Composer Eric Stokes,
an irreplaceable teacher, colleague, and friend to many, died in an automobile
accident on March 16, 1999 in Minneapolis, MN. He was 68. This tribute
is adapted from remarks prepared in part by Arnold Walker and read by
Homer Lambrecht at a memorial service held on March 21, 1999, in Minneapolis.
"All of us who knew and loved him have composed our own biographies
of Eric Stokes. I am confident of one thing: that all such biographies
are different. They will differ depending on how long we knew him, and
how well. And they will differ depending on whether we knew him as a composer,
a conductor, a singer, a teacher, a cook, a poet, a gardener, a businessman,
a woodsman... or some combination of these. What follows, then, is just
one of the countless possible accounts of Eric's life, along with some
personal reflections on his legacy.
Eric Norman Stokes was born on July 14, 1930, in Haddon Heights, New Jersey,
about ten miles southeast of Philadelphia. His father, Elliot, was director
of the Philadelphia office of an import-export firm. His mother, Marie
Louise, was the artistic influence - a woman of sharp musical insight,
although she played no instrument but was a good vocalist.
Eric took piano lessons and sang in school choirs in Haddon Heights. He
started composing while still in school and loved the activity, and also
perhaps, the time he spend recovering from polio aided in providing time
to consider the proposition. By the time he went off to Lawrence College
(now Lawrence University) in Wisconsin, he had decided on a musical career.
Finishing his Bachelor of Music degree in 1952, he wanted immediately
to go on to graduate studies but was slowed by two years in the army,
where he became a corporal and was assigned to teach new recruits about
chemical warfare. He developed a profound distaste for military life,
but did have the pleasure of knowing Willie Mays, his bunk mate and future
After his discharge, Eric moved to Boston, earning his Master of Music
degree at the New England Conservatory in 1956. This was followed by a
productive year at the Montalvo Artists' Retreat. In 1959 he married Cynthia
Crain in her home town of Rochester, New York, and returned to the midwest
to begin doctoral studies at the University of Minnesota.
His first faculty appointment was to the University's General College,
where he taught music and other subjects. It was a wonderful environment
in which to hone his sometimes unorthodox teaching methods. He then moved
on to the University's Department of Music, which remained his base until
his retirement in 1988.
Eric's 29 years at the University of Minnesota were busy ones - the core
of his creative life. In the '60's he collaborated with Tom Nee to present
new music in the pioneering Here Concerts series at the Walker Art Center.
In 1970 he founded the University's electronic music laboratory, and in
1971 he organized the First Minnesota Moving and Storage Warehouse Band,
a contemporary music ensemble.
His first opera, Horspfal, commissioned by the Center Opera Company
(now the Minnesota Opera) was produced in 1969 at the Guthrie Theatre.
Many other arresting compositions, large and small, date from this same
period. He was involved with the Minnesota Composers Forum from its earliest
years, and served as President of its Board of Directors from 1991 to
Cynthia meanwhile established herself as one of the premier flutists in
the Twin Cities, and the two of them collaborated in producing Martha
Stokes (b. 1963), a violinist, saxophonist, and dancer living in California,
and Ben Stokes (b. 1965), now a composer and filmmaker in Chicago.
Of course Eric continued to compose after his retirement. His opera Apollonia's
Circus, written with longtime friend and collaborator Al Greenberg,
was produced in 1994 at the University with Vern Sutton as director and
another old friend, David Zinman, as conductor. One of Eric's last commissions
was a large-scale work for chorus, band, and narrator titled Out of the
Cradle; its premiere will be given at the University next year. On the
day he died, Eric had lunched with Al Greenberg to discuss the new opera
on which they were planning to work this summer in Bellagio, Italy.
In all, Eric composed over 80 works, ranging in length from a few minutes
to several hours. He received commissions from dozens of the leading orchestras,
festivals, and schools in the country, and his compositions have been
performed across the United States and abroad.
His was a unique voice in American music. He was a genuine original, justly
compared with Ives, Cage, and Henry Brant. A sense of grandeur, a love
of nature, and a need for personal freedom were central to both the man
and his work. Nicolas Slonimsky, in Baker's Biographical Dictionary
of Musicians (8th ed.), records that he was "variously described
as a crusty, eccentric, wonderfully humorous, very healthy and resourceful
American composer of gentle, witty, lyrically accessible music, with a
taste for folkloric Americana and a 'Whitmanesque' ear." To this
I would add that he possessed a strong narrative gift and a relish for
the shape and tang of words - qualities that made his vocal music, in
particular, so unforgettable. "
A personal remembrance
by Homer Lambrecht:
"I loved Eric for his "magic" thinking, that is, logical
thinking with fuzzy edges. By "magic" I mean that he viewed
the world with the wonderment of a child: he found fascination, fantasy,
and fun everywhere around him. By "fuzzy edges" I mean that
he delighted in blurring the distinction between imagination and reality.
He could write symphonies overflowing with beauty, novelty, and intellectual
provocation, but could also find an entrancing music in the natural world
- even in the lowly rock, as evoked in his marvelous Rock and Roll
(in which the players hit rocks together and roll them across the floor).
I always admired his ability to marry fantasy and reality, to smudge the
line between what has been and what could be. His unbounded wonder was
informed but never dimmed by the wisdom of learning and experience.
On one occasion in the late 1970's, Eric and I were eating - food was
among his great passions - after several hard-fought games of racquetball.
(We played together for nearly 25 years.) We were discussing "ecologies"
- ecologies of nature, of music, of social groups. I shared with him some
ideas of the anthropologist Gregory Bateson that had influenced me. Eric
responded with enchanting and energetic verses about nature and its magic.
He then articulated what I have since come to regard as the essence of
his thinking: his suffusing of everyday reality with a singular, vitalizing
imagination, intent on challenging the accepted borders between art, nature,
So today, when my hearing, seeing, and thinking become clouded by parochialisms,
I reach for my wallet and read from a credit card sleeve which I have
carried since that conversation, on which the following sentence is inscribed:
"I saw some reality going around the corner the other day but it
eluded me." - Eric Stokes, 1979
I shall cherish Eric's inimitable fancy and his penetrating life vision,
and will continue to carry his words with me as an antidote to my own
parochial leanings. And I am certain that, even more than his words, Eric's
music is destined for a long and fruitful career - a career of inspiriting
and gladdening anyone fortunate enough to hear it. If it is true that
we live as long as we are remembered, Eric Stokes's life is far from over."