Tag: mentor composer

Remembering Steven Stucky (1949-2016)

Steven Stucky

Steven Stucky

A note from Ed Harsh, President and CEO of New Music USA:

A special sadness spread quickly over the new music community earlier this week as word of Steve Stucky’s death spread. There has already been much written and there will be much more to come. Steve’s rare combination of qualities, beginning with his musical genius but extending far beyond, touched so many people. Wisdom, humor, erudition, humility. He brought these and so many more to all that he did.

Following our custom on NewMusicBox, we asked a close colleague of Steve’s to write a memorial essay. Christopher Rouse succinctly sums up what an extraordinary friend and role model Steve has been to so many of us. We encourage you all to add your own thoughts and remembrances in the comments section below.

For New Music USA as an institution, it would be hard to overstate Steve’s impact. He served brilliantly as our Vice Chair, bringing clarity and perspective accompanied always by support and inspiration. Perhaps most fundamentally, he was one of the truly indispensable colleagues who turned two organizations, the American Music Center and Meet The Composer, into one. New Music USA wouldn’t be New Music USA without him. He’ll always hold a very special place in our hearts.


In 1973, when I first enrolled in the master’s program at Cornell University, my fellow composers spoke often about Steven Stucky, who had begun his graduate work there the year before but who was then serving two years in Iceland as a member of the US Air Force. There was universal admiration for him both as a composer and a person. Hearing a piece of his – the Quartet for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano – told me that he was indeed a composer of special gifts. Already evident were the fastidiousness and elegance that would come to characterize his mature work. When he returned to Cornell, Steve and I became fast friends, jawing about virtually every conceivable subject and sometimes playing extended frisbee or softball games on the Quad.

That close friendship continued until February 14 of this year, when he suddenly passed away after a three-month battle with brain cancer. Those of us close to him knew of his struggle but expected – hoped? – Steve would be with us longer. I had last spoken to him about a week earlier, when his spirits seemed high and his fighting spirit strong. The one consolation was that he died peacefully in his sleep.

His achievements as composer and writer have been extensively chronicled elsewhere, as have the achievements of the many Stucky students who have gone on to remarkable careers in their own right. The greatest testament to him is the extraordinary outpouring of grief on the Internet upon his death. So many had deep feelings for him. He had an astounding intellect, but perhaps more important were his warmth, graciousness, and generosity of spirit. He gave unstintingly of his time to many organizations; perhaps even more important, he did the same for his friends and his students. Every young composer who had the opportunity to work with Steve carried away memories that would last a lifetime, not only in terms of the valuable instruction they received but also through the example he set as a humble and caring human being.

He was the most centered friend I have ever had. Even in the most difficult times of his life he maintained his usual friendly and calm demeanor. I don’t recall ever seeing him show anger or stress. Though his heart might be breaking, there was never self-pity nor any demonstration of emotional excess in his behavior. His family meant the world to him, and his marriage to Kristen Frey Stucky brought him enormous joy and peace over the last several years of his life, as did his ongoing close relationship with his two children, Maura and Matthew.

I don’t think I’m alone in seeing Steve as the sort of person we all wish we were. Even had he lacked the musical genius he did in fact possess, his way of living his life and treating all with kindness and respect would have been a model worth emulating for anyone. Loved by so many, we have lost not only a great composer, but the dearest of friends. I wonder how we will be able to go on without him.

John Harbison, Christopher Rouse, and Steven Stucky

John Harbison, Christopher Rouse, and Steven Stucky at the 2012 American Academy of Arts and Letter Ceremonial

A Letter to Leslie Bassett (1923-2016)

Anita and Leslie Bassett with Gabriela Lena Frank and Paul Yeon Lee

Anita and Leslie Bassett with Gabriela Lena Frank and Paul Yeon Lee in February 2012.

