Tag: teacher-student relationship

Truly a Wenren—Remembering Chou Wen-chung (1923-2019)

Three people posing together for a photo

Some reflections by Chen Yi

We still don’t want to believe that Professor Chou has passed away. Tears are not enough to express our profound sadness and grief over this tremendous loss. He is a music giant who brought us to and taught us at Columbia University, and mentored us in our creative lives for decades. He has made a huge contribution to the music of our time, yet he is a father-like figure to us. He will be missed by all of us tremendously, and his legacy will live with us forever. Our heavy hearts brought us back to countless memories of his vivid voice and energetic gestures.

Chou Wen-chung has made a huge contribution to the music of our time, yet he is a father-like figure to us.

Remembering when I studied composition at the Central Conservatory in Beijing in the early 80s, once in a lecture given at the library, to introduce newly imported music recordings, I surprisingly heard a recording of Prof. Chou Wen-chung’s Soliloquy of a Bhiksuni for trumpet and wind ensemble. I just jumped up! Even though it wasn’t in Chinese folk-music style, it struck me as so Chinese! I was deeply impressed by the Chinese spirits hidden behind the striking sonorities. At that time, most Chinese compositions used pentatonic scales in melodic writing while using Western harmony and formal designs, but this piece was not based on pure pentatonic scales. I ran and got the LP recording and I saw his photograph. I realized then that he must have been born in China, and I was very excited by this Chinese-American composer’s music. This is the first time I heard the name — Chou Wen-chung! I discovered that Prof. Chou was involved as a US delegate to China in the late 1970s. He donated many scores, recordings, books, and other materials to Chinese conservatories. After the librarians had catalogued all of these materials, they were made available to students for study from a series of new imported record broadcasting sessions. It was at that point we were introduced to Chou Wen-chung’s music.

I was also lucky enough to have attended his lecture when he visited the Central Conservatory. His public lecture was hosted by the Musicology Department, and attended by many professors and some students in the Musicology and Composition Departments. Besides introducing contemporary American composers and their music, Prof. Chou also answered many questions about music education in American universities. We then learned that he taught at Columbia University in New York City.

It was my privilege to have the opportunity to join my husband Zhou Long to study with Prof. Chou at Columbia in 1986. After graduating with our Bachelor’s degrees in 1983, Zhou Long became the resident composer of the China National Broadcasting Symphony, and I became a graduate student at the Central Conservatory. I needed another three years of study to obtain my Master’s degree, so I came to New York one year later. When I got to know Prof. Chou more closely for the first time in 1986, which was several years after we had attended his lecture at the Central Conservatory and right before I came to the US, it was during the First Contemporary Chinese Composers Festival held in Hong Kong. Prof. Chou took all of our young composers from Mainland China to a delicious Chinese banquet at which we talked about Chinese culture, Chinese music, and its future. This also became a regular event after I arrived at Columbia. Every month, Prof. Chou would host a meeting at the US-China Arts Exchange to discuss Chinese music tradition and heritage, and our responsibility and effort in carrying it on in our culture and society. After each meeting, Prof. Chou took us to a fancy Chinese restaurant on Broadway. We all greatly looked forward to this gathering every month. However, when Zhou Long and I graduated from Columbia in 1993, Prof. Chou and his wife Yi-An treated us to a fancy dinner at a great French restaurant in Greenwich Village. We will never forget the taste and the beautiful mood of that evening. Prof. Chou became our great mentor and we had a close relationship throughout the years since then.

The most important impact of Prof. Chou’s influence on me was not only to use basic composition techniques to write music, but the in-depth study of both Chinese and Western cultures, which would provide inspiration for getting creative concepts and methods for controlling and developing musical elements. The outcome would be unique, in our own language. Prof. Chou inspired me a lot with compositional concepts that unite Eastern and Western styles and techniques. In our early years at Columbia, I also translated many program notes of Prof. Chou’s compositions into Chinese, when his works were being played in Mainland China and Taiwan. I enjoyed doing that because Prof. Chou’s notes are so poetic and beautifully written in English that you have to concentrate hard to find how to say these things correctly in Chinese, in a way that will keep their beautiful literary character and not make them just a frank, straight reciting of facts.

Zhou Long and I also produced a series of programs for Shanghai Dong Fang Radio to introduce 20th-century music. We had one and a half hours in three half-hour segments devoted to the music of Prof. Chou. I compiled all of the materials about his music, wrote the texts for the programs, and discussed his creations in various periods and styles: The first was about the early works of the late ‘40s and ‘50s, like Landscapes (1949) and And the Fallen Petals (1954), which are important orchestral pieces that have been played by many of the major orchestras. Then in the second program came the more abstract style of writing heard in Cursive (1963) and even more so in a very complex score like Yun (1969), which is extremely sophisticated. The third program was devoted to his later works. These three radio programs were widely heard in China and musicians continue to talk about them.

