Susan Sokol Blosser ’67 with Prof. David Schiff at the Sokol Blosser vineyard in Yamhill County, Oregon.
Susan Sokol Blosser ’67 with Prof. David Schiff at the Sokol Blosser vineyard in Yamhill County, Oregon.

Time and Place

Prof. David Schiff’s musical journey winds through the vineyard with Susan Sokol-Blosser ’67 and around the track with Steve Prefontaine.

By Audrey Van Buskirk | July 28, 2023

Far above, the hawk is circling.

All it takes is eight notes—eight notes from the solo violin—and we’re soaring high above the mountains, riding the waves of the wind.

In Vineyard Rhythms, a violin concerto inspired by the lush landscape of Yamhill County, Professor Emeritus David Schiff [music 1980–2019] demonstrates his mastery of shifting perspective.

The piece begins by looking down at the land from the perspective of a hawk calling to its avian companions dancing in the sky. It then drops to the land, invoking the richness of the earth that feeds the vines as they ripen and burst with energy. It finishes with a joyous tribute to the bubbling transformation of harvest.

Just as the piece serves as a metaphor for the cycles of life, it also serves as a window into the ever-evolving career of David Schiff, a career forged by the liberal arts and tempered by the intellectual atmosphere of Reed. From Gustav Holst to George Gershwin, from Duke Ellington to Frank Zappa, Schiff’s influences run far and deep, surfacing in unexpected places.

Schiff retired from teaching a few years ago, but he’s as busy as ever. In addition to Vineyard Rhythms, commissioned by Oregon wine industry pioneer Susan Sokol-Blosser MAT ’67 in honor of her mother, he also recently composed Prefontaine, a symphony celebrating the enduring influence of Oregon running legend Steve Prefontaine, whose brilliant career was cut short by a fatal car accident in 1975.

Taken together, these pieces, which both premiered last summer, reveal how Schiff brings profound curiosity, a creative and inventive spirit, an appreciation of the gifts of others, and a drive to connect with the audience in a profound way.

And that he has a lot of fun.

■ ■ ■

David Schiff’s talents and accomplishments are nothing short of prodigious. Well-known for his compositions for chamber and symphonic music, he’s fluent in the languages of jazz, opera, klezmer, and more. He’s also written widely, including books on Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, and Elliott Carter.

Yet he didn’t come to a musical career readily. Born in 1945 and growing up in the New York City area, he played piano from a young age and listened to a diverse collection of music, taking in the sights and sounds of Broadway. He majored in English literature at Columbia University (where Susan Sontag and Edward Said taught his freshman year core course), studied on a fellowship at Cambridge, and intended to become an English professor.

In 1968, to avoid being drafted, he took a crash summer course at NYU and then spent a year teaching junior high in the South Bronx. “On several occasions at Reed faculty meetings, I’d make a statement that everything I ever needed to know about teaching I learned that year,” he laughs.

Back at Columbia, he was approaching 30 and well on his way toward a PhD in Victorian literature (intending to write his dissertation on William Thackeray), when a visit to an otherwise unmemorable therapist provided the lightbulb moment. “I asked, ‘Why is it that no one believes I’m a musician?’ and the therapist said, ‘Why should they?” Schiff immediately applied for summer school at the Manhattan School of Music and found his new path. To pay his tuition, he taught in the Manhattan School’s humanities program, a combination he calls “good preparation for Reed.”

Always attracted to nature’s beauty, Schiff found Oregon’s coastlines, mountains, and high deserts significant draws when he came to Reed in 1980 to teach music theory and composition. He soon branched out to teach courses in the history of jazz, the music of Duke Ellington, American musical theatre, and a course called Music since 1960 that featured a range of genres from avant-garde to rap.

“David brought a deep knowledge of music—and new music—to Reed,” says his colleague Prof. Virginia Hancock [music 1990–2016], whose career paralleled Schiff’s at Reed. “He was a very devoted teacher who took enormous trouble over his students. He was tough. But they learned he cared for them.”

Schiff conducted the Reed orchestra for many years and was also instrumental in founding two long-standing Reed traditions: RAW and ROMP.

