Bacharach and Milhaud or Don't Be Afraid of Melody

As a music undergraduate at Mills College, a large part of my education there focused on the works of Darius Milhaud, John Cage, Henry Cowell, and Lou Harrison. Milhaud had been a professor there and Dave Brubeck had studied with him at Mills. Lou Harrison was on the faculty there as well. I took his class on tuning systems which turned my intonation sensibilities upside down! These composers were, as Anthony Braxton would perhaps call them, revisionists and revolutionaries. They built on tradition but also made their own unique language. 

I am an avid reader of Mike Myers’ JazzWax blog. His interviews with musicians and composers run the gamut from jazz players to R&B producers or girl group vocalists. I was particularly interested in his recent Burt Bacharach interview–even more so when I read Myers’ question put to Bacharach about having studied with Milhaud. Bacharach’s response was very funny and yet poignant. I think for me, the latter more so. As a student of music seeking instruction “from the source,” I have had similar experiences with great players. And maybe just because one can “play,” or compose as in this case, doesn’t necessarily make one a particularly committed teacher. I think people who do both well are very rare. But yet, there are moments when spent with these “greats” that can really have a lasting and affirming impact as Bacharach describes. I’ve included the excerpt below. 

MM: Did studying with Darius Milhaud help shape your sensitive side?
BB: Darius Milhaud [pause]. That was a small composition class, just five of us, out at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. At the time I was hanging out in New York with Lou Harrisson and John Cage thinking maybe this is where I’d wind up, writing 12-tone classical music and things like that. So I went to study with Milhaud. And he was very nice. Let’s see, what did I learn from him? [pause] How to eat tacos?

MM: How to eat tacos?
BB: Milhaud [pictured] liked taking the class—the five of us—to a little taco stand in Carpinteria. The other thing I learned from him came early and was quite authentic and quite major. We all had to write a work for our summer project, for the composition class. And I wrote a sonatina for violin, oboe and piano. The middle movement was very lyrical and very melodic, and I was very kind of almost ashamed of it? 

MM: Ashamed?
BB: Yeah, embarrassed by it. Because we all were doing things like [pause] studying with composer and pianist Henry Cowell. 

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You know, fist to the piano and extreme heavy stuff. But when I played my sonatina for Milhaud, we didn’t even talk about it. He just [pause] maybe he sensed my discomfort with the second movement. He said, “Never be afraid… of something… that is melodic… and can be remembered.”

MM: Sounds like a big transition. 
BB: Yes, it was. And Milhaud knew how to eat tacos, so what could be better than that for the summer? [laughs] He was a very kind man.

at work....

at work....