These experiences opened up my view and helped me to break boundaries and find my own voice – as, for example, writing in the style of Chinese musical storytelling, and the reciting tunes in Beijing Opera. I consider this my turning point in terms of new compositional language, concept, and technique. In the technical aspects of composition, Prof. Chou was very precise. He would look at any score carefully first, and he would recommend improvements; then, if I would come back the next week, he would look at it again, then circle a note and say: “Look at that note! You did not fix it. Can you tell me a reason?”

Chen Yi with Chou Wen-chung at the piano.

Chen Yi with Chou Wen-chung at the piano.

Prof. Chou was very precise. He would look at any score carefully first, and he would recommend improvements; then, if I would come back the next week, he would look at it again, then circle a note and say: “Look at that note! You did not fix it. Can you tell me a reason?”

He also showed us paintings and calligraphy, and he would tell us how he thought of these as counterpoint. He would look at brush strokes on the page and he would see the space between the inner and outer edges of the stroke and the way that it changed as a sort of counterpoint. My pipa solo piece The Points uses an idea like this. In calligraphy, every stroke begins with a point. After you set down the first dot, you turn the brush to make the different strokes that you want; so, the point, the beginning of each stroke, is very important in drawing Chinese calligraphy. Prof. Chou asked me and inspired me to write this piece, which was premiered at the New Music Consort’s season concert devoted to Chinese composers’ music, as part of the NEWworksOCTOBER concert series at Columbia University in 1991, and it won me a reputation because it has been widely performed. In China, it has been the subject of a thesis and it is now a required piece for musicians who study pipa performance at the conservatory as well as in many competitions.

When I was a DMA student at Columbia, Prof. Chou recommended me to become a part of an ISCM film production called Sound and Silence (which was co-produced by Polish National Television and French Adamov Films) and this series introduced my new chamber works to international audiences through European TV networks in 1989. This is a ten-film series dedicated to contemporary music, featuring 20 composers from 19 countries (including 2 from China: I was the one from the Mainland, and the other one was from Hong Kong). Each composer had a half-hour program with his/her music performed, with the composer as one of the performers; there was also an interview by the host, Polish composer Zygmunt Krauze, then the president of ISCM. I played the violin in my own sextet, Near Distance, and sang in my own trio, As in a Dream for soprano, violin and cello. My Woodwind Quintet was also presented in the program. The other half-hour segment along with my program in the hour was Luciano Berio representing Italy. I played two movements in his violin duet collections. Before I left for Poland, Prof. Chou’s wife, Yi-An gave me a lot of clothes – many dresses! “This one could be suitable… That one… Here, try this one…” She took me into her walk-in closet, and looked through all dresses in shelves up to the celling… You could see the dress in the film.

I also sat in on my classmate David Tsang’s private lessons, invited by Prof. Chou. Prof. Chou analyzed his own concerto for cello and orchestra and other works for us, showing us how he designed his pieces with charts. There are different colors assigned to particular aspects or music elements in the structure. One color would represent pitch material, another dynamics, some others would control tension and density, part distribution, timbre, sonority, orchestration, and so on. It was very inspiring to me because I used to write music without a detailed plan covering many aspects. This is a very different and practical method in composition experience. He encouraged us to study Western contemporary music in-depth and gave me his former teaching syllabus in new music analysis, and introduced analysis of music by Varèse, Schoenberg, Webern, Ives, and others. You can’t compose in a unique style until you really learn all cultures well and then can create your own work as a hybrid and speak in your own language.

I studied with Prof. Chou for three years, and one of those years overlapped with my work with Prof. Mario Davidovsky for electronic music composition. When Prof. Chou retired, I worked with Mario for five years until I finished the DMA program, as he supervised my dissertation work. Zhou Long’s dissertation was supervised by Prof. George Edwards, after years of study with Prof. Chou and Prof. Davidovsky. We remained very close to our professors from Columbia University. During the past three decades, Prof. Chou attended almost all concerts with my new works premiered in New York City, including my octet Sparkle and mixed quartet Qi performed by New Music Consort, my China West Suite for two pianos performed by Dennis Russell Davies and Maki Namekawa at the Lincoln Center Summer Festival in 2007, my string quartet At the Kansas City Chinese New Year Concert by the Ying Quartet, and my Si Ji (Four Seasons) performed by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Most at Carnegie Hall in 2005. My Si Ji was dedicated to Professor Chou and was selected as one of the Pulitzer Prize Finalists in 2006. Prof. Chou called me to send his congratulations when he learned the good news.

