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Extraordinary Life: He Invited The World To Wesleyan Music

Special to The Courant

Dick Winslow, a composer, choral conductor and past chairman of the music department at Wesleyan University put its world music program on the map, and made the school a leader in the emerging field of ethnomusicology, the study of music in its cultural context.

His efforts resulted in a greater awareness that "music" encompasses something far more comprehensive than the compositions of white European males.

"Winslow had a very, very broad vision of music," said former Wesleyan music professor Mark Slobin. "Wesleyan is known in all corners of the world. It's an amazing structure that Winslow envisioned."

Winslow frequently told the story of how his own musical horizon had expanded. He was trying to pick the world's greatest composer, he said, and thought of Johann Sebastian Bach. Then he had an epiphany: "What about all those singers, instrumentalists, and composers from China and India, from Asia and Africa? How do we rate the achievements in all these musics from cultures we know nothing about?" he told a Wesleyan interviewer.

Richard K. Winslow died July 24 at his farm in Antrim, N.H., where he had moved after retiring from Wesleyan in 1983. He was 99.

Born on March 15, 1918, he was surrounded by music as a child. His father, Ralph Winslow, was the director of music in the public schools in Albany, N.Y., and his mother, Anna, was a pianist and church organist. Winslow played the piano as a child, and was the trombonist in a jazz band he organized. He followed his older brother to Wesleyan, where he took courses from the school's lone music professor, and graduated in 1940. After a stint with a concert management company, he joined the Navy and worked as a diver in a mine disposal unit — a dangerous job because of the German mines around the entrance to the Panama Canal.

After the war, he enrolled at the Juilliard School in New York City, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in music. He joined the Wesleyan faculty in 1949.

Although Winslow's own compositions were lyrical and melodic, he was fascinated by the revolutionary compositions of avante-garde artist John Cage — whose own definition of music thrilled and horrified audiences with his sounds of traffic or silent pauses. Cage "appealed to [Winslow's] interest in randomness and chance," said his son, John Winslow. "He had a sense that classical music was dead end."

Winslow was interested in abstract expressionism, and was acquainted with artists like Robert Rauschenberg, and intrigued by the ideas of Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan.

David McAllester, an anthropologist who was an expert on Navajo music and culture, began teaching a course at Wesleyan on ethnic and folk music, and the two colleagues discussed broadening Wesleyan's approach to the study of music. They envisioned a "World and Experimental Music" program, far more comprehensive than the programs at other schools.

"These other places would start with typical Western approach and theory, then tack on jazz, or tack on Indian music," retired Wesleyan music professor Mark Slobin told the Wesleyan Argus. "To [Winslow and McAllester], all music of the world is equal."

Victor Butterfield, Wesleyan's president from 1943 to 1967, was looking for areas where the college could be innovative and excel. Winslow — as a Wesleyan alumnus, and music department chairman close to the administration and faculty — was ideally situated to persuade Butterfield that Wesleyan should become a leader in the emerging field of world music.

Winslow's goal was to transform the entire music program. He "was a ringleader, and probably the best poised politically to make that happen," said Neely Bruce, a music professor at Wesleyan. "He was very masterful in getting things done."

Winslow told Butterfield that the future of music would be global. "It was a visionary statement by a traditional person," Slobin said.

Butterfield agreed, and Winslow proceeded to create a diverse world-music program.

"Dad championed John Cage, and convinced Wesleyan that Cage would be an ideal professor in residence," said John Winslow. A Cage concert nearly ended in a riot as students rushed the stage to see Cage jam bolts, pennies, forks, spoons and pencils between the strings of a piano. "When the piece began, the music had an unheard-of sound, especially when punctuated by the pianist pounding on the soundboard. The crowd went wild," a Wesleyan newsletter reported. "It was a mob scene," Winslow said. "People were so upset by the assault on the Wesleyan campus, but others were enthralled."

McAllester invited Navajo performers to campus, and the concerts and pow-wows soon became popular among the students. Winslow hired Bob Brown, an ethnomusicologist from UCLA, who was an expert in the gamelan music of Indonesia, performed on gongs, drums, flutes, voices and xylophones, and brought many Indonesian musicians to the campus.

When word came that the Indonesian gamelan ensemble at the New York World's Fair in 1964 was available, Winslow and McAllester immediately rented a truck, drove to New York, and returned with the ensemble. Later, an arts building was constructed at Wesleyan specifically to hold the instruments.

Winslow invited East Indian musicians to campus and there were frequent "Curry Concerts" at Brown's farmhouse, with Indian meals and music. When a company with a well-known dancer and drummer gave an outstanding performance at Wesleyan, "Dick decided we should hire them away from the National Dance Company of Ghana," Bruce said. Winslow also convinced a Navajo musician to come to Middletown. "Dick Winslow built a department by offering the crème de la crème these jobs."

Music students from around the world learned about the program, and came to Wesleyan, which awarded its first doctorate in ethnomusicology to an Ethiopian student in 1971. Today, the school offers 40 music courses per semester, and has 15 music faculty and nine ensemble directors, and says it is the only liberal arts college that offers doctoral degrees in ethnomusicology.

Winslow conducted the glee club and several choirs at Wesleyan, and his Christmas concerts were popular events. He composed many works — operas, oratorios, choral pieces — using sophisticated, intellectual texts: a poem by Wallace Stevens, or Samuel Beckett's "Endgame." They were performed on campus.

He often drew from traditional American folk or church music for the events. "They were almost all very tuneful and easy to listen to and extremely affective," Bruce said. "You get swept up and experienced the whole as a very pleasurable thing, but the words themselves might be very enigmatic and abstract."

Winslow was a popular teacher; one student, who took his introduction to music courses, became wealthy and endowed a chair in Winslow's name years later.

Winslow, who married Elisabeth Gittins, a pianist, in 1942, had five children. At their farm in New Hampshire, where they would spend the summer, he would head off every morning to his studio and compose until he was called for meals. He enjoyed the challenge and the discipline of haiku and limericks, and composed "A Bouquet for Betty," a collection of tender limericks written to his wife, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

Winslow is survived by five children, Richard, John, Laurence, Sandra and Susan Bedell; 12 grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren. His wife died in 2004.

"Without Winslow, Wesleyan would never have had the visionary music department of such ambition, scope, and radicalism that it continues to enjoy," said Slobin in the Wesleyan newspaper.

"Dick was a figure from an old Wesleyan who ensured that music would have permanent prominence in a small liberal arts college, affecting the world of music in countries, institutions, and concert halls around the globe."

A memorial service will be held Oct. 1 at 2 p.m.,at the Baptist church in Antrim, N.H.

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