LA JOLLA — In the vernacular, California music is usually identified with the surf tunes of the Beach Boys.
But to those who chronicle music's more serious side, California music is defined by contemporary composers Robert Erickson and Lou Harrison. Erickson celebrates his 70th birthday next week, and colleagues in the UC San Diego music department are honoring him with a weeklong celebration of his music.
"We're not just going to play 27 of Bob's compositions," said Cecil Lytle, chairman of the music department. "We want to give a picture of what this California movement has been about." Lytle, a pianist who specializes in contemporary repertory, explained that after World War II, "The East Coast composers--the Milton Babbitts--really locked into academic intellectualism, the European approach."
Although Erickson had studied in the Midwest with the Austrian 12-tone composer Ernst Krenek, Erickson did not become a clone of his European tutor, nor did he align himself with any current school of composition. According to Lytle, Erickson has always been an experimentalist, a composer who would rather tinker with tradition than follow the party line.
"Historically in this century, American composers have been known as tinkerers, with little concern for form and structure," Lytle said. "Charles Ives tinkered with memories of his father's (band) music and wedded it into his music, and (Henry) Cowell reached into his piano and tinkered with the strings. In the same sense, this idea of American experimentation came West with the Ericksons and Harrisons."
Like Ives, Erickson's recognition has been slow in coming. He has no Pulitzer Prize, and recordings of his works have been made only in recent years. "I'm a guy waiting to be revived from obscurity," the composer said in an interview two years ago. Ironically, some of his students, such as minimalist composer Terry Riley, have gained more national attention than Erickson.
Lytle attributed Erickson's lack of public accolades to a combination of geography and temperament. "He never was part of the East Coast engine that was being wound up after World War II," said Lytle. And Erickson's feisty personality did not endear him to the musical Establishment.
San Francisco's Kronos Quartet, a quasi-punk string quartet devoted to the avant garde, will open the Erickson festival Sunday night at Mandeville Auditorium. They will play the composer's three works for string quartet, including the 1986 piece "Corfu," commissioned by arts patron Betty Freeman for Kronos.
Tuesday night's Mandeville fare will display Erickson's virtuoso pieces for instrumental soloists. "Erickson would hear someone play in a nightclub or in a concert. Maybe he liked the way they played a trill. Then he'd write a piece for them, almost like Ellington writing for individual players," said Lytle.
"Ricercar a 3," for two taped contrabasses and one live player, will be performed Tuesday by contrabassist Bertram Turetzky, the UCSD professor who commissioned the work. "Erickson is basically a researcher and a collaborator," said Turetzky. "Every piece is different because he is always facing a different problem to be solved."
Sonor, UCSD's resident contemporary music ensemble, will present six of Erickson's chamber works Wednesday evening at Mandeville. Friday night, a melange of the composer's least-easily classified works will be essayed, including "Do It," a potpourri of sounds from the 1968 presidential campaign, speeches of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and radio and television advertising.
While no concerts have been scheduled for the composer's birthday, March 7, the grand finale on Sunday afternoon, March 8, will be complete with birthday cake. At this time, however, university spokeswoman Irene Solomon said Erickson's poor health will probably confine him to observing the concerts and festivities by closed-circuit television in his hospital room.
On that final festival program, which will be performed by a chamber orchestra and the UCSD Women's Chorus conducted by Thomas Nee, Lytle will play the piano solo in Erickson's 1963 Piano Concerto.
"The concerto has a formal language," explained Lytle, "yet the composer violates that language as often as he utilizes it, which I find refreshing."
Erickson's 70th birthday also marks the composer's retirement from the university.