Chen Yi with Chou Wen-chung during a reception at Carnegie Hall

Chen Yi with Chou Wen-chung during a reception at Carnegie Hall following the Cleveland Orchestra’s performance of Chen Yi’s composition Si Ji on October 17, 2005. The piece, which was dedicated to Prof. Chou, was later selected as one of the finalists for 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Music.

During the past three decades, Prof. Chou attended almost all concerts with my new works premiered in New York City.

During the time I studied at Columbia University, I also worked as an administrative assistant at his Center for US-China Arts Exchange for three years, and closely witnessed his hard work, which made a huge contribution to the US-China music education and arts exchange. He was busy teaching at Columbia, but he had to raise money, write many reports for the Center and take care of administrative work. Prof. Chou never used the Center’s facilities or equipment for himself. He was very clear that every cent raised should go directly to the projects that the Center was working on. When I was working there, people would come and ask for a sample of his music. I asked him, “Can I just make one copy here?” but he said, “No. Make a copy outside and give me the receipt.” He never even made a copy of his own music with the Center’s copy machine.

During my work at the Center, we participated in two important composers’ conferences organized by the Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange and led by Prof. Chou. One was the Conference on Tradition and the Future of Chinese Music held in New York in 1988. It’s the first time since 1949 that distinguished composers from Mainland China and Taiwan, separated by the sea, each had ten representatives who sat down together at Columbia University to have artistic discussions and a cultural exchange. They found so much in common in tradition and creation! The other was the Pacific Composers’ Conference, part of the Pacific Music Festival held in Sapporo, Japan in 1990, which gathered established composers and dozens of excellent young composers from many countries and areas in the Pacific Rim. Their ages ranged from early 20s to late 70s. The festival included concerts, seminars, lectures, and exhibitions for cultural exchange. He enthusiastically supported many young artists around the world.

20 composers from Mainland China and Taiwan walking down the steps of City Hall in new York City.

Chinese Composers Conference with 10 composers from Mainland China and 10 composers from Taiwan for the first time since 1949, in front of NY City Hall on August 8,1988 following a meeting with then NYC Mayor Edward I. Koch. Prof. Wu Zuqiang is in the front row and Prof. Chou is on the right. The Center for US-China Arts Exchange organized the conference. (Chen Yi, who was one of the 10 composers from Mainland China chosen to participate, is in the middle.)

Prof. Chou Wen-chung was truly a wenren (artist-scholar, Renaissance Man). He was a great creative artist and mentor who combined literature, music, and art, all in one.

When I first came to the States, the Central Philharmonic Orchestra from China premiered my Duo Ye No. 2 at Lincoln Center in 1987, but Prof. Chou had to attend another concert with his own work premiered in New Jersey. Nevertheless, he arranged for a huge bunch of beautiful flowers made by his wife Yi-An to be given to me on stage!  He also invited us to enjoy Thanksgiving holiday and learn American culture in his country house. Years later, when he visited UMKC Conservatory where we teach, he brought me a meaningful and beautiful gift: a fancy, richly illustrated volume (12” x 10”, 4 lbs), The Path of Beauty: A Study of Chinese Aesthetics by Li Zehou, translated by Gong Lizeng, and published in Beijing by Morning Glory Publishers in 1988. He said, “I think that you would love it and need it especially for your teaching in English.” I was deeply touched when he handed the book to me. Prof. Chou Wen-chung was truly a wenren (artist-scholar, Renaissance Man). He was a great creative artist and mentor who combined literature, music, and art, all in one. He wanted to be a person who gave as much as possible to the whole world. He is my role model and has encouraged me to keep working harder in music creation and teaching for our society.

Zhou Long, Chang Yi-An and Chou Wen-chung

Zhou Long (left) with Chou Wen-chung and his wife Chang Yi-An.

Additional reflections by Zhou Long

Professor Chou Wen-chung was among the first overseas composers to visit the Central Conservatory in Beijing and it made a deep impression on a group of young composers there.

In the late 1970s, Professor Chou Wen-chung was among the first overseas composers to visit the Central Conservatory in Beijing and it made a deep impression on a group of young composers there. His music immediately attracted me, such as his Yu Ko and other orchestral works. His aesthetic concept is based on the philosophy of the intellectuals from older times who played the qin, and on the ancient poetry of China. I composed Song of the Ch’in for string quartet and Su for flute and qin (ch’in) before I came to study overseas, both of which were very strongly influenced by Prof. Chou’s introduction of Chinese scholarly music to us.

After graduation from the Central Conservatory in 1983, I was assigned as the Composer-in-Residence for the China National Broadcasting Corporation. In 1985, I became the first composition student from Beijing admitted to Columbia University in New York City to study with Prof. Chou through the introduction of Mr. Li Ling, a family friend who was the vice president of the Chinese Musicians Association. On one of Prof. Chou’s visits to China, Mr. Li passed along some of my compositions including my first recordings of my orchestral works and Chinese instrumental compositions along with a broadcasting concert recording to Prof. Chou, who took them back to the composition admission committee at Columbia. There, the professors on the committee included Prof. Chou as the head, along with Profs. Mario Davidovsky, and Jack Beeson. They reviewed my scores and awarded me a full scholarship.

While I took some courses and composition lessons with Prof. Chou, he realized that I was very lonely, and he wanted to help bring my wife Chen Yi to study at Columbia University with me. He knew that she was an excellent student.

I had a cultural shock when I first arrived New York, and I encountered many ideas that were new to me. For two years, from 1985 until 1987, I didn’t compose anything. While I took some courses and composition lessons with Prof. Chou, he realized that I was very lonely, and he wanted to help bring my wife Chen Yi to study at Columbia University with me. He knew that she was an excellent student of Prof. Wu Zuqiang, who was the president of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and a close friend of Prof. Chou’s, who helped leading the US-China arts exchange activities in China. Chen Yi arrived in New York in 1986. Prof. Chou then guided me to learn not only from traditional Chinese music, but also to explore wider traditions such as East Asian cultures, including music from Japan and Korea. He also gave me concert tickets to attend the opera Einstein on the Beach and the Netherland’s ballet with Bolero during the first two years of my study in the US. He encouraged me to study with his colleagues, Professors George Edwards and Mario Davidovsky. In 1987, I started to compose again, with Wu Ji for piano and electronic sound, and a mixed quintet, Dhyana for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. The score of Dhyana is dedicated to Prof. Chou since he gave me so much inspiration and input when I composed the piece, from the concept and the philosophy, to textures and structures. After eight years at Columbia, I received my Doctoral of Musical Arts degree in 1993. When I was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for my first opera Madame White Snake in 2011, Prof. Chou called me on the phone to congratulate me warmly. I feel deeply grateful for his mentorship and support.

You must believe in your artistic vision, then your compositions can stand out.

I think the most important aspect of my work with Prof. Chou involved his theories of composition and creation. Prof. Chou’s educational philosophy is culturally oriented. Today people can accept a wider range of styles, but that’s not the issue. You must believe in your artistic vision, then your compositions can stand out. Prof. Chou Wen-chung’s vision and effort established the international status of our generation of Chinese composers.

Chen Yi, Zhou Long. Chou Wen-chung, Paul Rudy, Kihei Mukai, and James Mobberley

Chen Yi, Zhou Long. Chou Wen-chung, Paul Rudy, Mukai Kohei (then a DMA student of Chen Yi and Zhou Long’s at UMKC), and James Mobberley following a newEar ensemble concert in Kansas City featuring music by Professor Chou and his teacher Edgard Varèse in 2001.

[Ed. Note: Back in January 2013, we recorded an extensive interview with Chou Wen-chung for NewMusicBox. His “vivid voice,” as Chen Yi so aptly described in, comes across in the video presentation from that talk. You can read a transcript of that entire conversation elsewhere on this site.—FJO]

Brilliant, Funny, and Fueled by Passion—Remembering Dominick Argento (1927-2019)

Dominick Argento in the audience for a performance in 2014. (Photo by Bruce Silcox, courtesy of VocalEssence and Boosey & Hawkes)

If you were a kid growing up in Minnesota in the 1960s and you were a kid with an intense hunger to create your own music, you found yourself growing up in a kind of Coney Island of creativity There was Big Reggie’s Danceland, a big old barn of a place where every weekend you, and as many of your friends as you could pack into your car, would dance to music of the hottest young rock groups like the Beach Boys, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Rolling Stones. Minneapolis was ground zero for the big bands of the Upper Midwest like The Trashmen and the Underbeats.  Some of your friends were even in those bands and they were producing big hits like “Surfin’ Bird” and “Foot Stompin’”.  It seemed that everyone was creating their own original music.

Every church in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul had at least one choir and everyone sang in at least one of them. If you had season tickets to the performing arts series at the newly opened Guthrie Theater, no matter where you sat you were no further than 52 feet from the stage you were awash in the energy and musical air of Janis Joplin, James Taylor, Mose Allison, and Miles Davis.

