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Robert Craft: Lazy Dogmas of Impossibility

 

"五十笑百", "乌鸦笑猪" (Soldier who fled off the battle fifty steps afar laughs at those a hundred steps afar.)  My grandmother put it another way: people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

 

In his notes to the Columbia recording of Stockhausen’s “Zeitmasse”, Robert Craft characterized the attitudes of the musicians:  “Our performers were less than wildly enthusiastic about the music at first sight and even at fifteenth sight they were inclined to invent ‘lazy dogmas of impossibility’.”   Craft calls himself “conductor, author, musician”.  Read on.

 

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Los Angeles for years has been one of the busiest centers for commercial musical activity in the country.  New York is another.  In both New York and LA the commercial business impacts both jazz and classical music.  I went to hear James Moody one night and found that the regular pianist, George Gaffney, working on an episode of the TV show “Moonlighting”, had sent Tom Ranier to sub for him.  (By the last tune of the first set, “Cherokee”, Moody had become so taken with Tom’s work that when the tune finished to sustained applause he was smiling broadly, bouncing up and down and repeating “Tom Ranier, Tom Ranier”.)  Once, at a Monday Evening Concert, Lawrence Morton, the impresario, explained to the audience that the order of the program had to be changed because the flutist, Art Hoberman, had a session at 20th Century Fox that had gone overtime. 

 

A powerful figure in the business is the contractor, the person who hires the musicians.    The plum jobs, of course, are in the studios.  Sometimes the contractor is a failed musician, sometimes an excellent musician.  Some just get too old to play or lose interest.  Some are not musicians at all: an accountant, a secretary and an architect have all achieved financial success as contractors. 

 

At the bottom of the economic heap (although some are fine musicians) are the contractors who only do live concerts.  Phil Goldberg was one of those.  In 1968, Phil was asked by Lawrence Morton to hire an ensemble for a concert featuring Stravinsky’s music with the composer himself conducting.  The concert was to be videotaped and shown on National Educational Television, the predecessor of PBS. 

 

I met Phil in 1964.  A girlfriend of mine had lived next door to him and the families were close.  When she decided to take up the viola he loaned her one of his. Good guy, eh?  I had won an audition (2nd clarinet) to tour with the San Francisco Ballet and a few days before I left, she and I went to a concert of the Glendale Symphony Orchestra (an excellent orchestra of studio musicians) that Phil had contracted.  After the concert she introduced us and later that evening told me that he had said, “from now on that boy is my number one clarinet player.”  After the tour I would occasionally run into Phil and he always greeted me cordially but never said a word about work.  Finally, two years later, I received a call to play second clarinet on a concert with The Roger Wagner (don’t get me started on that guy) Chorale.  He began by telling me that three other clarinet players had turned down the job and that he had asked the first clarinet player, Mitchell Lurie, to approve the selection.  Mitchell had agreed, apparently willing to overlook the fact that I had been somewhat of a distraction in his class at UCLA a few years before.  He may have assumed I had matured in the interim.

 

I rode to the gig with Mitchell (I remember the entire enlightening conversation) and between the rehearsal and the gig he and I and a couple of the others went to dinner in Laguna Beach, near the concert.  After the concert, as we were packing up, Mitchell called out to Phil and said, “Phil, David had a double.”  I had played two different clarinets and was entitled to higher pay.  I hadn’t thought about that, caught up in the experience of my first job in LA playing classical music with the heavyweights, sitting next to Mitchell Lurie, who, when I looked at him out of the corner of my eye at the conclusion of the concert, patted me on the knee and said “fine”.  I would have paid them for the opportunity. 

 

Phil protested and started talking about budgets.  Mitchell looked shocked and said, “Phil, a rule is a rule”.  Phil never again called me (except for the Stravinsky concert, where I had been requested by Lawrence Morton and he had no choice) although he did once invite me to what turned out to be a rigged audition--one of my colleagues having been contracted long before the “audition” ever took place.  What a guy!

 

Phil’s integrity was questionable in other aspects as well.  Like a lot of the concert contractors he would call college students, especially for the string sections.  There were a lot of good students in LA and they were less likely to ask to be replaced at the last minute because of studio work.  Young women seemed to get preference.  Two of them were roommates, a violinist and cellist, both of whom went on to successful careers in major symphony orchestras.  The cellist accepted a job with a chamber orchestra Phil was contracting.  Phil suggested that she look at the music in advance as it was a new piece.  She asked him to send it to her but he demurred, saying that there was only one copy and that he didn’t trust the post office not to lose it.  He told her to pick it up at his house on Sunday night.  She arrived to find Phil and his poker buddies sitting around a table.  She later told me she felt on display and was the object of some sexist remarks.  After the “boys will be boys” episode had run its course, he gave her the music.  She asked him if her roommate was also doing the concert.  He said she was.  She asked if she could take the violin part to her.  Phil said that her roommate already had the music. 

