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In Memory: John Heiss


Words cannot do justice to the long-time NEC composer-flautist-teacher-conductor-theorist-historian who died last July. The breadth of his experience and career far outweighs what I can put into words, even as someone who had the luxury of being so closely involved in his orbit. It is fitting, then, that New England Conservatory will be hosting a memorial concert for him on October 23rd, 2023, what would have been his 85th birthday, at 4 PM in Jordan Hall. Among the speeches, many of his works will be performed, including the poignant Serenade for flute and harp that he composed after the death of his beloved wife Arlene and several songs from his cycle Five Songs from James Joyce for mezzo-soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano (of which I will be conducting). His other composer interests, Ives, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky will be well-represented, too, along with other pieces of note that Mr. Heiss commented on at length at different times. This event promises to be NEC’s proper moving tribute to one of the most important and highly regarded professors to have ever graced the hall of Jordan Hall building. I am forever grateful, John Heiss. Know that, wherever you are.

For so many NEC students, taking a class with John Heiss was a true experience. Mr. Heiss had an unparalleled ability to humanize and demystify so many composers. Arguably, his most famous course was the immortal Ives, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky, where the entire first semester became a progressive look into the catalogue of Charles Ives, the American maverick that, to this day, eludes the common audience. The second semester split Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg down the middle, causing the two twentieth-century rivals to shake hands and show their extensive experience to the now fully-engaged second-semester graduate student. Unfortunately, I never got to co-teach that course with him (I easily could at this point, I believe, having worked with him so closely), but I had the chance to co-teach Interpretive Analysis, the undergraduate Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and Music Since 1945 with him. If you didn’t come out the other end of the class with a deep or deeper appreciation for such music, I would question whether or not you were paying attention, were actually breathing, or both.

Mr. Heiss also became well-known as a sought-after coach. His interpretation and guidance for so many chamber ensembles, ranging from Bach through to Pierrot Lunaire (a piece which he would do every few years at NEC, something very rare to hear nowadays even once!) and beyond, created the foundation for a deep dive into style and expression. Having worked with him on several pieces, I saw one of my own works, Contrafact, septet after Purcell (of which he added the naming scheme after the comma, I might add, something I kept in his honor), go from acceptable to as bright and colorful as the Paramount Theater marquis. He stopped and tuned each interval in a cluster. Who else but Mr. Heiss would have done that? With his famous perfect pitch ears, he, amazingly, made the cluster sound better after we spent an actual half an hour on tuning it alone. Beyond the NEC Contemporary Ensemble, which he directed, he also worked with such luminaries as the Balourdet Quartet through up to the end.

But most importantly, Mr. Heiss devoted himself to the institution and its students. I’ve been mentioning myself a lot throughout this retrospective because I’m merely the tip of the iceberg. Although he and I were close, Mr. Heiss gave something to every one of the students that crossed his path, whether that was through his coaching or his teaching or his direction of the NEC Contemporary Ensemble. A lucky few were then able to work with him as private students. One fun story I remember is that when the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon society, Mr. Heiss had received his payment from NEC to coach a number of ensembles. Now, as the school had shut down and everyone moved to remote learning, those ensembles were not meeting, meaning to Mr. Heiss, he was paid for service that he didn’t render yet. He and I had a composition lesson online (facilitated by another teaching fellow, Alex Matheson, who lived nearby), and he determined that he was going to continue to offer his lessons and instrumental solo coaching to those who wanted to, calling this newly developed program “The John Heiss Summer Intensive” both as a silly name for his work and in full seriousness. Teaching was what he lived for. Mr. Heiss taught at NEC for 56 years, a feat that few teachers would dare to dream about. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of students learned from him and his deep musicianship and intuition, whether that be at NEC or at other schools.

I’m barely even scratching the surface of what made Mr. Heiss such the figure he was. As a flutist, he performed frequently with Boston Symphony Orchestra and was the founding member flutist of the recently-disbanded Boston Musica Viva. Something he never talked much about, however, was that he was the key player who discovered multiphonics in the flute, a technique that many composers take for granted to this day; one day while practicing at Columbia University, Mr. Heiss heard that his flute, when fingering a specific fingering for B-flat produced the D a third above it as well and began playing the flute like an organ grinder accompaniment. Milton Babbitt heard this playing as he walked by the practice room, asked Mr. Heiss what he did, and then commanded him to write an article on it for the journal Perspectives of New Music. This one article turned out to be the first ever on multiphonics. This one discovery set the groundwork for the expansive change in the flute solo repertoire, and he rarely brought it up. Famously, Mr. Heiss brought such legendary composers as Olivier Messiaen, Luciano Berio, Gyorgy Ligeti, Sir Michael Tippett, and others to NEC in festivals dedicated to their music. In jazz music, Mr. Heiss claimed that he was offered full scholarship to the Lenox School of Jazz for his saxophone performance but turned it down to pursue a career with IBM – the other performer to be offered this same full ride was Ornette Coleman.

Ian Wiese is Associate Professor of Ear Training at Berklee College of Music and a doctoral candidate in Music Composition at New England Conservatory. He studied under the late John Heiss and Michael Gandolfi.

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  1. Nice article. While we could both go on at length about John, his modesty would be offended. He also loved concision and your tribute meets that goal. The “Perspectives” article was, if I recall correctly, what brought him to the attention of Gunther Schuller, who immediately offered him a position on the NEC faculty.

    Comment by Eric Benjamin — November 2, 2023 at 11:39 am

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