Donald Sur Remembered

by John Harbison

Soon after I met Donald Sur in Roger Sessions’ and Earl Kim’s composition classes, he invited Rose Mary Pedersen and me over to try his one-page piece Root, for violin, viola, and claves.  This was one of Donald’s first “eternal” or “perpetual” pieces, that is, it carried the instruction “Da Capo senza Fine.”  It was also, like so many of Donald’s pieces, very hard to play. The three of us began playing bravely and didn’t stop until we’d achieved at least thirty revolutions in Donald’s hot, crowded kitchen. The strain of the concentration on this strange fragile piece created a drug-like euphoria.

Root expressed in its one page so much of Donald’s personality. It was droll and spare, but also strangely insistent. The next year we all found ourselves in Cambridge, which for Donald was the prelude to his extended residence in Korea, one of the great adventures of his life. He left behind a number of disappointed and attractive women, some of his collection of instruments, and tapes of the Korean Court Orchestra, established in Seoul five centuries before. When he arrived in Korea he composed the first additions to their repertoire since the 1500's. He became in five years a recognized expert in Korean Court Music, an esteemed composer, and a personage of great consequence in Korean culture.

From an atmosphere of virtually senatorial privilege and respect, Donald brought a bewildered young Korean bride back to the squalid basement life of a Harvard graduate student. Donald seemed hardly to notice the change, his musical thoughts and philosophical ruminations then as later dominating his consciousness, but the young woman suffered from the acute cultural dis-junction, and the ensuing years were tragic and trying.

It was in this period that Donald attempted to make connections as a teacher with various local institutions. There were successful passages at Harvard, and at M.I.T., where he founded the now-thriving world music program and hosted many distinguished visiting ensembles. 

But academic institutions and Donald were at odds. He was the essence of an underground, free-thinking artist. One of the characters in his one-act play Duologue remarks, “the opposite of musical is not un-musical but literal-minded.” Donald’s elliptical, playful mind, which made him instant friends, sent off flares among those who would determine his academic fate. And Donald contributed difficulties. Once, calling from Amsterdam two weeks late for the start of the term, he said, “I’m paralyzed by guilt. I may have to stay here longer to really comprehend how late I am.”

So, out on his own, Donald started a business to help support his family, reproducing music by the old ozalid blue-print process. It was a world of close, chemical-filled rooms and late hours.. But many of us remember on some cold winter night bringing him a finished piece in which he took a shared pleasure, or picking up copies which he pulled miraculously from the chaotic rubble of his workroom. He later expanded to publishing, even, in the height of his business-man phase, affecting a rakish yellow pin-stripe suit. But as xerox replace blue-printing, Donald’s nomadic nature asserted itself and he crafted the bohemian strategy of more recent years – arts colonies artfully strung together, and in between visits to his mother, his son Matthew, and his friends.  When he became enmeshed in his largest piece, Slavery Documents, he truly lived for the piece, frugally and unapologetically, in his words, “making the sacrifices.”

Slavery Documents was the fruit of one of Donald’s series of obsessions. He became a pre-civil war scholar while researching the piece, producing, initially, a text that would have required about seven hours of music. Obsessiveness and delight also informed his exploration of the Vivaldi concertos, bearing fruit in his own violin concerto, and in the simpler transparent textures of his last music.

Friendship with Donald involved a long open-ended conversation which sought to understand music and life at the most practical and the most speculative levels. It was marked by Donald’s remarkable curiosity, and the strange, revealing angle from which he saw the world. I am happy and blessed to say this in my case, the conversation continued to his very last days, and remained open-ended. He was generous, without jealousies, judgments, and grievances.  During his illness his focus sharpened, his loyalties, personal and artistic, intensified. He remained above all curious and filled with wonder. Describing his appropriately musical and intricate hallucinations in his last hours he said, “I can’t decide whether to block them out or transcribe them into my piece.”

The language of Donald’s early work is different from the more recent music, but the aesthetic, the temperament, is certainly not.  The common ground is precision, oddly satisfying dis-proportion, and indirect-direct emotion. One of Speculum Musicae’s members, in the days when they often played Donald’s Cantenas, was Ursula Oppens. I remember her telling me, “Of all the pieces we perform a lot, these Cantenas are the only ones we never get tired of.”

In Donald’s little one-act play Duologue, the Monk says, “People no longer listen to each other so there is really no need for Silence.”  But Donald did listen, and talk, and ponder, trying to discover and make clear the necessity for silence, and for sounds.