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Nov 29, 2017 10:27 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Eric Salzman, Composer And Bird Lover, Dies At 84

Part-time East Quogue resident Eric Salzman, shown with wife, Lorna Salzman, was a talented composer and avid bird watcher.
Nov 29, 2017 10:59 AM

As birds go, the hermit thrush isn’t particularly striking in appearance. The North American songbird’s feathers are a reddish brown, its chest white with a smattering of dark brown spots. What it lacks in standout looks, it makes up for in song—which makes it no surprise that it was one of Eric Salzman’s favorite birds.

Mr. Salzman, a resident of both Brooklyn and East Quogue, died on November 12 of sudden cardiac arrest at his home in Brooklyn. He was 84, and had been on dialysis for two years.

He had a long and illustrious career as a composer and music critic, but he also developed a fascination for birdwatching, traveling the world in pursuit of that passion and becoming one of the most knowledgeable birders on Long Island.

He is survived by his wife, Lorna Salzman, a local environmental activist; twin daughters Eva Salzman, a poet and writer, and Stephanie Salzman Carbonnier, a composer-lyricist; son-in-law Jean-Louis Carbonnier; and granddaughter Juliette Carbonnier.

Those who knew Mr. Salzman best agreed that the same talents that made him a successful composer led to his aptitude in birding.

“Eric Salzman was like a great mountain range with numerous huge peaks, all daunting to scale,” said world-renowned naturalist Carl Safina. “He had summitted them all.”

Mr. Safina spoke of Mr. Salzman’s mastery of both musical composition and birding, and his extensive knowledge of the natural world, likening him to a “mythic giant.”

“But unlike many mythic giants, he was genuinely warm and delightful in sharing,” Mr. Safina continued. “His knowledge and abilities impressed, but his warmth and generosity of spirit is what I think of most when I think of Eric.”

Eileen Schwinn, the vice president of the Eastern Long Island Audubon Society, agreed. She called Mr. Salzman a mentor and said his talents in the field of birding were exceptional. “He could ID birds by one or two call notes, which is pretty remarkable,” she said. “He upped my game. Without his help, I’d still be in first gear.”

Mr. Salzman served for many years on the board of the South Fork Natural History Museum, and Jim Ash, vice president of the museum’s board, said he had a big impact.

“Eric became a board member very early on, only a few years after we started the organization, and was still an active member until his death,” said Mr. Ash, who described Mr. Salzman as a friend of more than 35 years. “Over the past 25 years, he led and promoted many natural history programs for the museum, and I think it’s his advocacy that he will be remembered for most by the many people he educated about the natural world.”

Mr. Salzman’s legacy on the East End differs somewhat from his life in and around New York City. He was a composer, author and innovator in the field of new music theater, was co-founder of the American Music Theater Festival, and composer in residence for the Center for Contemporary Opera. He studied composition at Columbia College, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1954, and attended graduate school at Princeton University, earning an MFA in 1956.

Mr. and Ms. Salzman met while they were both Ivy League undergraduates. They were friends initially, drawn to each other by similar intellectual interests and a passion for music.

Ms. Salzman was a music critic for the Cornell Daily Sun when she met Mr. Salzman, who was preparing for graduate school at Princeton. She was engaged at the time, and Mr. Salzman had a girlfriend—but by 1955 they were married, and five years later Ms. Salzman gave birth to twin daughters.

Mr. Salzman was hired as a music critic by The New York Times in 1960, and the couple spent much of the rest of their lives together traveling the world, with Mr. Salzman’s career in music bringing him to nearly every corner of the globe. They often worked in birding excursions on the many trips they took together, and also planned trips solely for the purpose of birdwatching. Ms. Salzman estimated they had visited 20 countries together, and fondly recalled an extended trip around South America in 1969, where they immersed themselves in both natural and musical pursuits.

“The kids were 9—we put them in camp and had an incredible three-month tour around South America,” she said. The last of their many birding trips was to Ecuador in 2014.

Mr. Salzman led many bird walks for the South Fork Natural History Museum, as well as for the Brooklyn Bird Club, Eastern Long Island Audubon Society, and Linnaean Society. For many years, he was the book review editor for the American Birding Association’s monthly newsletter and magazine, a position which his wife said helped them earn free birding trips around the world.

Mr. and Ms. Salzman lived in and visited some of the most exotic locations and cosmopolitan cities in the world, but were just as happy and invested in their life in East Quogue, where their home, surrounded by marshland, was a perfect bird watching haven.

For many years Mr. Salzman wrote a nature column for The Southampton Press, under the pen name “Henry David”—a reference to Henry David Thoreau—and up until close to his death published a daily blog about the birds he saw on his property, an activity that his wife said sustained him, even as his health declined. He also wrote for The East Hampton Star during his career.

His daughter, Eva, said she gained a greater appreciation for her father’s obsession with birding as she grew older.

“I cringe to recall teen angst and embarrassment at birdwatcher parents,” she said. “Then I recall a moment with him and my mother in the Pyrenees years later as we watched in awe a lammergeier with its 8- or 9-foot wingspan, soaring beside us at eye level, not more than 50 feet away. What gift of a life Dad gave his children.”

Lorna Salzman spoke fervently and fondly of the nearly 62 years of marriage and rich experiences she shared with her husband. They would have celebrated their anniversary on Christmas Eve.

“I was incredibly lucky to find a husband whom I shared things with,” she said. “We were both mutually supportive of each other. Both of us were staunch evolutionists—he was very knowledgeable in that. We read the same books—we didn’t read much fiction, we read about science and nature, and we would talk about it.”

She admired his intellect, the thirst for knowledge she recognized because it was familiar. She added one other important attribute she will miss about her husband as well:

“He made a mean beach plum tart.”

A public music memorial will take place early next year. Donations may be made to Quog Inc., his legacy to continue his music theater projects, at http://bit.ly.bigjimfund. For more information, contact Ms. Salzman at lsalzman9@gmail.com.

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