By Eric Snider
A sassy, irreverent review/interview
intended for a popular public
Lauded as one of the great pianists of our time, Robert Helps once composed the perfect musical fart.
On a brisk Saturday night in February, not long after midnight, a small group of college kids were shaking their asses to fast and funky booty rap. Beer and wine flowed. If you knew which cabinet to raid, you could pour a single malt Scotch. Other rooms in the Seminole Heights house brimmed with lively conversation and laughter. The host for this bash was neither frat boy nor poli-sci major, but Robert Helps, 69 year-old internationally known composer and pianist, professor of piano at University of South Florida. He chatted easily with fellow musicians, students, friends and surely some folks he had never before laid eyes on. He drank pitch-colored brew from a demitasse cup, leaving the alcohol for others. The dancers crowded perilously close to his piano, but he gave it no notice. The frenetic rap music didn't cause him to twitch. He did not carry himself like a genius among the hordes. He was not even the center of attention. Helps sat amid the revelry enjoying all that he surveyed. Most everyone called him Bob. Helps loves parties, although not as much as he used to. While living in New Haven and New York City from the mid-’50s to late ’70s, he hobnobbed with the artistic elite: musicians and friends Aaron Copland, Milton Babbitt, Virgil Thomson, John Cage and his mentor Roger Sessions; writers Thornton Wilder, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams and James Purdy (who lived a couple blocks away in Brooklyn Heights), among others. "People tend to think creative types are reclusive or anti-social," Helps says. "I've found it to be the opposite. I don't go to parties or throw them a great deal anymore, but I love it when it happens. It takes care of the problems of time. You don't care what else is going on. You just enjoy the moment." In the '50s and '60s, Helps was one of the preeminent artists in what was most often called "new music," an extension of the classical tradition that skewed toward dissonance and eschewed the pristine formalism of legendary composers like Beethoven and Mozart. Unlike the wide-eyed avant-gardists, he did not disavow tradition; rather, his writing and playing challenged its strictures. Much of his work has been tonally based and, within the big picture, relatively accessible. "I would say that Helps was probably the new music pianist in New York during its heyday of the '50s and '60s," says Tampa composer Robert Constable. "Although he's not a household name, he's important in the continuum of virtuoso composer/pianists." "... stunning pianism," the Los Angeles Times waxed decades ago. "... tempts one to add Helps to the line of famous composer/pianists of the 19th and 20th centuries." Despite a lifetime of accolades, Bob Helps is not heading out to pasture. In Bob as an incredible asset - to have this phenomenal composer and musician in our midst," says Brian Brown, a junior who plays violin. "He's a nice person. You can approach him with questions or advice. I don't get the sense that it's often like that at other schools."
The first thing you notice about Helps is his hair. Not many men crowding 70 have thin, white hair that's nearly shoulder length. Mapped with lines and wrinkles, Helps' face suggests wisdom. There are exquisite bags under his eyes. He keeps a pair of thick-rimmed glasses close at hand, which he constantly slips on and off.
I don't take time write to out 16th or eighth notes, just little x's.
The visual effect is really kind of nice. I've thought of hanging it in the bathroom as wallpaper, like not-very-good modern art.
