Word of Jack Beeson’s death reached me yesterday; very, very sad news– and also shocking. Not just because I’d studied with Jack at Columbia in my last year there and he’d been my thesis advisor , but because after decades he and I had just reconnected in the last 3 weeks or so: I’d sent a note of congratulations following his award given at the AMC meeting , including in it warm memories of the effects of his comment and advice, instrumental in shaping my own approach to students over the years; the note was sent on to him from the Ditson Fund because I didn’t know his home address.
Jack called (surprisingly) on May 15th. We talked for a quarter hour, during which time he mentioned his recent group of recent CDs released by Albany. Not really knowing his choral music, I ordered the Gregg Smith disc, which arrived 5 days later – in the same mail with a hand-written letter from Jack (another surprise).
After listening I wrote directly to Jack about my renewed pleasure in the clarity and immediacy of his music, its fineness of craft, and such refreshing surprise in how he shaped the harmonic rhythm. Because we both had set the same poem, I sent him a CD with that setting, plus the 2 discs of orchestra music he’d asked to hear.
The final surprise came on June 1st : another long letter from Jack – he’d really listened to everything (and wrote many kind comments), and concluded the letter with his “pleasure at our re-meeting”.
Understandingly, the shock of his death was almost overwhelming. I immediately sat down and as a tribute wrote Cortège for Jack; it was almost like automatic writing – the music was done inside 2 hours. Only after finishing did I recognize that “Beeson” is the governing rhythm.
Jack Beeson was really memorable. Laconic at times, careful and caring with words – as with notes. The joy, exuberance and passion in his music come forward fully because of his innate discretion and artistic good taste. In some respects he was a musical ‘father’ to me – certainly one of only two composers with whom I ever had formal study in composition. As a model, as a thinking musician and a citizen of the musical world, he was significant and important to me. I will miss him.
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This weekend at U of Alabama Huntsville there was to have been a two-day symposium built around my second piano trio, ZONES. (The piece would be performed on Friday evening, paired with the Ravel Trio in a concert by Trio Appassionato.) But Friday afternoon, just as I was driving in from the airport, came the terrible murders on campus, shocking the city to its core.
I was emotionally dumbstruck by this tragedy – and the campus was closed after an hour-long lockdown.
What to do? … Concert organizer Dr. Royce Boyer and the performers decided to hold a truncated concert at a local church. I agreed to participate if it were possible for me to speak with the audience first – and to add a ‘musical offering’ to open the program, music very different from the dramatic works already scheduled.
After a rushed run-through of my five-minute Serenade with violinist Marta Szlubowska, I spoke to the audience about how the University’s fabric of cordiality had been so horribly torn apart four hours earlier, and how wrenching it was for us to compose ourselves to play that night — but also how key it is for a creative artist to take on one of our most essential roles, that of providing the emotional documents through which societies register moments of shared high emotion. And that such ‘emotional documents’ can — in addition to providing an outlet for extreme feeling — begin the communal process of regaining balance. What the University community needed, I believed, was a way to express great sadness and yet get beyond the shock by entering a ‘zone of serenity’ as a step towards understanding and acceptance.
Serenade turned out to be essential to this evening on this day. Over and over at the reception people spoke of how helpful this music was (and the words), and how powerful the piece was to them, hearing it at this moment. While they admired and responded to the trios, what they talked about as essential was Serenade.
It’s Sunday morning, and I’m back home - still in shock about the campus shootings, and the well of out-of-control emotion that prompted them. I will not write any music today.