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Artist Profiles

Buell Neidlinger: From Taylor to Zappa to the Carpenters

By Published: December 16, 2003
BN: Well, I think that’s what made composers like Kagel and Crumb and Wuorinen and Schuller, whether it was more free-form or whatever, that’s what made them admire my playing. It’s because I put the energy, the forward motion of my playing into that kind of music. I know Stravinsky loved my playing, because at the Stravinsky Festival in 1971 I played the “L’Histoire du Soldat,” and he was sitting in the balcony smiling, and he loved it and came down afterwards, told me that I’d played the greatest performance of “Soldat” he’d ever heard. And I said, ‘oh, why is that maestro?’ and he said ‘because you go forward.’ See, most classical musicians don’t go forward; they’re tied to bar lines. A bar line to a classical musician is almost like a note, but when you play jazz you don’t think of bar lines, especially if you play free jazz, there’s no 4/4 time, no 3/4 time. By the way, they say Cecil Taylor invented free jazz, but basically most of his music was written out when I worked with him; I don’t know if he still does that. A few years ago, I had a student who played at University of Wisconsin. Cecil [taught there] and he got a lot of money for putting together an orchestra and playing, and this kid, when he came back from this experience, he brought the music Cecil had given them to play, and... I’m afraid I’d have to characterize it as a childish use of the Darmstadt mechanism.

AAJ: How do you mean?

BN: Well, you know there was that summer school at Darmstadt, and that’s where a lot of modern notation came to be.

AAJ: Like the graphic scores.

BN: It’s still being used by many composers, but Cecil’s use of it was very childish, like a kindergartener’s Darmstadt. That’s why I always had a question about Cecil. I don’t think he ever studied it to the extent that he could’ve used it to the utmost. ‘Play A or hold B,’ that was the kind of direction he’d give, you know. I guess it became thrilling when he put the piano on top of it; I don’t know, I wasn’t there. But in terms of educating a bunch of kids about how to play some free music or whatever, it might’ve been better if he hadn’t written anything.

AAJ: Yeah, I still don’t understand sometimes how he could’ve taught a class at, where else was it, Antioch?

BN: He taught at several places, you know... Well, he had a big problem at the University of Wisconsin where he gave a final exam and flunked everybody.

AAJ: He flunked the whole class?

BN: Yeah, I think it cost him his job there. He’s always been difficult no matter where he is.

AAJ: You had taught some too, at Cal Arts and the New England Conservatory?

BN: That came years later, after I was in the Boston Symphony. While I was with the BSO, I went out [to California] to record with Frank Zappa on October 19, 1969. That’s a date I’ll never forget because it was a turning point in my life. That day I met Mel Powell, who was the dean of music at the new school and had been interested in hiring me. After our meeting in Frank’s basement he hired me and I went to Cal Arts. The faculty of strings was supposed to be Jascha-Heifitz, William Primrose, Gregor Piatigorsky, and myself; I thought that’d be quite a step up from the Boston Symphony. I got there and the faculty was Raphael Drouain and Yoko Matsuda, violin; David Schwartz, viola; and Joel Krosnick, cello – nothing like the first list. I taught there for eleven years anyway; the second day I was there I went down to the local union, and I ran into a composer there named Fred Myrow, whose father wrote “You Make Me Feel so Young” (among other tunes). I knew Fred from Tanglewood; he had a movie session the next week, and he hired me. I went there to MGM, and being interested in the recording process, I went right into the booth and introduced myself to the engineer. He said, ‘you know, I’m hearing something over your mike that I haven’t heard here in 23 years.’ I said ‘oh really, what is that?’ and he said ‘I’m hearing in tune, rhythmically precise bass playing.’ He showed me where the sliders were for the basses, and they were all the way off. He hadn’t turned on their mikes in 23 years and he had been taking the basses on the general mike over the podium. He became my best advertisement, and in a month I was working almost every day. I still taught at Cal Arts, but I started to make a lot of money doing [studio work], and I did that for 27 years.

AAJ: So Cal Arts wasn’t a great-paying teaching gig?


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