GE: Do you ever suffer writer's block?
Gary Eskow: Never. And I can point to the exact moment when that condition disappeared for good. I was 24 when Connie Green and I got a job in a nightclub in Arlington, VA. We were married at the time and worked as a soprano/guitar duo. Connie has been a member of the Metropolitan Opera chorus for years.
The club put on dinner theater productions, and we were the opening act. We also got to play small roles in their shows, including West Side Story. Then I got a real opportunity: to write the score to an original production based on the life of Sally Hemmings, the slave who had a long term relationship with Thomas Jefferson and bore some of his children.
The night before I was to present what I had done with the main song of Act 1 I stayed in the club to write. There I was, all alone at the piano, with half empty champagne glasses and overflowing ashtrays as companions while the hours ticked away.
I couldn't finish the song! Overcome with anxiety, I lay down on a couch to relax. Then it hit me: I didn't have to finish the song. I didn't even have to have any talent whatsoever! I realized that my love for music was pure; if I wasn't going to be one of those who could advance the art in any significant way I would always be there to receive the treasures that others were able to mine.
That thought freed me. I finished the song, which has attractive elements for me to this day, and since then have never been bothered when I couldn't come up with an idea. I just relax and play someone else's music or listen to a record or read.
GE: What do you do to unwind?
Gary Eskow: I took up the game of tennis at the age of 39 and play as often as I can. I hit the weights several times a week, run and play basketball as well.
GE: Some respected artists have had nice things to say about your music, but almost no one knows you as a composer. Why?
Gary Eskow: I wish my work had reached a wider audience by now, but looking for one has never been very important to me. I like to make records, but they can be costly, and performances don't interest me all that much. I like to write!
As you said earlier, I've only won one competition. My song Noon, from Winter On The River, a cycle I wrote on some William Meredith poems, took first place in the Diana Barhart American Song Competition in 2001. But I've only entered three competitions in my life.
GE: What are your strong points as a composer?
Gary Eskow: Harmony and counterpoint are often taught as if they were separate elements of the composer's craft, but genuine style comes when a writer weaves the two together in a unique manner. There are pieces of mine that show an individual voice, I think, in this regard. But my greatest strengths are determination and the ability to stay fresh. I love good ideas wherever they come from- you, me, or the guy next door. If I think I'm on to something I'll work as long as it takes to get the idea on paper.
When I was a kid my family used to vacation on Fourth Lake, which is about 50 miles from Utica. One of the Fulton Chain of Lakes, which were the setting of Dreiser's American Tragedy, Fourth Lake has a population of about 300 people and a timeless quality about it. I must have been about nine one summer when our family friend Marty Abelove decided to teach me and my pal Robbie Lipnick to water ski. Robbie got up quickly, but I couldn't get the hang of it.
At first everyone was impressed and amused by my unwillingness to throw in the towel. Then the sun started to drop and the adults all wanted to have a highball, but I wouldn't let Marty go until I got up and around the lake.
Sometimes I feel like I'm still in the water, with a rope between my legs, determined to make it to my feet before the sun goes down.
January 1, 2004