Shawn, Allen 1948–

views updated

Shawn, Allen 1948–


Born August 27, 1948, in New York, NY; son of William Shawn (an editor); married Jamaica Kincaid (an author), December 3, 1979 (divorced, 2001); married Yoshiko Sato (a pianist), February 14, 2007; children (first marriage): Harold, Annie. Education: Harvard University, B.A., 1970; studied in Paris, France under Nadia Boulanger, 1970-72; Columbia University, M.A., 1976.


Office—Bennington College, Bennington, VT 05201.


Writer, composer, pianist, memoirist, and educator. Pianist in New York, NY, 1972-85; Bennington College, Bennington, VT, faculty member. Composer of scores for plays, including A Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet, for the New York Shakespeare Festival, La Jolla Playhouse, Lincoln Center Theater; composer of works for the Albany Symphony, Monterey Symphony, Sage City Symphony, Vermont Symphony, Atlanta Ballet, Lucinda Childs Ballet, Greenwich Symphony, Aspen Wind Quintet, Chaspen Foundation, Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble, L'Ensemble, Ursula Oppens, Benny Goodman, John Ferillo, Maxine Neuman, and others.


National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1978; Goddard Lieberson fellowship, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1995; Academy Award for music, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2001.



Summer Pages: For Flute, Oboe, and Harpsichord (or Piano), Galaxy Music (New York, NY), 1984.

Four Jazz Preludes: For Piano Solo, Galaxy Music (New York, NY), 1985.

Cabaret Music: For Clarinet, Violin, Cello, and Piano, Galaxy Music (New York, NY), 1986.

Improvisation: No. 3 for Piano Solo, Galaxy Music (New York, NY), 1987.

Woodwind Quintet for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, and Bassoon, Galaxy Music (New York, NY), 1988.

A Dance Album: Five Solos for Piano Solo, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2000.

Suite Parisienne: Six Pieces Touristiques; for Piano Four-hands, Galaxy Music Corp. (Boston, MA), 2000.


Suite for Cello Quartet, Opus One Records (Boston, MA), 1989.

Clarinet Trio, Opus One Records (Boston, MA), 1992.

Ecologue, Opus One Records (Boston, MA), 1992.

Winter Sketchbook, Opus One Records (Boston, MA), 1992.

Piano Sextet and Other Works, Northeastern Records (Boston, MA), 1997.

Piano Music, Albany Records (Albany, NY), 1998.

Piano Concerto, Albany Records (Albany, NY), 2001.

Chamber Music, Albany Records (Albany, NY), 2004.

The Ceiling of Heaven: Music of Donald Crockett and Allen Shawn, Albany Records (Albany, NY), 2005.


Arnold Schoenberg's Journey, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2002.

Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life (memoir), Viking (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor to periodicals, including Atlantic Monthly; compositions include nine orchestral works, three chamber operas, chamber music, piano music, choral and vocal works, and the musical score for the film My Dinner with André, and plays A Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet. Shawn's music has been recorded by Northeastern Records, Bay Cities Records, Opus One, and Albany.

Shawn's other printed music includes Orchestral Works, Clarinet Trio, Suite for Cello Quartet, Blues and Boogie, Song of the Tango-Bird, and chamber opera, "The Ant and the Grasshopper."


An accomplished composer and musician, Allen Shawn played piano in the orchestral pits on Broadway for more than a decade and composed a wide range of music, including the scores for adaptations of Shakespeare's plays. New Yorker reviewer Edith Oliver described as "rich and enchanting" Shawn's music for a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, performed in New York's Central Park in 1982. In the same year, Shawn scored Joseph Papp's production of Hamlet, reviewed in New York by John Simon. Simon found little positive to say about the production, but wrote that "the one thoroughly impressive achievement, however, is the music by Allen Shawn. Scored for piquant combinations of trumpets, recorders, oboe, lute, and percussion (and played by a quintet of racy musicians), it is Renaissance as filtered through a modern sensibility. Tasteful, soberly tuneful, never overbearing but not wishy-washy either, it sets a tone nothing else here can even approach."

