A Brief Autobiography (with numerous links)

Peter CU.jpg

I was born in California in 1943, and began playing the piano and making up tunes at an early age.   It was my good luck that a wonderful concert pianist, Lyell Barbour, was living in my home town of Escondido, and I studied with him from 1954 to 1960.   I also studied theory and composition with Howard Brubeck (Dave's older brother).  On Howard's recommendation, I attended Darius Milhaud's composition seminar at Aspen Music School in 1959.

Earl Kim

Earl Kim

            I attended the University of California, Berkeley, in the early 1960's, where my teachers included Seymour ShifrinAndrew Imbrie, and David Lewin.   I was also deeply influenced by my fellow students Douglas Leedy and John Patrick Thomas.  Another important aspect of my education was my work in the music department of KPFA, the first listener-supported radio station in the country.  I served under three KPFA music directors, all of them composers: Glenn Glasow, Will Ogden, and Charles Shere.  I then moved to the East Coast and earned an MFA at Princeton University, working with Milton Babbitt and Edward T. Cone.  But the teacher who influenced me most profoundly - my true mentor - was Earl Kim.  His exquisite music and goal of "reducing everything to its maximum" inspires me to this day. 

           It was while I was studying at Princeton in the mid-1960's that I was fatally seduced by the music of the Beatles and Motown, and began a life-long creative and scholarly involvement with popular music.  While living in New York City briefly in 1966-67, I wrote rock music criticism for Cheetah magazine and did some arranging and musical direction for Definition, the first (and only) album by an extraordinary band, Chrysalis. 

          The commercial music industry felt scary to me, though, and I decided that I would be more comfortable in a university environment.   Thanks to Earl Kim's recommendation, I was elected a Junior Fellow at the Harvard University Society of Fellows, where I spent three years composing (mostly my Humoresque, a mammoth 40-minute long piano piece), investigating the history of American popular music, and starting a family with my wife, Judy (now Judy Eda) - my daughter Maria was born in early 1969, and my son Paul was born in 1970.

         I went from Harvard to a teaching position at Stony Brook University, where I taught for 42 years.   I was incredibly lucky to get in on the ground floor of a music department which has grown into an internationally respected institution - and one where my quirky proclivities were not only tolerated but encouraged.  For many years I taught a course in Rock music to classes of up to 500 students.  

          During my first seven years at Stony Brook I worked on a large-scale Symphony which was premiered at the grand opening ceremonies of Stony Brook's Fine Arts Center (now the Staller Center), conducted by my old friend David Lawton.  The last movement of the Symphony, composed at the MacDowell Colony in 1978, was a turning point for me:  it was unabashedly tonal, and ended with a lilting Caribbean melody.  I have also composed a number of occasional pieces for Stony Brook, including its Alma Mater.

         In the early 1980's I took a break from writing concert music, and turned to musical theater.  I served an apprenticeship of sorts at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson, N.Y., writing music for several cabaret shows, one of which, Professionally Speaking, went on to an Off-Broadway run in New York city and several productions by regional theaters.  "Tamara, Queen of the Nile," from this show (lyrics by Ernst Muller), has become a staple in the cabaret repertories of William Bolcom and Joan Morris, and, through them, of several other cabaret acts.  I've continued to write "show" music, much of it with my dear friend, Winston Clark, who was the conductor of the Connecticut Gay Men's Chorus.  Our magnum opus was Out!  (1997), a full-length musical based on the actual experiences of guys in the chorus. 

         It was also in the early 1980's that I became very involved with the fledgling International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM).   In addition to presenting papers at many IASPM conferences, I edited their international newsletter, RPM, for several years, edited several issues of the Journal of Popular Music Studies and served as chair of the American branch in 1990-91.

1890's Fair Deede & Peter2.jpg

           In 1987 I met and fell in love with Dorothea (Deede) Cook, a Seattle violinist; we formed the violin-piano duo Silken Rags and I began writing concert pieces again, many of them for Deede. Much of my recent music has been about connecting in various ways with older musical traditions: our Silken Rags CD, released in 2004, includes tributes to gospel music, Ghanaian highlife, Cuban music, American popular song, and tango.  Following Deede's interests, I also got involved in early music performance; I studied continuo realization with Stony Brook's extraordinary harpsichordist, Arthur Haas, and wrote a Partita for his Stony Brook Baroque Ensemble.   More recently, some of my music has drawn on traditional Appalachian folk music, inspired by several visits to the Hambidge Center in Rabun Gap, Georgia.

            At the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia in 1987 I met the extraordinary opera director and teacher, Rhoda Levine, and we quickly became good friends.  She invited me to come to her weekly workshops, where opera singers improvised extemporaneous arias, scenes, and short operas.  This workshop grew into Play It By Ear, a professional opera improvisation company that presented seasons of between three and eight performances a year in New York City from 1997 until 2012.   Play It By Ear was also dedicated to reaching out to under-served audiences, and we presented workshops and performances to rural schools, homeless shelters, and senior citizen facilities in the New York area.  

Rhoda Levine

Rhoda Levine

             Though I was involved in creating impromptu operas on a regular basis, it took me many years to summon up the nerve to embark on a “real” composed opera of my own.  Finally in 2008 Rhoda Levine and I began working on Fox Fables, a one-act opera based on three animal fables.  The fables were workshopped at the John Duffy Composer’s Institute in Virginia, and the complete, orchestrated version was performed by a marvelous cast and orchestra of Stony Brook graduate students, conducted by Timothy Long, in March 2011, at Stony Brook and at Symphony Space in New York.   In 2014 I retired from Stony Brook – enjoyed a lovely tribute concert in my honor, and in 2015 a revised version of my epic Symphony was given a stunning performance by the Stony Brook Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eduardo Leandro.