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Memorial Drive: Atlanta’s forgotten classical music history

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Memorial Drive is a collaborative series by ArtsCriticATL and BURNAWAY about the history of the arts in Atlanta. Putting a fresh spin on the old phrase “memory lane,” the series title also honors its namesake, the long road that runs from downtown Atlanta to Stone Mountain. The series explores the theme of memory, holding that, in order to move forward as a creative community, we also need to look backward. We invite readers to follow, comment and offer ideas for further topics. This article is ArtsCriticATL’s second contribution to the series, preceded by Evan Levy’s essay on public art, then and now. 

“Atlanta has no collective memory” is a common refrain among local artists and musicians. It’s a sentiment recently expressed by Atlanta-born composer Nikitas Demos, one of the most active members of the local classical scene.

When he joined the Georgia State University faculty in the early 1990s, Demos recently told me, “There was no memory of anything. And I think it’s still happening today. There is no one who remembers, or [they] choose not to remember. Or it’s getting rewritten. I’ll see things written, and I’m sure you do too, where I think, ‘Well, that’s not exactly true’ or ‘This is not really the first time this has happened’ ” in Atlanta.

Were there classical composers and a thriving new-music scene in Atlanta before Robert Spano arrived?

The answer is not only “yes” but “hell, yes.”

To make the case, one need go back only as far as my own memory as a composer and my awareness of a new-music scene in Atlanta during the 1970s. But for the sake of argument — and because we Southerners tend to love exploring our history as well as arguing about whether it was better or worse than today — we might as well reach back as far as we can.

Atlanta composer and writer Mark Gresham.

Admittedly, as the timeline in this article moves forward, a lot of Atlanta composers, artists, institutions and events go unmentioned, and the story deliberately stops at the turn of the 21st century, as we have not become distanced enough from the events of the present century to assess them well. But it is against the perceptions of the past decade that the legacy of the last century is intended as illumination of the present: where we have come from and, perhaps, clues to where we might be going.

Nominal digging into Atlanta’s deep if narrow history of composers takes us back to the 19th century and Alfredo Barili (1854-1935), an Italian immigrant who settled in Atlanta in 1880 and often was touted as the city’s first “professional classical musician.” Barili’s best-known composition was “Cradle Song,” Op. 18, popular enough during his lifetime that it was recorded on a Duo-Art piano roll by pianist-composer Hugh Hodgson.

Hodgson (1893-1969), a native of Athens, Georgia, was chairman of the music department at the University of Georgia from 1928 to 1960. In 1928 he also became organist and choirmaster at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, a position he held until his death. Hodgson composed a reasonable body of choral works, piano pieces, a piano trio, a concerto for piano and orchestra, and a ballet commissioned by the Atlanta Civic Ballet (now Atlanta Ballet). Nationally active as a pianist, Hodgson made several appearances as guest soloist with the ASO in its early years, including in his own Piano Concerto.

Charles Knox in the electronic studio circa 1976.

Atlanta-born Charles Knox, born in 1929 and still living in the Candler Park neighborhood, earned his bachelor’s degree in music at UGA and so knew Hodgson from Athens, as well as from a group known as Georgia Composers. While Hodgson’s works were decidedly Romantic in temperament, younger composers such as Knox were encouraged to develop their own voices.

A trombonist, Knox was good enough to win an unpaid place in the postwar-era Atlanta Symphony Orchestra — then semi-professional — and in 1949 he moved up to the paying job of principal trombonist. The environment and aesthetic tone for composers at UGA was open, but primarily influenced by the big names of the international contemporary mainstream: Copland, Hindemith, Stravinsky. Knox’s perspective was also influenced by performing with the ASO.  He recalls that in the late 1940s, “There was a buzz among the orchestra over a [radio] broadcast of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, which was new then.”

In 1951, Knox enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the 3rd Army Band at Fort McPherson. He later earned a master’s degree at Indiana University, then began teaching at Mississippi College.

Dick Robinson in his Atlanta electronic music studio, 1967.

