March Music Moderne preview: Tomas Svoboda, Oregon’s Invisible Composer

Tomas Svoboda

Tomas Svoboda


Hey, Tarantino! use THIS for your next medieval ass-kicking!

Oregon’s greatest living composer, Tomas Svoboda wrote the Suite, op. 124 for his daughter and himself to play. Inspired by his anger at losing his favorite duet partner when his daughter made the choice to pursue activities away from the piano, Svoboda poured that tantrum into this third movement, which explodes into a fireworks catharsis after the restrained machine of the first part and the storm-calm of the second, both written six years earlier.

Svoboda writes the way a great movie director like Quentin Tarantino directs—with the audience in mind. The second movement of his second piano sonata weaves polyphonic, polyrhythmic, polydynamic, polyarticulated and polytextured counterpoint—not just between the hands but also within each hand—to increase tension in a movement that processes suicide, asking and finally screaming the question “To be, or Not?” The music drives obsessively toward the latter, the opposite of self-indulgent German romantic outpouring, “weltschmerz.”

I have been in love with Svoboda’s music ever since I first heard him play his two-piano sonata with Lawrence Smiththe then-conductor of the Oregon Symphony, way back when I was nine years old. That’s why Kenn Willson and I put on a whole concert of his piano duet music in a 1994 concert called The Svoboda Project, and it’s why I’ve teamed up with gifted musicians with the work ethic to rehearse, collectively, for hundreds of hours for Saturday’s free March Music Moderne concert, the Svoboda Project II, at the Community Music Center. Other composers come and go, but Svoboda stays with me.

Why? Is it the sex and drugs and rock & roll?

Certainly I’ve not heard anything by anyone else that grinds like Storm Session.

Where many composers focus mainly on intellectual novelty or show-off virtuosity, Svoboda pours into music the intense feelings he experiences, as he did with his anger at being abandoned in the four-hand Suite, at the beginning of this article. If Bach is polyphonic chess, Svoboda is poly-everything 3-D chess. A highly ranked chess player, Svoboda reminds me of Bach and Ravel — equal parts passion and IQ, with passion the generator and IQ transferring the passion from genesis to audience. He once watched a man collapse and die on a street corner at a bus stop in polluted Los Angeles, and he channeled his horror and grief into his first piano sonata. His fifth symphony, the “Unison Symphony” was triggered by a trip to the Oregon coast: “My wife and I were driving to the coast and I kept seeing a white dot in the road,” he told me. “I approached it and discovered it was a butterfly, but I ran over it—one beautiful piece of nature killed by my ugly car!”  The starkness of the unisons growing bigger and uglier, bearing down on the butterfly like the motorcycle gang bearing down on the mother and child trying to outrun them on foot down the center line of a long abandoned highway in the apocalyptic dystopian “Mad Max.”

Cheated of Recognition

Before I moved to Athens, Greece, for two years, I cut a demo CD that included pieces my friends wrote, Greek works and a two-minute section of the nine-minute Storm Session for electric guitar and bass by Svoboda that I was just starting to arrange for piano. I distributed these discs in Greece to acquaint my Greek musician friends with current Portland music. Svoboda’s then-publisher contacted me and told me to pull the demo disc because it was illegal to play two minutes of Svoboda’s piece without a license.

These days, online is where performers and fans find the music they want to play and hear. Portland oboist Ann van Bever trolls Vimeo and YouTube for accessible, smart contemporary pieces for her band, The Mousai. My composer friends, both well-known and not so much, are thrilled when I ask whether I may record their pieces for YouTube distribution. In fact, from a lawyer friend of mine who is also a composer I received this reply to my request two days ago: “I would be thrilled and honored if you played and posted my music.”

In an era when most pop musicians and others have long understood the value of video and other social distribution networks to build an audience for their music, exactly three  compositions of Tomas’s music legally appear on YouTube, all of them dating from after he severed ties with that restrictive earlier publisher and took over his own publishing. ONE other upload is on YouTube: mine. Posted today because I’m goddamned fed-up and angry that this kind of small-minded, fear-based, proprietary bullshit has kept Svoboda’s music from listeners for so long.