1996, he wrote two major commissioned works. He still performs in such arts hotbeds as San Francisco, Boston, Minneapolis and New York. And he stays busy giving lessons at USF, passing along his unique brand of keyboard magic. He's also a much loved figure among fine arts students on campus. "The ones here that are serious musicians recognize His vocal inflections have a distinctively musical lilt, ranging from a gravelly mutter to a gleeful cackle. His hands are soft and delicate. He favors baggy pants and black walking shoes, and sports an array of loose-fitting, button down shirts, often in wild colors or brazen prints. February's fete took place after "Sensua by Candle Light," an annual Valentine's Day concert spearheaded by Helps that's held in the auditorium of the USF Fine Arts Building. The music is generally quirky - the event clearly meant to take some of the starch out of classical music. (Brown drew belly laughs from the packed house when he bounded on stage in a tutu.) Helps debuted a new piece that night. "Pussies and Pansies" is a jaggedly complex song built around a silly poem he encountered in the late '60s. Joyce James, English horn player for The Florida Orchestra, delivered the lyrics with maniacal glee while dressed in a housecoat. Despite the tune being a trifle (one that nevertheless took a concentrated week to compose), Helps couldn't help being guileful. "When he first showed me the music, I couldn't sing it - I could hardly read it," James says. "It had double sharps and C-flats and things you don't normally see. He had to rewrite some of it so I could learn it." Ten weeks after "Sensua," another, more high-brow, event took place. The student orchestra at USF performed his Symphony No. 1, which he completed in 1955 and last heard on stage in '65. The ensemble performed the 22-minute work with considerable love and no small measure of aplomb. Despite having fewer violins than is desirable for the piece, the USF Symphony Orchestra attacked the tightly wound opening movement with plenty of verve, plunging fully into its innate drama. For the symphony's second movement, "Adagio," considered the most important, conductor William Weidrich led the students through a weave of subtle interplay, all the while massaging the ethereal section's seductive ebbs and flows. They pulled out the stops for the dancing final movement, the brass carrying on boldly, the percussion section adding an essential rhythmic urgency. Helps sat near the back of the Playhouse at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in an aisle seat next to friend Lowell Adams, cellist for The Florida Orchestra. His ears working like finely tuned radar, he looked on intently, all but motionless. He had promised himself not to deconstruct the performance he'd notice foibles, sure, but let them pass and. enjoy the moment. "Those kids really played their asses off," Helps effused the next day. "They were really trying to play the piece with abandon. When they first started learning it, some of them started off not understanding it, but playing a piece by someone on campus, who was alive, that was important to them. They were really sizzling along on that last movement."
After the concert, the composer walked to the stage as the crowd stood to applaud. He shook Wiedrich's hand, gestured congratulations to the orchestra and quickly returned to his seat. Clearly flattered by the modest show of pageantry, he did not milk it.
Helps then shook hands, signed programs and greeted well-wishers. "It's a wonderful piece," someone said. "I'm sorry we haven't heard it played by an other orchestra in the Bay area." Michael Stern, a guest conductor of the orchestra in question, The Florida Orchestra, echoes the sentiment. Six months ago, Stern conducted the Orchestre National de Lille in the French premiere of the Helps symphony. "It's a wonderful piece, well written for the orchestra," Stern, son of famed violinist Isaac Stern, says. "When it was written, the avant-garde was in full swing. Electronic music, serial pieces and minimalism were in vogue. This was a great return to tonality from an original voice who has great command of his craft. "The (French) orchestra was a little skeptical at first. American music is a little dicey in France in general. By the second or third rehearsal, the lovely coloristic moments came out. They really warmed to it and delivered. The audience responded as well. I think Bob was bemused by the fact that the French could enjoy it. The piece should be played more. It's a shame The Florida Orchestra hasn't taken it on." Although Helps would clearly like to see his symphony performed by Tampa Bay's premiere musical organization, he won't lobby. "I'm not anti-Florida Orchestra at all," Helps says. "Like a lot of other people, I'd just like to see them get off their asses and play more contemporary music, but I know that coming from me it might sound like sour grapes." Have you ever stopped to consider what's involved in composing a symphony? It's not like penning catchy pop tune, where the hook might flash on you while you're driving and you flesh out the rest. It's not like sitting in a studio around an upright piano yapping to a partner, "Gimme a C, a bouncy C." Writing a symphony is like constructing two dozen pieces of overlapping dialogue that all fit into a cohesive whole- written in the complex language of music. The composer develops and hones the melodic and harmonic segments, the transitions, the overall thematic flow of the piece, then