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Composer and performer Ingram Marshall dies at age 80

Composer Ingram Marshall, photographed in 2021 by his son.
Clem Marshall
Clem Marshall
Composer Ingram Marshall, photographed in 2021 by his son.

Composer and performer Ingram Marshall, whose honors include awards from the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, has died at the age of 80 from complications of advanced Parkinson's disease. His death was confirmed by his wife, Veronica Tomasic.

Marshall forged unusual connections between minimalism and electronic music, relying on sophisticated yet understated techniques to render unexpected, expressive landscapes, ones that stand in opposition to the more abstract creative modes favored by his contemporaries. Marshall's friend, composer John Adams, called it music "of an almost painful intimacy."

"Its essence is deep and brooding," Adams wrote in the liner notes for the 1984 New Albion recording of Fog Tropes, Gradual Requiem and Gambuh I. "Although its generously layered surfaces are often painted with a rich, almost opiated luxuriance, the message is, never-the-less, always spiritual, one might even say religious, in content."

In addition to the legacy left by his music, Marshall fostered generations of younger composers. He held teaching posts at the California Institute of the Arts in the early 1970s, and Evergreen State College in the late 1980s, as well as visiting positions at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Brooklyn College and Yale University. His former students include the distinguished composers, musicians and musicologists Timo Andres, Armando Bayolo, Christopher Cerrone, Tyondai Braxton, Jacob Cooper, Adrian Knight, Matt Sargent, and Stephen Gorbos, who wrote a dissertation analyzing Marshall's composition Dark Waters.

Ingram Marshall was born on May 10, 1942 in Mount Vernon, N.Y. just north of New York City. His formal education included an undergraduate degree at Lake Forest University in 1964 followed by graduate work at Columbia University, where he was affiliated with the groundbreaking Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center under Vladimir Ussachevsky. He also studied with Morton Subotnick, a pioneer who composed with early synthesizers, in a workshop at New York University and at the California Institute of the Arts. Marshall, who would long be associated with a West Coast aesthetic, earned his MFA there in 1971.

His real awakening at Cal Arts, however, was occasioned by a profound encounter with the school's Javanese gamelan ensemble, which happened to be led by one of the island's foremost modern composers, Kanjeng Pangeran Harjo Notoprojo. Marshall studied the music intently, wanting to do little else for some time, and ultimately spent four months in Indonesia.

"That really turned my thinking around," he said in an interview for Yale University's Oral History of American Music Collections. "I realized that the 'zip and zap, bleep and blap' kind of formally organized electronic music I had been trying to do simply wasn't my way and that I needed to find a slower, deeper way of approaching electronic music."

Unlike other composers who had fallen under the spell of shimmering bronze instruments from the East, Marshall wrote little for gamelan itself; gambuh, a Balinese bamboo flute he played in several pieces, was the exception. Instead, the music influenced how he structured time, no doubt a response to the expansive, suspended quality of ritual time that is such a significant part of Indonesia's pre-industrial cultural legacy. Those generously layered surfaces of Marshall's music would also seem to reflect the gamelan in its constant motion, an imitation of nature. In short, his experiences put him on a path to pursue what he called "the dark and the beautiful and the endless."

Marshall's earliest works are text-sound pieces for tape alone, like the raspy Cortez (1973). They progress to feature live voices and instruments with electronic processing – some of which Marshall performed himself – in conjunction with pre-recorded elements, as in the windswept The Fragility Cycles (1976).

Fog Tropes (1982), whose premiere Adams conducted, is Marshall's best-known composition (and the soundtrack for a seasick Leonardo DiCaprio in the opening of the film Shutter Island). Initially a tape collage of foghorn recordings Marshall made in San Francisco Bay, the composition expanded to include a live sextet with pairs of trumpets, trombones, and French horns. Using his keen intervallic awareness, Marshall fashions a texture in which the brass players make ideal companions to the foghorns with their penetrating wails. The careening soundscape immediately conjures a sense of place, paradoxically leaving the listener both enveloped and adrift. Similarly, Alacatraz (1984), a collaboration with photographer Jim Bengston, is defined by the vivid slam of a mighty steel gate.

Although Marshall defined his music on his own terms, he possessed a vast knowledge and appreciation for classical repertoire. His compositions often incorporate quotations, including Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata (Woodstone, 1982), Bach's Mass in B minor (Holy Ghosts, 1999), Stravinsky's Orphée (Orphic Memories, 2006), and several references to Sibelius (The Fragility Cycles, Orphée, Dark Waters), with whom Marshall felt a special affinity. But rather than using these fragments to center Western high art culture, Marshall placed them within broader conceptions of sound—and of the globe.

Many of his pieces are elegiac, as in 1997's Kingdom Come composed in reflection on Yugoslavian Wars, and September Canons, a piece to commemorate 9/11 written in 2003 for violinist Todd Reynolds. Remarkably, despite the violent nature of these historical events, the works feel emotionally grounded.

Reynolds credits Marshall with "quiet power—and quiet wisdom." Composer and pianist Timo Andres explains these works in the context of Marshall's spirituality, which may characterize his memory as well as his life.

"Many of his other pieces are about grieving, coming to terms with death, even finding a kind of ecstatic joy in the anticipation of it," Andres wrote in an email to NPR. "Listening to it is a kind of grieving ritual, connecting us to the larger pool of human grief. Yet there is nothing grandiloquent or overstated about it; he never tries to sum anything up, shake his fist at the heavens, condemn or comfort. Rather, one has the sense of an individual contemplating vastness, trying to understand while simultaneously knowing it's impossible to understand."

Ingram Marshall is survived by his wife Veronica Tomasic, son Clement Marshall, daughter-in-law Samantha and two granddaughters, his daughter Juliet Simon and two grandsons. A concert in Marshall's honor is being planned at Yale for the 2022-23 academic year.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lara Pellegrinelli
Lara Pellegrinelli is a freelance journalist and scholar with bylines in The New York Times and the Village Voice. She has been the commissioned writer for Columbia University's Miller Theatre and its Composer Portrait series since 2018.