My dearest mentor, my teacher, my role model, my Leslie:

I miss you like crazy. It’s been a few years since we last talked, a total insanity considering how often in my daily life, I still hear your words of counsel from our music lessons of old. I can see the way your hands used to hold your knees when you laughed while seated, head back and eyes closing in mirth at some bit of mischief I would jaw off, nervous and eager to amuse. I remember your distinctive walk, frail and steely both, across worn carpet to the treble-bright piano in your studio, thick music score in hand. When I was over early at the house, you and beautiful Anita would fry up corn pancakes while discussing a marvelous new clarinetist who bled “for his composer and played like it was his last breath!” These days, when I hear the clarinet, I swear, in a fit of quasi-synesthesia, that I’m tasting corn…

The love that a student has for her teacher is a special one. I was not a child when, in the ’90s, you stepped out of retirement for a brief stint to become a mentor for a few lucky students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In fact, I was already experienced and cognizant of the usefulness of having someone to idealize and be guided by, especially a composer so widely revered and respected. I even expected it. What I hadn’t expected was to be consistently wowed—humbled really—by your humanity. Honestly, I can’t imagine the wellspring of personal experience and patience you reached into when assessing the counterpoint and orchestration of my well-meaning but so very naïve scores, those earliest attempts to tease out a voice as a Peruvian-American with Chinese and Lithuanian Jewish forbearers, as a woman with hippy-feminist roots, and even as a disabled individual. Although you were from a certain era of “old school” American men that might not have been surrounded by the most diverse peers, you easily talked with me about the most volatile of subjects affecting me deeply as a young composer: Racism and “playing the race card,” cultural tributes vs. cultural parasitism, ambition in one’s career and ambition in one’s personal artistry, sexism, and the distracting, god-awful noisy politicization of it all. I was well aware of taking up the time of a man who had been a young soldier in one of the world’s ugliest wars, who later experienced what no parent ever should in losing a young child, and whose own face was startlingly altered after fighting serious illness. You still believed in teaching and writing great music, and that made me even more devoted.

Knowing well how your eyes shone to work with performers who played from the gut, leaving it all out on the stage, I remember putting my fingers to work in the only meaningful gesture I could think of to properly thank you when I left school: recording your complete piano and piano/violin works on a CD. It was a Frank family affair with my sweet mom, the stained glass artist, designing a cover to your specs and with my father, the Mark Twain scholar, editing the booklet texts. (I couldn’t figure out a role for my scientist brother.) In the recording sessions, I threw myself into the heady mix of tonality and atonality that was your hallmark, wrestling with the terse lines that needed to suddenly sprawl, or pulling symphonic colors out of the Steinway borrowed from the Detroit Symphony. Definitely, for a brief time, I caught the bug that unjaded new music performers have: Wanting an esteemed composer’s approval so bad, it’s like needing benediction from the pope.

You taught even when you didn’t mean to. Introducing me to the joys of Wallace and Gromit? Priceless. Gamely working a tough piece of jerky I offered when I forgot that chewing was difficult, an embarrassing faux pas? Likewise priceless. Playing hopeful yet gentlemanly matchmaker between me and a platonic male composer friend, declaring others to be “boobs?” So, so, so very priceless.

If I had stayed in better touch these past few years, I would have been able to tell you that said platonic male composer friend and I are still dear to one another while both happily married to others. I would be able to tell you that my career landed fine, and I think it will continue on all right. I would tell you that I absolutely did kick to the curb my illness and its ensuing “wellness” regime of surgeries and radiation. I would tell you about playing your Preludes piano suite in a men’s prison and them loving its craggy unyielding modernity; that, as you advised, I have a tough skin against bad/ignorant reviews but a necessary skeptical eye towards the good; and that I’ve bought land to raise Peruvian alpacas not far from where you grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, son of a pig farmer. I would tell you that having lived into my middle years now, I appreciate better how steadfastly you held onto your values as artist, teacher, colleague, father, and husband: Simply put, a man of integrity and honor. Most of all, I would tell you that I it pains me that performances of your beautiful music had slowed in recent times—an injustice—but that I would, nudged once again into action by your leaving us, do what I could to remind the world of your musical legacy.

You knew me as an atheist, more by circumstance than intentional design, but I confess that there is the rare occasion that someone gives me pause. I feel their incandescence, and I’m at a loss to explain their excellence in ordinary terms.

Rest in peace, my teacher, Leslie dear. I will always be missing you tons.



Gabriela Lena Frank, Leslie Bassett, and Paul Yeon Lee

Gabriela Lena Frank, Leslie Bassett, and Paul Yeon Lee.

Remembering Composer and MTC Founder John Duffy (1926-2015)

John Duffy

John Duffy
Photo by Glen McClure

American composer and beloved new music advocate John Duffy, who founded Meet The Composer in 1974, died in Virginia this morning after a long illness. He was 89.

In 2011, Meet The Composer and the American Music Center merged to form New Music USA. Ed Harsh, current president and CEO, reflects on Duffy’s profound impact on the field in the post below. Many in our community will feel this loss deeply. We encourage you to share your memories of John in the comments section.

