“I’m really sorry it’s like this in here,” the compactly built, animated composer says, his outstretched arm describing the circumference of the cathedral-like living room. “I’m on deadline right now, working on a 20-minute piece for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. It always gets like this when I’m on deadline. Everything else has to wait.”
But clutter, as we all know, is the detritus of genius. And “genius” is a word that frequently appears next to George Tsontakis’s name. Which certainly makes sense when you consider the prizes his work has engendered: a lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1995); two Kennedy Center Friedheim awards (1989 and ’92); a Grammy nomination for the album Ghost Variations (Hyperion Records, 1998); prestigious teaching positions at Bard College (since 2003) and the Aspen Music School (since 1976); and the coveted and lucrative Grawemeyer Award for musical composition (2005).
But in December 2006, he topped them all, at least in the area of financial rewards, when the Academy of Arts and Letters presented him with the world’s richest prize for a composer, the Charles Ives Living award. With a purse of $225,000, the grant is, according to Bard’s press release, “meant to free the recipient up from any salaried position for three years in order to devote time solely to composing.” (The term begins this July.)
It’s money well spent. It means the world will soon be populated with more of Tsontakis’s singular, awe-inducing music. It means additional works on the order of “The Dove Descending,” a 1995 symphonic quartet inspired by “Little Gidding” from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. In the piece, massed strings and winds swell and spiral to glorious, breathtaking heights—only to plummet cold-bloodedly into abysses of bleak, overwhelming terror. Or maybe the stipend will mean further creations like the devilish scherzo “Maniacal,” which caps “Eclipse” (also from 1995), a quartet for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano.
In the rendition of “Eclipse” performed by the Broyhill Chamber Ensemble on Piano Quartet Trilogy (Koch Records, 2004), crashing, reckless keyboard runs do battle with stabbing clarinets; by its end the piece has surrendered to an eerie air of haunting sonambulence. “People write that my music sounds haunting, but to me it’s haunted,” the 56-year-old native Long Islander says. “Haunted by the ghosts of the composers from the past—Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, and most of all, Messiaen.
"That feeling of transcendence [Olivier] Messiaen has…,” Tsontakis says, referring to the mystical Catholicism-inspired French master best known for the divine “L’Ascension,” “that out-of-body experience. That’s what I strive for.” While he also admits to the lesser influences of Bartok and Ravel, it’s the aforementioned Claude Debussy to which Tsontakis’s work is most often compared. And with good reason: The watery Impressionism of the turn-of-the-last-century modernist looms large over compositions like the 1990 barcarole “Heartsounds.”
In addition to the inspiration of musical and literary classicists, Tsontakis finds his muse in other areas. The grand views of the Ashokan Reservoir and Mohonk Mountain from his deck offer endless stimulation, as does the idyllic seclusion of the property—which he purchased for “the price of a Jeep Cherokee” from its widowed owner in 1997. “I prefer to remain unknown around here,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll go three, four days without seeing anyone except for maybe the people at [nearby cafe and patisserie] Bread Alone. I bought a backhoe to do some digging with here,” he laughs, “and a friend said to me, ‘George, now you’ll definitely blend in!’”
Another font of motivation has been architecture, something very apparent in the multitiered constructs of his work. “I’ve always been interested in architecture,” he explains. “I consider it to be a parallel metaphor to writing music.” Tsontakis actually designed his house, a project begun in 2002 that features a two-story tower he jokingly calls the Joan Tower Tower, after his fellow Bard professor.
“George’s music is very layered and has a lot of complexity,” Tower, herself a Grawemeyer winner, says. “But it’s also very lyrical. He’s multitalented, he’s so good at so many things. He’s a good tennis player, he’s worked as a contractor, and he’s an excellent actor, too.”
In fact, it’s acting—not music—that’s Tsontakis’s first love. “I was just starting to study acting at NYU in 1971, and I auditioned for ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ on Broadway,” he says. “I got the role of Peter the Apostle, but then they changed directors and the new one didn’t want me. I was devastated at the time, but it turned out to be the most fortuitous moment of my life.” From NYU he went on to Julliard, where he earned his master’s and doctorate under the great Roger Sessions, the 20th century’s foremost teacher of musical composition. “Sessions was fantastic,” he recalls. “It was great studying with an old, wise man. It taught me very quickly that old people are really just young people trapped in old bodies. That stayed with me.”
But even as the ever-youthful Tsontakis’s career in music took off, the acting bug never loosened its grip. Over the years he’s been steadily involved in local theater and is currently a member of the Shandaken Theatrical Society. “I never refer to myself as a composer, or an actor, or whatever,” he maintains. “Once you do that, you limit yourself to just being that one particular thing. It’s funny,” he smirks, “[Grammy-winning soundtrack composer] John Corigliano wrote ‘George—woodsman, actor, or composer? When the hell are you gonna make up your mind?’ But I can’t do that, it’s too limiting. Like I tell my students: Enlarge yourself. Because you will never write a work that’s larger than what you are.” But as the sun gets low in the late-day sky, Tsontakis is in his acting guise and realizes he’s late for a rehearsal of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” (He’s playing Duke Senior.) So, then, time to go. But just for now.