Versatile, colorful, eclectic and surprising are some of the words critics have used to describe the music of William Bolcom. In a career spanning more than 40 years, Bolcom has composed songs, operas, piano works, chamber music and symphonies defying convention and using a variety of styles. Bolcom is also a pianist who often performs cabaret music with his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris.
Conductor Leonard Slatkin says a good way to understand Bolcom is to think of him as a mix of some of the greatest musical figures of the 20th century.
"If Gershwin, Stravinsky, Bartok, Irving Berlin, Eubie Blake and Aaron Copland had all been one person, you'd get a sense of who Bill Bolcom is as a composer," Slatkin says.
VocalEssence Artistic Director Philip Brunelle describes Bolcom as the quintessential American composer.
"What I love about Bolcom is the way that his music in its various forms embraces all of what American music is about," Brunelle says. "He is not afraid to use something that might come from the jazz world, from the pop world, from, frankly, any world that involves music. They're all embodied in one way, shape or another in the music of Bolcom."
William Bolcom was born in Seattle and grew up a child piano prodigy in the rough lumber towns of western Washington. His parents were encouraged to put him on the stage but they refused, a decision for which Bolcom remains thankful. However, music remained the focus of his life and at the age of 11, in 1949, he began studying piano and composition one day a week at the University of Washington. He became a full-time student seven years later and the roots of his musical approach began taking hold.
"I'd been given a scholarship which just covered my tuition," he remembers. "My parents had no money so I had to earn the rest of what I needed myself. I played in every kind of dance band. I played stag parties. I played in church. More than once I played the burlesque house on Saturday night and church on Sunday morning, which was probably the beginning of a curiously skewed musical background. That may have contributed to my non-judgmental interest in different kinds of music."
Early in his career, Bolcom rebelled against the prevailing attitude in music academies, which stressed atonal dissonance to the exclusion of everything else. Bolcom refused to be straitjacketed into one way of composing. He didn't reject atonality or 12-tone techniques, but saw them simply as pieces in a musical vocabulary that includes conventional classical styles along with ragtime, jazz and many other idioms.
Conductor Leonard Slatkin says Bolcom is a composer who is not afraid of diversity in his writing, but "at the same time he has a true language that's his own. It's a result of being able to fuse together different styles. Some people call it eclectic, but I don't think so at all. It's a natural function of his own background, both in his role as a pianist and performer and as a composer. So when you listen to a work of Bolcom's, what you're going to hear is a piece that goes stylistically in many directions, but is usually held together by strong musical substance and force. It's very rare not to feel a sense of structure."
This ability to make sense out of diverse musical elements is what attracts Philip Brunelle to Bolcom's music. He says the unexpected juxtapositions keep his music exciting.
If Gershwin, Stravinsky, Bartok, Irving Berlin, Eubie Blake and Aaron Copland had all been one person, you'd get a sense of who Bill Bolcom is as a composer.Leonard Slatkin
"He does have this amazing way of looking fresh at music, looking fresh at a text, giving us a new way to think about how we might look at a piece of music, whether it's his cabaret songs, whether it's his big magnum opus, 'The Songs of Innocence and of Experience,' or whether it's something he's written for chamber orchestra. It's an amazing, creative mind and I love the idea of celebrating a mind like that while he's still very much alive and with us."
Over the past four decades, William Bolcom has created an impressive body of work that has earned him an international reputation. His 12 Etudes for Piano won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and a recording of his monumental work "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" received four Grammys in 2006.
The prolific composer is currently working on a string octet, his fourth opera and his eighth symphony. William Bolcom says he will continue composing as long as he has stories to tell.
"I always liken it to a little bird that sits on your shoulder," he says. "You can't tell that bird to stay there. If it's there, you're wonderfully happy and if it's gone you have to wait for it to come back next time. People always talk about somebody being a genius. I think genius is something you might have once in a while. And I also have to be willing to say that if at some time in my life I run out of further stories to tell I could quit. I have already composed quite a bit of music. I could quit today if I wanted to and sometimes it sounds very attractive, but I frankly wouldn't know what to do with myself."