I do not believe in ripping off composers, but I do believe that dissemination is the first step to letting potential buyers and performers know how good their music is. But Svoboda’s original publisher wouldn’t even allow me to sell his music one track at a time online via Portland-based CD Baby, one of the world’s largest indie album sites, claiming that accurate sales figures cannot be assured! How would a scout like Ann or anyone else looking for contemporary to music play even find out about Svoboda?

Svoboda’s music has been played, sporadically, by orchestras and ensembles all over the world, but not nearly as much as it deserves. Although some recordings have been available on Portland’s North Pacific Musicand other labels, they don’t always show his music in its best light, and without an easily accessible online presence where potential performers and buyers can give full versions a try, Svoboda may as well be the Invisible Composer.

svoboda.portraitCompare his absence from the internet to the relative newcomer superstar Eric Whitacre who shares his work and life on YouTube. In fact, it’s hard to find a major contemporary classical composer whose work isn’t abundantly available for tasting on YouTube, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Vimeo and other easily accessible audio and video sites. John Adams, Steve Reich and Philip Glass allow dozens and dozens of full versions of recordings and performances, as do many, many lesser-known composers. Keeping most of his compositions under proprietary wraps for decades kept Svoboda’s music off of stages and out of the ears of listeners and musicians.

Dedication Demanded

 If you can’t find Svoboda’s music online, what about in person? Of course, without having heard it online first, it’s unlikely a performer would have found his music in the first place. But even if she did, she would encounter the second obstacle to Svoboda’s deserved fame: the difficulty of playing his scores at a concert level. I’ve heard the Suite, op. 124 for piano-four hands slaughtered in concert by a well known new music pianist . . . with Svoboda himself playing one of the two parts!

For me, learning a new Svoboda score means, for example, devoting four intense months to a seven-minute work—the Fugue, op. 87 for violin, cello, piano. Rehearsals began on November 17 for this weekend’s March 15 concert.

When Svoboda’s deceptively logical (which doesn’t mean easily playable) pieces are faked for a performance, they suck just like any other composer‘s music performed without enough rehearsal or attention to the audience. But when they’re learned with obsessive/ compulsive attention to detail and performed like an animal, the audience response is akin to what happens at a Nine Inch Nails concert when composer/singer Trent Reznor launches into the chorus of “Closer.”

Visceral, feral, sexually aggressive, Svoboda’s works demand from performers acolyte-like dedication in tandem with unrepressed, unrestrained passion—the antithesis of too much 20th century classical music. Svoboda is much more like NIN and not at all like Mozart (whose music leaves him cold).

Svoboda, who turns 75 this year, still lives in Portland and is recovering from a stroke. His undeserved obscurity makes me want to go Tarantino on the shortsighted incompetents who have prevented so many people who would love Svoboda’s music from hearing it. The best I and my colleagues Mitchell Falconer, The Mousai and Storm Session (named after his piece in his honor) can do is show the people of his hometown of four decades what they’ve been missing, and show today’s musicians why they might want to play it, too. It’s long past time to make his music audible, and the Invisible Composer visible.

 Portland pianist and teacher Maria Choban is OAW’s Oregon ArtsBitch.

MC Hammered Klavier and friends are toasting the composer and monster creator on Saturday night, March 15 at 7:30 in a free, one-hour concert of his solo piano and chamber music, part of March Music Moderne.

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12 Responses.

  1. Jack Gabel says:

    RE: “Compare his absence from the internet to the relative newcomer superstar Eric Whitacre who shares his work and life on YouTube. In fact, it’s hard to find a major contemporary classical composer whose work isn’t abundantly available for tasting on YouTube, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Vimeo and other easily accessible audio and video sites. John Adams, Steve Reich and Philip Glass allow dozens and dozens of full versions of recordings and performances, as do many, many lesser-known composers. Keeping most of his compositions under proprietary wraps for decades kept Svoboda’s music off of stages and out of the ears of listeners and musicians.”

