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

March 12, 2014
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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