In addition to composing music and teaching at Bennington College, Shawn has written Arnold Schoenberg's Journey, a study of one of the most important and challenging composers (1874-1951) of the twentieth century. A Publishers Weekly contributor commented that "composer Shawn has filled a real gap with this short, gracefully written introduction to the man and his music."

Shawn's essays follow Schoenberg's career, the times in which he lived, and his music, which is notable for being analyzed more than enjoyed. Shawn provides a chronology of his works, an overview of the composer's embrace of Judaism, a look at Schoenberg the talented artist, and an examination of his relationship with Igor Stravinsky, which was actually nonexistent, with the two composers virtually ignoring each other for forty years. The book includes musical examples but is meant for the lay reader.

Library Journal critic Larry Lipkis called Arnold Schoenberg's Journey a "remarkable little book," and added that Shawn's essays "effectively demystify and humanize Schoenberg." A Kirkus Reviews contributor mentioned the author's "clean, elegant" prose and added that "Shawn's enthusiasm is infectious…. Shawn's coverage of the basic biographical facts is as entertaining as his readable musical analysis."

Shawn's writing takes a more personal turn in his memoir, Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life. As a sufferer of a variety of phobias, Shawn has felt the debilitating effect of these irrational fears for most of his life. In a "deeply personal and brilliantly analytical performance, he explains what it feels like to experience these incapacities" and how the survival mechanism of fear becomes a liability, noted Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist. The son of legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, brother of noted actor and writer Wallace Shawn, and ex-husband of writer Jamaica Kincaid, Shawn looks at family aspects of his phobias and searches for answers in his role as brother to an autistic twin sister. He considers the neurological and psychological components of fear, ponders whether his parents' overprotectiveness of him as a child might have contributed to his troubles, and considers a Freudian interpretation of the resulting suppressed emotions. He describes the effects his phobias have had on him personally and professionally, and notes that his father suffered from similar disabilities. Throughout his life, functioning in sometimes the simplest and most benign surroundings was a challenge. Shawn's "descriptions of the paralysis that besets him when faced with the simplest tasks are affecting, and his efforts to keep up a normal life elicit admiration," commented James Campbell in the New York Times Book Review. A Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded that Shawn's book stands as "both a lucid explication of psychopathology and a deeply felt evocation of a ‘pain in the soul.’"



Shawn, Allen, Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life, Viking (New York, NY), 2007.


Booklist, January 1, 2007, Donna Seaman, review of Wish I Could Be There, p. 36.

Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2001, review of Arnold Schoenberg's Journey, p. 1602.

Library Journal, December, 2001, Larry Lipkis, review of Arnold Schoenberg's Journey, p. 127.

Los Angeles Times, January 20, 2002, Jonathan Levi, review of Arnold Schoenberg's Journey, p. R4.

Nation, March 19, 2007, D.T. Max, "The Anatomy of Fear," review of Wish I Could Be There, p. 34.

New York, December 13, 1982, John Simon, review of Hamlet, p. 69.

New Yorker, August 23, 1982, Edith Oliver, review of A Midsummer Night's Dream, p. 81.

New York Review of Books, February 15, 2007, Janet Malcolm, "‘The Not Returning Part of It,’" review of Wish I Could Be There, p. 4.

New York Times, February 13, 2002, Anthony Tommasini, review of Arnold Schoenberg's Journey, p. E144.

New York Times Book Review, February 11, 2007, James Campbell, "Fear Itself," review of Wish I Could Be There, p. 10.

Publishers Weekly, December 10, 2001, review of Arnold Schoenberg's Journey, p. 64; October 9, 2006, review of Wish I Could Be There, p. 44; November 6, 2006, Ron Hogan, "PW Talks with Allen Shawn: Living in Phobia: Allen Shawn, the Son of Legendary New Yorker Editor William Shawn, Tells of His Phobic Life in Wish I Could Be There," p. 44.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), February 4, 2007, Floyd Skloot, "A Courageous Memoir about a Life Filled with Fear," review of Wish I Could Be There, p. 3.

Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2002, George Perle, review of Arnold Schoenberg's Journey, p. A16.

About this article

Shawn, Allen 1948–

Updated About content Print Article