A Personal Sketch

by John Sumerlin

A truly remarkable man is my father Macon Sumerlin. Children often idolize their parents: I certainly did. That perspective usually changes with maturity into a more realistic view, but my father stayed ahead of my enlarging worldliness with his unimaginable creative drive and quirky brilliance. That we as a family spend inordinate amounts of time sitting together talking or playing games is largely for the reason that he is so fascinating and funny to be around. Part scholar, part magician, part inventor, part Pied Piper, he would invent funny words and phrases and articulate them with such contagious relish that they would become immortalized into our family knowledge base. Inspired by his inventive playfulness we all became witty.

Then there is the work. I was not naturally predisposed toward work. In fact, I was supremely lazy, as I recall. Daddy, as we deep southerners sometimes call our fathers, is to this day the most unflappably on-task being on earth. He would read a huge book all night until it was finished, or he would compose an entire cantata in his imagination, then sit at his table and simply write it down. Sometimes it took days of calm, photo-ready manuscript with rarely a look back, so sure was the whole. This was the stuff of gods, and I needed no better inspiration than my father’s “Alpha state.” I eventually learned to love reading as much as he does, and with as much appetite for endurance, but I never mastered the supreme, sublime art of assembling music in my head so clearly that it would come spooling out like sounding butter. For years that self-perceived failing prevented me from fully exploring my interest in composing music, which I doubtless inherited along with Daddy’s intense ability to focus.

My father teaches as naturally as a bird sings. He is naturally organized of thought and process, and he imparts required knowledge as though it were simple as grace, without pedantry, without superiority, and with crystal clarity. My favorite lesson with him, of which there were many, was when he said, “I’ll teach you everything you need to know about conducting.” It took about fifteen minutes. That was thirty-five years ago, and there is little more I have learned from four conservatories and years of experience conducting beyond his 15-minute capsule. He excels in reduction to essence. He set a standard for it that I strive for every day.

Then there is the music. My father’s music is permeated with his unblinking aesthetic, and it is recognizable as itself, a true dialect of sound and function and purpose. It gets down to business, gets it done: no wasted gestures or frills. There is no overt attempt to cajole or pacify, and the dissonances are extremely controlled, the harmonic shifts simply executed. No fuss. What beauty there is in clarity of thought! It reminds me of the naturalness of the language of JS Bach, who was another intensely practical, organized, productive man. I remember a chorale Daddy wrote for organ. I had a copy of it in blue mimeograph as a kid of 13 or so. It spoke to me as though through clouds of yet-to-understand sonic relationships. I would play it on the piano and feel wordless waves of somberness and heavy poignancy. I loved that chorale, and I understood it.

Then a couple of years later there was a suite of piano pieces written for me one summer. I watched them arrive on the page like messages in code, which learning would decipher. They were all wonderful character pieces, and I loved playing the suite. There was one chorale among them, however, which harkened back to the former chorale of such poignancy, and I drifted in my romantic teen universe on the bitter dissonances and cruel harmonic shifts and brave endurance of the shortest piece in the group.

The piano sonata Daddy wrote for me was the culmination of all things I loved about his music. It was in a brief, one-movement form, cantabile and linear, unusually frenzied and virtuosic toward the end. I played it with the confidence of the anointed, too inexperienced to know how difficult it was. I remember Daddy rode the bus four hours each way to hear me play, necessitating his disappearance after the recital. I missed him at the reception. There are so very many memories of the music.

The overriding perspective from Daddy was humility and satisfaction for work completed, regardless of what emotional heights the music had scaled. There were many great works in which I did not participate at all except on visits, being shown the score of some new oratorio or opera. The electronic era was earth shaking, in that his music-composing brain inhabited completely the sounds of the Moog. This lasted for a very long time, and was productive of some truly innovative stuff as well as some ear-splitting “etudes”. Eventually, after writing an electronic ballet, and reams of electronic experiments, the age was past, and he returned to the common tongue of musicians. Today he seems happy to collect and record fiddle band songs, and he has already created a huge library of previously undocumented American folk music in the form of fiddle and banjo tunes. The organized brain is ever ready to task. Whatever he does next will be pertinent, thorough, and unique as himself.

I can hardly wait!

John Sumerlin
Professor of Music,
Rhode Island College

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