orchestrates it -writes parts for each instrument. Symphony No. 1 took Helps three years to complete. He crafted his two recent major works -Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello and Quartet for Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello - in a five month concentrated period at a getaway in Berkeley, California. Helps discusses composing while seated at the kitchen table of his home. He's witty, urbane, a natural storyteller, fond of quoting people, famous or otherwise. He's also a keen listener. Yet there's a guardedness about Helps (at least during our interviews) that stops him from revealing too much of his inner self. As a man who is often regarded with quiet awe by those around him, he has taken to using self-deprecating quips to muzzle too much praise or anything that might approach fawning. "It was commonly held that Stravinsky composed from 9 to noon every day, and that was it," Helps says. "That boggles the mind. The truth of it is a that I haven't a clue how I write a piece of music. For me, I have to clear a bunch of time, unfettered time. I find that almost every major decision I make about pieces are not done while sitting at my desk. They usually come to me when I've stopped writing for a couple hours and take a walk around town. Then - boom - it's there. "The time we spend that would be viewed by other people as being a lazy lout, when you're being a lazy lout is a crucial part of working as a composer. It's very hard for me to understand. It's certainly much harder for people who are not involved in the process. "To me, the most interesting part of the process is the conceptual part, constructing the overall arc and movement of the piece. The wonderful thing is you're not stuck to that. It's just the raw material. (t can go through a hundred different layers of reshaping, revision and orchestration." Helps writes music in his head, scrawling it directly onto reams of blank sheet music. He occasionally uses the piano to check how something sounds. When on a roll, he might produce 150 measures in a day. When he's stuck, possibly three. "If things are really flowing, sometimes I can't write it down fast enough," he says. "I know I've lost more than a few good ideas because of that. The (sheet music) is indecipherable to anyone else, sometimes including myself. I don't take time to write out 16th or eighth notes, just little X's. The visual effect is really kind of nice. I've thought of hanging it in the bathroom as wallpaper, like not-very-good modern art." After Helps completed Symphony No. 1, he took it to Roger Sessions. Sessions, 30 years Help's senior, was a master orchestrator and mentor to many 20th century composers. "I took the score to his house in Princeton where he was teaching," Helps recounts fondly. "He studied it for a very long time. I just sat there and waited. Finally, he said, pointing to the middle of the first measure, `Congratulations, Bob. You've orchestrated the perfect musical fart.' "It was really just wonderful," Helps continues, chuckling. "It was very easily corrected. We just moved it up an octave. The bassoon was written with a very low, choking sound. Then he proceeded to rip the piece to shreds. He didn't complain about anything musical - just what worked and didn't work within the context of the orchestra. Over about three hours, he ran through the whole thing. It was the most wonderful lesson I've ever had. "It was always great that, after I finished a piece, I had some place to go for consultation. Sessions was without question the most influential composition and theory teacher of the 20th century. Through his hands everyone passed at one point. One of the reasons it worked so well was that he would never make any stylistic demands, never-inflict a style on anyone - unlike, say, Hindemith whose students made music that sounded like Hindemith. Sessions insisted that you sound like yourself."
Robert Eugene Helps was born on Sept. 23, 1928, in Passaic, New Jersey, a suburb of New York. His father, Ronald, worked for pharmaceutical companies. His mother, Dorothy, was an amateur pianist "on the look-out for one of her kids to play." Robert's older brother Ronald showed no interest. Four-and-a-half years older, he was an athlete, an "All-American boy," Helps says, who went to college, got married and was killed during the WWII Battle of the Bulge in 1944. Around age 5, Bob took to his mother's piano rapidly. "I had perfect pitch, not that that's essential. It's a nice party trick," Helps recalls with a hint of dismissiveness. "I could go to a keyboard and pick out a tune, go to church, come back and play a hymn, things like that." When her son was 8 years old, Dorothy began driving him the 45 minutes into Manhattan on Saturdays, where he attended the Juilliard Prep School. The students learned ear training, theory, sight singing and were required to write music. The teacher gave them poems for inspiration. Bob's first piece was called "Cherry," followed by "The Icicle" and the "Dance of the Cinders on the Hearth."
When Bob was 11, renowned conductor Leopold Stokowski held a national children's composition contest. "The Dance of the Cinders" was one of the pieces chosen and performed on the radio by the NBC Symphony, conducted by Stokowski. After Juilliard Prep, Helps attended the Juilliard Institute of Musical Art, the intermediate school below the more prestigious Juilliard School of Music. "I was always more interested in the emotional value of music," he says.
