A continuing opus: John Cheetham relishes a life of composition

Thursday, May 14, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
John Cheetham takes part in a rehearsal of the Columbia Community Band at West Junior High School on April 29. Cheetham plays euphonium as well as conducts a work he has written.

COLUMBIA — Playing trombone in a symphony orchestra is a pretty sweet gig. For starters, you play a fraction of the notes the violinists do, and you still get paid the same. Then there is that beautiful five-letter word: “tacet.” In Italian, it instructs to "be silent" for the entire movement, but to a trombone player, it means go get a drink with some friends while the rest of the orchestra practices.

John Cheetham could have taken the day off. In his 20s as trombone player for the Albuquerque Civic Symphony in New Mexico, he could have relaxed with his friends or wondered why Beethoven had not seen fit to write a trombone part for his "Eroica" symphony. Cheetham said that instead, he was “bombarded” by the magnificence of the piece and sat in every rehearsal listening and observing what the composer had done and how the players reacted to it.


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Cheetham, 70, still plays in ensembles. But more important to him is writing music that affects the players who perform it and the audiences who hear it — that lightning-in-a-bottle moment.

“I get a lot of out of writing,” Cheetham said. “The most fulfilling thing, to me, is to know that people are playing my music.”

Born in Taos, N.M,. in 1939, Cheetham received his bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of New Mexico before going to the University of Washington for a doctorate in musical arts and composition. He taught at MU until he retired in 2000 and still lives in Columbia with his wife, Marilyn. He has written more than five dozen works for solo instruments, small ensembles, concert bands, orchestras and choruses.

Today, Cheetham spends most mornings, even on weekends, composing in his tidy, well-lit downstairs office. He has an electric keyboard on his desk. Against the wall is a worn wooden upright piano, a contrast to a pristine, black baby grand piano in the next room. Cheetham creates his music here, and although he's not aggressive about getting his work performed, he feels an unmatched sense of satisfaction when he sees that his pieces touch the players.

A man in charge

On a rainy Wednesday evening, members of the Columbia Community Band crowded into the band hall at West Junior High School to rehearse for their Mother’s Day concert. Driven by a shared goal of making music, the ensemble blends young and old, oncologists and teachers, and amateur and accomplished musicians.

Cheetham usually plays euphonium with the group, but tonight he stepped onto the podium to conduct one of his own works. Usually reserved, given more to a chuckle than a belly-laugh, Cheetham was immediately the man in charge. Halting the group with three quick taps on his stand, Cheetham instructed the players on articulation and dynamics.

“Someone is playing a D natural,” he said. The statement was unencumbered by doubt; Cheetham's ear is keen in detecting any deviation from the music he hears in his head.

But he is almost as quick to give praise for a job well done. “Terrific,” he said to the clarinet section after rehearsing a tricky passage.

At this, his longtime friend and the band's regular conductor, John Patterson, piped up. “Now, don’t go complimenting them,” Patterson teased.

The two met when Patterson was director of bands at Hickman High School and taught Cheetham’s two sons, Dan and Andy. The Columbia Community Band has occasionally premiered Cheetham's pieces. “When I hear his work, I hear a more carefully crafted product,” Patterson said.

The piece being rehearsed on this Wednesday night is part of Cheetham’s 2007-08 "Calendaries," a set of four three-movement suites that depict each month of the year. Although the piece has an extra-musical association, Patterson said the work is not a novelty.

“The music is not trite; it isn’t flippant,” he said. “It is beautifully put together.”

Cheetham was a senior in high school when he became seriously interested in how music worked and began studying scores. While in college in Albuquerque, he played trombone in a big band that played upwards of 30 paying gigs a year for military, sorority and fraternity dances. He did some of his first composing here, arranging standards and writing new works for the jazz band.

Cheetham’s first attempt at arranging a piece wasn't successful. “It sounded terrible,” he recalled with a slow-rolling chuckle, “and I couldn’t quite figure out why.” He eventually realized that the saxophones and brass were set in the same register and, after some tweaking, worked it out.

When the band was reduced to 11 musicians, he was recruited along with a few other members to help write new arrangements to accommodate the smaller ensemble. He called the experience both thrilling and frightening. But much in the same way that jazz great Duke Ellington could write for his band one day and learn from its performance the next, Cheetham found that he learned a lot from the opportunity.

"It was a great laboratory situation," he said.

An unapologetic conservative

Although Cheetham eventually turned from writing jazz, his jazz roots remain evident. He uses the word “legit” to describe the classical music realm, a term tossed around by those baptized in the jazz canon. And his use of syncopated rhythms, changing meters and jazz-influenced harmonies provide musical interest and a challenge for performers.

During the 20th century, the rules of tonality, harmony and melody were severely bent and broken by classical composers who challenged traditional composition practices. In the 1960s, when Cheetham started studying at the University of Washington, many in the academic sphere sought to impose the importance of these modern techniques.

“Oh yes, the fellow from New Mexico,” Cheetham recalled the chairman of composition at Washington saying to him after an introduction. “We’re going to shake you up good.”

Cheetham said that while at times he did not appreciate such training, he found it made him think about aspects of composing that he otherwise would not have considered. Still, when he began composing after getting his position at MU, he returned to his traditional style and today calls himself an unapologetic conservative.

“I’m not willing to give up melody,” he said. “I still think a good tune goes a long way."

“When you hear a piece you like, and you whistle it down the hall, it’s that melodic element you are whistling,” Cheetham explained. “That means a lot, I think. I’m very gratified to hear someone whistling something that I’ve written.”

