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I Am an Autodidact

by Zeke Hecker

Iım an autodidact, not so much self-taught as untaught. Until my early twenties, I had no idea I would become a composer. Without conservatory training, Iıve had to capitalize on a few strengths and disguise many deficiencies. Large abstract forms are hard; shorter works, often text-based, come more easily. Since Iım not a pianist, my keyboard writing tends to be unidiomatic; I rarely write for solo piano, though I use it extensively to accompany voices and other instruments. On the other hand, having played in orchestras all my life (seated royally in the middle), I have a pretty good feel for orchestral colors and textures.

Because Iım an oboist, Iım attracted to woodwind music, and have written more frequently for winds than for strings. Because Iım a lover of literature and was a high school English teacher for over thirty years, Iıve written a lot of art songs and, more recently, theater songs, as well as several operas and other vocal works. In fact, I began my composing career with an agenda: to set English-language texts in a manner that respects their prosody and inflections, the natural rise and fall and pace of speech. Iıd found much English text setting unsatisfactory.

Composers need performers. If the music sits on a shelf, it can hardly be said to exist. Iıve been lucky: most of my works have been performed. My association with a couple of orchestras, with the local high school, with various skilled musical colleagues, with the Vermont Theatre Company, and especially with Friends of Music at Guilford has made that possible, and of course Iıve played some of it myself. I like to write for specific performers and occasions. And I like specifications: the piece needs to be this long, for this combination, to fit this particular mood. Restrictions liberate. And itıs nice to be asked.

Iım an opera enthusiast, especially contemporary operas and works hovering outside the standard repertory. It was inevitable I would try my hand at it. "Mushrooms" (1978) was a breakthrough piece, and remains one of my most successful; it fueled further music theater ambitions. With "Pericles" (1980) I ventured into full-length opera, and Iıve planned others, but getting an opera onstage is a major undertaking.

In 1997 I turned to musical comedy for "Barataria." That was, if anything, an even bigger plunge. Because I assumed it would be my only effort in that genre, I tossed in everything I could, with a dozen soloists and a big chorus and dancers and nearly 30 separate numbers. Foolhardy, but fun. Although most of the lyrics were adapted from poems by Royall Tyler, on whose play the show was based, for a few songs I had to write my own lyrics. This, too, was a breakthrough, and unexpected. I found I had a knack for it. I started writing "chamber musicals" for a couple of actor/singers and a piano, designed for an intimate space. And suddenly I was a playwright as well. There have been three so far, two of them already staged, with three more in various states of (in)completion. "Double Exposure" and "Bemused" were enthusiastically received, and among the most satisfying experiences Iıve known, mainly because musicals are collaborative in ways that even opera is not. As for models: Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and most significantly Stephen Sondheim. The basics: lyrics and music, verse and refrain, song and scene, the achievement of a fully "integrated" musical in this uniquely American idiom. I love it. Who knew?

Meantime, I retired from teaching a couple of years ago to devote myself mainly to composing. I hit the ground running, with operas and ballets and musicals and sonatas and whatnot. My first symphony was unleashed on an unsuspecting world when I was 58 years old; that outdoes even Brahms, who was a forty-year-old stripling when he produced his. I have a list of projects which could keep me going for at least ten years. Will I do them? They say there are no second acts in American lives. I wouldnıt know; I havenıt finished Act I yet.