Remembering Jeffery Cotton (1957-2013)
Jeffery Cotton—composer, entrepreneur, essayist, and fiction writer—has left us with a trove of darkly hued, deeply lyrical works that can be heard as a film noir soundtrack evoking the deceptively sunny Los Angeles of his childhood filtered through the haunted German expressionism he encountered as a student of Henze. But an artist’s life is not wholly contained in finished works.
[Ed. Note: The author would like to give special thanks to Karen Latuchie and Stacey Richter.]
Jeffery Cotton—composer, entrepreneur, essayist, and fiction writer—succumbed to sudden cardiac death on February 4, 2013, two months before his 56th birthday.
He has left us with a trove of darkly hued, deeply lyrical works. His compositions can be heard as a film noir soundtrack that evokes the deceptively sunny Los Angeles of his childhood filtered through the haunted German expressionism he encountered as a student of Hans Werner Henze. But an artist’s life is not wholly contained in finished works. Throughout our two-decades-long friendship I admired Jeff for living a fully creative life.
BMI’s Ralph Jackson introduced me to Jeff at Chamber Music America’s annual conference in 1994. I was fifteen years younger, and just beginning graduate studies in composition.
I looked up to Jeff. By the time he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1989, he was among the most decorated young composers of his generation, having earned three BMI Student Composer Awards, a Fulbright Fellowship, the New York Youth Symphony’s First Music commission, and, in 1990, a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Even with this extraordinary validation of his musical talent, it was characteristic of him to remain independent by curtailing his search for an academic post and following his heart to New York City. To get by, he took a job as personnel manager for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and its associated Chamber Ensemble. Jeff’s compositional prowess became known within the organization, and he was promoted to composer-in-residence of St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble.
Under the ensemble’s aegis he created and curated a new concert series called Second Helpings, based on the premise that a second performance is often more difficult to secure than a world premiere. Each concert was presented in an unconventional performance space, such as the Guggenheim Museum or Dia:Chelsea. With its reprise performances, the series helped sustain interest in many new chamber works and was praised by The New York Times.
Jeff’s achievements and trajectory were an inspiration to me. While there is a venerable tradition of composers serving simultaneously in administrative and artistic roles—from J. S. Bach as Kappellmeister for Prince Leopold, to Quincy Jones as vice president of Mercury Records, to William Schuman as president of Lincoln Center—it takes a resourceful and independent spirit to forge such a path outside of the academy.
I wanted to get to know Jeffrey Cotton, and see how he did it.
Fortunately, St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble was scheduled to premiere Jeff’s new Trio for clarinet, cello, and harp soon after our initial meeting at the CMA conference, so I planned to attend.
On the date of the premiere performance—February 8, 1994—nine inches of snow fell on Manhattan. I made the treacherous hike from the 66th Street subway station to Merkin Concert hall in a sound-muffled city. Few people braved the elements and the concert was sparsely attended, but this gave it the feeling of being a semi-private event, which is perfect for chamber music.
Any piece of music—new or old—would be terrifyingly and unfairly paired with Schubert’s C major cello quintet, as Jeff’s Trio was that night. Nevertheless, I was deeply moved by Jeff’s piece, which went straight to the heart. I told him that this was the first time I’d heard a brand new piece of chamber music that fully deserved pride of place with the Schubert quintet.
As I got to know Jeff better, I learned how he developed such confidence as a composer. After important early studies with Daniel Kessner at Cal State Northridge, Jeff spent formative years as Hans Werner Henze’s apprentice in Berlin. Not only did Jeff receive traditional composition lessons from Henze, he also co-composed a film score and helped to orchestrate large sections of Henze’s Seventh Symphony. At first, I thought that Jeff’s own voice was a continuation of the post-Romantic line that stretched backward from Henze to Berg and Mahler. But I came to realize that Jeff was a quintessentially American composer who had made a kind of artistic “reverse commute” from America to Europe. Whereas Henze’s aesthetic forebears—such as Arnold Schoenberg and Erich Korngold—ended up in Hollywood, Jeff was raised in Los Angeles but sought the opportunity to live in Berlin, which was still shadowed by division and repression in the 1980s. At some subconscious level, and before it was fashionable, I believe that Jeff sought out the aesthetic world that great Hollywood composers like Max Steiner had left behind in Europe. Midcentury Los Angeles is always present in Jeff’s music, and even the ghosts of West Coast jazz are in evidence. For example, in his program notes for his Five Runic Songs, Jeff explicitly references “the style of trumpet playing in popular music of the 1940s and ’50s” in Hollywood, and the piece evokes the velvety, pensive approach made famous by Jack Sheldon and Chet Baker.
