A Friend’s Tribute To Lucia Dlugoszewski

[I wrote this for Lucia Dlugoszewski’s forthcoming CRI CD. Thus several references which, had I not mentioned an original destination, would surely make for a puzzling read. The piece appears in La Folia by default. The problem lay in differences with the label’s director. Jody Dalton proposed revisions I found unacceptable. The disagreement is especially regrettable since Lucy wanted me to participate in the first release devoted exclusively to her music. Ed.]

Mike Silverton

[July 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:5.]

A splendid composer has died.

Jennifer Dunning tells us in her New York Times obituary of April 13, 2000 that Frank O’Hara was Lucia Dlugoszewski’s first reviewer. A macabre resonance, that: in order to develop a theme for these notes, I had hoped to speak at greater length with my friend about an imperfect relationship with two other New York School principals, John Cage and Morton Feldman. Lucy’s busy schedule and my own foolish distractions pushed a need beyond reach. I’d arranged with O’Hara to tape him for radio readings I was then producing in my home. The poet died that weekend under the wheels of a Fire Island dune buggy. The moral is as obvious as it is trite: Don’t put off.

In the sad event, a compact disc’s program and this writer’s reminiscences must serve as a memorial. Who could have anticipated that a presence so disarmingly childlike, so flat-out ebullient, would so suddenly depart like any frail mortal. I ask your leave, as an entirely inadequate gesture, to share my impressions of who Lucia Dlugoszewski was and what her art will likely remain.

To begin with an amusement (from a safe, rose-hued distance): One telephoned Lucy at the peril of his composure. If the lady was out or occupied, her voicemail greeting, a prose poem that went on, it seemed, for weeks, drove one up and over the wall; the longest-running of these was a contemplation of the morning sky one day in early spring. At last the terse beep. One said his piece, beginning with a grievance about the demi-infinity one had to spend as logorrhea’s hapless mark. Lucy could not be convinced that the telephone is a transactional device, not a further art opportunity. In her peculiarly pliant way, she’d say, yes, yes, I understand, you’re right of course, and nothing changed: Lucy as the very model of a guileless, self-directed bohemian. Her flattery’s transparency played out as a hoot. What a shame, she’d say, that you’re married (but to another wonderful Polish woman, we’re so passionate, you know). Would that I were available, the handsomest, wittiest, most charming man in the world and quite possibly the only critic — critic no less! — who truly understands my music, etcetera, tra la. Lucy’s brio and naïveté was not of the Cool Now but rather of an earlier generation or two, the sort of creative presence who, disregardful of impression, did, dressed and behaved exactly as she pleased. She was, alas, her own fashion consultant and, hoorah, her own aesthetician, as the best of all possible choices. She stands for me as a pinnacle of Romantic-Modernist sensibility, with its fierce devotion to the expressive self and, in Lucy’s distinctive case, to pure abstraction. If one was not unique, one was nothing.

A publicist recently sent me a CD of a client’s work. In laying out the composer’s virtues, the annotator includes accessibility. I’ve not yet played the disc but am already on guard. I’m sure Lucy would have found this recommendation bleakly amusing. Charles Wuorinen (a composer Lucy admired) has been arguing all his creative life that it’s not the composer’s place to calculate and act upon an audience’s impaired abilities to understand what one’s about — to compose down to what one supposes a squalid common denominator of taste and understanding. One admires Lucia Dlugoszewski for the brilliant individuality of her music, yes, but equally — perhaps by the same token — for her indifference to broad public acceptance. A friend reminded me recently of something Lucy said that I used in a review of George Rochberg’s music. “The original Romantics were amazing; these people are not.” One recalls André Breton’s having established the marvelous as what all art should be about. If much present-day music addresses a failure of nerve, then Lucia Dlugoszewski serves as the measure against which accommodation shrinks.

In the context we’ve entered, to have achieved popularity, or more exactly, to have sought popularity, suggests an abandonment of principle. If anything appears to guide Lucia Dlugoszewski’s work, it’s one’s sense of a standard she set for herself and no one else. Genius and contrariness can be opposite sides of the same coin. I do not attempt to enlist the reader’s agreement with so austere a mission but rather to express an attitude not so terribly long out of fashion. It seems to me a key to a “difficult” artist’s work.

Yet a question pervades her place in music. Why is Lucia Dlugoszewski not better known? While David Tudor, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff’s names will likely elicit recognition, Lucia Dlugoszewski’s will likely not. I do not cite randomly three people associated with the New York School. I’ve no idea whether Lucy’s discussed this with anyone else; I pass it along as what I see as the most valuable (if mischievous) contribution I can make to an understanding of a composer’s life-choices.

