Stringent modernism

Disappointingly, Google is all but mum on the subject of Music in the Mountains, an adventurous summer concert series held at SUNY New Paltz in the 1980s. Under the artistic direction of the Latvian composer and New Paltz patriarch Gundaris Poné and his wife Karen (my first piano teacher), Music in the Mountains dared to program new music, which is generally code for the  tense, noisy, abstract, unsentimental, and grueling stuff no one understands outside of certain cliques of feverish obsession and aesthetic debate. In the provinces, It’s still tough to get Bartok or Schoenberg on a classical program, let alone a living composer.

The late Gundaris Poné was a notable composer himself, and his program — like the ensemble that still bears his name — served that interest and its demographic scarcities. And they made it work. The same patrons who would have shown up in spades for a pops-concert-packed McKenna Theater came to have their minds blown by Ives and Varese, and by other composers somewhat more alive at the time.

Like most festival-orchestra summer programs, Music in the Mountains did aim to please, when required to. On or near the fourth of July, a concert program might feature some popular works of Copland with solemn live narration by Estelle Parsons. And the crowd would repair to the Tripping Fields for fireworks.


For every two concerts of stringent modernism, there would be one folk, jazz or pop show. Folk legend Tom Paxton was one I remember. I picked him up at the Dutchess County Airport. The elegant jazz pianist Andy Laverne and the Brubeck brothers was another. The Student Association PA failed that night, causing the Brubecks to miss their dinner reservation (at the North Light, I believe), and when I delivered them some green-room pizzas with extra apologies the great tenor saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi wisecracked, “Hey, nobody’s human.”

Another time, I had to drive a young New York City experimental percussionist from dump to junkyard to help him assemble the hubcaps and brake drums he needed for a surprisingly euphonious solo-percussion piece played with mallets. I gushed in-person to the great, still-rocking composer David del Tredici about a particular passage of his that I found deeply moving. He giggled and said without malice or condescension, “It’s just the cycle of fourths.” I suppose that’s how starved I was for tonality at that point.

I sat on a stool on stage at McKenna and turned pages for Poné as he conducted the polyrhythmic sections of his own definitive, atonal orchestral work Avanti, about which Spotify and YouTube are disappointingly mum. Somewhere in my garage, I still have a handwritten page of a score signed by composer/critic and Copland associate Virgil Thompson.

Most of those two summers — my 21st and 22nd — was spent moving chairs and stands, placing institutional-sized orders at Dunkin Donuts, and doing the bidding of the mostly good-natured orchestra. Still, I recall those alien, challenging sounds, melodies that sounded imported from the future and from an entirely different language of feeling, where one expected the familiar and blandly rousing overtures and fanfares of the American summer.


Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.