Eric Salzman: Composer, Author, Music Theater Innovator


Eric Salzman biography available for download

ERIC SALZMAN (1933-2017): A Dynamic Voice in Twentieth Century Music and Beyond, by Dr. Scott Bradley Joiner, Artistic Executor to the Estate of Eric Salzman.


Date Posted // June 16, 2020
In Categories // News

setting John Ashbery to music

I’ve been reading the tributes to John Ashbery who recently died at the age of 90 and who has been virtually sanctified as the outstanding American poet of his generation. I was not close to John but I had the privilege of working with him twice (I only worked with one other living poet, my daughter Eva). John was part of the group known as the New York poets and they were close to the New York painters who summered on Eastern Long Island where I have a family place. Not surprisingly, John would turn up at parties and openings in the Hamptons where we met. It was definitely an art crowd with a few poets mixed in. The only other composers that I can recall in these groups were (for a brief time) Ralph Shapey, (more recently) Stephen Dickman and Bruce Wolosoff, and (significantly) Lukas Foss. John, who was an important art critic as well a poet, was influenced by developments in the art world and also, to some degree, by avant-garde music. When he published his “Tennis Court Oath”, I decided to use significant parts of this remarkable volume for the new piece I was working on: “Foxes & Hedgehogs: Verses & Cantos”. It turned out to be a big forty-minute piece scored for four soloists, piano solo, two instrumental ensembles and tape. Originally I was going to set the entire volume but this proved to be impossible so I got John’s permission to use parts of it. A thread that runs through the original and through my setting is a kind of boy’s adventure story which is mostly spoken by male soloists and the principal percussionist. Other texts are set for the singers culminating in a voice-and-piano duet in which the piano plays mostly tone clusters while the soprano soloist croons in her best pop style. The final section of the work uses a technique pioneered by Earle Brown in which the conductor orders a collection of fragments using hand signals. Eventually a rock tape collage drowns out everything else and the piece ends in silence and the words “the breath”. The title “Foxes & Hedgehogs” comes from a famous quote by Isaiah Berlin: “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows only one big thing.” This was, in effect, my statement about the complexity of the modern world and a riposte to minimalism which was gaining traction at the time.

The first performance was in 1967 at the Hunter New Image of Sound on a program that paired it with a new work of Luciano Berio; it was performed by the Juilliard Ensemble conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Notably, the silence at the end of the performance was punctuated by a very loud “boo” from Morty Feldman, a perfect comment on the ‘foxes and hedgehogs’ theme. John’s comment was “The great thing about this piece is that I couldn’t understand a word”; this from someone long criticized for his verbal obscurity!

Other notable performances included a BBC Orchestra production at the Roundhouse in London conducted by Pierre Boulez (paired with a major work by Stockhausen). The excellent cast included Mary Thomas, soprano, and the late Philip Langridge, tenor. Except for the percussionist — a lively cockney gentleman who read the adventure story with gusto — the BBC players were very staid and conservative and the saxophone part had to be divided between two players as the regular sax chair was occupied by a very distinguished (Polish I believe) gentleman of the old school who could not handle the required improvisation. The event was also notable for the solo song when the soprano Mary Thomas pushed Boulez off the podium, Richard Rodney Bennett appeared in a tux with a cigarette dangling from his lips and proceeded to pound the keyboard with his elbows to the accompaniment of Mary’s dulcet tones. Alas, the London critics, then in a very conservative mode, were quite nasty and one result has been that my works have been subsequently performed widely in Europe but not in the UK.

Lukas Foss also performed the work with the Brooklyn Philharmonia at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).

After “Foxes & Hedgehogs”, John sent me his Three Madrigals which I decided to use in my next large work, “The Nude Paper Sermon” for narrator, soloists (soprano, counter-tenor, baritone), chorus, early music ensemble and tape. This was a commission from Nonesuch Records (the second such commission after Mort Subotnik’s “Silver Apples of the Moon”) for the newly formed Nonesuch Consort under Joshua Rifkin. The narrator’s part, written by Steven Wade (a kind of protege of John’s who introduced us), was a long spoken text, ‘orchestrated by me to wind in and out of the sung and performed textures’. The actor takes a whole series of roles — poet, preacher, politician, radio jock, etc. — all people who use words to influence other people.  The Ashbery Three Madrigals were used as sung texts for the soloists and chorus — set numbers that appear out of the tape sounds and early music textures of lute, portativ organ, viola da gamba and Renaissance winds. The actor’s part was written for Paul Hecht, a British/Canadian actor working in New York but he was not available for the premiere and both the recording and the staged premiere featured Paul’s friend Stacy Keach! Paul later performed it in Montreal; another version was performed by the Firesign Theatre. The original cast included counter-tenor William Zukof, baritone Alan Titus; Richard Taruskin was the viola da gamba player and the lutenist was Lucy Cross. The work, available on Nonesuch for many years, can now be found on Labor/Naxos.

