His mother’s colorful method taught Blackwood the piano backward and forward. (Photography by Drew Reynolds)

Set on notes

Easley Blackwood Jr. composes music, and palindromes, with spirit and precision.

“I’m not one of those composers who believes that every single work he writes is a masterpiece,” says Easley Blackwood Jr. “There are some successes, some that are less so.” After all, he’s been creating music since age four, when his mother taped slips of colored paper to the keys of their piano, teaching him to distinguish between notes.

“Strangely enough,” says Blackwood, “I can still remember the colors.”

Now 80, the professor emeritus tells stories woven with such threads: poring over his parents’ classical record collection, coming home on his sixth birthday to find a gleaming Steinway L in place of the old family piano, and sharing early scores with instructor Aaron Copland during a summer camp at Massachusetts’s Berkshire (now Tanglewood) Music Center. 

“You are far in advance of anyone I’ve ever seen your age,” the legendary composer told the 15-year-old, urging him to continue honing his craft.

“When you get advice like that,” recalls Blackwood with a laugh, “you take it seriously.” And did he ever.

Soon the Indiana native was in Paris, studying under renowned composer Nadia Boulanger. He’s spent the past six decades experimenting with diverse compositional styles, ranging from radical atonal pieces to ultra-conservative scores that could have been penned in Mozart’s time. This rare versatility has garnered commissions played by many of the country’s top ensembles, including his beloved Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

“When I imagine the sounds of an orchestral piece of mine that I haven’t yet heard,” says Blackwood, “what I hear is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing in an empty Orchestra Hall.” Even after years cataloging every note, instrument, and reverberation, however, he’s still surprised at how a finished score can leap off the page. “It’s always bigger than you thought.”

Between writing new works and playing in chamber ensembles, he’s also been training young University of Chicago musicians to fine-tune their own craft since 1958. Dubbed “one of the truly great living American pianist-composers” by classical music magazine Fanfare, he’s now officially retired, teaching one course per year on subjects such as the evolution of the string quartet, tuning theory, and other nuances of composition. (Blackwood also visits campus regularly to “check mail and drop by the Quadrangle Club for a martini.”)

His advice to budding composers? Be a perfectionist—and keep track of your ideas. “If you don’t write it down, it doesn’t exist,” says Blackwood, who penned the first ten measures of his 1994 Sonatina for Piccolo Clarinet and Piano in F Major, op. 38, in a frenzy after they came to him in a dream.

“You can start in any number of ways,” he says of his compositions. “You can just have a notion of a fragment.” Sometimes, it’s a matter of working within very specific constraints, as when he was enlisted to write a new tune for Rockefeller Chapel’s carillon in the 1960s. After chiming Wagner’s “Parsifal” on the quarter hour for nearly 30 years, four bells had become worn. To remedy the situation, Blackwood composed “The Chicago Chime,” which employed the low E, a unique bell rarely found on carillons.

“That bell is one of the nice ones,” he recalls. “I thought we really ought to have some use for it.” His tune marked time from 9 a.m. to 10:45 p.m. daily until the early 1970s when a campus visit from the Archbishop of Canterbury prompted a switch to six-note phrases known as the “Canterbury Chime.”

These days, Blackwood passes his free time taking in CSO matinees and indulging in wordplay, a hobby that prizes the same brand of precision his compositions require. (His love of puzzles can be traced back to his father, the late Easley Blackwood Sr., a contract bridge player who invented one of the card game’s most famous conventions.)

At the Hyde Park apartment building he’s called home since 1962, the composer pulls up a Word document on his computer titled “Everybody’s Favorite Palindromes,” some he dreamed up himself, some from other enthusiasts. Asked if he has a personal favorite, he smiles and first rattles off a six-word sentence about Tulsa too bawdy for publication.

Finally, he settles on a print-appropriate masterpiece of his own: “Dennis never even lived as a devil, never even sinned.” Like penning a musical score, it’s a creative act that calls for attention to detail.


Updated 10.03.2013