When you went to plays at the Guthrie Theater, the music for each play was newly composed and performed live.  If you had student season tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra, yes of course you would hear standard repertoire, but your head exploded with new works by Penderecki, Legeti, Skrowaczewski, and Lutosławski.

If you loved opera, you wrangled some tickets for the Center Opera (which you knew always produced new work) where you heard Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All, Carl Orff’s The Story of the King and the Wise Woman (Die Kluge), Eric Stokes’s Horspfalseason after season of newly conceived work.

Dominick Argento’s name was never on the programs at Big Reggie’s Danceland, but at the time it seemed that in the season of every other major performing arts organization, there he was!

Dominick Argento’s name was never on the programs at Big Reggie’s Danceland, but at the time it seemed that in the season of every other major performing arts organization, there he was!  He was a founder of the Center Opera company, opening their first season with his Masque of Angels and creating numerous chamber operas for them, including Postcard from Morocco, The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, A Waterbird Talkand many more.

At the Guthrie Theater we heard Dominick Argento’s scores for Shoemaker’s Holiday and House of Atreus. On the Guthrie Theater’s music season we heard Dominick Argento’s Letters from Composers and on the Minnesota Orchestra’s seasonDominick Argento’s Variations for Orchestra and Ring of Time. Not only did we hear his music, but he was always in the audience, listening, talking with people, part of the same world he was addressing with his music.

Being 17 years old then, and certain that I would go to the University of Minnesota, study voice, and become the next, biggest star of the Metropolitan Opera, it didn’t occur to me that Dominick Argento was also on the music faculty there.

At age 19, discovering that I loved to compose and, if I would take myself seriously, I could study composition with the master composers at the University of Minnesota, Dominick became my teacher and I became his student.

Dr. Argento (everyone called him this and nothing else) was a legendary professor.

Dr. Argento (everyone called him this and nothing else) was a legendary professor. He passed us in the halls, smiling (shyly?) but rarely stopping to engage any of us in conversation. We admired his focus, and his devotion to his work.  We students jockeyed for coveted positions in his classes, especially his History of Opera class. His lectures were brilliant, funny and fueled by his passion for and love of opera. Class after class he regaled us with stories about each opera, always colored from his composer’s perspective. He loved the human voice and would praise various singers who inspired operatic roles in the works we studied. He loved composers who loved the human voice. Be it Verdi, his hero, or Gounod, not his hero, we were transported into each composer’s world and immersed in the circumstances that influenced the creation of each opera.  I learned the operas, of course, but perhaps more importantly I learned that a passion for something can light a powerful fire. Dominick’s passion for opera and the human voice resulted in 14 operas, numerous mono-dramas and song cycles, his Pulitzer Prize, and the Center Opera Company, now the Minnesota Opera.

Such a ferociously quick wit Dominick had!  No gathering of Dominick’s students goes by without one of us re-telling the story from his orchestration class on percussion. On one particular day we were immersed in the lecture on metallophones. He held up a vibraslap, looked at it for a moment, looked at us and said “elephant contraceptive.”  We were too in awe of him to laugh, but we’ve been laughing ever since, and we all know and orchestrate the vibraslap in original ways.  Or the lesson on harp, one of his most beloved instruments. In just one class we learned that the pedals were D-C-B-E-F-G-A, Dominick for “D”, Argento for” A” , plus “your pinky finger is for tea drinking, not harp” and “you never hear the attack of a note, only the decay—what you hear is the air.”

Dominick believed that it wasn’t possible to teach composition.  Rather he worked to guide a (student) composer’s natural gift to its best iteration.  You couldn’t look to him to tell you what to do or how to compose. You were expected to establish your own practice techniques and work habits and arrive at your lesson with your piece in shape.  Individual lessons with him were an adventure in silence.  I would bring him my score, which he would lay out on his desk and read to himself before making any comments.   He expected me to come ready to spar with his huge intellect, his razor-sharp wit, and his undeniable professional experience. And spar we did—only the conversation between us took place in my head as I perched on the wicker chair with the blown-out seat that he set by the side of his university-issued grey metal desk, and I watched the ash of the newly lit cigarette in his hand burn longer and longer and longer. I thought, “Will that damn ash fall into that glass ashtray?  No, no, concentrate on the composition he’s reading!”—which he read to himself, not out loud, not commenting. But then he would zero in on the one, most important issue in the work that day—which I knew already because I sat there questioning everything about my work as I tried to imagine what he would say. It took me a while to understand that his teaching style instilled in each of his students three essential gifts: creative courage, critical evaluation, and self-confidence.

I watched the ash of the newly lit cigarette in his hand burn longer and longer and longer.

