Why do you think they chose you?
They thought that with my background in jazz I could create something to heal the rift between the African-American community and the Jewish community that had at one time been so closely allied. At this time there were many cities in the U.S. that were being destroyed, suffering from riots in the aftermath of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. I thought by showing the similarities in the history of both peoples—slavery, the diaspora, rejection—I could contribute to a mutual understanding that would help everyone to act together in the cause of social justice. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quote, “We either live together as brothers or die together as fools,” sums up the central idea of the piece.
Many decades later you composed The Commandments. Why did you take on that project?
It was an opportunity to state musically what I believe in very deeply. I had the desire to write a piece of music about the Commandments since World War II and my narrow escape in the Battle of the Bulge. Throughout the war I witnessed the destruction and the unnecessary deaths of French, German, American, English, Italian, Russian soldiers and civilians. I was troubled by the realization that although we worshipped the same God and had been taught the Commandments, we still were killing each other. I thought that if each country and culture would examine their own religious and spiritual backgrounds, they would discover that we all have been taught the same basic rules, which are summed up in the Commandments.
How is this relevant today?
There is a Muslim teaching that says one must follow the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses, as I see it, is the Commandments. I use these religious themes to remind people of their own religious and cultural backgrounds and to ask of them to take seriously what they have been taught and apply it to their lives and to the problems of society. Until they do, the hatred, dissension, destruction and killing will continue.
Were you affected by the experiences of your teacher, the composer Darius Milhaud, who fled Europe for his life during World War II?
America was enriched with the flood of great artists and musicians entering the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s. Many came to California: When Milhaud landed in New York he was offered a job at Mills College in Oakland. Stravinsky and Schoenberg went to Los Angeles. Hindemith and Bartok stayed on the East Coast. I was especially blessed to have had the opportunity to study with Milhaud in California and to have had a close personal relationship with him. I was privileged to accompany him to rehearsals when his Sacred Service was premiered at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco in 1949.
Are you still composing music?
Over the past few years I have been delving into American poets. The Pacific Mozart Ensemble plans to record a collection of these settings by such poets as Wendell Berry, Langston Hughes, Robert Penn Warren, Dana Gioia and Richard Wilbur. Every tomorrow I hope that I will compose something worthwhile.
Note: Brubeck’s Gates of Justice and The Commandments as well as the Milhaud Sacred Service were recorded by the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music. www.milkenarchive.org.
Photo Credit: Milken Archive of American Jewish Music.