The first nine months of 2012 have been filled with an underlying sadness in the wake of the death of Ralph Kaminsky, who died on January 15 at age 85. I have never met anyone like him. In a state-of-the-art listening room (with, for equipment geeks, two Wilson Audio Alexandria speakers holding court) he and his wife, Hester Diamond, hosted monthly salon-type afternoons in their home, inviting people for the sole purpose of listening to contemporary music. And I mean only contemporary music. He rarely played anything written before say, 1980. One of the few exceptions was Wagner's Ring, yet his passion meant that listeners were more likely to hear versions done within the last decade, such as the daring and original stagings from Copenhagen and Valencia.
The list of composers he championed – and in many cases, socialized with – is long: Hans Abrahamsen, Unsuk Chin, Marc-André Dalbavie, Beat Furrer, Gérard Grisey, Kimmo Hakola, Tristan Murail, Olga Neuwirth, Matthias Pintscher, Huang Ruo, and hundreds of others were a part of his regular listening. (Often overheard, “I listen to music by composers who are composing, not decomposing.”) And many contemporary music groups, as well, were part of Ralph’s daily life; Alarm Will Sound, Argento Ensemble, eighth blackbird, Either/Or, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and Talea Ensemble were just a few of his favorites. For Ralph's 80th birthday, Hester commissioned Dalbavie to write a cello concerto, adroitly done by ICE in 2008 at Columbia University's Miller Theatre.
Now and then he and Hester would host live concerts in their home. One evening was like no other: the JACK Quartet in Georg Friedrich Haas's mysterious third string quartet, “In iij. Noct.” (2001), performed in complete darkness. Ralph and Hester enlisted an expert crew to extinguish every light source in their living room: windows were fitted with plywood and sealed tight with tape (two different kinds, to avoid ruining the paint). Spaces around doors were blocked. LEDs on telephones, computers and wall switches – all obliterated. Before the hour-long journey began, Ralph turned off all lights to give the audience a sample of what to expect, for those who might panic. I placed my hand a half-inch from my nose and could see nothing. Afterward, JACK violinist Ari Streisfeld said they had done the piece a number of times, but this was the blackest environment they had ever experienced.
Ralph left so suddenly that it's still hard to grasp that he's gone. Many New York concertgoers will miss his familiar mane of silvery-white hair, and after a particularly provocative evening, that mischievous smile coupled with, "Well, what did you think of that!"
He also had a sly sense of humor, often coupled with unexpected timing. After a particularly nice lunch one afternoon, we got together a few weeks later. "Oh Ralph," I confessed, "I'm so sorry - I meant to send you a card." He pulled me closer and said, "Want to hear a joke? Why don't WASPs have orgies?" I shook my head and he whispered, "Too many thank-you notes."
At an age when some people begin to close off their options, Ralph assiduously – even defiantly – challenged his ears, and those of everyone around him. He may have been the sole person in New York City who owned every recording made by Kairos, the trailblazing music label based in Vienna. Once I asked him if he ever listened to any Bach or Mahler on his highfalutin system, and the cheerful answer was, "No, heard all that already – don't need to hear it again."
In the fall of 2011, at what would be his final meeting of the listening group, Ralph had just discovered the glories of streaming Internet audio and video, and transferring the results to his music room. The inaugural example was a spectacle commissioned by IRCAM-Centre Pompidou and the Warsaw Autumn Festival: Georges Aperghis’s dazzling, technically innovative Luna Park (2011)—perhaps the ideal valediction for a man dedicated to the pursuit of the new.
[Above: still from Luna Park (2011) by Georges Aperghis. Photo by Sylvia Gomes via l'Institut français de Pologne]