One adventure concludes and another dawns for admired music and film professor

One adventure concludes and another dawns for admired music and film professor

Terms of Endearment took home the Best Picture Oscar, the virus that causes AIDS was identified, the original Apple Macintosh personal computer hit the market, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated – the year 1984 was remarkable on so many fronts. For Joseph Rivers, the J. Donald Feagin Professor of Music and Film Studies, that year also stood out personally and professionally, as it marked the beginning of a nearly four decade-long career at The University of Tulsa.

man in a blue short-sleeve shirt standing in front of a colonnaded pink-and-white building
Rivers at the Fondazione Cini, Venice

Rivers’ dedication to music began early. Born in Florida and raised in South Carolina, Rivers studied piano and organ from an early age as well as participated in his high school’s band program. He then earned a Bachelor of Music in composition and a Master of Music in music theory at the University of South Carolina. Continuing his education, Rivers completed a doctorate in music theory at the University of Arizona and followed that up with film music composition courses at New York University, through UCLA Extension and at the Pacific Northwest Film Scoring Program. From 1982 to 1984, Rivers taught band and chorus in the Arizona public school system, at which point he was hired by TU.

Rivers achieved tenure in 1990, joined the Department of Film Studies faculty in 2003 and was promoted to full professor in 2007. Three years later, he was selected to hold the J. Donald Feagin professorship. From 2005 to 2008, he served as chair of the School of Music, during which time he instituted the annual President’s Concerto-Aria Concert, and helmed the Department of Film Studies from 2011 to 2021. From 2001 to 2022, Rivers organized and presented the Béla Rózsa Music Composition Competition and Memorial Concert (with the exception of 2008-09, when he was on sabbatical). These have become a vibrant annual tradition that is both an important part of students’ education and a means of attracting young composers to study at TU.

Dreams, Elegies and Cat Fights: A Concert of Chamber and Vocal Music

Everyone is invited to enjoy a free public concert by Joseph Rivers, which will include original instrumental and vocal music.

Tuesday, Oct. 4, 7:30-9 p.m.
Gussman Concert Hall, Lorton Performance Center
550 S. Gary Pl.
Tulsa, OK 74104

Beyond his administrative and teaching work, Rivers is a prolific and respected composer and performer. To name just a small handful of his compositions:

  • Music for the Emmy-nominated documentary film High Stakes: The Life and Times of E.W. Marland, Bo Bergstrom’s film Midsummer Night’s Dream and Wahzhazhe: An Osage Ballet
  • Echoes of War—Visions of Peace
  • Concerto for Oboe, English Horn and String Orchestra
  • Symphony No. 2: Oklahoma Peoples in Trial and Triumph

The start of Rivers’ final semester at TU before he retires to a new life in northern Italy seemed like a good moment to sit down with this respected and accomplished individual for a conversation about influences, memories, transformations and the fascinating road ahead.

What are some of the major musical influences on your own development as a musician, composer and scholar?

My early influences were the great classical composers, such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, along with more modern concert composers, such as Aaron Copland, Dmitri Shostakovich, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Charles Ives, as well as film composers Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams.

I have often composed in a style that is pictorial, following a program or story. I love hearing and studying the scores and programs of such concert “program” pieces, such as the tone poems of Richard Strauss or Hector Berlioz. I also did many seminars and workshops at various institutions around the country in music theory pedagogy, twentieth century music and the life and music of Beethoven, which gave me rich ideas and material for teaching, composing and further research.

What are some of your fondest memories of your years at TU?

When I first began teaching here, I met so many older colleagues in many departments and colleges, such as History, English, Religion, Psychology, Theatre, Law, Business and beyond who were important and influential mentors and role models for me. I remember them fondly, as many of them have now passed into memory, and that era has largely vanished. I wish I could write a history of that time.

older gentleman in a blue shirt standing beside a younger man in a blue shirt in front of a grand piano
Rivers with his former student Paul Humphrey (BA ’14)

In the School of Music, I am especially grateful for the mentorship of older faculty members, such as Ted Hansen (now deceased) and Frank Ryan (retired). I am also thankful for the guidance of David Cook in Theatre (now deceased) as well as Joe Kestner in English (now deceased). I have tried to offer the same mentorship to both faculty and students, where appropriate.

