Eric Salzman: Composer, Author, Music Theater Innovator


Composer/writer Eric Salzman, one of the founders of the new music theater, is the creator or co-creator of more than two-dozen music-theater pieces for stage, recordings and media and a major figure world-wide in the field. His work is innovative, involving new vocal techniques and electronic extensions, pluralistic styles and forms, as well as new media technologies. His extensive writings include the first survey in English of the new music theater, a well-known book on 20th century music and writings on a wide variety of artistic and natural history subjects.

Salzman’s Jukebox in the Tavern of Love, a modern madrigal comedy with a text by Valeria Vasilevski, was a commission from the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble. A production of the work on a double bill with a madrigal comedy from 1607, both directed by Ms Vasilevski, took place at The Flea Theater in New York’s Tribeca in May/June, 2008. An audio CD and a DVD of the work will be released later in the year or in early 2009.

The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, also created with Valeria Vasilevski, had its world premiere and tour in Holland in 1997-98, along with the European stage premiere of Civilization and Its Discontents, co-written and co-composed with Michael Sahl, and (in its Public Radio recording) a winner of the prestigious international Prix Italia. Dutch Schultz had its U.S. concert premiere in 2000 at Greenwich House’s Cutting Edge series and its first full American production at Symphony Space’s Wall-to-Wall Opera in 2007.

Photo of Eric SalzmanEric Salzman with two of his contemporaries—Ramiro Cortes and Salvatore Martirano, both talented composers and Fulbright Fellows—on the U.S.S. Constitution headed for Naples, Italy, in 1956

Salzman’s Cassandra (text by Eva Salzman) has been performed by extended-voice singer and computer artist Kristin Norderval in 2001-3 in Oslo (Norway), Vienna (Austria) and at the 6-Tage Opera Festival in Düsseldorf, Germany. His William Meredith Bestiary, a set of songs based on poetry by the noted American poet, was premiered by soprano Janna Baty and pianist Christopher Lyndon-Gee in July, 2004, at the Varna Festival in Bulgaria and subsequently in New York and elsewhere.

Other recent work includes La Prière du Loup (“Wolfman Prayer”; text by Michel Rostain), commissioned by the Scène nationale de Quimper in France, premiered there in early 1997 and performed by Rinde Eckert at the Festival of the Hamptons in 2003. Salzman’s new version of the John Cage Totem Ancestor, part of a set of Cage Dances for strings, was recorded by the Kronos Quartet which has performed it widely in this country and abroad.

A chamber theater version of the Kaufman/Gershwin Strike Up the Band was performed by the Scène nationale de Quimper and Un Théâtre pour la musique in Brittany and Paris in 2002 and 2003. An instrumental Suite derived from this production was performed in Paris by the COSP Orchestra under Elizabeth Askren-Brie in 2006, at the Washington Square Music Festival in New York City in 2007.and is scheduled for performance in California in the 2008-2009 season.

Photo of Eric SalzmanEric Salzman after a performance of his setting of Walt Whitman’s On the Beach at Night with American soprano Jeanette Pecorello, in Perugia, Italy, 1956

Earlier work includes The Nude Paper Sermon (texts by Steven Wade and John Ashbery; Nonesuch Records commission with Stacy Keach; conducted by Joshua Rifkin), Foxes and Hedgehogs (text by John Ashbery; performed in London by Pierre Boulez and the BBC Symphony, Lukas Foss and the Brooklyn Philharmonic and by Dennis Russell Davies and the Julliard Ensemble). Can Man Survive?, a multi-media environmental work on the environment for the centennial of the American Museum of Natural History, was on display there for two years (1969-71). Other work includes Wiretap, Ecolog (created for public television; also performed by Pierre Boulez and the NY Philharmonic’s Prospective Encounters), The Peloponnesian War (a full-evening solo dance work by Daniel Nagrin), Voices, Helix and Biograffiti (with Quog Music Theater) and six music-theater works with Michael Sahl (The Conjurer; Stauf; Civilization and Its Discontents; Noah; The Passion of Simple Simon; and Boxes), all performed in New York’s off-Broadway theaters and recorded for public radio. Wiretap was recorded by Finnadar Records and Civilization and Its Discontents by Nonesuch. Civilization and Its Discontents and Boxes both received major theater awards. Ecolog with Quog Music Theater and visual artist Jackie Cassen and Feedback with visual artist Stan Vanderbeek both exist in video versions and have been broadcast on public television.

Photo of Eric SalzmanAfter a performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. From Left: David Behrman, David Tudor, John Cage, Gordon Mumma, Eric Salzman

Salzman’s music for Yuri Rasovsky’s prize-winning National Radio Theater production of Homer’s Odyssey can be heard on Blackstone Audio’s recent release of the complete production. Scenes from Abel Gance à New York, with Québec writer François Godin, commissioned by Chants Libres in Montréal, was performed there in 1999 and his music for the Brecht La Bonne Ame du Szechuan (“The Good Woman of Sechuan”) was performed by the Théâtre du Trident in Québec City in 2003/2004 (directed by Antoine Laprise).