With John Duffy, everything was possible. He radiated an optimism as forthright and clear as it was free of guile and self-importance. Though the limits of observable reality might be challenged, audacity never distracted from core purpose. His optimism happily went about its business. It lived solidly on terra firma. It got things done.

In the immediate aftermath of a person’s death, we can feel an urge to sum up their impact and role and even character. We want to come to some kind of conclusion about what their life may have “meant,” perhaps as a benchmark against which to take some measure of our own. I certainly don’t propose to do that here. It’s a shaky notion in any case to impose a stable unity onto a life’s complex assemblage of experiences and relationships, joys and sorrows, narrative through-lines and irrational disconnects over time. Summing up any life is foolhardy—especially one as rich as John’s was.

My aim is something more modest and personal, though it’s certainly still daunting. I want to reflect on a few of the characteristics I treasured in John that I feel are his legacy to New Music USA, the second incarnation of his visionary creation Meet The Composer. Mine is just one perspective. I hope others will share in the comment section below their own personal perspectives and stories. John meant so many things to so many people. The more we share, the more we’ll be able to appreciate him.

A gathering of voices would be entirely appropriate to John’s devotion to the American ideals of democracy and pluralism. He was known to list the quality of “tolerance” at the top of his list of values he appreciated most. The example of his own life suggests something broader, more positive and more proactive than mere tolerance. He was omnivorously curious about and respectful of all music. Even if a given artist’s work might not have been to his taste, he would be interested to know more about it, to understand a bit better what drove its creation. What’s more, he wanted others to be interested, too.

This omnivorous openness was paired with a healthy disregard for conventional hierarchies. He didn’t recognize them as valid, so he ignored them. For John, the idea that a “classical” symphonic work was, by nature, automatically worthy of higher status than the work of, say, Ornette Coleman or Burt Bacharach—to use two of his favorite examples—was simply bunk. He was quick to fight the ingrained privilege and prejudice that often hide behind those hierarchies. The energy and self-assuredness he brought to such spirited struggles embodied for me a muscular, practical, American blue-collar view of the value inherent in solidly workmanlike effort, no matter its form.

The exploding variety of creativity we’re blessed with in 2015, which blows through genre categories like so much thin air, may obscure for us now the uncommon character of his views. It’s worth pausing for a moment to make sure that we don’t take John’s openness for granted. Because we shouldn’t. His views were decades ahead of their time and distinctly radical when Meet The Composer was founded in the 1970s.

We should likewise not underestimate the quality of courage he showed in standing up for his own convictions. The name of his organizational creation is its own example. He frequently told the story of thinking deeply about the name for his then-new program. He scribbled one possible name after another on a big yellow legal pad. Under the influence of the direct, human immediacy of Walt Whitman’s poetry, he wrote down “Meet The Composer.” When he finally chose that name—against the advice of many, let it be noted—he was met with a lot of resistance. “The higher ups” at the New York State Council on the Arts hated it, writing letters to him explaining that it wasn’t classy enough. He said he read the letters and just put them away in a drawer, figuring that people would come around to his view sooner or later. Which they did.

John embodied faith, broadly defined; faith in himself and in his fellow artists. This is the fuel that powered his will. And what a will it was, able to conjure abstract vision into very real being. For years in the late 1970s and early 1980s he enthusiastically regaled anyone who would listen with his idea for putting composers in residence with orchestras around the country. We can only imagine how many dozens (hundreds?) of indulgent smiles or blank stares he had to suffer. What an improbable idea it was for a little nonprofit with a tiny budget…. By 1992—ten years, several million dollars, and one transformed orchestral new music world later—it wasn’t improbable anymore. It was obvious.

That was a big victory, but it wasn’t the only one. There was also the MTC commissioning program, the composer-choreographer program, the New Residencies program. So many new realities conjured, to the benefit of so many. Yes, that’s the thing: to the benefit of so many. No one I’ve met more exemplified generosity of spirit than John. He used the term “angelic spark” relating to people who helped others in the spirit of pure common service. The term fits him so well.

I feel sure that in John’s case the spark was inherent and inborn. Life experience just as surely brought it brightly to the fore. John cited a key moment during his naval service in the Pacific during World War II. As he related the story, his ship was attacked and a number of shipmates were killed. He and another sailor stood guard over the bodies through the night. In the morning, with a few Old Testament words from the ship’s captain, the bodies were slid into the sea. That stark demonstration of life’s fragility seems to have inspired in John a permanent commitment to make a difference, to live a life of value and of service.

