Remembering William Albright on his 70th birthday

October 1, 2014

William Albright would have celebrated his seventieth birthday on October 20, 2014. Born in 1944 in Gary, Indiana, he died unexpectedly at his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on September 17, 1998. One of the most significant composers of organ music in the 20th century, Albright was known mainly for his keyboard works, although he composed for nearly every medium. He received many commissions and awards including the Queen Marie-José Prize for Organbook (1967), two Fulbright grants, two Guggenheim fellowships, two National Endowment for the Arts grants, and two Koussevitzky Competition Awards. His three Organbooks explore new means of idiomatic expression for the organ. A brilliant pianist and organist, he commissioned and premiered many new works for organ. He also performed and recorded the music of James P. Johnson, the complete piano music of Scott Joplin, and his own rag compositions.

The following interviews with Sarah Albright and John Carlson shed light on William Albright’s formative years and his creative process. 


Interview with Sarah Albright

Sarah and William Albright were married from 1966 to 1985. Sarah earned her Bachelor of Music degree from Salem College where she studied organ with John Mueller, and received the Master of Music degree from the University of Michigan as a student of Marilyn Mason. She studied in Paris for a year with Marie-Claire Alain. From 1985–2007, she was director of music at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Ann Arbor. Presently, she teaches a large class of private piano students. 


Douglas Reed: How did you meet Bill?

Sarah Albright: I came here to graduate school in 1964 to study with Marilyn Mason. I first recall hearing Bill play in a student recital that fall. In the following months, we became good friends, and on Valentine’s Day, 1966, he proposed to me. We got married in June at the Presbyterian Church in Martinsville, Virginia. We had great music! Mr. Mueller came from Winston-Salem and played for the wedding and Rosemary Russell sang. She was my roommate and later taught at the University of Michigan. We went to Asheville, North Carolina, for our honeymoon and a week later, to Tanglewood where Bill was going to study with George Rochberg. We also met Bill Bolcom that summer. 


Let’s talk about your time in Paris. 

The first time we lived in Paris was in ’68–69. Bill had a Fulbright grant to study with Messiaen at the Conservatory. He also studied with Max Deutsch, who was a student of Schoenberg and conducted several of his works. Bill enjoyed being in Messiaen’s class. Messiaen played a lot of recordings for the class and frequently commented “c’est beau ça”. Messiaen also had a fondness for Ives, which Bill really liked, as Bill and Ives have the same birthday, October 20! Bill also looked forward to his lessons with Max Deutsch. They had many conversations about music, composition, and life, which Bill found stimulating and meaningful. 

Bill won the Queen Marie-José prize for Organbook (1967). Sargent Shriver, U.S. ambassador to France, gave a big reception at the American Embassy to honor Bill. The mayor of Geneva also had a dinner for us when Bill was invited to play a concert at the Geneva cathedral on a large Metzler organ. We did a lot of traveling out of Paris. One of Bill’s close high school friends and his wife came to Paris on their honeymoon and we traveled with them to play several organs in Germany, at Ebersmuenster and Marmoutier, and in Holland where we played the organ at Alkmaar and the beautiful Schnitger in Zwolle. 

We lived in Paris again in 1977, this time with our four-year-old son John and four-month-old daughter Elizabeth. Bill had a Guggenheim grant and we lived in an apartment in Neuilly. Here, he composed the Five Chromatic Dances for piano, partly inspired by a Chopin mazurka, op. 17, no. 4, which he often played when he was composing the Dances.


How do you think the Paris and European experience affected Bill and his music?

He loved Paris. He was very stimulated and inspired in Paris, where musicians, composers, and artists were appreciated. Yes, he was affected by the French music. He used to listen to Debussy’s La Mer and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring all the time. 


Can you speak about Bill’s early years? 

He was born in Gary, Indiana, but the family moved to New Jersey when Bill was in junior high. His father was a school administrator in West Orange, and his mother was a math teacher and a graduate of the University of Illinois. Bill and his two brothers were in the Cub Scouts, and their parents gave them many opportunities, including lots of Sunday school and church. In high school, Bill had a church job in a New Jersey suburb. 

