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"We Are All Mozart"

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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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This is a personal commentary.

Today I took a deep breath and looked at my life, and thought of some people in music (people who didn't start out as personal friends or family) who changed the course of my life as a composer, good or bad.

Joseph Checchio was the band director at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School, a regional school of some 1,400 in a New Jersey bedroom community (the most famous alumnus of which is likely jazz musician David Ware). Checchio was in the same high school class as my mother from the late 1930s -- we had returned to the town for my high school years after being itinerant through the suburbs that countenanced a poor family like ours -- and he played the accordion at weddings. We students knew little of the personal lives of our teachers, and Checchio was no exception. He had a quiet temper, and an ulcer. He drew every one of the marching band routines in pencil, and taught them by means of his personal library of sophisticated percussion cues. When we first met, I knew nothing about this. He was the band director, and I a student rumored to be smart and very stuffy (yes, I buttoned the top button on my shirts). Having discovered classical music on radio and records two years earlier, I had developed a burning desire -- really, that adolescent burning -- to become a composer. Secretly, for my parents were hoping the first child in the family to go to college would become a scientist, I sought out the fearsome Mr. Checchio and asked if I could learn an instrument.

His reaction was cool. Standing before him was a pudgy boy known mostly for effete American Legion Oratorical Contest speeches, the putrid little egghead he hated with his bushy eyebrows and cheerful accordion. He stared and asked (or maybe I imagined he asked) if this was for my college application. It had never occurred to me, and I was confused, but he offered the only instrument available. It was a test, of course, but I happily accepted that bass clarinet and carried the heavy black case to school every day. I learned slowly, but my heart grasped the notation immediately. The veil lifted, skies opened, Red Sea parted. Again, secretly (though the presence of a bovine-sounding instrument could not by then be a secret) I taught myself to compose. A sketch with the notes backwards, and finally, a few months later, a tone poem. Forty-some pages, seventeen instruments, all properly transposed.

I brought the pencil score with me one day, and asked if Mr. Checchio (no one used first names or dismissive last ones in those days) would look at it. His mode of reaction was usually silence, and it was again. There was a good chance I was trembling as he asked if he could take it and return it at our next bass clarinet lesson. It was a restless week, and when I returned he had the score -- marked up in red pencil. He had corrected the errors of notation and range -- and nothing else. He asked if he could see my next piece. End of discussion.

He accepted another, and another, and one day he asked if I would like to conduct one. Conducting basics followed, and the day came that I would prepare the high school concert band in just one rehearsal of -- I cringe now at the title -- Fanfare and Pyrotechnics. The score is long gone, but I remember a mélange of impossible brass writing, Wagnerian effects, and references to a composer whose first symphony I'd bought on 78s at a yard sale, Kalinnikov. He only had a first name. Kalinnikov. Symphony No. 1 in G minor. I conducted my Fanfare. Things went terribly awry, and Joe Checchio took over, bringing the music safely through.

We parted ways at graduation, and I visited him just once a few years after entering the Rutgers music department. He was, as ever, quiet. The accordion sat in the corner. I felt I shouldn't have come, that students had no business going back. Some years later, I dedicated a piece to him and sent it, but never heard from him. And then, a few years ago, I heard from a granddaughter who had seen his name mentioned in one of my articles. He had died, but the memory stayed alive of the singly most important moment in my musical life: "Let me see the next one you write."

Henry Kaufmann was chairman of the Rutgers music department. He was a portly and snide person, the dismissive, lisping gateway to my entrance into the department. I was a naïf, having learned my music from a bass clarinet and record jackets, and daring to scale the walls of a department of music in a slow dance that took me through math, physics, and French majors. My fourth choice they were, or so it seemed to them, even though composition remained that burning desire. I took written proficiency tests and passed them in an untutored, record jacketly way. But, as only their sixth music major in the Class of 1970, I was a valuable asset simply for the presence my flesh.

I was accepted into the department and had the obligatory interview with the chairman. I brought my music -- a tone poem, a symphony, some songs, a march, that aforementioned fanfare, a passacaglia, piano music, choral music, and sketches. Did I play piano? No. What was my major instrument to be? I hadn't thought of it, but I played baroque recorder adequately. That wouldn't do, so I was assigned, after much sighing and eye-rolling, the violin.

And then came the transforming moment as I presented my scores and asked to study composition. Dr. Kaufmann brushed them aside unopened as he said, concluding the interview, "Mr. Kitsch" -- emphasizing his judgment by mispronunciation -- "our undergraduates do not compose." The interview was over, as was the opportunity for my music ever to be examined by a member of the faculty. It was, so far as I recall, our last conversation, and the beginning of my lessons in the valuelessness of composers in the erstwhile Twentieth Century musical culture.

When I am lax, I can remember how hard I worked, privately, angrily, for those three years, how hard-won were the musical skills that seem second nature today. It was the single grain of good received from that villainous little man.

Edmund Strainchamps taught music theory at Rutgers. He was a strange person, alien to me, shaven head and strong personality. To his gaze I was invisible, except when admonishing me not to use turquoise ink for writing my harmony exercises or letting his eyes flame and disgust show on his lip over my incomprehensible lack of interest in the delinquency of parallel fifths. He was probably young, but he didn't seem so; there was something dying in his demeanor.

We were a typically lazy class, but there was no opportunity to shrink back in a group of six. Our analysis was faulty, our reasoning poor, our assignments incomplete. And there grew a rage in his eyes that I had not seen before or since, expressed in several minutes of uncharacteristically blue verbal insult joined in its fury by a storm which blew up outside the brick building's windows. The combination of storm and scream broke its own spell, and he softened. I remember him sitting, which he never did, almost weak, beginning to explain in a whisper why analysis was so important to him.

