December 24, 2008
The Bay Area music community and the world lost an important voice and a respected, beloved teacher on Sunday, when composer Jorge Liderman died in an apparent suicide after being hit by a BART train at the El Cerrito Plaza station. He had recently taken a leave of absence from the music department at UC Berkeley in order to treat his depression. The news of his death came as a grievous shock to the wide circle of people who knew him and called him friend.
David Milnes, a colleague at UC Berkeley, was preparing to premiere one of the composer’s latest pieces, Furthermore … (2006), with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, when the news came. At the SFCMP concert on Monday (see review), Milnes spoke briefly to the audience, referring to the group’s Contemporary Insights event the day before in San Francisco: “Imagine our shock at a salon [Sunday] afternoon, where we were to share the piece with others, and we got the terrible news instead. Last week at rehearsals he was upbeat. There was not a hint of melancholy. We had no hints of what was to come. It’s a terrible artistic loss. His output is now closed, but his music will live on.”
Liderman was an exceptionally sensitive and careful musician, and his compositions were marked, like his personality, with a generosity of spirit and humility. There was no technical display of learning or excess complexity. He composed intuitively, by ear, without espousing a particular style or school.
Liderman’s death comes at a time when a raft of new recordings (seven in the past three years and a new one about to be released on Bridge records), a 50th birthday concert through Cal Performances (see review), a 2003 Guggenheim grant, and numerous new commissions were beginning to broaden his base of popularity to match the imagination and accessibility of his music. (You can listen to samples at his Web site.) For a composer who had decried the “ghetto of composers writing music for other composers,” it would have been a time to be savored.
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Liderman studied music in Israel; Mark Kopitman was his teacher at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem. Meeting composer Shulamit Ran in Tel Aviv, he subsequently studied with her and Ralph Shapey at the University of Chicago, before being hired by UC Berkeley in 1989. He was internationally recognized, to a degree, and his music received performances from the London Sinfonietta, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Arditti Quartet, and the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, among others, and at festivals like Darmstadt (Germany), Foro Internacional (Mexico), and Nuova Consonanza (Italy). His opera, Antigona furiosa (1991), was performed at the 1992 Munich Biennale. And he had numerous prominent performances in the Bay Area during the 20 years of his residency.
It can be difficult to define originality or “voice” in a creative personality when it doesn’t reside in overt acts of revolution, or in polemical, theoretical pronouncements. Liderman in particular wasn’t given to those modes of expression. His music is not minimalist-influenced, or eclectically postmodern. It isn’t easy to pigeonhole, but it is compelling. It bursts with vitality, the music flowing out in an irresistible stream.
If you listen to Waking Dances, the first piece he wrote for guitarist David Tanenbaum (and recorded by him on Bridge Records), you’ll note the incredibly simple materials he begins with. A scale fragment, a three-note ostinato, a few scattered pitches transmogrify into extraordinary structures through the composer’s fantasy. As Ran, his teacher and friend, put it simply, the sources of inspiration were almost “primeval,” but were developed by “a sophisticated mind that allowed the elements to flourish into something unique and elaborate.” The mind, what she calls “rigor,” contributes as much to the music’s surging quality as the rhythmic bounce and drive.
Of course there are always influences on a composer, and if you search long enough, you’ll find them. Liderman can count a number of teachers and famous musicians who contributed to his sense of style, including Kopitman, Ran, Hans Werner Henze, György Ligeti, and, behind them all, Stravinsky. But again, you won’t pick those personalities out easily.
Tanenbaum relates that, when he was rehearsing Swirling Streams, commissioned by the guitarist and scored for the unusual combination of guitar, string trio and bass clarinet, “We just coincidentally found out that Henze had written a piece for guitar, bassoon, and string trio, and so we did them on the same program.” But the connection pretty much ends there. Among other things, “Jorge’s has much more rhythmic vitality and pulse than Henze’s does,” he says. Tanenbaum points to Ligeti as the influence on Liderman’s individual sense of rhythm.
And yet, as Ran reminded me, “The rich tapestry that was his life, being raised in Argentina, and then growing up in Israel, and then coming to this country and then the West Coast, and growing new roots — I think all of those, in various ways, were reflected in his music, but not in a thoughtless, eclectic way. The music reflected the life that he led.” You look to life influences to explain the texts he chose to set, for example in the Aires de Sefarad (2001), or the oratoriolike Song of Songs (2004), or the Shir ha Sharim (1986), based on the Book of Solomon, all works that reflected his interest in Jewish culture.
A Generous Spirit, Always Searching
It took a residency on the West Coast, however, to provide him with an outlet to investigate the guitar, that iconic instrument of Latin America. “He came to me — it was about 10 years ago,” says Tanenbaum. “He knew my work and presented himself as really blocked with the guitar. He knew it and had always wanted to write for it, but he couldn’t get there. And he said, ‘I want you to help me get over the hump.’ So we worked quite a bit — of the four major pieces we ended up doing together, the one we went back and forth on the most was the first one [Waking Dances]. It was more of a struggle for him [than the others].”
The fluidity of the completed work betrays none of that struggle, naturally, but the story points to an aspect of Liderman’s view of music. He enjoyed taking artistic risks and thought it was a necessary part of creativity. Ran notes that he rarely looked back. “Sometimes, when I would mention his opera, which is a piece I just love, he would say to me, ‘Oh that’s an old piece, already.’ He was always looking for new ways of thinking about music, always working things out in his mind. He had the powerful stamp of his own personality, but at the same time, he was always searching, always open for more.”
As a colleague and friend, Liderman was one of the more generous people you could hope to meet. He was humble, deflecting conversation away from his own music to that of other composers. His graduate students benefited from being treated as equals from the beginning, and also from his incredibly detailed and thoughtful recommendations.
Robert Cole, a friend and director of Cal Performances, says, “He was helpful in practical ways, making things easy that would otherwise be very difficult to do.” Cole points to Cal Performances’ Edge Festival in 2005, when instead of featuring his own compositions, Liderman suggested that the performances focus on his former students. “We brought some Berkeley graduates back, but it was only possible because Jorge made it happen.”
Bonnie Wade, the chairperson of the UC Berkeley music department, knew him as a quiet and humble man, dedicated to teaching. “At both the graduate and the undergraduate level, he was somebody who had the door open, literally. He would be in the department for many hours, with the door open for students who wanted to come [talk] on a one-to-one basis.”
Personal memories of Liderman paint the opposite picture of a man struggling with depression. Ran recalls her first meeting with the young man in Tel Aviv: “He came to see me at our apartment and I still remember he warmed my heart immediately. There was something so engaging and bright and open about him, and we had a wonderful conversation.”
As a former Ph.D. student in the department, I recall him ambling through the halls of UC Berkeley, saying hello to his students in an amiable, totally unpatronizing way. He made real contact with them. He bicycled everywhere, and Tanenbaum recalls conversations held while riding. “He would be so involved in conversation — he’d be in the middle of the street and turning his head backward to say something to me, like old Mr. Magoo or something, and I was worried that something would happen to him, but it never did.”
Wade relates that “he loved to cook. He gave parties that always collected the most interesting, unconnected people from the various parts of his life.” The department plans a moment of silence on Tuesday afternoon at 3 p.m. for the composer.
Liderman is survived by his wife, Mimi, of El Cerrito, and his mother, Sarah, and sister, Claudia, both of Buenos Aires. Plans for a memorial service have not yet been announced.