Date Posted // September 08, 2017
In Categories // Events, News

“Big Jim & the Small-time Investors” will open Cutting Edge Concerts in 2018

“Big Jim & the Small-time Investors” will open Victoria Bond’s 2018 Cutting Edge Concerts on April 9 at the Thalia Theater, Symphony Space, on the Upper West Side, New York City.

This music-theater opera by Eric Salzman is about an L.A. con man who claims to have invented a virtual reality machine that permits the viewer to imagine his or her wildest fantasies are coming true. The libretto is by Ned Jackson and Eric Salzman, the score by Salzman and Victoria Bond will conduct and music direct. This production will include the instrumentation of accordion, keyboards, strings and percussion. It follows two workshops by the Center for Contemporary Opera at the Flea Theater and the Faison Firehouse Theater. The stage director and stage designer will be Justin Meredith Brown. The title role of Big Jim will be performed by Scott Joiner; other cast members will be announced shortly.


Facebook posts

Kristin Norderval recently posted the following:

“WOW. What a year it has been!!
Beyond the political turbulence, there were many personal firsts.

2016 saw the premiere of my first full-length opera -The Trials of Patricia Isasa – at the Monument National Theater in Montreal; the release of my first CD on a jazz label; and the first performance in New York of ‘Cassandra Ground Zero’, a one woman opera written for me by Eric Salzman in 2001 that has had multiple performances in Europe but none in the US until this year in a new production expertly directed by Kira Simring and produced by the Center for Contemporary Opera. In the fall of 2016 I also had the honor of creating the soundscore for a new jill sigman/thinkdance production – Weed Heart – and participating in multiple related talk-backs and community meetings focused on issues of sustainability and racial justice. All of my work this year felt extremely relevant to the big issues that we are grappling with at this time.”

For those who need an introduction, Kristin is a hugely talented Norwgian-American singer, composer and computer performer!. Her No. 1 achievement in 2016 was the premiere of her own work, “The Trials of Patricia Isasa”, based on the true story of a survivor from the dark period of Argentine fascism not so many years ago. I believe that, unbelievably enough, Patricia Asasa herself attended the premiere which was very well received in Canada although, as usual with important American work abroad, it was ignored here. Anyway it’s an honor to be No. 2 on her 2016 hit list. It was a wonderful performance of “Cassandra” (produced by the Center for Contemporary Opera in collaboration with The Cell) and it can be seen on YouTube!

Ed Shockley, a writer and playwright from Philadelphia, wrote the libretto for “Bobos”, a hip-hop opera, with James McBride which I produced with the American Music Theater Festival. His post was a generous plug for the Oxford New Music Theater book that I wrote with Thomas Desi:

“James McBride and I worked this Eric Salzman several years in Philadelphia as we were doing “Bobos.” This is an important book. James McBride and I worked almost ten years to make it but Eric Salzman was the only one who was not afraid to say the work “Hip-Hop-Opera. (See number 367 in this book.)

Alternatives to grand opera and the popular musical can be traced at least as far back as the 1912 premiere of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Yet this ongoing history has never been properly sorted out, its complex ideas and philosophy as well as musical and theatrical achievements never brought full…”


Date Posted // January 11, 2017
In Categories // Cassandra, Music Theater, News, Projects, The New Music Theater, Works and Productions

An Interview Reappears

An interview that I did with Bob Gluck a number of years back has now reappeared in issue #18.3 of eContact!, a Canadian journal that describes itself as an “Online Journal of Electroacoustic Practices” (but has a much wider reach than that description would suggest). The interview, slightly reworked as a first person narrative, covers my activities at free-form radio station WBAI (especially the Free Music Store), New Image of Sound, the founding of Quog Music Theater and leading up to the American Music Theater Festival which I started in the early 1980s. The link to the piece is

Date Posted // December 20, 2016
In Categories // Articles & Interviews, News, Projects, Radio