Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Memories of Bill Kraft

Although he was known professionally as William Kraft, anyone who knew him personally called him Bill.  Bill had an extended musical career as performer, conductor, composer and teacher and he liked nothing better than telling stories about his experiences.  

I knew Bill Kraft for nearly five decades.  After years of being my music copying client we became friends.  We had a lot to talk about when were together - mostly, of course, we talked about music.  His death in February at the age of 98 has affected me deeply.  

My attempts to write about him have grown into two Mixed Meters posts - one (this post) includes a few of my own stories about knowing him over the years.  The other post, The Music of William Kraft, is my attempt at describing the scope of his music.  

Bill Kraft at his composition desk with Gingi (May 2010)

Bill Kraft and William Kraft.  Stories and Music.   William Kraft and Bill Kraft.  Music and Stories.  Here are four of my own stories about Bill Kraft.  I call them:
(Click these links to skip to a particular story.)

Bill Kraft with picture of Lou Harrison.  (Bill conducted Lou's Violin Concerto) - June 2007

I first met Bill circa 1975 when I was in graduate school.  He guest-taught a composition seminar I was in and he brought along a daunting Elliott Carter score, probably the Concerto for Orchestra - then being conducted at the LA Philharmonic by Pierre Boulez.  We all sat down on the floor around him while he sang Carter's complex cross-rhythms to us, conducting at the same time.  "Wow," I remember thinking, "Here's a composer who can actually perform incredibly difficult music." - the very sort of incredibly difficult music I was eagerly studying at the time.

In later years Bill did not remember meeting me that day.  Understandable, since I was just another young composition student wearing an impenetrable beard.  Even more than by his talent, however, I remember being impressed by his apparently boundless enthusiasm for the music he shared with us, as he excitedly pointed out remarkable moments in the score.  I remained impressed by his enthusiasm as long as I knew him - which turned out to be more than 45 years.

Bill Kraft in his studio (July 2012)

During the next eight or so years after my first ‘encounter’, a period when I was living in Los Angeles trying to promote myself as a composer and clarinetist (and earning my living copying music for Frank Zappa), somehow I got to know him and he got to know me.  This is when he was the face of new music at the Los Angeles Philharmonic as the founder of the New Music Group and host of the Green Umbrella concerts.  He also served as programming advisor to the orchestra for new music; he had considerable influence over which composers and which pieces were chosen by the orchestra.

In 1984 I decided to quit working for Zappa.  Literally first thing I did was to phone Bill, hoping he might refer me to someone for work.  He himself hired me immediately.  Eventually he recommended me to several of his close friends including composers David Raksin and Leonard Rosenman.  I ended up working for them as well.

Bill Kraft in his studio (January 2007)

The next year eventual Pulitzer Prize winner and beloved food critic Jonathan Gold wrote a lengthy article in the L.A. Weekly about the new music scene in Los Angeles.  For a while it was a happening scene and Gold was still working as a music critic.  Jonathan repeated an anonymous quote about Bill in print.

Bill Kraft - the Salieri of New Music (LA Weekly 1985)

Director William Kraft was dubbed "the Salieri of new music" by one local wag.  His own works may sound old-fashioned (oh, that gorgeous tympani concerto), but he has an unerring ear for genius.  Invariably, he chooses the best scores of a composer and places them within the context of a conceptually themed program.   (LA Weekly, April 26 - May 2, 1985)

If the reference to classical-era composer Antonio Salieri baffles you, check out the movie Amadeus.  It had been released a few months before Jonathan's article was published.  The movie is based on the persistent musical fairy tale that Salieri, a contemporary of Mozart's in late 18th-century Vienna and a very important composer at the Viennese court, was so jealous of Mozart's talent that he poisoned the younger composer.  I remember not enjoying the movie much because it kept reminding me of the petty politics trying to get my own music performed in Los Angeles.

Bill Kraft at his computer (August 2012)

On one of my visits to Bill's studio - when I either picked up new manuscripts or delivered finished pages - he mentioned how upset he was by this quote.  I remember him saying that he had gotten quite a bit ribbing about it at the Philharmonic.  "I wish I knew who said it," he told me.

I confessed that I was the guilty party.  

Bill Kraft in his studio (October 2013)

Yes, it was me and this was the only time in my life anyone ever called me a 'wag'.

