“My name is Antoinette, I am a clarinet” : A centennial celebration of Alec Wilder

Emmons, Sonia

“I don’t like this age, frankly.”
Leave it to Alec Wilder, the American composer of the 1930s and ’40s best known for his originality, to provide an honest appraisal of the times. By blending classical music with jazz and pop, Wilder brought a new kind of music to the American ear.
His melodies and harmonies were completely original, impossible to categorize, and distinctly American. Twenty-seven years after his death, his music is beginning to find a new audience with younger musicians.
It is fitting, then, that on Sunday, Sept. 30, Professor Emeritus of Music Robert Levy directed a multimedia concert in Harper Hall to mark the centennial of the composer’s birth.
The varied concert featured five musical performances by LU Conservatory faculty and student musicians. Punctuating the live performances were four excerpts from Levy’s documentary “Alec Wilder: I’ll Be Around.”
The film, narrated by Professor of Music Fred Sturm, contains delightful audio clips, old photographs, and interviews with Wilder’s contemporaries. The extensive list of famous friends includes American author and broadcaster Studs Terkel, American composer Gunther Schuller, and American jazz and popular singer Tony Bennett.
Levy, who studied with Wilder at Ithaca College in the 1960s, had the idea for a documentary film six years ago while walking along the Great Wall of China. At the suggestion of a colleague, the self-described “Mr. Techno-Klutz” conducted interviews around the country, gradually amassing over 75 hours of reflections and memories of Wilder.
The interviews tell about Wilder as a person: shy and distrustful of institutions, he did everything in his power to avoid becoming a fashionable composer. As Wilder himself reflected, “I’ve always been suspicious of crowds, hysteria, and all elements that propagate in groups.”
Conformity was never an issue for Wilder. According to Studs Terkel, “In an age of kitsch, Wilder wrote songs worth remembering.” Among these songs, the most popular remains “I’ll Be Around.”
Levy’s opening remarks were followed by a group of musical acts, performed by various Lawrence Conservatory faculty, as well as a few guest musicians and composers.The program closed with three popular songs featuring Levy on the trumpet.
At one point in the film, Gunther Schuller says that Wilder’s music “could only have happened in America.” Patrice Michaels attributes this unmistakable American quality to “the sophisticated melancholy found in jazz, combined with a childlike freshness.”
Levy added, “The harmonic vocabulary is drawn from Broadway and jazz, which you can’t find anywhere but in America.”
Ironically, one hundred years after his birth, Wilder’s music remains popular. His words stand as a warning against conventionality:
“Beauty! Art! Wit! Wonderment! Humility! Arrogance! Style! Virtue! Decency! Patience! And all the others, gone, trampled by the newly-polished jack boots of the clog-suited society.”
With any luck, today’s clog suits will make room for artists like Wilder. Happy Birthday, Alec.