Jay Schwartz's music reflects a past of oceans and deserts

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Jay Schwartz's music reflects a past of oceans and deserts
Composer Jay Schwartz, behind at right, at a recent rehearsal led by the conductor Teodor Currentzis, at the podium, in Stuttgart, Germany on Nov. 28, 2023. The composer’s latest work, “Theta,” born of the pandemic, loss and long swims in open water, is premiering in Germany. (Felix Broede/The New York Times)

by Jeffrey Arlo Brown

STUTTGART.- In early March 2020, composer Jay Schwartz traveled to San Diego from his home in Cologne, Germany, to attend the funeral of Don Bukovich — his stepfather and the only person in his extended family with an affinity for classical music.

Bukovich was especially fond of Bach. And, when the pandemic hit and Schwartz got stuck in San Diego and stayed with his brother, he found himself playing Bach’s “Komm, süßer Tod” (“Come, Sweet Death”) over and over on the piano. He also went for long swims in the Pacific Ocean, far from the shoreline.

“You reach a kind of euphoric state,” Schwartz said in an interview. “You’re in the ocean and you’re euphoric because of the natural beauty, but also because you’re on the cusp of extreme danger.”

As Schwartz swam, he thought about musical ideas: an unusual chord progression in the Bach piece; glissandos, the sliding from one note to another; and an aural illusion known as the Shepard tone, the sonic equivalent of a barber’s pole.

“I started to superimpose those things in an intuitive way, not thinking it was a concept,” Schwartz said. “It just happened while in the ocean.”

By June 2020, Schwartz had finished a new piece for orchestra based on those ideas. He called it “Theta,” after the Greek letter once used as a symbol for death.

No one had commissioned the work. But a week after it was completed, Schwartz received a call from the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra. Its music director, Teodor Currentzis, was planning a program built around Gustav Mahler’s final, incomplete Symphony No. 10, and wanted Schwartz to compose a piece.

Schwartz considered writing something new. But, as he researched the end of Mahler’s life, Schwartz realized that the symphony and “Theta” had both been inspired by Bach works related to death. The pieces also shared an interest in mortality’s release: As he composed, Mahler wrote in a poem to his wife, Alma, that he hoped for “the bliss of death in the most painful hours.”

On Thursday, Currentzis and the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra will premiere “Theta” and other responses to Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 in Stuttgart, followed by performances in Hamburg, Freiburg and Berlin. The concerts are a milestone for Schwartz, 58, an artist with no formal composition training who has forged a career largely parallel to the structures of contemporary classical music in Germany.

Despite — or, as Schwartz sees it, because of — his lack of academic education, his music is unmistakable. All his pieces include glissandos, which he uses to create arresting parabolas of texture. “There is no glissando without dissonance,” Currentzis said in an interview. “Always he puts a note that keeps, and then the glissando creates the nirvana of the dissonance, of falling apart.” At key moments, these tendrils of sound alight on major and minor chords: familiar harmonies rendered new.

Schwartz’s pieces have clearly audible forms and stark climaxes, taking obvious pleasure in sound. “Musical events happen that achieve a kind of breathing or wave-shaped forms,” Bernd Feuchtner, a writer and the artistic director of the Handel Festival in Halle, Germany, said in a phone interview. He added that when he hears a new Schwartz piece, “I’m always sitting on the edge of my seat.”

Conductor Matthias Pintscher has said of Schwartz, “For me, he’s a Schubert of our time.”

SCHWARTZ’S FATHER was a boxer turned pool maintenance worker; his mother, a homemaker who later worked as a schoolteacher. Schwartz, who was born in San Diego, showed musical talent early: At 4, he would pick out snatches of the easy listening music his parents liked on his plastic toy piano. At 7, he began formal lessons.

His parents divorced in 1979, and his mother moved Schwartz and his two brothers to Deming, New Mexico, whose desert landscape he loved. He began practicing to become a classical pianist. Schwartz studied music at Arizona State University, where he won his first and only piano competition.

