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Baritone Buckner follows a different drummer

Saturday, June 7, 1997

Of The Post and Courier staff  - Charleston

     Conformity and popularity are not parameters by which baritone Thomas Buckner measures life or, for that matter, music.
     The composers he prefers to perform, for example, are those whose work is not popular, leaves space for improvisation and mirrors the inner world of the artist.
     Similarly in life, he eschews expectations and standards of family and society, persevering in what strikes his inner chord.
     Among the things that do is avant-avant-garde music, of which he has become a well-known performer and a persuasive advocate.
     Buckner performs tonight in the Spoleto Festival's Music in Time series, with music by Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier, John Kennedy and Somei Satoh as well as a piece of his own.
     "I am interested in music that sounds like the composers themselves," said the tall singer, sitting in a Charleston restaurant on a recent morning, dressed in a bright turquoise jacket. "I'm not interested in pieces that are already established and are being performed."
     Buckner's approach to music mirrors largely his approach to life. Grandson of Thomas Watson, the founder and longtime president of IBM, Buckner spent most of his life finding his own space.
     "Each of us can be anything we want ... whatever strikes our inner chord," he said. "It saddens me to see so much conformity in our society."
     Buckner was a little boy living in his family's estate in Westchester County when he began showing a love for music. When he was just a toddler, he stood up in his crib to sing. And as soon as he was old enough, he sang for his family at holiday occasions.
     One of four children of socialite stockbroker Walker Buckner, he had much exposure to the arts and music, and studied music and sang throughout his education at the Harvey School in Hawthorne and the Hotchkiss preparatory school.
     "It was clear to me that that is what I was good at, and I lived in an environment that appreciated music," he said, adding, "Business is what was important to do in the world."
     After high school, Buckner enrolled at Yale, then still all-male and very "establishment." He sang with the Glee Club and the Alley Cats, and studied with Benjamin Loache. But by the end of his freshman year, he decided he needed to develop more independence, away from his family and the establishment.
     He moved to California where, without anyone knowing of his identity, he got a job with an IBM factory. He did manual work during the day and sang jazz at night.
     When he decided to go back to school, he enrolled at the Jesuit University of Santa Clara. He got his bachelor's and master's degrees there (rejecting an invitation from the Columbia University School of Business), writing music for the college plays and for the summer Shakespeare Festival and singing the major roles.
     Then, Buckner moved to Stanford and Berkeley where he became involved in what would be the passion of his life - free improvisation, a form of spontaneous musical invention that follows no fixed chords or parameters.
     "For me it has been a way of getting back to my original musical impulse ... without the filter of a pre-existing style."
     Since then, Bruckner has spent most of his performing life in the avant-avant-garde, earning the name of "divo of tomorrow's music." ("That's so embarrassing," he said, almost blushing.)
     He began a small recording studio/musical hall for experimental composers and improvisational music called "1750 Arch." He started a string quartet and created an avant-garde concert series.
     "I love to improvise and I love to play music of my own time," he said. "Music making is an entirely different activity when you are working with the composer and presenting to an audience something they have never heard ... You can speak your own language without pretending."
     During his years in California, Buckner became a strict vegetarian, a strong anti-war activist and the father of one natural and five adoptive children - two East Indian girls, two Vietnamese boys and an interracial orphan.
     In the mid-1980s Buckner's first marriage fell apart and the singer moved back East, to New York, where he married Kamala Cesar, rated the foremost living exponent of Bharata Natyam, the 2,000-year-old dance art of South India's courts and temples.
     In the past decade, Buckner has performed the lead roles in avant-garde opera around the world. He is producer for World Music Institute's "Interpretations," offering works of Pauline Oliveros, Leroy Jenkins and Nils Vigeland. He is the vocalist of the Roscoe Mitchell New Chamber Ensemble, which performs multi-media and free- improvised music. With electronics composer and performer Tom Hamilton he co-produces several mini-festivals of improvised music.
     He has commissioned hundreds of pieces from contemporary composers and has developed an extremely close association to Robert Ashley, considered the father figure of the American avant-garde.
     He has sung minimalist, musical theater works by Robert Ashley combining speech, song and video. He has performed Ashley's cantata about the invention of tomato soup, and an Ashley piece in which his voice is the violin part in a string quartet.
     Weird? Perhaps. Not to Buckner.
     He scoffs at the deification of the past, noting that many musicians were avant-garde at their own time.
     "There is a place for music that has a small audience," he said.
     Most importantly, it makes him very happy.
     "I didn't have to be a businessman just because I came from a business family," he said, smiling.

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