My Brother Bob (October 29, 1945- December 9, 2016)

My wife, Laura Zam, asked me if I had any stories about my brother Bob. This one surfaced. Once, at the age of 5 or 6, for some reason, I became upset at not being able to draw a picture of something. I wondered into my Bob’s room, which was rich with books, art, music and his own projects. He noticed my dour expression. “What’s wrong, Kurt?” he said. Almost in tears, I blurted out: “I can’t draw a straight line!” “Oh,” he said. “Here. Sit down. I’ll show you.” He got a piece of paper, put it on his desk, took one of his mechanical drafting pencils, and drew a nearly perfectly straight line. I practiced with him until I could produce a reasonable one of my own. Why that story came up, I’m sure, is because of the generous, loving, and large heart he has. He could have laughed me off or ridiculed me for such a trivial thing, but he didn’t. He took my plight seriously and offered to help, coaching me to success.

Almost 20 years ago, when I started the “Musical Almanac,” I wrote this about a piece of music he introduced me to.  It contains another memory of Bob, that now, as he is completing his time on earth, helps keep the sadness, at times, at bay.

Copland’s Appalachian Spring

My next to oldest brother, Bob, preceded my arrival on Earth by 10 years. He went to college in 1964, which was the perfect time to be a student in the U.S. During the years from 1963 to 1968, the civil rights movement broke down America’s apartheid. The Hippie movement started in California. The Beatles conquered America and changed the face of popular music, finally giving it some teeth. It was the era of free love and youth everywhere revolted against the military industrial complex and white Anglo-Saxon authoritarianism.

Bob was a bit of a renaissance man—he was influenced by the Beat poets, drove a grand old Plymouth with huge tail fins, and painted canvases in the style of Miro and Abstract Expressionists. In college, he studied history and design.

He had eclectic tastes in music, and stereo being a new invention and fairly expensive, he built his own vacuum-tube amplifier and receiver out of a kit. We lived in a big farm house. In the summers Bob worked at a nearby factory, and I would then slip into his room to play records. One of the albums he prized was Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, which was based on Shaker melodies. I was drawn to its exciting parts as well as the richly romantic slow movements.

As the war in Vietnam escalated, Bob became more and more worried at the possibility of having to do military service. At the time, teachers could not be drafted, so he abandoned his dream of becoming an artist to get a teaching degree. For the next 30 years after leaving teaching, Bob moved from one job to another while raising a family.

Classical stations play Copland’s work about once a day, so over the years my interest in Copland waned. And if I hear Fanfare for a Common Man used in a political advertisement or for a car commercial one more time, I think I’ll kick my television in.

Recently, however, I left Appalachian Spring play on the radio while driving my daughter to her violin lesson. I was surprised to find it to be quite an exciting piece with masterful orchestration. It seemed as fresh as when I had first heard it over 30 years ago.

It is still respected as one of the first major serious pieces to be written in the American idiom. Though some might call Copland’s use of folk melodies derivative, Bartok adapted Hungarian and Turkish songs and remains well respected. It also comforts me to know you can also dig in your own backyard to find treasures.

Recently Bob went back to school to earn a masters degree in counseling. Though American life (and politics) can be frustrating as hell, the words one of the Shaker hymn Copland uses comes back to me when I think of Bob: “‘Tis a gift to be simple. ‘Tis a gift to be free.” His gift to me was to show me that having many interest sets you free.

A Performance of the ballet suite with Bernstein Conducting
(both he and Copland studied with Nadia Boulanger)
An early TV performance of the Appalachian Spring ballet choreographed by Martha Graham (1/4)

Appalachian Spring (2/4)

Appalachian Spring (3/4)

Appalachian Spring (4/4)

Full Ballet Score

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