In Gary, he was really fortunate to have had a fine piano teacher named Gladys Relph. When they moved to West Orange in 1959, he began studying piano with Rosetta Goodkind and composition with Hugh Aitken at the Juilliard Preparatory Department. When he was a junior in high school, he played the Grieg piano concerto with the New Jersey Symphony. During this time he used to take the train into New York for lessons and concerts and enjoyed walking around in the city.

He often checked out scores from the Newark public library for study, and spent a lot of time with two close friends, Glen Phillips, who sang in the St. Thomas Boy Choir, and Leonard Schaper. He and Len worked on building a pipe organ, and Bill played clarinet in the West Orange High School Band.


Please tell us about your children.

Bill loved our children, John and Elizabeth. He was very interested in their activities just as his father had been with him and his two brothers. John loved cars almost from day one and when he was about seven years old, we started going to the Detroit Auto Show. We had a great time admiring the cars, sitting in them, and taking pictures. Afterwards, we would take the People Mover to Greek Town for dinner. 

Elizabeth began dance classes at age four and we always looked forward to her dance recitals. Bill took her to dance concerts at U-M and a couple New York shows. He supported her dancing for years and was there to see her graduate from NYU in Fine Arts.


Can you speak about Bill’s work as a church musician?

Bill served as music director at the Ann Arbor Unitarian Universalist Church from 1966–1985. In 1970, he began a campaign to fund a new pipe organ for the sanctuary. To raise money he came up with the idea of having a “Ragtime Bash” to coincide with the rising popularity of classical ragtime music. These concerts were held annually until 2007 and were a huge success. The performers were nationally known ragtime players from southeast Michigan, and the church was overflowing with enthusiastic listeners.

From the money raised at the early concerts and donations from the congregation, the church was able to purchase a Holtkamp organ which was installed in 1973. Dedication recitals were played by Bill and the University of Michigan organ faculty. 

The choir loved working with Bill. They performed many standard choral works as well as music by Bill and other School of Music composers. Many students offered special music to enhance the worship services. Through the Ragtime concerts and installation of the organ, Bill had a very definite impact on the Ann Arbor community. The organ is now in a private home in New Orleans.


Do you have any final thoughts?

Bill was always appreciative of the teachers who guided and inspired him during his years as a student. Ross Lee Finney, Leslie Bassett, George Wilson, and Marilyn Mason at the U of M, and Messiaen, Max Deutsch, and George Rochberg, all influenced him with their thoughtful teaching and respect for his talent.

Tragically, Bill’s life and creativity were cut short due to complications of alcoholism. It affected his work, and his relationships with his family, friends, colleagues and students. People often tell me how much they miss him. We all do. 

Thank you, Sarah.


Interview with John Carlson

John Carlson was Albright’s roommate for one year at the University of Michigan and a close friend in the following years. Carlson earned bachelor and master of music degrees in organ and a master of music degree in composition from the University of Michigan where he studied organ with Robert Glasgow and composition with George Balch Wilson and Leslie Bassett. Carlson taught at the University of Dayton and the University of Michigan, and maintained a private studio in Ann Arbor where he offered instruction in music theory and electronic music composition. His interest in the history and future of recording technologies led to the invention of a holographic data storage system for which he received two U.S. patents. He lives near Muskegon, Michigan, where he continues to pursue his interest in information storage and the acoustics of performance venues.


Douglas Reed: When did you meet Bill Albright? 

John Carlson: I met Bill in the fall of 1963 at the University of Michigan in the old School of Music on Maynard Street in Ann Arbor. We lived in the same dormitory. Bill’s roommate was Russell Peck, a fellow composition major. They played records constantly…mostly contemporary music, things that appealed to them as young composers. I frequently spent time in their room, and I vividly recall the first piece I heard: Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge. This seminal piece of electronic music was shockingly original, combining electronically generated sounds with conventionally produced singing.

The next year Bill and I became roommates. During that year, I came to appreciate the full extent of his musical capabilities as a composer, a performer…and teacher. He was so enthusiastic about imparting his interest and knowledge of this new music. And, Bill’s work ethic was very rigorous. The task at hand would be completed no matter how long it took. If that meant staying up all night, that’s what he did. 


Were there any fun times?

