Joshua Kosman, Gramophone, February 2007

Martin Bresnick has devoted his career to two complementary and intertwined pursuits: composing music of wiry, tender-hearted eloquence, and training a younger generation to write brilliant music that sounds nothing like it. But because his success as a teacher has been so pronounced – the roster of his students includes some of the most prominent composers now in their 30s and 40s, most notably the founding directors of New York’s influential Bang on a Can Festival – the scope of his own achievement as a composer has been unfairly obscured.

Now that imbalance is beginning to right itself. A few weeks after his 60th birthday in November, Bresnick was feted with a retrospective concert of his music at Zankel Hall in New York. And Cantaloupe Records, Bang on a Can’s recording label, has issued “The Essential Martin Bresnick,” a captivating CD/DVD set that offers a concise glimpse of some of his most characteristic and telling chamber music.

The cumulative effect of all this activity is to shine a spotlight on a composer whose importance is all too easy to misjudge. His music is almost impossible to pigeonhole stylistically: It can be knotty and atonal at one juncture, lushly harmonic the next. Romantic melody, minimalist phase patterns and gritty rhythmic explosions coexist or make way for one another as the demands of a given work dictate.

And the range of students who have come under his wing at Yale, where he has taught since 1976 – first in the undergraduate music department and for the last 25 years in the School of Music – is just as multifold. In addition to Bang on a Can founders David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, they include Evan Ziporyn, Michael Torke, Christopher Theofanidis, Kevin Puts and many more. If there is no very obvious Bresnick style, there is no Bresnick school either.

What binds all these disparate strands together is Bresnick’s own combination of intellectual depth and cheerful practicality. An expansive thinker with a wide knowledge of both Western and non-Western art, literature and philosophy, he thrives in the heady atmosphere of an Ivy League university. But at the same time, he takes a pragmatic view of the nuts and bolts of composing. With his warm, avuncular demeanor and bushy hair and beard, he’s like some kind of Jewish-anarchist Hans Sachs – at once a scholar and a cobbler – exploring the techniques of creation and passing them along to a new generation.

“A composer,” he says with the tone of someone delivering a credo, “is someone who takes the problems that are cast up, and solves those problems.”

That ad-hoc approach to composition – craftsmanlike, sensible, free of dogma or doctrine – is a legacy of the late György Ligeti, who taught Bresnick during his student days in Vienna and became a powerful role model.

“Ligeti saw every ism, every stylistic trend or fashion, as a cage,” Bresnick says. “He tried very hard to find an individual response to each situation from his own imagination. He rejected being a modernist or even post-modernist avatar.”

Bresnick also attributes his flexibility to his experience as a composer of film scores, including the sound track for the 1980 documentary “The Day After Trinity.”

“When you work on a film score, you have to quickly characterize in music something you see on screen. You have to surrender the prudishness of stylistic restraint: If you feel like you can only write music that reflects some stylistic twitch or quirk, you quickly learn to let that go.

“So I’m intrigued by the challenge of dealing with particular compositional circumstances. But I believe to my roots that when and if anyone wants to look back over my work, they will find a very consistent approach in the interior of the work. If I have to fight a fire, I wear a red jacket and a fireman’s hat; if I’m walking a picket line I wear jeans and carry a sign; and if I’m going to a party I wear a suit. But I’m still the same guy.”

Among the common threads underlying much of Bresnick’s work are a lean, sinewy approach to form and a directness of expression that grows out of his economical language.

“He builds structures the way Bartók did, with rigor and simplicity,” says Lang. “His music has no ornament, by which I mean that you never get to a moment where there’s a beautiful flute trill and you think, ‘That’s only there because it’s so nice to hear a beautiful flute trill.’ Everything is there to further the argument.”

“Behind the music is this Beethovenian rigor,” says Theofanidis. “You struggle to get where you’re going, and although unexpected moments of grace come up, it’s the struggle itself that is fundamental.”

The music on the Cantaloupe set bears out these observations. The String Quartet No. 2, named “Bucephalus” after the steed ridden into battle by Alexander the Great, gets an athletic, edgy rendition by the Flux Quartet, balanced by the tenderer, more translucent Piano Trio as performed by the Jupiter Trio. Two instrumental works inspired by Kafka – the plangent “Bucket Rider” and the ferocious “Be Just!” – sound unusually vibrant as performed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars. On the DVD is “For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise,” Bresnick’s incantational setting of the poetry of William Blake, in a riveting performance by his wife, the pianist and speaker Lisa Moore.

