Before politicians sullied the word, "maverick" branded an artist who followed a singular path away from institutions, commercial success, celebrity, and an accepted style. As embodied by Peter Garland, one of the greatest American composers living today, a maverick also commits to selflessly serving fellow composers while openly harboring a cranky, often bridge-burning suspicion of institutions (colleges, corporatized arts organizations, prize committees, big-name festivals) and those who benefit from them.
Garland's music is heartachingly beautiful, willful, and sometimes craggy. A master of stark yet serene melodies, his "radical consonance" is an apt language for someone who befriended bold, innovative musicians such as Dane Rudhyar, Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, and Conlon Nancarrow. He championed them, too; from 1971 to 1991, Garland edited and published Soundings, which he has described as "an expression of independence." An antidote to dry academic journals, Soundings was crammed with scores and lively writing by dozens of composers known and unknown, including Gavin Bryars, Lois Vierk, James Tenney, Harold Budd, John Zorn, and Alvin Lucier.
Garland is an irascible truth-teller; composer and music writer Kyle Gann dubbed him "the conscience of American music." Speaking before a 2006 concert I attended by the New York–based DownTown Ensemble, Garland, born in 1952, passionately lamented the passing of an era when you could write adventurous music without worrying too much about money. "I'm part of the last generation in the United States when life was cheap. A six pack of beer was a dollar, a lid was $10, and gas was 29 cents [a gallon]." I realized Garland's halcyon days of inexpensive living were indeed gone, long gone, when the word "lid"—an informal unit of measure for selling marijuana in the 1960s and early 1970s—elicited baffled looks and whispered questions by almost everyone in the audience under 35.
For this rare Seattle visit, the Nonsequitur Foundation hosts two nights (Fri–Sat April 23–24, Chapel Performance Space, 4649 Sunnyside Ave N, 8 pm, $5–$15 sliding scale donation) devoted to Garland's music.
On Friday, mezzo-soprano Emily Greenleaf, the Pacific Rims Percussion Quartet, pianist Cristina Valdes, and members of Affinity perform his chamber pieces I Have Had to Learn the Simplest Things Last, "Songs of Exile & Wine," and Symphony No. 1: "New Chants." The following night, Garland plays works for solo piano drawn from four decades: "The Days Run Away" (1971), Three Dawns (1981–82), "Bush Radio Calling" (1992), and After the Wars (2007–08). When introducing New Chants in 2006, Garland, ever mindful of the doors closed to most composers, deemed the work "a symphony, because that's what it is." With a sly smile, the maverick composer added, "There's no orchestra waiting for me, so I found my own."