Ralph Shapey – Radical Traditionalist

When listening to the music of Ralph Shapey, I have a hard time identifying with the label of “radical traditionalist.” A traditionalist, in my view, is someone that embraces the old and does not necessarily move forward. In some ways, Ralph Shapey’s late music is the oxymoron of traditionalism. There are a few things that strike me when I listen to any of Shapey’s pieces:

  • Usually, there is a bold statement of the Mother Lode worksheet, at least the first few chords thereof.
  • The piece is formally demarcated by the restatement of the opening gesture or the part of the worksheet needed to complete a cycle through it.
  • The constant reuse and variation of the same material in new and exciting ways.
  • Exploration of different strata and registers.

I once had a master class with Wayne Peterson. I wanted to ask him about the Pulitzer Prize that Shapey was supposedly robbed of. Did Shapey deserve the prize? I think so. But I also like Wayne Peterson’s music, so I am somewhat impartial. I bring up the Pulitzer Prize issue because I think that Shapey’s music is truly written for the consumer, and that’s not to be an insult. Shapey’s music, to me, is very accessible because it’s really accessible to the listener.

If you look at Shapey’s late music in comparison to his early pieces, you will find something that is truly reflective of his musical past. Why did Shapey roll out the Mother Lode worksheet? Not very many composers are willing to share their sketches, but Shapey gives it to you in the very front matter of every single late piece. And if you look at his early music in a certain light, you get a sense of how the Mother Lode worksheet and his early music are tied together.

Whatever you think of Shapey’s music or his personality, you should check out some of his pieces. They are a musical treat.


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