    As the record label owner and ad-hoc, co-producer with Tomas Svoboda of his most comprehensive body of chamber music (e.g., I am compelled to disagree with the above statement.

    Having worked closely with Tomas and his publisher Thomas C. Stangland for over a decade to release a total of 8 audio CD titles on the North Pacific Music label, and to distribute them world-wide for review and airplay – several of Tomas’ releases spent many months in heavy rotation at some of the nation’s top classical music stations – I can confirm that neither Svoboda, Stangland, nor myself feel Toms’ music suffers from its absence on ubiquitous social media websites.

    There are plenty of samples ‘available online and all the CDs as well – though not for download sales. At Tomas’ publisher’s website, all the music is available – and affordable – there one can also find a comprehensive biography, list of compositions, commissions, reviews, CD releases, etc., etc. Through nearly 4 decades of exhaustive effort by Tomas C. Stangland, working closely with Tomas as his principal publisher, today, over 1,300 known performances of Svoboda’s music have taken place throughout the world, including 450 symphonic performances, with such major orchestras as the Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, San Francisco, Monte-Carlo, Prague, Nagoya and national symphonies of Guatemala and Costa Rica – an indelible achievement, next to the oblivion of social media’s billions of bits and bites.

    If Tomas’ music is not more widely performed, it might well be that too many performers find it a daunting challenge. Maria Choban should be robustly applauded for her dedication to Tomas’ music, her fine recordings and her upcoming tribute concert. I’ll never forget the riveting performance she and her piano partner Kenn Willson gave with Tomas in his magnum opus, ‘Four Visions for Three Pianos’ about 10 years ago on the short-lived downtown Broderick Gallery Series, produced in collaboration with Classical Millenium (all now memories only) – – I regret I won’t be able to attend the Saturday tribute, as I will be on a runout to Corvallis with Agnieszka Laska Dancers –

    BTW – anyone interested in Tomas Svoboda’s masterful collection for solo piano, ‘Nine Etudes in Fugue Style Vol. I & Vol. II’ – – ALD has choreographed them all and will be premiering them in Portland in November, on or near Tomas’ 75th Anniversary. Several were previously performed with Tomas at the piano – unfortunately no longer an option. But, plans are in the works for ALD to collaborate on this premiere with hot, upcoming Chicago-based, Polish-American pianist, Igor Lipinski – – to sample his playing, please check him out this Friday in an all-Polish concert (with some virtually unknown composers: Stojowski, Godowski, Leszetycki, Friedman, plus Paderewski and Chopin.) on the Polish Music at Polish Hall Series –

  2. Jana Hanchett says:

    Svoboda’s music speaks to the 21st century listener, and it’s high time his PR did too. While Stangland’s exhaustive effort to promote Svoboda’s music was necessary back in the day, that “indelible achievement” will be a waste of time, remembered only by program notes, radio scripts, and cd liners filed in a rotting cabinet.

    As to the “oblivion of social media’s billions of bits and bites,” thank god for the online presence of OAW so we can have this very conversation and not have it get lost in a conference room. This necessary discussion is happening NOW, is reaching more readers every day, and more people will wonder who this svoboda is because of it. Too bad they can’t actually download one of his compositions after getting hooked by an awesome performance on youtube.

    Thanks for getting this discussion online and I’m looking forward to Saturday, Maria!!

