My undergraduate counterpoint class was taught by a fiftyish, alcoholic composer.

He had written the textbook for the class, which we all dutifully purchased. It was a cheaply bound collection of single-sided, typewritten pages, many words crossed out and corrected with scribbles in the margin — and many others that should have received the same treatment.

Some mornings he showed up late for class, mumbled something like, “do chapter six,” then put his head down on the desk, moaned softly for a while and began snoring loudly.

A few years later, when I was in grad school, I heard that he had died in London. The person he specified should be notified in the event of his death – I assume he had no living relatives – was his former teacher, Milton Babbitt.

The guy had gotten off to a pretty good start, winning a BMI Young Composers Award, and having a piece released on a CRI recording.

I remember one time when he had the whole composition department over to his house for dinner. He made a huge pot of chili, and was as happy as I’d ever seen him, scurrying back and forth with steaming bowls. But as the evening drew to a close and we all started saying our goodbyes, I thought he was going to cry.

I’m thinking about him now, as I prepare to take a sabbatical from teaching. Burned out and beat up, he represents for me everything that can go wrong with an artist’s dreams.

On this day when we remember the men and women who have died for our country, here is a quiet toast for all of the Americans who have given their lives to anonymous pursuit of the muse.

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