Ussachevsky, Vladimir (Alexis)
Ussachevsky, Vladimir (Alexis)
Ussachevsky, Vladimir (Alexis), innovative Russian-born American composer; b. Hailar, Manchuria, Nov. 3,1911; d. N.Y., Jan. 2,1990. His parents settled in Manchuria shortly after the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, at the time when Russian culture was still a powerful social factor there. His father was an officer of the Russian army, and his mother was a professional pianist. In 1930 he went to Calif., where he took private piano lessons with Clarence Mader; from 1931 to 1933 he attended Pasadena Jr. Coll.; in 1933 he received a scholarship to study at Pomona Coll. (B.A., 1935). He then enrolled in the Eastman School of Music in Rochester in N.Y. in the classes of Hanson, Rogers, and Royce in composition (M.M., 1936; Ph.D., 1939); he also had some instruction with Burrill Phillips. In 1942, as a naturalized American citizen, Ussachevsky was drafted into the U.S. Army; thanks to his fluency in Russian, his knowledge of English and French, and a certain ability to communicate in rudimentary Chinese, he was engaged in the Intelligence Division; subsequently he served as a research analyst at the War Dept. in Washington, D.C. He then pursued postdoctoral work with Luening at Columbia Univ., joining its faculty in 1947; was prof, of music (1964-80). At various times he taught at other institutions, including several years as composer-in-residence at the Univ. of Utah (from 1970) and was a faculty member there (1980-85). His early works were influenced by Russian church music, in the tradition of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. A distinct change in his career as a composer came in 1951, when he became interested in the resources of electronic music; to this period belong his works Transposition, Reverberation, Experiment, Compositionand Underwater Valse,which make use of electronic sound. On Oct. 28, 1952, Stokowski conducted in N.Y. the first performance of Ussachevsky’s Sonic Contours,in which a piano part was metamorphosed with the aid of various sonorific devices, superimposed on each other. About that time, he began a fruitful partnership with Luening; with him he composed Incantation for Tape Recorder,which was broadcast in 1953. Luening and Ussachevsky then conceived the idea of combining electronic tape sounds with conventional instruments played by human musicians; the result was Rhapsodic Variations,first performed in N.Y. on March 20,1954. The work anticipated by a few months the composition of the important score Désertsby Várese, which effectively combined electronic sound with other instruments. The next work by Ussachevsky and Luening was A Poem in Cycles and Bellsfor Tape Recorder and Orch., first performed by the Los Angeles Phil. on Nov. 22, 1954. On March 31, 1960, Leonard Bernstein conducted the N.Y. Phil. in the commissioned work by Ussachevsky and Luening entitled Concerted Piece for Tape Recorder and Orchestra. On Jan. 12,1956, Ussachevsky and Luening provided taped background for Shakespeare’s King Lear,produced by Orson Welles, at the N.Y.C. Center, and for Margaret Webster’s production of Back to Methuselahfor the N.Y. Theater Guild in 1958. They also provided the electronic score for the documentary The Incredible Voyage,broadcast over the CBS-TV network on Oct. 13,1965. Among works that Ussachevsky wrote for electronic sound without partnership were A Piece for Tape Recorder (1956), Studies in Sound, Plus (1959), and The Creation (1960). In 1968 Ussachevsky began experimenting with the synthesizer, with the aid of a computer. One of the works resulting from these experiments was Conflict (1971), intended to represent the mystical struggle between two ancient deities. In 1959 Ussachevsky was one of the founders of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center; was active as a lecturer at various exhibitions of electronic sounds; traveled also to Russia and to China to present his music. He held two Guggenheim fellowships (1957, 1960). In 1973 Ussachevsky was elected to membership in the National Inst. of Arts and Letters.
tape: Transposition, Reverberation, Experiment, Composition (1951-52); Sonic Contours (N.Y, Oct. 28, 1952); Underwater Valse (1952); Piece for Tape Recorder (1956); Metamorphoses (1957); Improvisation on 4711 (1958); Linear Contrasts (1958); Studies in Sound, Plus (1959); Wireless Fantasy: De Forrest Murmurs (1960); Of Wood and Brass (1964-65); Suite from Music for Films (1967); Piece for Computer (1968); 2 Sketches for Computer Piece No. 2 (1971); Conflict,electronic scene from Creation (1973-75). WITH TAPE: 3 Scenes from Creation: Prologue “Enumu Elish”for 2 Choruses and Tape, Interludefor Soprano, Mezzo-soprano, and Tape (1960; rev. 1973), and Epilogue: “Spell of Creation”for Soprano and Chorus (1971); Creation Prologuefor 4 Choruses and Tape (1960-61); Scenes from No Exitfor Speaker and Tape (1963); Colloquyfor Solo Instruments, Orch. and Tape (Salt Lake City, Feb. 20, 1976); Two Experimentsfor Electronic Valve Instrument and Tape (1979; in collaboration with N. Steiner); Celebration 1980for Electronic Valve Instrument, String Orch., and Tape (N.Y., April 1980); Pentagramfor Oboe and Tape (BBC, London, Nov. 1980); Celebration 1981for Electronic Valve Instrument, 6 Winds, Strings, and Tape (N.Y, Oct. 30,1981; rev. as Divertimentofor Electronic Valve Instrument, 3 Winds, 3 Brass, Strings, Percussion, and Tape, 1980-81); Dialogues and Contrastsfor Brass Quintet and Tape (N.Y., Feb. 12, 1984). INCIDENTAL MUSIC FOR TAPE: To Catch a Thief (sound effects for the film; 1954); Mathematics (television score; 1957); The Boy who Saw Through (film; 1959); No Exit (film; 1962); Line of Apogee (film; 1967); Mourning Becomes Electra (sound effects for the opera by M. Levy; 1967); The Cannibals (play; 1969); 2 Images for the Computer Piece (film; 1969); Duck, Duck (film; 1970); We (radio play; 1970). F i 1 m : Circle of Fire (1940). ORCH.: Theme and Variations (1936); Piecefor Flute and Chamber Orch. (1947); Miniatures for a Curious Child (1950); Intermezzofor Piano and Orch. (1952); Dances and Fanfares for a Festive Occasion (1980). CHAMBER: 2 Dancesfor Flute and Piano (1948); 4 Studiesfor Clarinet and Electronic Valve Instrument (1979); Suitefor Trombone Choir (1980); Triskelionfor Oboe and Piano (1982); Nouvelette pour Bourgesfor Electronic Valve Instrument and Piano (1983); piano pieces. VOCAL: Jubilee Cantatafor Baritone, Reader, Chorus, and Orch. (1937-38); Psalm XXIVfor Chorus and Organ, or for Organ and 5 Brass, or for 7 Brass (1948); 2 Autumn Songs on Rilke’s Textfor Soprano and Piano (1952); Missa Brevisfor Soprano, Chorus, and Brass (1972). WITH OTTO LUENING: Incantationfor Tape (1953); Rhapsodic Variationsfor Orch. and Tape (1953-54; N.Y, March 20, 1954); A Poem in Cycles and Bellsfor Orch. and Tape (Los Angeles, Nov. 22, 1954); Of Identity,ballet for Tape (1954); Carlsbad Caverns,television score for Tape (1955); King Lear,incidental music (3 versions, 1956); Back to Methuselah,incidental music for Tape (1958); Concerted Piecefor Orch. and Tape (N.Y, March 31, 1960); Incredible Voyage,television score for Tape (1968; also with Shields and Smiley).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire