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14: Composer Robert Savage and John Ashbery

Listen above to our full podcast episode, which includes music and audio clips telling this story. 

Libraries are special places for discovery.

For this third year of our Library’s Queer Poem-a-Day series, our pianist Daniel Baer chose composer Robert Savage’s powerful “AIDS Ward Scherzo” as our excerpted music to introduce each episode of our poetry podcast. This year we embarked on a new format, Queer Poem-a-Day: Lineage Edition, asking our participating poets first to read a work of influence by an LGBTQIA+ writer of the past, followed by an original poem of their own. We could not anticipate that the idea of discovering lineage would relate to our music as well. 

While researching the work of Robert Savage, Daniel came across another solo piano piece in the New York Public Library’s Robert Savage Collection titled “Chaconne,” dated 1982 and dedicated to the poet John Ashbery. John Ashbery (1927-2017) is widely considered one of the most influential and important American poets of the second half of the 20th century. That Robert Savage, a brilliant and underknown composer who died of complications from AIDS at the age of 42 in 1993, had some connection to Ashbery was especially exciting given our lineage theme. Nothing appeared to be known publicly—was it inspiration? were they friends?—and we had to find out more. 

Through a flurry of research and emails, we eventually reached David Kermani, John Ashbery’s husband, who confirmed that John and David “were friends of Robert Savage.” David writes:

…we were good enough friends that as we were approaching our first summer in the Hudson house (1979), we wanted to hire someone to help at the house (mostly basic cleaning, at that point), and Robert’s living situations were usually unstable, so we offered him the chance to live and work there, but he insisted (understandably) on having a piano available.

There has been considerable interest in Ashbery and Kermani’s art-filled Victorian home in Hudson, NY. John Ashbery’s Nest is a website and virtual tour of the house hosted by the Yale University Library Digital Humanities Lab under the direction of Karin Roffman, Ashbery’s biographer. Exploring the Nest site and clicking on the piano in the “music room,” we found an audio clip of Ashbery telling this same story—but without referring to Robert Savage by name:

When we first got the house we weren’t here very much. We had a friend of mine housesitting for us but we had to have a piano because he was a composer so I got this very cheap piano from an ad in the Pennysaver.

David Kermani has a slightly different memory of how all this played out, writing to us:

John and I agreed…that we didn’t want some cheap spinet but one that would be a nice piece of furniture for the “music room.”  We looked in all the local newspapers and “Pennysaver”-type tabloids for ads; I finally found a handwritten note tacked to a community bulletin board at our local ShopRite or Price Chopper grocery store.  I called the number, discovered it was a baby grand instrument located in a house in the rural eastern part of the county (Copake, maybe), and went to see it….The owner’s price was $500., which wasn’t a small amount of money in those days, but we both liked it and figured we probably wouldn’t do any better than that, so bought it and arranged to have it delivered.  Robert settled in (3rd floor bedroom), late Spring, I suppose; John and I were there on some weekends (when we weren’t mooching off friends in the Hamptons!)….Things moved very slowly those first few years, but gradually came together, and the NYC and international cultural worlds became right at home in Hudson.

The Flow Chart Foundation is a nonprofit organization that holds public programs, performances, and exhibits that “explore poetry and the interrelationships of various art forms as guided by the legacy of American poet John Ashbery.” Jeffrey Lependorf, Executive Director of The Flow Chart Foundation, and David Kermani were both thrilled to realize that the piano in The Flow Chart Foundation space is in fact that same piano originally purchased for Robert Savage.

David Kermani’s own extensive library work cataloging Ashbery’s writings laid the foundation for the Ashbery Resource Center, an archive which “includes extensive print materials, artworks, objects, recordings, and digital materials related to the work of John Ashbery.” The Ashbery Resource Center—a part of The Flow Chart Foundation—will now, because of Daniel Baer’s discovery, be able to reference this nearly forgotten work for solo piano, “Chaconne,” by John and David’s friend Robert Savage.

There’s much more to be said about the connections between Savage and Ashbery and their work. Savage studied with Ned Rorem, a noted composer and writer who set some of Ashbery’s poems to music. (David told us they likely met Savage through Rorem, and Savage appears several times in Rorem’s famous diaries.) 

Robert Savage’s musical voice is characterized by an amalgamation of 20th century musical influences from zydeco to primitivism, atonality to minimalism, classicism to pop-culture. He united these different musical styles, especially in his later works, to convey an urgent expression. Like Savage, Ashbery’s poetry masters shifts between registers—in syntax, in references high and low, and unspecific pronouns. 

All this can be seen as a story of the gay cultural, literary and musical worlds in New York at a particular moment, spanning the post-Stonewall era through the AIDS era. We also hope to add to the interest in the life and work of Robert Savage. Savage’s often itinerant life, his work leading Buddhist meditation classes for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and incredible last compositions Sudden Sunsets, Dance of Avoidance, and AIDS Ward Scherzo, among others, all paint a picture of an artist responding to his circumstances and times. 

David Kermani told us that Savage, “traveled a great deal and was hard to keep track of, and we pretty much lost contact with him during the last years of his life.” He also tells us he is pleased the story their friendship with Savage, the lost dedicated composition, and the history of the piano, are now publicly coming to light: 

John Ashbery believed that Robert Savage was a serious and very talented musicologist and composer. …I know that John would be delighted that this is happening, as am I.  

There have been many recent studies of Ashbery’s relationship to music including Something Close to Music (David Zwirner Books, 2022), a collection of Ashbery’s writings on art and music playlists, edited by Jeffrey Lependorf, Karin Roffman’s 2021 piece in Evergreen Review “John Ashbery’s Music Library: A Playlist”, and even the many musical references in the recent book of posthumous Ashbery poems Parallel Movement of the Hands (Ecco, 2021), edited by Emily Skillings.

Finally, this discovery is also a testament to the power of connecting libraries public, academic, and independent—our Deerfield Public Library, The New York Public Library, Yale University Library, and the Ashbery Resource Center—together can tell a forgotten history. It is a great honor to contribute in some small way to the still growing biography and legacy of Robert Savage as well as to the many-faceted cultural impact of John Ashbery, a poet who means a great deal to many, including to many of the poets featured in the three years of our Queer Poem-a-Day archives. 

We want to extend our enormous gratitude to David Kermani for his time and sharing his insights. And to Jeffrey Lependorf, Executive Director of The Flow Chart Foundation, to Karin Roffman, Ashbery’s biographer, to academic Andrew Epstein, author of the Locus Solus Blog about the New York School Poets. We also want to point readers to the work of pianist Marcus Ostermiller, whose performances of and dissertation on Robert Savage have been pioneering in increasing the visibility of this remarkable composer. 

Quotations from texts and interviews by John Ashbery are Copyright © 2019, 2020.

All rights reserved. Used by arrangement with Georges Borchardt, Inc. for the John Ashbery Estate.

Queer Poem a Day graphic

Queer Poem a Day: Lineage Edition

Queer Poem-a-Day is directed by poet and teacher Lisa Hiton and Dylan Zavagno, Adult Services Coordinator at the Deerfield Public Library. Music for this third year of our series is the AIDS Ward Scherzo by Robert Savage, performed by pianist Daniel Baer. Queer Poem-a-Day is supported by generous donations from the Friends of the Deerfield Public Library and the Deerfield Fine Arts Commission.

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