The lesson ended always with good humor, his cigarette snuffed out, and a deep sense that we, teacher and student, had met at the cross-roads of respect for the art form we both hoped to serve.

I think the most important lesson Dominick gave to me, and to all of us who were fortunate to have worked with him, is that there is a profession – composing music – and while it poses deep challenges the work itself is not work, it is pleasure.  The pleasure lies in the community of musicians, performers, writers, concert producers, and audience who come together in a huge joy-fest around the composers’ work.  He modeled this for us every day and continued to model it throughout the years. Many late nights, as I work through a difficult part of my composition, not feeling pleasure in the moment, I invoke his lesson—the work itself is not work, it is pleasure.

As I joined the profession and became a musical citizen contributing to the community by panel work or sitting on a Board of Directors, more often than not during a discussion which begged the advice of people who were not in the room at the time, Dominick’s name would be invoked along with a bit of his advice and wisdom.  Always sage and ethical, his advice was remembered, quoted and always welcomed.

Libby Larsen, Dale Warland, Dominick Argento, and John Neuchterlein seated at a table in a restaurant.

Dominick Argento (top right) and Libby Larsen (bottom left) with Dale Warland (top left) and then ACF President & CEO John Neuchterlein (bottom
right) at the St. Paul Hotel Grill in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2014.

Over the past forty (really…forty?) years I would often run into him during intermission at concerts.   These were happy, brief encounters, where our talks were always shaded with his insight and wit.  We asked after each other’s health. He always asked what I was “working on” and I always asked him the same, because we both knew that we were always “working on” a new piece – that was our mutual bond.  We would exchange thoughts on the latest compositional trends.  We would pat each other on the arm and head back into the concert hall.  During the last few years, when Dominick’s hearing began to fail, our intermission and lobby encounters were still happy and brief though his verbal witticisms were shorter with their meanings understood through our years of association.

The work itself is not work, it is pleasure.

Now, as I finish a letter of support for the University of Minnesota Archives to document his work on digital technology, I recognize again and permanently Dominick Argento’s mastery of his talent, his times and his culture and his determination to put his music into his world.  In doing this he taught  each of us who had the good fortune to work with him how a professional classical composer in this country lives and works, how work is pleasure, how pleasure is in community, how community contributes to life, how life is joy, how joy is music.   Thank you, Dominick.

Playing the Changes: The Transition from Professor to Student (My First Year as a Composition Major)

A photo taken of a person's legs in heans ad sneakers, holding a black backpack

Imagine you have a master’s degree in music performance from a long time ago and, alongside many exciting musical adventures since, you’ve taught at the college level for eight years (adjunct with full-time hours—you know the drill, you absolutely adore teaching and the students but the money is miserable). Looking at this situation, you … decide to quit teaching and go back to school across the country for a master’s degree in music composition!

It’s hard to imagine, right? You’d have to be completely bonkers to make that kind of a decision.

“I could never go back to school after teaching,” said many wonderful professors who used to be my colleagues.

So why did I do it?

Reinhardt University Percussion Ensemble, 2012

Reinhardt University Percussion Ensemble, 2012

I started writing music when I was 30, and by the age of 36, my composing career was soaring. I loved writing music just as much as I loved performing and teaching. I knew I would never be bumped up to full-time at my university, and even after eight years, my pay couldn’t go up because I only had a master’s degree. Despite working as a freelance percussionist, curating concerts, writing music, and teaching, I still was hardly making enough money to get by. I was wonderfully happy in the Atlanta music scene and had established amazing friendships there, especially with the members of my chamber rock band. I had developed a life there, but it was time to leave. I was ready to take a step down in order to take a step up. I had to do something to make a better and brighter future for myself. The goal was to earn a master’s in composition to get my skills up to par, and then continue on to a DMA in composition so I would have The Piece of Paper that would allow me to teach at a college again—at a higher salary level. It’s a completely risky endeavor with no guarantees, but it’s the choice I made. And I’m happy I did. I now hold a master’s degree in composition and will be starting a DMA in composition at the University of Miami next month. I’m looking forward to the journey, no matter where it takes me.

First, though, allow me to back up two years. There I was, beginning my first semester as a new student, living in the graduate dorms with roommates—two 21-year-old German exchange students, who were hilarious and noisy and wild. Right away I embraced everything about student life, and that part of college made me very happy. My classmates became my dear friends, even though most of my new friends were the age of the students I used to teach. I learned all the cool millennial slang words. I had FUN. I took free bus rides to Brewers games, ate tons of free pizza, played in percussion ensemble and band, taught part of an online music theory class, fixed bongos and organized the percussion studio, took classes in theory and analysis and writing, studied with two different composition faculty members, heard the University Band play one of my pieces, and wrote a ton of music—including my first piece with electronics in it. I was much more focused in my classes than I was during my first master’s degree; I wanted to soak up all the new knowledge and experience that I could. I remembered what it was like to be completely bored in class, and how invigorating it was to be in the classroom with an enthusiastic teacher who made the subject matter come alive.