    • Jack Gabel says:

      yes, I too appreciate OAW – why I always buy ad spots when working as a publicist for various arts organizations

      but seriously, 1300-plus performances… “a waste of time”? – take a peek at the NY Public Library holdings…… ‘Found 87 items’ – “a waste of time”?

      as for this polemically charged thread, one really should know the facts, e.g.,

      – Tomas in one of his last live performances

      – Tomas in his first colaboration with Agnieszka Laska

      – [Etude No 15] Allegretto (3 voice) – [Etude No 16] Moderato (3 voice) – [Etude No 12] Con moto (6 voice) – performances from playback – licensed – Tomas Svoboda – Concerto for Marimba & Orchestra Op.148 mvmt.1 by Kristýna Karchová – Discernment of Time by Tomas Svoboda – Offertories (Vol. 1), Op. 52a, by Tomas Svoboda – FRED SAUTTER AND JOSEPH GOLDEN END OF THE DUOCONCERTO BY TOMAS SVOBODA – Marimba Concerto by T. Svoboda, Mvmt. 1, Alexander Singer – Sonatina for Piano – TRIO SPEKTRUM: TOMAS SVOBODA (piano), MARILYN SHOTOLA (flute), STAN STANFORD (clarinet). Recorded in 2000-01 – an NPM property, illegally posted in entirety – one could call it free advertising – yeah, if there were a link leading back here –

      contrary to the portrayal in the initial posting, I know for a fact that all the above-listed performance videos are known to TC Stangland (publisher of the works) – he tracks Tomas’ online presence very closely and keenly follows radio playlists, which BTW (radio that is) is still very much a viable medium especially since most are streaming live as well – I also know that Stangland has taken no action to have any of those movies taken down, even though they’re posted without his (the publisher’s) permission and also that some of the performances Tomas would certainly not want to see/hear representing his work and in that respect I also know that Stangland is severely conflicted – one of a publisher’s duties is to protect the integrity of the assigned work – is that a concept beyond comprehension? – it’s not lost on most performers – not those I work with anyway – many are very guarded about which of their performances get posted online – composers and their publishers shouldn’t be? – so, what is really going on here?

      both TC Stangland and myself have posted on our company web sites more audio samples and information about Tomas Svoboda than one can find at any other sites on the internet – all of it approved by Tomas – we are both deeply invested in advancing his music and maintaining its integrity in the western classical tradition, something we know is also very much a concern of Tomas, yet we are being attacked as “… shortsighted incompetents…” for nonsensical reasons – not on Bandcamp, Soundcloud – is one to take this seriously? simply google ‘Tomas Svoboda composer’ – our URLs appear on the first search results page – again, what is really going on here?

      look up ‘Tomas Svoboda’ on Amazon – – all NPM Svoboda titles are there – curiously, not this one: – anyone in the recorded music business today knows that the most important place to be is Amazon – many of us don’t like doing business with them – but you simply have to be there – if you’re not on Amazon, you’re nowhere

      again, Bandcamp, Soundcloud ?!?! – again, what is really going on here?

      • jana hanchett says:

        Thanks, Jack, for these links! It’s incredibly valuable to see svoboda perform live and with Agnieszka Laska. Also inspiring to hear and see musicians identify with and take on the challenges in his compositions. Any way to get these links on Svoboda’s website?

        Seems like by posting these 11 links you’re eager to disprove accusations of close-mindedness and squelchingly conservative actions. Is it possible for Stangland to actively work with and encourage musicians to post performances of Svoboda’s compositions on youtube?

        • Jack Gabel says:

          of course it can be done – doing so would be up to Tom Stangland – personally I don’t see any value in doing that at, since audio samples of every track of every NPM CD release are fully accessible, and there are other issues to consider

          here’s a follow up lead: ask yourself why there are no audio recordings or videos posted at the websites of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra, Portland Piano International, Chamber Music Northwest, The Astoria Music Festival, Portland Opera or any other regional professional presenter, featuring performances of entire works – than call the American Federation of Musicians and ask about their policy on that – following that line of research could result in an interesting article

  3. bob priest says:

    Sometimes MMM stands for much more mishigas – as it does right here in the now with this article & comments.

    And, ya know what, I’m lovin’ it. Don’t stop now, droogies, this is a conversation very mmmuch worth having.

    See everyone on Saturday night when MC Hammer Klavier kicks out the Svobodian jams, mutha-phucka!


