How I Became a Russian Composer

I was raised in Hollywood, California during World War II by my mother and stepfather, a Russian musician named Alexander "Sasha" Walden. Although at first I wanted to be a pianist like Vladimir Horowitz, early on I took more pleasure composing my own music. I was mostly influenced by the music of Tchaikowsky, Katchaturian, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Stravinsky: this was the music I heard at home and at concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic where my stepfather played double bass.

When the United States and the Soviet Union ended their friendship following World War II, my parents (ardent - and later blacklisted members of the Communist party), still insisted that everything in Russia was wonderful. As a small boy it was difficult for me to disagree since I loved Russian music so much.

It was not until I was a student of composer Andrew Imbrie at the University of California that I was told "we don't compose that kind of music any longer." I was mystified. How could the Russian music I loved, as well as that of Chopin, Brahms, Ravel and others be out of fashion? When I entered graduate school I struggled to compose in a modernist tradition but these student works now seem cold and inauthentic to me.

Oddly it was the then-emerging field of electronic music that was to earn me respect as a composer during the last third of the 20th century. I am still known today as a pioneer in this field in part because of my participation in the development of the first, commercial digital synthesizer, the Synclavier.

I spent much of my life teaching young composers about electronic music at Dartmouth College and elsewhere including the Theremin Center at the Moscow Conservatory of Music. It was by chance that I came there in 1993 on a visit with the late Dmitri Pokrovsky. One connection led to another: Andre Smirnov, founder of the Theremin Center introduced me to his mother, the pianist Julia Turkina and his aunt, the late Galina Turkina. The sisters were Russia's preeminent duo-piano team for fifty-six years and they asked me to compose a work for them. The Turkina Suite was a huge turning point in my life as a composer - my Russian revolution. The many instrumental and choral works I have composed since then are often performed in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia but rarely in Europe or the United States. My friends and colleagues here don't understand how I could leave my quite-original electronic music for the retro, tonal style of my instrumental music. The answer is that they simply occupy quite different places in my musical brain. I'm still listening to and occasionally composing electronic music. I tell friends and colleagues that I'm a bipolar composer but I suspect I'm really just a Russian composer at heart.