Ernie Stires, who "used to play piano for the Vermont Symphony Orchestra", according to Robert Groves, is a jazz composer and pianist with a penchant for 30s and 40s big band style and neoclassical composition, and who specializes in atonal sonorous composition. Trey was introduced to him at UVM as a neo-classical composer and composition instructor. Jamie Masefield (of the Jazz Mandolin Project) also worked with Stires, whom he refers to as "the Wizard". Bad Hat, which includes both Jamie and Trey, performs two tribute tunes, "Blues for Ernie" and "Ernie's Groove". Stires was the subject of a Sept. 97 cover story (included below) in Seven Days, a Burlington alternative weekly. In late 1997, Stires released a CD featuring one track by Trey.
This article (reproduced here by permission of the author and publisher) appeared in Seven Days, the alternative arts and news weekly in Burlington, Vermont. Subscriptions: $60/year first class, $30 third class (check or MC/VISA). Contact Seven Days, POB 1164, Burlington, VT 05402, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with credit card information (secure). Also, check news about the Burlington-area music scene, updated weekly, at www.bigheavyworld.com.
By Ruth Horowitz
Half way through "Geulah Papyrus," a straight-ahead Phish song about a spider and a fly, the music breaks into a short theme and variation in which counterpoint melodies weave in and out like silk strands in a web. The piece, "The Asse Festival", was written by lead guitarist Trey Anastasio and dedicated to his friend and mentor, Cornwall composer Ernie Stires. By the end of this year, Anastasio hopes to release a CD of Stires' all too rarely heard work. While most people associate modern classical compositions with minimalist monotony or conceptual cacophony, Stires serves up his decidedly 20th-century dishes with enough boogie-woogie rhythms and beautiful, mind-bending harmonies to satisfy body and soul. "It amazed me that more and more people were hearing my music, and no one was hearing his," Anastasio says. "It's amazing music, incredible."
Stires and his wife Judith share a rambling, add-on farmhouse outside Middlebury. The composer is a friendly, opinionated, slightly disheveled 71-year-old whose Virginia roots can still be heard in the mellow lilt of his voice. "My muse is a combination of Tallulah Bankhead and Bette Davis," he drawls. "She smokes and she drinks and she's sore because she has me."
Stires' pedigree includes Grandpa Sidney Homer, a composer; Grandma Louise Homer, a leading contralto with the Metropolitan Opera from 1900 until 1931; and Cousin Samuel Barber, one of the major American composers of the 20th century. Cousin Sam's complex tonalities and unabashed lyricism were major influences in Stires' aesthetic development. Stires' mother also sang opera, but her career ended when she married his father, an Episcopal minister. (In those days, he explains, it was considered unseemly for a man of the cloth to be married to a woman who appeared on the stage.)
With so much music in the family, it was only natural that young Ernie be given piano lessons. But they didn't work out. "I was a rattle-brained kid," he claims. "But I could play hot piano licks by ear." Freed from the constraints of formal training, he continued to soak up sounds on his own, especially big band jazz. "I loved the artistry, elegance and genius of swing," he says. To demonstrate, he cranks up an old gramophone (a gift from Phish), and pops on the B side of a 78: the Benny Goodman Quartet tearing through "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy." Stires does a lsideprojects.htmlhake, getting into the rhythm. "This came out when I was 10 years old and I can't get rid of it! It ruins you for life," he declares, grinning mischievousideprojects.htmlCompare that with Bobby Dylan!"
It took Stires a while to move from listening to writing his own music. First he joined the Navy, then he married his first wife, had three children, and worked at various jobs in media sales. By the late Õ50s, he says, he got "fed up" and moved to Boston, where he met Judith and gave himself over to his music. At age 32, he tells me, "I decided to grab hold of my so-called talent." Stires' composition teachers included Nicholas Slonimsky, an absurdist composer and tonal explorer. (Slonimsky later appeared in concert with Frank Zappa, who introduced him as "our national treasure.")
