I was pleased to see the reminiscence by Peter G. Davis in the Times Arts and Leisure about his composition studies at Columbia, and about Jack Beeson in particular. It is a welcome corrective to the absurd tales of how serialism at one time ruled the world, or at least ruled Columbia University. My experience at Columbia, about 20 years after Davis’s, was of a similar diversity in approach among my colleagues and my teachers. I did not have a chance to work with Jack, but I wish I had, and I wish I knew more of his music. (I saw him for the first time in years at the American Academy of Arts and Letters Ceremonial this spring – and for the last time, as he died very soon thereafter.) I recall being very impressed by a broadcast of Lizzie Borden several years ago, but it is not easy to come across his other operas, let alone the instrumental music.
Of the several other fine composers associated with Columbia not mentioned in Davis’s article – George Edwards and Fred Lerdahl among them – I would call your attention to Chou Wen-Chung. He was Varese’s assistant and musical executor, and some of the music to be heard on the upcoming Lincoln Center celebration of Varese would not be performable without Wen-Chung’s efforts. Later serving as a mentor to the whole group of composers who came to this country from China in the 80’s- including Tan Dun, Zhou Long, Bright Sheng, and Chen Yi – Wen-Chung’s work with the U.S. China Arts Exchange overshadowed his composing for a time. But the music is overdue for revival. At a moment when there is so much interest in music that crosses cultural boundaries, Wen-Chung’s pioneering synthesis of Euro-American modernism and Asian sensibility should be much more widely known.