Yesterday, my composition teacher Jim Primosch died of cancer. Many of Jim’s colleagues and students have been sharing memories online, and I’d like to offer one here.
Like my fellow Penn composers Melissa Dunphy and Nathan Courtright, I’m remembering one of those lesson moments with him when something big clicked.
This was my last semester of coursework, and I was just starting my dissertation piece—a quixotic evening-length extravaganza for singers and improvising instrumentalists. I had not written any vocal music at Penn, and now I was thinking that I was going to write 60-plus minutes of it.
Jim, on the other hand, writes the most incredible vocal music. I was understandably very nervous about bringing my first ideas in to our lessons. One magical thing about Jim’s vocal music is that he can take texts that are so rich on their own, and write music that fits so perfectly and doesn’t weigh the text down. It’s so hard to do. I reaaalllly wanted to do that in this piece.
So I brought in this poem “Oystercatchers in Flight” by Eamon Grennan, and the beginnings of a solo melodic line. Jim began to read the text and his mouth curled in an impish grin.
“I want to set this text,” he chuckled.
I sang him the line, and then we improvised together, jumping between singing and the piano, thinking about how to activate the breathless run-on sentence of a poem. That moment of recognition gave me the confidence to plunge into writing 70 minutes of vocal music; the confidence that I had something to say.
May Jim rest in piece, and may all who knew and loved him be comforted and sustained.