I was born and raised in the Texas Panhandle. My mother’s brother was a public school band director, and a great-uncle (who I never met, sadly) was an amateur pianist and composer. He published a few pieces of what could probably best be described as salon music, with titles like In a Sylvan Glade. Otherwise, though, there were no musicians in the family.
My parents noticed that I would always gravitate to a piano when there was one around; I wasn’t one of those prodigies who could instantly play any piece they heard, but I could pick out a tune and eventually find halfway decent chords to go with it. So, they bought a piano and started me on lessons, at something of a financial sacrifice I was only to understand much later. A few years after that I was tapped to play bass in the junior high orchestra on the grounds that I was tall for my age (although I ended up at a thoroughly average 5’10”) and that I could already read music because of the piano lessons. I played a great deal of solid repertory, including a fair number of modern pieces, both in school orchestras and in the local community orchestra. I discovered a lot of contemporary music on records checked out from the public library; they must have had a very progressive classical music buyer. Somewhere along the line I started writing music, at least in part because the bass repertory is often so uninteresting. I was fortunate in that both of my main private teachers, Gayneyl Wheeler (piano) and Sara Montgomery (bass, although she was primarily a cellist) were themselves composers and were very supportive of my creative efforts.
I went on scholarship to Michigan State University, where I majored in double bass, and kept composing. A lovely early experience was having a choral piece performed by the top university choir. I still remember a rehearsal when the director, a very tall, very imposing guy with a deep bass voice, asked me if I had any comments. When I squeakily said I hadn’t, he walked over to me and said quietly, “You don’t have to be grateful, you know.” So, I made some suggestions. I had a few other pieces performed, but mostly I was wrapped up in playing the bass. I should mention my wonderful bass teacher, Virginia Bodman, and other terrific professors, mostly notably Gomer Jones, who taught a chamber music literature course that opened my eyes (and ears) to the Bartók string quartets in a way I had never imagined, and Theodore Johnson, who taught me counterpoint.
After graduation I became part of the diaspora of young American musicians working in Latin America, trying to get some good professional experience before tackling the difficult audition scene in the US. (I think there’s a very interesting book waiting to be written about this phenomenon.) I kept composing, had several pieces performed, and gave a concert dedicated exclusively to my works in Guadalajara. My time in Latin America had a tremendous impact on practically all aspects of my life and certainly influenced my music in many ways, sometimes subtle, sometimes less so.
My last full-time bass job was in the Orquesta Filarmónica de la Ciudad de México (Mexico City Philharmonic), an excellent orchestra with an amazing bass section that I am proud to have been a part of. I still occasionally hear some of the recordings I participated in on the radio. But, this was a time of great political and economic turmoil in Mexico, and besides that, I noticed that I was getting more and more interested in composing. While not losing my interest in performing, I had a sort of double epiphany when I realized that I probably just wasn’t going to get into the Chicago Symphony and that I was already getting more than a little tired of playing the standard orchestral repertory over and over again. Accordingly, I refocused my interests, quit my job, and started graduate school in composition at Indiana University, initially on a fellowship as a bassist, although I later served as a teaching assistant in theory.
IU turned out to be a great place for me, as I got to study composition with John Eaton, one of the great composers of the late 20th century, who became a close friend and mentor until his death in 2015, and bass with Murray Grodner, possibly the most important bass pedagogue of the same time period. I had numerous pieces performed, and played a lot of bass. I also had the strangely wonderful experience of being bilingual proofreader and later research assistant for one of the great pioneers of ethnomusicology, George List (my fluent Spanish got me the gig; actual ethnomusicologists are always amazed when I tell them I had that job when I wasn’t studying ethnomusicology at all).
I taught theory, composition and bass in Michigan and Texas before taking my current position at the University of Louisville, where I was a member of the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition Committee for a number of years before becoming its Director.
Along the way I met Rebecca Jemian, a bassoonist and music theorist. We married in 1988. For quite a while she taught music theory at Ithaca College in upstate New York, and we maintained two households. In the fall of 2013 she began teaching full-time at the University of Louisville, and has an office three doors down, a much less time-consuming commute.
While my tastes in music are very catholic, I am most interested in music which has an immediate emotional appeal, but which is also intellectually stimulating enough to bear up to repeated hearings. I tend to prefer music which is goal-directed, with clear buildups, climaxes, and dénouements. I like knowing where I am in the form and recognizing things I have heard before.
Although I love a great deal of music which is on the lighter side, my own music is, with some notable exceptions, usually pretty serious. This has always been true, and is generally true of my tastes in the other arts as well. I usually prefer Shakespeare’s tragedies to his comedies, I like sad songs more than happy ones—and so on. This was only reinforced by my mother’s death in 1983 at the age of 52 (younger than I am now), during my first year at IU. She committed suicide. It wasn’t much of a surprise, although no less of a shock for being somewhat anticipated. She battled both physical health problems and depression for most of her adult life. This created a sort of vicious circle, with the physical problems exacerbating the depression, and vice versa, eventually leading her to take her own life.
I was already inclined to serious musical subjects, and this created a sort of feedback loop. For years after most of my pieces were essentially elegies, and had something to do with her death, either directly or indirectly. This gradually changed and my output became much more balanced; there are even some pieces I think of as whimsical or humorous. Still, on the whole I find that seriousness is more natural to me than other musical emotions.
I have one of the best jobs in the world. I have great students, terrific colleagues who regularly perform, promote and record my music, and I get to direct the most prestigious prize for composers in the world, the Grawemeyer Award. This puts me into constant contact with great musicians in the wider world, some of whom have become good friends as a result. My music has been performed all over the US and in many other countries, and is available on a number of recordings. I have been happily married to Rebecca for a long time now, and look forward to many more years to come.