Tonight I received the news that Donald Harris, my graduate advisor at Ohio State, and mentor since then, has passed away. His obituary is here.
I quickly wrote a facebook post:
In 2003, Becky and I went to Ann Arbor to see the composition program at the University of Michigan. That day I met an alumnus of that school, Donald Harris, who was there to present his Second String Quartet to the composition studio. A week later, we met on his home turf at Ohio State, and not quite a year after that, I joined his studio. His guidance was gentle but always true, and I was privileged to be hooded by him in 2007, the same year we co-curated the OSU New Music Festival. In the years since then, he continued to be an encouraging mentor, and gave his seal of approval last summer of my first piece for a professional orchestra. All his students will have to finish music without him now, but I will hear his lessons every time I sit down to compose. Thank you, Don, for making a music teacher with ideas into a composer, and for letting me into your world over the last thirteen years.
But there’s more to the story. I lucked into Ohio State, and I lucked into being Don’s student. It was the right program for me, in the right city (my hometown), at the right time. I wasn’t coming straight from undergraduate studies, but from six sometimes-great but mostly not-so-great years of public school teaching. When I visited Michigan, I felt like just another prospective student, but the faculty at Ohio State, especially Don, made me feel welcome from the moment I set foot on campus. Even that first day, Don took me to his favorite place on campus–the cafe in the ground floor of the Wexner Center for the Arts, a building he had built during his time as dean. I came to regard the Wexner Center as my place, too, always making a point to take in the exhibitions, and grabbing a quick study session in there between class and rehearsals (and several times nearly losing my balance on the slick marble strips in the sidewalk whenever it rained).
I was fortunate at Ohio State to study composition also with two other great teachers–Jan Radzynski and Thomas Wells, both of whom helped shape the composer and teacher I am today–but I kept coming back to Don for guidance and instruction. At some point, he began to play his works-in-progress for me as well, starting with Kaleidoscope, the piece that would eventually grow into his Second Symphony. He was in the midst of a period of, for him, increased productivity, perhaps the pent-up work of his years as an administrator, perhaps just a sense that it was time. He had made the transition from pen to computer by the time I met him, and perhaps the change of tools was a part of this as well. As I gained his confidence, he gave me responsibilities as well as assignments. I turned the pages for the pianist on a recital that included his Fantasy for violin and piano, a simple thing, on the face of it, but a real challenge in its way, given the music involved. He urged me to take the OSU Composers Workshop concerts on the road to Port Clinton, Ohio, and I found myself organizing and leading my fellow students in this, two summers in a row. In my last year at Ohio State, he not only guided me through my candidacy exam, DMA document, and graduation piece, but also asked me to co-curate the New Music Festival for that year. These are the things graduate students do, of course, and I had done some of them before, and may have done some of them with another teacher, but with Don’s guidance and advice, they always made sense, and they were never too onerous. He was making me into a composer, but also into a colleague, a point he underscored just before my oral doctoral exams when he told me that the committee was testing me out to decide whether I was fit to be a professor.
He is my connection to the core of the profession I have chosen for myself. His teachers were Ross Lee Finney, Max Deutsch (a pupil himself of Arnold Schoenberg), and the great Nadia Boulanger. He knew all of Les Six, as well as Messiaen and Boulez, along with Copland, and so many other great American composers. He produced the first French performance of Ives’ Fourth Symphony. He was pals with Gunther Schuller and Lukas Foss. Along the way, he learned how to handle any situation, musical or professional, with both candor and grace, something I aspire to as much as his compositional ability.
After I graduated, I didn’t see Don as frequently, since Becky and I moved to Oklahoma to take my first teaching job (partly on the strength of his letter of reference). I visited from time to time, and we were comfortable enough together that he would let me see him at his worst–after his broken hip, and during his fight with Parkinson’s disease. We would share coffee or a meal, and catch up, and I would always bring my latest scores and he his. He arranged for me to be commissioned to write a piece for the 2010 edition of the OSU New Music Festival, held in his honor, and the result was one of the works I am most proud out, Moriarty’s Necktie. The last time we met in his apartment on Long Street in Columbus, I played my piano sonata for him, and he played the Second Symphony for me. Every time I came to their home, he and his lovely wife, Marilyn, were gracious and kind hosts, even when there was work to do.
The last time we met, Don was in assisted living. He still wanted to see my latest work–forever my teacher–and I showed him the newly-finished score to …into the suggestive waters… He said that he was still composing, and with luck there is at least one more premiere for Don in the future.
I am grateful for our thirteen-year relationship–first student and teacher, then colleagues, then, I hope, friends. My sincerest condolences to Marilyn and their families on their loss.