Making music history
When President Robert Glidden decided to commission a piece of music for Ohio University's bicentennial, he set high standards. He wanted a substantial piece of music, by a University composer, that would mark the occasion but also be independent of it so it could be performed for years to come.
"Mark will write a piece of substance that also will be accessible to listeners," Glidden predicts. "I'm hoping the piece will be one that will receive performances in other venues in future years, with the inscription that it was composed on commission for the Ohio University bicentennial."
Phillips, though, was a bit perplexed. The president's June 2001 charge was to create a composition that would interpret the University's history and celebrate its bicentennial but that wouldn't be tied specifically to either -- directions that at first seemed antithetical.
It took Phillips nearly 15 months to decide how to resolve the problem. He began by immersing himself in the University's development: poring through archives, reading various histories and talking with Betty Hollow, editor of a soon-to-be-released commemorative book featuring personal memories of alumni, faculty and staff.
"Establishing a balance," Phillips says, "was the first issue for me as an artist."
Through his research, he developed an outline for a 30-minute multimedia piece incorporating live and electronic music, dance, projected images, lighting, sets and costumes. The movements will be framed by video projections depicting key themes in the University's history and the impact major national and international events had on the institution. The movements themselves will expand on those themes musically.
"The framing devices will be very concrete, featuring actual images," Phillips says. "The movements will be more abstract and could be interpreted in a number of ways."
Interpreting the music will be a job for Lisa Ford Moulton, associate professor of dance, who will choreograph the presentation. This will mark the pair's third collaboration. In 1999, Phillips invited Moulton to choreograph and perform a dance for his composition, "My Aunt Gives Me a Clarinet Lesson." A year later, Moulton asked Phillips to alter and arrange selections from the Sammy Kaye Orchestra for a School of Dance concert.
"Mark values my opinion, and we have a lot of good communication," Moulton says. "He always gave me free rein artistically."
The two work similarly, spending nearly as much time thinking about a piece as they do with the more concrete aspects of creating it.
"Thinking and planning are a big component of a work," Phillips says. "I have to get my hands around the parameters of a piece and how it's going to develop."
Phillips started the actual writing in November 2002; rehearsals should begin this fall, although Phillips doesn't expect to have the entire piece completed until January 2004, just a month before the composition will have its world premiere at the Feb. 18 Founders Day celebration.
"There will be a big push this year," Phillips says. "I've told people not to expect much else from me between now and then."
People have been expecting a lot from Phillips since 1982, when he won the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers' Raymond Hubbell Award to Young Composers as a doctoral student at Indiana University. Two years later, he joined the faculty at Ohio University and soon was amassing many more awards, including Standard Awards from ASCAP every year since 1988. He's also earned University recognition as an artist and teacher, including four awards from the provost's office recognizing outstanding teaching and two Baker Fund Awards. In 1999, Glidden named Phillips a Presidential Research Scholar, a five-year appointment.
That's not bad for a guy who recalls being "dragged off to piano lessons as a kid" and who didn't really commit to music as a career until he was almost out of high school. The turning point came when Phillips, who played trombone, was invited to participate in an all-state honors band. For the first time, he found himself surrounded by musicians whose abilities matched or exceeded his own.
He entered West Virginia University in 1970 as a music major in performance but increasingly became interested in composition. Like many musicians in the late 1960s and early '70s, he dabbled in writing and performing his own folk songs. But friends began asking him to arrange music for them, and Phillips started thinking about how music is written and why composers make certain choices.
He still wasn't sure about composition, though, even as he began graduate studies at Indiana. Phillips credits Fred Fox, his teacher and mentor at Indiana, for encouraging him to stick with writing.
"I've never looked back since," he says.
Now, of course, he's doing nothing but looking back - at Ohio University's history. This time, though, the job is to put the past to music with an eye toward posterity.
That's exactly what Glidden had in mind. A former music faculty member at Indiana University and dean of the music schools at Bowling Green and Florida State, Glidden has a personal motivation for commissioning the piece.
"Music lasts," he says.
Corinne Colbert, BSJ '87 and MA '93, is a freelance writer living in Amesville, Ohio.
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