A Master Communicator: Remembering H. Owen Reed (1910-2014)

A Master Communicator: Remembering H. Owen Reed (1910-2014)

[Ed. Note: When Elliott Carter died in 2012 only a month shy of his 104th birthday the news made international headlines and even landed on the front page of The New York Times. In a great many of the memorials to Carter, writers opined about how he had been the last surviving composer of his generation, a link to a past which we no longer had. But another significant centenarian, H. Owen Reed, survived him, a composer with albeit a somewhat different, but also exemplary, career trajectory.

A Francophile as was Carter, Reed, who was born in Odessa, Missouri in 1910, obtained his Bachelor’s Degree in French in 1937 shortly after receiving Bachelor and Master’s Degrees in Music from Louisiana State University. But rather than going to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, as Carter had done a few years earlier, Reed, who also counted among his most significant compositional mentors an important female pedagogue, Helen M. Gunderson (1909-1997), enrolled at the Eastman School of Music where—under the tutelage of Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers—he obtained a Ph.D. just two years later in 1939. Private studies followed with Roy Harris, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and Bohuslav Martinu, among others. He was honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1949 which resulted in his spending six months in Mexico studying local folk music. That experience informed what his arguably his most popular composition, La Fiesta Mexicana, a work which has been performed all over the world and has appeared on numerous wind band albums since its premiere recording under the direction of the legendary Frederick Fennell. Because of the success of this composition, Reed has been credited with kindling many composers’ interest in writing for wind ensembles, something he continued to do extensively throughout his long career, although his output also encompassed works for symphony orchestra, chamber ensembles, and opera. While he might not be categorized as an avant-gardist, many of his scores explored unconventional musical notations and extended techniques. He composed extensively for jazz groups as well and his Latin-tinged “El Muchacho” was recorded by Cal Tjader.

A lifelong learner, into his late 60s, Reed was still embarking on field trips, traveling to Norway and the Caribbean to study the traditional music of those regions. His immersion in Native American culture, which involved extended stays at tribal reservations in Arizona and New Mexico inspired a trilogy of chamber operas based on Native American folktales. And Reed also remained active as a jazz performer, leading combos since his early 20s. Just last year, at the age of 102, he was still improvising at the piano.

Among Reed’s most important legacies was his devotion to younger composers. He spent four decades teaching composition at Michigan State University where he remained Professor Emeritus after his retirement in 1976. His many students included David Maslanka and Adophus Hailstork as well as the late Clare Fischer (1928-2012) who, in addition to his own compositions, arranged music for artists ranging from Dizzy Gillespie and the Hi-Los to Prince and Celine Dion. Reed also authored nine books which remain important reference materials for music students.

After learning of Reed’s death on January 6, it seemed most appropriate to contact someone who had ties to him both as a student and a professional colleague and someone who shared his passions for both contemporary composition and jazz improvisation. So we approached composer/percussionist Charles Ruggiero who had a nearly half century-long friendship with Dr. Reed (as he called him throughout his life), first as his student and subsequently as a fellow composition teacher at MSU. Ruggiero’s detailed account of that remarkable relationship offers those of us who were never fortunate enough to get to know H. Owen Reed, a personal sense of who he was as a composer, teacher, and human being. Another Reed alum and MSU faculty colleague, composer Jere Hutcheson, who actually knew Reed even longer than Ruggiero, has contributed some additional comments herein as well. —FJO]


Charles Ruggiero and H. Owen Reed

Charles Ruggiero and H. Owen Reed at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp

I first learned of Michigan State University’s music program circa 1966 when I participated in the Villanova Jazz Festival as the drummer for the New England Conservatory’s jazz band. Supplemented by a lead trumpet player ringer from the Berklee College of Music, our band played well at Villanova, but we weren’t able to stay at the festival very long, so we didn’t hear many performances by other bands. On the long bus ride back to Boston, several NEC band members expressed optimism about our chances of winning the award for the best big band. However, the next day our faculty advisor told us that although we had played very well, the Conservatory’s band hadn’t been awarded the first-, second-, or even third-place award. The winning big band at Villanova that year was the MSU Jazz Ensemble. A few years later, when I decided to pursue a Ph.D., I placed Michigan State near the top of my short list, since in addition to having a strong doctoral composition program, MSU also offered excellent jazz performance opportunities and advanced courses in jazz arranging—just the curricular combination I was hoping to find!