Certainly! We would frequently go as a group to the same concerts, movies, and other events such as the ONCE Festival. The ONCE Festival was not a one-time event. There was a series of festivals between 1961 and 1966. These were music and multi-media presentations by a group of composers, performers, and artists that involved use of drama, lighting, staging, and film. Perhaps a performance would occur but once, since you could never get those people together again under that venue and in that circumstance. Apparently, that’s where the title came from. There was a deep seriousness of intent by the original ONCE Group, which included several young composers, all students of Ross Lee Finney: Robert Ashley, George Cacioppo, Roger Reynolds, Donald Scavarda, and Gordon Mumma. Also involved was the artist Milton Cohen, who specialized at that time in theatrical lighting. Bill and I attended at least one ONCE Festival together, probably in 1964. Each one was held in a different place. One was on the top of a parking structure.


Do you remember any specific ONCE Festival events? What kinds of sounds did you hear?

One or two of these composers had access to the early University of Michigan Electronic Music Studio. Others worked with their own equipment. Perhaps they used a tape recorder to make a prepared audio tape which accompanied instruments or other activities. Perhaps a cartoon film was used, or someone made his own film. A projection of this film might accompany one or more people playing various instruments. Perhaps someone would recite a poem with dramatic lighting effects. 

Sometimes the intention was to not have a specific piece, but rather to set up a situation and let it evolve. So, the goal was not to provide a “written-down” piece, except for a set of instructions. It would not be possible to go back, pick something off the shelf and recreate it, nor was that the intent. 


This is a fine description of Bill’s TIC (1967), composed entirely of little cartoon bubbles with suggested activities for the performers (see Example 1). His BEULAHLAND RAG (1967–69) also includes much improvisation but more specific musical notation and timing (see Example 2). Bill was also the associate director of the University of Michigan Electronic Music Studio. Is there a relationship between his work with electronic music and his acoustic music?

Yes. Understanding some electronic studio techniques from the mid to late 60s may help performers and listeners understand his organ music from that time. The actual electronic generation of sound was done by signal generators that could be found in any electronic repair shop, but instead of just one or two, the University of Michigan studio had a dozen. A large part of working in the early electronic studio was manipulating these electronically generated sounds—sine waves, square waves, and saw-tooth waves—in order to get some kind of humanness to them, some warmth and shape. 

If a series of pitches were desired, each being a short percussive sound, each one would have to be generated and recorded separately on audiotape. Then the tape would be cut up with a razor blade in what was called a splicing block. Next, we taped the little pieces back together interspersed with paper “leader” tape in whatever order we wished. That segment of tape could be played at its recorded speed, either 15 or 7.5 inches per second, or played back at the alternate speed to raise or lower the recorded pitches by a factor of one octave. The tape could be reversed end for end and played backward. This work was extraordinarily time-consuming. The tapes we ended up with consisted of paper leader interspersed with recorded audio segments sometimes only a quarter or half-inch long. By the way, the old advertisement for Maxwell House with the so-called “drips” of coffee were actually sine waves at various pitches that had been chopped up into short segments in the manner I’ve just described.

This effect was difficult to achieve in the electronic music studio, but it was easy to get on the pipe organ. Bill got the same effect by playing widely spaced intervals staccato and very quickly on flute stops. 


In Pneuma (1966) there are several passages that sound like they came right out of the electronic music studio. This type of abrupt juxtaposition of sounds or textures surely has a connection with the splicing block you mentioned earlier. Surprising explosions or reductions of sound were stylistic characteristics in several of Bill’s early pieces. (See Example 3.18)

There aren’t many examples in his music where he emphasized electronic sound. In fact, tonal, rhythmic, and other traditional musical elements are documented in a number of articles and dissertations on his music. But Bill was quite aware of the ability of the modern pipe organ to juxtapose sounds in a way similar to what was being done in an electronic music studio. To a certain extent it was a lot easier on the organ than on any other instrument. 


At the end of Benediction (Organbook I), the alternation of two chords includes the rapid succession of ten different organ timbres (see Example 4).

