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Back, but Not Bach

Composer, character Peter Schickele is on the road with Lark Quartet.


RIP PDQ Bach. Welcome Peter Schickele, composer, raconteur, crackpot-genius radio programmer. For many years, the bewigged PDQ, the presumably lesser-known offspring of Bach, and Schickele's alter ego (not a very closely guarded secret), injected cherished doses of humor--not to mention education--into the classical world.

But after years of touring under the pseudo-Bach identity, Schickele more or less retired him, choosing instead to focus on composing, and producing his weekly syndicated radio program "Schickele Mix." Each week, he throws together wild, provocative blends of musical examples on a given theme. In that forum, his wit and educational virtues carry on, making him one of America's most user-friendly musical tour guides.

This week, Schickele the composer-performer comes to town. He will play the piano part of his Piano Quintet No. 2 with the Lark String Quartet. The event kicks off the UCSB concert season.

Schickele spoke on the phone from St. Paul earlier this week, where he and the Lark Quartet had stopped to appear on the NPR show "St. Paul Sunday Morning." He's familiar with the Twin Cities, where his radio program is produced and recorded. Although he lives in New York City and in Woodstock, N.Y., he heads to Minneapolis several times a year. "I prepare the shows in New York with my own record collection, and then come out here looking like Willy Loman, laden down with CDs, LPs and even a few 45s."


Through your own music and on your radio program, you seem to be a crusader for eclecticism. Has this been a characteristic of your musical life from childhood?

I think so. I got started in music later than a lot of composers. I wasn't interested in music at all until I was about 12 years old. But right from the beginning, in my teenage years, I was torn between classical and popular music. I spent my teenage years in Fargo, N.D., and my first composition teacher had no use for popular music whatsoever, and yet I was attracted to a lot of it.

So part of [the challenge] for me over the years has been to figure out that I don't have to make the choice. I can get involved in both. I'm using popular in the very broad sense here, to include jazz and folk, not just the hit-parade-type pop. One of the things I've done in my own composition is to figure out ways to let all sorts of jazz and folk and rock and ethnic music into my serious music.

The Quintet that we're playing on this tour is a good example, because the first movement is actually quite Brahms-ian in its gestures, talking about the language. And then there's a scherzo and a serene slow movement, and the last movement is sort of square-dance fiddle music with a bluegrass flavor.

And yet, to me, even that has an echo in the Western European tradition, in that Brahms and Dvorak would often use Hungarian or gypsy material for their last movements. Bluegrass is the American equivalent of that.


I get the sense it's important for you to be out there in the trenches. You don't seem like a composer who likes to cloister himself from view.

You're right. I will admit that I'm 63 this year, and I am trying to pull back on touring somewhat. I've been touring now for over 30 years, and I find that I'm trying to find more and more time just to compose.

But I do like to be involved. It's particularly fun to be playing a piano quintet, because the Brahms F minor quintet and the Dvorak A Major and the Schumann are among my favorite pieces, but I'm not a good enough pianist to play those. But if I wrote the piano part myself to play, then I can do it and am able to take part in this wonderful chamber music experience. You won't notice a lot of fast runs in the left hand (laughs).


You must have to find a balance between these different activities to satisfy your different needs. Is that true?

Yes, and sometimes that's tricky. I'm just the girl who can't say no, and I find that I have a tendency to take on more than I can comfortably handle. Of course, with age, that gets trickier, too. When I was 22 years old, I could stay up for two nights in a row and still write fairly decent music. I can't do that anymore.

It is something I'm definitely trying to work out. I'm trying to confine my touring to a smaller period. But, above that, I'm also trying to be more realistic in accepting commissions. I'm in the nice position now of getting more and more commissions, but I sometimes take on more than I have time to finish without getting fairly frantic.


Obviously, you also listen to a lot of music. What are you hearing that you like these days?

Well, I do listen, although it goes through phases. People assume that since I have a radio program, I listen to the radio a lot myself, but actually, when I'm working on a piece, I'm not anxious to hear other music all the time.

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