Night Scenes

Hear an Alabama composer’s work.

by Phillip Ratliff


Composer Ed Robertson arrived in Alabama in 1971, carting his belongings in a U-haul truck. Among his possessions was a freshly minted diploma from the Florida State University School of Music. Robertson headed north to join the music faculty at the University of Montevallo. He went on to teach music theory there for the next 34 years. “When I was at FSU, I had never heard of Montevallo,” Robertson says. “But when I told [FSU music theory professor] Lewis Pankaskie, he said it would be a real feather in my cap.”

Montevallo’s music theory program was in shambles when he took over, Robertson recalls, but he was determined to make something of it. Robertson, warm and avuncular, took the second year music theory course. Another recent FSU graduate, Ovide DeLage, cerebral and a bit craggy, took the first year course. Over the next few years, they managed to untangle the knot.

Robertson retired from teaching almost a decade ago, a year after winning a coveted Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching award. He added grandchildren to his family during his retirement years and has found time to volunteer with Meals on Wheels.

Composing new works and nurturing performances of older ones still occupies him. This August, cellist Craig Hultgren will perform his solo cello work Night Scenes, composed in 2000. Robertson remembers the genesis of this unique piece. “Craig asked me to compose a scordatura piece. The C string is tuned to B flat,” he says.

“So it was intentional. You didn’t just forget the range of the cello and have to retune it?”

“Funny question, Phillip. No. It’s not just a lower range. Retuning the cello seems to have changed the entire timbre of the piece. It’s much darker. The content itself is much darker in places. The vibrations are different. I called it Night Scenes for that reason.”

Besides an unflappable personality, Robertson possesses an ability to express complex ideas in simple, elegant language. “Music theory is what makes music work. It’s what makes music coherent,” he says. Robertson admires two composers in particular for their coherence. “Stravinsky and Bach tap into everything you have in your head: your intellectual part, your emotional part. If you want to know what makes a successful composer, look to the content and structure of their music,” Robertson says.

Stravinsky offers an especially important lesson to fledgling composers, he adds. “I am convinced—and this is Stravinsky’s thought—that limitations make you much more creative,” Robertson says. “When students are given a specific form to write in, or a specific pitch structure, they’ll be much more creative than if they are simply told ‘go write a piece.’”

What about more mature composers?

“Eventually, composers learn to set their own limitations. It’s a principle that will serve them their entire creative life.”

“I’m not good at that sometimes,” I admit.

“Me neither, but it’s a principle that makes sense.”

Hultgren performs Ed Robertson’s Night Scenes at the Birmingham New Music Festival on August 23, 1:00–2:00 p.m., at UAB’s Hulsey Recital Hall (located at 950 13th Street South). This concert is one of six   BNMF programs happening that week. Visit the Birmingham Art Music Alliance website for more details.

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