The exact quote, as I remember it, was "the Salieri of new music in Los Angeles", not that adding “in L.A.” changes much.  I had wagged the thing during a private conversation, not with Jonathan Gold, the guy who printed it, but with fellow composer and ICA member Kraig Grady, the guy who re-wagged me to Jonathan.  The ICA was the Independent Composers Association - a group of young composers most of whom would have willingly given a major body part to be performed - or even noticed - by the LA Phil. New Music Group.  None of us ever were.  

Bill didn't seem angry when I told him my story.  However he asked me to "make things right" by writing to the Weekly and owning up.  I did write to the paper, they did publish my letter and Jonathan even added a postscript along the lines of "I didn't really mean it like that".  Here's my letter with Jonathan's reply if you're curious.  (Click for enlargement or read on for text version.) 

Kraft Work - Letters to the Editor (LA Weekly 1985)
LETTERS  - L.A. Weekly May 24-30, 1985

Dear Editor:

There was an anonymous quote included in your recent article on new music in Los Angeles [L.A. Weekly, April 26-May 1] that I must admit to be my own. The notion that composer William Kraft is "the Salieri of new music" has been pounced on and amplified to include all the attributes of the movie character and of his music (including even murder).

This unfortunate statement was made in a private phone conversation (with a third composer) about "position and influence" in music in L.A. William Kraft seemed to me to be analogous to Salieri in that both are successful composers in top positions at "court" (or the Philharmonic) who have access to the ears of people with power.  Salieri in the film Amadeus and Kraft in real life write music for genuinely personal reasons, have highly acclaimed performances by prestigious organizations, and win awards for their work. Both composers have administrative responsibilities that give their decisions and recommendations weight.

Jonathan Gold's quote in the article, however, allowed a reader to assign to Mr. Kraft any (or all) of the traits acted out by F. Murray Abraham as Salieri. As such, that has done a great disservice to Bill Kraft.  In no way did I intend the movie character to be a reflection on musical quality, personal integrity or any other characterization that may have been invented by Peter Shaffer for our entertainment.

Your paper is to be commended for covering the growing interest in new music in L.A.  A large part of the credit for public awareness of local composers is due to William Kraft's own efforts to program quality performances of interesting works.  Often there is little attention to high standards in L.A.'s contemporary music forums.  Quality is forgotten in the hustle to get one's own works programmed.  Mediocrity becomes the standard.  Certain composers may be intrigued with appointing a local Salieri; no one seems even slightly disappointed that there is no local Mozart.

David Ocker
Los Angeles

JONATHAN GOLD REPLIES: It was never my intent to attribute the more unpleasant attributes of Shaffer's character to Mr. Kraft.  Rather, I meant to compare the screen Salieri's alacrity to recognize musical genius with Kraft's own.  (I, too, regret the lack of a local - or even living - Mozart.)
Bill must not have held any grudges because I can't remember talking with him about this ever again.  He continued hiring me to work on his new compositions for around 25 more years.  And I was always grateful that he valued my efforts.  I visited his studio often.  

Bill Kraft in his studio (December 2013)

Now let me briefly describe his composition studio: spacious and wood-paneled (even the ceiling) with large picture windows, located near the front of his and wife Joan's beautiful home, high on a hill in Altadena.  You can get up there from the street by climbing 36 steps which is what I did every time I visited.  Once at the top, the first thing you see is one of the large windows.  It's a good place for a picture window.  There's a wonderful view of the San Gabriel Valley nearly obscured by many large beautiful trees.

Picture Window of Bill Kraft's studio

Often I would see Bill through the window, in profile, working at his piano or at his composing desk - unaware that I had arrived.

Bill Kraft in his studio (November 2009)

In 2002 I purchased my first digital camera.  It was small enough to carry around in my pocket.  A month later I snapped my very first picture of Bill standing in the carport.

Bill Kraft makes a point in his carport (October 2002)

Eventually I developed a tradition: once I had completed my climb to the top of the stairs, possibly needing a moment to catch my breath before I rang the doorbell, I would snap photos of Bill through the window.  Most of the time, not always, he didn't notice me doing this.  You could see nearby foliage reflected in the window; sometimes you could see my own reflection as well.

Bill Kraft in his Studio with David Ocker's reflection (February 2007)

Bill Kraft in his studio with David Ocker's reflection (December 2007)

Bill Kraft in his studio with David Ocker's reflection (December 2013)

I've collected these stealth photos for this post.  The ones I've shown here are dated between 2007 and 2013.  Hover over the picture to see a brief description and the date.  Seeing him through the window working away is one of my indelible visual images of Bill.

