Spanning nearly 50 years, Mel Powell’s career encompassed both popular music of the swing era and high art music of the classical tradition. He began his professional life in 1941 as the pianist and arranger for Benny Goodman’s band and in 1943, after being drafted, he joined the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band. Following a disappointing year in Hollywood scoring films, Powell’s musical interests began to shift. In 1952 he received a BM from Yale where he studied with Paul Hindemith. When Hindemith returned to Europe in 1957, Powell returned to Yale becoming chair of the composition department and director of the electronic music studio. In 1969 he became a founding dean of the California Institute of the Arts and remained on faculty until his death. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for Duplicates: A Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra.
Powell’s early compositions were in a neoclassical style similar to Hindemith’s. As the 1950s progressed, his works began to incorporate atonal elements and by 1958 he had abandoned tonality completely in favor of structuralist serialism. Influenced by Anton Webern, Powell explained in 1985, íI have an old-fashioned idea. I still believe that beauty consists in the most music in the shortest space.’
Despite Powell’s life long participation in the realms of jazz and classical music, he remained an elitist with strong opinions about the role and position of art within contemporary society. A staunch proponent of the autonomous musical work, Powell wrote, ímusic, just music, nothing more, beautifully composed, beautifully performed, free from parody, satire, political commentary, pandering—for me that remains more powerful than all the rest.’ In 1970 he participated in a joint concert with Frank Zappa and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. Technical difficulties interrupted the performance of Immobiles I-IV and after the boisterous disapproval of Zappa fans, Powell withdrew the work and stormed out of the arena. Years later he proclaimed: íSerious new music, like serious old music, isn’t made to be dribbled around in a basketball arena.’—Elaine Hayes