By James Syler, composer/publisher
July 2001

    Composer H. Owen Reed retired in 1976 as Professor Emeritus in music theory and composition after 37 years of teaching at Michigan State University.  Born in Odessa, Missouri in 1910, Dr. Reed was educated at Louisiana State University and the Eastman School of Music.  His teachers include Howard Hanson, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Bohuslav Martinu and Leonard Bernstein.  He currently lives in Arizona.

James Syler:  Welcome and thank you for taking time to share your thoughts on your life and work as a composer. Composers write music for many different reasons.  What were your first influences that led you to pursue a composer's life and have they changed over the years?

H. Owen Reed: The early influences that opened my eyes (and ears) to the possibilities of creative music were the following:
1.  Dad played great country fiddle and Mother wasn't so bad "chording" on the  piano.
2.  The gals at Woolworth's in Kansas City (only 30 miles from my home in Odessa) showed great talent in improvising the pop tunes of the 20s which we chose for  demonstration. Believe me, I spent much time there and ended up buying Zez Confrez's 100 Jazz Breaks and Keyboard Harmony - the beginning of my interest in theory and composition and "playing by ear."
3.  Simultaneously, Mrs. Felts, Odessa's only music teacher, was trying to convert me over to Bach & Beethoven!
4. Our player piano, with its collection of "good old" pop tunes didn't help Mrs. Felt's cause!
5. My initiation into big jazz band performance, and later in arranging for this  group, as a freshman at Missouri University furthered my interest in making my  own choices in music. And studying Form and Analysis through creative writing  at Missouri University sealed my desires to write my own music. I elected  composition as my major.

James Syler: Having taught at Michigan State University for many years how do you feel composition students have changed over the years?

H. Owen Reed: Like the changes that have taken place in all professions, I have found composition students much more competent and better trained in both performance and theory/composition.

James Syler: What's been the most noticeable change in the musical climate for you as a composer from when you started in the 1930's?

H. Owen Reed: There is now better recognition of the quality of the music that American composers are producing, and more performance opportunity, especially in the wind ensemble area. Much more should occur in the orchestral field. Composer societies generally cover the needs for the performance of chamber music. But there is a definite need to improve the communication and relationship between composer and publisher.

James Syler: Who were your composition teachers and what do you feel you really learned from them?

H. Owen Reed: My "one-on-one" composition teachers have been: Helen Gunderson at Louisiana State University, Howard Hanson at Eastman School of Music (University of Rochester), Bohuslav Martinu at Tanglewood, and Roy Harris at Colorado Springs. In addition I have had class or private lessons with Arnold Schoenberg, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and great peripheral help from teachers such as Allen Mc Hose, Burrill Phillips and Gustav Soderland at Eastman. Their influence on my writing was too great and varied to list here.

James Syler: Where do you weigh in on the topic of what can actually be taught to a young composer?  That is, do we teach techniques, or can we actually teach a musician how to be a composer?

H. Owen Reed: We can't supply the major ingredient, creative ability. Beyond that, we can guide a student in making good choices in the manipulation of the basic parameters of melody, harmony, rhythm, form and color. I like to refer to my Theory of Compensating Parameters as I proposed in my The Materials of Music Composition, Book II: Exploring the Parameters, "When one or more parameters are depressed, there must be an opposite compensation (elevation) in one or more of the remaining parameters. To some extent, elevation and depression are synonymous with complexity and simplicity, but they may also relate to emphasis or nonemphasis."  And I have always admired Regional Smith Brindle's remarks in his Serial Composition, "...the act of 'forming' music still remains what it has always been - a process designed to captivate the listener's attention, to hold it continuously to the end and leave him with a sense of having experienced something complete and inevitable."  Finally, a composition teacher can encourage a talented student or convince one who is not so talented that a change of major is indicated.

James Syler: Through the years have you adhered to or rejected any particular "isms" or compositional systems?

