I was 32 in 2005, when I started as an Assistant Professor at SIUE. I was so fatigued from the process of finishing a doctorate, hopping across two temp jobs, and finally starting the tenure track that I couldn’t compose anymore and thought I might be washed up. Frustrated and impatient to have the whole rest of my life resolved as soon as possible, I called a mentor composer – David Maslanka – for a diagnosis. David chuckled good-naturedly and invited me to spend a week’s retreat at his home in Montana. He said I needed rest.
David had a bigger plan than that, though: he also invited a young conductor who had just finished his first year in a new job in Wisconsin, and was equally fatigued and frustrated: Chris Werner.
We both needed David, but we needed each other more. Chris and I bonded over sneaking away for coffee (not allowed at David’s house) and dissecting episodes of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. We suffered devastating Scrabble losses to David. Mostly, we lamented the deteriorating state of our shared profession – the wind ensemble and its repertoire. David suggested we try collaborating.
The next year Chris commissioned my Symphony no. 3. By doing this, he held open a space for me to fully and freely create. I, in turn, delivered a worthy conducting challenge for him: a 30-minute monster, requiring all manner of special equipment and color instruments, alternately laughing and roaring from the page. I spent two weeks in residence with Chris and his high school band, where both of us chafed at our colleagues’ certainty that it was impossible for high schoolers to negotiate such lengthy and difficult music, that neither of us had the skill or maturity to undertake such a project, and that we were hotheaded youngsters who would soon know better, if only by failing.
Not one chance, we decided. After all, there was nothing magic about demanding the best of yourself and being brave enough to expect it of others. Chris was a force of nature – a black hole whose sheer gravitational force dragged out every ounce of effort and musicianship from his band. He railed and shouted and sweated buckets from the podium, practically calling down the lightning, as if he could elicit their sound from his own body. He stormed and praised in equal intensity. He scared me, even! We spent our off-hours half in an exhausted stupor, and half barely speaking to each other. Often, a rage simmered between us. It took me a long time to realize this was a rage he’d assimilated from the music, which he was living in himself so he could conduct it and shape it. He was terrifying. He was amazing. It was a mad dash from the day I arrived to the final ringing note of the premiere, all hot with electricity. Chris swears he remembers nothing from that night, but I remember every second. That symphony wasn’t as much a “birth,” as Chris always called a premiere performance of new music, but more of a nuclear blast!
For years after that, we sat in coffee shops sketching the book we were going to write. We’d experienced – more like survived – something incredible and it had to be shared. Over those years and our work together, Chris developed a new model for building a band program in high schools, for training student teachers, and for bringing an entire school district into sync for fostering true, independent artistry. Kids can do so much more than most educators think, he insisted, and some of this plan hinged on the collaboration between a conductor and composer. So we were just going to write a book, just like that, because doing the right thing is so simple if you are fearless and willing to work hard. Obviously, all that was missing in the world was somebody’s saying that. We used to look up at each other from over our laptops – excitedly mapping out a table of contents, a paragraph here or there – to promise each other that we would never become complacent like the ranks ahead of us. We swore we would always push each other to the next big thing. We’d be 70 years old together, retired, and still showing the world how it’s done.
The problem was I couldn’t call down the lightning at will, the way Chris could. I have always struggled with insecurity and writer’s block. Then, Chris was there urging me on – you have this, you’ve done it before, it’s there, keep going, creativity is messy. I was in Chris’s gravitational pull and there was no escaping it. Next came a piano concerto. Then a symphony. Then a song cycle. It was painful and terrifying; it was slow, messy work; it always will be. But how could I give less to my art than Chris gave to his, or believe in myself less than he did?
Somewhere around 2012, we both began to discuss perhaps leaving education and maybe leaving music, too. We were both tired again, both burned out. Up in Wisconsin, Chris felt isolated. Conducting didn’t always feel fun or challenging anymore. He wondered if he’d rather become an administrator. I suggested he try to rejuvenate his creativity by feeding his other interests, like cooking or playing the clarinet. Down here in Illinois, I understood exactly what he felt. Composing is difficult. It was easier to talk with him about dumb meetings and academic politics.
We stopped being crusaders and became middle aged and complacent. It was so gradual we didn’t even notice.
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I sat at Chris’s bedside. The cancer took most of his digestive system a year ago. It had invaded his liver and brain. We had college football on TV, as was always our habit together, but I almost couldn’t recognize the man next to me. This wasn’t the same vibrant, energetic guy who helped paint my house a few summers ago, who trekked through Scotland with me, or who used to invent gourmet meals when we’d visit. I almost couldn’t recognize him – but there were still his eyes. They were the same.
