Envy may be one of the seven deadly sins, but for Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Mel Powell, the emotion has had a musical payoff. Envious of artist friends who could paint a picture in a day or two--"and it would be an honest-to-goodness work"--Powell decided to start writing what he calls "overnight pieces."
"That would mean I would write them quite quickly," Powell, 69, said in a recent phone interview from his office at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.
"And there would also be one other advantage: They would embrace what Johana Harris, (wife of deceased composer Roy Harris) calls 'the purity of the single line.' Everything else for me becomes dense and terribly complex. This would be be at the other extreme."
Two of Powell's "overnights" will be on the Southwest Chamber Music Society program Thursday at Chapman University in Orange. Violinist Peter Marsh will play Nocturne and flutist Dorothy Stone will play Three Madrigals. Each runs under six minutes.
Nocturne, Powell recalled, began as a piece for violin, voice and electronics, and "it was not bad that way, but I wanted to have the fiddle alone--no electronics, no human voice, just the fiddle alone. So I rewrote it into the Nocturne, which fit perfectly into the overnight-piece category."
Three Madrigals began as a single work for flute, a filler for a recording of his music that Powell was making. But the original performer, Rachel Rudich, asked for more. Powell remembered Rudich telling him that she wanted to play the piece in public but couldn't unless it had some "companions" she could play along with it.
The title, he said, "represents my desire, my ambition, I guess, to write real phrases, cantilena (singing) phrases. I always viewed the madrigal as an ideal. The utterances in a madrigal are to some degree controlled by the text. But in another sense, if you took all those texts away, you'd find the music totally self-referential and perfectly wonderful. One could sing virtually any of the Italian madrigals with the words, 'Hello, baby,' and they would work as well."
Powell, known in classical circles for his dense, intricate scores, began his musical career as a jazz pianist. The New York native was so talented that Benny Goodman recruited him into his band when Powell was 17. Two years later, he was drafted again, this time into the Army Air Corps, which gave him the chance to play in Glenn Miller's band.
Postwar, he spent a few years at MGM studios in Hollywood, on the advice of his friend Andre Previn. But driven by a desire for serious music study, he went to Yale University in 1948 to study composition with Paul Hindemith. After teaching at several New York colleges, he returned to Yale in 1957 to found the electronic music studio--one of the first in the country--and became chair of the composition faculty.
California lured him back with an enticing offer to be the founding dean of the School of Music at CalArts when it opened in 1969. He served as provost from 1972-76 and holds the first endowed chair at the institution.
Powell won the Pulitzer Prize in music in 1990 for "Duplicates," a concerto for two pianos and orchestra, which took him three years to write. ("I am a comparatively slow composer," he said.)
Powell called it "an immense, oversized score," commissioned for the Los Angeles Philharmonic by Los Angeles arts patron Betty Freeman.
"When I did a divisi (divided string passages), it was for 54 players," he said. "They get migraine headaches after all that."
That kind of writing is typical.
"I usually have to work down from a certain complexity that seems more natural to me," Powell said. "'When writing for large ensembles, I really have to make it something manageable, negotiable by the players. I know, being an old fellow, how much rehearsal time they don't have and how expensive rehearsals are.
"But they don't have to worry about that with the 'overnight' pieces . . . They do go on in a wonderfully free kind of way."
His latest work, "Settings for Smaller Orchestra," will be premiered by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra on Oct. 23 at UCLA's Royce Hall. The orchestra commissioned the work for the inaugural season of its new music director, Christof Perick.
Despite any complexity in the piece, he hopes the audience will find it an expressive work.
Expressive? "Oh my goodness, what else could we be up to, really?" he asked. "We could talk nonsense, of course. They pay us well for that. But the truth is that we--I--want to make something wonderful. I really do. I can't imagine any artist wanting anything else, whatever he or she is up to, in whatever language, however advanced or retarded. Of course, about a year after writing it, you look at it and it doesn't seem as wonderful."
* Mel Powell's Nocturne and Three Madrigals will be played by the Southwest Chamber Music Society on Thursday at 8 p.m. in Bertea Hall (music building) at Chapman University, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. Works by Brahms and Schoenberg complete the program. $7 to $14. (800) 726-7147.