Future years would determine the focal point of that service: composers. You could talk to John for only a few minutes before feeling the energy, the power, the almost talismanic specialness that he conferred on composers. In truth, John felt this way about all artists, but when he spoke of composers the magic was palpably electric. The more society could come to put composers to work, the more society would benefit. Composers were the greatest national resource imaginable.

And composers deserved to be paid like the professionals they are. John’s experience as a composer in a broad range of marketplaces gave him a tactile understanding of creators’ economic value. He was an Emmy-winning composer for TV with deep experience in music for the theater as well as the concert hall. He understood the worthiness of matching appropriate money to appropriate work, and his perspective generated the ethos of MTC, which raised the consciousness of subsequent generations.

Bang on a Can Benefit Concert and Party Honoring John Duffy

Bang on a Can Benefit Concert and Party Honoring John Duffy, September 13, 1998. Left to right, seated: Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, John Duffy; standing: Cecil Taylor, Billy Taylor, David Lang, Steve Reich, and Alvin Singleton.
Photo by Peter Serling

To artists given less than their due attention and appreciation by their culture, John’s valuation of composers, both figurative and very literal, was manna for the starving. Like an oasis, John’s championing leadership brought new life and new energy to a community of composers who felt like creative travelers crossing a vast desert. His vision inspired high hopes for what might be built, in fact built together, on the other side. My vaguely Moses-like imagery here is intentional. On a less cosmic scale, John’s positive vision commanded deep reverence and even deeper human attachments. The theologian Forrest Church wrote that although agnostic on the subject of life after death, Church was completely convinced on the subject of love after death. He believed the most profound measure of the wealth of our lives to be the love we leave behind when we die. By this measure, John was a wealthy man indeed.

So IS everything possible? No. Not really. If it were, John would still be with us, having fought back like a champ once again, overcoming the will of the misguided cells in his body. There are certain rules we can’t change. One is that people die. But John’s life leaves a resilient legacy, especially precious at moments when our courage and faith are tested. John reminds us that what’s possible goes way beyond the horizon we see, and maybe even as far as we dare to dream.

John Duffy was featured by NewMusicBox in October 2003. Read the full hour-long conversation John Duffy: The Composer as Statesman.

He Knew Everything and Everyone–Remembering David Stock (1939-2015)

David Stock wearing suspenders and smiling as he holds a plate with a couple of cupcakes.

David Stock at Carnegie Mellon in 2014. (This and other photos featured herein courtesy either Lindsey Goodman or the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble.)

[Ed. Note: It has been a month since composer/conductor David Stock died at the age of 76 following a brief illness brought on by a rare blood disorder. Born and based for the majority of his life in Pittsburgh, where he established the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble in 1976, Stock was arguably the Steel City’s greatest advocate for contemporary music. But his sphere of influence spanned across the United States and reached internationally as well. In the days following his death, the outpouring of reminiscences on social media about Stock and his personal impact on people was truly overwhelming.

Among those who Stock touched deeply were Randall Woolf and Kathleen Supové. Woolf, a freelance composer, arranger, and composition teacher living in Brooklyn, composed a piano concerto Skin Deep that was premiered by Stock and PNME and he also served as Stock’s copyist for many years. Kathleen Supové, a pianist who performs, premieres, records, and champions new music, had served as a soloist under Stock’s direction both with PNME and the Duquesne Symphony Orchestra. Woolf and Supové also happen to be a married couple, which also seemed an apt way to honor David Stock for whom family was a paramount concern—his own family as well as the entire family that is the new music community.–FJO]

Randall Woolf: When you look up the word “avuncular” in the dictionary, there is a picture of David Stock. Mustachioed and thin, except for a nearly spherical abdomen, he always reminded me of some of my own uncles—a gang of roofing contractors, usually found in or near a Jewish deli. Always informal, often making a deal of one kind or another, David was distinctly non-academic. You also might say he was quite interested in food. I always remember him starting a rehearsal by raising his baton and stopping his first upbeat to inquire, “Wait….where are we going to eat after the concert?” He was charming, relaxed, and utterly without pretense.

