Obituary: Ivan Tcherepnin

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The Independent Online
IVAN TCHEREPNIN, composer and teacher, was born of musical stock and carried on the family business with aplomb.

He was the son of the Russian composer Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977) and the Chinese pianist Lee Hsien-Ming (1915-91) and the grandson of the composer-conductor Nikolai Tcherepnin (1873-1945). Ivan received his earliest musical instruction from his parents, later studying composition with Leon Kirchner at Harvard, which was to become his own base, and with Karlheinz Stockhausen and conducting with Pierre Boulez. His father's cultural open- mindedness fostered a lively intellectual curiosity in Ivan, which was demonstrated both in his compositions and his instrumentalism: he was a fine pianist - but also a virtuoso on the psaltery and the Persian santur.

Tcherepnin composed vigorously all through his all-too-brief career (he was only 55 when he lost his three-year battle with cancer of the liver). His teenage discovery, in 1958, of the possibilities of electronic music - through a tape sent to his father by the Dutch composer Henk Badings - set his imagination loose. His brother Serge, also a composer, remembers a school concert of Badings music that Ivan organised: it caused an uproar because Ivan staged the concert in total darkness and succeeded in completely disorienting his audience: a considerable achievement for a 16-year-old.

As a result of this early fascination, many of Ivan Tcherepnin's own scores blend live music with electronics. The combination of his solid traditional training with his ceaseless desire to experiment opened up all music to him: his activity in electronics allied him with the extreme avant-garde, and yet he could as readily compose works that would not overstretch the ears of more conservative listeners. One of those more traditional pieces, a Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra, which won the $150,000 Grawemeyer Prize in 1995, has recently been released by the UK company Olympia, on a CD which includes music by his father and grandfather.

He was also happy to write for the amateurs of the symphonic wind band, and one of his largest recent scores was the oratorio And So It Came to Pass, performed in Carnegie Hall to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Oratorio Music Society. Indeed, his catholic interests pulled everything within reach: he experimented with automatic music (in what he called "Bachamatic Canons"), explored musical aesthetics, examined the relationship between text and music. The flow of works earned him a garland of awards and prizes.

Tcherepnin was an enthusiastic teacher. He was director of the Harvard Electronic Music Studio from 1972, and gave courses on electronic music in a number of countries in the 1970s and 1980s, including the Dartington Summer School in Devon. The alumni of his Boston classes include some prominent names of the younger generation of American arts, two of whom worked with their teacher's music: Yo-Yo Ma gave the premiere of the Double Concerto, and Peter Sellars produced Tcherepnin's Santur Opera - the first time he had worked with a living composer. But then Tcherepnin was an easy man to work with, and the list of his collaborations is long, among them projects with his teacher Leon Kirchner, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham, for whose dance company he wrote his ballet The Creative Act and several other scores.

The sense of bubbling energy inside Tcherepnin's music mirrors his personality: for Richard Dyer, the Boston Globe critic and a strong supporter, the first impression of the man was of "a whirlwind of hair, hands and intelligence". But the fizz and the whimsy sat on the surface: the loyalty of his friends and students was earned by the deep seriousness with which he took his responsibilities. That self-effacing devotion extended to his family, too, and shortly before his death, he took enormous pleasure in attending a concert that included a work by one of his sons - the fourth generation of composing Tcherepnins.

Ivan Tcherepnin, composer: born Paris 5 February 1943; married 1964 Sandra Prutting (marriage dissolved), 1967 Anne Palmer (three sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1997 Sue-Ellen Hershman; died Boston, Massachusetts 11 April 1998.