H. Owen Reed: I have explored many isms in my works, starting out with my Symphony No. 1 which is tonal/modal showing a definite Sibelius/Hanson influence.  From here I have written works that have moved in and out of tonality, 15 and 20 note serialism (in my chamber operas), a bit of minimalism in my backgrounds (as in my UT RE MI), and non-measured and improvisational sections (as in my For the Unfortunate). Throughout all of my many creative years, I have tried to follow Brindel's thinking as well as my concern for the balancing of parameters. Throughout my music, I hope that one finds strong melodic lines, which I consider my best parameter. And in all, there will probably be found a strong feeling of jazz.

James Syler: What single piece of advice would you give a young composer starting out today?

H. Owen Reed: If you would rather compose than eat, compose!

James Syler: Many of the composers I talk to these days have had bad experiences with music publishers.  What's been your experience and what do you think is the reason for this?

H. Owen Reed: Jim, you really put me on the spot here!  Yes, we do have a problem. In the early days, when big music publishers were not so big, I had wonderful relations with them. I had interesting talks with the manager or even the owner at the MTNA and NASM conventions. There always was time to discuss publishing problems. Today, with the huge numbers of composers to please, there seems to be a shortage of help and insufficient time to satisfy our needs. Of course, there are exceptions, but my remarks here reflect not only my experiences but those of my peers and colleagues. Let me be ideal enough and supply you with a Composer's Wish List.



 1.  An easy to understand contract for publishing or rental.
 2.  Contract to specify that the copyright will be reassigned to the composer in the event that the music goes out of print, is not available for sale or rental, or is sold to another publisher.
 3.  In case of No. 2, above, the original material submitted to publisher (scores, parts, and masters) and remaining published material will be returned to composer.
 4.  Composer to be consulted concerning transfer of material (rental works, for example) to another supplier.
 5.  Statement to composer as to the dates of royalty payment and who is responsible to make these payments.
 6.  Publisher responsibility for advertising and promoting work.
 7.  Composer to be supplied with a limited number of published works for promotional purposes.
 8.  Publisher to answer requests from conductors promptly and be prepared to supply material in good print and in a reasonably short time.
 9.  Publisher to consult with composer regarding a reasonable rental fee.
10.  Publisher to promptly reply to composer for requested information.

Is this expecting too much? I think not!!

James Syler: Ballerbach Music publishes your wind ensemble work Missouri Shindig from 1951. Tell us about how this work came to be.

H. Owen Reed: Missouri Shindig (1951) was my second work for concert band, the first being Spiritual (1947). In the early 50s, the band conductors were out looking for original works for band, and I tried to make their search less demanding! (What a break for me, and my students, to find conductors looking for a new work by an American composer!) Further, this gave me the opportunity to thank my parents for their support by dedicating it to them. This work was based on an old square dance tune, "Give the Fiddler a Dram," that Dad played so well on his fiddle.

I also used this tune in my opera Michigan Dream (1955), based on an original play by John Jennings, a story of the Lumberjacks in 1870. In several performances that I conducted, I preceded the opening of this work with Dr. James Niblock, composer, violinist, and former Director of the MSU music department, playing "Give the Fiddler a Dram" on his fiddle, solo, and dressed in bib overalls and with a straw in his mouth! I then had him return for a short restatement in the coda. Music doesn't have to be serious, does it?

James Syler: Your work La Fiesta Mexicana has become a part of the standard band repertoire. Tell us about how that work came to be.

H. Owen Reed: In 1948 I was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. The project? To write what would be the first symphony for band. More recently, the name "band" has often been called Wind Ensemble, Wind Orchestra, Wind Symphony, etc., probably to show its interest in contemporary serious writing rather than in playing marches and transcriptions. But the new name generally implies a smaller group of more competent players.

After hearing much infectious music in Mexico City, Cuernavaca and Chapala, and reading Stuart Chase's MEXICO, I decided to write a Mexican folksong symphony, a three-movement work somewhat depicting a typical fiesta. I immediately became a Freshman theory student taking melodic dictation on transcribing to notation the march, "El Toro," played at the bull fights, the mass sung at the cathedral in Chapala, the "Aztec Dance" which I obtained from Sn. Aceves who had done research on the music of the Aztecs, and finally a most popular Mexican tune played by the Mariachi, "El Son de la Negra." And, yes, La Fiesta Mexicana has been widely performed and recorded (in spite of its difficulty) throughout the United States, Japan, Canada, Europe and... Mexico. Michigan State's former Director of Bands, the late Leonard Falcone, performed La Fiesta with choreography, staged with costumes, lighting, etc., with choreography and directing by Forrest Coggan.

