Saturday, August 04, 2012

David Raksin Centenary

(If you read this entire article you'll learn how I once broke into David Raksin's house and why I can never think of that event without also thinking of bad cheesecake.  Now read on...)

David Raksin was born on August 4, 1912.  That makes today his centenary.  Although the year 2012 includes the 100th birth anniversary of composers more famous than David (e.g. John Cage, Conlon Nancarrow or Stan Kenton), here in Los Angeles, where he was a fixture in the music community, there are many who remember him with great fondness.

And our memories are based not just on his musical accomplishments - although writing at least one big hit tune and scoring a flotilla of movies is clearly enough to get him into the music history books.   We remember that David was a jovial guy with a keen intelligence and a ready wit.  He always had a story about someone famous that he had known (and he seemed to have known just about everyone).  Or he told a joke (often of his own creation).  Or he made a pun.  Or two puns.  Or a whole passel of puns.  David loved word play.

To prove the point about knowing famous people, here's a photograph of David in his mid twenties.  He's the guy on the right.  On the left is Charlie Chaplin, with whom David worked on the music of the movie Modern Times.  Working for Chaplin was David's big break.  In the center are Mr. and Mrs. Arnold Schoenberg.  David studied with Schoenberg.  (David wasn't really all that tall.  Those others were just short.)

David belongs to a very small number of musicians who easily bridged the gap between the classical music and film music communities in Los Angeles.  He was a walking history of music in Southern California.  When he died it was announced that he had written an autobiography.  I remember him talking about it and showing me a decades-old kitchen calendar which he was using as a memory aid.  That's a book I'd love to read.

David Raksin had long since become a fixture in the music community of Los Angeles when I arrived here in the seventies.   He seemed to be at every concert I attended.  I don't remember specifically when I was introduced to him but it most certainly was by composer William Kraft, who was an extremely close friend of David's from the 1950s until David's death in 2004.

David made fastidious musical manuscripts.  Often in many colors.  Each year David was in the habit of sending some clever hand-made birthday greeting to Bill.  One such encomium took the form of short choral piece which David entitled A Posy From Woolworths For Bill On His Birthday.  Bill framed this and hung it in his studio, but after many years it had faded well past easy readability.

So Bill asked me to decipher the page and reproduce it on a computer.  I used the Sibelius hand-written music font.  It doesn't look much like David's own writing (and it's monochrome to boot) but it gives the same feel.  The layout of the page is identical to the original.
Here's the text:
Love and fortune wax and wane
We are entangled in their webbing,
More or lesser men may flow down the drain,
But Billy Kraft will never ebbing.

David's nickname for Bill was "Krafty Bill".  Notice that in the tenor part he changes the last line slightly in order to work the nickname in.  I doubt the reference to Krafft-Ebing is accidental.

I once did some music preparation work for David.  I made the parts for a chamber music work entitled Oedipus Memnitai, which had been commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation at the Library of Congress.  That was a great honor for David.  He never called me for another job.  After his death I learned that it was the last piece he ever wrote. (The Speaking of Music interview - see below - concludes with a description and an excerpt of this piece.)

I also helped him prepare, at the last minute after he suffered a heart attack, for a concert of music by composer Alex North.  David was to conduct it in Spain.  When he arrived there some of the music - a piece I hadn't worked on - was missing.   David called and asked me to look for it in his studio.  David's ex-wife produced a key to his house but no one knew the code for the security system.  After some discussion, we unlocked his door and set off the alarm.  Fortunately the police were not alerted automatically.  We just waited, enduring the sound of a fortissimo trill on a solo bell, an opus annoyicus.  It continued until the alarm battery wore itself down.  Those were long minutes.   Once inside we could not find the missing music.

That night, on our way home from David's house, Leslie (who had been waiting in the car) and I stopped at the California Pizza Kitchen to sooth my alarm-wrenched nerves with dessert.  We chose a piece of New York cheesecake.  They served us the worst piece of cheesecake we had ever eaten or have eaten since: cardboard in a cardboard crust.  Ever since then, I have never thought about David Raksin without also thinking about bad cheesecake.  Or thought about CPK without thinking of David.  Aside from that one awful pastry, however, which certainly wasn't his fault, David earned an absolutely stellar place in my memory.  He deserves nothing less.   It was a honor to have known him.

If you don't know about David's accomplishments or want some idea of what it was like to be around him, I recommend that you listen to this Speaking of Music event, in which David is interviewed by Charles Amhirkhanian.  It's as close as you can get to experiencing David Raksin, the raconteur, wit and name dropper.  You'll enjoy the story about David meeting Frank Lloyd Wright.

Here are some quotes I culled from this 90-minute interview:
"I can write thematic material faster than most people can make wrong chess moves."
"I would love to be able to say that I tried out for several porno films and didn't make it, but it wouldn't be true."
"You have no idea how music benefits from audibility."
"I could not see the Eastern university mafia permitting a guy who makes most of his living in films to get one." (i.e. the commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge foundation.)

The picture of David, Gertrud, Arnie and Charlie came from here.  The two pictures of the older David Raksin were posted on Facebook by Marilee Bradford.

Raksin Tags: . . . . . .


Anonymous said...

David, Wow, this date slipped by me. How nice of you to remember it publicly. I was distracted by Cage and Nancarrow (also 1912), whose birthdays are coming right up.

David was one of a kind, and I was blessed to meet him.

Charles Amirkhanian

Kraig Grady said...

"You have no idea how music benefits from audibility."
now that is priceless

Kraig Grady said...

"You have no idea how music benefits from audibility."
a priceless line