“What about our book?” I asked.
“It’s percolating in your brain now,” he replied.
“Are you scared? Do you know what’s going to happen?”
“No, I don’t know. I think I’ll just go to sleep and that’s it. But I’m not scared. I’ve had a long time to get used to this idea.”
A long pause. “Did you have a good life?”
“I think I made a difference. Yes. I like to think I did good things.”
We were quiet for a while, watching Nebraska lose to Iowa. I thought about his many student teachers who’d gone on to careers in music and about a restaurant he used to love called “Diggers” where we’d talk for hours about new band music.
Finally, I asked, “Give me advice, Chris. What do I do now, without you?”
A small smile. “Have patience. Make other people feel heard, even when you know you’re right. I should have done that more. Be patient about your music, about life. Things will come, but only when it’s time. You have to be patient.”
He started to fade into sleep, but mumbled, “Compose. I wish you would just compose.”
Then, asleep, he began conducting. I couldn’t believe that’s what I was seeing, but I know his gestures so well: the pointing cue, the curl of his fingers, the interplay of his hands. He was humming a faint note now and then, his emaciated face rising and falling with dream music. I don’t know how long that went on, but I was stunned, devastated, fascinated … and most of all, grateful to have witnessed something important even though I didn’t understand.
He surfaced for a moment and looked surprised, as if I’d caught him talking to himself.
“Was it good music?” I asked. “The Chicago Symphony?”
He shrugged. “I don’t remember. Maybe it was the Medford Middle School Band.” His tiny little hometown. A small knowing smile, almost a wink, and he was asleep again.
Chris never wanted to leave music, any more than I do. He certainly never wanted to stop conducting. It was all that other stuff: paperwork, meetings, politics, evaluations, bills, groceries, family squabbles, laundry, etc., that got in his way. That stuff was simpler and easier to talk about than the demands of being an artist. Even cancer was easier, perhaps. I realized, though, that when all the noise is stripped away, what’s left is what matters. When everything else was taken from him, including his body, Chris held on to his music and to conducting.
A few mornings later, in the long hours before dawn, I held my best friend’s shoulder while spasms wracked his body. The first MP3 I could find on his laptop, hoping music might soothe him, was Maslanka’s Trombone Concerto. It sounded terrible through laptop speakers, but it brought Chris up from the fog. Lucid for the first time in many hours, he looked straight at me, smiled that broad smile of his, and whispered, “Serendipitous, that.”
I’d remembered the Trombone Concerto was beautiful and affirming, but had forgotten it was written in memory of someone who died of cancer.
The morphine started to work. He was quieter then, maybe listening. I asked, “Do you remember that day, Chris? We went to that first rehearsal together, and heard the first measures, and we were stunned at how beautiful it was.”
His eyes went glassy again, but he whispered, “It was amazing … lonely,” before he slipped back into sleep.
It was amazing. The work features a cello on equal standing with the trombone soloist. All those years ago, overwhelmed by a power we didn’t expect in a mere rehearsal, Chris had leaned over to me and said the cello was “the embodiment of loneliness.” Afterward, sharing a tub of cookie dough with spoons, staring at the television, we were too stunned to even talk about how that music showed us that we, ourselves, were lonely. All we could do was allow an unspoken poignancy and be together, present in the moment. Very shortly after that rehearsal, though, I began to write for Chris my Concerto for Piano and Wind Ensemble. It was a work worthy of being “his,” a work speaking to our shared loneliness. I put a cello on equal standing with the piano soloist. Symphony no. 3 roars; that piano concerto contemplates and weeps.
Chris never was able to conduct it. He never had a band that could do it. Maybe he does now, on that stage in his dreams.
The hospice nurse came later that day. She said he had 48 hours left, maybe 72. I didn’t think Chris would wake again, but knowing I had to leave for home, I sat one last time at his side. Patient. Listening. He did wake and looked right at me, took my hand and held it to his chest, squeezed it as hard as he could between his. We didn’t speak … sharing an unspoken poignancy, present in our last moment together, as tears rolled down my face. He never wanted me to cry when he talked about what was happening to him; in fact, the day he called with the diagnosis, he threatened to hang up on me if I cried.
This time, he smiled and said, “Thanks for the visit.” That’s what we always said to each other, after every premiere, at the airport.
“You can’t go, Chris.”
“It is what it is, Kim.”
“I love you, Chris.”
“I love you, too.”
He drifted back into sleep. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t go. Then he released my hand and began conducting again. I kissed his forehead, whispered “goodbye,” and left.
I will never see my best friend again, but I hope I, too, can come back — as he did — to focus whatever time I have left on what really matters.
Listen to others.