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Remembering Ivan Tcherepnin

by William Eldridge


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 professor."

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 sound sources."

Harvard Music Building, Paine Hall Entrance (c.1988)
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 recent modules.

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.

William Eldridge


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