"The Juilliard School tended to attract the digital people, the real technicians. I'm sure my mother would have loved me to become a renowned concert pianist playing to thousands of people all over the world, but that's not where my interests were." At 15, Bob encountered a teacher he didn't like, so walked away from Juilliard and signed on with an unaffiliated instructor named Abby Whiteside. After a year, she felt that Helps should delve more deeply into theory, so she brought him to Sessions. At the time, Helps was not the least interested in new music, but that changed quickly once he fell under Sessions' tutelage. "I was just as much of a pig about modern music as anybody else," Helps says. "Then he gave me a piece of his to learn, "Pages From a Diary," and it was a major breakthrough. It changed my life." In 1953, Helps relocated to New Haven, not for any particular reason other than it was close to New York. During his decade there, he suffered through a couple of disenchanted periods where he gave a few lessons and played only casually. "At one point, I got myself a nice girlfriend, got myself a nice job at a record shop and I became a nice American boy for two or three years," Helps explains. "And I loved it, until I got so bored I thought I would scream." In 1963, Helps felt he was ready for New York. "I moved there without a position and without much financial backing," he explains. "But I realized, after regaining my wind, that my life and my career would be hit and miss, with some playing and some teaching, with different careers pasted together." Having narrowly missed out on a rent-controlled apartment in Greenwich Village, the musician landed a comfortable flat in Brooklyn Heights with a rent of $110 a month. He performed in solo and chamber settings around the city at places like the Carnegie Chamber Music Hall, the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim. In all, he did about 30 concerts a year. Helps characterizes his financial status as "fly by night." In all, Helps guesstimates he's written 30 pieces during his lifetime - not overly prolific, but a strong output for an in-demand pianist. Today, composers and players are distinctly separate breeds. Helps pegs himself about half and half. Through the years, his music or playing has appeared on more than 30 recordings. From 1967 to 1969, Helps took a post at the San Francisco conservatory. The professor did not confine himself to the hallowed halls of academia, though; he got out and rubbed elbows with the hippies. "We all meandered down to the Haight (Ashbury)," he recalls. "I went to clubs. There were certainly elements of it at the Conservatory. The students were stoned half the time. A young friend of mine who I had met back East, named Ian Underwood, was visiting my apartment when he left to go see the Mothers of Invention. They had a vacancy, and he started playing with them the next day.
At one point, I became a nice American boy for two or three years. And I loved it, until I got so bored I thought I would scream.
"I got to know Frank Zappa quite well. He was considering using me and Bethany Beardslee, a vocalist friend of mine who I collaborated with regularly, in a new musical direction, kind of like very far out rock combined with musicians like us. Bethany would've loved it. So would I have, for that matter. Anyway, I got a call after a few months. Frank said he was going back into hard rock." In 1978, Helps moved just outside of Tampa to aid his ailing parents. At 50, he found himself living in the retirement village of Sun City Center. Some years earlier, he had met James Lewis, a USF composer, at an artist colony in New Hampshire. The composition professor arranged for Helps to play a concert and give a masters class at USF. Helps started giving private lessons through the college. By 1980, he was a full-fledged faculty member. Constable, the Tampa composer who later attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., studied with Helps early on. "I remember at one point, I was really bent out of shape about something," Constable recounts. "It might have been a girl. It seems to me that Bob knew what the trouble was. I saw him about 5 one afternoon, and he asked how I was doing. I said, `Pretty shitty.' He said, `Come with me.' We went into the concert hall at the Fine Arts Building, it was empty, and he sat down, briskly mumbled the title, and played the big Schubert A-major posthumous sonata, from beginning to end, a 45-minute piece of music, from memory. It was the first time I heard it. "it may sound cliché, but I consider him one of the greatest pianists alive today, and he was playing this completely astounding work. My problems seemed fairly petty in that light." The university wanted Helps to, besides teach piano, get out in the community and play, drum up interest. "We'd find places to do solo concerts, chamber music events," Helps says. "We played in Sarasota, Eckerd College, the St. Petersburg fine arts museum, the Tampa museum. These series would eventually fold after a while. At one point we put on a concert of three contemporary pieces and there must have been about 20 people playing on this recital. There were about 12 people in the audience. That took the wind out of our sails, put a stop to things for a while." In time, Helps' out-of-town performing opportunities grew. As a result, he has focused less on building the music scene locally. The pianist is diplomatic when discussing the Tampa Bay's appreciation for the fine arts. You sense that part of him wants to say "it's a wasteland" and be done with it, but instead he offers, "It's spotty. I think it's somewhat better as time goes by. I think some of the blame lies right here with us at USF. We need to find a better way of presenting and promoting it. There is an audience out there. If I had the right methods, the personality and the energy level to teach, write music, perform out of town and help develop things around here, I would do it. But I do not have the energy level to do it year after year. That's OK, though. I'll still do things from time to time. And I'll keep writing. Composers usually write till we drop dead." That could take a while. After heart bypass surgery five years ago, Helps has stuck close to a diet, cutting out sweets, most fats and red meat (although about once a month he breaks down and indulges in a Cuban roast pork dinner at Latam Restaurant). He tries to walk a two or three miles a day, and manages to do it at least three or four days a week. Robert Helps is definitely not ready for a quiet life on the porch, although it's safe to say he's slowed down some. "I'm a lot more able to enjoy the moment than I used to be," he says "I still have goals, but not specific ones, like winning the Nobel Prize or writing Symphony No. 2. It's more submerged than that. I don't have any feeling at this stage in my life that I want to retire and sit in a rocking chair. I find that idea appalling and hope I continue to."