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Ivan Tcherepnin as a young boy

Ivan Tcherepnin was born in Paris, France on February 5, 1943. Grandson of composer-conductor Nikolai Tcherepnin, and son of the celebrated Alexander Tcherepnin and the noted pianist and pedagogue Ming Tcherepnin, Ivan won international recognition as a composer, as had his grandfather and father before him. Trained in music by his parents from earliest childhood, Ivan immediately showed his hereditary gifts. At age six, he devised the following theme (repeating it all the way down the keyboard):

which his father would whimsically use as the second subject in the finale of his Harmonica Concerto, Op. 86.

Ivan Tcherepnin
Age 24

The following year, Alexander and Ming accepted permanent appointments to the faculty of DePaul University, and soon brought Ivan and his two elder brothers Peter and Serge to Chicago. There Ming made sure that the boy's musical progress continued despite such rapidly Americanizing tastes as his childhood passion for baseball. Indeed, the course of Ivan's life was already decided when he entered Harvard University to complete a degree in music, studying principally with Leon Kirchner. Like several other gifted composers of his generation, young Tcherepnin developed an expertise in electronic music media that at times reversed the pupil-teacher relationship. When Kirchner's unfinished opera Lily was scheduled by the New York City Opera, Tcherepnin's guidance and assistance in realizing the electronic and taped portions proved invaluable in bringing the piece to the stage. (It may be noted that his elder brother Serge had provided similar assistance to their father in the production of an electronic radio-drama score, and later developed the Serge synthesizer, which Ivan frequently used in his electronic pieces.)

Serge and Alexander Tcherepnin

Concurrently with his work at Harvard, Tcherepnin studied in Europe with Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. After holding teaching positions at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Stanford University, Tcherepnin joined the music faculty of Harvard University in 1972, where he also served as Director of the Harvard Electronic Music Studio.

That Ivan wore the mantle of Alexander Tcherepnin lightly, studying with leading European avant- gardists in order to find new paths, delighted his father. Yet the latter's unfailing encouragement of experiment eventually became something of a burden. Ivan wrote: “For many years, even my most outrageous musical experiments were assented to by my father. Perhaps there was some inner frustration on my part that resulted from his forbearance and openness, and maybe I was testing how far I needed to go to reach the point where my music would no longer be understood or approved of by him. That point was reached in 1976, when my father came to a live?electronic piece I had composed for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in New York. When we came home after the concert, my father seemed distraught and said something to the effect that he couldn’t understand how I could consider what I had done to be music. I was too exhausted from the performance to answer, but I remember my brother Serge coming to my rescue. The next day, the same piece was performed and this time my father accepted it, even liked it. But nevertheless, I had reached a crossroad. I no longer felt the need to set artificial limits to my musical expression, no need to cut myself off from my musical roots, no need to cut off my nose to spite my face. No more!”

Ivan gets electronic patches ready for a performance

This challenging eighty-minute piece (Set, Hold, Clear and Squelch for oboe and synthesizer) later became the basis of Tcherepnin’s seventeen-minute Le Va et le Vient (1978), the earliest orchestral piece in his catalogue, and one of his most important efforts. It was prompted by his singular experience on September 29, 1977, when, within a few hours, his second son was born in Boston and his father died in Paris. With his profoundly searching philosophical bent, the composer saw in this coming and going a metaphor for life itself, and its strange gifts that ineluctably blend joy and tragedy. Prolifically exploiting a single, ultra-simple thematic idea (the slow rise of a half-step), Tcherepnin took two avant-garde styles of the 1970s—sound collage and minimalism—to their furthest extremes. An enormous panoply of orchestral color effects dramatizes these slow, short glides upward: cluster chords, other dense harmonies, wind skirls, horn whoops, percussion punctuations, etc. Yet the overall effect is one of intent austerity, for the sounds tend to the astringent, avoiding any voluptuous comfort. Toward the center of the piece, falling semitones begin to appear, and for a while an illusory stasis rules, with regular up-and-down oscillation sometimes speeding up into trills. The rising element resumes ascendancy, however, occasionally propelled into recognizable segments of a scale as the coloristic decoration becomes even more riotous.

