The music of Jay Schwartz is hedonistic. You listen to it, and when you’re finished you can’t wait to listen to it again. His SoundCloud page becomes an almost physical addiction. It envelopes you in shimmering glissandi of infinite complexity, teases you with the briefest glimpses of tonal intervals, and rewards you with the endorphin payload of its potent climaxes. Unlike so much other new music, these rewards are both immediate and powerful.

If you haven’t heard of Schwartz, his “Music for Orchestra III” (2010) is a good place to start. Don’t mistake the neutral-sounding name for modesty of intention. The work begins with barely audible open strings and harmonics. Schwartz adds microtonal doublings of these notes after a few minutes, which make the music ache and then descend. At minute seven, the texture throbs in a climactic unison. Quiet. From there, it’s like the music is trying to work its way out of a maze, turning corner after corner. In this longer process, Schwartz allows the sound to unfold into something unabashedly ecstatic. The structure is immediately audible: one rapid build-up, then a climax bursting at the seams of its duration, and finally, a surprise that I won’t ruin. It doesn’t take multiple listenings to hear this architecture, which is why Schwartz’s music, again unlike so much other new music—even great new music—never feels like homework.

Jay Schwartz • Photo Alberto Novelli © Villa Massimo 
Jay Schwartz • Photo Alberto Novelli © Villa Massimo 

Schwartz’s music is inseparable from the landscapes of his childhood. He was born in San Diego. He still goes there in summers and swims in the Pacific Ocean. When he was a teenager he moved to the New Mexico desert, an environment that touched him profoundly, too; he would listen to cassette recordings of Schubert, Beethoven, and Sibelius, and ride his moped into the hills to watch the sunsets. He met an older lover there, who showed him that art and literature could have meaning outside of school.

You hear that otherworldliness in “Music for Voices and Orchestra” (2008), which sighs and shivers with high string harmonics that also begin a slow descent, this time like a small plane circling a desert runway in the twilight. Where are the voices? There might be some at minute nine, you think; it turns out they are hidden somewhere behind the thick, translucent texture of the strings. Slowly, Schwartz peels back layer after layer to reveal them. Later, he’ll give your ears the briefest hint of strange and shining minor thirds. It’s an act of mastery to take something so familiar and make it alien. “He’s obsessed with how it has to be, he would never move an inch to the left or to the right. For me, he’s a Schubert of our time,” the conductor Matthias Pintscher told me.

Schwartz’s compositions owe debts to Giacinto Scelsi, Gérard Grisey, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass, but they end up sounding, and feeling, like nothing else. Schwartz uses words like waves, tides, magma, winds, and cosmic to describe his music; to that I’d add the adjectives lunar, lonely, rich, and pure. Many of his works are masterpieces. One day in the fall of 2017, I traveled to Rome, where Schwartz is currently in residence at Villa Massimo, a retreat for artists provided by the German government. He told me the story of how he came to his eccentric, gripping way of writing music.

Schwartz was born in 1965, to a professional boxer and homemaker-turned-kindergarten teacher. When he was four years old, his grandmother gave the family a plastic toy piano for Christmas. Schwartz picked up snatches of the “Muzak” his father listened to and invented his own little pieces. But Schwartz’s parents didn’t send him to piano lessons. They “didn’t know that one should instruct somebody to get classical training,” he told me, “which turned out to be a really good thing. Probably that instilled a musical creativity in me that maybe would have gotten stifled by classical music training.”

When Schwartz was seven, his great-aunt got him a real piano, and he began lessons. He learned to read music and started practicing the essential composers—Mozart, Schubert, Ravel, Rachmaninoff—and imitating their styles in his music. Schwartz’s parents divorced when he was 14, and he moved in with his mother, who “fled” San Diego to a small town called Deming, New Mexico, the capital of Luna County. “My anchor was music,” Schwartz said. He threw himself into piano lessons with a retired piano teacher from Brooklyn and learned the basics of music theory.

In his final years of high school, Schwartz switched to a new piano teacher who promised to make him a virtuoso and get him into conservatory. She kept that promise: he was later accepted to Arizona State. He completed three years there before he realized he wasn’t meant to pursue a career as a performer. “I won some little piano competition where I could play the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto with orchestra,” he said. “And immediately after that I knew: that was it. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.” He couldn’t imagine a life where he would simply reproduce the repertoire to increasing standards of perfection.

A professor at Arizona State offered Schwartz to start over and do a degree in composition, but by then he was restless. He took advantage of a graduate exchange program to travel to Thübingen, Germany, in 1989. He studied German intensively—Schwartz has now mastered the language like a native speaker—and got a job working at a Mercedes Benz pressing plant. He’d stand at the assembly line and take car doors and hoods out of the gigantic presses, speaking German out loud to himself to improve the language.

At home Schwartz was listening to Philip Glass and Steve Reich. On German radio, he discovered European new music: Grisey, Stockhausen, Boulez, Lachenmann. He taped broadcasts, collecting boxes worth of material. At this point he realized that he had something he needed to contribute, through sound. “There was nothing that I listened to on the radio that I actually really, really liked,” he told me. “I was hungry, searching and listening for more.”

Schwartz took a circuitous route towards a life as a composer. In Germany, conservatory is free or close to it. Musicians, lacking debt, tend to take their time making their way through multiple advanced degrees, masterclasses, and competitions. That career path barely registered with Schwartz. Instead, a colleague at Mercedes helped him get a job packing boxes at the archive of the State Theater in nearby Stuttgart. From there, he rose to head of archives, and starting going to opera, theater, and ballet obsessively. From the archives he rose again to rehearsal pianist and finally musical assistant in the theater.

