AN AMERICAN IN BELGRADE
Michael Shaffer, composer
Even if you are up-to-date with the happenings across the ocean regarding classical music, you probably haven’t had the chance to hear about the American composer Michael Shaffer. Yet, maybe you’ve passed him by somewhere at Karaburma, his favorite part of the town for thinking and composing while staying in Belgrade. Still, we arrange a meeting in the center, in the garden of the hotel “Moscow” on the surprisingly nice October sun. Michael Shaffer, serious and funny at the same time, talks about his artistic path which was everything but typical. Starting from the time he chose military service rather than music studies, and the variety of professions he had – acting, composing musicals, writing theatre plays, working in a computer company for 30 years and finally, back to composing again in 2003.
However, he focuses on the composition “Twenty Children” – his choral piece dedicated to the victims of the tragic shooting that took place in Connecticut, where Shaffer was raised. As a consequence of the assault made by a 20-year old man, 20 children (aged between 6 and 7) and 6 teachers died in an elementary school, Sandy Hook in 2012. The main purpose of this concert, that will be premiered next year, is to raise funds for the Sandy Hook Promise organization.
Besides this, at the moment of our meeting, I am familiar only with some of his compositions intended for music therapy. However, these two pieces of information were quite enough to pay attention to his life story. And he was telling it from the very beginning.
ClassicAll: When did music come to your life?
Michael Shaffer: I started piano lessons when I was 4, my father was a piano teacher and by the time I was 8, I knew I wanted to be a composer of concert music. I don’t know how I got to that conclusion, but I did (laughs). So I studied a lot, I played a couple of instruments through high school – trumpet, French horn… And when it was the time to go to college I didn’t want to go to learn how to write that terrible music that they were doing there in Academia. And I didn’t want those guys to be my teachers (Roger Sessions and a bunch of them from that generation). They were so imperious, like from another century. So, I joined the army. It was 1964 and the Vietnam War was about to step up. I was there briefly, working for the intelligence corps, I was an intelligent officer.
What happens after the army?
I still didn’t want to go to college. I was stationed in Berlin for a while, I was an actor. I started doing straight plays, like Beckett, Pinter and a big production of “The Birds” ( Aristophanes). I had written a couple of musicals, too. Afterward, I moved to New York and started writing plays. And I wrote plays for 20 years. I got really close, but I never made a breakthrough. The first really big one that I did, that got any attention, was a play how Shakespeare didn’t write those plays. And now, Daron Hagen, the American opera composer, wants to turn it into opera, after it’s been buried for so long. So, here I am, 35 years later.
When did you decide to write the music that refers to the tragic event happened in Sandy Hook school?
I was actually driving in Connecticut and my wife called to tell me about the murders. When I saw the news reports I was looking at the children who looked just like my kids. Emilie Parker looked just like my daughter Katie and Dylan Hockley looked just like my son Patrick. I have early notes about when I started this in February 2013, two months after the event. And since I spent my professional life in the marketing of one sort or another, I seized the idea to write a piece that could be used as a fundraising tool. When I met Vlada (Vladimir Uratarevic, violinist and engraver) in 2014 he helped me focus on what the final piece was going to be.
How would you describe the piece “Twenty Children”?
It’s a choral elegy. Elegy is a poetic word (Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is a famous poem). It’s ambitious piece, my biggest piece so far for 26 singers – 6 teachers and 20 kids. It is written for a string sextet, Joel Revsen will conduct. He is the conductor of the Metropolitan opera and when he heard about this piece he said “I’m in” without even hearing it.
Is the music disturbing?
The subject matter is very disturbing. I have a whole history of church music, my father was an organist and choirmaster, I know all about those memorial pieces, requiems and so forth. Composers have done that. So what I did, I took The Tibetan book of the Dead and Chinese I Ching and created a libretto from that. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is all about rebirth. So it’s very positive in a strange kind of way. You know, all the things that could’ve happen to those kids, they should go on and have a new life. It says – they will see their light again.
How long were you working on it?
I got the first section done while I was still in the States, in 2017. I continued composing in Belgrade. I planned to stay for two months, but I stayed 8 months instead. So I finished it in New York, by Christmas time 2018. For the first time in my life, I just had to wake up and write music. I had to feed myself. I think that’s why I was able to make it so good because I didn’t think about anything else.
