Not many people can say they have composed a piece of music for saxophones incorporating the letters of the word "saxophone" into the work, but retired Professor of Music and renowned composer Elliott Schwartz is an exception to most rules. Not only does he experiment with using words in music, he also incorporates percussion and music history on his new album "Hall of Mirrors" and draws on his superior knowledge of great composers to create his own unique sound.
A professor in the music department from 1964 until his retirement in 2002, Schwartz still taught classes until 2007. During his time at Bowdoin, Schwartz taught thousands of students and also composed pieces for them to play. His interest in music began at an early age, and Schwartz was inspired by portraits of famous composers and enchanted with the romantic elements of musical theory.
"I was, and still am, a pianist," said Schwartz. "One of my early piano teachers was a theory professor at Juilliard and we would have individual lessons and a second class lesson learning theory and composing."
Although he grew up experimenting with composition and performing, Schwartz followed the family profession of medicine and enrolled at Columbia University as a pre-med major.
"I decided at the end of my junior year to be a music major," Schwartz said. "One of my professors was the composer Otto Luening and he helped me complete all the prerequisites in one year."
After graduating from Columbia, Schwartz continued to perform and compose and eventually arrived at Bowdoin.
According to him, the composition process involves a lot of business.
"Orchestras or ensembles commission me to write them a piece and I have freedom within the limits of their wishes. Often they will be very specific about what they want," he said.
For his most recent project, "Hall of Mirrors," Schwartz wrote four different compositions for various musical groups. The first is the title composition written and performed on the album by the Radnofsky Saxophone Quartet with Schwartz on the piano. In this piece, Schwartz uses a system of composition that equates notes to letters so that he is able to spell out words with his music. Inspired by the main instrument of the piece, the saxophone, Schwartz used the phonetic spelling of the word to work it into the piece. Characterized by slow, melodic sections punctuated by energetic and soaring harmonies, "Hall of Mirrors" also incorporates the twitter of the piano seamlessly.
In his second piece, "Cristal: A Cycle of Names and Memories," Schwartz again inserts an element of humor that only those most musically knowledgeable will grasp. Written for piano and percussion, Schwartz uses excerpts from previously composed pieces by men named Paul or Tom because he wrote the piece for pianist Paul Hoffman and percussionist Tom Goldstein.
"People who know my music know that I'm going to pull from other music," Schwartz said. Beginning with the unique use of the piano as a purely percussive instrument, the piece shifts from a frantic blending of sound to a soft and somber melody with constant percussion interjections.
One of the most innovative pieces on the album is "Rainforest with Birds," which Schwartz composed for the Harvard Wind Ensemble in 2001. Using recorded bird noises to give the effect of the rainforest, Schwartz was given vast creative license when writing the piece.
"Having this commission gave me an opportunity to explore something I was already interested in," Schwartz said. An obstacle Schwartz faced while writing the composition was the lack of percussion players in the ensemble.
"For the performance I brought about 10 Bowdoin students to Harvard to play percussion," Schwartz said. Again Schwartz was able to interject his own personal humor into the piece in a "musical pun" that included excerpts from two "bird" composers, William Byrd, who was the personal composer for Henry VIII, and jazz musician Charlie Parker, whose nickname was "Bird." All of these elements pull the piece together and allow the listener to follow the musical story Schwartz is trying to tell.
Schwartz's album is available online and selections of much of his work can be heard on his Web site, www.schwartzmusic.com. Schwartz's wife, DeeDee, is the artist of both the disc itself and the front and back cover of the disc case.