It must have been a pleasure for Bill to produce such musical gestures so easily. Oddly enough, the Hammond organ has come to be respected as a precursor to the electronic synthesizer because of its unique ability to manipulate various sine waves selected by drawbars. Bill had a healthy respect for that. Also, the attack and decay of the Hammond organ sound is very abrupt. It’s suddenly on, and then it’s off. There is no soft beginning to each specific note. Each has a percussive quality that was very familiar to people working in the early electronic music field. 


That attack could be accentuated on the Hammond with various other controls. This relates to several passages in Benediction (Organbook) where the beginning of a sustained chord is articulated, by a louder, more harmonically developed sound on an adjacent manual. (See Example 5.21)

Another element you can hear in Bill’s organ music, a direct result of his work in the electronic music idiom, relates to masses of sounds or tone clusters. One of the techniques in the early electronic music studio was to gradually alter the speed of the tape recorder. We could do that with those professional tape recorders by taking them off the line voltage and, employing one of our sine-wave oscillators, generating our own alternating current so that we could operate it not only at 60 cycles per second, but also at 59, then 58, 57, 56, thereby decelerating the speed of the tape recorder’s motor. 

We could take a very complex natural sound—perhaps the low-pitched, sustained singing with complex overtones of a group of Tibetan monks—record it and then slow it down to half that speed to get it extremely low, or we could start the tape recorder playing back at an artificially higher speed and then slow the tape recorder down very, very carefully to make a glissando of this massed sound. You can hear Bill emulating that in his organ pieces where he asks for the palm of a hand to move a note-cluster up and down the keyboard slowly or rapidly. I’m sure this derives from his familiarity with electronic music. 

Of course, clusters and cluster glissandos were a part of a genre of organ technique for at least 40 or 50 years by Bill’s time. That’s how theatre organists simulated the sound of a departing locomotive. And what theatre organist has not slid the palm of the hand up to one of those big major chords with an added sixth?!


Did you work with Bill in the electronic music studio? You mentioned Bill’s tapping on the back of a door to create a sound.

My involvement in the studio was simply to assist him. If a dial needed to be turned while he was occupied with starting or stopping a tape recorder, or vice versa, I helped by turning that dial perhaps to make a sound go up or down, or with manipulating that tape recorder. 

And, yes, the door to the electronic music studio in Hill Auditorium was hollow, and it had a nice sound when you rapped it with your knuckles, and, of course, the sound changed as you moved from the edge of the door. If you started at the very top and simply started tapping it rapidly as you moved down toward the center of the door, you could get a descending pitch of sorts. At least the timbre changed. So, we found if you recorded that tapping sound at 15 inches-per-second and then slowed it down to 7.5, instead of having something that went “tic, tic, tic,” it would go “tok… tok… tok… tok.” And then if you re-recorded that sound with a lot of reverberation at 15ips and dropped the result down to 7.5, instead of “tok… tok…tok” it would have become “boom…boom…boom… boom.” It was so mundane, but looking back on it now, it holds some very fond memories. 


In the 1960s, the electronic music medium seemed so far removed from traditional music making, but it’s worth remembering that these developments did not just come “out of the blue.” There were numerous earlier developments such as the Theremin, Ondes Martenot, and the Hammond organ. Charles Ives, Edgard Varèse, Henry Cowell, and other composers used sound blocks and clusters.

Using mechanical devices and whatever else was at hand has always appealed to composers. Bill was very fond of the American expatriate composer Conlon Nancarrow who lived in Mexico. Nancarrow found that he could compose for player piano, thereby vastly exceeding the capabilities of the human hand in what became sophisticated and complex music. Bill did meet Nancarrow on at least one occasion when he returned to the United States. Bill not only enjoyed the music itself but also admired the methodology by which the compositions were created, as they demonstrate the lengths to which composers are willing to go to follow an aesthetic arrow. 


Yes, Bill spoke enthusiastically about Nancarrow in one of his lectures. He played a recording of Nancarrow’s Study No. 21 (Canon X) and cited these very things: how fast Nancarrow could get the music to go and how complex he could make the rhythm.24 He could have the effect of three or four different hands playing the piano totally independent of one another at different rates of speed.

