Last July, Nathan Brock, a composer, audio engineer and executive director of San Diego New Music, passed away at age 35 from sudden cardiac arrest.
Despite Brock’s relatively short tenure at SDNM, his passing sent shock waves through San Diego’s tight-knit contemporary music community. His work as a composer of technically demanding but lyrical music and as an advocate for the music he loved made him stand out as much as his propensity for wearing brightly patterned waistcoats and distinctive hats.
Guitarist Colin McAllister, who served as SDNM executive director from 2001 to 2009, recalled getting to know Brock at UCSD, where both earned their doctoral degrees. “He was a composer. I was a performer. He made it known to me early on that he liked writing for the guitar, so it was obvious that we’d collaborate.”
What started as a composer-performer relationship developed into a shared vision for championing new composers and contemporary music under the umbrella of SDNM, which is dedicated to presenting challenging, conceptually rigorous music from the past century performed by leading interpreters of new music.
At SDNM, Brock found like-minded individuals, like composer and pianist Christopher Adler, a frequent performer on SDNM concerts and professor of music at the University of San Diego. Adler was so impressed with Brock’s professionalism and musicality that he hired him to teach theory and digtal audio composition at USD.
Adler, McAllister and Brock met regularly for “scholars nights,” at which earnest discussion of contemporary music was complemented by Brock’s appreciation for the distilled products of his native state.
“We called him the Kentucky gentleman,” said McAllister, “because he was into bourbon and had such a distinctive style. He was one of the few composers I knew who produced meticulous and beautiful handwritten scores. It was a pleasure to read his music.”
Adler succeeded McAllister as executive director of SDNM, but he was delighted when Brock stepped up to the plate.
“He was so enthusiastic about developing the organization,” said Adler. “Most importantly, Nathan built relationships with new artists, and he thought very carefully about crafting programs that would broaden the audience, and this is something we are working to continue.”
“Nathan was a natural choice for executive director because he’d always been very supportive of our work,” said McAllister. “He really gave the organization a boost of energy when it needed it.”
Brock’s death left his friends and colleagues stunned.
“I was just so shocked when I heard,” said McAllister, who was appointed music program coordinator at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “It was just after I moved to Colorado. It’d been three weeks since I’d seen him. It’s an inexplicable thing.”
It wasn’t until a month after Brock’s death that the SDNM board got together to discuss how to move forward. As executive director, Brock had made all the decisions and taken a great deal of the organization’s functions upon himself, as previous executive directors before him had done.
Adler suggested that they take Brock’s plan of expanding the roster of performers to include more local musicians devoted to new music. One of them was trombonist Eric Starr, who taught with Adler at USD.
“I was involved with a lot of new music at Stony Brook University, where I did my doctorate,”said Starr. “I found the process of working closely with composers to create new works to be stimulating. I’d been in San Diego for two years, and I wanted to be more involved with the contemporary music scene. What we decided to do after Nathan’s passing was to pick up where he left off, but without the lopsided division of duties.”
Adler was put in charge of the website and given the position of secretary/treasurer. Board member Michael Oyster was tasked with creating video and audio recordings for promotional purposes. Madelyn Byrne, professor composition and computer music of music at Palomar College, took over as president. Christian Hertzog, who founded SDNM, was put in charge of program notes, press releases and reviews, and Starr took over as executive director.
“The No. 1 thing we can do to honor Nathan,” said Starr, “besides honoring his compositions and acknowledging his contributions, is to keep this going; to continue to bring contemporary music to an audience that will enjoy it and hopefully grow.”
Distributing the duties of the executive director has made the organization stronger, and the current and former executive directors agree it will only make the organization more streamlined. The affiliated artist series continues with thoughtful presentations of work by young composers like Nicholas Deyoe, presented alongside giants of contemporary music like Witold Lutoslawski, whose centenary is being celebrated this year.
“Nathan wasn’t the kind of guy to do something half-assed,” said McAllister. “If he was going to do something, be it composition, directing SDNM, or selecting bourbon, he was going to do it at a high level. He initiated the transition to Eric Starr by returning to our original mission of presenting concerts. He arrived at just the right time to give us a kick in the pants, and with this new group of performers, SDNM will continue to bear new fruit.”
I’ll raise some Pappy VanWinkle to that.
San Diego New Music presents an Affilliated Artist Series Concert on May 9 at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, the soundON Flute Project with artistic director Lisa Cella June 14-15, Louis Andreissen’s Workers Union at the Carlsbad Music Festival Music Walk on June 21 and the soundON festival of modern music Jan. 9-12, 2014.