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Return of a Native

A Famous Composer Debuts in His Hometown



Maurice Weddington heard classical music for the first time in the late 50s, when he was attending Dunbar Vocational High School. "A very weird schoolmate introduced me to Stravinsky by playing a recording of Le sacre du printemps. It did impress me deeply. In fact, it changed my life. It showed me how serious music could be put together. So I signed up for a theory course." He already knew how to play the trumpet, flute, and bassoon, and jazz was a passion. "I was of course in love with Monk, Miles, and Coltrane. Jazz gave me scope. Yet I'm still amazed that I didn't think twice about becoming a classical composer. I knew at 16 this was the only way I could express myself."

At Wilson Junior College he took all the music courses he could, then took composition classes at the American Conservatory of Music and the University of Chicago. "I spent a lot of time at the public library going through their record collection. That was where I came across the Russians--Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff. The Hungarians too. Bartok was absolutely my hero."

But Weddington graduated in 1962, at a time when only a handful of blacks had managed to make a career as classical composers. "Given the institutional racism in this country, I wouldn't have survived here back then. I felt Europe was my destiny and destination. There I could immerse myself in classical music. So I decided on Paris. What the heck! I wanted to study with Olivier Messiaen, who, I was told, would take in promising students regardless of their background. I bought a ticket on Pan Am.

"When I got to Paris I found out that Messiaen was on sabbatical that year," he says, chuckling. "I didn't know anyone there. I had no money. Some Algerians took me in. Their butts got kicked by the French a lot. So was mine. I stayed alive by the will of God and what little money was sent from home. I bummed around and hustled. I never hung out with artists or musicians, but I made sure that I composed every morning."

He met a Danish woman in the Rodin Museum. "She offered me her food packages. We fell in love and did a lot of crazy things. At the end of our time together she told me to look her up in Copenhagen." He spent the next year hitchhiking around Europe and writing music, and finally wound up in Copenhagen. He found the woman, but she was getting married the next day.

Yet he liked the city, and he stayed. He got to know Denmark's tiny composer community, which was wowed by a quintet he'd written. And he kept on writing. "One afternoon I looked out my window and saw the sun quickly setting. I started to hear this music and wrote it down after I came out of my reverie. The music became the basis for When the SunSet. Later I used some of the materials for my orchestral piece Midnight, set to a provocative text by Martin Luther King."

In 1971 When the SunSet won the coveted Gaudeamus Prize, an award Weddington also won in 1972 and '73. More commissions also came his way, in part, he says, because a black composer was a novelty in Western Europe. In 1975 he won a fellowship to relocate to Berlin.

He rarely returned to the States, but his mother came to visit him. Three years ago they were sitting together in his kitchen in Berlin. "She told me about a caller to a radio program saying he lived between Sunset and Isola in Mississippi." They're in the same county the Weddingtons are from. "We got out a map. At the time I was writing a piece for solo flute titled Deovolente, 'God Willing.' So I said, Is there a place in the same county with that name? Sure enough, there is a town named Deovolente, founded by a black preacher. You remember the expression 'Isolated at midnight / God willing, there will be daybreak'? I thought Daybreak would be the title of my next piece, and it would be a quartet. And there must be a place named Daybreak in the vicinity. Sure enough, we found out that it existed in the 1850s--a slave plantation. These four pieces make up my 'Mississippi Epiphany.'"

Weddington's works imaginatively combine unsettling pitches and harmonic shifts into a unique vocabulary that he often uses to create "feelings of bizarreness and otherness." The word "otherness" describes more than a mood in his work. "What I've heard of the European and American avant-garde doesn't sound like me. I really don't have a dogmatic position or fixed structural ideas. Perhaps that's why I don't belong to any cliques or have any academic affiliations. Maybe that's why I'm not all that well-known, even though my music is played by many European radio orchestras and some of my works have been performed in the States now and then. I've been mostly on my own."

A couple of years ago he was in Paris for a recital of his latest works when he was approached by a sinologist named Peter Way. "Way said my music, in collapsing perspectives, reminded him of Asian art. So he suggested that I compose a piece to evoke and possibly duplicate the sense of an old painting. I felt very comfortable with the proposal. After all, painters, like composers, work with ideas about structure and perception. I said yes, then Way showed me photos of some scrolls."

The one that immediately caught Weddington's eye was Wind and Rain on the Xiang River by Xia Chang (1388-1470), a remarkable 30-foot ink scroll that depicts the river and its bamboo-filled banks. "It's a study of time and space, presenting elements from ever-so-slightly different vantage points simultaneously," says Weddington. He closely analyzed the scroll, which is considered priceless by its owner, the Museum of East Asian Art in Berlin, and is seldom on view. "The challenge was to evoke the eternal now of a constantly flowing river. So I tried to write something that wouldn't be seen as dated in technique or structure years from now, yet I wanted the music to follow the varied contours and perspectives. It moves horizontally and vertically at once, in micro movements with very few normal pitches."

It was this work, Xiang Aspects, that finally brought Weddington home for his first local concert. He and his music had come to the attention of Chicago's Goethe-Institut, which had contacted the Art Institute. As it turned out, the museum owns a strikingly similar Xia Chang scroll titled Bamboo Along the Stream in Spring Rain (Gallery 108). An invitation was extended, and Weddington agreed to have his new work--as well as several earlier pieces, including Deovolente--performed by a trio of soloists and the Chicago Chamber Orchestra this Sunday in the Art Institute's Rubloff Auditorium.

He sees this homecoming as an overture to American audiences and benefactors. "I'd like to spend part of the year here. On the compositional level I'm headed in the right direction. But it's time to gain recognition outside Europe. After all, when my chamber pieces were presented in Hong Kong and Tokyo this year people asked, Who's doing this stuff? and were surprised to learn that I was a black composer from Chicago."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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