UWM Band Rehearses Universe

UWM Band Rehearses …and then the Universe exploded

I juggled a professional composing career on top of everything. My assistantship was split in half; I was both a theory TA and the percussion TA. The percussion majors were kind to me from the very first day. They brought me right into the fold and never treated me like I was “old.” Everybody thought I was in my twenties, until I told them otherwise. They were fun, talented people, and playing music with them was a joy. The performance majors in general were absolutely delightful and played my music with enthusiasm. Some of these folks will be lifelong friends and musical collaborators.

So that’s some of the FUN STUFF, but here’s the kicker. The transition from professor to student, from mostly-performer to mostly-composer, from professional in my field to student in my field (while remaining a professional) was difficult and awkward that whole first year, and especially the first semester. Five months prior, my music professors would have been my colleagues. But once I started school, I would rarely be treated like a colleague again. A few of my professors took the time to talk with me early on, and learned about my background and treated me with respect, just as I treated them, and we have great relationships. I’m so thankful for them! But most professors saw that I played in band and assumed I was a new graduate percussion major. There was a lot of assuming.

My friends and mentors were lifesavers to me during this time. A few friends from Atlanta, who were passing through town at different times, came to visit me. I was recharging myself in Chicago once a month, taking composition lessons with one of my dearest friends and favorite composers. I brought him all the music I was writing professionally, outside of school. His joyful spirit and the fact that he loved my music really lifted me up. He introduced me to one of his composition students, who saved my sanity and became a very close friend. I wouldn’t have made it through that first year without the both of them.

I was accustomed to being loved, to being known and knowing others, in my old life. There was so much mutual admiration in the Atlanta music scene. I really tried to be graceful about existing in Milwaukee, a brand new space where most people didn’t know or care about my previous 15 years as a professional musician. “They’ll figure out I’m a pro percussionist by listening to me play,” I thought. “They’ll figure out I’m a legitimate composer once they hear my music.” Still, I confess that there were days when I wanted to wear a bright green t-shirt with flashing Christmas lights on it that said in red lettering I’M 37 AND I TAUGHT COLLEGE FOR EIGHT YEARS AND WAS CO-FOUNDER AND CO-DIRECTOR OF TWO CONTEMPORARY MUSIC FESTIVALS AMONG MANY OTHER ACCOMPLISHMENTS on the front and GO TO MY (SWEAR WORD) WEBSITE AND YOU’LL SEE MY MUSIC IS PERFORMED REGULARLY ALL OVER THE COUNTRY SO STOP TREATING ME LIKE I’M AN INEXPERIENCED 22 YEAR OLD on the back, but I didn’t. I felt incredibly childish about my inner reaction. I wanted to be cool about it, on the inside and the outside. Well-meaning friends said things to me like, “Your identity is no different. You’re just in a new environment.” Easy to say when you’re living in the same environment you’ve lived in for a decade or more. The truth is, the only other time I’ve had an identity shift that intense was when I got divorced. It was hard, and weird, and very isolating.

Yet there were so many good parts to the weirdness. After performing with only professionals for ages, I got to play in a college percussion ensemble again, which was wonderful fun and so much easier than directing a college percussion ensemble! All I had to do was learn my music and show up to rehearsal to play. In rehearsals, I learned to disengage (as best I could) from Teacher Mode. I instead just sat back and enjoyed playing music with my classmates. Since I knew I’d most likely only be in the city for two years, I chose not to get my feet wet in the Milwaukee music scene outside of school, but I met some area musicians who became friends. I desperately missed playing music with proper professionals, and that was difficult. I felt isolated from the performance faculty; I felt like they were my colleagues, but not many of them felt the same way. I learned to accept that I’d be playing less because I was composing more, and that I would probably lose some of my chops. I developed some extra long-term patience, figuring out that these two major transitions: professor to student, performer-composer to composer-performer, would take time. Thankfully I had another year of grad school ahead!

Enthusiastic, Shy, Quirky and Brilliant: Remembering John Eaton (1935-2015)

[Ed. Note: There have been numerous tributes to composer John Eaton in the weeks since his sudden death following a fall on December 2, 2015. Whether through his seminal explorations of microtonality, his pioneering use of early keyboard synthesizers, or his later development of pocket operas, Eaton touched the lives of many musicians and listeners. Melinda Wagner’s account of him, which goes back to when he was a high school student and an aspiring jazz pianist, offers yet another perspective on this fascinating American maverick.-FJO]

Eaton, Melinda Wagner and her mother sitting at a table in a restaurant.

