For composer Albert '85 Pulitzer means chance to work more
Newton, Mass. — What a difference a Pulitzer makes. Stephen Albert, who won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for music, is in his kitchen on the telephone. Legendary composer Lukas Foss has just called to congratulate him. A few hours ago, it was George Crumb, another national figure, who took the prize in 1968. Before that, it was someone offering an important commission.
In fact, there had been six commission offers in the two weeks since Albert was awarded ``The Prize.''
For the feisty but likable composer, all the attention comes as a radical departure. Until recently, he has led a lonely musical existence here in Boston, making most of his comfortable living dealing in stamps. His work has been performed, mostly in New York, but his discography is slender, and his name is not exactly a household word even in the musical world.
Now, the Pulitzer has brought him what one winner refers to as the ``general notoriety that gets attached to your name.'' ``Stephen Albert's star was already rising,'' comments one of the Pulitzer judges. ``But his career will be enormously helped.''
Albert himself casts a somewhat skeptical eye on the prize and the sudden, often transitory, prominence it brings with it: ``That's the artificial thing in this country,'' he muses, sitting at the wooden kitchen table in his gracious Victorian home here: ``After all, the music hasn't changed.''
And, as composer Joseph Schwantner, who picked up the prize in 1979 and sat on the Pulitzer jury this year, says: ``In the end, it is the response musicians get from an audience that determines whether your music gets played or not.''
Given that criterion, Albert's award-winning composition ``Symphony RiverRun,'' commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, and sponsored by the Hechinger Foundation, will get a wide hearing. Premi`ere audiences for the piece were ``certainly enthusiastic,'' one National Symphony spokesman recalls, adding that it was the kind of enthusiasm one hears for pieces in the general repertoire, not the polite enthusiasm usually accorded new works.
The piece, which was inspired by the dense prose of James Joyce's ``Finnegans Wake,'' plunges noisily into its subject matter with immediate and unvarying insistence on getting its points across.
So does the smallish, intense composer who sits, in blue jeans and open-collar shirt, fidgeting at the table in a kitchen full of brick surfaces and modern fixtures.
Albert's words fly by rapidly, leaving phrases like ``bold melody in relief,'' ``sense of catharsis and epiphany,'' ``bravura figuration'' in the memory. It's a bit like listening to his densely crowded symphony as the conversation ricochets around from Picasso and modernism to the two world wars to presidential assassinations.
Mostly, though, the conversation gravitates toward music and what he thinks it ought to be:
``Music is the pure language of emotion. . . . I'm interested in creating a thing of uninhibited expression. . . . We [composers] are working with time relationships to give the sense of timelessness.''
When he refers to works from the past, as he does frequently, he forcefully sings out the passages, describing their general shapes with waves of his arms. At one point, he takes score, pencil, and reporter into the next room, where he sits down at a piano and bangs out some of the elemental ideas that underpin the work.
At such times, it's easy to see how he would break piano strings, as he did nine years ago when he was learning to play Brahms's Second Piano Concerto -- an experience that led him to make ``a quantum leap . . . , a stunning musical breakthrough.''
It was 1976, and he was recovering from an illness. The period of convalescence stretched to three years. During those years, he found his work suffered badly. ``I go through a lot of emotional turmoil when I compose. I become very anxious. And so I could not compose.''
What he could do was sit in the basement with his upright piano learning to play the Brahms concerto. Albert is not a performing pianist. He plunged into the concerto to make daily discoveries about the old master's compositional technique.
``I just felt like I had reached a point where I wanted to learn about 19th-century thinking in regard to putting a piece together . . . , to learn about how these composers -- like Brahms, like Beethoven -- took a basic idea . . . and how they fleshed it out. What was the process of elaboration?''
That elaboration was important to Albert, who has turned his back on the ``spareness and brevity'' of post-World War II composing. ``I felt that I, as a composer, never really learned about this beautiful sense of textural elaboration,'' he says, comparing it to the building up of detail in Rembrandt's backgrounds: ``With Rembrandt, every part of [the painted background] is alive. With Brahms, every part of this texture is alive.''
Whatever Albert learned from this exercise, and the subsequent development of his own ideas, stood him in good stead when it came to fashioning ``Symphony RiverRun.''
``What that symphony has is individuality,'' observes Richard Warnick, a Pulitzer-winning composer himself (1977) and one of this year's judges. He adds that the symphony is ``extremely skillfully orchestrated. . . . The musical palette is wonderful. . . . The architectural aspects are handled beautifully.''
The architecture, Albert says, was enhanced by his study of the works from the past, works that, ``within a movement, point toward a specific destination toward which everything that has been done in that movement arrives and, overall, has that same shape, so that everything seems to finally arrive in the last movement.''
Albert's big concern is to work similar structural wonders with the materials he has at hand: ``To me, the thing of greatest interest is to take idea `A' and idea `B' that seem almost contradictory in nature and find out what their samenesses are and how to make them agree.
``What are the emotive forces from these materials that you accidentally discover, or that come floating through your mind in a fragmentary way, that you begin to build up relationships from? How do I make them take on meaning?''
Put in its context, Albert's Pulitzer assumes a practical but decidedly unglamorous role. It gives him ``visibility for a limited period of time'' and -- together with an Exxon composer-in-residence grant in Seattle -- lets him do more freely what he wants most to do: ``I can write music, now.''