Practical responsiveness to the situation at hand is part of what makes Bresnick such a skillful teacher as well.

“Studying with Martin isn’t like the European modernist teachers, where there’s one way to compose and they show you what it is,” says Lang. “It’s more like therapy, in that he’ll listen to you and then ask you the question that makes you think one inch farther than you’ve thought so far. He’s not telling you what to write, but asking you to think more carefully about what you were doing already.”

Bresnick is philosophical about the fact that he is better known as an educator than as a composer.

“Teaching was originally something I had to do to earn a living,” he says. “When I was emerging, the idea of an independent composer who didn’t have a trust fund was hard to imagine, and given my background and my parents’ concerns about music, I had to convince everyone that I could make a living. Teaching came more naturally to me than being an insurance executive.

“And now that these people have become well known and are claiming me as their teacher, what am I going to say, No? Should I get petulant and push it away and try to deny what everyone can see?”

Still, he declines to be classed with such non-composing pedagogues as Nadia Boulanger. His model, he says, is the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, who was an important influence on a younger coterie of artists, including Gauguin, Degas and van Gogh, while continuing to produce his own work – and, Bresnick notes with glee, a Jewish anarchist to boot.

Bresnick was born and raised in a union-based cooperative housing project in the Bronx, the child of working-class Yiddish speakers. His father was an accountant for a beer distributor, his mother a Russian-born garment worker who took in needlework to help make ends meet. Left-wing politics was a natural part of his birthright, and it remains evident in the titles and themes of many of his works today – most notably “Opere della Musica Povera” (“Works of a Poor Music”), an umbrella title for a cycle of some dozen works characterized by deliberately restricted means.

“The composer Robert Beaser once said that it wouldn’t be a piece of Bresnick’s without the word ‘work’ or ‘worker’ in the title,” he says with a laugh. “And it’s true that my music is often concerned with the insulted, the oppressed, the downtrodden – the Sancho Panzas rather than the Don Quixotes, the horse of Alexander the Great rather than Alexander himself.”

Music was not a prominent part of the household, but there were a few records around, and Martin gravitated to them right away.

“My parents noticed early on that was I memorizing things like the ‘Nutcracker’ Suite, and I would sing along with the records. As soon as the music started, I’d be wandering around like a Sufi in a trance; they figured out that that was the way to shut me up.”

He began taking guitar lessons at 7, hoping to emulate Elvis Presley. But his parents had unwittingly entrusted him to a local teacher whose goal was to enlist him in a guitar and balalaika orchestra; instead of learning to play “Hound Dog” and “Johnny B. Goode,” he says, he kept winding up with “Sheherazade.” Still, he forged on, learning to play piano, flute and oboe, and entering New York’s High School of Music and Art at 13. Before that, though, he’d already felt composition beckoning to him.

“I must have been about 11 years old, and I remember one day listening to Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, and thinking, ‘I know what this is about, I know what this means.’ I didn’t need Leonard Bernstein to explain things to me. I just felt that I got it – and then I felt a sense of profound responsibility that if I get it, I should do it. And so I began writing things down.”

After studies at the University of Hartford in Connecticut and in Vienna, Bresnick enrolled in the graduate program at Stanford, where he studied with the electronic music pioneer John Chowning. He arrived in California in the fall of 1967 – just after the Summer of Love.

“The world was exploding – the computer, the politics, everything. I was playing guitar in a rock band that used to get called in to play whenever they occupied a building. In the daytime I was a responsible graduate student, and at night I was listening to Jimi Hendrix and Cream, and experimenting with whatever drug I could get my hands on.”

Bresnick taught at Stanford for a few years before relocating to Yale, where he tried to recreate some of that aura of excitement on a musical landscape that at the time was fairly constrained. He helped found Sheep’s Clothing, an undergraduate ensemble that staged all-night marathons to perform works by Messiaen, Terry Riley and Frederic Rzewski. He inspired countless music students (including me) with curiosity about new and unusual fare. Except for the years between 1998 and 2001, when he was the first recipient of the Charles Ives Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he has been there ever since.

At 60, Bresnick takes a more philosophical view of music and its role in the world than he did as young man. “I think it’s very helpful to know that you cannot do everything. You cannot remake the history of the world or of music. You can make some beautiful things and leave them for people to take consolation from, but the world will go how it will go.

“Last month I was teaching an analysis seminar on Schumann’s ‘Mondnacht,’ and I thought how privileged we are to live in a world that has such a piece in it. And my hope is that maybe someday someone will be able to say that about my work.”

Joshua Kosman is the classical music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.