Composer, Founder of NEC Electronic Music Studio, Taught at NEC 38 Years
New England Conservatory is mourning the death of composer and alumnus Robert Ceely, a popular faculty member and founder of NEC’s electronic music studio. Ceely, who received his Bachelor of Music in 1954 and served on the faculty from 1966 to 2003, died January 28 at the age of 85. In 1995 he received an Outstanding Alumni Award from the Conservatory.
Born in Torrington, Connecticut and raised in Longmeadow and Williamstown, MA, Ceely early on became enamored with music—first the bugle and trumpet, jazz and big band, and then classical music and particularly contemporary composition. He attended Hobart College for a year and Williams College for a year as a special student studying harmony, composition, counterpoint, and music literature. All along, he was playing and listening to jazz wherever he happened to be. In 1950, he enrolled at NEC, reveling in the proximity of Symphony Hall, chamber concerts at M.I.T. and the five nearby jazz clubs. He made a lifelong friend in fellow student Cecil Taylor.
After graduation, Ceely headed west to study with Darius Milhaud and Leon Kirchner at Mills College. Then, it was back to the east coast for a summer at the Tanglewood Music Festival in 1955, where he was a full scholarship recipient. There was a two-year stint in the Navy during which he taught music theory and ear training at the Naval School of Music in Washington, DC. And in 1957, Ceely went to Princeton for two years, attracted by the presence of such important composers as Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, and Earl Kim. This was followed by a posting in an exotic locale—Istanbul, where he taught at the Robert Academy and where he met a recent Vassar graduate and budding writer, Jonatha Kropp, who he married in 1962.
“In the early 1960s, Ceely was named a Composer-in-Residence, along with Luigi Nono and other prestigious artists, at the Studio di Fonologia in Milan (RAI), one of the most important facilities for the creation of electronic music in Europe at the time,” recalls composer John Mallia ’92 M.M., a former Ceely student, who now directs the NEC Electronic Music Studio. “His compositions Stratti and Elegia were realized at RAI using tape splicing, recording, analog synthesis, and filtering techniques.” Joining the NEC faculty in 1966, “he established the first Electronic Music Studio,” which formally opened in January 1975 with an Electric Weekend of concerts and colloquia. “With the encouragement and financial support from President Gunther Schuller, he purchased the finest equipment available at the time,” Mallia said. This arsenal included “Moog, Arp, Buchla, and EML analog synthesizers, and Revox tape recorders. Much of this equipment is still in use by students at NEC today, the most recent performance utilizing these instruments having taken place at the Museum of Fine Arts in December 2014.
"Ceely became one of the most active proponents of Electronic Music in the Boston area. He regularly presented works by local and international composers as part of his Electric Wednesday Series at NEC and directed workshops out of his own Beep studios in Brookline. In addition, he was active in the Boston chapter of Robert Rauschenberg’s Experiments in Art and Technology project along with the founder of the Massachusetts College of Art’s Studio for Interrelated Media (SIM), Harris Barron. Collaboration between NEC’s Electronic Music Studio and Mass Art’s SIM department continues to this day."
Ceely’s own electronic music “exhibits a unique sensitivity to pitch language and level of rhythmic complexity’” Mallia said. “While he began his work in electronic music utilizing the analog technologies available at the time, the Synclavier, an instrument designed by the New England Digital Corporation (VT), became his instrument of choice. Even his last electronic composition, Ontogeny (2011), was realized using sounds synthesized on his Synclavier at his studio and edited using a Digital Audio Workstation."
Among the highlights of Ceely’s tenure at NEC must certainly have been the world premiere in February 1995 of his opera, The Automobile Graveyard, based on the play by the expatriate Spanish absurdist Fernando Arrabal. Composed for chamber orchestra, jazz ensemble, and electronic tape and a cast of six singers, the work was an avant-garde Passion Play set in a junkyard.
Richard Dyer of The Boston Globe compared the plot to those of Artaud, Beckett, Ionesco and especially Jean Genet. It is “populated by elegant and derelict people who play ritual power games that always end in circular exchanges,” he wrote. Emanu (for Emmanuel) is a jazz trumpeter. There is a Mary Magdalen figure, a bellhop, a Judas, and two policemen who engage in sadomasochistic games in which one "coaches" the other in physical exertion to the point of exhaustion. Staged by Marc Astafan in Jordan Hall with striking sets by Robin Dash, and conducted by Malcolm Peyton, it generated much excitement and controversy at NEC. Sabrina Learman, now on the Preparatory School faculty, was a Graduate Diploma student in voice at the time and played Lasca, one of the policemen. She recalls:
It was a total blast. I had come back some time after my Master’s to get a Graduate Diploma so I was not doing opera. That made me available for any weird stuff that came along. The music was terrifically difficult. There were meter shifts all over the place, like 11/7 to 12/8. I remember spending time learning it wherever I was and I loved that. There was considerable excitement at NEC because we hadn’t done an opera in Jordan Hall in so many years. But it was a small cast and a small ensemble, so singing there was wonderful. It’s the most perfect hall. The (mature) material in the opera was not for babies. In fact, I remember one cast member being religiously offended by the representation of the Jesus figure. My part required me to be costumed at all times in a business suit since I represented the straight-laced, tightly wound, hurried, over-scheduled life. That said, there was a crazy kissing scene and just lots of inappropriate great stuff.
About Ceely himself, Learman recalls a “very dry and sarcastic” wit that she loved. “He once remarked that writing opera was magical but producing it was ‘a pain in the ass.’ I wasn’t sure at first if he was being serious. He was so straight faced.” But she quickly came to appreciate his hilarious humor. She also learned how appreciative he was of the performers’ efforts. For ever afterward he would call her “Lasca.” Indeed, just a few weeks before he died, he got in touch with her through a LinkedIn message, dated December 1, 2014. The subject line read: “Joy.” The message: “Is it not time for me to sing your songs? Or is it the other way around? I remember you and your voice very well. All the best.” Not suspecting he might be ill, Learman was then greatly surprised when only a few weeks later she learned he had died.
Mallia also stressed Ceely’s warmth as a teacher. “Bob was a passionate and honest musician and person who offered an unparalleled level of continued support to his students and colleagues. He deeply inspired many students who continue to work in the (electronic music) field. His charming wit, humor, and enthusiasm for music and people will be remembered by all whose lives he touched.”
Still, as much as he cared for his students, Ceely was outspoken about the burden teaching placed on the creative life. “Teaching is the curse of the American composer,” he told former student John Clay in a 1997 Bhag.net interview. “It is probably going to become more of a necessity as any sort of government funding dries up, and the individual patron seems so rare…But most of the new rich yuppies’ taste in music runs to Rent, and other such abominations that there is little hope that the rich will support art music…The main trouble with teaching is that the composer can use it—and does use it—as an excuse not to compose.”
Ceely told Clay that the impetus for composing varied. “To me composing is something I feel I want to do, should do, have to do, and might as well do. Composing is so hard that I feel I will never get to a point where it is easy. However, some music has been relatively easy to write while other music has been excruciatingly difficult to write. And, it is fascinating to me that often—though by no means always—what comes easily is as ‘good’ as the music which only comes after great pain. But no one wants to hear about how tough a composer’s life is.”
Ceely continued to compose—working almost every day—after his retirement, including collaborating with his wife Jonatha on another opera. He joked with writer Clay in a follow-up interview in 2007 that his wife was “busy finishing her third novel, so she is at her desk most mornings by nine…and my guilt compels me to be in my studio by ten.”