In 1982, around the time I was applying
to the PhD program in composition at Harvard University, I bought
Ivan Tcherepnin's CRI record containing "Flores Musicales"
and "Five Songs." The magical, whimsical, psychedelic
and sweetly beautiful music it contained was unlike any electroacoustic
music I'd ever heard. By the time I arrived at Harvard in 1983,
I had worn out the grooves of the record and the music had become
a permanent part of my consciousness.
Ivan in person turned out to be as unique
as his music. One was struck immediately by his physical appearance
-- tall, thin, and exotically handsome, with his Russian and Chinese
genes doing a tango on his face. And of course, the mysterious blue
tattoo on his arm -- a flag that said, "Not your usual Harvard
When Ivan opened his mouth he revealed
an idiosyncratic accent (shared only by his brothers Peter and Serge)
which tickled and charmed the ear -- essentially a Parisian accent
with Russian and Chinese twists. At the annual Music Department
meeting to welcome the new graduate students, he stood up holding
his youngest child in his arms and said, "Hello, I'm Ivan,
Director of zeh Studio, and this is Sergei, one of zeh Studio's
Harvard Music Building, Paine Hall Entrance
Analog Studio is window at top left, MIDI Studio at top right
The Harvard Music Department of the time
was the scene of various long-standing and recent undercurrents
and crosscurrents of tension. Ivan, his concerns, and the Studio
environment he had set up were blissful havens from all of that.
I took his undergraduate electronic music class and had a blast
making tape loops and learning to use the mighty Serge Modular synthesizer
designed and built by Serge Tcherepnin.
To study electronic music with Ivan was
to feel personally connected to its history -- this was clearly
a guy who had "lived the life," who still remembered a
hands-on time when electronic musicians often designed their own
circuits. Aside from an old upright piano in the corner, the Studio
conspicuously had no keyboard in sight -- an aesthetic stance encouraging
the musician to reach beyond "notes." [The MIDI spec was
released only that year, paving the way for "notes" to
dominate the field.]
When Ivan leaned lovingly over the Serge,
his long pianist's fingers rapidly weaving a tangle of brightly
colored patch cords, one got the sense that Serge had designed each
intriguing module with Ivan's musical needs in mind (as perhaps
he had). The cords seemed to connect not only the analog modules
to each other, but Ivan to his brother.
The following year I became Ivan's Teaching
Fellow -- first in "Music and Communication," a course
exploring the aesthetics, psychology and political dimensions of
music, and then in the Electronic Music Studio courses. These were
exciting times in electronic music, with the advent of the MIDI
protocol, digital hardware synths and samplers, and the eager little
Macintosh (which Ivan adored). Despite his love of "classical"
tape and analog techniques, Ivan saw the future and embraced it
with enthusiasm, confident that he could bend the tools from their
pop-driven premises to serve his musical goals.
Ivan was thrilled by the democratizing
aspect of the mid-'80s blooming of affordable music technology and
showed a lively interest in the industry. He corresponded with the
manufacturers offering bug reports and suggestions, and he never
passed up the chance to chat up and pick the brains of reps he encountered.
He also took pride in the Studio alumni who entered the industry,
including Dave Wilson at Apple music and sound divsion, Mark Lentczner
at Apple and Opcode, Michael Land and Peter McConnell at Lexicon
(both now at LucasArts making game music), and Ben Denckla at Digidesign.
The Studio attracted a diverse group of
students in batches of twelve: a few music concentrators and the
occasional composition graduate student, some filmmakers, some liberal
arts and science concentrators, and a handful of people harder to
define, perhaps designing their own concentration or just sort of
floating... but there was a common thread year after year of students
with an experimental, questing outlook and a bohemian appearance.
Ivan, with his experimental, questing outlook and the subtle aura
of the '60s that wafted around him, was a natural hitching post
for them in a place that could be as formal as Harvard.
With Ivan's generous practice of allowing
students 24-hour access to the Studio even after their enrollment
in the course (and sometimes even after their graduation), the Studio
could come to seem like home -- and during work jags, actually be
home. And Ivan made sure it felt like home (his home, actually),
filled with plants, trinkets, images, hanging tape loops, and equipment
ranging from manufactured rack-mount gear to hand-made devices in
cigar boxes with mysterious unlabeled knobs. And in the center of
the room, the many-colored Serge itself (one of the few on the East
Coast), with a large central panel filled with funky-looking modules
from the 1970s and wings on either side containing slicker-looking
Ivan never engaged in dry, linear expositions
of technical subjects. Technical matters were presented in great
depth, but usually interwoven with aesthetics, philosophy and even
mysticism, and always spiced with humor. Seeing his eyes twinkle
as he lectured on ring-modulation into a ring-modulated microphone,
one could tell that he still found these toys and techniques fun.
Whatever he might privately think about
a student's project, he always managed to find something positive
to say. He encouraged experimentation, was gentle with criticism,
creative with suggestions, and projected a nurturing sense of tolerance
and acceptance. Needless to say, the students were crazy about him.
The emphasis in the Electronic Music class
was always on live performance. Each spring, virtually the entire
studio would be broken down and reassembled on the stage of Paine
Hall for a concert that, however long, loud and uneven, was always
a uniquely stimulating and memorable event. Ivan always got a kick
from the theatrical and visual elements students would often include.
He particularly enjoyed a piece by filmmaker Richard Rutkowski which
featured an enormous inflatable banana floating above the stage.
After graduating, I continued to work with
Ivan as his parts copyist. It was greatly satisfying to help bring
into the world such works as "And So It Came to Pass"
for the Oratorio Society of New York's celebration of the 100th
anniversary of Carnegie Hall and the "Double Concerto"
for Lynn Chang, Yo-Yo Ma and the Greater Boston Youth Symphony.
And it was fascinating to see his music up close as he moved away
from his avant-garde past to unselfconsciously embrace the Franco-Russian
traditionalism of his father and grandfather.
My deepest sense of Ivan is that of a
family man -- loving and caring for his four children and cherishing
his ancestors -- and of an artist who believed that being humane
and honorable in one's personal and collegial dealings is more important
than advancing one's career. Unlike Wagner, Picasso, or some living
artists I could name, he was always kind, generous in word and deed,
and selfless to a fault.
I truly believe that all composers begin
as idealists -- no one becomes a composer as a savvy career choice
-- but once underway, competitiveness and careerism can overwhelm
that idealism. Not so with Ivan. Simply knowing he was in the field
helped me to hang on to some shreds of my own idealism. I miss him
terribly and will remember him forever.