Last night as I was taking a break from drafting the opening of Xocolatl, I looked at the ‘Top 25 Most Played’ on my iTunes and discovered Lukas Foss appeared five times and topped the list. Bach, Mozart, Purcell, Ravel, Ella Fitzgerald and Bill Evans were close contenders, but according to the statistics, it was Foss’s music that I kept returning to – either when I felt uninspired, or just listening out of pleasure. After all, it was on hearing his Baroque Variations and Renaissance Concerto (sadly only on recording) that I realised composing was what I wanted to do.
The music of Lukas Foss is rarely heard in the United Kingdom. Even in his ‘native’ America (he was born in Berlin and moved to the States in 1937), not many of his pieces are played on a regular basis, with the exceptions of the early Three American Pieces (1944) and Capriccio (1946). These are nice pieces, and certainly deserved to be played. But his best works – the glorious, Coplandesque secular cantata The Prairie (1938); the achingly lyrical second solo biblical cantatas Song of Songs (1946); the spiky and yet sumptuous Time Cycle (1960); the riotously imaginative Baroque Variations (1968); the complex, semi-aleatoric Echoi (1963), Cello Concert (1966) and Non-Improvisation (1967); the dramatic and ironic American Cantata (1975); the strange, out-of-this-worldly Elytres (1964), The Fragments of Archilochos (1965), Geod (1969) and Quintets for Orchestra (1979); the minimalistic Solo (1981) and Solo Observed (1982); the poetic Three Airs for Frank O’Hara’s Angel (1972) and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (1978), the playful Tashi (1986); an outstanding quartet of concerti writing in 1980s and 1990s – Renaissance Concerto (1986), Clarinet Concerto (1988), American Landscapes (1989) and Concerto for the Left Hand (1995) – are seldom played.
I always thought composing was not something that can be taught; and when I approached Lukas Foss for lessons, he confirmed that. I have learnt so much more about composing by studying his scores, listening to his music, reading/listening to him talking about inspirations (and sometimes the techniques too). When I asked him about what he considered to be a musical idea, his reply was simply ‘an idea is a surprise that makes sense’. This saying alone has served me well as a composer in the past ten years.
Like all composers who have an equal standing in conducting (Adès, Benjamin, Bernstein, Boulez, Maderna, Knussen and Schuller to name a few), Foss’s choices of pieces were often unusual and never short of surprises. I studied his programming strategy closely and often found new, interesting connections – may that be historical, intellectual, musical – between these pieces, and often, with non-musical subjects as well.
Prommers had the chance to hear his Time Cycle in 2000 performed by Rosemary Hardy, London Sinfonietta and Oliver Knussen; it remained the only high profile outing of his music in recent years in the UK, and the one and only time his music featured at the Proms, although he was invited to contribute a variation to the Bright Cecilia: Variations on a Theme by Purcell for the Last Night of the Proms 2002; in the end, he did not write it. He told me he simply cannot do it. No work had come from his pen works since For Aaron (2002), and I hate to think Lukas had stopped writing.
I suspect the unpopularity of Lukas Foss’s music lies in the fact that he is a composer whose music is difficult to pigeon-hole, as eclecticism is often frown upon in serious concert music. But if you, as I quote the title of George Michael’s 1990 album, listen without prejudice, I hope you will find the bewildering depth and wealth of imagination in this kind, inspiring musician fascinating as I do.
If you have not heard his recordings of Bach’s keyboard concerti or Mozart’s chamber music, go and get them. They are truly amazing.
p.s. If anyone is interested in hearing any of Foss’s pieces, please leave a comment, or drop me a line; I will be more than happy to share them with you.