Five of the six graduate programs I had applied to communicated with me mostly by mail, but H. Owen Reed personally called me several times while I was making my decision about where I would pursue my graduate degrees. He answered all the questions I had about MSU, the University’s composition program, the Lansing area, and the State of Michigan. Neither my wife, Pat, nor I had ever been to Michigan. We both were New Englanders who had been brought up in Connecticut and had spent much time vacationing in the mountains of New Hampshire. From our study of maps, Pat and I discovered that there were no mountains anywhere near Lansing, Michigan, and we were concerned that mid-Michigan might be a rather dull and foreign-looking place to live.

Dr. Reed (to signal my respect, I always addressed him that way), who had spent some time in Massachusetts, assured us that Michigan was a wonderful place to live. He told us that in the UP (which we eventually figured out meant a place many hours away from Lansing, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan) there were some small but beautiful mountains and that in the Lower Peninsula there were lots of hilly areas similar to those found throughout the lower New England states. That sounded good to us. But what Dr. Reed told us about Michigan hills and mountains turned out not to be completely true. There are no mountains in Michigan that are even remotely similar to those found in New Hampshire, and real hills, like those one frequently encounters on bicycle rides in New England, are extremely hard to find! But Dr. Reed’s sales pitch wasn’t all bunk; we discovered after living in the Lansing area for several years, that Michigan, at least large chunks of it, are indeed quite beautiful.

When I told Dr. Reed that another Big Ten university had offered me a good paying half-time assistantship to teach percussion but that I wanted to focus more on composition and music theory and to study with him, it took him only a few days to call me back and offer me two assistantships, one in music theory and one working at WKAR-TV. I was delighted and honored that Dr. Reed had done this; it suggested not only that he really wanted me to come to MSU but also that he was proactive and capable of making things happen quickly even in an institution as large, complex, and often slow-moving as a Big Ten university.

It’s still not clear to me why Dr. Reed so actively recruited me. He always was supportive of me as a composer, in a general way, but at least early on in our relationship I think he was more impressed with my work as a percussionist than as a composer. Included with my application portfolio of compositions were recordings of me playing both one of my works for vibraphone and voice and a transcription for marimba of Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor. Scoring for Percussion, an innovative and useful text written by Dr. Reed and Joel T. Leach was published in 1969, and in 1971 Dr. Reed still was strongly interested in all things percussive! Perhaps he was impressed by my recording of the Chopin and the fact that I was the percussion instructor at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, or, more likely, my credentials as a jazz drummer swayed him.

My 1971 MSU application included a very brief letter of recommendation written by John Mehegan. In the year before moving to Michigan, I had studied jazz theory and improvisation with Mehegan and then had become a member of his Connecticut-based jazz trio. (For his New York gigs, Mehegan used Art Blakey and other NYC-based drummers.) Mehegan was also a prominent jazz theorist, pianist, and critic (writing for Down Beat, the New York Herald Tribune, and other publications) who taught jazz improvisation at such prestigious schools as Julliard and Yale University as well as at Tanglewood in Massachusetts. From the 1940s on, Mehegan was at times very closely associated with Leonard Bernstein. H. Owen Reed had worked with Bernstein at Tanglewood in the early 1940s and may have been aware of Mehegan’s relationship with Bernstein. In any case, I was very pleased that Dr. Reed had accepted me into his composition studio, even if it was largely because of my work as a jazz drummer with Mehegan’s trio.

(From Dr. Reed’s earliest musical experiences as a Missouri boy studying piano—just after the peak of the ragtime craze and the emergence of stride piano—to his college days when he played trumpet in dance bands, to his years playing piano as a member of MSU’s Geriatric Six faculty jazz group during the last decade of his teaching career, he was inspired by jazz and thoroughly enjoyed performing it to the best of his abilities. He never claimed to be a great improviser or to possess extraordinary instrumental technique, but he surely did enjoy playing jazz, especially when surrounded by friends.)


I arrived in East Lansing in the summer of 1971 with great expectations about my studies as an MSU graduate composition major, but I soon was surprised and quite disappointed to discover that MSU’s jazz program had gone into a state of rapid entropy. The program had been founded in 1960 by Dr. Gene Hall (who had established the first degree-granting jazz program in the United States at North Texas State Teachers College) and had quickly developed into one of the best in the nation, led by such talented graduate assistants as George West and Bob Curnow, but by 1971, MSU’s jazz program was essentially leaderless and in shambles. On the other hand, I found studying with Dr. Reed to be a very positive experience. And I learned much from my work as a music theory teaching assistant and as a score reader and producer’s assistant at WKAR-TV, MSU’s public television station, which back then produced new 30-minute classical music shows every two weeks or so.

