Baritone Buckner follows a different drummer
Saturday, June 7, 1997
By SYBIL FIX
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"I didn't have to be a businessman
just because I came from a business family," he said,