“If all the cards have been dealt,” wrote Elliott Schwartz in one of his many essays on post-modernism in music, “the job of the creative artist is to keep shuffling the deck.”
Last week, Maine and the music world lost a pivotal figure in Schwartz, a pianist and composer of classical, experimental, and orchestral works and a fixture in Maine music pedagogy for half a century.
Born in 1936 in New York, Elliott Schwartz was a distinguished professor of music at Bowdoin College in Brunswick since 1964, a stint that included 12 years as department chair. Some of his students and collaborators in that position included Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky), USM professor Dan Sonenberg, and Portland Symphony Orchestra composer Robert Moody.
His influence as a professor extended well beyond music.
“He was passionate about teaching and about helping students unlock gifts they didn’t know they had,” writes DeRay McKesson to the Phoenix. McKesson is a racial justice educator and Black Lives Matter activist, and a Bowdoin graduate who worked with Schwartz as a student leader. “He is a Bowdoin treasure and will be deeply missed.”
Schwartz was the co-editor of Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music, a massive tome containing essays from composers as diverse and influential as Stravinsky, Copland, John Cage, Steve Reich, Stockhausen, Harry Partch, Gyorgy Ligeti and others. He was also the co-author of Music Since 1945, and the author of Electronic Music: A Listener’s Guide (1973). Throughout his life, he’s charted the differences and similarities of analog, digital, and electronic music, and how each would call for different modes of performance and revolutions in styles of listening.
One of the hallmarks of Schwartz’s legacy is his ability to work in art-academic spheres, while also observing enough of his own idiosyncrasies to keep things playful, vibrant and original.
He landed in academia, but his own education came from the school of chance operations and performance art happenings driven by John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Allan Kaprow, and others in the New York canon. These aleatoric compositions would figure prominently in his 1970s output, and cemented Schwartz’s name alongside these greats. His piece “California Games” (1978) was designed for 4-6 improvisers to play along with a handful of audience members equipped with tape machines. “Telly,” a 1975 “game piece,” called for five brass or woodwind instruments, four percussion players, three TV sets, two radios, and a tape.
In 1966, he composed a piece designed to be played by 12 instrumentalists within a building at least 15 stories high. It was written to celebrate the opening of Bowdoin’s Coles Tower, then the tallest building in Maine. He liked to spell the brass instrument “sachsofone.” Earlier in 2016, he collaborated with the psych-folk experimental outfit Big Blood on an LP for Feeding Tube Records titled Ant Farm, a nod to Big Blood member (and visual artist) Colleen Kinsella’s work with Elliott’s wife Dorothy “Dee Dee” Schwartz in the art quartet The Ant Girls. His sense of humor, play, and vivid experimentalism never left him.
For decades, Elliott and Dee Dee, a former director of the Maine Arts Commission who passed away in 2014 at the age of 75, were tremendous benefactors and supporters of the Maine arts scene. The approach to their craft that they’ve modeled in our state for decades will help keep Maine artists shuffling the deck for generations to come.