Open Daily 9:30–6:00, Monday Until 8:00


Vladimir Ussachevsky

By Otto Luening

Vladimir Ussachevsky was born in Hailar, Manchuria, in 1911. His parents had moved to Manchuria from Russia soon after the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. His father, a military career man, was put in charge of the Russian railroad interests in Manchuria after that war.

The entire family was involved in music. His father had a great love for choral spectacles and theatrical productions; his mother was a piano teacher and one of his two sisters played the violin. The other sister became a professional chamber music pianist and spent her adult life in Leningrad. His brother began composing music at the the age of eight and became a very fine pianist. At the end of the Russian Revolution of 1917, his father, then colonel in the White Army, was captured and imprisoned by the Red Army. Vladimir’s mother brought her family to the United States in 1931.

Vladimir had received his early music training from his family. He began to compose at the age of seventeen, but his first formal studies began at Pomona College in 1931. After graduation, his chamber and choral competitions won him a scholarship at the Eastman School. Graduate study under Bernard Rogers and Howard Hanson earned him a Ph.D. in 1939. At Eastman, he had symphonic performances and an NBC broadcast of his cantata for chorus soloist and orchestra.

He returned to California and for the next two years worked as a substitute teacher in public schools and junior colleges, and as a choral conductor and a composer of incidental music for plays and movies. For awhile, he served as Stravinsky’s copyist.

During World War II, after Army basic training, he was given nine months of Army specialization training in Chinese-and-area studies, then served as a researcher in the OSS.

He resumed his music career in 1947 when he came to Columbia University for post-doctoral work in the Graduate Seminar in Composition and was appointed instructor.

At Columbia he soon identified himself as an unabashed nineteenth-century Russian Romantic with a particular bent for contrapuntal writing, especially vocal counterpoint. He had been brought up in the Russian Orthodox Church and served as a reader and altar boy, and he acknowledged a profound debt to reader and altar boy, and he acknowledged a profound debt to the influence of that Liturgy. His early choral works extended from the nineteenth-century tradition of the Liturgy from Mussorgsky to Tchaikovsky and Gretchaninov.

As a teacher, he was tireless in helping students bridge the gap between tradition and contemporary music. He demanded that his students acquire a familiarity with the techniques of vocal counterpoint. Although he was always extremely busy with his own plans, he showed great patience in helping students research their various projects. He also wanted them to learn about the great historical periods in music.

In 1951, Columbia purchased a professional model 400 Ampex tape recorder and a Western Electric 639 microphone to record new works presented on the Composer’s Forum Concerts. This was Vladimir’s recommendation and responsibility and in an early interview he stated his position on the new medium at the time:

The tape recorder is capable of being a sound modifier as well as a recorder. I’ve always been a timbre-oriented composer: the ‘why’ of timbre intrigued me. Fascinated by the new inner working of a sound, I relished the opportunity of this microscopic examination of the aural details. Here then, began a habit of listening to sounds around me, not only for what they were but also for what new aspects they might reveal when committed to malleable form on magnetic tape. Gradually from this, I developed the ability to predict the results of various manipulations—the kind of knowledge akin to that of a chemist or perhaps that of a sculptor, who visualizes the shape of his creation-to-be in stone. Between the fall of 1951 and March of 1952 I kept accumulating reels of material. One evening in radio station WKCR I found Peter Mauzey playing feedback effects to a fellow student. I immediately wanted to try this with piano and voice. A temporary laboratory with a borrowed tape recorder was rigged up. This resulted in early experiments, interesting enough to try out on my Composer’s Forum on May 15th, 1952, at MacMillan Theater. The response varied. One question was, “But is it music?” But Virgil Thomson observed there was something promising in what he heard that evening.

At the time of Ussachevsky’s experiements I was in charge of composition at the Vermont Composers’ and Chamber Music Conference in Bennington. I invited Ussachevsky to come to the conference, for it was an ideal place to carry out  further experiments with musical instruments and oscillators.

I had heard of electronic sound production when I studied with Ferrucio Busoni in 1918 in Zurich. In a 1917 reprint of his A Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music (first published in 1907), Busoni suggested that electronic sound production was one path toward a music of the future. He stated, however, that “only a long and careful series of experiments and continued training of the ear can render this unfamiliar material approachable and plastic for the coming generation and for art.”

At the Bennington Conference we both soon discovered that the area to investigate was vast and the findings both valid and invalid for musical purposes. So we limited ourselves to extending the resonances of instruments we played, using as sound sources piano, flute, recorder, percussion and voice. We produced some tiny compositions for tape recorder and presented these at a party. News of this event reached New York where Stokowski was planning a concert at the Museum of Modern Art under the auspices of Broadcast Music Incorporated and the American Composers’ Alliance. He invited us to produce a group of pieces for his October 28, 1952 concert. With only our shaky traveling laboratory available we declined, but Stokowski’s manager, Oliver Daniel, persisted and Vladimir finally decided that we could borrow enough equipment to risk the assignment.

From that time on, Vladimir was in effect the manager of the traveling laboratory which was first moved by car and then used at Henry Cowell’s farm in shady, New York, then to Ussachevsky’s living room in Morningside Heights, later back to Bennington, to the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo to fill various assignments that came our way.

The October concert at the Museum of Modern Art opened with Vladimir’s Sonic Contours, which had piano as the sound source. I contributed works with flute as sound source. The next day our efforts were called “Tape Music.” The response to the concert was evenly divided between those who thought the new medium would ruin music and those who thought it was the greatest event since counterpoint was developed.

