Remembering UM composer Leslie Bassett

Tuesday, February 9, 2016 - 7:31pm

A month ago I wrote an obituary of sorts for Pierre Boulez. Now I find myself embarking on a similar task, but this time it’s of a far more personal nature. Boulez wasn’t really a part of my life  — Leslie Bassett was.

Leslie Bassett wasn’t nearly as famous as Boulez; consequently, his death hasn’t affected the musical community with the same feeling of enormity as did the Frenchman’s. But within the community of the University of Michigan, its reverberations shook more than a few people.

When Boulez died I felt sad in a disconnected, abstract sort of way. When I heard of Bassett’s death I felt an actual poignant pang of grief, the sort of unpleasant twinge that seems to almost physically shoot through the body and land right in the stomach. He was the very first person to receive a DMA in Composition from the University, and — following a Fulbright Fellowship and a few years studying at École Normale de Musique de Paris and privately with the legendary Nadia Boulanger — he began teaching at the University in 1952. He remained in that capacity for nearly four decades, during which time he received the Pulitzer Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

I have heard it said in the past that Leslie Bassett built the Department of Music Composition at the University up from nothing into one of the leading departments in the country — and certainly his influence is still profoundly felt. My own composition teacher studied with him when he was a student, and whenever he speaks of Bassett I see profound admiration glimmering in his eyes.

Bassett died on Thursday, but I didn’t learn about it until Friday. During Composition Seminar — a class in which all of the students of composition come together to have discussions and share music — my teacher rose to say a few words about the man that had once been his own teacher. I must paraphrase a small bit — and inelegantly at that — as I’m working from memory, but as he spoke my teacher seemed to have a certain amount of heaviness weighing upon him.

“Yesterday one of our predecessors passed away … Leslie Bassett was a wonderful musician, but more importantly he was a wonderful human being. He was kind and caring always, even as he struggled through the hardships of his own life,” he said.

In my composition lessons Leslie Bassett is always present. Hardly two weeks go by without my teacher passing along some piece of advice — either musical or general in nature — from his former teacher. Bassett’s words even serve as a reliable answer to small musical questions. When discussing whether or not a period should be placed after an abbreviation of a musical term in a score, my teacher remarked “let’s see what Leslie Bassett says …” as he moved to look through a Bassett score on the bookshelf. (Bassett agreed with me; a period should be placed after an abbreviation.)

I am connected to Leslie Bassett because of my musical lineage and because of the university I attend — but I am also connected to him far more personally. In one of the curious little ironies in which life loves to dabble, Leslie Bassett retired in the town where I lived. Not in some thriving metropolis with a robust cultural heartbeat — but a small town in rural Georgia whose cultural EKG has more or less flatlined. I could easily imagine that Bassett was the only composer within a 50 mile radius.

I didn’t really know him — he was one of those people in my peripheral, a figure on the fringes of my life — but I met him a few times. When I was much younger, first realizing that I maybe wanted to become a composer, he offered gentle encouragement to me. Whenever I would run into him, at some concert or other event, he would simply say to me “keep writing.”

Around my freshman year of high school I started taking cello lessons with a wonderful woman named Wendy Baker. Her middle name was Bassett, and as I’m sure you can deduce, she is Leslie’s daughter. She was patient and kind, with a gentle sense of humor, and I appreciated her unfathomable ability to tolerate the hideous cacophony I produced with my beginner's bow and cello in hand. I didn’t stick with cello very long, because I simply didn’t have the time to give it the attention it deserved, but I stayed long enough to develop a friendship with Wendy and passively learn about her father.

When Leslie Bassett was just a couple years older than I am now, he went to war. As part of the 13th Armored Division during the Second World War, Bassett fought against Hitler’s Germany in the last years of the bloody conflict. As Wendy recounted to me, somewhere in Southwestern Germany the 13th rolled up into an abandoned town, from which the Wehrmacht had retreated in some haste. Passing through the empty buildings, the young Bassett stumbled upon a band room — instruments were broken and strewn haphazardly around the room, deemed too unimportant to carry along with the fleeing army.

Somewhere in this musical wreckage Bassett noticed the mahogany colored body of a beautiful cello. Battered and more than a little worse for wear — the neck of the cello was completely broken — Bassett fell in love with it. He constructed a box out of miscellaneous materials he found around the town, and with tender care and delicacy he packed the cello inside and shipped it back to the states.

Many years later — after the cello’s origin in c.1848 Barcelona was known — the instrument found a new owner. When his daughter Wendy surpassed his own abilities on the cello, Bassett passed it to her, and she still plays it today.

This is not the first time I’ve written about that cello — in my junior year of high school I reflected upon a funeral I attended of a fellow cello student, at which Wendy played that instrument — but this time I have a very different point. Perhaps it’s just me indulging in a bit of hyper-sentimentality, but from what I know of what sort of person Bassett was, the anecdote about the cello is an apt metaphor for the way he approached life. Leslie Bassett focused on the good things among the bad and approached everything in life with care and compassion.

And so that brings me back to the advice I received from him, the simple direction to “keep writing.” He had never heard my music and he really didn’t know anything about me, but it didn’t matter. He just seemed to genuinely want everyone to succeed at what they loved. I won’t pretend that Leslie Bassett is the reason I’m a composer, because that likely would have happened anyway, but what Leslie Bassett did do is provide a small bit of hope for a young boy who felt frustrated and trapped — artistically, intellectually, socially — by his surroundings.

He gave me one more reason to keep moving forward, one more dream to keep alive — and in the small, strangely interconnected way that the world is, I realize now that in a certain way he gave me my future.