AT 86, DAVID AMRAM IS AS BUSY AS HE’S EVERY BEEN. Since the Milken Archive recorded several of his works in the late 1990s, Amram has maintained an active performing schedule and continued to compose. 2016 has witnessed a plethora of concerts and celebrations acknowledging his accomplishments; among them a box-set release of his film scores and being named composer-in-residence of the New York Chamber Music Festival. The last accolade was accompanied by a commission to compose a new work: Three Lost Loves for violin, saxophone and piano. Based on stories by authors Willa Cather, Zora Neale Hurston and Jack Kerouac, the work received its premiere on October 2nd.
Amram has also been selected to receive the Creativity Award from Moment Magazine, an award that acknowledges achievement in the arts and impact on Jewish culture. He will receive the award at a special event held in Washington D.C. on December 18th.
When news broke of the award I arranged to speak with Amram by phone from his home in upstate New York—on a rare day off between rehearsals and performances. As we talked two things became clear. The first was David’s gift for the spoken word. As he answered my questions, it was a bit like listening to a beat poet weave together seemingly disparate strands of experience into a stream-of-consciousness historical narrative. The second was that he is one of the most gracious people working in music today. Not only did he avoid anything even approaching self-aggrandizement, every question I asked set off a roll call of all the people who influenced and helped him over the course of his career. Among those he mentioned were Leonard Bernstein, Jack Kerouac, Pete Seeger, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Rudolph Serkin, and Floyd Red Crow Westerman.
Due to the sprawling nature of our two-hour talk, it seemed most appropriate to organize excerpts from his responses around themes that arose naturally in the course of conversation.
What follows are David’s thoughts and memories, which I’ve compiled and edited for clarity and length.
It’s a very special thing in my life. I think that Moment Magazine has always been in the vanguard of trying to show the intellectual and the spiritual part of what we’re about. And of course, the magazine was cofounded by Elie Wiesel. He was someone that during the time I worked on the opera The Final Ingredient—and for the rest of my life—I always watched and cared about.
On a more personal note, much of my creative life was formed during the ten years that I lived in Washington, D.C., from 1942 when we sold our farm in Pennsylvania and my father and mother both went down to try to help the war effort and work in Washington. It was there that I met Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and all these great jazz people. I also played in the National Symphony.
Charles Ives once said that prizes were badges of mediocrity. I can understand his feeling that way. But when I started getting awards, I realized that the job was not to be angry by all the years it took to get discovered, but rather to use it as an opportunity to thank all the people who made it possible for you to do anything worthy of an award in the first place.
We were the only Jewish people basically in the whole county where I lived at that time [before moving to Washington D.C.]. So my father would conduct the Friday night services in our house and my grandfather kind of became my Hebrew teacher. It was a wonderful way of approaching Judaism from, I guess you’d say, a spiritual point of view rather than being forced to go to Hebrew school with a bunch of people who didn’t want to be there.
When I met Dizzy Gillespie the first time, he spent the whole night talking about the pan-African experience. Charlie Parker would do the same thing. Even though these were guys that hadn’t finished high school, they were incredibly scholarly and they all said to me, you should pursue your own Jewish roots. The idea was that once you understand who you were, and therefore are, then you can understand who we were and who we are.
The same thing happened with all the programs I did with Native American people. After I would learn their music, they’d say, “Hey, we’d like to hear some of your Jewish stuff.” And then I would play something; then they would brighten up and feel that I wasn’t coming into their culture in order to escape mine, take something, give nothing in return and go back and then misrepresent what they did because I had no way of honoring where I was from. And that sounds complicated but actually it was very simple.
Each day is an adventure and each day is a new chance for me to become the Yeshiva bokher of the month and try to pass on something that was bequeathed to me. It’s important just to put that in the book of life and to acknowledge those who helped you.
I can’t pay tuition to Dimitri Mitropoulos, the great conductor to whom I dedicated my first book. Or to Rudolph Serkin, the piano master who invited me to come to the Marlboro Festival in 1960 because he liked my piano sonata. Or, to all the people who encouraged me, first of all, to try to get better and work harder, to act decently to other people, and to try to always remember the most important thing in the world is to be a real mensch.
Before I was aware of all that, I was with people who tried to make me aware that you should be respectful, and if you heard some kind of music you should try to really learn it before you dared to play it for someone else. And once you did it well enough so that those people from that culture said it was okay for you to do it in public, you always acknowledged where you learned it from, then you could share that with other people and sharing that with other people was your tuition for those who bequeathed that to you for free.
If my name had began with an “S” I probably wouldn’t have gotten chosen because Bernstein was so busy. It’s just that Amram starts with an “A.” I was just lucky and grateful.
He was such an incredible person. And above all, with all he went through and all his craziness, he was always a super mensch.
As conductor of a great orchestra and such an incredible composer, to him it was a gateway to get people interested in something. And he was, by nature, a great teacher. He was amazing in that way. And he would always say that our job as composers is not just to please ourselves. You’re supposed to contribute something to the repertoire. While we’re here we’re supposed to make some kind of a contribution.
I think that the people can understand more about the Jewish soul through music than anything, and that this could be a gateway to studying the history. And that’s true with every people who have their identity codified through musical experience. So that great power that’s—whatever it is—that’s above us that we all celebrate in our own way, how we celebrate that is a part of our history and who we are, and music is the gateway to get you started thinking and feeling that.
And the whole [Milken Archive] music series is really something. That was the first time I saw in my lifetime, any kind of a high-toned example of Jewish culture and history which also included incredible songwriters like Moishe Oysher and Sholom Secunda and all that great stuff in the Yiddish theater, as well as operas like The Golem.
I guess if it was easy you’d get complacent. When I was writing this last piece, “Three Lost Loves,” I’d be working and suddenly it’d be dawn and I’d realize I’d been working on one measure. I thought to myself, you know, maybe I’m getting too old for this. And then I realized that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life whenever I’m composing, just sitting there trying to get it right, and that’s pretty much what we have to do.