    • Jack Gabel says:

      maybe the Priesthood could shed some light on “…what is really going on here…?

      again, sorry I can’t be there, as I will be here

      • bob priest says:

        “What is really going on here” is MC Hammered Klavier is gonna storm through some of Maestro Svoboda’s stellar music this Saturday night, 7:30 pm @ the Community Music Center for FREE.

        All else is somewhat peripheral in the soon to be upon us, Svobodian here of the now!

        BTW, no need to link us a third time to where you will be on Saturday night. We’re sorry you can’t join us for this signal occasion.

        • Jack Gabel says:

          right: FREE is still a very good price – why don’t I feel enlightened?

          agreed peripheral, indeed utterly peripheral: pointed attacks on Tomas C. Stangland Music Publishers and North Pacific Music… are we being educated or disciplined? question still unanswered: “What is really going on here”?

          • bob priest says:

            I have NO idea why you don’t feel enlightened – maybe talk to a real Priest about that.

            What’s really going on here?

            While it would be phunn to protract this peripheral dance, sorry to disappoint you but I’ve got a festspiel to run & can’t fritter about with you no mo’ in the here of the now. But, don’t despair, we mmmight have the opportunity to pick things back up in a future there of the then . . .

  4. Maria Choban says:

    Congratulations to the publisher for a successful 20th century promotional strategy. The samples checked on Svoboda’s website and on NPM seem to be one or two minutes long maximum. Years-old live performances by European and American orchestras and one minute excerpts do nothing to help today’s Oregon performers find out about Svoboda’s music because they are looking for full versions on youtube, vimeo, soundcloud, bandcamp, etc.

    Regarding finding full performances online – I did two searches. I searched youtube for music by Tomas Svoboda and got 3 entries. I then did a google video search and found one more vimeo entry. How is an Oregon presenter or performer supposed to find pieces by Tomas in their entirety when they don’t have a more comprehensive list like the one you posted in the comment? I did check all 11 of the links you sent and they are still live, btw. 11 compared to pages of another Oregon-identified classical composer, Morten Lauridsen, on just youtube (20 entries per page).

    I would LOVE to see these eleven links on Tomas’ website, as many if not most 21st century musicians who want to get their music out to today’s listeners have been doing for years. Here are a couple of examples of Portland composers and record labels that make it easy for listeners to discover there music: and . I know we all want to see Tomas’s music reach as many of today’s listeners as possible so we welcome other ideas from OAW readers. Thanks also for your compliments on my performances. Sorry you won’t be able to see this one, but I welcome all OAW readers.

  5. Jack Gabel says:

    RE: “…one minute excerpts do nothing to help today’s Oregon performers find out about Svoboda’s music because they are looking for full versions on youtube, vimeo, soundcloud, bandcamp, etc.”

    again, I have to respectfully disagree – again Stangland has made no move to have any of those movies taken down – as for social media sites, I usually find their interfaces more troublesome than dedicated websites – I will not even attempt to audition an artist on a My Space page

    something to consider: the 2 best selling CD titles distributed by North Pacific Music (selling ca 1k units / 5 year period – good numbers in the art-music world) are represented by only 5 < 60 sec. audio samples on the NPM website and by zero audio samples at Amazon (where most of the sales are made) – the artists insist on offering only 5 samples – why? their position: we are not in the music business to give away our work – 5 samples are enough, they claim; moreover, they do not allow their performances to be videographed – they are not on YouTube, period

    points of realization about YouTube and the internet in general: some people just love seeing themselves in movies, no matter how badly made (more often than not with dreadful audio) and in print: the blogosphere is the eminent domain of the imminently unpublished – again, what is going on here?

    best wishes for your concert – hope you sell out – no doubt your fans will love it – if you'd like a discounted consignment of CDs to sell, let me know – could provide 6 from the chamber music series – sorry, I can't give them away, we need to get Tomas his royalties and we face a debt service (servitude) schedule that won't quite – as you may have heard me say before: it's all fundraising all the time in the Capitalist Paradise – break a leg

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