Generations/Conversations: Jack Behrens

November 24, 2016

By: Martin Chandler

CMC Associate Composer Jack Behrens (b. 1935) is an accomplished composer, educator, and administrator in music. He was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he now resides. Much of his professional life was spent in various parts of Canada: along with teaching at University of Regina, Simon Fraser University, and the University of Western Ontario (UWO), he was a founding artistic director of the Trillium Plus Music & Letters forum (London, Ontario), and an administrator for the Emma Lake Composers-Artists Workshop (north of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan). He was married to the late Sonja Peterson Behrens, renowned pianist and teacher. I had the chance to talk with Behrens about his personal history, musical influences, and the balancing act between administrative and creative work.

Here is an excerpt of our discussion at the CMC in Toronto:

Martin Chandler: How did you first get involved in music, and what inspired you to pursue it?

Jack Behrens: Two things come to mind. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania; my father was a minister, and he had a record collection—the Philadelphia Orchestra and opera singers. Perhaps what answers your question more specifically is that I remember we would gather around as a family and listen to radio broadcasts. I think one was a Gospel type choral group, and then of course there was The Voice of Firestone and The Telephone Hour.

The other thing I recall from my early years was our kitchen with a squeaky closet door, which I would open and close in order to listen to these squeaks (I don’t know how much that influenced what I’ve done subsequently). Behind our house, was a railroad track on an incline. In the winter you heard the dat dat dat lanalanalana [mimicking the sound of a struggling engine], and the engine would try it repeatedly and finally successfully— those two types of environmental sounds intrigued me.

Nobody in my family was a musician. Allegedly my father played a bit of banjo, though I never heard him. The story was that he wooed my mother by playing the banjo, but once that was accomplished, apparently he set it aside.

In junior high and high school, I was encouraged by my teachers to compose for the Glee Clubs. I like to give those teachers credit for encouraging me because I think they’re often overlooked. And I was fortunate in that I had two very good piano teachers, and that I could sightread well.

MC: How would you describe your style?

JB: That’s a tough question, because it would probably vary depending upon what instrumental and vocal forces I’m composing for, or who the potential performers are. Eclectic used to be a word to be avoided—is it still?

When I was younger, I liked Shostakovich, Vaughn Williams, and Charles Ives; if you were to find an early piece of mine you might detect some of those influences. Maybe the Ives influence has lingered a bit because I often like things that don’t quite line up.

One influential composition instructor I had at Juilliard was William Bergsma who attributed to Bartók the notion of “saving a note” for a future “strategic use”; I’ve always remembered that.

Someone once looked at one of my compositions which happened to be a serial twelve tone and found all these fancy techniques I didn’t realize I had utilized and probably hadn’t. I do often employ serial technique but do not often composer “twelve tone music.”

As an aside, I remember when I taught at Simon Fraser (1966 to 1970)…Buckminster Fuller came to Vancouver; when I drove him to the airport, I thought I’d get an answer from an authority on creativity—I still recall his response: “Only God creates.” I think that notion was originally from the Greeks, but in any event, it gave me a response I needed at a time when many students felt that tape recorder musings were more “creative” than expressing one’s thoughts lucidly on paper.

A photo of Jack Behrens at the Canadian Music Centre in Toronto, June 2016. Photo: Matthew Fava

MC: How did you become involved with the Canadian Music Centre?

JB: When I was in Regina (probably in 1963), I was coming to Toronto for some purpose; I had previously met Keith MacMillan [former Executive Director of the CMC] who said “when you come to Toronto, look me up.” I remember Harry Freedman happened to be at the CMC that day, and that he was very gracious and showed me around. And then when I came to London in 1976 I was invited to serve on the CMC Ontario Regional Council, and then on the National Board…I don’t recall quite how it came about (not living in Toronto may have been a factor). I found those experiences very stimulating and became acquainted with quite a few Canadian composers.

There was another group, “The Loons” which met informally on the top of what was then the Plaza Hotel on Bloor Street. We’d meet for lunch once a month; Harry Freedman invited me to join: other members included Adele Wiseman, Margaret Lawrence, Harry Somers, John Weinzweig, Earl Birney, Tony Urquhart, Ronald Bloore, Alexina Louie, and Sylvia Fraser. Those lively sessions continued for two or three years. That’s how I was able to populate the Trillium Plus series, because I said, “Come to London; what would you like to share?” (I didn’t try impose anything).

MC: You mentioned Trillium Plus, and you were also involved in the Emma Lake residency program.

JB: [Emma Lake] had been taking place for a number of summers; Ken Lochhead, one of the “Regina Five” painters in Regina was administering it, and I asked him, “Could we add composition?” He thought that was a good idea, and the University of Regina came up with some funds so we could also invite a composer. We did that for two years before I left; in 1964 Stefan Wolpe came. The following year John Cage came although we didn’t have as many participants as I had anticipated. As it happened, Cage got lost in the muskeg, we had to call the RCMP to help find him…

Anyway, those were wonderful and intense two weeks up near Prince Albert.

MC: You’ve done a lot of balancing of the administrative and the artistic side, can you talk about that?

JB: I seem to have stumbled into administration—maybe nobody else wanted to do it [laughs]. But I found it very stimulating because one meets colleagues from other parts of the University whom you might otherwise not encounter. It’s very time consuming, so it probably did cut in to the number of pieces I composed. Sometimes I had to make unpopular decisions, but not without consulting faculty and trying to explain somewhat complicated factors. I was lucky, back in the 60s and 70s, because there was sufficient funding for Universities, enabling one to take initiatives and be venturesome.

MC: What projects do you have on the go now?

JB: I’ve been composing short organ works; I may call them “Summer Fanfares.” And there’s a Christopher Pratt project with Darryl Edwards. I’ve set a number of Pratt’s poems through the years for tenor or soprano; I need to complete that project. I have some older pieces that I’ve been looking at, but find it very difficult to revise or update those; it’s almost easier to do new ones. Of course, once it’s on a recording, you can’t do much (although Boulez kept re-writing his pieces). Another project is music for two trumpets and piano for musicians here in Toronto.

Oh, there’s another project, nothing to do with composition. [Boulez’s] first piano sonata. Boulez gave a friend of mine the original manuscript, which is about twice as long as the published version; one of the things I’ve been meaning to do, though I’m not sure I’m equipped to do so, is to figure out on what basis he makes all these cuts (this could be an interesting project for a graduate student).
I do a bit of performing, so there are a couple of pieces of Canadian piano music I’d like to perform, either in the States or here. Of course there’s the challenge of fitting all these things in…

Generations/Conversations is an inter-generational interview series that pairs young artists with senior composers to share personal histories, artistic goals, and more.

Banner Photo Credit: Tony V. Hauser