Memory doesn't serve up his exact words, but his eyes locked mine for the first time. He always wanted to be a composer, he told us, but he was never graced by the Muse. The notes were failures of sense, failures of meaning, failures of melody and harmony and counterpoint. His own music staggered to a halt long before the double bar. And so he decided to become a theorist, examining and immersing himself in the works of the past and present. It was the only way, Strainchamps said, that he could get close to the moment of creation. Then he stood up, his demeanor shifted back to the professorial, and the class went on. He never spoke of it again. I was ashamed -- not that I had done sloppy analysis, but that I had taken for granted the slim reed of talent for composition that I had. Slender as it was, it was more than he possessed, and was the very object of his life's desire, forever to be unfulfilled. Never again would I devalue that gift.

We did not cross paths once I left the university, and since those days he has edited books of early Baroque music, and moved to upstate New York, where he teaches still.

Scott Whitener was the director the Rutgers University Bands. Like Strainchamps, he was probably young, but did not look so to me. I must have auditioned for the crisp, clean-cut and casual Whitener, but have no memory of it. One day I was playing second bass clarinet in the wind ensemble and last clarinet in the band, where I was mostly decorative, becoming a canon wheel spoke for a marching version of the 1812 Overture. Scott -- we could call him that -- had a sharp ear and a dry sense of humor. My playing was terrible, but I struggled month after month.

When he learned I was a composer being ignored by the music department across town, he gave me notation work to do, mostly marching band charts for his own arrangements, until he decided that the wind ensemble should do the U.S. premiere of the Berlioz Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale.

The Berlioz is a bombastic work full of intricate instrumentation. Clarinets served as strings in Berlioz's mind, and brass came in every malleable shape and size, some of it very obsolete. Few instruments were in modern keys. The parts would all have to be transposed and inked on transparencies, a job that fell to me (and helped pay that year's tuition). The score used natural horns, meaning brass crooks were replaced at every key change, and the score reflected the notes the horns read -- not the concert pitches they were playing. It was my education in transposition, and I hand-copied the entire hour-long score for every part of the ensemble in ink, transposing as I went along.

Scott had troubles. Now that his score was transposed but no longer matched the notes the instruments were seeing, there were trainwrecks. But it at last came together in a grand noise with the chorus in the final movement prepared by F. Austin Walter at a concert at New York's Town Hall.

At the end of the second year of my participation in the ensemble at the huge celebratory dinner, I was presented with a plaque (sadly, left behind on the wall of my New Jersey apartment as I moved to Vermont) that read "Most Improved Musician". It was as much of a joke as it was serious, and we all knew it and shared it, but for the first time at Rutgers, I felt respected enough to be part of that shared joke.

David Gunn is almost a given. We have been friends for more than thirty years, but when we first met, he was an enigma. He was a composer working as a music technician at Trenton State College in New Jersey. He arranged odd concerts of his music. He was a composer with a sense of humor, a possibility unknown to me. Could there be funny composers? He seemed to be, but at the time I associated funny with inconsequential. How wrong I was.

Stories of David Gunn are legendary. He was Mac Tonite for McDonald's. He typed telegrams for Western Union. He delivered subpoenas in downtown Philadelphia for a lawyer. He introduced me to Monty Python during its first run in America. He told stories of disappearing pianos, shrinks made mad, purloined strobe lights, and the music that encouraged his departure from Ohio State University. He used pseudonyms like Marvin Hodge, who had the Miracle School of Architecture. He wrote stories about root canals and discount surgery and the Pottle Twins, left in the clothes drier too long at the mortuary on 808 Maple Street.

We worked together as incompetent Radio Shack clerks. He learned to sing just so our early music ensemble could be complete. He bought krumhorns and drove a yellow Karmann Ghia called El Zoomo, and we both invested in Ionic Synthesizers to join in the Battle of the Synthesizers. He wrote comedies aboout detective Frank Farnsworth, and bizarre pseudo-porn about living dolls. I started a serious science fiction novel, and he completed the first chapter that launched a bizarre non-collaborative exchange that eventually became The Karmora Papers.

We gave improvisations in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and Croton-on-Hudson, New York, and did bizarre performance art rituals in Washington, D.C., followed by an evening watching presidential debates with a mobster's gun poised on the table. Some days he would disappear, driving day and night from his home in New Jersey to Ohio or Texas simply to leave a note if the person of interest wasn't home or didn't answer the door -- and then drive straight back.

He moved to Vermont some months after I did. We did new music, including the absurd Not Vermont Hardware that had us slipping on banana peels as our introduction to the Vermont concert audiences. We challenged each other to write cabarets, created a series called "Closing the Book on the Avant-Garde," and recorded his plays under the name of the Loch Duck Radio Players. He introduced me to the joys of hiking the Grand Canyon, and we collected our journals into The Middle-Aged Hiker. Eventually we did a ten-year sentence as hosts of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar.

Through it all, David remains the perfectionist anti-composer, spending countless hours composing in great detail in order to make music that sounds at first casual, dismissive, clever and effortless -- until you get under the surface. There genius lies. Without David's ability to deconstruct stuffiness in seconds, I would have long ago drowned in the effect reflecting pond of my own compositional seriousness.

More tomorrow about Michael Arnowitt, Thomas L. Read, Clarence Barlow, John Kennedy, Catherine Broucek Orr and maybe some other folks.

David Gunn and goat, Ohio
David Gunn and goat, central Ohio, 1978, preparing to give a lecture about the avant-garde in New Jersey to the Iowa Arts Council. The lecture's mantra: "We like corn. We like swine. We like Iowa!"

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