The setup of an installation for gongs • Photo Jay Schwartz
The setup of an installation for gongs • Photo Jay Schwartz

Yet Schwartz’s ignorance of the unwritten “rules” of making a new music career has hurt him, he believes. He never studied with one of the masters teaching in Germany, and said he hadn’t even heard of György Ligeti when he moved here. “A lot of people have a problem accepting me as an artist today because of the time they knew me as the person packing books in Stuttgart,” he told me. On the other hand, just as he benefited from his parents not sending him to piano lessons too early, he has been able to compose with remarkable freedom from the expectations of the German new music world. He is certain that his formative years working odd jobs made him the composer he is now.

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Schwartz has become something of a role model to young composers. “I thought it was really ballsy,” the composer Yair Klartag, who came across Schwartz’s music by chance, told me. “It has a crazy sense of dimension, like an optical illusion.” Other composers have asked Schwartz how he found his unique voice—to which, perhaps surprisingly, he has an answer. At some point, Schwartz wondered what moved him so much about the music of Philip Glass. He decided it wasn’t the sound, so he decided to look at a more subterranean level of the music. The American minimalist works with “long stretches of something where there’s slight morphing, and then there’s a change,” Schwartz realized. For his first piece that felt genuinely his own, he used that as a structural model and substituted Glass’s ubiquitous tonal arpeggios for microtonal, glissandi textures. “Go from there and then it’s born,” he said. “Now you’ve got the idea, and the next idea comes from the last idea…and it just keeps going forward.”

It’s a method of searching for your voice that the writer George Saunders has also described. In an interview with BOMB Magazine, Saunders recalled his love of Ernest Hemingway; but, when living in Amarillo, Texas, he heard “a certain quality of West Texas lunatic-speak,” which he felt Hemingway’s language could never render. “That kind of moment is gold for a young writer: the door starts to open. Just a crack,” Saunders said. Similarly, Schwartz managed to find a kernel of inspiration in his life experience that no one else in his environment could draw upon. “I often find the situation of being in an airplane between Europe and the U.S., somewhere over the Atlantic or near the North Pole, very emotional,” he wrote me in an email. “As if the laws of containing my emotions get abolished by being at such a high elevation. I start to feel my life in this picture of where I am, literally, between these two continents and cultures.” He often passes those moments listening to music, his own or Renaissance polyphony.

Photo Jay Schwartz
Photo Jay Schwartz

With his aesthetic forged from both a freedom from and a resentment towards the strictures of German new music, Schwartz was able to think of form in terms of how it would affect his audience—as a “sensual narrative experience,” even. His pieces use “structural ideas in music that are acoustically simple enough to stick in your memory,” he said. He envisions his pieces as houses, where he starts with a foundation, like a memorable event at the piece’s middle point, and works from there. He outlines quickly—the structure of “Music for Orchestra” (2005) took a week or so, “Music for Orchestra III” one single New Year’s Eve—and then he spends months sculpting and refining.

Schwartz almost completely abandons “gesture” in his work, understood as the kind of detailed atonal leaps and bounds that are so prevalent—and, after a while, so grating—in much of Pierre Boulez’s music. He compares other Western classical music to an English garden, which has discrete sections. “Somehow my work cannot do this,” he wrote me. Instead, it is “about travel and space,” and his glissandi “invoke the idea of space in our minds.” Schwartz doesn’t want to communicate with you; instead, he wants to affect you, the way the gravitational attraction between the Earth, the moon, and the sun create the tides.

To illustrate his compositional method, Schwartz took me through “Music for Orchestra” in detail. It’s a piece that typifies his aesthetic and his willingness to ignore the strictures of new music in Germany.  (“The first half is great, the second half is terrible,” Schwartz recalled someone telling him right after the premiere.) The piece starts with stereophonic white noise. It progresses to “bundles” of glissandi and chords that “log in and out” of different harmonic constellations until, at the midpoint of the piece, he introduces a B-flat major chord. It’s a bizarre, invigorating moment that makes the blood rush in your veins. From there, reflecting the alternating white noise at the start of the work, Schwartz alternates between C major and A-flat major chords. These are pressed together, repeating the entire process of the first half of the piece at short intervals of a couple of measures. Again, it’s a structure that’s easy to hear in a single listening. You’re not meant to marvel at the immortal workings of Schwartz’s mind; instead, you’re meant to easily absorb the workings of the music.

On Skype, I told Schwartz that I find his work deeply enjoyable, that it makes my synapses fire and tingle in excitement. He responded that he usually describes his work as “not Protestant.” His music isn’t a self-improvement exercise. “It’s about the pleasure,” he said. It’s irresistible to draw a connection between Schwartz’s time outside of largely Protestant Germany and in Catholic Italy at the moment. During his residency in Rome, he’ll be hanging out with his musicologist boyfriend, playing Schubert on a grand piano, eating well, drinking espresso, sitting in the fragrant gardens of the complex—in other words, getting pleasure out of life.

Rome also has a whiff of destiny about it. Schwartz mentioned a YouTube video he’d seen recently. It’s a recording with images of an interview with the German composer Hans Werner Henze from 2011, the last one before Henze’s death. Henze is telling the reporter about the wonders of twelve-tone music at his house in Rome. But in the background, very faintly, you can hear an airplane flying past. It makes an almost inaudible, descending glissando. Airplanes and glissandi represent two of Schwartz’s most durable inspirations. In that moment, Schwartz could hear his music, coming from the distance, to replace the strict, cold sounds that came before him. ¶

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Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.

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