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NOW ONE of the world’s leading composers, Rodney Sharman, PhD ’91, was first introduced to UB in the 1980s when he would travel from Toronto to hear lectures by the legendary Morton Feldman in the music department.
“The university had the second largest music library in the U.S., and I certainly took advantage of it as a student.” Years later, he says, the amount of orchestral repertoire he learned at UB gave him an enormous advantage when serving as a composer in residence with three orchestras.
Sharman’s more than 100 works, which take many forms including opera and ballet, have been performed in 30 countries, but he also is proud of how he has improved the environment for Canadian composers in his home city of Vancouver. Since he became composer in residence in 1997 (holding this post until 2001), the Vancouver Symphony has premiered more new Canadian pieces than any other orchestra worldwide.
When was the last time you visited UB?
About five years ago, when David Felder took me on a tour of the Center for the Arts. Marvelous!Rodney Sharman
Listed among “Canada’s most respected experimental composers” by The Toronto Globe and Mail in 2010, Sharman says his ideas often come from the acoustical properties of instruments. “I am a sensualist, and my music reflects my love of instruments and voices.”
—Mara McGinnis, BA ’97, with photo by Victor John Penner
Do you play any instruments?
Flute. I used to play clarinet and I play piano badly. I sing too.
How did you do your homework and/or research papers before Google or the Internet?
Much as good music students do their work now—with scores, recordings and books! When I went to UB, there was emphasis on original research. I wasn’t permitted to do my academic dissertation on a deceased composer’s work. I had to write a paper with the full cooperation of a living composer who would give me firsthand information.
Favorite UB class or professor?
Without question, the late Morton Feldman’s orchestration class, which was followed immediately by his composition seminar. This was often delivered as a five- to seven-hour lecture, filled with insights, provocation and comedy. Morton Feldman was a talker, and said we students thought of him as a cross between [philosopher] Ludwig Wittgenstein and [actor] Zero Mostel, which was not far from the truth.
Proudest moment since graduating?
One was the performance of “The Ruins Proclaim the Building Was Beautiful” for choreographer James Kudelka danced by the San Francisco Ballet at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. The ending of the music is arresting and the choreography is amazing. You could hear a pin drop in the hall during the last three minutes of the piece.
Do you keep in touch with UB friends today?
Yes, with pianist Anthony de Mare [MFA ’83], for whom I have written most of my piano music. I’m also in touch with former professors and friends who are working artists in Buffalo.
What advice do you have for current UB students? “If I knew then what I know now...”
Go to Slee Hall for the ongoing cycle of Beethoven String Quartets gratis! [The series is still free to UB music majors, with a nominal charge for nonmajors.] The Slee family has ensured that all the Beethoven Quartets are played every year. I only went to a couple of these concerts. If I had my degree to do over again, I would have gone to every concert.
If you could have had one technological advancement/device here now that wasn’t around in the 1990s, what would it be?
A cell phone!
What do you think is different (both better and worse) for students today compared with when you went to UB?
The music program is now located in a marvelous facility. We had two concert halls with excellent acoustics in the late 1980s when I went to UB and a fine electro-acoustic music studio, but the facilities now are remarkable.
Describe your latest composition.
“Notes on Beautiful,” a piano piece commissioned by the Banff Centre for New York pianist and UB graduate Anthony de Mare as part of the “Liaisons” project, based on music from Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George.”
Most memorable UB class?
“Transcribing Medieval Notation” with the late James McKinnon, which had at least 10 hours of homework a week and my only B in four years!
How did UB influence your life and career?
When my teacher, Morton Feldman, died suddenly after my first year of study, David Felder could not have been a more sensitive or good professor for me that semester. The music department then hired a series of star composers: the late Lukas Foss, Louis Andriessen and Frederic Rzewski, and each had an influence on me as an artist and person.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My opera “Elsewhereless” with text and direction by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan.
What do you miss most about your time as a student?
So many things. The warmth of the faculty in particular, and the many times I was invited into the home of Jan and Diane Williams (UB percussion professor and his wife, who played in the Buffalo Philharmonic, especially “the last pesto of summer” with basil from their garden), David Fuller (musicology), the late Yvar Mikhashoff (piano and my dissertation supervisor) and Morton Feldman (composition).
What is your favorite piece of music?
It changes constantly, but these days I am revisiting “Julius Caesar” by G.F. Handel.
David Dorsey is a Rochester-based freelance writer whose credits include Esquire and Fast Company (Dilek Cindoglu, Dexter Johnson, Atif Zafar); Grace Lazzara is a Buffalo-based writer and public relations strategist (Andra Ackerman, Gwen Howard, Bridget Cullen Mandikos); Mara McGinnis, BA ’97, is executive director of communications at Pratt Institute and a New York City-based freelance writer (Randy Asher, Steve Marchese, Rodney Sharman).