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Jon Howard Appleton ’61

January 30, 2022, at The Village in White River Junction, Vermont.

A pioneer in electroacoustic music, Jon was a celebrated composer and educator who taught both music and humanities at Dartmouth College.

He and his older brother, Michael, were raised in Hollywood, California, where their father worked for 20th Century Fox and their mother was employed at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The year Jon was born, his father left the family, and Jon’s first years were spent in Mrs. Bell’s orphanage until he joined his brother at Palomar Military Academy.

When he was six years old, his mother married Alexander “Sasha” Walden (born in Ufa, Russia), a double bass player in the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra. Sasha became a great musical influence in Jon’s young life, encouraging him to study piano and compose music, and frequently taking him to concerts. Jon studied piano with Jacob Gimpel and Theodore Saidenberg, but preferred composing his own music to playing works assigned to him such as Chopin, Scarlatti, and  Prokofiev. Nonetheless, he developed a deep, lifelong affection for Russian music. As a composer, he was largely self-taught. He attended John Marshall High School in Los Angeles, where he was elected student body president.

In the 1950s, Jon’s parents, who were true believers in the Soviet Union and active members of multiple left-wing organizations including the Communist Party, were blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee and lost their jobs. As a teenager, Jon also identified as a communist/socialist and appeared before both the Los Angeles City Council and the board of supervisors to protest various causes such as smog, violent comics, and racial segregation.

His future life would be shaped by Reed. “As far as my educational growth, the four years I spent at Reed were the most important in my life,” he said. He composed for his fellow students, who then performed his compositions. Jon decided to become a college professor and, in 1959, married Georganna Towne ’61. Jon wrote his thesis, “A Study of the Beethoven Sonatas for Violin and Piano,” advised by Prof. Herbert Gladstone [music 1946–80].

Jon and Georganna moved to San Francisco, where their first child, Jennifer, was born. He studied composition at UC Berkeley, collaborated on musical comedies with Willard Bain ’60, and worked as an assistant buyer at Macy’s.

Hired as the music teacher at Verde Valley School in Sedona, Arizona, he conducted the choir and orchestra and taught music theory, history, and piano lessons. In 1963, he began his graduate studies at the University of Oregon, where he assembled an electronic music studio and composed his first works in the genre. His thesis was an orchestral work, “After ‘Nude Descending a Staircase,’” and upon completing his PhD, he was invited to study in the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, where he became an advocate for electronic music.

He began working at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, where his son, Jon Jason, was born. Jon joined the faculty at Dartmouth College in 1967; he taught there for 43 years and developed one of the first programs in electroacoustic music. He and Georganna divorced in 1974.

His music fell into two categories: instrumental/choral and electronic (or electroacoustic) music. He was part of a team that developed the Synclavier, the first commercial digital synthesizer. Through its memory, the instrument, which was connected to a 16-bit minicomputer, could produce many sounds at once, enabling a single musician to sound like an orchestra. If a trumpet solo had been played on the keyboard, for example, and the musician wanted the notes repeated as a bell, the musician pressed a button. The computer remembered the sounds and played them back instantly in the form of any instrument in its memory.

Jon toured the United States and Europe performing compositions he composed for this instrument. He became a founding member of the International Confederation of Electroacoustic Music, and stimulating interaction with composers from many nations convinced him a similar organization in the U.S. might raise the profile of electroacoustic music in America. He helped establish the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States and helped found the Theremin Center for Electronic Music at the Moscow Conservatory of Music, where he also taught.

He received Guggenheim, honorary Fulbright, and Dartmouth Faculty fellowships and special awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. Discussing audience reactions to his compositions, Jon said, “Most people are surprised that my music is very traditional. It’s tonal music. It’s rhythmically conventional in many ways. The sounds are unusual, that’s for sure, but the structure is rather traditional. People who don’t know my work come to a concert curious and a little apprehensive. Usually they discover that they like it.”

He was a prolific composer, and his collected works (music manuscripts, writings, publications, correspondence, recordings, videos, etc.) are housed in the Rauner Library and the Jones Media Center at Dartmouth College.

Jon was featured in a 2004 Apple documentary about the Macintosh computer that focused on his work in electronic music and his establishment of one of the first digital music studios in the world at Dartmouth. He also developed Appletones software to teach the principles of composition to his students. He was devoted to his students at Dartmouth College, the Verde Valley School, Oakland University, the Moscow Conservatory of Music, Keio University, UC at Santa Cruz, Loyola University, the University of Hawaii, and many visiting appointments.

He was an avid world traveler, often jetting off to perform or teach, and loved immersing himself in other cultures. Jon spoke five languages, was always plotting his next adventure, and was happiest when traveling, composing, teaching, or spending time with friends and family. At the time of his death, he was at work on his autobiography, Out of Hollywood: A Composer’s Life. He is survived by his children, Jennifer and Jon Jason, and by his nephew, Jeremy Appleton ’88.

Appeared in Reed magazine: June 2022

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