Dick’s Forum – No. 16
While working on my masters at the University of Redlands I enrolled in Barney Childs’ class in the History of American Music. Barney, an American composer, was a bit of a legend at the University and I wanted to take advantage of his knowledge and experience and get to know him better. This class seemed a good way to do that.
Eleven students appeared for the first class period, four the next. By the third class period I was sitting in the room alone, everyone else had departed for reasons unknown. Patiently, Barney explained to me that he should drop the class as there was obviously insufficient enrollment to keep it going. Then he asked what seemed to me an odd question, “What do you think we should do, Dick?’ I explained to him that I enrolled in the class because I wanted to know about the history of American music, to benefit from his knowledge of the subject, and because I wasn’t going to walk away from something that was important to me. He sat quietly a moment or two and told me to meet him daily as scheduled. For the rest of that semester, I was a class of one in his History of American Music class. I never missed a class period and knew at the time I was in a unique situation. However, since my graduation and his death, I have a growing awareness of how blessed I was to spend that semester with him.
Barney was a quietly intense person and his enthusiasm was like some sort of internal engine that ran on perpetual motion. I read and studied for that class with effort unusual for me. I simply did not want to sit with him unprepared with a silly look on my face. He acted as if he respected me and I never wanted to be short of that when with him. Because of him I will forever know about an obscure tune, To Anacreon in Heaven, sometimes known as a British drinking tune, and the role it would play in the history of the United States.
He asked me one day if I had any coins. As it happened I had five pennies in my pocket which I gave him. We had been talking about John Cage, Milton Babbit and Pierre Boulez. He directed me to arrange my five pennies in a pattern on the top of a desk that sat between us. I was to make sure I had it “just right”. I took my time, carefully considering various arrangements, angles, and patterns before announcing that I had it. He pondered my result then picked up the five pennies and casually threw them on the desktop allowing them to take whatever pattern they would. He looked at me with his “did you get it” look. I realized we had been talking that one school of thought was that everything in music should be carefully managed and controlled pitch, dynamics, articulation, and another school of thought was that nothing should be controlled, everything left to chance, with the interesting thought that maybe both led to the same result. Such was my semester with Barney.
We got to know each other well that semester with growing respect and interest. I am honored to have known Barney, you can get to know him also, just plug his name into any search engine.
After I graduated I was told that during the assembly for my graduating class Barney was making a few comments and asked for me by name, as if to say something to me. I wasn’t there. A lost moment and a disappointment I will carry to my grave.