As a young, ambitious transplant (she was born in Detroit in 1931 or 1934 — the references disagree and I never asked), Lucy secured the approval of New York’s avant-garde, albeit in a tangential and ultimately unfulfilling way. We’ve mentioned Frank O’Hara. Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt, and John Ashbery were early supporters. The sculptor David Smith and painter Herman Cherry arranged for the composer’s first New York appearance, in 1958, at — of all places! — the Five Spot Cafe, an important jazz venue. Composer-critic Virgil Thomson spoke of Dlugoszewski’s art in terms of its “great delicacy, originality and beauty of sound [of an] unusually high level, with intellectual and poetic aspects” — an encapsulation that defies embellishment. Absent from this glittering circle are John Cage, whose approval Lucy sought but never secured and, as perhaps an éminence grise, Morton Feldman. (I’ll be dropping quite a few perhapses.) As she tells the story, Feldman turned Cage from the sort of approbation Lucy deemed significant to her career. Its withholding may have had a legitimate foundation, at least in part, and may have had something to do with antipathy or perhaps even jealousy on Feldman’s part. As a defense of indifference (not to mention an untoward display of fair-mindedness), Lucy surmised that Cage, Feldman and lesser lights judged her music’s metaphysics too distant from the compositional systems that in effect bonded the figures of the New York School’s music wing. It’s a question perhaps of irreconcilable differences. One only has to listen: Lucy’s art is as intuitive and constraint-free as her titles are hermetic. I’ve mentioned my regret at not having pressed this in our talks. But really, I’m not at all sure I’d have come up with more. It’s a subject Lucy found uncordial. Enough, in this writer’s opinion, that genius need not apply for a good-guy award.

On the one hand, then, disapproval of a philosophical or procedural nature, personal disdain, jealousy perhaps — it’s an open choice which perforce remains so. On the other, an inexhaustibly loving bond with dancer-choreographer Erick Hawkins. She could not say enough about it, but in similar wise to her reticence regarding Cage and Feldman, Lucy waxed vague about a most puzzling aspect of her marriage: that it remained secret for a number of years. It is clear, however, that under the dance company’s aegis, Lucy required nobody’s approval. This was her show.

If we linger at perception (and what is art if not perception’s subject and sometime victim), a snug harbor is a margin, the easier path taken. We return to our question. For the purist, the movie-music composer, say, must never be considered in quite the same light as the composer of unapplied, non-pragmatic, supra-occasional, free-floating art music. One need not belabor the analogy. In immersing herself in the dance company, Lucia Dlugoszewski withdrew her name from consideration for an exquisitely specialized Pantheon (which, in the best of days, receives remarkably little attention anyway). It pleases me to think I’m right about an admittedly skewed intuition. After Erick Hawkins’ death, Lucy applied herself more deeply still to every aspect of the company’s operation, including fund raising. I’ve reason to believe that support intended for pure composition the composer deflected toward the company’s survival.

Lucy could not be urged, cajoled or bullied away from these concerns. Yes, she’d say, you’re right, I need to return to my music. Again that easy assent, offered, I suspect, to shut me up. She spoke of a commission from Lincoln Center’s Chamber Music Society to which she’d recently returned her attention. I greeted the news with barks of approval. This is what you should be doing! Yes, you’re right, of course you’re right. Whether she completed the commission I cannot say but have my doubts, since Lucy’s time was in large measure consumed as Erick Hawkins’ surrogate choreographer. I do believe that her teaching rôle gave her great pleasure, tho she’s not admit this to an interlocutor who endlessly thumped for another course of action. Whoever has taken on the responsibility of Lucy’s effects will perhaps be able to tell us more about the Lincoln Center piece. In a sadly unsettled state of affairs, this CRI release serves as an invaluable addition to a remarkably skimpy CDiscography (to return one last time to a superb composer’s wrongful obscurity). A two-disc mixed program on VoxBox CDX 5144 features Joel Thome’s Orchestra of our Time in a wonderfully rewarding performance of the piece that earned her the Koussevitsky International Recording Award, Fire Fragile Flight, no less well produced in 1978 by Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz’s Elite Recordings, Inc. A live, somewhat scrappily recorded Duende Quidditas for bass trombone and timbre piano, Lucy performing, occupies a mixed-program entitled David Taylor Bass Trombone, New World Records 80494-2.