The Last Iconoclast

Classical music audiences the world over would someday speak his name in reverent tones. But before he could become an internationally venerated composer, Donald Erb had to survive Youngstown.

"It was a tough, tough town," he recalls of his boyhood home. "Everybody got drunk on Saturday night and broke each other's noses. I had my nose broken twice in the first grade."

The prolific Erb, who has written more than a hundred pieces, embraces contradictions the way his schoolmates embraced left hooks.

"I think about music as an act of love, even when it's angry," says Erb, whose name is largely unfamiliar in his hometown. "Audiences think you're there to irritate them, and it's kind of sad. People misunderstand energy as antagonistic. I don't want to be misunderstood."

Described by one critic as "capable of shaking his musical fist at the heavens with a fury rivaling that of the German titans," Erb is the unofficial paterfamilias of the Cleveland Museum of Art's Aki New Music Festival, a two-week contemporary music showcase revived this month after a fourteen-year hiatus.

Of the eleven scheduled concerts at Aki, three will feature Erb compositions: Gregory Fulkerson will play the 1994 Sonata for Solo Violin, Ryan Anthony will premiere Dance You Monster to My Soft Song for solo trumpet, and the Case Western Reserve University Wind Ensemble will perform Cenotaph (for E.V.), Erb's homage to composer Edgard Varese.

Aki (Japanese for autumn, the festival's original season) was founded in 1977 by Karel Paukert, the museum's curator of musical arts. In 1985, sparse audiences and budget cuts forced the museum to halt the event. This year, citing a resurgence of interest in new music--sold-out Kronos Quartet concerts, Philip Glass film scores, and Steve Reich and John Adams's virtually mainstream minimalism--Paukert and Assistant Curator Paul Cox decided the time was ripe to resurrect Aki.

A robust iconoclast whose music features startling sonorities and crushing climaxes, Erb is also acutely sensitive, growing tearful at the memory of seeing the devastated Hiroshima ("It destroyed everything I believed in"). And though he's earned numerous degrees, grants, fellowships, and commissions, he is proudest of his blue-collar roots.

Erb began writing music at age seven, after his steelworker father moved the family to Lakewood. With a trumpet and music lessons provided by his aunt, he began playing gigs with dance bands in high school, then joined the Navy, hoping to enter its music school. Instead, he was sent to Pearl Harbor. When he returned, he earned music degrees from Kent State University, the Cleveland Institute of Music, and Indiana University.

In the studio of his sunlit Cleveland Heights home, Erb--who retired in 1996 as head of composition at CIM--waxes wroth over the sorry state of American culture. "Serious art has become a kind of outcast," he says. "It's important for greedy people, who control the industries, to shut other people out. It started with the Beatles and Elvis Presley--that's when it became a big business." (He points to a kitschy Presley portrait on the wall: "My hero, who undid American culture.")

"The amazing thing is, I'm still surviving after a fashion," he reflects. "Few composers in America have had as nice a career as I've had." Still, Erb can't resist what he calls "throwing a little shit." Some years ago, he read that WCLV-FM/95.5 president Robert Conrad--no fan of contemporary music--said that modern composers might as well be "speaking Swahili." Erb's response was to print up bumper stickers that read, "WCLV is Boring"--in Swahili.

"I'm not a tranquil person," Erb says. "I don't want to be. I've learned a lot from pain and energy. God gave me a very fast motor."

--Pamela Zoslov

Aki opens Friday at 7:30 p.m. with Composers in the Shape of a Pear, at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, 8501Carnegie Avenue. On Sunday at 2:30 p.m., violinist Gregory Fulkerson, with pianist Charles Abramovic, plays "Violin Music from the '90s" at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Boulevard. Admission is free; for a complete schedule, call the museum at 216-421-7340.

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