Eric Salzman Remembered (1933–2017)

by Michael Schell

Eric Salzman’s death on November 12, 2017 closed out one of American music’s most multifaceted careers. An accomplished composer, producer, and critic, Salzman was a prominent advocate of new music theater and the author of several important texts on contemporary music.

It was in his capacity as a writer that Salzman probably reached the most people. His textbook Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction spanned four editions from 1974 to 2001, during which time it was the most highly respected single-volume survey of modern music in the English language. Concise and levelheaded, it’s also one of the few such books written by a composer. It provided thousands of music students and enthusiasts with their first coherent tour through the sprawling expanse of 20th century musical innovation.

Salzman also edited The Musical Quarterly, and wrote several articles for Stereo Review, including a 1971 feature on Edgard Varèse (with an accompanying two-page tribute from Frank Zappa) that helped stir up interest in the Franco-American master’s music among young and non-specialist listeners.

Salzman’s last book, from 2008, is The New Music Theater: Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body. Co-authored with Thomas Desi, it’s a fascinating and opinionated exploration of work outside the realms of conventional opera and Broadway-style musicals. Its subjects include John Cage’s happenings, Harry Partch’s corporeality, Philip Glass’s operas with Robert Wilson and JoAnne Akalaitis, the work of post-opera composers from Europe (Louis Andriessen) and Asia (Tan Dun), and newfangled interactive/intermedia creations like Tod Machover’s Brain Opera. An ongoing concern is the relationship between vocal technique and the musical genres based on it, whether the vibrato-heavy bel canto style used in opera houses, or the more “natural” (and often amplified) style of folk and commercial singers. Special attention goes to musicians such as Meredith Monk who have created a corpus of stage works based on extended vocal techniques. Also discussed are the trade-offs between voice projection and clarity of diction, a topic critical for any genre of sung music but one that is neglected in most books on music.

Salzman’s own stage works often inhabit the space between traditional operas and musicals. His one-act Civilization and its Discontents, written with Michael Sahl in the late 1970s, is sung-through like an opera but employs Broadway-style voices backed up by a small combo in the manner of today’s touring musicals. Its debt to Weill and Sondheim is obvious, both in the tonal, syncopated melodies, as well as the contemporary, adult-oriented subject matter. It centers on a love triangle between Jill Goodheart, a frustrated young New York thespian, Jeremy, her singles bar pickup, and Derek, her live-in boyfriend. When the latter unexpectedly barges in on the other two, the men recognize themselves as business partners and rather than fight, start negotiating a deal in front of the chagrined bachelorette. An alto-voiced emcee named Carlos Arachnid intervenes periodically to offer easy paths to fulfillment—kind of a Mephistopheles character for the self-help guru era. Back at the bar, the chorus intones the moral: “If it feels good do it”.

By contrast, The Nude Paper Sermon from 1969 is closer to the postmodern tradition of pastiche and collage. This 45-minute gallimaufry combines synthesizer blurts, poetry by John Ashbury, and mixed vocal/instrumental passages modeled after English madrigals. The latter are performed by a Renaissance consort led by Joshua Rifkin, an early case of archaic instruments being appropriated for avant-garde purposes (the viola da gamba player, incidentally, is none other than Richard Taruskin prior to his emergence as America’s most provocative musicologist). After six minutes, a spoken stream of consciousness joins the right channel, delivered by a young Stacy Keach. The whole mix was released by Nonesuch on an LP that was well distributed in North American record stores, allowing the piece to ride Keach’s subsequent Hollywood fame to “hit” status as a kind of American counterpart to Berio’s contemporaneous Sinfonia.

Another Berio piece, Laborintus II, got its American premier along alongside Salzman’s Foxes and Hedgehogs, the latter eliciting a disapproving boo from Morton Feldman’s seat in the audience. Apparently this indiscretion was forgiven, since Salzman went on to produce the premier of Feldman and Samuel Beckett’s opera Neither. Salzman’s other credits as a producer include the revival and first modern recording of Partch’s Revelation in the Courthouse Park, and several recordings for Nonesuch and Koch International, including the popular Tango Project albums, which combine traditional and contemporary renditions of this popular dance.

Salzman co-founded the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia and was composer in residence for the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York. He also taught music periodically, and had two stints as music director of the outré WBAI radio in New York. Among Salzman’s last projects is a string quartet arrangement of five classic John Cage piano and prepared piano pieces, and the lovely a cappella “madrigal comedy” Jukebox in the Tavern of Love that was recently recorded by The Western Wind alongside Meredith Monk’s Basket Rondo. A lifelong New Yorker, he was married for over 60 years to Lorna Salzman, a noted environmentalist who was the Green Party’s 2004 presidential candidate. Their children include the poet Eva Salzman.

In an influential 1972 New York Times article, Salzman wrote “It is not necessary to call the new music theater into being; it is taking place under our eyes and ears; it is only the simple, encompassing definition that is elusive.”

What is likewise elusive is a tidy summation of a career as varied as Salzman’s. Perhaps his most impactful legacy is embodying a 20th century composer’s commitment to tackling the most challenging and universal artistic problems anew, over and over.

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