Family duet of Ivan and daughter Sarina

As with Stravinsky after Le Sacre du Printemps, Tcherepnin’s work after Le Va et le Vient took a turn no one would have predicted. His mature style, in which post-modern elements leaven modernist exploration, in fact reflects a spiritual quest that he shared with many others in a generation disillusioned by the uglier aspects of the Vietnam War, Watergate and the constant setbacks faced by the era's great civil rights struggle. To a degree, he immersed himself in the counterculture that informally developed among idealistic young adults. To the counterculture's wholesale rejection of Western art and values, however, he was fortunately immune, thanks to a deep love for his traditional and familial musical heritage. The result was a uniquely wide and broad stereoptic perspective, lending his aesthetic philosophies and practices a rare inclusiveness that ignored only artistic untruths.

Ivan and his sons Stefan and Sergei entertain John Cage in their kitchen

In redrawing the too-often artificial boundaries between art and reality, he found a kindred spirit in John Cage, who became a close friend, and took a lively interest in Tcherepnin’s music. When Cage gave Harvard’s Norton Lectures he was Tcherepnin’s house guest, and on their frequent mushrooming excursions together Cage shared his exhaustive knowledge of mycological lore. Contemplation of the Cageian mysteries of indeterminacy further widened the scope of Ivan's art.

In Tcherepnin’s work literally dozens of musics—traditional and revolutionary, old and new, instrumental and electronic—co-exist and cross-pollinate. One of his primary artistic goals was to keep the ear-mind connection open and free of artificial constraints. He believed this connection was the most important avenue for communication and development available to humans. Reveling in the interaction between performance and composition, Ivan prized his mastery of Western technological instruments (the piano and synthesizer) while also delighting in such traditional “low tech” instruments as the psaltery and the Persian santur, and allowing the worlds to interpenetrate in a manner that sometimes obliterated the distinction between “live” and “electronic.” This marriage of east and west, old and new informed his ambitious Santur Opera (1977), for santur, electronics, and projections, which was staged in 1981 by Peter Sellars at the Paris Festival d’Automne and won the Grand Prize of the 1982 Arts Electronica Festival in Linz (Santur Opera II: the sequel was completed in 1994). The same principle is evident in the graceful and beguiling Flores Musicales (1980) which calls for oboe, psaltery and violin, all of whose sounds are processed and transformed (sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes radically) by a veritable armada of electronic modules.

In subsequent years, Tcherepnin frequently conducted and lectured in Europe, Asia and the US, and held composer residencies with Music at Marlboro, Rockefeller Center at Bellagio (Italy), Dartington Summer Music School (England) Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and Korsholm Music Festival (Finland). His numerous honors included awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and the National Endowment for the Arts. Notable among his many commissions was a series of works for the American Wind Symphony Orchestra. His oratorio And So It Came To Pass (1991), commissioned in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Oratorio Music Society and premiered that year at Carnegie Hall, combined extraordinary practicality (the chorus consisted of dedicated amateurs) with spare, Apollonic musical poetry. Much of its unity derives from strategic recurrences of a single intervallic leap established at the outset.

Ivan with his wife, Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin, receiving the International Grawemeyer Prize

The best-known of Tcherepnin’s later works is undoubtedly the Double Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra (1995), for which the composer won one of the most prestigious awards offered by the music world: the University of Louisville’s International Grawemeyer Prize. Commissioned by the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, this piece was written for two of Tcherepnin’s former students—violinist Lynn Chang and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The ultra-mellifluous score is an homage to everything Tcherepnin found loveable about the Romantic Concerto genre, studded with now humorous, now adoring quotations from great Romantic concertos (including, of course, the Brahms Double Concerto) as well as John Coltrane, which are woven seamlessly into a rhapsodic twenty-five minute lyric narrative. Comparing the overall atmosphere of the concerto to that of Tcherepnin’s late masterpiece Not A Stir of Wind for soprano and string quartet, one discovers an uncommon emotional range: chilly foreboding and Angst radiate from richly peripatetic string textures and vocal lines that seem to arise from the visceral pre-conscious.

During a three-year battle with cancer that ended on April 11, 1998, Tcherepnin’s musical activities remained undiminished, as did his ceaseless philosophical curiosity. To the world he showed the same gentle humor and graceful consideration that had long made him beloved to colleagues and students. The legacy left us by this unforgettable musical poet reflects—as did his persona—numinous insight, love of the moment, wit, humor, caritas and a global vision of music and ideas.


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