A pivotal moment

The same year Knox enlisted, composer Richard Robinson, born in 1923, arrived in Atlanta from his native Chicago to take a steady job as a violinist in the ASO, which he held until he retired in 1987. The two of them had just missed each other, and would not cross musical paths as composers until 1966.

Dick Robinson did not have Knox’s longtime immersion in the Atlanta community. His studies at the American Conservatory in Chicago were twofold: degrees in both violin performance and composition, studying with esteemed composer Leo Sowerby.

Busy as a violinist in Atlanta, Robinson nonetheless began finding performances for his chamber and solo compositions, mostly at Georgia State College (now Georgia State University) and the New Arts Gallery. His composing path would take a turn toward electronics in the 1960s. In August 1965, a pivotal moment in Atlanta’s musical history, he attended a workshop given by synthesis pioneer Robert Moog in Trumansburg, New York. On returning to Atlanta, Robinson established the Atlanta Electronic Music Center in his own studio.

Another composer who attended the 1965 Moog workshop was Atlanta-born Margaret Fairlie (born 1925), now Fairlie-Kennedy. She is most likely the first female composer from Atlanta to work with electronic music, and one who began her composing career as a serialist, a controlled and forbidding method of writing abstract music. The Moog workshop took place just as Fairlie moved to upstate New York to teach at Cornell, but she maintained her Atlanta connections. (And she is the aunt of ASO violinist Christopher Pulgram.)

It was also in 1965, in the fall, that Charles Knox returned to Atlanta to join the music faculty of Georgia State.

The very next year, Knox, Robinson and Fairlie were featured composers in a chamber concert at the newly constructed Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Atlanta. Quite likely, this “Music Festival of Atlanta Composers” was the first event to gather and identify composers on a program as being Atlanta-based.

The turning point 

The huge turning point in the city’s musical history took place when Robert Shaw became music director of the ASO in 1967, bringing into the mix with him as assistant conductors Michael Zearott and Michael Palmer.

Shaw saw what he thought was a huge gap in the Atlanta music scene — a lack of regional and minority composers — and in the spring of 1968, the Rockefeller Foundation funded a five-day residence of the ASO at Spelman College to hold a series of “reading sessions of new compositions to be solicited from composers in the Southeast and from Negro composers throughout the United States.”

“Shaw wanted to have concerts featuring minority composers at one of the historically black colleges,” says Palmer, who conducted two of the works on the program. But not only minority composers. Shaw wanted and got a fully integrated festival, inviting Knox and Mississippi composer William Presser to submit scores.

Wendell Whalum of Morehouse College chaired the committee that oversaw this “Festival of Contemporary Music.” Director of the Morehouse Glee Club from 1953 until his death in 1987, Whalum was probably the best known of all Atlanta composers at the time, due to his highly popular concertized choral settings of spirituals.

It was also in 1968 that T.J. Anderson (born 1928) became composer-in-residence with the ASO, a post he would hold until 1971, his work culminating in the orchestration of Scott Joplin’s 1910 opera “Treemonisha” for its world premiere under Shaw’s baton in 1972.

Even in those days, Shaw was very involved in bringing new music to Atlanta audiences, particularly big names of the day such as Ives, Stravinsky, Barber and Copland — major composers, but who had not gotten much stage time in Atlanta amid the supposedly conservative tastes of its classical music patrons.

Palmer recalls the era: “I was always encouraged to include music by living composers in my concerts,” he told me, but he recalls having “almost no contact with local composers” at the time, although he became more aware of Atlanta composers later. And as a returning guest conductor with the ASO in 1987, Palmer led the premiere of Alvin Singleton’s “After Fallen Crumbs,” during that composer’s three-year residency with the ASO.

Highly significant during the 1960s and ’70s was the annual “Symposium of Contemporary Music for Brass,” which was begun in 1963 at Georgia State. Quickly growing to international awareness as Atlanta’s premier contemporary music festival, the Brass Symposiums survived until the late ’70s. “I can’t think of any other place or event in the area [that featured] more variety of up-to-date styles of music than the Brass Symposium,” recalls Knox. “That was the thing.”