Some Additional Memories from
Jere Hutcheson

Owen and I remained close friends from the time I arrived at Michigan State University in 1963. I had chosen MSU for my doctoral study because of Owen’s reputation. In a sense, our relationship went back further than that. Both Owen and I had earned our MM degrees at Louisiana State, and in both cases Helen Gunderson was our major composition teacher. Owen was Gunderson’s first student with a graduate degree in composition, and I was her last. Gunderson spoke of Owen often, and she encouraged several of her students to apply to MSU’s doctoral composition program.

Owen was a natural-born leader. When a newly appointed director of MSU’s music department passed away suddenly, Owen was elected to complete the year as interim director. He was active in the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA), serving as chairman of its theory-composition section. When MSU was preparing to celebrate its centennial year, Owen was selected to compose an opera to commemorate the anniversary: thus sprang Michigan Dream. Owen was active on the faculty council that conceived and built the University Club. I suspect that his experience as the leader of his own jazz combos during his college days is where this quality for leadership began.

What do I owe to Owen Reed as a teacher? Owen was meticulous in matters of score preparation. This was especially important when composing for large ensembles, especially orchestra and band. He was also very knowledgeable in the area of percussion instruments, their special uses and notations.

Owen’s music had integrity. I never felt that there was any fluff there; every note was important. All of us who studied with him gained from his musical insight and from the integrity of his thinking.

There were other talented composers on MSU’s faculty in the early ’70s, including James Niblock and Jere Hutcheson, but Dr. Reed was the recognized leader of the composition area. He made all of the major decisions about the area’s admissions and degree programs, and he taught all or almost all of the graduate majors. When classes were in session, every Thursday from 3 to 5 in the afternoon, Dr. Reed held his seminars for composition majors in his large office on the fourth floor of the Music Practice Building, an office that was part of a two-room studio suite designed built for his exclusive use. By the 1970s, he was well connected in the field of composition, so there was a steady stream of established composers who presented their music and ideas about composition to his seminars. Most of these sessions were relaxed, somewhat informal, unscripted, and generally practical in nature; rarely did Dr. Reed or his guests talk about aesthetics, complex analytical systems, or other “erudite subjects.”

Although H. Owen Reed had written college-level textbooks on various aspects of “basic” music theory in the 1950s and ’60s, during my years of study with him, Dr. Reed very rarely discussed matters of tonal or atonal theory with me. Maybe by the ’70s he had decided that MSU students should study these topics with other members of the faculty. Or perhaps his then intense interest in percussion and notation, and his desire to focus his students’ attention on these topics, especially notation, left little lesson time for other things to be explored.

I thought my studies with Dr. Reed would be similar to the composition lessons I had taken at New England Conservatory, where normally each week I got a short assignment designed to help me develop specific techniques (mostly traditional contrapuntal and motivic variation techniques), but it turned out that most of my lessons with Dr. Reed were quite different. I had hoped Dr. Reed would help me better understand pitch structures in 20th-century music, explore new concepts of musical form, write more effectively for large ensembles, etc. Instead, for most of my lessons, Dr. Reed simply would have me show him what I had been working on during the past week, and then he would comment on, make suggestions for changes in, and ask questions about what I had written. Often, he would offer some praise and encouragement early in the lesson and then give me some advice on changes I might consider making. Sometimes, he would show me music he was composing, arranging, or notating at the time, pointing out details in his scores illustrating things he thought, perhaps, I should consider using in my music. Often, he would talk about various other things that were on his mind, not just music topics, but a recurring “theme” of my lessons with Dr. Reed was notation—all aspects of notation, including how to produce scores using a particular type of transparent film (large quantities of which Dr. Reed purchased with grant money) that he had recently adopted in place of traditional onionskin music paper—this was, of course, before most people had easy access to photocopiers and personal computers, both of which technologies have radically changed the way music is composed, notated, printed, and distributed.

