Long ago I met a mysterious woman in Mexico called the Princess of Art. She told me I’m a composer. I copied Bach and played piano while she danced. I studied with Randy Coleman at Oberlin, who viewed composition as self-discovery, Louis Gesensway of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who claimed music is rooted in song and dance, and John Mehegan, who taught me how to improvise. I worked with Morton Feldman and Steve Reich, inspired by their integrity. I taught Schenkerian analysis and composed serious music.
One morning in the shower I realized I couldn’t sing or dance to my own music. I read Matisse’s observation that if you want to know who you are as an artist, look at your earliest work. I dug up my first pieces with the Princess. They were tonal, upbeat and catchy. I stared into the musical mirror: I studied classical music, but grew up with Motown and played in rock bands. That’s a resourceful (and characteristically American) aesthetic dialectic. I gradually came to view popular styles, conventions and songs as treasures of aural archeology, found objects, musical tissue, vehicles for creative transformation to be repurposed and revived as original art through the redemptive act of arrangement, rearrangement or recomposition at a higher level of synthesis. In the course of this ongoing process, my greatest musical teachers are Bach and Mozart from a technical perspective, Haydn, Stravinsky, Gershwin, and Ellington from a stylistic perspective, and Heinrich Schenker from a theoretical perspective.
My musical grammar is neither radical nor experimental. Its vitality lies in the familiarity of genres, recollection of themes, and the unpretentious interpolation of the dance floor, the saloon, and the iPod. It tempers serious music with the social, inviting listeners to come as they are. It opens the window to the street and lets in fresh air. And though it may aim slightly lower than the concert hall, what it concedes in erudition may hopefully be compensated in charm. If it succeeds, its reward is less an applause, and more a smile.
WAYNE ALPERN is a New York City composer, arranger, and scholar who integrates popular and jazz idioms with classical techniques and repertoire to create a sophisticated contemporary style of cross-genre, or even post-genre music. After years of composing complex new music, he embraced his personal history and indigenous musical culture and fused them with his classical background and training. His work includes numerous jazz arrangements, string quartets, woodwind and brass quintets, mixed ensembles, pieces for string orchestra, and several piano works.
Alpern’s innovative compositions, recompositions, and rearrangements have been performed and recorded by distinguished artists from diverse musical traditions. A native of Detroit immersed in the Motown sound, he studied at Oberlin College, University of Michigan, Yale University, and City University of New York, with additional work at Harvard, Juilliard, Wesleyan, and University of Pennsylvania. His musical scholarship and theoretical expertise focuses on Schenkerian analysis and 20th-century music. He holds a law degree from Yale Law School and practiced civil litigation for nearly twenty years. He taught at Mannes College of Music, Brooklyn College, Hunter College, and Cardozo Law School, worked at General Music Publishing, United Artists Music Publishing, and was Steve Reich’s editor. He is President and owner of Henri Elkan Music Publishing, Inc. and a lifetime member of the Society for Music Theory and American Musicological Society. He has lectured extensively in North America, Europe, and Russia. In his capacity as Founder and Director of the internationally acclaimed Mannes Institute for Advanced Studies in Music Theory, Alpern received the highly coveted Society for Music Theory Honorary Lifetime Membership Award recognizing his “substantial and longstanding accomplishments distinguishing the recipient and our discipline through his many good works on behalf of his fellow scholars and students of music theory for our collective benefit.”
Read How and Why I Became a Composer, an autobiographical essay by Wayne Alpern