John Eaton with Melinda Wagner’s mother Bettejo Goodall Wagner, and Eaton’s wife Nelda Nelson-Eaton in Chicago in 1993.

Along with countless others, I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of John Eaton, earlier this month. Widely admired as an innovative, singular and uncompromising artist, Johnʼs contribution to the world of music, in particular to that of the opera repertoire, is beyond compare. While I never got the chance to know John well, I nonetheless knew him to be a much beloved, dear man. Indeed, John was an abiding presence in my familyʼs lore for as long as I can remember, a source of great pride and warm memories.

When my mother was just a few years out of college, she took a position teaching music at East Stroudsburg High School in Pennsylvania. John Eaton, then 16 or so, was one of her first students. My mother was already a gifted musician and teacher. A fine pianist, she had appeared on her own radio show at the age of 11, playing the piano (and tap dancing!) for the Williamsport radio audience. Growing up, she was a bit of an anomaly in her tiny hometown, Liberty, Pennsylvania (pop. 200), a small farming community nestled in the Allegheny Mountains. In spite of her own gifts, and a fine music education (Mansfield Teacherʼs College), nothing–absolutely nothing–prepared her for John Eaton! Prodigiously talented, an accomplished pianist, John was also, in her telling, bursting with ideas. He was fun, enthusiastic, shy, quirky–and brilliant.

John was one of those kids who likes to hang out in the music room. He often brought his projects to show my mother, including original compositions and jazz arrangements. She remembered “lots and lots” of notes. As for Johnʼs original, “serious” works, well, she had never seen such complicated ideas coming from anyone. Even his arrangement of her favorite standard tune, “Embraceable You,” while beautiful, was florid and densely contrapuntal, perhaps a bit intimidating. John was already onto something.

Johnʼs parents welcomed my mother into their home. She was very young, single, and living (I believe) in a boarding house. It goes without saying that she was grateful for company and home-cooked meals. Johnʼs father, Harold Eaton, was an esteemed Methodist pastor in East Stroudsburg at the time. (He retired in 1975.) She was enormously fond of him and his wife, and they all stayed in touch for many years.

When John was accepted to Princeton University, my mother was so impressed and proud! No one from Liberty, Pennsylvania, had ever met an Ivy-bound person! She kept a clipping from the local newspaper article announcing his scholarship; I remember seeing it pasted into our family album until, eventually, it yellowed and crumbled into dust.

The cover of the LP Johnny Eaton and his Princetonians which features five photos of Eaton playing the piano

While still an undergraduate at Princeton, John and his jazz quartet (piano, flute, vibraphone, bass and drums) made an acetate disc that somehow reached the desk of a CBS executive. The disc was later forwarded to Columbia Records, and against all odds, Johnny Eaton and his Princetonians appeared on a major label, although no one had yet heard of any of them. Twenty years later, I took my motherʼs copy with me to college. There, Johnʼs whimsical, impressionistic arrangement of “My Funny Valentine” became one of my favorites. I found his original tunes to be full of personality, technical rigor, and humor. Of his own “Flute Cake,” John wrote, “It has a bit of the rococo spirit–when war was an upper-class sport, when Rousseau enticed countesses to milk cows (with gloves on), and when Figaro and Suzanne poked fun at a decadent (but since much missed) aristocracy. All of which shows that no verbal absolutes are valid in any music–jazz can be flighty as well as earthy.” As a novice student of Music Theory, I was most intrigued by “Babbittry,” Johnʼs tribute to his teacher, Milton Babbitt. Apparently, inspiration for this piece came to him through the strains of Schoenbergʼs Fourth String Quartet.

In spite of his history with my mother, I did not actually meet John Eaton until 1993. I had just seen a performance of his charming chamber opera, Peer Gynt in Manhattan. And there he was, afterwards, accepting handshakes and congratulations–pleased, delighted, eyes twinkling. When I finally reached him through the crowd and mentioned my motherʼs name, I received the most wonderful bear hug. And how pleased he was to learn that I had become a composer!

I regret very deeply that I missed the chance to study with him (John replaced Ralph Shapey at the University of Chicago soon after I left), and I wish we had had the chance to “talk shop.” I am immeasurably grateful, though, not only for John Eatonʼs music, but also for the enduring, cherished friendship this beloved, dear man shared with my mom.

Wagner 1955 handwritten on the back cover of the Eaton and his Princetonians LP