Salzman’s work has also been performed by Victoria Bond, Igor Kipnis, Alan Titus, Philip Langridge, Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Quog Music Theater, the American Music Theater Festival, the Center for Contemporary Opera, La Mama, Theater for a New City, the British Broadcasting Company, the Canadian Broadcasting Company, NewOp and many other organizations in North America and Europe. Currently, he is working with Ms Vasilevski on a new music-theater piece entitled The System of the World, based on eighteenth-century scientific experiments and the love affair between Voltaire and Mme de Chatelet.

Photo of Eric SalzmanEric and Lorna Salzman, the members of the ONCE Ensemble from Ann Arbor (including Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma and George Manupelli) and a lot of unidentified Italians at the Venice Biennale in 1964 after performances at La Fenice

Salzman has worked in every aspect of new music-theater as composer, writer, director, artistic director, dramaturg and producer. He co-founded and served as artistic director for major performance organizations including New Image of Sound at Hunter’s Kaye Playhouse (1968-71), The Free Music Store (1968-72) for Pacifica Radio/WBAI and Quog Music Theater, a performance company active between 1970 and 1982. From 1983 to 1994, he was co-founder and Artistic Director of the American Music Theater Festival where he was responsible for 45 main-stage productions including new work by many well-known artists. He is currently Artistic Director of the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York.

He has written extensively on 20th century music and is writing a book on The New Music Theater for Oxford University Press (with Viennese composer Thomas Desi; scheduled for publication by Oxford University Press; September, 2008) to stand beside his well-known 20th Century Music (Prentice-Hall; currently in its 4th edition) and Making Changes: A Practical Guide to Vernacular American Harmony (G. Schirmer; with Michael Sahl). Recordings for Nonesuch, Finnadar/Atlantic, the BBC, WNET-TV, Pacifica Radio (WBAI in New York), National Public Radio, Public Radio International, WNYC and KCRW include much of his own work as well as the Tango Project series, The Unknown Kurt Weill with Teresa Stratas and the Hal Prince/NY City Opera production of the Kurt Weill Silverlake. He served as producer/ artistic director for all these projects and has received a Prix Italia, Armstrong Award and Grammy nominations for his work.

Photo of Eric SalzmanRome 1956/1957 on the Via Segesta. From Left: Domenico Guaccero (an Italian composer) and his mother, Lorna Salzman, Eric Salzman, Peter Maxwell Davies (now Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, probably the UK’s best-known contemporary composer)

Salzman was born in New York City on September 8, 1933 and was educated at Forest Hills High School, Columbia University where he studied with Vladimir Ussachevsky, Otto Luening and Jack Beeson; B.A. 1954), Princeton University (studies with Roger Session and Milton Babbitt; M.F.A. 1956), Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome (Fulbright Scholarship 1956-58; studies with Goffredo Petrassi), Darmstadt Ferienkurse (1957; studies with Hermann Scherchen, Luigi Nono, Bruno Maderna and Karlheinz Stockhausen). He was a music critic for the New York Times (1958-62), New York Herald-Tribune (1964-67), and was a contributing editor and writer for High Fidelity, Stereo Review and the Musical Quarterly; he has written for many publications in the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany and elsewhere. He has taught or served as artist-in-residence at Queens College; Yale University School of Music; Hunter College; New York University Music-Theater Program; ASCAP; the Netherlands Theater Institute, Amsterdam; La Maison des Ecrivains, Paris; Banff Centre for the Arts, Canada; the Conservatoire nationale, Lyon, France; Un Théâtre pour la musique, Vincennes and Quimper, France; Instituto Torquato di Tella, Buenos Aires, Argentina; Syracuse University Friends of New Music; Bucknell University; University of Wisconsin; Goddard College, Vermont; Washington State University; etc. He served as music director for WBAI (Pacifica Radio in N.Y.C.) and as artistic director and founder of The Free Music Store (N.Y.C. 1968-72), The Electric Ear (at New York’s Electric Circus, 1967-68), New Image of Sound (Kaye Theater/Hunter Playhouse (1968-71), Quog Music Theater (1970-1982); and the American Music Theater Festival (1982-1994). He has received commissions, grants and awards from the New York State Council for the Arts; WNYC-FM, New York; WKCR-FM, Santa Monica, California; Opera America (“Opera for the 80s and Beyond”); National Endowment for the Arts (Music Theater Program); National Radio Theater; Un Theatre pour la musique and La Scène nationale de Quimper, France; Mary Flagler Carey Trust (Composer/Librettist Program); Chants Libres, Montréal, Canada; also an Armstrong Award (Public Radio); Prix Italia (broadcast award of the Association of European Broadcasters for original work); Grammy nominations for The Unknown Kurt Weill and Silverlake; Stereo Review Record of the Year award for The Tango Project; Seagram Production Award for Boxes (with Michael Sahl).

When he is not traveling, Salzman divides his time between Brooklyn Heights, New York, and East Quogue, Long Island. He is married to environmentalist and activist Lorna Salzman. They have two daughters, poet Eva Salzman and composer, lyricist and songwriter Stephanie Salzman.