Jan. 29 2014 12:00 AM

Influential MSU composition professor H. Owen Reed dies at 103

    Montana composer David Maslanka, now a grey eminence in the music world at 70, was still searching for his musical voice in the 1970s when he came to Michigan State University. His life changed when he found a kindly but demanding teacher with a gentle Missouri accent, H. Owen Reed.

    “It’s one of those huge accidents of fate,” Maslanka said. “He was monumental in my growth as a composer.”

    Reed died Jan. 6 in Athens, Ga., at age 103. He taught at MSU from 1939 to 1976 and remained a vital presence almost until his death.

    Two years ago, Reed made the case for an addition to the MSU Music Building in a taped interview, pointing out that he was around when the building was built in the 1930s.

    “I’m 102,” Reed said. Don’t make me wait any longer.”

    Composers are notorious for pushing their tastes on their students, but Reed thrived on new input. His cream center was the neo-Romantic American sound of Aaron Copland and Howard Hanson, but Reed loved jazz, studied Mexican and Native American music and was open to avant garde styles and odd forms of notation. In the 1970s, Reed brought the first Moog synthesizer, the granddaddy of electronic instruments, to MSU. He even wrote two pieces for winds and percussion inspired by the ‘70s vogue for J.R.R. Tolkien: “The Awakening of the Ents” and “Of Lothlórien.”

    For many young composers, Reed’s inclusive mind was an alternative to East Coast snobbery. Charles Ruggiero, a composition and music theory professor at MSU since 1973, is a transplanted Easterner who gravitated to Reed and stuck around. As a grad student, Ruggiero struggled to resolve a complicated, atonal piece until Reed suggested that he add some jazz elements.

    “I was surprised. I thought that was basically forbidden,” Ruggiero said. But Reed knew Ruggiero loved jazz. “That was the best thing anyone could have said to me to help me develop my own voice as an artist.”

    As a kid in the 1920s, Reed spent a lot of time hanging with “the gals” who played pop tunes on pianos for sale at Woolworth’s Department Store in Kansas City, Mo., 30 miles away from his hometown of Odessa.

    Odessa’s only music teacher (Reed still called her “Mrs. Felts” in a 2001 interview) worked on converting Reed to Bach and Beethoven, with only partial success.

    Reed studied creative writing and led a jazz big band at the University of Missouri. Both experiences, he later said, made him want to write music in his own way.

    Later, he took private lessons with 20th century titans such as Hanson, Copland, Arnold Schoenberg and Leonard Bernstein.

    At MSU, Reed encouraged his students to pursue a disciplined but open-ended quest, as he did.

    Maslanka called Reed a “true mentor.” “You’re right next to that person, so you can model yourself on that idea, that you, as a person, can also do this,” Maslanka said.

    Jere Hutcheson, a composition professor at MSU, came to East Lansing just to study with Reed. Reed’s meticulous scoring and his familiarity with large ensembles, especially percussion, amazed Hutcheson.

    “Owen’s music had integrity,” Hutcheson said. “I never felt there was any fluff there. Every note was important.”

    Soon after Maslanka enrolled at MSU, he became Reed’s copyist, a big job in the pre-computer age.

    The first project Reed gave Maslanka was a revision of his opera, “Michigan Dreams,” a vigorous, tuneful epic about lumberjacks in the north country written to commemorate MSU’s centennial. The student copied out a 525-page orchestral score by hand. Maslanka called the opera, which has fallen into obscurity, “bright, vibrant Americana” typical of the ‘50s, with Coplandesque open chords and lively folk melodies.

    Reed scored his biggest hit with a halfhour wind band spectacular, “La Fiesta Mexicana,” a huge seller on vinyl. “Fiesta” surged with energy and ideas inspired by Reed’s stay in Mexico in the ‘40s, and is still a staple of the wind band repertoire.

    Nowadays, it’s no big deal for wind bands to tackle big, serious pieces the same way symphony orchestras do. Next month, MSU’s wind ensemble goes to Carnegie Hall to play John Corigliano’s massive “Circus Maximus.” On YouTube, you can find wind bands and marching bands across the nation blasting out meaty stuff from Dmitri Shostakovich to Carl Orff.

    Reed helped make that world. Maslanka called “Fiesta” a “marking point in the world for the wind ensemble movement.”

    Back in the ‘70s, Reed told his students they could only write one piece for wind ensemble. Write two, he told them, and you lose your cred for good. Reed broke that rule, and others followed. Maslanka is one of the few living composers in active rotation at symphony and band concerts across the country.

    Hundreds of Reed’s works were published and performed, but he never cherished any illusions about getting rich as a composer. Over the years, he was asked many times for the one piece of advice he would give to a young composer starting out. The tart sound bite was always ready, sweetened by his Missouri lilt.

    “If you would rather compose than eat, compose!” he said.