This was the beginning of our collaboration, one that was to last almost ten years and a friendship of almost fifty years. We agreed on projects for each one of us , carried them out to the best of our ability and then presented the results to the other for criticism and suggestions. As each experiment was concluded we put it into an archive. Vladimir was the director of the traveling laboratory for which for years we had to be borrowing and buying the equipment we needed to try out new ideas.

None of these beginnings could have happened had not Betty Ussachevsky, a lover of poetry, been so willing and cooperative in letting the Ussachevsky apartment be used to house the laboratory in the early days. I think Betty and Vladimir soon launched a joint project, a farm in Rhode Island, to be an ideal escape from the pressures of machines and poetry.

Vladimir developed a particular aptitude for handling the technical possibilities and making them musically valuable. Soon we were invited to demonstrate putting together a composition over the “Today Show” on NBC national television. I made and played the materials on flute, and Vladimir and Peter Mauzey made the electronic transformations for the national TV audience, to the astonishment of the NBC engineers.

From then on, newspaper articles, interviews and invitations increased enormously and became hard to handle. Radio Diffusion Française invited Vladimir to present his early experiments and our joint compositions; these early attempts were also used as background for radio and television. In all, we cooperated on producing music for five ballets, television films, and straight plays, including Orson Welles’ production of King Lear at City Center. We were also commissioned to produce works for tape recorder and orchestra by the Louisville Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

On a Rockefeller grant we went to Europe to see what was happening there. Vladimir suggested going to Cologne where Dr. Eimert and Stockhausen were trying to isolate the ultimate pure overtone (das Ding an Sich). Then, in Paris, Vladimir discovered Schaeffer, Henri, and Boulez (then relatively unknown), who wanted to include all natural sounds in their collages. Visits to other centers convinced us that we needed a number of suitable work centers here in the United States, one of which should be at a university.

After returning from the European visit, we were encouraged to plan an electronic music center in this country. In this project, Vladimir became the foremost protagonist for many years. Keeping records straight, conferring and presenting the plans to authorities at Columbia and elsewhere, eventually (at the suggestion of the Rockefeller Foundation) we cooperated with Milton Babbitt and ROger Sessions and established in 1959 the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Ussachevsky became chairman of our committee of four. He not only ran the Center from day to day but expanded his practice of helping guest co-workers with their projects, developing more formalized instruction, and was constantly called upon to advise other colleges and universities on how to develop their own centers for electro-acoustic music. From the outset, Vladimir was always extremely generous in sharing the laboratory and his time and ideas with anyone who had a project; he believed in group effort. The early co-workers or supporters included Wuorinen, Chou, Jacques Barzun, Douglas Moore, Beeson, Davidovsky, Arel, Babbitt, Sessions, David Sarser, Berio, Varèse, and Max Mathews.

Ussachevsky soon became a virtuoso in playing the tape recorder with symphony orchestras and appeared with ten major orchestras and five smaller ones in the novel role of coordinating solo tape parts with the ensemble in both his and our joint compositions. He also, on his own, produced the music for four films. He lectured on electronic music and helped establish (as consultant) electronic music centers in about seventy-five colleges and universities in this country. He was invited to Russia in 1961, where he lectured in five towns and gave lecture-demonstrations in various European centers.

It seems hard to believe that between his administrative work, performing, and helping his co-workers he found time to compose a large work for several choruses with electronic accompaniment based on a pre-Biblical story of the Creation of the World.

He continued to develop his knowledge of the electronic medium through many sketches and works that finally led him to computer composing, of which Computer Piece I uses computer-generated sound with great sensitivity. He went on to compose for valve trumped and tape, and made several experiments for electronic valve instruments, wind and string instruments and tape, and one piece using these new instruments with orchestra.

After retiring from Columbia he taught full time at the University of Utah at Salt Lake City. By then, he had acquired an international reputation as possibly the most broad-based person working in the field of electronic music. Not satisfied with this, he began reshaping his early works and writing new ones for conventional instruments. He saw himself as an all-around musician and just an electronic music specialist. A brass quintet and a Missa Brevis and the surfacing of his Rilke songs, his old Cantata and a new one for Robert Shaw brought his musical life to a complete circle.

When Betty died, Vladimir kept himself very busy for a while but she had been a great supporter of all his efforts so without her he began to tire. It was while on a return tour of his native Russia where he was presenting an overview of electronic music that he collapsed during a lecture in Leningrad. He was advised to return to New York for treatment. A brain tumor was diagnosed but even while he was being treated with chemotherapy he completed a new work and polished some old ones. He was able to attend a League/ISCM program of his works in his honor, including both old and new compositions, some with live instruments (with and without electronics).

Two weeks before his death he signalled and mumbled to me that he would soon be out of all this. Catherine and I saw him again about a week later and he pressed our hands. The next week he died in his sleep.

Vladimir left much material still to be evaluated. That his contributions and unswerving allegiance to his ideals had an influence on twentieth-century music, particularly in America, is obvious.

Whether and in what way the electronic media will affect the world of music will be decided in due time. But Vladimir Ussachevsky will be ever remembered as a unique, artistic and daring composer, honorable gentleman and generous colleague and friend.

Read at the Institute Dinner Meeting on November 8, 1990.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters