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Miriam Gideon

By George Perle

I met Miriam Gideon for the first time fifty years ago, within a few days after moving from the Midwest to New York City upon parting company with the U.S. Army. I had spent about two years of continuous overseas service in Europe, the Philippines, and Japan, and I needed to connect again, not only with friends and family, but with what in some ways seemed more difficult and problematical—my life, education, and work as musician and composer—to connect again with what had been central to my existence from the time I was seven years old and from which I had been so drastically separated.

Within those first few days I made two new acquaintances who helped me to find my bearings and who I felt at once were destined to be my life-long friends. One of them was the woman who is now my wife. The other was Miriam Gideon.

Miriam was beautiful, deeply sensitive to other people’s interests and feelings, witty in a quiet and gentle way, open and honest, intensely involved in the life around her and in her work, and yet at the same time infectiously and reassuringly calm and composed. This is the sense I had of her at that first evening we spent together, and it never changed at all until the last few years, when she was ravaged by Alzheimer’s disease.

I heard her music for the first time on that first evening, and this too produced a vivid, fresh, and permanent impression. Miriam had only recently discovered, mined, unfolded, carved out, developed, whatever may be the best way to describe the tangled processes by which one eventually and in the most spontaneous way creates a personal, representative, characteristic  musical language that defines the esthetic and the sound and the basic technical methods of one’s work for the rest of one’s life.

The first compositional consequence of this path that Miriam had chosen, or that had chosen Miriam, was a setting of lines from “The Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thompson for voice, oboe, violin, viola, and cello. We can call this the first work of Miriam’s maturity and it initiated a series of pieces for voice and assorted instrumental ensembles that gives us a summation of what was most essential in her life as a composer and her most essential contribution to the art of music.

Though Miriam was not given to discussing her work in such terms, her path to “The Hound of Heaven” and the series of remarkable compositions in the same genre that followed self-evidently commenced against the background of an anxious awareness of the distribution of the common practice of Western music. For her, as Leverkühn’s devil in Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus puts it, “It [was] all up with the once bindingly valid conventions that guaranteed the freedom of play.”

Miriam Gideon went back to the beginning, by responding to this situation with her own personal version of the “free atonality” of the early post-tonal composition of the Second Vienna School. For a relatively analogous situation in modern poetry, where “the primary reference is to something inside the poem itself,” Joseph Frank coined the term “reflexive reference.” “Free atonality” is an approach to composition, but it is doubtful that one can call it a musical language. Leverkühn’s devil tells him what he already knows when he says, “Composing itself has got too hard, devilishly hard.”

Schoenberg eventually came up with his twelve-tone system, in which all the pitch relations of a given composition were made referable to an ordering, specific to that composition, of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. This was more than an attempt to make composition easier, but there is no question that for many composers it served that purpose as well. Miriam, however, found her true compositional-voice in “free atonality” and did not continue into what for the Vienna School and its disciples was the next historical step, the twelve-tone system.

By the time Miriam came to write “The Hound of Heaven” a kind of musical inflation had set in and cheapened the value of what had always, in art music, been the primary attribute of a note—its pitch. One of the avant-garde solutions to this problem was the acceptance of fortuity as a guiding principle. Another avant-garde solution, at the opposite extreme, was the predetermination of pitch relations through abstract arithmetical operations. In effect, pitch-values were definitively established, but they didn’t appear to fulfill any function other than that of illustrating a prefabricated “analysis.”

Miriam Gideon’s reaction to this situation was to concern herself with the pitch-value of every single note to an extraordinary degree. To her the inherent ambiguity of pitch-functions in the contemporary tone-material meant that one had to be more careful than ever, and this sense of the significance of every note pervades her work and imbues her music with a kind of personal, reflective quality, almost as though the composer’s search for the ideal formation of her thought had become part of the composition itself. The same concern with detail that the musical sound reveals characterizes her treatment of text. The musical structure parallels the sense of the poem and its intrinsic verbal relationships, rather than external formal features.

Miriam Gideon’s work is outstanding, but it is not isolated. She is one of a significant group of American composers who continued to work in a free atonal idiom long after the great majority of their fellows in this country and abroad had rejected this approach to composition in favor of the systematic atonality of the twelve-tone technique and serialism. Among its practitioners of an earlier generation one might mention Ruggles, Sesssions, Wolpe, Varèse, and Ruth Crawford Seeger. It is a tendency that persists with great vitality into our own day. As an indigenous American movement it has been compared to abstract expressionism in the field of American painting.

Though Miriam was an open and friendly person, ready to share her thoughts and feelings with others, she was exceedingly private and reticent about her composing. She was always happy to share the music itself with her friends, and we would often listen together to her tapes and recordings, but in whatever conversations might ensue there was never a hint about her working methods or of how she saw her work in the context of what others were composing. When I published a fairly detailed analytical article on her work in 1958, she was of no help to me at all, I had to figure everything out for myself. Was it simply that she didn’t want to talk about these things? Was it that she didn’t know what to say? I could never decide. She probably never thought of herself in the way that I have just described her, as part of an indigenous and important American development in 20th-century music.

She was also the first woman ever to have been commissioned by a synagogue to compose a complete Sabbath service, and the second woman composer to be elected to membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Feminism, however, was not on her agenda. “I didn’t know I was a woman composer until the 1960’s, she said. “I knew I was a composer—a young composer for many years, and then, suddenly, an older composer. But never a woman composer.”

What was most important to her in her professional life, after composition, was her teaching. It was for her a nurturing experience, she would have said it kept her healthy, and she did not give it up until long after the customary retirement age, when she was forced to do so by her final illness.

I recall a conversation between Miriam and a fellow composer who was complaining about the composer’s situation in the world today—a world, he felt, in which it is impossible for a serious composer to find any proper motivation for composing music. Miriam replied, “If you can relate two notes to each other in such a way that they belong together, that’s enough of a reason to compose.” This was Miriam’s way of saying that music begins with a musical idea, not with an agenda.

Miriam was able to pinpoint the moment in her life when she became a composer. She had begun to write little pieces soon after her piano lessons commenced at age 9. She describes how, in her early teens, “already addicted to poetry, I came across a poem that genuinely moved me. Something in me was ready to latch on to it, and I realized that something had come into being that had not been there before. From that point on, whether I was working with words or not, I was a composer.” The magic, intensity, and purity of that early vision pervade her work and ultimately define its extraordinary aesthetic power.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 7, 1996.

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