Cheetham's particular mark is in compositions for brasses. "Most people who know me, know me as a brass guy," he said. One brass musician familiar with Cheetham’s work is Paul Von Hoff, the trombonist and artistic director for the Gaudete Brass. Last fall, the Chicago-area quintet debuted a piece the ensemble had commissioned from Cheetham, "Sonata for Brass Quintet," and performed it in Columbia as part of the Missouri United Methodist Church's music series.

When asked to describe the work, Von Hoff was at a loss. “To put words to it almost diminishes it,” he said. “There was joy and energy. All five of us thought it was really powerful, and it is somewhat rare to find a work that we all like equally well.”

The piece's success, Von Hoff went on to say, came from there being five intriguing parts. “Even the accompaniment was interesting,” he said.

Cheetham said that when he's composing, he's constantly mindful of writing something interesting so that players love their parts.

“If I make the player enjoy his or her part, I think there’s a lot to be said for that,” he said. “It’s all kind of a careful balancing act, too. You want something that has some musical and artistic worth, you want to make something interesting to the players and you want to create an aural impression in the mind of the person listening to it.”

A gentleman and a hypocrite

In the lean economic climate, Cheetham is without a commission for the first time in four or five years. He has taken the free time, however, to rewrite the first movement of a symphony he first composed in the 1980s. A constant revisionist, he admits that sometimes he goes back to past works too often but adds it is sometimes frustrating to hear a completed piece and think about how he would do it differently.

“There are some notes in a brass quintet of mine that are just plain wrong, and they’ve been there for 50 years,” he said.

When Cheetham first starts to compose a new work, he starts at the piano. Given his proficiency as a jazz pianist, he likes to improvise until he comes up with a melodic or rhythmic idea that strikes him.

“I’m the biggest hypocrite,” he acknowledged. “I always told my students, ‘Don’t use the piano as a crutch; it’s a bad way to compose.’”

After deciding on the form of the work, Cheetham sketches his idea into a rough score. Then he turns to the computer to notate his sketch into a fully developed score. Always the music educator, he warns young composers to use the computer as a notation tool and not for composing, but he said it is gratifying to be able to hear the program’s playback feature.

“Sometimes I wish I had an oboe player like the guy in the computer,” he said.

Although Cheetham relishes the process of composing, getting his music out there appeals less.

“First of all, he is very much a gentleman,” said Patterson. “And about his own abilities, he is very modest. Sometimes I think he needs an aggressive press agent. Those who do play his music, though, immediately want more of it.”

Cheetham’s "Scherzo" has become a part of the standard repertoire for brass quintets. It has been performed and recorded by professional brass quintets across the country — and as a sign of the Internet age, a YouTube search garners a half-dozen amateur renditions.

“Everybody knows Cheetham’s 'Scherzo.' Everybody does,” said W. Thomas McKenney, an MU professor of composition and music theory and a colleague in the School of Music for almost 40 years.

“His work is craftfully done, musical and innovative,” McKenney said. “Being craftful is one of the highest compliments I can give as a composer. I never heard something of his that I didn’t think was well thought out. He has had lots of commissions, and that doesn’t happen unless people find his music interesting.”

An unpretentious success

Cheetham came from a musical home, and that was something that he and Marilyn, who sings with various ensembles, wanted to pass down to their sons, Dan and Andy.

“Our family listened to music as far back as I can remember,” said Andy, a trumpeter in the United States Army Band in Fort Monroe, Va. “My brother and I were encouraged to start learning instruments at a young age.”

Andy has played a number of his father’s ensemble works as well as a piece for unaccompanied trumpet and one for trumpet and marimba that was written for him and dedicated to him. When asked whether he did anything particular in playing his father's pieces, Andrew joked, “Well, first of all, I try to play them right."

They are often challenging to prepare, he said. “There are some really tricky things to do,” he said. “His music for brass requires plenty of difficult rhythms and articulations.”

Cheetham’s older son, Dan, studied music before shifting to a career in architecture. Dan values his music education and said he thinks that many of the concepts of design and structure in music are applicable to architecture.

Dan, formerly a trombonist, recalled playing his father's "Scherzo" in a brass quintet for the first time in college. “Playing it was a little weird at first,” he said. “I was with a lot of people who I respected, and they thought of it as standard rep.”

“I was proud,” he added. “It was real inspiring to play it.”

Cheetham finds it important to keep playing, and most mornings, in addition to composing, he practices his euphonium or improvises on the piano as he tests his ideas.

If you ask him, he might tell you about the time he played under Igor Stravinsky or Paul Hindemith or Stravinsky protege Robert Craft. If you press him, he’ll mention being honored as a distinguished alumnus of University of New Mexico alongside John Lewis, pianist for the revolutionary and influential Modern Jazz Quartet.

But celebrity encounters and past recognition mean little to the unpretentious Cheetham; he prefers to look forward to what he is working on now.

"I think he was looking forward to retirement in some ways," Dan Cheetham said. “I think over the last few years I’ve seen him really happy and relaxed. He’s at a point in his life that he’s really spending a lot of time only thinking about things he really cares about: family and music.”

John Cheetham doubts he will retire from writing music.

“I like to do it too much, I really do,” he said. “It’s not drudgery for me, and I think over the years I enjoy it more and more.”

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Marc Marmorstein July 3, 2009 | 2:31 p.m.

Wow, wonderful article! I was cleaning out my garage and found my old trumpet recital music from 1977, and found John Cheetham's Scherzo. I just had to play the 1st trumpet part. So 32 years later, I still enjoyed that fun piece! I googled the composer and the title and found this article. I certainly agree with this article that describes John's music as being carefully and uniquely crafted, and yet energetic and fun. I am still active in music, and I must say that that piece has meant a lot to me, and inspired my own involvment in music. Now I realize that it is not only his music that is inspiring, but his lifestyle characterized by modesty, thoughtfulness, and joy.

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