The premiere of “Twenty Children” is scheduled for October next year?
Yes. It is going to be performed at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, very near Sandy Hook. We also plan to stream it. And I met some great musicians in Belgrade that have shown interest performing in here.
And how did you start composing music for dementia patients?
In 1989 I met a young producer Susanne White, we became lifelong friends and she had me use her new music workstation called a KORG M-1. Thanks to that I wrote about 50 pieces and one of which was a piece called Quiet Beast. I wrote it for my mother to listen to during her chemotherapy treatments. This led me to create pieces for dementia patients. I talked to a couple of people who were taking care of Alzheimer patients. And they said that music is a thing that chills them out. „When did they need this”, I asked. They said that the worst time for Alzheimer patients when they get anxious is three o clock afternoon. It is called “sundowning”. And we came up with some pieces and some videos – one fall scene leaves turning colors, and three winter scenes piano music. When we tried to sell it, it was really successful, except that the caregivers don’t have any time for it. They say “we have a 36 hour a day, we don’t need to do another thing”.
Who is your greatest influence, the person who affected you the most?
Certainly, my father who was my prime teacher. And I would have to say, Leonard Bernstein. We became acquaintances just before I went to the Army in September ‘64. I was 18, he was under 50. And, how I got to know him is that there was a jazz concert at his beautiful house in Connecticut. It was a fundraiser for a local organization known as the Urban League, the main civil rights organization at the time. Billy Tailor was there, Dizzy Gillespie, too… I was so freaked out… I couldn’t believe it. People thought that I dug him just because of his flamboyant style. I said – No, no! He’s a real musician. There is a piece of advice he gave me which I’ve followed till today. I told him “everybody wants me to write music like Roger Sessions and all those guys… I just find it to be noise. And he says, well, here’s what I did. I was told, what you should do, is find out what you sound like. Not anybody else but you. And if you arrive at the conclusion, and you have something to offer, then you know what to do. You just write what you write.
And what’s your sound like?
My listener is a person who doesn’t really listen to classical music. Especially with “Twenty Children”. I have studied choral music my whole life, so I had to come up with something that sounded like the westernized version of Tibetan temple chanting.
What are you currently working on?
I am finishing a string quartet and a setting of “Marriage” by Gregory Corso. He was one of my favorite of the beat poet. What’s going to be different about this is that I’m changing the gender in the text to make it for a gay male, thinking about “the boy next door”. I have the right to set it to music but their agents haven’t been told about the gay part yet. You know what they say: sometimes it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
And what about the operas?
I just finished the libretto for the opera “Latex” while I was staying here in Belgrade and I’ll start to do the music when I get back to the States. And “Toxic Canary” is a chamber opera I’ve been working on for a few years, and is about a woman who has “environment disease” which are people who are allergic to everything and so she thinks she’s like the canary in the mine as a safeguard (when methane gets life-threatening, the canary dies first). In her case, she finds out she has Lyme disease.
Where did this idea come up?
I sketched it out in 20 minutes in NYC waiting for my parking space to free up.
So, how do you see the future of classical music? With 21st century technologies, Is it easier for the new generations of composers to get to the audience?
In the past, composers had to come up with stuff that a large performing organization would do – it’s kind of like the tail wagging the dog. Now they can develop as they want and there’s a diverse, global audience. The elitism is being dismantled because there are so many more outlets that don’t depend on the politics of big music and big conductors. Never have we had so much music being composed and distributed through the various online platforms. So I think that we’re at that place again where people are going to find the value for classical music again. And every composer has the opportunity to communicate what they think is important.
And should composers make more engaging pieces in order to raise people’s awareness of the world we’re living in?
The American playwright Eugene O’Neill said that if you’re going to write (anything) you almost have a responsibility to “dig around the big questions that have been with us throughout the ages”. The pieces I’m planning to write do have a social or political bend but not because I plan it that way. I’m going to concentrate on opera that is accessible in its subject matter. And hopefully, we can help define a conversation in this unruly, uncivilized modern world that has been created.
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