Renowned American composer Lowell Liebermann always had a knack for creating his own pieces, even while studying piano at age 8. With his storied career and many accomplishments, Lowell’s most cherished accomplishment is just being able to make a living doing what he does with music.
“At my first composition lesson my teacher, Ruth Schonthal, told me I would never be able to make a living as a composer. That was the sensible thing to tell a 13-year-old, but I was very stubborn, and I am glad I proved her wrong on that count!” Lowell said.
Art Imitates Life
In addition to composing, Lowell also plays the piano and conducts. It’s very important for him to keep in touch with performing: as it informs his composition in so many ways and doesn’t allow him to forget that he is writing music for living, breathing people to perform. Besides the emotional and intellectual, there are physical, athletic aspects to playing music that can make a piece enjoyable or not for the performer.
“I sometimes have these interesting moments when I’m learning one of my own pieces and I curse myself for having written something that’s so difficult. Those moments bring a valuable sense of perspective,” Lowell said.
Lowell has written works in all genres, several of which have gone on to become standard repertoire for their instruments. At 16 he made his debut at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall, performing a piece he created when he was 15—Piano Sonata, Op. 1.
His catalogue now includes more than 130 works which appear on more than 100 recordings. This is why he is one of America's most frequently performed and recorded living composers. His Sonata for Flute and Piano and his Gargoyles for piano are among the most frequently performed contemporary works for their instruments. He has also written two full-length operas and a full-length ballet.
“In many ways I’ve always felt that art is in a certain sense a retreat from reality, an attempt to create a better, abstract world. But on the other hand, any life experience shapes one as a human being and therefore as an artist, because the two are just not separable, in my opinion,” he said.
Right now Lowell is working on a piece for Flute, Alto Sax and Piano for the Yargo Trio. Also coming up are a song cycle — the details of which he can’t announce yet, but it’s a very exciting commission! — a Cello Sonata (his fifth) for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and his sixth String Quartet.
“The inspiration for most of my pieces have been the commissions themselves. This may sound a bit off-hand, but it’s true: I’m not a composer who gets inspiration from extra-musical sources – it’s the notes, the musical material, the instruments themselves that inspire me. So, when someone approaches me with a commission for a combination that I might not necessarily have written for on my own, I find that to be a spur for creativity. In this case, I don’t think I ever would have thought of writing a piece for flute, alto sax and piano. It’s a somewhat problematic combination in terms of the timbres and balance of the instruments, but I find that to be a challenge, and something that makes the compositional process interesting,” Lowell said.
Writing music is a very taxing process, and for Lowell it requires great deal of concentration, so it usually happens when he is at the piano actively trying to compose.
“But every now and then, an idea does pop into my head when I am doing something else,” he said. “The opening theme of my Flute Concerto was scribbled on a bar napkin at something like two o’clock in the morning after quite a few margaritas. I still have that napkin somewhere.”
When he isn’t composing or performing, Lowell likes to give back to the community. The last election compelled Lowell to give to several of organizations that are standing up for basic democratic principles. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is one that is particularly important to him.
In the music realm, he is the Artistic Director of a nonprofit named Chamber Music Hellas that organizes concerts in rural areas of Greece that don’t normally have a lot of classical music. In addition to the concerts, the musicians taking part will give masterclasses at the local conservatories, and the organization hopes to expand the work of the nonprofit to include providing scholarships for Greek music students to study at conservatories in the United States.
One thing Lowell would change about his life: “I wish I knew what I know now when I was 20. It would have saved me a lot of time.”
Learn more about Lowell Liebermann on his website.