Thursday, August 25, 2011

Remembering Fred

Frederick Fox (1931 - 2011)

I heard some very sad news this afternoon. It came, as most of my news now reaches me, via a Twitter feed. Composer Frederick Fox has passed away. He had served as professor of composition at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music for 23 years, 13 of those as chair of the Composition Department. Fred retired from IU in April of 1997 but left a significant legacy both in the founding of the IU New Music Ensemble in 1974 as well as in all of the students he guided over the years.

I never studied privately with Fred during my years at IU (1985 – 1988) but he was surely a huge force both in the Composition Department as well as the whole school. I did have the great fortune, however, of taking orchestration as an independent study with him and did, of course, have an opportunity to take a few lessons with him over the years as well. Much of what I learned about orchestration did not come from a textbook but certainly came from Fred. I will also always remember his very kind words and encouragement about my music when he did have an opportunity to look it over.

More than anything, however, I remember Fred’s irreverent personality. I remember how once he and Donald Erb (my mentor) were irritated at a concert they were attending in the old Recital Hall at IU and began sailing paper airplanes made out of programs from the balcony. (Try getting away with that in these ultra sensitive PC times!) I also remember him relentlessly teasing me about being Greek. I have no idea why…but it was always a source of great amusement to him to refer to me, not by name, but simply as “The Greek.”  This was often followed by an off-color comment and roaring laughter as he ambled down a hallway leaving me bewildered.

There will no doubt be many, many stories told and written about Fred. He was a wonderful, wonderful composer and a fabulous teacher and he will surely be missed. I will leave it to others – those closer to him than I was - to speak more deeply of his work and his influence upon their careers. However, I cannot resist one last story:

When I first arrived in Bloomington, I had to take an aural skills placement exam. I was directed to Fred’s office. Those of you who knew Fred absolutely remember what his office looked like! A cross between Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and the attic of a very eccentric uncle, it even surpassed, in some ways, Donald Erb’s studio in terms of the sheer volume of kitschy artifacts - and that’s saying something! I knocked upon his door tentatively and he flung it open and asked in a gruff voice “You here for the test?” Eyes looking wide as I made my way in, I didn’t answer at first.

“Take that thing off!!!” he bellowed.

Startled from my gazing, I mumbled, “Wha…? Take off what?”

“That tie! Take it off! We don’t wear that stuff around here!”

He then proceeded to rip off my tie. It was a mustard yellow color with little red polka dots and I was very proud of it. A real 1980’s power tie that all the lawyers were wearing on L.A. Law. After he wrangled the tie off of me, he threw it on a hanging pterodactyl swaying lazily from his ceiling – held in place only by fishing line. After my exam was over, he began pushing me out the door. When I feebly asked if I could get my tie back he shouted “NO!” and slammed the door shut.

For the next three years, I would drop by often and visit my tie. It remained draped around the pterodactyl during my entire stay at IU. When the day of my graduation finally arrived, I popped in to say my good-byes and glancing up at the tie I knew that it had become a permanent fixture.

Nearly ten years later, I was teaching as a Visiting Professor of composition at the Georgia State University School of Music. I had recently sent off an immensely talented student to IU. In the spring of 1997, the student came back to visit me after his first year up in Bloomington and told me of Fred’s retirement. He also said that Fred had a gift for me. He handed me a small white box.

It was the tie.

I pray that Fred and Don continue to sail their paper airplanes down to us from their heavenly perches. May their memories be eternal.

1 comment:

  1. I too have very fond memories of Dr Fox (Fred) and also of Donald Erb. Both of whom I had the priviledge of studying with. Fred liked to make fun of me and where I was from and often created his own versions of incantations (of Obeah/witchcraft) when he saw me approaching.

    I remember during a 'meet the composer session' before the premier of one of his works, a young student composer was expressing the different techniques, themes motifs etc used by Dr. Fox in composing the piece. Fred responded by saying that he didn't notice any of thses thing and in his usual provoking manner concluded "I just wrote the damn thing".

    Gairy Knight