RAW (Reed Arts Weekend) was the brainchild of a group of young professors who were dismayed at the lack of visiting performers on campus in the 1980s and wanted to provide a venue. Eventually, RAW could no longer be contained in a single weekend and became Reed Arts Week, though it evolved away from the performing arts and focused more on studio arts.

Schiff came up with the idea of ROMP (Reediana Omnibus Musica Philosopha) after participating in the Bard College Music Festival, an annual event involving both performers and scholars. From 1999 to 2016, ROMP enlivened the campus with concerts and talks on a variety of subjects.

Schiff remains profoundly grateful for Reed’s support for his work as a composer. He also relished the opportunity to work with such a range of committed students. “I never had to motivate my students,” he says. “They arrived motivated. When you presented them with a challenge, they would do it.”

Many of his students would only discover their deep connection to music after matriculating, and he believes Reed was the perfect place for those students. “I could take a student like that and move them along,” he says, “I loved thinking about how to help students find their voice.”

An appreciation of the value of working with others is one of the key insights that has driven Schiff’s career. “When I think about life as a composer—I said this to students many times—aside from the pleasure of getting the notes on the page, you get to have your music played by these wonderful musicians who bring everything they have to your music and they elevate it.”

It’s no surprise that in addition to his work with students at Reed, Schiff never lost sight of his other vocation: composing.

■ ■ ■

Susan Sokol Blosser MAT ’67 is a powerhouse in her own right. After getting her bachelor’s degree in history at Stanford, she earned her MAT from Reed and went on to become a pioneer of the Oregon wine industry. She drove the tractor, pruned the vines, and built the vineyard into a leader in sustainable agriculture by limiting pesticides, installing solar power, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Along the way, she raised two kids and wrote four books.

“I think of the liberal arts as education for life,” she says. “I’m living proof of that.” She’s such a firm believer in the value of a Reed education that she recently joined the college’s board of trustees.

She’s long held a belief in the power of music to transform lives. In 2011, she founded the Yamhill Enrichment Society (YES), which focuses on literacy and music enrichment for youth in Yamhill County. As part of YES, Sokol Blosser launched the Junior Orchestra of Yamhill County (JOY) in 2017. Its audacious goal is to teach every elementary school student in the county to play the violin. She believes “playing the violin is like a full-body workout for the brain.”

Sokol Blosser had thought about setting her vineyard to music for years before asking Schiff to compose Vineyard Rhythms as a tribute to her late mother, Phyllis Feingold, who was an accomplished classical violinist and member of the Chicago Women’s Symphony in the 1920s. Feingold might have continued to work as a professional musician in a more enlightened era. But in her time, she was unable to balance the demands of a musical career with being a wife and a mother. (Sokol Blosser is currently working on a novel-like memoir of her mother with the working title The Choices We Make.)

In addition to her mother, Sokol Blosser wanted to honor the vineyard where she has lived and worked for over 50 years. “I wanted to capture in music its beauty, with its annual passage through growth, fruitfulness, dormancy, and rebirth,” she says. “In essence, I wanted to put the vineyard to music.”

Neither she nor Schiff was aware of their shared connection to Reed before the project began but found it a delightful coincidence. Schiff found another surprise in the commission. “Having the vineyard as a destination got us through COVID,” he says, remembering the many trips he and his wife, Judy, made throughout the changing seasons to experience the landscape and walk among the rows of vines that straggle across the hills like staves of music on a page.

On an early visit, as red-tailed hawks circled in the sky, Sokol Blosser pointed out their nest high in a tree. That inspired the first movement, “Hawk,” where a vivid eight-note theme on the violin loops and soars over the winter landscape like a raptor on the wing, circling its dormant domain, awaiting the arrival of spring.

In the second movement, “Gaia,” the music travels from the earth up, as Schiff weaves together ripening harmonies to conjure the growth of the vines, summoning forth their power in the stillness, as spring warms to summer and the sound grows stronger and more confident. The final movement, “Harvest,” pulses with jazzy, triumphant intensity as the vineyard workers hustle to gather the lush bounty into the vats. 

Schiff says the piece benefitted from Sokol Blosser’s own writing about the vineyard, which she sent him during the process, but she wasn’t prescriptive, choosing to let him create his own musical reflection of the land. She didn’t hear the piece until it was finished. “I was thrilled with the final product,” Sokol Blosser says, especially the opening notes of Chamber Music Northwest co–artistic director Soovin Kim on solo violin.

