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THINKING SOUND MUSIC: The Life and Work of Robert Erickson. Charles Shere. With a Foreword by John Rockwell. Copyright 1995 by Fallen Leaf Press. P.O. Box 10034. Berkeley CA 94709. 660w
San Francisco: The Conservatory, 1957-1966

Ironically, while the university music department was growing staid in Berkeley, a town now generally thought of as radical, the San Francisco Conservatory, even under a conservative director, was soon to develop one of the most innovative music schools of the 1960s. This would be almost entirely Erickson's work. The Conservatory had an impressive though conventional history: Ernest Bloch had directed it in the late 1920s, and Yehudi Menuhin, Ruggiero Ricci, and Isaac Stern had been students. When Erickson arrived in 1957, Albert Elkus was finishing his seven-year tenure as director (nearing his mid- seventies, he was eking out his retirement from UC Berkeley). He had developed the Conservatory's educational standing, seeing it accredited for the bachelor of music degree; and he had managed a successful fund-raising campaign for the purchase of a new campus: a rambling, vaguely Mission-style building in a foggy, middle-class, single-storey residential section far from the center of town.

After settling the school in its new building, Elkus retired. His successor, Robin Laufer, was a European, a graduate of the Vienna Conservatory who had earned his doctorate at a German university just as the Nazis began their attacks on progressive music. Laufer had fought in the French army, been captured by the Germans, escaped from a prison camp in eastern Poland to Russia, and returned to France to become part of the underground in the Pyrenees. Erickson recalled him as natty, proud, diplomatic when that quality was advantageous, but a tough opponent in negotiations. He was handsome and masterly in his appearance, a great success in society and no doubt with his board of directors. There was always a rumor that he was somehow in a secret service.

In any case he was tenacious, keeping the Conservatory alive on a budget much tighter than those at the state-run college music departments. Erickson taught a number of classes, up to sixteen class-hours a week (the more usual figure is six to nine, to which counseling, research, and committee work must be added) for a small salary. The family income was augmented by Lenore's teaching at Dominican College in San Rafael and the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, and the Ericksons were finally able to move from rented homes, most recently in a cottage in the Berkeley hills, to a purchased house in San Francisco.

At the Conservatory Erickson taught a wide-range of classes: history; practical courses in sight-singing, ear training and dictation; and theoretical classes in composition and analysis. For a year or two he prepared the groundwork for what would later be seen as a unique moment, when theory and practice, convention and innovation, discipline and imaginativeness would combine to usher in the 1960s. At the same time, from 1957 to 1960, Erickson's own music was moving into a new dimension. Still soundly reasoned and intelligently constructed, its theoretical grounding was becoming more responsive to external influences.

His "Chamber Concerto", completed in the pivotal year of 1960, still recalled the dramatic gestures and complex textures of Alban Berg, but it permitted in its final movement a certain amount of improvisation by one or two instruments while the rest of the ensemble continued with conventionally determined material. One can see this as a composer's expression of the influence of such practical and collaborative processes as classroom seminars and ear-training on such conventionally individual intellectual or scholarly work as theoretical analysis.

(It is tempting, too, to see the newly emerging polyphony of improvised melodies, reacting to one another while steadfastly developing their own profiles, as analogous to the freewheeling negotiations and the opportune evasions Erickson had always enjoyed in turning organizational structures to the advantage of his own agendas, whether in the army or as a faculty member.) p47


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