BY ELLIOT STEPHEN COHEN
If one looks up the word, “renaissance man” in Webster’s dictionary, they might very well find a photo of David Amram. The 83-year-old, who still spends around 16 daily hours on his many artistic pursuits and maintains a schedule that would exhaust many performers far younger, has one of the most eclectic resumes of any artist.
Amram is known for composing more than 100 orchestral and chamber music pieces, as well as scoring such popular films as “Splendor in the Grass” and “The Manchurian Candidate.” He is also highly proficient on the piano, French horn and flute, is considered a pioneer in the field of world music, and is highly respected in the worlds of jazz and classical as well.
A recipient of six doctorate awards, Amram has collaborated with such diverse artists as Leonard Bernstein, Bob Dylan, Dizzy Gillespie, Levon Helm and Willie Nelson. Manhattan’s Library For The Performing Arts recently honored him with a celebration of his works. Last year, he was presented the second annual Pete and Toshi Seeger Power of Song Award held at Symphony Space. He’s also working on his fourth book, “David Amram - The Second 80 Years.”
Tuesday evening, Amram will be joining Peter Yarrow, Guy Davis, Spook Handy and others, at Manhattan’s St. John’s Lutheran Church on Christopher Street/ The event will acknowledge World Peace Day, as well as commemorating the 69th anniversary of Hiroshima, the Japanese city where more than 80,000 people were instantly killed by the first nuclear atomic bomb, with at least another 50,00 casualties by years end from radiation,. burns and other medical conditions.. Shortly afterward, between 60 and 80,000 more people were killed by a second atomic bomb dropped on another Japanese city, Nagasaki.
Examiner: You were almost 15 when the Hiroshima bombing occurred. What reminiscences to you have about it?
Amram: I was working on a farm in Vermont at the time, and I was horrified by the pictures I saw in the local newspaper, which was the Brattleboro Reformer. It was just terrifying, seeing this big mushroom cloud and just thinking of those people dying that way. But then the whole war psychology was so horrible. That was just part of that horror: murdering and decimating hundreds of thousands of people, and making an ecological catastrophe. I think everybody was horrified by it, even the American people who were very patriotic.
Examiner: Many people, including obviously, President Roosevelt, felt at the time that something extremely radical had to be done to end the war. How do you think it could have been resolved?
Amram: Well, I’m against all violence. It was horrible, and I don’t know what I would have done differently if I were in charge.
Examiner: Tomorrow’s event is a strong statement about the terrible devastation of Hiroshima, and also about all of the violence that is occurring in too many places in the world right now.
Amram: I think because we can’t control geopolitics, we can control our conduct. So, hopefully, our being there tomorrow can be an effective statement that we all have to remain compassionate towards others, to somehow strive for non-violent solutions without being judgmental or hateful towards who we don’t agree with. At the end of his life, Pete Seeger said, “I spend most of my time with people whom I don’t agree with, and I recommend you do the same.”
Examiner: Folk music has always represented one way of bringing peace to the world but, realistically, an acoustic guitar is a poor shield against a missile being fired at you.
Amram: That’s true. We can’t end wars and bring people back to life who have been murdered by singing, “Kumbaya,” but we can reaffirm love and respect to all people. My personal feeling, having spent a lifetime playing with Israeli musicians and musicians from all over the Middle East, is that if there was some way for the United States to stand by (those countries), the conflict could be resolved by the parties themselves. I’ve always felt that way.
Examiner: How could this be implemented?
Amram: I honestly feel that the hope is that someday there will be a way where we won’t try to Americanize the Israelis and also not try to impose our philosophies on the hundreds of different cultural styles of Middle Eastern people and that somehow all of the countries in the Middle East will be able to reconcile their differences with one another. Frank McCourt, who is a very good friend of mine, said, “The Irish and Protestants, after hundreds of years, finally said, ‘Let’s knock it off.’ We might not like each other, but we don’t have to kill each other.”
Examiner: Pete Seeger used to sing in his famous song, "Where Have All The Flowers Gone," "When will we ever learn.?" What lessons, if any, has the world learned from the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when right now in various parts of the world, innocent civilians including children still become war casualties.
Amram: I don’t think we’ve learned anything. There’s a lack of human compassion by the parties involved. I see a parallel between any unnecessary violence and hatred between people. As great as our country is and the many places we’ve been to, we haven’t improved by trying to have (those countries) adapt to our ways of dealing with other people. That’s why it was so wonderful when (in the 1950s) our State Department wanted to show the best of America: They sent over (jazz great) Louis Armstrong. He was the great ambassador. They sent me over, at 50 dollars a day, and felt it was so cheap; they sent me to nine different counties.
Examiner: What did you learn from that experience?
Amram: People who play jazz, classical or folk music, for that matter, generally appreciate anybody who crosses their path. They don’t have a superiority attitude, and they also usually have a basic sense of good manners and respect for other people. Unfortunately, many of the people we send to represent us don’t represent the most wonderful aspect of Americans. They certainly don’t represent the aspect of the original Americans, the Native Americans, who welcomed strangers to come to these shores, which included Pete Seeger’s family. He always openly acknowledged them, for their generosity and familial sense.
Examiner: I know you share a lot of Pete Seeger’s philosophy of how music can bring all types of people and cultures together.
Amram: I can give you a good example: The New York Philharmonic gave a concert in North Korea. I wanted to write a letter to those dictators, thanking them for letting CNN cover the event, not just 15 seconds on the news, but the whole concert. It was amazing to first watch the hatred on the faces of their officials and, by the end of the concert, they started gradually smiling. For a moment, there was a shared sense of humanity.
Examiner: You sound very hopeful, and I know that feeling will be shared at Tuesday's concert.
Amram: It should be a great event. This world shouldn’t be about bad-mouthing other people, but by trying to do things together in any way that you can. Whether you’re a radical, a labor organizer, a hedge fund operator or a priest or a rabbi, everybody has the potential to get along. The best way to achieve that is by trying to act human ourselves.