A California sensibility

In 1977, Howard Wershil (born 1952) arrived in Atlanta with a master’s degree in composition from the California Institute of the Arts, bringing with him a distinctive CalArts sensibility toward contemporary music. His original intent was to obtain a university job, but that was not to be. Nevertheless, he immediately began to establish a footprint in the city’s contemporary music scene as composer, performer and organizer. In 1980 he launched Composers Resources Inc. and its performing arm, the Atlanta Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, which brought together young professional musicians eager to perform and promote new music.

Of Wershil’s compositions from the ’80s, the two I remember best were electronic tape pieces: “Bureaucracy” and “Aqueous,” both choreographed by John Lancaster. Around the same time, I composed electronic music for choreographer Sandi Walker’s “Gentle Souls” and the modular performance piece “Music for Bells and Such” — which by strange twist of fate made its way onto Public Broadcasting Atlanta’s WPBA Channel 30 television in a studio-produced version.

The poster for the 1988 International Electronic Music Plus Festival, a five-day event with submissions from all over North America and Europe.

In 1988, the “16th International Electronic Music Plus Festival” came to Atlanta at Wershil’s behest, and for the first time in its history the festival took place at a non-academic location. It was a contemporary music event that was unrivaled in scope since the Brass Symposiums of the 1970s and would remain unrivaled until SonicPalooza in 2011.

Indeed, it was during the 1980s that Atlanta became a hotbed of musical creativity, much of it having an experimental, electronic and multi-disciplinary focus, and much of the music composed by Atlanta-based artists. And more new faces came to the city during that decade, among them composer Karl Boelter (born 1952). “[We] had moved to town about that same time, and we were catalysts for each other,” recalls Boelter, who came here in 1985.

“The Atlanta Symphony had Louis Lane as its principal guest conductor, and I thought he was remarkable as a musician and as an advocate for the music scene,” says Boelter, citing the ASO’s New Music Project reading sessions of 1986, under Lane’s baton. “Composers’ Resources was fantastic, focusing as it did on the more avant-garde and interdisciplinary works.” Boelter also felt that Midtown, which he says was “a combination of seedy and artsy” at the time, was “the place to be, and sort of a cultural incubator.”

“I felt that the city had not yet figured itself out, but there was an energy, politically and sociologically, to move things forward,” Boelter remembers. “It was a vibrant, goal-driven Atlanta that was very different from the metropolis outside the beltway. I really loved being part of it.”

Just as Howard Wershil and I did in the ’80s, Boelter found opportunity to work as a composer with dancers, collaborating with Room to Move choreographer Amy Gately. But the two main features of his time in Atlanta, Boelter says, were the formation of the new-music ensemble Thamyris and his work at the High Museum of Art as performing arts coordinator from 1986 to 1990.

“I was surprised that nearly anything I wanted to do seemed possible. Within five years, I had a rich ‘education’ that allowed me to be administrator, grant writer, composer, entrepreneur and performer-conductor. I credit the years in Atlanta with the background I really needed for the rest of my career.”

More game-changers arrive 

Alvin Singleton

Alvin Singleton (born 1940) came to Atlanta in 1985, after 14 years in Italy and Austria, to become composer-in-residence for the ASO. He was followed in 1988 by Stephen Paulus (born 1949). Although Paulus returned to Minnesota after his ASO residency ended in 1991, Singleton decided to stay in Atlanta and continue as a vital part of its composing community.

1987 brought another game-changer to the table: Thamyris, a contemporary music ensemble co-founded by pianist Laura Gordy and percussionist Peggy Benkeser. Both had performed in some of Howard Wershil’s concerts. But the significant difference was that Thamyris was performer-driven, not composer-driven. Besides Gordy and Benkeser, regular performers in the ensemble over the years included soprano Cheryl Boyd-Waddell, flutist Paul Brittan, clarinetist Ted Gurch, violinist Helen Kim, cellist Craig Hultgren, bassist Jackie Pickett and others. Composers Singleton and Boelter were both closely involved, and composer Steven Everett became co-director when Gordy decided to step down from that position in 1999.