“I was taught that that was the thing I should be doing: playing Rachmaninoff concerti, and not making them up myself,” Schwartz said. “I actually did play a Rachmaninoff concerto with the college orchestra. And at the end it was like, ‘Did that, got the T-shirt. I’m out of here.’”

In 1989, Schwartz traveled to the university town of Tübingen, Germany, for what was supposed to be a one-year exchange program as part of his graduate school studies in Arizona. He has lived in Germany ever since.

Schwartz considered studying musicology, but a professor, citing his then-rudimentary German, discouraged him. Instead, Schwartz practiced the language and worked on the assembly line of a Mercedes-Benz factory. “I was either listening to German grammar or to music, because the job was super boring,” he said. “You could sit there for hours and not have a single part come by.” (He now speaks German so fluently he sometimes needs a moment to find an English word.)

In 1990, Schwartz became an assistant in the musical archives of the Stuttgart State Theater, where he did what he described as “menial tasks.” Later, the theater noticed his composition skill, and hired him to write small pieces of incidental music. The job wasn’t for him. “I don’t like being subordinate to some director saying, ‘I need four bars of minor’ and those kinds of ridiculous demands,” Schwartz said.

But he did take advantage of free tickets to everything at the theater. He saw opera, ballet or theater nearly every night, and listened to contemporary music on public radio. He made some of his closest friends in those years. Still, it was a time of soul-searching. “An identity crisis comes with entering a foreign country,” Schwartz said. “And that whole identity crisis is super important for forming an artist. I had years when I couldn’t compose. When it did happen, it was a flood.”

His catalog includes 16 pieces of chamber music, five vocal works, an opera, a recent recomposition of Schubert’s “Winterreise” for voice and saxophone ensemble, a piece for voices and orchestra, and eight pieces in the series “Music for Orchestra,” of which “Theta” is the most recent.

Schwartz began the “Music for Orchestra” series in 2002, when a cellist friend asked him to write a piece for 12 of his students and a semiprofessional string quintet, “Music for 17 String Instruments.” A year later, the artistic director of the German National Theater in Weimar commissioned him to compose incidental music for a stage adaptation of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” with a full orchestra at Schwartz’s disposal.

“He wanted me to copy Tchaikovsky, which I did,” Schwartz said. “At the same time, I looked at the recording plan, and I had a ridiculous amount of time in the recording studio.” He took the opportunity to orchestrate “Music for 17 String Instruments” and record it.

“I put it on their stands, and they did it, like, ‘This is part of the play,’” Schwartz said. “It never entered the play.”

That work became the first “Music for Orchestra.” In a phone interview, Eric Marinitsch, the former head of promotion for Universal Edition, Schwartz’s publisher, described hearing the music as a “big bang.”

“The piece was so clear in its dramaturgy,” Marinitsch said, “and yet composed with such complex means.”

Composed over the past two decades, the pieces of “Music for Orchestra” evoke the austere, ominous beauty and subtle gradations of the environments where Schwartz was raised: the ocean and the desert. “The best art, at least that I’ve done, I don’t feel like I’m inventing it,” he said. “I find it, in the sense of excavating, going into something, and digging something up.”

In late November, Schwartz traveled from Cologne, where he lives with his husband, to rehearsals for “Theta.” In an early rehearsal, Schwartz and Currentzis worked to make the individual parts coalesce into a unified texture. “I hear fragments,” Currentzis told the timpanist as he tried to smooth out a long, slow glissando.

Working together with visible joy, the conductor and the composer added Mahlerian touches — winds playing with their bells up, a dramatic hammer stroke — to the piece. They sang bits of “Komm, süßer Tod” to demonstrate musical shapes.

In a section of frothy trills, Schwartz addressed the woodwinds. “Realize,” he told them, “that you’re part of the wave.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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