In the early 1970s, Dr. Reed and many other members of the MSU community of composers were much interested in the latest music of George Crumb and other younger members of the art music avant-garde. Most of the things that fascinated us about such works as Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children (1970), Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death (1971), Lux Aeterna for Five Masked Musicians (1972), and Vox Balaenae for Three Masked Players (1972), were at least partly notational in nature. It’s not by coincidence that all four of these Crumb works were published as facsimiles of the composer’s handwritten manuscripts. Traditional music notation, especially when typeset, simply wasn’t a flexible or rich enough symbolic language to express Crumb’s musical conceptions in meaningful, accurate, detailed, and performer-friendly ways.

Led by Dr. Reed, many MSU graduate composers were interested in finding ways to: specify indeterminate pitches and rhythms in our scores; clearly notate passages in which freer rhythms and arhythmic materials are combined with more traditionally notated rhythms; graphically represent the textures of our music more clearly than was possible using only traditional notation; notate “special” or “extended” instrumental techniques in coherent ways; provide performers with helpful markings and instructions that would increase the likelihood of having our music played well; etc. This was interesting stuff, to be sure, but scouring recent scores for innovative notations and figuring out the best ways of using the new film transparencies became almost an obsession for some of us at the time.

Although to this day I wish Dr. Reed had given me at least some technical exercises during my composition studies with him, over the years, as a composition teacher myself, I’ve come to a better understanding and appreciation of Dr. Reed’s composition pedagogy. With me, instead of following a pre-determined study plan, Dr. Reed dealt with issues as they arose in my writing, and while this didn’t allow for systematic development of compositional technique, other than notational technique, it did allow Dr. Reed to focus my attention on several very important matters. I think Dr. Reed’s game plan was to encourage me, primarily through focused praise of whatever kinds of music I wanted to compose, gradually building my trust in his judgment to the point where he could then make very critical comments about my work that I would take seriously but which would not discourage me from composing. I feel that this approach works well with many young composition students.


Like most teachers, H. Owen Reed had his “pet theories” and recommended practices that he reinforced by repetition. One of these was something I call prescriptive theory of compensating parameters. I can’t remember his own name for it. Anyway, his theory stipulated that when one or more parameters (melody and harmony, for example) become more complex, other parameters (perhaps rhythm and texture) should become less complex. When applied simplistically or rigidly, this idea becomes little more than a bromide, but I’ve come to appreciate its value. Although Dr. Reed’s theory of compensating parameters ran somewhat counter to the maximalist ideas of mid-20th-century composers like Milton Babbitt, at its core it reflected Dr. Reed’s profound understanding of what, how much, and how rapidly the human ear and brain can process music.

H. Owen Reed was a master communicator. I believe he was capable of holding at least a 15-minute conversation with just about any English-speaking person, regardless of that individual’s background, education, occupation, etc., at the end of which the other person quite likely would be thinking: “What a nice guy he is!” As host of his annual end-of-year party for his students at his Okemos home, Dr. Reed would charm all the young spouses of his male students, emphasizing his Missouri accent and turning on his genuine Southern charm. The next day, though, he could be perfectly at ease exchanging ribald limericks with some old colleagues. And when serious decisions had to be made, Dr. Reed could be quite businesslike, analytical, and ready and able to express his views as forcefully as necessary to make his points.

One of the things I learned from Dr. Reed is that there are times and contexts when it’s appropriate to discuss almost any topic, and other times and contexts when it is completely inappropriate to discuss almost anything. I remember being backstage with Dr. Reed at MSU’s Fairchild Theatre after a recital by Paul Zukofsky and Gilbert Kalish, during which they played the Ravel Sonata for Violin and Piano. On the other side of the stage one older member of the MSU string faculty was rather vehemently expressing to Zukofsky his disapproval of the inclusion of the Ravel sonata on the program because of its use of jazz and blues elements. Overhearing these comments, astonished and embarrassed, I intended to express my very different opinion of the Ravel sonata, and started to walk to the other side of the stage. But before I had taken two steps, H. Owen Reed grabbed me with one hand and locked my arm with his other arm, so that I couldn’t move. Although I hadn’t told him of my intentions, Dr. Reed had read my mind, and had determined that this was neither the time nor place for me to express my support of jazz in the concert hall!

