In memoriam: Conrad Susa (1935–2013)


Me with Conrad Susa, probably 2002. This was at a party thrown for my friend Bernard’s 50th birthday.


I read on Facebook about the death of my composition teacher, Conrad Susa. This press release from the San Francisco Conservatory provides a very nice bio with some wonderful quotes from Conrad.

I’d like to recount a few personal memories of Conrad from the time I studied with him, from 2001-2003 as a composition student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

I took private composition lessons from Conrad during those two years, but I also studied counterpoint and orchestration with him,  and was a student in his seminar “Wagner’s Celtic Operas,” which was a great seminar and lots of fun, to boot.

Paraphrasing one of Conrad’s observations of a Mahler work we studied in orchestration: “Is it long? Yes. Is it very long? Yes. Is it excruciatingly long? Yes. Could it be any shorter? No!” Whenever I listen to lengthy works, I recall this comment. I think about how the piece sits in my memory, and how it felt to experience the entirety of it. With a busy schedule, it can sometimes seem almost impossible to give my full attention to very lengthy work. But if it’s incredible, then the music—the whole of it—inhabits the psyche like a gorgeous, profound, living saga. And when that happens, I always ask myself, “Could it be any shorter?” “No!”

During one composition lesson, Conrad was informing me about a piece I should hear—something that was akin to whatever I was writing at the time—and in relating it to me began humming it, gently conducting. In short time, his eyes were closed and he was completely mentally immersed in the world of this piece. This went on for what seemed like forever, but was probably somewhere around a minute and a half. He was smiling, waving his hands fluidly, eyes closed, head swaying. Whatever tune he was humming faded in and out, as if he were actually in another world and I was hearing him from afar.  I became a bit uncomfortable, but he did eventually return to Earth.

In another composition lesson, Conrad was scanning the score of my piano quartet at the piano—not playing, just scanning with his eyes, turning page after page in complete silence. Toward the end, he began to make a few marks with his pencil in my score, changing a note here and there. When he played through it afterward, it was so much better. I was at a loss as to what led to this, so with some nervousness (I was a bit intimidated by the man), I blurted, “Can I ask you a question?” “Of course!,” he responded. “Can you tell me what you were thinking when you made those changes?” “I was only doing more of what you did.” He explained the details, and I was amazed. It was simple and profound. That was such a learning moment for me, one which I obviously never forgot.

Conrad held welcome parties for the new composition students in his San Francisco home on Eureka Street, a quirky and lovely house that was every bit as unique as he was. His generosity also extended to gifts. I received from Conrad a score for Stravinsky’s “Orpheus” and a great recording of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

Conrad seemed to me a complex person, and it’s difficult to pinpoint any one overriding quality.  His reverence was palpable for the  music he most admired. He was an engaged teacher, able to work with students’ myriad styles without imposing himself. He was brilliant, though in an understated way. He had a great, dry sense of humor. His character ran very deep, and getting to know him over a couple of years was like peeling back only the outer few layers of an onion. Still, he sits in my consciousness like one of those musical sagas.

I haven’t listened to much of my earlier music for a long time, but am now listening again, remembering and appreciating more than ever what Conrad Susa did for me. In this music I hear a more guiltless voice that I have perhaps somewhat abandoned since those days. I plan to recapture that to some extent in my future works. Thank you again, Conrad.

Leave a Reply