It’s hard to picture Francis Schwartz as controversial.
He’s just so nice and unassuming.
Dressed in a blue sweater and baggy slacks, surrounded by an assortment of colorful baubles, hanging baskets, abstract sculptures and painted masks, the soft-spoken composer looks like a comfortable retiree in a lived-in condominium, surrounded by a wealth of reading material and a breathtaking view of downtown Sarasota.
Even when the telephone company calls to tell him his service has been disrupted by a snipped wire, Schwartz, 70, is pleasant.
“No point in getting worked up,” he says as he sets down the phone. “My cell still works.”
Where’s the radical composer with the Juilliard training who incited public outrage when he locked audiences in a stuffy theater and burned human hair and rancid meat during a 1968 performance about the suffering of Jews in a Nazi concentration camp?
Where’s the guy who went hunting for mushrooms with avant-garde composer John Cage, in Puerto Rico?
“Actually,” Schwartz says. “It’s been a good year for me. In many ways, I’m better than ever. Some people say 70 is some sort of milestone — like you hit it and that’s it. You’re at the end of your line.”
He’s in his kitchen, brewing espresso, a habit he refuses to give up, despite having had open-heart surgery a few years ago.
“If you don’t mind,” Schwartz says over the gurgle of the pot. “I’m going to have a heavy-duty dose of this stuff.”
Two minutes later, he steps out the kitchen, balancing a tiny coffee cup on a dainty saucer. He sits at a glass table overlooking the staggered rooflines of Spanish architecture in Burns Square and sips from the cup, smiling as the drink slides down his throat.
“For me, 70 is the new 30,” Schwartz continues. “Sure I can’t run and jump and play tennis like I used to, but I think of myself as a young man. I don’t feel old at all –– whatever old is supposed to be. I’m still hungry for new experiences.”
Lucky for Schwartz, who retired 11 years ago as dean of humanities at the University of Puerto Rico, new opportunities keep cropping up all over the world.
In this year alone, the composer’s work was performed by musicians in China, Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., Indiana, Missouri, and Florida — just to name a few.
Collaborations and world premieres are planned next year with the Orchestre de Flute Français, in Paris, the Salvador Dalí Museum, in St. Petersburg, Fuzión Dance Artists, the Birmingham Art Museum, in Alabama, and the New York-based chamber ensemble Sybarite 5.
For a man who often describes his music as unsettling and challenging to program, Schwartz already has an impressive list of high-profile projects on the horizon.
“Let’s put it this way,” he says. “I’m fortunate to have wonderful performers who promote my work.”
These performers include pianist Joel Sachs, director of the New Juilliard Ensemble and co-director of the New York-based experimental music troupe Continuum; and Sarasota Orchestra principal tubist Jay Hunsberger, who performed Schwartz’s “The Grey Road” in August at the composer’s 25th anniversary retrospective, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Inspired by the post-apocalyptic novel, “The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy and the works of artists Francis Bacon, Max Neumann and Anselm Kiefer, Schwartz’s eerie solo tuba piece is proof that the composer hasn’t softened in his retirement and an example of how far musicians are willing to go to perform Schwartz’s work.
“There are many musicians who don’t feel comfortable with the histrionics,” Schwartz says, referring to the scripted noises and unusual facial expressions he writes into many of his pieces. “But there are many musicians who discover they have these hidden talents or incredible acting abilities by playing my music.”
He rises from the table and walks over to a melancholy painting hanging over one of his many bookshelves. It’s an original work by Neumann, a birthday present from his wife, Marta.
“He does some very powerful, tortured works,” Schwartz says of the German artist. “I really like him.”
Schwartz could just as easily be talking about himself, if not for the fact that the composer’s repertoire is as hilarious as it is weighty.
Take for example 2006’s “Concerto for Solo Conductor,” in which Roberto-Juan Gonzalez, director of the North Bay Philharmonic, in Napa Valley, Calif., stood in front of a musician-less orchestra and passionately conducted a six-minute piece devoid of sound.
Or the irreverent, “Fashionable Music,” in which both Gonzalez and Schwartz donned robes adorned with small objects and using drumsticks, tapped rhythms off their own bodies.
“Mozart was probably the most divine of all the composers,” Schwartz says. “And he was a practical joker who wrote some pretty scandalous songs –- the kind of pieces you’re allowed to laugh with –– which is what being a human being is all about. If we were always so serious, we’d be like living prunes."
Schwartz's Top 5 Inspirations
“I don’t believe in an uptight atmosphere. There are many ways to have great artistic experiences that don’t require the audience to sit quietly in place afraid to crinkle their bon-bon wrappers.”
“When he saw what I was doing, it was really so nice. He said, ‘Continue with your wonderful music. Stay as far away from negative people as you can.’ That was an inspiration for me, because by then he was quite famous.”
“In the music world, we attracted people from everywhere. I was wonderfully surprised by the access I had to culture in a place like San Juan.”
“For someone born in 1940, I didn’t always hear these sounds. But you get used to them. Gosh, computers, cell phones, the sound of air conditioning … they’re a part of my soundscape.”
“I’m gregarious. I want interaction. I think that’s what’s so wonderful about being human. We can actually dialogue. It breaks down the artificial distance between the players and the played-to.”
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]