Obituaries

Eric Salzman, 84, composer who championed avant-garde

NEW YORK — Eric Salzman, a composer and music critic who championed a new art form, music theater, that was neither opera nor stage musical, died Nov. 12 at his home in Brooklyn. He was 84.

The cause was cardiac arrest, his daughter Stephanie Salzman said.

Mr. Salzman was a music critic for several publications, including The New York Times, but was not content merely to write about others’ works and performances. From the 1960s until well into this century, he composed exploratory works, many of them created collaboratively, that mixed music, text, dance, and other elements in ways not generally seen on mainstream stages.

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He also presented and championed such works by others, most notably by helping to found the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia in 1984.

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Mr. Salzman was the author of, among other books, “20th-Century Music: An Introduction,” a foundational text first published a half-century ago and updated most recently in 2001. His varied résumé also included time as music director for WBAI-FM in New York in the 1960s and as artistic director of several performance organizations.

Creating his own music, though, was his first passion.

“Eric considered himself first and foremost a composer,” his wife, Lorna Salzman, said by e-mail. “He was trained as a composer classically utilizing 20th-century atonality, but he felt that the orchestra, chamber players and vocalists needed to adapt to new ideas and exist on a smaller scale and with more flexibility.”

Eric Salzman was born Sept. 8, 1933, in Queens. His father, Samuel, was a psychologist and teacher, and his mother, the former Frances Klenett, was a composer, teacher, and rare-book dealer.

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After attending Forest Hills High School, Mr. Salzman received a bachelor’s degree from Columbia College in 1954 and a master of fine arts from Princeton in 1956.

He began reviewing for The Times in 1958, weighing in on operas, the New York Philharmonic, recitals, recordings, and more over the next four years. In 1964, he became a music critic for the New York Herald Tribune, staying in that job until the paper closed two years later. He then wrote for Stereo Review magazine and other publications, a part of his career that, to critic Tim Page, was vital.

“When Eric Salzman was writing monthly for Stereo Review, he was pretty much the only music critic who was covering all aspects of the avant-garde,” Page, now a professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California, said by e-mail. “He was not necessarily enthusiastic about everything he wrote about, but he covered many kinds of new and unusual work thoroughly and with discrimination and distinction.”

In 1970, he continued, “Virgil Thomson called Salzman ‘the best critic in America for contemporary and far out music’ — and this was at a time when John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Alvin Lucier and others were testing the limits of the ‘far out.’ Young critics and composers read Salzman avidly.”

Mr. Salzman was increasingly exploring his own creativity as well. In 1970, he founded Quog, a performance group that experimented with works that mixed genres and media. The resulting efforts were not always heartily embraced.

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“Some of the sound had a nice charm to it,” John Rockwell wrote in The Times in 1973, reviewing a program of Quog works, “and the nine performers seemed to be having a good time among themselves. But their movement looked awkward, and their theater rarely transcended embarrassed self-indulgence.”

‘He covered many kinds of new and unusual work thoroughly and with discrimination and distinction.’

The territory came to be called music — not “musical” — theater, a term Salzman tried to define in a 1972 article in The Times. He called it “a primarily nonverbal art integrating sound, movement, image, music, language, idea, thinking, feeling.”

In 1966, Mr. Salzman wrote a diatribe for the Herald Tribune about the excessive use of the word “festival” in titles of music programs, especially in Europe, but when he, Marjorie Samoff, and Ronald L. Kaiserman decided in 1983 to create a forum for the kinds of works he composed and championed, the word found its way into the name nonetheless: The first American Music Theater Festival took place in the summer of 1984.

Among that first festival’s featured works was “Strike Up the Band!,” Mr. Salzman’s “reconstructed and adapted” version of a satirical musical with a score by George and Ira Gershwin that had not been staged in 50 years. The director of that production, Frank Corsaro, died the day before Salzman did.

In 1987, the festival presented “Stauf,” a reworking of the Faust legend by Mr. Salzman and his frequent collaborator, Michael Sahl. He remained the festival’s artistic director until 1994.

More recent works by Mr. Salzman included “Jukebox in the Tavern of Love,” a comic madrigal seen at Bargemusic in New York in 2009 about a nun, a poet, a rabbi, and other unlikely characters stranded in a bar during a blackout.

Besides his daughter Stephanie and his wife, the former Lorna Jackson, whom he married in 1955, Mr. Salzman leaves another daughter, Eva Salzman, and a granddaughter.

Mr. Salzman, among his many side interests, was an avid birder, and particularly favored the song of the elusive hermit thrush.

“The other thrushes are baroque artists, constantly elaborating, reworking and adding to their showy repertoire,” he wrote on his website. “The hermit thrush is a classicist, working on the principle of less is more, multum in parvo. Constantly changing variations appear within a simple, firm musical framework. Complex chords and high overtones climb and resonate between the tree trunks to create a sense of space and depth: a song in three — no, four — dimensional space that seems to speak of eternal things.”