Brooklyn Philharmonic Director Lukas Foss Composer, conductor and pianist Lukas Foss led several orchestras in his career, and took the Brooklyn Philharmonic from a community orchestra to a vital part of New York City's music scene. Foss died Feb. 1. He was 86.
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Brooklyn Philharmonic Director Lukas Foss

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Brooklyn Philharmonic Director Lukas Foss

Brooklyn Philharmonic Director Lukas Foss

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DAVE DAVIES, host:

Composer, conductor and pianist Lukas Foss was one of America's most committed champions of new music. He died at his home in New York Sunday at the age of 86. Though he was born in Germany, Foss spent most of his career in the United States and was a major force in American composition. He was known for exploring a wide variety of styles and techniques, often combining different approaches in the same composition. At various times, he focused on surrealism, electronic music, minimalism and improvisation. British musicologist Wilford Millers once described Foss's body of work as a pocket history of American music during the 20th century. Foss conducted orchestras in Buffalo, Brooklyn, Jerusalem and Milwaukee. Terry spoke to Lukas Foss in 1987. Let's begin with an excerpt of his composition "Three American Pieces: Composer's Holiday" from "Foss Plays Foss."

(Soundbite of "Three American Pieces" by Lukas Foss)

TERRY GROSS, host:

When you started as a conductor bringing new music to American audiences, did you ever want to shock those audiences to get a kind of right of spring response?

MR. LUKAS FOSS (Director, Brooklyn Philharmonic Symphony; Composer): No, I don't believe that it's my business to shock an audience. I think that I like to surprise them, which means open a door for them, but shock I think not. Unless you - maybe shock is one of those surprises. If it's in the music, yes. But I don't remember composing anything specially in order to shock people nor do I remember conducting anything in a special way to shock people.

GROSS: Do you think that's a kind of immature response to want to shock people?

Mr. FOSS: Yes, I think that there may be fringe benefits in that, or cringe benefits, maybe I should say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FOSS: But (Laughing) I don't think it's a very musical attitude.

GROSS: In the Village Voice, music critic Tom Johnson once described you as - this is what he wrote. He wrote, the young Foss was about the closest thing contemporary music ever had to a real Mozart-caliber child prodigy. Now, you started composing, I think, when you were about seven years old?

Mr. FOSS: That's true.

GROSS: What got you started?

Mr. FOSS: We had a harmonium, and I tried to play some hymn tunes on it and then try to find my own harmony, and then, was decided that Lukas was ready to have some piano lessons. So, they got a piano, and I began to compose music along with the first piano piece. You see, when I was just able to play a little two-part invention, I immediately wanted to write one. In other words, I wanted to do myself what I loved, and that's been that way for a long time. I wrote the music I loved.

Then one day, much later, a door opened, and I thought to myself, well, but one could do this instead. And so, I became suddenly - not - maybe not that sudden, but wildly, avant-garde and experimental. And now, I am in a period where I'm actually reconciling my earlier traditional music with these experimental things. In other words, I'm trying to be just as crazy and adventurous while at the same time, being romantic and close to the music I always loved that made me become a composer in the first place - Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and so forth.

GROSS: Were you exposed to a different kind of teaching style in Paris than you got when you came to America?

Mr. FOSS: Yes, but not because of the style of the country but because of the particular people. I mean, you know, every teacher has such a different approach. The French approach is - was at that time, very quite academic. And as a matter of fact, when I began studying at the Curtis with the old teacher of Menotti and Barber, who was then very old by the time I got hold of him, he was extremely academic, and I couldn't stand it. I couldn't graduate fast enough to get out of that. And then I studied with Hindemith later on at Yale University.

GROSS: You had a very, you know, formal, pretty traditional music training in your early years. What led you into the experimentation, the avant-garde radicalism that you started writing and conducting?

Mr. FOSS: That was probably my project in chamber improvisation, which I started as a professor at UCLA around 1956, trying to invent out of envy of jazz, a kind of non-jazz improvisation. And so, we started to improvise, but one day, my friend Pierre de Gasquet said, you know, it sounds like music badly remembered. But we improvised, and he was so right.

So, I asked myself, what would be the kind of music, it would thrive on the improvisational process? And with that question, I let in the whole Pandora's box of troubles namely, aleatoric music. Aleas means chance, dice. In other words, three years before the word got coined, we were already working with these concepts of chance music in improvisation. And then finally, I turned my back to improvisation, but meanwhile, it hadn't changed my students at UCLA nearly as much as it has changed me.

GROSS: You know, one of the interesting things about chance processes is that, I think, for a composer, it could free you from your own limitations and free you from your own personal taste.

Mr. FOSS: You're right. It gives you something - very often, something to start with, whether you do what John Cage does, which is throw a dice, or whether you do what Shcoenbeck(ph) did, which is start with the 12-tone row, you get something that helps you put notes on the empty piece of paper, either because you have a row to start with. In other words, it gives you something to do when - instead of sitting there, staring into a vacant space.

GROSS: Is that why you started doing it, to try to break out of what you perceived to be your own taste or personal limitations?

Mr. FOSS: That wasn't in my case, no. I think it was that chamber improvisation ensemble that did it to me. It was - to use that metaphor again, it was that door that opened when I suddenly saw all these unexplored territories, and I got interested. See, young people are not very dangerous, they're usually traditionalists. They want to do what they love, and they love what's old, what they're used to. Young and old people are the same in that respect. But when you reach maturity, suddenly, there's something in you that wants to venture out. And you get very excited about that possibility. So, when that opened up to me, I went all the way.

GROSS: Could I ask you what got you back into classical music after all of your experimentation with atonality and surrealism and chance processes, improvisation? Because you're conducting a lot of classics now, as well as new music.

Mr. FOSS: Yes, of course, but that's an easy question because I never left home. In other words, since home was Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Wagner - since that was my home, I never left it. I was always close to that music. As a matter of fact, in my most avant-garde days, I needed it. I needed that - you see, the best thing is to have one big foot in the past and a big foot in the future. I'll confess to you that I'm happiest when I conduct the old masters.

GROSS: Why?

Mr. FOSS: Because that's where I come from and because that is the music I've known all my life. That I do for memory. Whereas, when I conduct my latest work from - if in front of an orchestra, my eyes are pinned to the music, lest I get lost in the score. I mean, that is - it's a matter of what you've known and loved all your life and to make that fresh again, make that as if the ink were not yet dry, that is part of the fun of conducting for me. That's why I conduct.

And I think I have a sort of a direct line to the classics, as a composer, that many conductors might not have. And that makes conducting the classics so interesting. I mean, I can take a Beethoven symphony and literally bring out the humor, bring out everything that would make it fresh, instead of standing there polishing it like an old shoe.

DAVIES: Composer Lukas Foss speaking with Terry Gross in 1987. He died Sunday at the age of 86. Coming up, David Edelstein on the new stop animation film, "Coraline." This is Fresh Air.

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