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Unleashing the imagination

By Lon Peters '74 Page one: you are here Link to Reed Mag  Home download a .pdf file of Reed Magazine

 

When I pushed the doorbell, a low roar, somewhere between a bagpipe and a distant 747, filtered through the front door on the white clapboard house. The source was a homemade device that featured a vacuum cleaner blowing through organ pipes. The time was a foggy evening in the fall of 1971; the location, a house on SE 30th Avenue, a few blocks south of Reed; the occasion, the party after the Christmas concert of the Reed Collegium Musicum, founded by John and Ginny Hancock only a few years earlier.

My years at Reed in the late '60s and early '70s are much faded now, but certain memories of the Old Reed remain, including the Renaissance Faire (not Renn Fayre!): jousts performed by knights, brief appearances by the Doyle Owl as it disappeared into a steam tunnel, T.C.P. Zimmerman preaching repentance in front of the old commons while students wearing sackcloth and ashes lashed themselves at his feet, and of course that doorbell in Eastmoreland.

Although I had sung in church choir while still in short pants, and had studied piano for several years, when I showed up at Reed in 1969 music was not even on my list of expected activities. I thought I wanted to be a math major. That lasted only a month, followed by political science, international studies, economics, and for a brief period, music. Eventually I decided that economics would be the profession, but music would be the avocation. So I restarted piano lessons and successfully auditioned for the tenor section of the Collegium Musicum in the fall of 1971. That single audition began an association that has endured for almost a quarter century.

Always the audience favorite — the late John Hancock and Collegium members practice the krummhorn, or medieval kazoo

 

In the early years, the Collegium singers were directed by Ginny Oglesby Hancock '62. John Hancock, then associate professor of chemistry, oversaw the instrumental players. Singers and players each adjourned one evening a week to the Hancocks' living room a short walk into Eastmoreland. Concerts in the chapel were always packed, with some of the audience spilling over outside. The repertoire then concentrated on medieval and Renaissance music, which was in keeping with the nature of Reed's spring celebration. At one point, I foolishly mentioned I had once tried to learn a brass instrument, and was promptly handed a zink, which turned out to be an especially nasty combination of a French horn mouthpiece and a recorder body. After one concert, bruised on the lips and aching below the jawbones, I beat a quick retreat to the tenor section. Playing the zink was silent torture; the krummhorns (medieval kazoos) got all the laughs.

 

When I joined the Reed economics department in the fall of 1980, Ginny and John were still directing the Collegium, and I was welcomed back to the tenor section. It was partly a matter of genetics: tenors were so scarce that Ginny has even been heard to encourage us to procreate. After John passed away in the late '80s, the instruments lost their conductor and now sit in a closet in Prexy, mostly unused.

The vocal ensemble has continued, despite a few bumpy years in the late '80s when Ginny was out of town leading the life of a newly ordained (thus peripatetic) academic. The repertoire is now much more varied, ranging from Gregorian chant to the compositions of Professor of Music David Schiff, and for the last few years the group has entertained the graduates and their families at commencement. We now have a magnificent place to sing, which all the Reed choirs helped inaugurate in 1998: the Kaul Auditorium. Along the way, we've sung in more languages than I have fingers to count and absorbed lots of music theory and history.

Why do I keep singing? First, Ginny, back at Reed as professor of music, has told me I can't stop. Second, singing cures headaches (although some pieces written after 1951 are an exception). Third, rehearsals and concerts are a great relief from the daily burden of contract negotiations, conference calls and spreadsheets. (At one rehearsal we conducted an impromptu experiment and determined that the vacuum cleaner outside the room was operating somewhere between a G and an F sharp.) Finally, I'm reminded of a fundamental tenet that professors Robert Palladino and Lloyd Reynolds taught us in calligraphy classes, which applies in many disciplines but most acutely, I think, in the arts: once you have learned the rules (and there are lots of rules in both music and calligraphy), your imagination can be unleashed. The older I get, the more the powers of imagination become precious, and the less all the facts seem to matter.

Lon Peters is an independent economic consultant and is currently vice chair of the Independent Economic Analysis Board, advising the Northwest Power Planning Council on the economic effects of fisheries restoration projects in the Columbia River basin.

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