LA JOLLA — "One of my composition teachers used to say, 'You want to write a modern piece--write a piece for flute and bass!' and then he'd giggle and almost choke on his own humor. Year after year he'd tell the same joke," said Bertram Turetzky, UC San Diego music professor and contrabass soloist.
But Turetzky has had the last laugh on that cynical composition teacher. The genial 53-year-old musician has had more than 300 works written for his chosen instrument, including some 30 pieces for the unlikely duo of bass and flute.
Turetzky has almost single-handedly created a solo repertory for an instrument seldom heard outside the symphony orchestra, the opera pit and the jazz ensemble. In May in New York City, the American New Music Consortium gave Turetzky its annual award for his support and advocacy of American music, appropriately presented by the celebrated American contemporary composer Lucas Foss.
"I had always heard that the bass was not a solo instrument," Turetzky said. "And I was convinced that I would not spend my career playing transcriptions." Traditionally, when a bass player had to appear in a solo role, he would play transcriptions of cello pieces, even though the bass belongs to a different family of stringed instruments than the smaller cello.
When Turetzky started his career as a solo contrabassist, he frequently would have to prove his instrument's solo capabilities to a prospective composer. "I never had any money for commissions, but the commitment of composers was not dollars; it was having their piece played." Now, however, new compositions come to him unsolicited. "A couple of weeks ago I received a suite for bass and percussion from a Canadian composer. He had read my book ('The Contemporary Contrabass') in Montreal, so he sent me the composition. Three or four nice pieces have come up this summer. If I can't perform them, one of my students can. Sometimes I can recommend the piece to a publisher."
Turetzky's advocacy of his instrument has taken him across the country, to Mexico and to Europe. Critics have been as impressed with his virtuosity as with the unusual nature of his pieces. In spite of his academic duties, cultivating new repertory and editing previously unknown works that call for contrabass, Turetzky still practices daily. "I play every day. I think it is possible to get better as you grow older," he said with a smile.
On a pair of solo concerts he gave last fall at North Texas State University's School of Music, the oldest composition he essayed was a dusty 1969 commission, "Inside," by Kenneth Gaburo, a former UCSD faculty member. Turetzky included one of his own compositions on each program, although he is modest about his own calling as a composer. His advocacy is for the whole tribe of contemporary composers.
"Everybody who loves music should meet a composer--you know, take a composer to lunch. Then they would realize that they're human beings, that they have concerns about the universe, their children, and their mortgage. And they don't always look like those wild pictures of Beethoven and Liszt in the history books, either."
Surprisingly, Turetzky resents being labeled as an avant-gardist, in spite of his reputation and advocacy of new music. "My feelings are hurt when they say, 'He's an avant-gardist.' What is that? As a category, it's constantly changing. Once Philip Glass was avant garde, but now he's commercial." It is not the association with new or controversial music that rankles Turetzky, but placing him in a single musical niche.
When he is not premiering some new composition, Turetzky is likely to be found playing in the pit of a Starlight musical, sitting in with a local klezmer band, or giving a demonstration of early American music to grade school students for the San Diego Young Audiences program. Were it not for his good humor, his zeal for spreading the joy of music might be overbearing.
"On the Turetzky side of the family, there are Talmudic scholars," he said. "The word rabbi means teacher, and I love to teach. My commitment comes from that line also. The idea is that you should leave a better place than you found when you came. With the repertoire and the respect for the instrument, I think it's a nicer place already, although I don't plan to leave just yet. I still have a lot of work to do."
Turetzky credits his wife of 27 years, Nancy, with the rest of his motivation. "She has been totally committed to all of these crazy ideas," he said. An accomplished flutist, she joined him in an early recording project. "We recorded the Ben Johnson duo on my fist record. She had just given birth to our second son two weeks earlier, but she drove across the country from Connecticut to Illinois to record the piece, and she was in great shape to play." One of their wedding presents was a composition from a friend, a duo for flute and contrabass which was an omen.
Turetzky's immigrant parents were not excited when he chose a career in music. His mother, now 83, remains slightly incredulous at his renown in such a profession. "My mother still doesn't believe it, even when her friends send her newspaper clippings of me when I perform in different cities. Of course, she remembers the itinerant klezmer musician who traveled from shtetl to shtetl in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before 1916, which is when she left. Peace came in the family when I became a professor. For her, professor took the whole sting out of being a musician."
Always ready with a new project, Turetzky is planning to teach a big band class at UCSD this year, after he attends an international bass conference in Freiburg, West Germany, this November. "I knew a lot of people who were involved with big band music. And I want everyone in the class to learn those dances--the jitterbug and the fox trot," he said.