Much of Underground Stream (Organbook III, 1978) has three different rhythmic layers going on at the same time. The second section of Bill’s De Spiritum, called Celestial Duel, ends with material gradually speeding up from a moderate tempo (quarter=72) to Vivo (quarter=160) and accelerates beyond that to “presto pos.” It sounds just like some of the fast passages in Nancarrow’s Studies for player piano. 

Nancarrow pushed tempo to the limits of the player piano by punching holes in paper sheets. Bill’s formidable keyboard technique allowed him to achieve similar effects on the organ. 


Can you talk about your film-making experience?

While we were roommates in 1964–65, we collaborated in making several 8mm films. As students, the possibility of having our own professional video camera was virtually zero. Since 16mm film was terrifically expensive, we resorted to using 8mm film, which was in our budget. One of our productions was good enough to win second prize in the first Ann Arbor 8mm Film Festival.


What was it about?

(chuckle) It was…to use that all too frequently abused word…an experimental film. Our main character was the composer, Robert Morris, who willingly did just about anything we asked of him including running up and down the stairwell of Burton Tower. At one point we were aiming the camera down the stairwell and filming at a slow speed. After the film was processed and running at normal speed, it appeared as though Bob was corkscrewing himself right into the ground. We sped up the camera; we slowed it down; we reversed the film; we photographed things in stop action. All the same things we were doing in the electronic music studio, we did with film. We knew that we could splice film together and cut it up in the same way that we did audio tape. So, we could introduce snippets of color with mostly black and white. We even hired some school children to do a small bit part. We asked them if they wanted to be in the movies, and they said, “Of course!” So, we gave them a dime apiece, and they acted for us (laughter).


What did you have them do?

I think we told them to stand at attention for a few seconds and then to look to their left, and then all run away…or something like that. Anyway, we pieced this thing together. We had heard there was a new Ann Arbor Film Festival that had an 8mm division, so as a lark, we put it into the Festival, and lo and behold, we won second prize. It was shown to great acclaim and applause that next night in a coffee house in Ann Arbor. We were very proud of ourselves, although it was a silly little thing. But it was fun.


Could you tell about your invention and how Bill helped you with that?

When it became necessary for me to establish a legal “date of conception” for a holographic storage system I had invented, Bill spent many hours looking at every single page in a bound notebook, then signing and dating that page. This was a very generous thing that he did for me. In the process of reaching a patentable stage, the inventor is obligated to write his ideas into a bound notebook in his own hand using indelible ink detailing every feature of the invention. Each page must be signed by the inventor and two witnesses, who must be sufficiently knowledgeable about the technology so they can sign every page of the book, “witnessed and understood by….” One person was an old friend of mine, an M.D. with enough technical prowess to understand the technology. The other person was Bill Albright, who did, indeed, sit there for several afternoons looking over all the written material including the detailed diagrams until he understood each page. He would quiz me about things, I would quiz him about his knowledge of it, and when he felt he was comfortable doing so, he signed off on that page, and then we went to the next page and the next page.


And the nice bottom line is that you actually got the patent (U.S. Patent 4,420,829—“Holographic System for the Storage of Audio, Video and Computer Data”). 



Ross Lee Finney was one of Bill’s major composition teachers.

I barely knew Finney. By the time I became a composition student, Leslie Bassett was the head of the department. But, I had occasion to be at Ross Lee Finney’s house when he invited me for a private conversation, which I understand he did from time to time with all the composition majors. He was a brilliant man and very generous with his time. He was very tough, but in a nice way. That is to say, he wanted the students to employ their talents to the very best of their ability. There was a professionalism about him. 

Finney’s contribution was not only as a teacher, but he was also able to get many other well-known composers to come to the university and donate their time to the task at hand of teaching and associating with the student composers, plus putting together ensembles for performance. He had many contacts throughout the musical world, which he could exploit in the best sense of the word, all for the benefit of his students. When he retired, Leslie Bassett, in his own way, did the same thing. 


Then Bill continued that tradition when he became the chair of the department…

…succeeding Bassett, that’s right. And then Bill was succeeded by William Bolcom. So, there’s been a long heritage of top-notch composition teachers.