Bill Kraft in his Studio (February 2007)

Eventually my relationship with Bill changed.  I transitioned from being his copyist to being an occasional guest at dinner parties given by Bill and his wife Joan. They always enjoyed entertaining and were lovely hosts.  They gathered a loose-knit community of interesting people - many of them musicians.  It was always a pleasure and honor to be invited.  The conversation and the food were always wonderful.  Bill would tell stories about his career.

Bill Kraft in his Studio (February 2007)

Bill Kraft had lots and lots of stories to tell.  Anyone who knew him will confirm this fact.  Stories about growing up in San Diego, about listening to jazz on Central Avenue in the 40s, about studying at Columbia, about performing in the L.A. Philharmonic for decades.   He told about performing the music of Stravinsky and Boulez at the Monday Evening Concerts with those composers conducting.  He extolled the talents and laughed about the foibles of countless musicians.  He told about his teaching, about conducting, about touring.  About the people he knew and worked with.  About the people he liked and about the people he didn't.  

Bill Kraft in his studio (November 2009)

Eventually I began visiting him in the afternoons to chat over coffee, usually just the two of us.  We talked about music and I listened to his stories, told a few of my own.   In 2007 I had the idea to bring along an audio recorder and preserve some of his stories.  Bill agreed to this.   It took quite an effort to convince Bill and Joan that, no, I was not making these recordings because I intended to write a book.  What I wanted to do was preserve his stories.  Now I'm very glad I did.  

I called this The Bill Kraft Project.  I have about a dozen recordings made mostly in the years 2007 and 2008, around 19 hours total.  Some of them are as long as two hours.  Over the course of the project we got better on staying on topic - remarkable given our mutual talent for going off tangent.  In these days since Bill's death, I've started listening again.  With my voice in one channel and his in the other it's almost like talking to him again.  Almost.

Bill Kraft at his desk (with picture of Joan Kraft) (November 2011)

The very first recording I made with Bill was on April 15, 2007.  It's only 12 minutes long and has nothing to do with music.  I believe we intended it as a test of my recording apparatus; the first musical discussion was recorded about 2 weeks later.  

I've entitled this recording "Bill Kraft Makes Moussaka" because it's a cooking story.  Bill is telling me how he used a Julia Child recipe to make the main course for a recent dinner party.   And he can tell you too.  Just click the play button.

Since we're ending on a culinary note, here's a 2002 picture of Bill in the kitchen.  Notice the Complete Works of Stravinsky box set on the counter behind him.

Bill Kraft in the Kitchen (with complete works of Stravinsky) (October 2002)

And here, courtesy of Joan Kraft, is a dinner picture showing the last time I saw Bill.  It was July 4, 2021 - during a lull in the pandemic.  Bill and Joan invited us over for dinner along with our mutual good friends John and Kazi.  We ate in the backyard.  That's us sitting around the table with Bill on the left.  Bill, I'm pretty certain, was telling us stories while Joan took our picture.

Dinner in Bill Kraft's backyard (July 2021)

I'm going to miss Bill.  He has been a presence in my life, more or less, throughout my entire career.  I referred to him as "the last adult in my life" as he gradually became the last person I knew from a previous generation.  He was my connection to the history of my own musical world.  He was a sincere artist who worked hard to reveal himself through his music.  It was an honor to have known him.


GC said...

I much appreciate this affectionate account of your friendship with Bill. And the Salieri story with Jonathan Gold is wonderful! It is so like Bill to forgive and forget. I have many memories of my own, including his multiple efforts to make moussaka for me and Lefteris...and my time living temporarily at the house with him, Joan, and Gingie (their first dog) before my current house was finished. What a gift for friendship he had, and what a gift his friendship has been to so many. Thanks, David, for the post.

Joan Huang said...

Dear David,

I just read your blog from beginning to end. It's so personal and sincere. It's very touching! Thank you so much for sharing with me! Those window reflections of photos are unique. I remember your afternoon conversations with Bill. You were so patient with Bill. He sometimes was outspoken and straightforward, but he was very generous to forgive people. Thank you so much for visiting him frequently during his neck surgery in 2016. Even with extreme agony, he never gave up with the hope of living. He loved music and loved life.

Again, thank you for sharing your memories!


Unknown said...

Hi David,
I'm late getting to this, but thanks for sharing these wonderful stories. I haven't listened to the conversation tape yet but hope to get to it soon. What a wonderful relationship you had! Best wishes
Mark L.