Today we celebrate the memory of Elias Tanenbaum. What an extraordinary force of nature he was. He was a fighter almost from the day he was born. When his parents got their injured son back from World War Two, they imagined that he would spend his life doing simple jobs around the store they owned in Brooklyn. Instead, he used the GI bill to get two college degrees and then spent his life doing what he loved: He composed over 140 works in all musical idioms, he taught, experimented with new sounds, and most of all, he listened to sounds and was fascinated by sounds. He led the life he wanted to and he did the things he loved most: creating music, listening to music and teaching. And every day of his life, he struggled. He lived 64 years with a catastrophic injury. Each day walking to his studio was hard and the older he got, the harder it was. The last few years of his life, he spent in agony. Growing up, I always saw him working hard. It took a long time before I realized how much he had to struggle just to be able to work hard. When he was young, and it was not so difficult to live with his injury, he struggled with his own feelings about having a limp and walking slowly. He felt ashamed when people looked at him differently, but he fought that as well. Once, while playing trumpet in the Catskills, he fought against a hotel owner just so he could swim in the pool with one leg. It seemed that one of the guests had complained. As he grew older, and how others saw him mattered less, it became harder to live with his injury. Again, he fought the good fight. He swam every day because it was an exercise that he could do. Long before it became fashionable, my father kept himself healthy and vigorous. Because of this, he outlived most of the doctors who told him over the years that he did not have long to go. Making it to 83 years was, for him, an incredible achievement.
He fought, as well, against war and injustice. He was politically active for his entire life. He wrote music as a form of protest. Listen to the titles of some of the last pieces of music he wrote:
BRING EM ON for String Quartet
The Lies of War for Clarinet, guitar and bass violin
Fallujah for Saxophone Quartet
Bushwacked for National Steel Guitar
Najef for piano
Collateral Damage for guitar and percussion
All pieces of music that documented the pain and suffering of war from a composer who had the misfortune to know that suffering all too well. He wrote music to protest the war in Vietnam, a children's piece about Hiroshima, and perhaps, most profoundly, a piece of music documenting the humanity of the soldiers who fought against him, and who wounded him, in World War 2. Last Letters from Stalingrad. Perhaps he found a way to use his music to help heal part of his wounds, and the world's.
He was a teacher as well. Rather than tell you about that myself, Iím going to read a letter from one of his students, Rand Steiger
So much of his work and his life was spent making statements and breaking down boundaries. He rejected the strict musical styles of the generations of composers before him, and spent his life experimenting with and creating new sounds and forms of music. Think about that. It wasn't just the pieces of music that were new, it was the sounds themselves. I looked it up the other day, though some dispute it, the earliest known musical instrument is a flute made by Neanderthals out of a cave bear bone over 40,000 years ago. People have been making music for at least 40,000 years and yet Eli Tanenbaum managed to find ways to create entirely new sounds and forms that nobody had ever heard before. That's amazing.
We are a very close family, and that was so important to my father. Even when the pain was unbearable towards the end, he stopped to tell me how beautiful my mother's smile was. They were together for 55 years. He spoke to Simon every day on the phone. His influence is profound in both David and I. Eli worked with synthesizers and computers to create music. And he taught others to do the same. David is a musician and a teacher. I teach computers. Both David and I are politically active for the same causes he was. Often together. Often with our own children.
Today as I look around the room, I see the things that mattered to him most: I see his friends, I see artists and musicians from all over, I see his former students, and his family. I hear the sounds he created. That was his life. That is his legacy.