Joseph Rivers Archives - Kendall College of Arts and Sciences

Joseph Rivers

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!”

 

Music alumnus releases debut album

young man with short hair, trim beard, short-sleeved blue shirt, arms crossed standing indoors smiling
Paul Humphrey (BA ’14) at the Lorton Performance Center

At the end of May, music alumnus Paul Humphrey (BA ’14) released his debut album. “A Window In” comprises seven compositions, which Humphrey wrote and performs on piano. Recorded at the famous Sunset Sound Studios in Los Angeles and produced by J.B. Cook, the collection weaves together several genres, including classical music, jazz, cinematic music and even some Americana.

Humphrey notes it was the COVID-19 pandemic and attendant lockdowns that gave him the space, time and focus the album required: “I spent so many days and weeks alone at home that I found myself pushing a lot of half-finished projects closer to completion, including the music that became ‘A Window In.’”

This album marks a return to roots for Humphrey, as classical piano was his first instrument. During much of 2020, he spent hours and hours each day at the piano developing and refining his music. “The title of my album reflects what the process and the result mean to me,” said Humphrey. “These recordings really are a window in to who I am as an artist alone with an instrument. As a solo instrumentalist, you’re vulnerable and exposed. I often found the experience nerve-wracking, but it definitely spurred me on to produce and release as much as possible more of my own original music.”

Music man

While Humphrey was working on “A Window In,” he was fortified by both his upbringing and university education. Growing up in Wichita, Kansas, Humphrey and his six siblings were home-schooled with a curriculum grounded in the fine arts. “Music was an essential part of our development,” he recalled. “I’m the only one of my brothers and sisters who pursued a professional career in music, but all of us play multiple instruments.”

older gentleman in a blue shirt standing beside a younger man in a blue shirt in front of a grand piano
Joseph Rivers and Paul Humphrey

At The University of Tulsa, Humphrey maintained his passion for and involvement in musical performance. As a School of Music student, he deepened his prowess on the guitar under Jim Bates’ instruction. For four years, he also played that instrument in TU’s jazz guitar ensemble, jazz combo and the jazz big band, directed by Professor of Music Vernon Howard.

During his junior and senior years, Humphrey branched out and began taking film scoring courses with Joseph Rivers, the J. Donald Feagin Professor of Music and Professor of Film. “Dr. Rivers helped me realize I wanted to pursue a music career in production and composition, particularly film music composition. I doubt I would be in the music industry today if I hadn’t taken his courses.”

Rivers says he quickly recognized Humphrey’s “talent for scoring music for film and his ability to compose just the right music for a scene and to arrange and produce it in an effective way. Paul has an innate sense of musicality, both as a performer on guitar and piano and as a composer. I am proud of him and impressed with his accomplishments, and I have no doubt he will further distinguish himself and accomplish great things into the future.”

“Don’t be a lawyer.”

Despite his musical talent and passion, Humphrey came exceedingly close to taking an utterly different route after graduation. “I had actually taken the LSAT exam twice and was all set to head off to law school,” he noted. “I felt overwhelmed and intimidated by the idea of going all in with a music career, and a legal career seemed like a more prudent choice.”

During Humphrey’s final semester, however, he had the good fortune to meet and learn from David Friedman, a renowned composer for film and theater who was guest lecturing in the School of Music. During Friedman’s final day on campus, he was present for one of Humphrey’s live recording sessions with the TU orchestra. Humphrey recalls: “David was impressed by the music and the fact I kept my composure with the orchestra, despite being terrified! He kindly pulled me aside afterward and said, ‘Don’t be a lawyer.’ That was a major confidence boost for me. Ever since then, David has remained a mentor and friend.”

Paul Humphrey on paths, peers and becoming a better artist

  • No two paths in this industry look alike. It’s a difficult road with exciting highs and devastating lows, but through perseverance your own path begins to take shape. And it’s not going to look like anyone else’s.
  • Your peers are not competition; they are your friends. All my major film credits came from friends pointing me in the right direction or offering me a helping hand. Talented, genuine people in the music industry help each other out.
  • My learning didn’t end after graduating from TU or the PNWFS. It’s only by trying to get better at what you love to do as an artist that you’ll chart a path to your personal success. One step does lead to the next!

Head west!

Through his time performing in ensembles as well as his theory and ear training courses, Humphrey began developing his artistic voice as well as an understanding of how to arrange music within an ensemble. “At the same time, my film scoring courses and the top-grade equipment in TU’s film scoring labs gave me the resources and technical skills necessary for learning how to produce the ideas I was composing and arranging,” he said.

Fortified by that training and emboldened by Friedman’s counsel, Humphrey applied and was accepted to the Pacific Northwest Film Scoring Program (PNWFS) in Seattle, which is run by Hummie Mann, a two-time Emmy-winning composer. After graduating with a Master of Music degree, Humphrey moved down the coast to Los Angeles.

For the next five years, Humphrey deployed his musical expertise on a variety of films, video games and television shows, including for Netflix and the Lifetime Channel. He also assisted other composers and did some teaching, including periodically back at TU, where he would share his film music industry insights with composition and film scoring students.

Living back on Tulsa time

black and white photo of a young man seated on a piano bench playing a grand piano
Paul Humphrey in the Meinig Recital Hall

Humphrey returned to Oklahoma 2021 as part of Tulsa Remote. Having spent the first year developing and launching “A Window In” to great acclaim, Humphrey is now hard at work on three further projects.

All three of those endeavors are with Jorge Salmay, whom Humphrey met while they were PNWFS students. Salmay also moved to Los Angeles after graduate school, and he and Humphrey worked together there on several projects as musicians and composers. Currently, the duo are collaborating on the score for a documentary film and putting together an album of original orchestral pieces they plan to record in Budapest later this year.

Salmay is also helping to orchestrate Humphrey’s debut singer-songwriter collection, which will include some of Tulsa’s best musicians. The producer for that venture is again local audio engineer and producer J.B. Cook. It is set for release in spring 2023.


If music is your passion — or even if you just want to add some delightfulness to your life — consider pursuing a major or minor with the TU School of Music.