Meyer Kupferman

Maverick modernist composer with a special interest in jazz
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The Independent Online

Meyer Kupferman, composer: born New York 3 July 1926; married 1973 Pei Fen (one daughter); died near Rhinebeck, New York 26 November 2003.

Meyer Kupferman was something of a maverick among American composers, his own man in life as he was in music. He took what he want from his musical environment - from jazz as from 12-tone modernism - to form a style that manages to be both modern and accessible. And he founded his own record label to make sure the world heard it.

His family origins were colourful, though typical of many immigrants to America. His father, Elias Staff-Cooperman, born in Romania in 1900, fled from an oppressive stepfather and made his living across mainland Europe as an itinerant folk-singer, accordionist, wrestler, baker and cook. After conscription into the Austro-Hungarian army, and being wounded in action, he emigrated to the United States with his sister in the early 1920s. He became a baker in New York, changed his name to Kupferman (most immigrants anglicised their names; he went the other way) to eradicate any memory of his stepfather and, engaged to sing at a wedding, met and fell in love with a Russian émigrée, Fanny Hoffmann, who had fled from the anti-Semitic pogroms in the Ukraine. Meyer was the fruit of their union.

His early years were unsettled, with the family moving to a new apartment every year throughout, and after, the Depression, yanking young Meyer from one school to another. At the age of five he was put to the violin but showed little interest in the instrument. But at 10 a chance encounter with the clarinet changed his life. He took lessons, found he enjoyed music, taught himself to compose and play the piano and began to write music and arrangements for his friends. As a teenager he became a regular performer in the jazz clubs of Coney Island, Brooklyn, and enjoyed the burgeoning of the big-band sound.

Although he was entirely self-taught as a composer, he did take formal lessons in theory, chamber music and orchestral music at the High School of Music and Art and at Queens College. Another important ingredient in his musical make-up came from his father, who encouraged his son's musical development and sang him Hebrew, Romanian and gypsy songs, which Meyer would follow with his clarinet - elements which resurfaced intermittently in Kupferman's music in the decades ahead, as in The Garden of my Father's House (1972) for violin and clarinet, which is dedicated to his father's memory.

Kupferman was only in his early twenties when, in 1951, he took up a professorship in composition and chamber music at Sarah Lawrence College and he stayed there for 43 years, retiring only in 1994, his period there including five terms as head of department. He conducted the orchestra and chorus there as well as its chamber improvisation ensemble, took classes in theory and film music and turned out a long series of experimental works for the drama and dance students.

Music poured from Meyer Kupferman over the course of his six-decade composing career. His tally of symphonies reached 12, and he produced 10 concertos, for a variety of instruments. His chamber works (which include seven string quartets) can be counted by the hundreds - he wrote over 60 solo and chamber pieces for his own instrument, the clarinet. He was attracted to the stage, too, eventually writing no fewer than nine ballets and seven operas. There are film scores (one of them for Truman Capote's Trilogy), works combining electronic sounds and live performers, other orchestral works besides the symphonies and concertos.

Although Kupferman first began to develop an interest in 12-tone writing - which avoids an established sense of key - in the early 1950s, he was concerned that his music should not lose the lyricism that had marked it until then. One of his solutions was to use the same 12-note row in an extended series of works, his Cycle of Infinities, which came to comprise over 30 variegated concert pieces, written between 1962 and 1983, among them solo and chamber scores, a cantata and a three-act opera, The Judgement (1966). Jazz, Jewish melisma and a ready sense of humour gave listeners three more handles with which to grasp his music.

Indeed, his familiarity with jazz made it inevitable that it would figure as an influence in his concert music. Thus he wrote a Concerto for Cello and Jazz Band, a Sonata on Jazz Elements, a Jazz String Quartet (No 6 of his seven), a Jazz Symphony - which he recorded in Lithuania in the summer of 1990, in the teeth of the Russian blockade. And he wrote about jazz, too: his two-volume Atonal Jazz, published in 1992, is an ambitious, detailed study of advanced chromatic technique.

The conductor Jonathan Sternberg, saluting Kupferman's "extraordinary imagination" and "fascinating personality", found that he

was always able to contribute to any conversation something of interest, regardless of the subject. He knew the answers to everything musically.

At their last meeting,

already ailing, he revealed disappointment [that] his creative qualities . . . were still generally unrecognised, in favour of the massive trash being served even by distinguished conductors . . . catering to dumbed- down audiences.

It was characteristic of Kupferman's energy that he didn't take his neglect lying down. Just as at the beginning of his career, when he had roped in colleagues - among them Morton Feldman, Seymour Shifrin and Allan Blank - to form an ensemble called Composers' Workshop, so, too, he set up Soundspells Productions to record his music. The label has now released a generous quantity of Kupferman's output on CD - though it's only the tip of a very large iceberg.

Martin Anderson