 

In all the time I had known her I had never seen her angry, but she told me that she was furious and raced home to confront the roommate.  She ran into the apartment and shouted at her, asking why she had been so inconsiderate, why she had not asked to take the cello part with her?  The roommate was stunned. 

 

“I never went to his house,” she said.  “He mailed it to me.”

 

***

 

So here he was, offering me a job with Igor Stravinsky.  The piece was “Symphonies of Wind Instruments”.  He described the part as “E-flat alto clarinet”.  I had never heard the piece, nor had I ever heard of a classical piece with an alto clarinet part.  I asked him if he meant E-flat piccolo clarinet, an instrument many composers had used, including Ravel, Strauss and of course Stravinsky.  He made no attempt to disguise the irritation in his voice. 

 

“My boy, I have the score right in front of me.  It says clearly, “E-flat alto clarinet.”  I told him that I didn’t own one but that I could rent one.  He said they would pay the rent.  He gave me the dates and times of the rehearsals and the concert.  He mailed the music to me. 

 

The part I received said only “Alto Clarinet” (no key was indicated) and I set about learning it.  I was ready for the first rehearsal (and the first disappointment):  Stravinsky would attend the concert but would not conduct.  His replacement would be Robert Craft, his amanuensis/surrogate, whom he had met in 1947 when Craft was conducting this very same piece, although in a revised edition--same notes, slightly different instrumentation.  Many, if not all, of the others had previously worked with Craft and there was an indecipherable murmur when the change was announced.  Among the things I discovered was that he had an unusual and distracting rehearsal technique: he started in the middle of the piece, rehearsed a section and then went to another, non-contiguous section.  In fact, the piece was never rehearsed from beginning to end during the entire process.  The only time it was to be played start-to-finish was at the concert.  Later, I wondered if it was his way of trying to create such anxiety among the musicians that his ineptness would be obscured.  (Another story just like this one--different piece, some of the same musicians--was printed in Overture, the LA musicians union periodical.) 

 

Right from the start there were things that didn’t make sense.  For one, the music went below the lowest note on the alto clarinet.  Could Stravinsky have made that mistake or were there alto clarinets with extensions for low notes in use when he wrote the piece?  Was it a typographical error?  The music was old and showed evidence of having been played before, but there was nothing in the way of an explanation that addressed the range.  Craft would from time to time ask various instruments to sustain a chord, and invariably the alto clarinet stood out like a sore thumb, but the moments passed without any change.  The middle section of the piece was a duet for alto clarinet and alto flute with not much else going on.   It seemed to go smoothly, yet something seemed wrong.  The first rehearsal ended and a day or two later we went at it again.  Once again things just didn’t add up and finally, at the mid-rehearsal intermission, I went to the podium and looked at the score.  It was old and faded but on about the seventh page I could make out that the part was actually “Alto Clarinet in F”, more commonly known as a basset horn.  Now it made sense.  The range was right after all, assuming the part was being played on the proper instrument.  Every note I had played up to that point--on the part they had given me and the instrument they had told me to play--had been a full tone too low.  No wonder it sounded so weird.  Unisons had become seconds; fifths had become sixths, etc.  Now what?  If I started transposing (or trying to) would he catch it?  Would I somehow be found to be at fault?  While I was trying to figure out what to do, one of the other clarinet players asked me what I was looking at.  I showed him, counting on his discretion and perhaps his counsel; he had worked previously with Craft and might have an answer.  But instead he grabbed the score out of my hands and ran over to Lawrence Morton.  He explained what had happened and said, loudly, “and guess who didn’t hear it.”  Everyone heard that, for sure, even Craft, who could only mutter, weakly, “first we learn rhythms, then we learn pitches”.  He didn’t explain what he meant by “we”.  Twenty-one years after his initial encounter with “Symphonies of Wind Instruments” he still didn’t know the notes.   For the rest of that rehearsal he leaned on me pretty heavily.  I went home and wrote out a transposition and everything went fine at the concert.  At the end of the piece Stravinsky applauded.  I did two more concerts with Craft (Messiaen and Mozart) that proceeded uneventfully. 

 

Moral: You can fool some of the people some of the time so why bother with ear training.

 

 

 

 

 

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