Life

Jerry Owen's birthday gift to the public: A free concert of his music

Pianists will perform five works by Cedar Rapids composer to mark his 75th birthday

Composer Jerry Owen poses for a photo at his home in Cedar Rapids on Jan. 8, 2020. Owen will celebrate his 75th birthday
Composer Jerry Owen poses for a photo at his home in Cedar Rapids on Jan. 8, 2020. Owen will celebrate his 75th birthday Feb. 2 with a concert of five of his major piano works, performed by prominent Corridor pianists. The concert will be held at 2 p.m. Feb. 2 in Daehler-Kitchin Auditorium at Coe College. It’s presented as part of Coe’s annual Keyboard Festival. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Composing music is a self-proclaimed compulsion for Jerry Owen — spinning into an almost a daily habit. One he’s been honing since age 10, when he started analyzing the chord symbols above the vocal lines in the 1930s and ’40s sheet music his big sister collected.

“I finally figured out that those vertical lines on the guitar symbols were supposed to be the strings of the guitar,” he said, “and that would change the pitch.

“I would say, ‘OK, there’s gotta be a connection to those letters and the string positions in the notes indicated there and the notes that are on the page.’ I began to make those connections.

“The whole thing was an analytical approach to start with. ... It took a while to put all that together,” he said, punctuating the conversation with the first of many laughs around his kitchen table.

And now, 65 years later, the retired Coe College music professor, who turned 75 in 2019, will celebrate this milestone with a free concert Feb. 2 in Coe’s Daehler-Kitchin Auditorium.

The event, part of the school’s annual Keyboard Festival, will spotlight five of his piano compositions created from 1965 to 2017. They will be performed by six pianists he chose specifically for each piece.

He has been staging concerts of his works to celebrate his 40th, 50th, 60th and 70th birthdays. Harvey Sollberger, who played flute Owen’s 70th birthday concert, encouraged him to break that 10-year pattern.

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“I told him I’ve already started on my 80th. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Jerry, you’re not getting any younger — 80th is a long way off. Maybe you should do a 75th.’ ”

Musical evolution

Figuring out the correlation between printed symbols and sounds was just the beginning of Owen’s musical journey, one that would take him from writing music at his piano, with paper and pencil in hand, then transferring to ink copies when he was done, switching to computer programs in the late ’80s.

“I’ve been impressed with the software that’s available,” he said. “It’s almost like artificial intelligence.”

Computer notations allow him to put the notes down and immediately hear the sounds back, which hearkens back to his childhood.

“I was fascinated by sound,” he said, “and why those notes were arranged so radically on the keyboard.”

His early pieces “were almost always in a minor key and dark,” he said with a laugh. “They weren’t very complex either.”

That has changed for this composer, twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Growing up in Miller Beach, Ind., part of the Gary metro area, he started taking piano lessons at age 7, picked up the trombone in grade school and was marching in the high school band at age 10, standing next to a senior who was 6 feet, 4 inches tall.

“I was about 5-foot-2 at the time, or maybe 5 feet,” Owen said, “so if I was ever out of line, he would just reach over, grab me by the back of the neck and set me down where I was in line.”

By the time he actually started high school, he was arranging music for the jazz and pep bands; writing pieces for a friend who already was an accomplished cellist; and writing and arranging for his own jazz group.

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“The jazz has always been there in the background,” he said. “I think that goes along with the analytical part because of the interesting harmonies the jazz players manage to come up with.”

He’s branched out, with nearly 70 orchestral, band, choral, chamber and vocal solo works listed in his online catalog (jerryowen.net/vocal.html).

Musical style, influences

He explored different styles over the years — including avant-garde at one point — and said it’s hard to categorize his sound.

“It’s kind of difficult to give a specific name because there really isn’t one in the vocabulary,” he said. “I call is ‘classical contemporary.’ ”

It’s the “confluence of some influences” that give his classical pieces a contemporary feel, he added.

Among his earliest influences was Bela Bartok, whose music he discovered in high school — particularly the Hungarian composer’s “Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet and Piano.”

“I’ve never heard anything like that. It just knocked my socks off,” Owen said, noting that it opened his mind to a harmonic world that he feels most people can hear and understand.

Next came jazz, which he believes furthered the “progression of harmonic language” in the 20th century.

“Always for me, it’s been harmony, and from the harmonies come the scale generations,” he said. “But harmony is just intriguing to me.”

Ice cream comparison

A foodie who enjoys cooking for his wife, Marilyn — his specialty is lasagna — he compares harmonic languages to flavors of ice cream.

“Mozart: vanilla. Everybody likes vanilla, but it’s vanilla.

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“You get to Chopin, you get a little a little extra zip. Maybe this is chocolate ripple or something like that.

“And you get to Debussy, and it’s definitely lime sorbet. ... There’s never really a hint of anything academic about it. It’s always just from the heart.

“And you get to Bartok, and it’s sort of like black cherry walnut sorbet. There are those complexities of flavor that just kind of progress along the scale. Music has done the same sort of thing — it’s progressed after a fashion.”

With an undergraduate degree from the University of Evansville and a master’s in composition from DePauw University, both in Indiana, as well as a Ph.D. in composition from the University of Iowa, his own career as a college educator began and ended at Coe College. It was the first job he applied for, and he stayed 38 years, retiring in 2006.

Whether his students made music their vocation or avocation, he hopes they remember to “approach everything intuitively, musically, and to love music.”

“They can think hard about it many different ways and experience it many different ways,” he said, “but I just hope that they generate the love for the art.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

If you go

• What: Jerry Owen: The 75th Birthday Concert, part of the Coe College Keyboard Festival

• Where: Daehler-Kitchin Auditorium in Marquis Hall, Coe College, 1220 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids

• When: 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 2

• Admission: Free

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• Program: Four Dances for Two Pianos (1965); Sonata 2 (1968); Sonatina (2015); Encounters (1986); and Sonata 4 (2017)

• Pianists: Abbie Brewer, Miko Kominami, Rene Lecuona, Benjamin Loeb, Julia Titus, Marita Wolgast

Other festival keyboard concerts

• Faculty performance: 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 31

• Student and Faculty performance: 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 1

• Where: Daehler-Kitchin Auditorium, Coe College, Cedar Rapids

• Admission: Free

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