There are many conductors who I would like to thank for their interest in this opus!  And your readers might like to know one of the best kept secrets: La Fiesta Mexicana is now published for orchestra. OK, orchestral conductors!

James Syler: Assuming for a moment that the band and advanced wind ensemble are two related yet distinct repertoires, how do feel the performance and repertoire of the wind ensemble has changed over the past 50 years?

H. Owen Reed: Generally, using only the instrumentalists that the music requires, results in an ensemble of a select and more proficient group of performers, a definite plus. In the larger concert and symphonic bands, there is a tendency on the part of the conductor to use all of the performers even when one on a part is specified. This practice is probably a valid one for the high school band conductor who want to give everyone the experience of performing more difficult music. But 6-8 tubas playing in unison?

I find the conductors of wind ensembles more daring and inclined to tackle a more dissonant and challenging score. The conductors who have performed my For the Unfortunate, with it newer notation format, non-measured sections, higher dissonances, improvisation, etc., have been most enthusiastic with the performance results. They have found it a very well appreciated work especially when the story behind its writing is known.

Finally, I would advise conductors to continue to be a bit daring in their choice of new music to perform. Back in the early 50s when Mills Music was putting La Fiesta Mexicana on a rental basis before publishing, the General Manager told me: "Owen, the Chicago performance proved to me that this is a fine composition, but it is so difficult that only the professional bands and a few university band can play it!" Future performances by many concert bands (including a few by high school groups) made him a believer. Mills decided to risk publishing it in 1954.  Times have changed for the better! Performers will respond with excitement and dedication to a new and difficult work if properly prepared in advance by the conductor. Hats off to these people!

James Syler: Apart from writing educational or pedagogical music for band, what do you feel are the advantages for a composer to write seriously for the wind ensemble?

H. Owen Reed: Before my retirement in 1976, when I was developing a strong Ph. D. program in graduate composition, I often recommended to my students that they consider writing a significant work for wind ensemble. Since MSU has consistently had excellent wind ensembles and conductors always eager to take on a new work, there has always been a great relationship between the band and composition department.  (They even performed my music!) And I must take this opportunity to express my appreciation to the many directors of bands and wind ensembles for the great support and encouragement I have received from them. They have brought to life many work of mine, of my colleagues and students. For this we are all very grateful!

Writing for symphony orchestra is another issue which you have not mentioned.  Although every symphonic work I have written has been performed, the number of performances as compared to performances by the bands and wind ensembles has been minimal at best. But a recent all-Reed program in the Cincinnati area of my orchestral works, mostly early works, has given me hopes that Yes, Virginia, there are conductors out there who are interested in the contemporary American composer of orchestral works. (Name supplied on request!)

James Syler: I can't let you go without putting you on the hot seat. Our world today is radically different from the art music culture that we've inherited Ours seems to be more of a specialist society by comparison and even our musical culture is fractured into subcultures and "isms" (i.e., electronic, choral, orchestral, band, etc.). Composers seem forced to pick a specialty.  Do you think it's really possible to be a composer today and create across divergent musical subcultures, or has it become a necessity to pick a specialty and stay with it?

H. Owen Reed: The worship of "isms" is, hopefully, becoming passe. In my early years while trying to learn how to compose, "program music" was a four-letter word. At one time a composer had to write in the atonal style to be with the elite. And on and on! Now we can use any or none of the "isms" so long as the music satisfies, as Brindle says, "...these three fundamental requirements - to arouse interest, to maintain it, and when the music has run its course to have an impression of completeness and fulfillment."

James Syler: Thank you for taking the time to discuss your thoughts.

H. Owen Reed: You are welcome!


Works by H. Owen Reed published by Ballerbach Music include Missouri Shindig, UT RE ME, Renascence, Of Lothlorien and Theme and Variations.  For more information on these works see the "Wind Ensemble/Band" page at