R.I.P. Fred Lieberman

Janos Gereben on May 7, 2013
Fred Lieberman
Fred Lieberman

Fredrick Lieberman — a musicologist whose interest and expertise ranged from classical Asian music to Broadway, Lou Harrison, John Adams, and the Grateful Dead — died Saturday of a heart attack in his Santa Cruz home. He was in his early 70s.

The UC Santa Cruz music professor and former music department chair (1988-1992), ethnomusicologist, author, and a friend of many years, Lieberman was also a SFCV contributor, writing about John Cage and other subjects.

Lieberman's original expertise was in Asian music: After beginning his education at the Eastman School of Music, he received ethnomusicological degrees from the University of Hawaii and UCLA, then taught at Brown University and the University of Washington before coming to UCSC.

But, beyond ethnomusicology, Lieberman's range of his interest and work was exceptional in academia where specialization is often the rule. Besides publishing works about Javanese, and Balinese music, Lieberman also authored biographical studies of Lou Harrison (with Leta Miller), and wrote frequently about the Grateful Dead.

He found a home for the band's archives at UCSC's McHenry Library, and collaborated with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart on Planet Drum, Drumming at the Edge of Magic, and Spirit Into Sound.

Lieberman has also created pioneering college courses about Broadway musicals, especially of Stephen Sondheim, film scores, the Beatles, rock, and pop. In recent years, his research focused on the music industry and copyright law. A published composer and poet, he had a deep involvement with Zen Buddhism.

Lieberman with Mickey Hart, his coauthor for several books
Lieberman with Mickey Hart, his coauthor for several books

His American Harmonist: The Music of John Adams, begun in 2001, was to be a full-length study of Adams and his work, but was left unfinished at Lieberman's death.

Lieberman's A Chinese Zither Tutor: The Mei-An Ch’in-P’u and Chinese Music: An Annotated Bibliography remain landmark studies of the subject, in addition to his publications about Toru Takemitsu, Jean-Joseph-Marie Amiot, and the music of Bali.

He published several compositions, and was an avid collector of musical instruments from Asia. There seemed to be no subject mentioned to which he couldn't make a contribution. Just last week, in response to a review of Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, Lieberman surprised me with yet another demonstration of his all-encompassing interest on a subject seemingly far away from his usual territory:

Given Whedon's tendency (like Sondheim) to assemble ensembles from a cohort with whom he feels comfortable, casting errors in Much Ado are understandable, and your critique seemed reasonable. Nevertheless, any way to bring kids brought up on pop culture to appreciate Shakespeare seems a legitimate risk.

In Firefly and Serenity Fillion fits his role well, with a deadpan delivery and understated bravado somewhat like Harrison Ford in the early Indiana Jones films. In Dr. Horrible, he's a cartoon character (super-hero with excess of ego, "a bear of little brain"), and that works, too, as do Neil Patrick Harris and Felicia Day. I'm perfectly willing to accept that he was terrible in Shakespeare, since I trust your aesthetic judgment and usually agree with it.

Amy Acker wasn't as good in Cabin in the Woods as in Angel, where she delightfully nailed a complex dual-personality role. Alex Denisof was a bit shaky and wooden in his somewhat clichéd role as a bumbling Brit in Buffy and Angel (though much can be forgiven the man who had the good taste to marry Alyssa Hannigan).

Indeed, I'm trying (perhaps not so gently) to encourage you to sip a little more kool-aid. Buffy and Angel, Whedon's major work, not only expanded the boundaries of TV, but also, significantly, hit enough teen-to-twenties buttons that it's not surprising that many of its locutions, expressions, and inventions have been adopted into everyday English (there's a fun but scholarly book on the subject).

My Lit-Crit PhD daughter hosted full-house Buffy parties weekly with her UC Berkeley colleagues, during the first run of the show, even though it was set at "UC Sunnyvale," a not-very veiled version of UCSC, perhaps with a soupçon of UCSB.