The Genius Within

Why the Twin Cities arts community is throwing composer William Bolcom the festival of his life

Click here to listen to an excerpt from ‘The Graceful Ghost,’ a song by William Bolcom.

Philip Brunelle, head of the Vocal”‘Essence choral ensemble in Minneapolis and all-around arts impresario, believes there are three composers who have truly embodied the range of American music: Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and William Bolcom. Only one of them is still alive—and undoubtedly is the least familiar to Minnesotans.

William Bolcom has won four Grammy Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. He composed one piece so large and encompassing, threading so many styles of music, that Brunelle said it makes Mahler’s famous Eighth Symphony look like a simple piano trio. You can hear that opus (Songs of Innocence and of Experience) and many other compositions during the “Illuminating Bolcom” festival, running April 12 to May 5 and involving 20 local arts and educational organizations, from the Minnesota Orchestra to the Minnesota Opera. And you can judge for yourself: Is Brunelle crazy, or is Bolcom just that good?

Bolcom, who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and is in his late sixties, was a child prodigy, giving piano concerts at age 5 and studying music at the University of Washington in Seattle at age 11. Since then, he has worked in just about every musical medium, composing operas, symphonies, movie scores, theater music, cabaret songs, gospel tunes, organ music, piano etudes, choral works, violin sonatas, and more. He has collaborated with the opera star Placido Domingo and with the late film director Robert Altman. During this month’s festival, some 400 performers, from cabaret singers to orchestra musicians, will be required to pull off the breadth of his oeuvre.

Bolcom seems never to have met a musical idiom he didn’t like. It was Duke Ellington who said, “If it sounds good, it is good”—a nebulous assertion that Bolcom may actually have proven. In his masterwork Songs of Innocence and of Experience, for instance, Bolcom’s music shifts from choral singing to country twang to reggae romp. And it’s hardly dabbling: the country numbers could be vintage Hank Williams; the reggae, classic Bob Marley.

At a recent luncheon in which Bolcom was introduced to Twin Cities arts patrons and the media, he mentioned musicians as diverse as rapper Grandmaster Flash and French modernist composer Olivier Messiaen (a one-time mentor). Then he sat at a piano and pounded out an original ragtime tune (Bolcom helped revive ragtime in the 1970s). When asked if there is any style that doesn’t sit well with him these days, Bolcom named only current Broadway tunes, which he finds formulaic.

It’s safe to say that Bolcom doesn’t consider musical styles quite the way most of us do; instead, he thinks of them the way composers centuries ago thought of keys, like B-flat or A-minor—as unique settings for different moods. E-flat, for instance, was once deemed the key of anger. In this sense, moving between reggae and country music in one piece is no different than the common practice of modulating between keys. Bolcom says his musical diversity is not a deliberate choice: a style will simply suggest itself to him, bubbling up from the text or theme he’s working with. If the inspiration won’t go away, he says, in it goes.

Bolcom worked on Songs of Innocence and of Experience over a 20-year period. It is set to 46 William Blake poems, each of which suggested a different style to Bolcom. At its premiere, in 1984, nearly 500 musicians, from harmonica players to opera singers, were enlisted to perform. The Boston Globe called it “the greatest achievement of synthesis in American music since Porgy and Bess.” Some of this is old news to people in areas where Bolcom’s works have been extensively performed. With Brunelle’s help, the Twin Cities will soon be at the top of that list.

“Illuminating Bolcom” runs April 12 to May 5 at various venues around the Twin Cities. See for details.

Click here to listen to an excerpt from “The Graceful Ghost,” a song by William Bolcom.