Let’s talk a little bit about the fun, humorous aspect of Toccata Satanique and literary associations. Bill told me it really had nothing to do with Satan, and, in fact, the title may have been an attempt to poke fun at such “devilish” ideas. He also spoke about Poe, Hawthorne, and other 19th-century writers who sometimes dealt with such subjects, and, of course, we have Tartini’s famous “Devil’s Trill” sonata and numerous pieces by Liszt and Berlioz. 

In the notes to his recording of the piece, he writes that Toccata Satanique “is a matinee performance by the devil at the console, an attempt to exorcise those fiendish virtuoso toccatas of Mulet, Widor, et al;…” Bill had a rapier wit. People who knew him well enjoyed his joking, his fun with words, his double-entendres, everything in the bag of tricks of people who enjoy interacting with others in a social environment when everyone is enjoying each other’s familiarities with certain literary things, musical gestures, artistic relationships, and whatnot. Some religious connotations and associations can have a humorous aspect to them, and so church musicians and the organ can be part of that basket of topics as well.

One must be careful not to read in too much into a title. Actually the real purpose of a title might simply be to distinguish one piece from another when you’re talking with someone on the telephone. Sometimes, it doesn’t really get much beyond that. 


However, notes and comments on sketches for Night Procession and the Whistler Nocturnes suggest that in some cases Bill may have been thinking of titles right along with the musical concepts.

It’s possible that the title gave to the piece its nucleus, that is, the title might have to do with the style of the piece or it might be reminiscent of a certain performer whom he was trying to emulate. 


You performed several of Bill’s organ pieces. Did he have suggestions for you?

Bill coached me on the performance of Melisma. As usual, I was practicing it slowly at first and gradually picking up the tempo. Bill said, “You know that first little group of notes…you shouldn’t be able to hear the individual notes…it’s just baroop.” It’s a glissando. You have to do that fast! I can see him in the old electronic music studio with his hand on the dial of the signal generator and here’s a sine wave coming from the speakers, and he’d be twiddling the dial, making the sound barooarooaroo go up and down. (See Example 6.)


…which is like the beginning of Melisma

Yes, but you can’t be playing the thing da-da-da-da-da-….It has to go so fast that it’s just a blur.


And with a traditional chromatic fingering, you can’t get it fast enough. So instead of (L.H.) 2-1-3-1-3, you use consecutive fingers 5-4-3-2-1 with a quick flick of the wrist.

I got the impression that Bill really wanted that thing to be at full bore velocity. Of course, you’re dealing with a person who is a virtuoso performer of great stamina. After all, he could keep up very well with those friends he’d invite over and with whom he’d play ragtime music all night long. You know, there were the legendary “cutting contests” [ragtime playing competitions] of the early ragtime pianists, and some of those fellows were still around, some who emulated that culture, so sheer speed and endurance was something Bill expected. Perhaps in his later years he modified that a little.


The question of tempo is a perennial one. When I performed Four Fancies (for harpsichord, 1979) and Symphony (for organ, 1986) he told me not to worry too much about tempo, that the most important thing was good rhythm. He commented specifically on honoring the complex rhythms in the second movement of the harpsichord piece, Mirror Bagatelle. Another time he wanted me to play much faster. When he narrated 1732: In Memoriam Johannes Albrecht (1984), he pushed me to the limit on several sections where he wanted it faster. “Let ’er rip!” he said.

I am reminded there are certain times in our musical past when new standards of velocity were set. I recently read a biography of the pianist Art Tatum who had extraordinary facility. As a young teenager, Oscar Peterson, another famous jazz pianist, thought he had arrived in terms of his technical prowess. He was told that by all of his relatives! Why shouldn’t he believe it? Oscar’s father brought home a record of Art Tatum and played it without telling Oscar anything about it. When it was all done, he asked his son, “Well, what ’ya think of that?” And Oscar said, “Boy, those guys are good!” And his father said, “Oscar, that’s only one man playing.” When Oscar realized his father was telling the truth, he said, “I didn’t go near a piano for three months.” 

When a standard like that is set, it forces people to do more than they think they can. You find that, yes, you can do it. Bill’s fingers weren’t built any differently than anybody else’s. With practice, you can achieve those velocities that he was looking for.


Thank you, John.

Thank you. It’s been a pleasure talking about an old friend and colleague and his music.