Conducted by Francesco Lecce-Chong, the piece premiered in July 2022 with a performance at Chamber Music Northwest, with which Schiff has had a fruitful relationship, writing more than 20 pieces for them since 1982. A second performance occurred at the vineyard as part of a fundraising dinner. That day was beastly hot— Schiff remembers that the thermometer in his car read 114 degrees—so the performance had to be moved inside to the winery’s cellar. Characteristically, rather than being dismayed at the last-minute change in setting, Schiff was delighted by the added resonance generated by the huge metal wine barrels.

It’s another example of a career that has embraced creativity, opportunity, and being in the right place at the right time. He remembers that when he was five years old, his family bought a recording of Debussy’s La Mer. “It quickly became my favorite piece of music, then and forever,” Schiff says. His family spent their summers at the beach, and it was then that he first realized “the idea that music could take you someplace.”

■ ■ ■

From the very first notes of Prefontaine, Schiff makes it clear that we’re not going to sit still.

It begins with a bolt from the blue, a burst of piccolos, violins, and timpani that explodes onstage like a starter’s pistol. Amid the eerie aftershock, a ricochet of percussion builds to another explosion. And another. Then, wafting above the chaos, a lone flügelhorn takes up a lovely, lilting theme, soaring impossibly high, like an archer’s arrow flying into the night and disappearing among the stars.

Like Prefontaine, we are embarking on an odyssey. 

The piece was commissioned by the Eugene Symphony for the 2022 World Athletics Championships (held in Eugene) to honor Oregon’s most famous runner. Steve Prefontaine, known as Pre, earned seven NCAA titles for the University of Oregon. His standout performance at the 1972 Olympic Trials 5K before a sold-out crowd at Hayward Field helped fuel the nation’s running craze and catapulted him to fame. Over the next few years, his scrappy, brash identity and will to win made him an international legend until he was killed in a car accident at the age of 24.

Scott Freck, executive director of the Eugene Symphony, says Schiff was top of his list to commemorate Prefontaine. “He has a dynamism that brings a lot of energy to the orchestra,” Freck says. “He’s obviously a brilliant guy and was an absolute joy to work with.”

Schiff approached the piece with an open mind and a researcher’s zeal. He traveled to the working-class town of Coos Bay, met with sportswriter Curtis Anderson, and talked to people who had known Prefontaine. Under the tutelage of Linda Prefontaine, Steve’s sister and “the keeper of the flame,” Schiff says, he and a team from the Eugene Symphony explored the rugged coastal stomping ground where Prefontaine trained to push himself harder, faster, farther.

The first movement captures the dramatic landscape on the drive from Eugene, through the Cascade Mountains to the Oregon coast. Schiff wrote it as a passacaglia, a classical form that features a repeating bass line known as an ostinato. But he turned the pattern upside down and put the ostinato up high. At the same time, he reversed the arrow of time. He begins the musical journey at the site in Eugene known as Pre’s Rock, where people have never stopped leaving memorial tributes, then traces the way back to Coos Bay, where the runner was born and raised.

For the climactic third movement, named “5K,” Schiff traced each lap of Pre’s most famous race, matching his stride second by second with music that challenged the performers to keep up just as Pre’s effort challenged his competitors. Schiff organized the movement as a sequence of 12 fugues to represent the 12 laps in a 5,000-meter race. During the performance in Eugene, also conducted by Lecce-Chong, a stopwatch on the screen kept time to match Prefontaine’s best timings. Each fugue was scored for a different group of players, beginning with small ensembles, and gradually building to include the entire orchestra.

As Schiff delved into the project, he found himself returning time and again to one of Prefontaine’s unforgettable quotes. “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice your gift.”

“I feel that everyone has a gift and the challenge of being true to that gift is what shapes our lives,” Schiff says. “That’s what I wanted the piece to be about.”

Shape-shifter. Time traveler. As he settles into a remarkable phase of a remarkable career, Schiff and his many fans can only wonder, where will music take him next?

The Eugene Symphony brings back Prefontaine for an encore performance on October 19, 2023. It will be recorded and released in 2024.

Tags: Alumni, Books, Film, Music, Performing Arts, Professors