Randall Woolf wearing a hat

Randall Woolf

But if you were to peer inside the head of this uncle, you would see a vast network, encompassing the entire globe and connected to musicians of all stripes, from China to Venezuela to Iran. David was one of the most knowledgeable musicians I have ever known, truly a mind without borders or prejudice, hungry for every new style, name, and concept in the world of music. The group he founded, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, was his library and laboratory. So many prominent names in American new music got their first attention from David and his group. As long as it was musical and new, David was into it. And not just the music—David was friend to the person who wrote it, as well. The list of people he mentored, including Kathy and me, really does seem endless. Not just composers, but performers as well, and spouses and relatives. As soon as he got to know you, he began to meditate on how his network could be used to help you, to make connections, to further your creativity, to further the cause of new music, and even to help you make a living. For as brilliant and accomplished as he was, he was a staunch anti-snob and always remembered how it felt to be starting out, needing gigs and support—be it emotional, musical, or financial.

For many years, I worked for David as his copyist. The copyist’s view of music is a strange one; you get more involved in the nuts and bolts of the piece than the musical message and develop a serious case of “cannot see the forest for the trees.” David’s music was usually constructed of recurring blocks and textures, which got longer and shorter when repeated, and a handful of accompaniments. It was kind of plain looking on the page. But when I would listen to a piece I had just copied, I was moved and touched so deeply; his music was so alive and human, so emotionally convincing and gripping, that it was at times hard to believe it was the same music I had seen in the score. It reminds me of how his brilliance and erudition were belied by his casual, folksy appearance and manner. He was all of a piece—a caring, giving, brilliant, and musical man.

A more formal photo of David Stock seating at the piano with a manuscript of one of his many musical compositions.

A more formal photo of David Stock seating at the piano with a manuscript of one of his many musical compositions.

Kathleen Supové: I’m tempted to start and end my tribute to David Stock by saying “what Randy said”! I couldn’t have put it better myself, but maybe I can amplify it in some personal ways.

I first met David by chance in the very early ’80s at a Musica Viva concert in Boston. He was immediately so warm and friendly and was concerned about some professional service I’d used or something—how it was going, were they helpful, that kind of thing. I don’t remember much about the issue at hand, but I did remember David!

A few years later, Randy went off to a festival that David held with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. When I heard the details, I knew right away that if aliens coming in from Mars wanted to know about new music in the United States, they should land at this festival. I learned a lot myself.

Kathleen Supove wearing a bright green dress.

Kathleen Supové

When I finally got to know him better (which was not hard to do, even if you were shy), I realized he was a person who not only knew everything, he knew everyone. I would even play a game with him where I would try to think of someone in our field whom he didn’t know! Just when I thought I was getting the best of him, I’d find out he had conducted their first East Coast performance or introduced them to their spouse or some such thing.

He hired me to play concertos with PNME and also the Duquesne Symphony Orchestra (he was no slouch as a conductor either)—most notably Skin Deep, which he commissioned from Randy. Yes, indeed, he was the first to think of a concerto for me, by Randy! We performed it several times, as well as Michael Daugherty’s Le Tombeau de Liberace on a couple of occasions. One year while doing our taxes, we noticed that at least 1/3 of our income came from something related to David Stock. We joked that he could have claimed us as dependents! Seriously, though, David was the closest thing to a mentor that either of us ever had.

The last time I saw him was September 11, 2011. We both performed on a Peace Concert/10th Anniversary 9-11 remembrance sponsored by Stephen Burns and Fulcrum Point. He conducted the world premiere of an ensemble arrangement of his Three Yiddish Songs. It had been a long concert, many long, soulful, heavy pieces in a row. When David’s piece started, I remember feeling so uplifted and even joyful in response to this buoyant music, in part because of his wizardly orchestration, and also just because he had such a multi-layered emotional response to this tragedy. After the concert, we all went to a wonderful Greek restaurant in downtown Chicago. Someone in our entourage knew the owners, so they brought us platter after platter of rich, tantalizing dishes. David was in heaven.

A group of eight musicians wearing yellow hard hats and playing various instruments (doublebass, harp, clarinet, trumpet, French horn, violin) conducted by a young David Stock wearing a white hard hat in what looks like a cable car.

An early promotional photo of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. David Stock is wearing a white hard hat in the back.

Both of Us: The best way to celebrate who David Stock was is to perform some of his music! He has a lot of it: six symphonies, ten string quartets, twelve concertos, and more—humorous pieces, sad pieces, austere pieces, energy-filled danceable pieces, Jewish pieces, jazzy pieces. May he remain a part of American music forever.