The Stires have lived in Vermont since the early 1970s. While Judith works as vice president of a Burlington investment counseling firm, Ernie composes jazz-infused numbers for solo voice, chorus, solo instruments, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra and theater. He works at a Steinway grand with an ashtray the size of a fruit bowl perched beside the manuscript-littered music stand. Besides examples of his beloved swing, LPs and cassettes of Barber, Bach, Nelson Riddle, David Rakson movie scores, 1950s a cappella pop, and other favorite recordings are close at hand.
The composer eagerly shares his eclectic archive, as well as his own inventions, with the dozens of hopeful musicians who have been finding their way to his door for the past 15 years. Stires isn't formally associated with any music program, and he doesn't teach for the money. He says "kids" like Anastasio and Jamie Masefield of the Jazz Mandolin Project get his name "on the street" and work out individual payment arrangements. One student painted the hull of Stires' vintage power boat in exchange for his counsel.
The style of Stires' counsel harkens back to his early experience as an incorrigible piano student. Composition can't be taught, he believes. Instead, he tries to help his students acquire the necessary tools and to open their ears to new sounds, then help them find their own voice. He begins by telling a student, "Write me some music. Then we'll go over it." For Anastasio, who met Stires as a University of Vermont student feeling stifled by the school's traditional music courses, this unorthodox approach was an inspiration. "He believed in me," the guitarist says.
But Stires balances his faith in his students with an equal measure of rigor. Anastasio recalls the time he knocked himself out writing a two-part composition with a big-band arrangement. Then he proudly brought the piece to his teacher, only to be told, "You've stuck your head out of the muck at the bottom of the mountain and now you can see that there's a mountain there to climb."
"Trey makes a big thing about my contribution to his music," Stires demurs. "I just opened the doors for him and he ran through them."
Even after Phish had signed with Elektra and was touring nationally, Anastasio remained intent on living up to his teacher's standards. Up through the release of Rift, he says, "I played everything for him first. His influence is felt over the whole direction the band has gone in. I was always playing them Ernie's music, saying, "How can we sound more like this?'"
The sound Anastasio sets as his ideal will be represented well on the CD. Though exact release details are still forthcoming, Stires has selected the recordings that will make up the collection. They include New York organist Gerre Hancock playing "Prelude and Fugue," a piece inspired in part by a phrase from George Benson's "The Two Of Us" and recorded in 1990 by Vermont pianist Michael Arnowitt on his album, Alive and Well. Stires himself will play "Minor Footnotes," a series of new piano pieces whose name derives from a fellow musician who once told him that if he was lucky, one day he'd merit a minor footnote in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Pianist Stephanie Rogers and her father, a violinist, will play a piece called "12 x 12." And Anastasio will team up with Stires on a danceable little jam number called "Samson Riff," the only straight jazz cut on the album.
But the centerpiece of the collection will be Rogers' performance of Stires' Sonata in C major for Piano, a jazzy, 20-minute excursion that is both mesmerizing and infectious. Recorded in concert at Middlebury College in 1988, the piece opens with systematic waves of dappled notes, then progresses to a theatrical conclusion with syncopated subjects entering and exiting in endless variations, like characters tap-dancing across a stage. With its carefully composed air of effortlessness, its intrepid exploration of recurring themes, and its ability to both elevate and entertain the listener, Stires' Sonata is a showcase of his compositional tastes and talent.
Even for the composer, an achievement like this can be somewhat awe-inspiring. "You look hopefully for an idea and then you're humble when you find it and you wish your skills were better," he says. "To have even a half-baked touch of creativity is an honor. You husband the gift and you do what you can with it. It's wonderful, but it's work." Stires' work has already paid out amply in the impact he's had on Anastasio and his other students. And now, thanks to the forthcoming CD, the rest of us will be able the reap the rich rewards of his efforts as well.
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