Sunday, August 24, 2008

Elegy for Erb

The remarkable composer Donald Erb died on August 12 at age 81. This is a brief article I wrote in 1999 after a wonderful interview with Erb at his home.

"I think about music as an act of love, even when it's angry," says composer Donald Erb. "Audiences think you're there to irritate them, and it's kind of sad. People misunderstand energy as antagonistic. I don't want to be misunderstood."
An avant-garde composer one critic described as "capable of shaking his musical fist at the heavens with a fury rivaling that of the German titans," Erb is the unofficial paterfamilias of the Cleveland Museum of Art's Aki New Music Festival, a two-week contemporary music showcase that was revived this month after a fourteen-year hiatus.

Of the eleven scheduled concerts at Aki, three will feature Erb compositions: Gregory Fulkerson will play the 1994 Sonata for Solo Violin, Ryan Anthony will premiere Dance You Monster to My Soft Song for solo trumpet, and the Case Western Reserve University Wind Ensemble will perform Cenotaph (for E.V.), Erb's homage to composer Edgard Varèse.
Aki (Japanese for autumn, the festival's original season) was founded in 1977 by Karel Paukert, the museum's curator of musical arts. In 1985, sparse audiences and budget cuts forced the museum to halt the event. This year, citing a resurgence of interest in new music -- sold-out Kronos Quartet concerts, Philip Glass film scores, and Steve Reich and John Adams's virtually mainstream minimalism -- Paukert and Assistant Curator Paul Cox decided the time was ripe to resurrect Aki.
Erb, a robust iconoclast whose music features startling sonorities and crushing climaxes, is also an acutely sensitive man. He recalls seeing the devastation of Hiroshima while serving in the Navy. "It destroyed everything I believed in," he says, growing tearful at the memory. And though he's earned numerous degrees, grants, fellowships, and commissions, his heart has never strayed far from his blue-collar roots in Youngstown, Ohio.
"It was a tough, tough town," he recalls of his boyhood home. "Everybody got drunk on Saturday night and broke each other's noses. I had my nose broken twice in the first grade."
Erb began writing music at age seven, after his steelworker father moved the family to Lakewood, a suburb of Cleveland. With a trumpet and music lessons provided by his aunt, he began playing gigs with dance bands in high school, then joined the Navy, hoping to enter its music school. Instead he was sent to Pearl Harbor. When he returned from the service, he studied music, earning degrees from Kent State University, the Cleveland Institute of Music and Indiana University. He retired in 1996 as head of the composition department at CIM.

In the studio of the sunlit Cleveland Heights home he shares with his wife, Lucille, Erb waxes wroth over the sorry state of American culture. "Serious art has become a kind of outcast," he says. "It's important for greedy people, who control the industries, to shut other people out. It started with the Beatles and Elvis Presley -- that's when it became a big business." He points to a kitschy Presley portrait on the wall. "My hero, who undid American culture."
"The amazing thing is, I'm still surviving after a fashion. Few composers in America have had as nice a career as I've had."
Still, Erb can't resist what he calls "throwing a little shit." Some years ago, he read that Cleveland classical music station WCLV-FM's president, Robert Conrad — no fan of contemporary music — said that modern composers "might as well be speaking Swahili." Erb's response was to print up bumper stickers that read "WCLV is Boring" — in Swahili.
"I'm not a tranquil person," Erb says. "I don't want to be. I've learned a lot from pain and energy. God gave me a very fast motor."

1 comment:

Mark Satola said...

A great article about a great composer. Thank you for rescuing it from its former oblivion.