As he chose works for the Second Helpings series, and as he composed his own music, Jeff grappled with the problem of balancing artistic idealism and entertainment, and he was loath to pick sides. He was never at ease with what he understood to be an impatient dismantling of musical modernism in favor of simpleminded mass appeal. Jeff saw this as throwing out the baby with the bathwater, in a quintessentially American way. At the same time, he departed from modernist stereotypes by being keenly interested in communicating to his audience and to the musicians who interpreted his music.
His beautiful handwritten (and later, computer engraved) manuscripts were gratifying to instrumentalists, who immediately realized that he sympathized with them and that he wrote for their strengths. His appreciation for music’s graphic presentation even took the form of an intelligent and pointedly snarky essay on the state of notation software in the early 2000s. Jeff proudly noted that his rant attracted the respectful attention of the very company he chided, and that they rose to the occasion by improving their software in accordance with his constructive critique.
Had Jeff been merely a composer who was frustrated with new technology, his essay might not have held sway with notation software programmers. But Jeff had special qualifications in the field of software development, which dated to his days as personnel manager for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s.
When he arrived at St. Luke’s, their roster of musicians and concert assignments was kept in a bulging three-ring binder. He taught himself an early database system known as Hypercard and singlehandedly created St. Luke’s first electronic database of musicians. As he approached the age of 40, Jeff sought opportunities for professional growth, and he parlayed his Hypercard skills into a new job as a programmer for a nascent electronic medical records company.
By this time, Jeff and I were close friends, and I grew concerned that his fulltime work as a programmer could cause him to lose touch with the classical music scene. I nominated him for the post of composer-in-residence for the Boston-based Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra, a post he would hold from 1999 to 2003. He composed six new works for Metamorphosen, many of which have been widely performed elsewhere. One of these commissions, the Suite from Pyramus and Thisbe from 2002 (which had begun as a series of sketches made in Berlin while on his Guggenheim Fellowship in 1990), was recognized with the Walter Hinrichsen Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Jeff impressively maintained two parallel careers in composing and computer programming. His compositions of the early 2000s were championed by the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music, Seattle Chamber Music Society, Cypress String Quartet, and Tucson Symphony Orchestra. During the same years, he founded a web design and hosting company called Wired Musician, worked in the IT department of Deutsche Bank, and even participated in the “dot com” bubble as an IT employee of the ill-fated company Kozmo.com. It was all creative activity for Jeff, who was an independent dreamer, ceaselessly engaged in designing new worlds and solving problems.
When any artist acts with such astuteness and confidence, I have to wonder what motivates him. Ambition, in the positive sense of the word, seems to me one of life’s essential mysteries, but there were others in Jeff’s life as well.
When Jeff was in his thirties he discovered that he was half brother to the folk singer Tom Rush, and that his family’s history was more complicated than he had known. The maternal musical DNA shared by Jeff and Tom (their grandfather had been a successful big band leader) might warrant the further attention of genomic researchers, but it certainly solves the mystery for me: Jeff followed a deeply rooted path.
With music and computer programming under his belt, Jeff had turned his attention in recent years to writing fiction. The latter effort was cut short by his death. But in his nonfictional essays, many of which are published on his website, Jeff’s astuteness, integrity, and candor are always accompanied by his sardonic, infectious sense of humor.
Our conversations were always filled with laughter. When we last spoke, a week before he died, Jeff told me how much he loved the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird. He admired the adaptation of the novel, the acting of Gregory Peck, and most of all, Elmer Bernstein’s musical score.
“Except for all that xylophone,” Jeff said. And he followed up in an email:
“The xylophone should be illegal.”