Composing? It’s just a feeling

Times Staff Writer

Although Benjamin Lees, who turned 80 this year, has been composing for more than half a century and has written five symphonies, four piano sonatas and a slew of chamber works, his music is rarely performed in Southern California, where he has lived on and off since 1939.

That may be because he’s always been a bit of a maverick -- insisting on not going with the flow.

He tried writing 12-tone music, for instance, when it was the dominant musical style in postwar America, but he gave it up.


“It was like making love to a corpse,” he told The Times in 1992.

The same goes for all the styles that came afterward.

“First it was 12-tone, then it was serial, then it was Minimal,” he said recently from his home in Palm Springs. “Now composers who wouldn’t have dreamed of writing a major third are writing tonal music and being congratulated for it. I never really departed from it. But it always had to be tonality with a little twist.”

Lees’ latest work, “Tapestry” -- for flute, clarinet, cello and piano -- will be premiered this weekend by the adventurous chamber group Pacific Serenades, which commissioned the piece. It will be tonal, with a twist.

“There are two kinds of composers,” Lees said. “One is the intellectual and the other is visceral. I fall into the latter category. If my stomach doesn’t tighten at an idea, then it’s not the right idea.

“The moment the stomach tightens, I know I’m on the right track. That’s how I write. But it’s never easy. Honestly, if it isn’t right for me, it’s not going to be right for the audience.”

Lees, born in Harbin, China, to Russian emigre parents, grew up in San Francisco and studied composition in Los Angeles. His first major recognition came when he won an award in 1953 from the Boston-based Fromm Foundation, which commissions new music. A year later, the first of two Guggenheim Fellowships he has received allowed him to study in Europe.

He was nominated for a 2003 Grammy for his Symphony No. 5, “Kalmar Nyckel,” but a greater honor almost came to him in 1965, when he was at the center of a controversy that made the front page of the New York Times.


That year, he was recommended for a Pulitzer Prize for his Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra. But because the three members of the music jury, all critics, couldn’t agree unanimously -- as the rules required -- they suggested instead that Duke Ellington receive a citation for his service to music over the previous 45 years.

The Pulitzer advisory board shot down that idea. Two of the music committee members -- Robert Eyer of the Long Island newspaper Newsday and Winthrop Sargeant of the New Yorker -- immediately resigned in protest. The third, Thomas Sherman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said he had been appointed only for that term and saw no point in resigning, even though it was he who had recommended Lees’ work.

Reflecting on the brouhaha, Lees observed dryly, “I don’t expect to receive a Pulitzer in my lifetime. The prize generates initial excitement. The person gets a few interviews but may not be heard from again. It opens some doors, but not every door.”

He said that he hadn’t heard of this year’s winner, Paul Moravec, who beat out two other finalists, Peter Lieberson and Steve Reich.

“I’ve heard of the other two,” he said. “If anybody deserves it finally at this point, it’s Steve Reich. But for one reason or another, that’s the way it went. Columbia University is a very strange place.”

Lees credits his longevity as a composer to his wife, Leatrice, a retired teacher.

“I was able to survive because my wife was working,” he said. “That made it all possible.”

During the ‘60s and ‘70s, he tried teaching. But, he said, “I discovered I really didn’t have the patience for it. I could explain something in 10 minutes to a class, whereas the administration wants you to stretch it out to 16 weeks. I was at odds with the administration at Peabody Conservatory, the Manhattan School, even at Juilliard.”

Besides, he feels, composition can’t be taught.

“Either you have a talented student, in which case you’re frightened because you don’t want to ruin the talent, or you have someone who has a very nice personality but no talent and should be taking animal husbandry.”

There are, he believes, “way too many composers” anyway. “Certainly in terms of the opportunities. If you totaled up all of the composers who are actively writing now -- classifying a composer as someone who writes every day -- you’d probably come up with 10,000 composers, who are each day turning out a new orchestral work, a new quartet, a new opera, a new concerto and on and on.

“In our lifetime, we will never hear even the tip of what is produced. We have even yet to discover the 20th century, and we are in the 21st. By the end of the 21st century, how are they going to discover the music of this century -- if we don’t wind up in an atomic heap?

“In the long run, I don’t think that much of what’s around at the moment is going to make the repertoire at all,” he added. “It’s music for the occasion, whether it’s a massive work for huge chorus and orchestra or a string quartet. There was a commission. You produced it. It was performed. If it gets performed a second time, you’ve very lucky.”

Even so, he has no intention of quitting.

“Some days, I’m gloomier than others,” he said. “But I’ll keep writing even if nobody will play it. That’s what you do. I get up every morning, clean up, have breakfast and go to work. Look at Elliott Carter -- at 95 and still writing, still going strong. If Carter can do it at 95, why shouldn’t I at 80?”


Pacific Serenades

Where: Private home, Brentwood (address given to ticket buyers)

When: Today, 8 p.m.

Price: $45


Where: Neighborhood Church, 301 N. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena

When: Sunday, 4 p.m.

Where: UCLA Faculty Center, 405 N. Hilgard Ave., Westwood

When: Tuesday, 8 p.m.

Price: $28

Contact: (213) 534-3434