ferns,'' a moody, reflective work that spread out in elliptical circles like ripples from rocks in a pond. Elliott Carter's ''Sonata'' - played with an understanding beyond his years by the youthful Michael Gurt - piled energy upon energy and proved its durableness. Elliott Schwartz's ''Chamber Concerto I'' had a certain melancholy resonance.

All of this was played with loving care, and a good deal of skill, by a mixture of students and faculty in the Bowdoin Summer Music Festival..

But Lukas Foss's ''Time Cycle'' was vacant and yawning. Lawrence Widdoes's ''From a Time of Snow'' created an atmosphere with surface effects - and little else.

And then there was the music of George Crumb, a sweet, slow-spoken man who has won the Pulitzer Prize, commissions from major orchestras, and the acclaim of his fellow composers.

Crumb's approach summarizes in a way the whole empty atmosphere of much contemporary music. The man writes works that explore the phenomena of modern composing. He has musicians play into a piano with paper on the strings; he has them walk on and off the stage; he calls for bizarre combinations of instruments.

His ''Night of Four Moons'' attempts to realize the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca in music and ritual. But the thing gets so caught up in its own stagecraft and effects that it never gets down to making a musical statement.

Not that you could tell by the audience reaction. After the musicians had filed off, the small audience burst into uproarious applause. There were cries of ''Bravo! Bravo!''

Meanwhile, one figure in the hall sat in silence:

Ralph Shapey.

Shapey cheerfully admits that he has alienated most of his colleagues in the music world.

It's not difficult to see how he did it. During conversation, he demonstrates an almost paranoid attitude toward the major musical organizations. He rails against them bluntly and loudly.

''Though recognized as a creative force of singular importance in American music,'' David Ewen writes in ''American Composers: A Biographical Dictionary,'' ''not one of his works had been published by 1969; every work of his that had been performed came about through his own contrivance and arrangement, with none of the major orchestras or musical organizations seeking out his music for performance on their programs; and precious little of what he had done had been recorded.''

This situation has been remedied somewhat, but not much. Shapey now has a publisher; his music is available in the more comprehensive record stores. But that is about the extent of it.

If the MacArthur Foundation had not conferred a so-called ''genius'' award on him, giving him $288,000 over the next five years, he would have faced a penurious retirement.

To say that Shapey has taken all of this with good cheer would be to tell a lie. Later that day, in a Brunswick restaurant, as he cracked the shell of a smoldering lobster, he remarked about the good fortune of fellow composers:

''That's all right. Let them get the commissions. I'll go down in history.''

Will he really? That is for history to decide.

I will say this, however. During almost a week of concerts in Brunswick, I heard one piece after another by Ralph Shapey that sounded like straight musical revelation. His Clarinet Concerto, written in 1954, seized the musical moment by sudden force. His ''Discourse II,'' just written for the Aeolian Chamber Players , reflects on the first rugged revelations of ''Discourse I'' with a mature confidence and endless creative power.

Shapey told me that in 1955 or 1956 he had stopped composing for a year to go back and look at the ''old masters'' - Bach, Beethoven, Brahms - to discover ''their secret.'' He realized then that the music he wanted to write had to be based on the same architecture and unmistakable drive to create.

One night, as I walked in a Maine cove, listening on a tape recorder to Ralph Shapey's music, I felt surrounded by this architecture and assaulted by that drive. The night was wild and moonwashed. The ocean and rocks seemed poised against the rugged sky.

Time was suspended. I was looking at the future through the dark amber of the past.

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