The ASO has recorded several works by Alvin Singleton.

Fiercely independent, the group nevertheless attracted the attention of presenting institutions such as Spivey Hall, the Goethe Institut of Atlanta and Emory University, as well as obtaining national and international visibility and winning significant awards for new music. Thamyris was also heavily involved with the National Black Arts Festival, thanks to the efforts of Singleton and composer Dwight Andrews and actor-musician Avery Brooks.

If there is any distinct parallel between Atlanta’s contemporary music scene of today and that of the late 20th century, it can most strongly be drawn between Thamyris and current performer-driven chamber ensembles such as Bent Frequency and Sonic Generator. (A few of the performers involved over the years are even the same.) The composer-driven Composers Resources has no parallel today producing events of the same scope. The Atlanta Symphony has pursued composer residencies in waves every couple of decades, as interest and funding make that possible.

The general demise of funding sources in the 1990s hit small non-profit groups such as Thamyris hard. The elimination of the Georgia Council for the Arts’ individual artist grants after 1996, shrinking funds from the Goethe Institut due to the reunification of Germany in 1990, and negative changes in tax codes for charitable contributions all played a role in making it more and more difficult to maintain a non-profit arts entity at the end of the century.

Wanted: An identity 

Growing up in Atlanta, Nickitas Demos (born 1962) always knew, even as a child, that he wanted to be a composer, though he doesn’t know why. He recalls checking out books about classical composers from the local library — for fun, not for school reports. “When I was a kid, I thought Charles [Knox] was the composer in Atlanta,” says Demos, and except for John Barbe, the father of a schoolmate who worked in the commercial music industry, “I didn’t know there were other composers around here.” He does, however, remember experiencing the Brass Symposium in the 1970s.

When Demos left Atlanta to study composition at the University of North Carolina, then attended the Cleveland Institute of Music and Case Western Reserve University, he had no intention of returning to the city. In his mind, he had left Atlanta behind. Fate had other ideas, and he returned in 1993 to begin teaching at GSU, initially as a visiting professor.

“When I first got here it was bleak. I wanted to leave,” he recalls. Although there were a handful of composers on the faculty at GSU, he felt that there was little public activity among them, and there were very few composition students. Having left for college near the end of the ’70s, Demos had completely missed all the composer-driven activity that took place in Atlanta during the 1980s. Nobody in his collegial sphere talked about it.

Living Composers, the short-lived composer-driven collective created by James Oliverio and Tayloe Harding in late 1990, had already effectively bitten the dust by the time Demos arrived in 1993. “Even to this day,” says Demos, “every now and then I’ll get [mail] addressed to me c/o Living Composers at Georgia State. And I had no idea who that group was.”

Thamyris, however, was still in full swing, and Demos quickly became a fan. Then, in 1996, he started neoPhonia at GSU, because the school had no contemporary music ensemble.

And it appears to be true that when new artists come to Atlanta, the stories of what went on before typically don’t get told to them. Energetic new arrivals, wanting to make an impression on the city, often believe that nothing like what they are doing has ever been seen before in Atlanta, when often it has. And this plays falsely on Atlanta’s sense of identity — or, more so, its lack thereof, as exemplified by the amorphous mascot of the 1996 Summer Olympics, “Whatizit?” And indeed, while the city had more of a clear self-identity in the deep past of even my own memory, one may ask sincerely of Atlanta today, “What is it?”

“It’s now a location more than it is a place of historical identity,” says Palmer, the former ASO assistant conductor, who returned to Atlanta in 2004 to teach conducting and direct the orchestra at GSU. “I think it is a great opportunity for the creative community here to think some about what were the roots of this city [and] what directions in artistic creation are going to best represent that into the future. Art has a great way of being able to bring history and the present time together, and I think that would be a wonderful thing if some composers or group of artists come together to bring a sense of the ‘Atlanta of old’ into the modern world. That could be spectacular.”

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