Music has never been a stranger to Peter Susser, director of undergraduate musicianship at Columbia. When he was younger, his father would host string quartet rehearsals in the living room where Susser would sit in the middle listening, enveloped by the noise, inundated with rhythm, melody, and buzz.
From the age of six, Susser sacrificed Saturday morning cartoons for cycling to and from his piano teacher’s house. After two years, he moved on to another instrument: the cello. He stopped cycling to his music lessons—it wasn’t as easy with a cello on his back—and the instrument swiftly became an identity marker.
At the age of sixteen, Susser composed his first cello piece, which started a chain reaction of tunes, tempos, and musical ties that would lead us to cross paths. When it came to deciding what he wanted to do with his life, Susser says he “went for music wholeheartedly.”
Every Columbia student studies Music Humanities. For many, it is the first time they engage with music in an academic sense, but for our music professors, the syllabus often resonates with their own careers. We learn about the lives of Mozart, Berlioz, and Stravinsky, but what about those of our own professors, who have followed in their footsteps?
Understanding the bridge between creativity and career can be abstract and ambiguous. For me, Susser was the best place to start. He does not approach composing music as an elusive, mysterious process. Rather, it is as simple as sitting down and reading a book: set a place, a time, and just do it.
I was fortunate enough to be a student in the 2017 Art and Music Humanities in Paris Summer program. Susser taught one of the two sections offered, but he wasn’t my professor. Nevertheless, he was known to me as the upbeat, eccentric professor with a passion for Parisian wine, cheese, and boulangeries. He set creative assignments. He asked his students to pick a location in Paris and stand there for five minutes, simply listening. They then had to write a five-minute composition based on those sounds. Other class tasks included having students sing and improve a Gregorian chant and give presentations on what music means to them.
Back in New York, Susser welcomes me into his spacious office on the eighth floor of Dodge Hall. The walls are adorned with posters of his past musical collaborations and an artistic response to a Music Hum class assignment—a stave dashed with vivid paint. It is by a fellow student who joined me on the Paris program and titled “Envy in the House of God,” representing a visual response to the sounds of a church. I can’t help but notice the stack of student work on his desk that needs to be marked. Behind his chair is a copy of AMDA Sight-Singing, Volume 2—a book that he has been writing for the past few months that was released in mid-October.
Susser’s office space is a striking distillation of his relationship to both teaching and composing: one that is “as dramatic and insane and wonderful as any other circumstance where you have, when you’re lucky enough ..., a lot to do.” As he explains the symbiotic relationship between the different channels of his career, it is apparent that his identity is as deeply rooted in “professor” as it is “musician.” “I feel very fortunate that I’m inspired by teaching,” he says. “The techniques that I’ve learned to teach inform my composing.”
This teaching-composing relationship takes on very different forms at Columbia and at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, where he is a music professor.The Columbia program orients students toward a four-year bachelor’s degree and the latter is a vocational certificate program. The music major emphasizes learning theory together in the the classroom, while composition assignments are done individually—a “solitary endeavour,” as Susser calls it. In contrast, the curriculum at AMDA requires students to both study and compose together in the classroom. Susser asserts that it is a way to teach students to become “fearless” in the face of the live theater industry as it is a school for the dramatic arts. But he emphasizes that both pedagogical approaches—Columbia’s and AMDA’s—to composition are “inspiring in [their] own way, and nothing feels less creative than the other.”
But what about his own composition process? To understand it, we must go back to the summer of 2016. The Art and Music Humanities in Paris summer program was founded in 2015. For Susser, being invited to teach Music Hum there was a return to his own undergraduate career—he had studied French at Reid Hall through Bennington College in the fall semester of his senior year, before graduating in 1981.
This time, however, he had years of experience behind him and a creative project in his hands: the composition of a cello suite.
Susser asserts that his career in composition is established on a network of other fabulous musicians. It began with the dissertation piece for his doctorate in music, which greatly impressed Columbia professor of music composition Fred Lerdahl, who then coordinated a performance of it by Speculum Musicae which, according to Susser, was the “most active, powerful music group in New York City” at the time. A cellist in that group, Eric Bartlett, who would later become a member of the New York Philharmonic, asked Susser to compose another piece. This composition would then be heard by Laura Usiskin, a cellist who graduated from the Columbia-Juilliard program, who asked Susser to write a cello suite for her album, Reimagining Bach. Although the time frame Susser was given to compose the piece overlapped with his teaching appointment at the Reid Hall Art and Music Hum program, Susser decided to do both at the same time.
Throughout that summer session, he would wake up in the early hours before class, write music, and then proceed with his professorial life in Paris. “When you have a deadline, you don’t worry about what your ideal time is,” he says. “You just are inspired and you work and you get it done.”
It is clear to me that Susser does not suffer from writer’s block, nor any kind of creative block. “I try to be very conscientious about the variety of ways to access my imagination,” he explains, stating that his muse is rooted in abstract concepts and sounds that spark inspiration. Often he would compose at his keyboard, sometimes without an instrument, and occasionally with the instrument of a third party: the environment, dancing, singing—any and every form of inspiration.
For Susser, hearing, knowing, improvising, and composing are analogous ways to create a piece of music. “There’s no better way or not better way to compose,” he explains, telling of a time when he stepped off a street corner and a compositional resolution “just hit” him as simply as, “Oh, do that.”
The suite, comprised of six movements, varies in tempo and ambience, ranging from triumphant to soothing to ominous. Susser’s inspirations seem truly unbound. The fourth movement, “Epic,” for example, is an homage to the TV show Game of Thrones, wherein the characters mourn the deaths of their loved ones. The movement begins slowly and somberly, eventually building in volume and pitch to express deep sorrow. In another vein, the fifth movement, “The Curb” was influenced (albeit loosely) by electronic dance music. It is dissonant and irregular and evocative of of Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
One year later, during the 2017 Art and Music Hum program, the European premiere of Susser’s cello suite was performed at Reid Hall by Hee-Young Lim, the principal cellist of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. From his time as an undergrad to composer to performer, Reid Hall had been the site of much of Susser’s creativity. Though Lim had only a few days to rehearse, Susser tells me that she had “heard” the suite wonderfully. In other words, Lim had read the score and performed it largely as Susser intended; he had suggested very few changes to her performance before it sounded exactly as he had imagined.
Thus, they rehearsed together only twice, which I was surprised to hear at first. I imagined rehearsals would take a lot longer. But then, how much time is enough time?
“As little time as possible,” he says before clarifying, “Only the time you need.”
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