Today at a local hangout I met Hudson Valley composer Brian Dewan. I knew the name. We got to talking, and he mentioned a composition teacher of his who had enlarged his view of modern repertoire. Idly curious, I asked who it was. “Joe Wood,” he replied.
I think my glass of wine hit the bar with a thud. “Joe?! Wood?! You went to Oberlin?”
He had, eight years after I did. Joseph Wood (1915-2000) was a composer who had come mainly from the commercial music world. Wikipedia credits him with an arrangement of “Chiquita Banana” for Xavier Cugat, a career in Muzak arrangements, and the choral writing for the musical Brigadoon. Yet he had a 1950 orchestra piece, simply called Poem for Orchestra, on a CRI record. He was my first composition teacher in college, and taught the only orchestration class I ever took. As Brian and I both remembered, he was looked down upon by the hot-shot Oberlin comp students as an old fogey, but we each thought of him as a kindly gentleman. There was a persistent rumor that he had written the Looney-Toons cartoon theme. I never quite believed it, and Brian had actually asked him if it was true. He said Joe looked off into the distance for a long moment and replied with some melancholy, “I never did that.” His taste did seem quite wide-ranging considering his personal Romantic aesthetic; I remember being assigned to orchestrate an early Stockhausen klavierstück, though I can’t imagine what the criteria of success would have been. Brian remembered him praising Ligeti as someone who had never written a bad piece.
Joe Wood gave me what was, for its timing, one of the most comforting compliments I have ever received. We were at the Midwest Composers Symposium in Iowa or some godforsaken place, and ended up walking back together after a concert. He was complaining about some horrible piece we had just heard. The previous evening, I had had a piece played that was a godawful improvisatory graphic score filled with theatrical silliness. Pausing after his diatribe, Joe said, by way of contrast, “Your piece was young, but it had talent.” To say my piece was young was an understatement; it was pompously puerile. To say it showed talent was an outright lie; whatever talent I have, that youthful experiment did not reveal. But for him to say that to a freshman conferred a touching dignity upon me at a time in my life in which dignity was still an unfamiliar thrill. I have not heard his name often in the intervening years, but when I have I have always conferred a reflexive blessing upon it.
I am listening to Poem for Orchestra as I write; I digitized it a few years ago for old time’s sake, and keep it on my hard drive. And I drink a toast tonight to a composer mostly forgotten now, but one whom two former students could think of fondly decades after he gently touched their lives.