My sister Rebecca is a musician and composer, and I’ve been piggybacking off of her exquisite ear for most of my life. She first introduced me to the music of Lowell Lieberman 20 years ago and we have followed his music making with a quiet reverence ever since.
His approach to tonality and melodic line set him apart from the strongly atonal dissonance that has been so prevalent in contemporary composition. That is a position that hasn’t garnered him much encouragement from critics or his peers over the years. But traveling on another road is something Lieberman has been willing to do regardless.
In an interview with David Weininger at the Boston Globe, Lieberman shares a seminal experience from his years of studying composition at Julliard. Lieberman worked with the composer David Diamond during a period of heightened academic interest in serialism and atonality, but Lieberman was hopeful for approval when shared his first symphony with his teacher. The piece flowed through dissonance and into resolution, ending in a chorale like series of tonal chords.
As Lieberman tells it, “Diamond said to me, ‘You can’t do that! The critics will tear you apart!’ At the time I thought that was so strange for a composer of his status and reputation being concerned about what critics would think.”
For the young composer, the lesson was one he’s adhered to throughout his career. ”I’ve never paid attention to trends that were going on or what other people thought I should be writing,” he says. “I write the music I’m interested in writing.”
That determination to ignore fashion and follow his own compass has come in handy throughout his career…but he’s been a persistent target of critics who find his intensely lyrical works to be anachronistic and derivative. During the 1990s he was frequently referred to as a “neo-Romantic” or “new tonalist”…A 1999 New York Times article…offered a kind of backhanded compliment when it described [him] as “[caring] little about the modernist obsession with originality.”
Lieberman never cared for either moniker. He points out that his concern with musical form and organic unity allies him more closely with classicism than Romanticism, and that he does use non-tonal elements in his music. As a general matter, he continues, “labels are almost always oversimplications and just prevent a real valid look at the music itself.”
Weininger asks Lieberman to describe his own music, a question most artists (myself included) buckle at just a bit and usually try to dodge. But I like Lieberman’s very straightforward answer to that dicey request:
My aim as a composer is to communicate as clearly as possible. When you have certain pieces that are so complex and so personal to the composer that you need a user’s manual to figure out what they are trying to do, to me that’s a defect in the communication…that does not mean pandering to an audience or to what I think other people would want to hear. Because I think the only thing one can do as a composer is to write the music that you would want to hear if you were sitting in the audience.”
It is easy to draw parallels in the visual art world where trends are intense and defined, serving to mark off the territory into what’s cool and what isn’t. The current fad of idea-dependent visual imaging which comes with a highly cerebral text to decipher its meaning is a good example as is insistence on shock, entertainment or overscaling.
I remember wise advise from sculptor Petah Coyne from many years ago who said (this is a paraphrase) that everyone has their work to do. Maybe you will be lucky and your work is appreciated by lots of people. Maybe you won’t be popular at all. But even if you don’t have a huge following you have to do what you have to do. Making art that is authentic and that comes from that very deeply personal place does not pander to an audience. The temptations to do otherwise are everywhere, but Coyne’s law is to stay true.
Some would view her advice as a fatalistic and defeatist position. I heartily disagree. Lieberman is a good reminder of how creative conviction is both personal and essential. No matter what you think of his work, it is his. Undeniably so.
To learn more about Lieberman’s oeuvre, visit his website.