David Amram recalled a question-and-answer session from his time as the first composer in residence for the New York Philharmonic, back in the 1960s. An audience member asked him how he could equate “barroom music” with the great classics of Western music. Amram replied that he was more interested in “purity of intent and an exquisite choice of notes.”
Amram has spent a lifetime composing and playing music, all the time trying to “find the beauty inherent in every [musical] situation,” he said in an interview this week.
Amram wrote the score to “The Manchurian Candidate” and the title song to the film “Pull My Daisy.” His orchestral works include “American Dance Suite,” “Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie,” “Blues and Variations for Monk” and others. He has performed or collaborated with Beat Generation poets and writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, as well as Willie Nelson, Pete Seeger, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Depp and Leonard Bernstein.
He has been in Chapel Hill this week for a series of talks and film screenings sponsored in part by UNC’s Department of Romance Languages. Today, Amram will perform an evening of music and poetry at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro.
Some of the readings will include texts by Kerouac. Amram collaborated with Kerouac and other writers to create a poetry reading with music in 1957. Amram has written about those experiences in “Offbeat: Collaborating with Kerouac,” his memoir “Vibrations” and other books.
Amram was in New York in the 1950s, a time of artistic ferment and experimentation. “There was this great energy with the GI Bill,” which enabled many people to attend college, he said. It was the time of breakthroughs in jazz, abstract painting, new approaches to theater. Discrimination also was being challenged and breaking down, he said.
He thinks the term “beat writers” has outlived its meaning. “All of us associated [with that time] have outlived ‘beat’ as a characteristic,” Amram said. He refers to the writers and artists of the time as “post-World War II euphoric visionaries” who were interested in celebrating the moment.
One characteristic was a breaking down of the barrier between “folk art and high art,” Amram said. “We all loved the classics. We never thought of the classics of Europe as being created by ‘dead white men.’”
Amram’s eclectic musical journey has also helped to break down such arbitrary distinctions. He studied composition, but none of the composers or musicians he worked with – from Bernstein to Mingus – ever discouraged him from being an improviser as well as a composer with score paper.
Charlie Parker “took me under his wing,” Amram said. “He encouraged me to listen to Frederick Delius and his orchestral colorations.” Parker “encouraged everybody as long as you were respectful,” Amram said.
Younger Americans, with their exposure to the Internet, are more open to different music, without needing to categorize everything, he said. “Now people can study our roots music as well as Mozart. To the extent I was a tiny part of that, I’m honored,” Amram said.
Amram said he loves to play with Pete Seeger, who does not use a set list. Amram is known for trying to engage audiences in the music, and today’s concert will have room for plenty of spontaneity. In addition to French horn (an instrument he pioneered in jazz) and piano, he plays numerous flutes and instruments from Native American and other cultures, and will probably show some of them.
“These are some of the things I can do without a band,” Amram said. “I try to figure out what I can do at the moment to help other people feel creative,” he said.