Another memory that stands out for me is when we produced my ballet The Exile’s Return at Kendall Hall. The Department of Theatre allowed us to use Kendall Hall during one week in February 1997 for rehearsals and three performances of this ballet, along with a second half that featured music from Disney films. I made an agreement with then Dean Horne to co-produce this production with the College of Arts and Sciences, and I borrowed a sum of money to contribute my portion. We involved TU students in the production in a number of ways, and I recall all the excitement around it, from the artwork to the sets, staging and performances, as this was a unique opportunity for us. For this production, a smaller company, the then Mid-Illinois Ballet, did the choreographing and dancing, but we made it a student and university effort. The music was prerecorded by the TU Orchestra, which was directed by Frank Ryan. After the performance, my colleague Bill McKee, who had taught music history at TU, exclaimed, “Joseph, you’ve gone Hollywood on us!”

You also became friends and collaborated with the famous Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko during his years teaching in TU’s Department of English Language and Literature. Would you shed some light on that relationship?

I became acquainted with Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poetry when I was a student at the University of South Carolina, then heard him give a reading of his poetry on tour when I was a doctoral student at the University of Arizona. Amazingly, he then became my colleague at the University of Tulsa!

In 2000, I accompanied on piano Yevtushenko’s entire reading in Kendall Hall with my own original music, and later collaborated with him by involving music students in these readings. We also worked with the Signature Symphony to present the Tulsa premiere of Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, which featured a bass soloist and a male chorus singing words of several poems by Yevtushenko. This event was preceded on campus by a Phi Beta Kappa Colloquium on Shostakovich and Babi Yar. The keynote speaker was Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former Soviet leader. Several TU students and I participated with Yevtushenko on a reading of his poetry during the second half of the concert, which featured the Shostakovich symphony. The events leading to this performance were about as dramatic as the symphony itself!

What changes in your discipline have you witnessed and been part of?

The year after I finished my doctoral degree, midi was invented and became available as a protocol for electronic and acoustic music production. The digital age had arrived! Ever since then, technology has become more and more a part of how we compose and produce music.

Another major shift I have noticed is that, if we were to look back some 10 to 15 years, we would find student composers who were principally aspiring to compose for the concert hall. Today, however, they are aspiring more and more to compose for film, video games and online applications.

In addition, the musical influences that loomed large on me as a student and younger composer are less influential on the new generation. They have their own models they look to, such as video game and other media composers.

Some might call you an italophile: Since 2014, you have taught courses on Italian cinema and film music, you are married to an Italian and you are about to move permanently to Italy. Would you fill us in on your fascination with Italy and Italian culture?

man in a blue short-sleeved shirt standing against a black background emblazoned with bright green mathematical formulae
Rivers at the National Museum of Cinema, Turin

My wife, Adriana, sparked my interest in Italian film and Italian history, language and culture. I developed a course on Music and Italian Cinema, and I first took the students in that course on a short study tour abroad in May 2019. Since then, I have pursued more research into Italian film music, and this has led me also in other directions in regard to Italian music, particularly studies of composers Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone and Alessandro Cicognini, as well as the work of Franco Zeffirelli.

I have continued to develop my language skills and, as a result, I have made more and more friends and connections all over the U.S. and Italy. I am a member of the San Diego Italian Cultural Center and the San Diego Italian Film Festival.

Overall, I find Italian culture very interesting. It is multifaceted and at times bounces off the influences of American culture and Hollywood. The lifestyle and culture of fresh food, in which eating is almost a sacred ritual, strike me as wholesome and holistic. It is a way of life that is becoming more and more drowned by the industrial and technological age, but still exists in Italy in tangible ways.

As you look to your post-TU life, what do you envision?

head of a white cat and face plus shoulder of a man with a beard wearing glasses
Oberon and Rivers

Retirement to me does not mean that I am “twice tired” (to spin a pun). I have an opera project waiting on me and several articles on Italian film music in progress. There are always opportunities to compose new music to fulfill a need in the community, or to meet a new opportunity.

Then there is travel, connecting with my wife’s relatives and with new friends and colleagues there. I look at it as an extended sabbatical to keep doing the creative things I have always enjoyed doing. As Bilbo says at the end of the Lord of the Rings, “I think I am quite ready for another adventure!”