Another time, many years later, after a concert in his honor at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Michigan, many people, including some of the students who had just played his music, surrounded the famous ancient composer, telling him how much they enjoyed his compositions, how great he looked, how excited and honored they were to meet him and speak with him, etc. Dr. Reed smiled at each person he spoke with and told all of the student performers how beautifully they played his music and how much he enjoyed the program. After the crowd of Reed admirers dispersed, I paid my respects to my former teacher. We had a nice chat, some pictures were taken of the two of us, etc. Then I asked Dr. Reed if he enjoyed the performances of his music that he had just heard. The smile on his face straightened, he moved closer to me, and in a very serious soft voice he told me that his hearing had deteriorated so much that listening to live performances of his music was literally painful because of the consistently loud distortion of the high frequencies he had to contend with whenever he heard even moderately loud music.

Unquestionably the most important thing I took away from my composition lessons with H. Owen Reed was to have the courage and good sense to write the kind of music that I really want to write. Early on in my studies with Dr. Reed, I was struggling with an orchestra piece. I thought that I had a “good concept” for the work, but I had spent many hours working on it with relatively little music to show for all my time and efforts. The piece was consistently atonal, texturally dense, and rhythmically complex with no clear metric framework. At one of my composition lessons around the middle of the term, after he had noticed my lack of progress with the orchestra piece for several weeks, Dr. Reed studied my current draft of the score for a minute or two and then asked me why I hadn’t incorporated any jazz elements into the music I had brought to my lessons. I was stunned. He knew I was active as a jazz performer and arranger, and I knew that he was a true jazz enthusiast, but my composition lessons at New England Conservatory and my sense of what kinds of music graduate composition majors were “supposed to write” hadn’t allowed me to draw upon jazz in my “serious” compositions. Dr. Reed’s question opened the creative floodgates for me and helped me decide on the direction I would take as an artist for the rest of my life—a path that would take some courage but would allow me to speak with my own voice as a composer. That one lesson was worth the price of four years of MSU composition credits.


I’m sure that Dr. Reed had definite opinions about the music and careers of at least a few dozen of his former students, but when speaking with me, he always was a diplomat par excellence. In the 1970s and ’80s, I heard him cite the accomplishments of several of his former students enough times to conclude that he felt all of them were among a select group; the former students he mentioned most often to me were (in alphabetical order), Dinos Constantinides, Adolphus Hailstork, Jere Hutcheson, David Maslanka, and Bill Penn. I’m pretty sure Dr. Reed did not like their compositions (or those of any other of his students) as much as he admired some of the music of one of his teachers, Howard Hanson, but he certainly considered all five of these composers major talents. I find it interesting that I don’t have even the slightest hint about which of his former students Dr. Reed might have thought was the “best” or “most successful” composer. In the nearly 45 years I knew him, I can’t remember a single comment Dr. Reed made to me or to anyone else¬ that could be interpreted to suggest he felt any of his students was a better or more successful composer than any other of his many talented musical disciples—except, perhaps, for comments he made freely and frequently about one of his former students who attended MSU in the early 1950s.

If there was one student whom H. Owen Reed was the most proud of and whose music he liked the most, it probably was the jazz composer, arranger, pianist, bandleader, and Latin-jazz Grammy Award winner Clare Fischer (1928-2012). Typically, whether he was telling me about Clare Fischer’s days as an MSU music major, about Fischer’s latest jazz recording, or about Fischer’s arranging work for some pop-music superstar, subtle changes in Dr. Reed’s tone of voice and body language suggested to me that he felt Clare Fischer was unique among his students, a one-of-a-kind genius who had both exceptional musical skills and wide-ranging professional accomplishments that were unlike those of any of his other former students.

However, if Dr. Reed could have read the previous paragraph and if I could have asked him about it, I’m sure he would have said something like: “No, I don’t think what you’ve written is correct. Clare was a fine arranger and a fine composer, but I wouldn’t say he was a better composer than David or Jere, etc. And Clare’s greatest accomplishments were in jazz and popular music….” I’m sure Dr. Reed would have fine-tuned his diplomatic response so that it would have pleased (or at least not displeased) any former student mentioned.

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2 thoughts on “A Master Communicator: Remembering H. Owen Reed (1910-2014)

  1. Mark N. Grant

    It’s a curious coincidence, and a hilarious pun, that two of America’s composers best known for wind band music were named Reed (H. Owen and Alfred). A double pun, if you think about double reeds.

  2. Track Larenberg

    One has to wonder in the light of the major press Elliott Carter received on his death, why H. O. Reed has not received an obituary in a single national publication and it will be interesting to see what happens in that regard when, the last composer of that era, Roy Douglas dies.

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