Charles Argersinger indulges his love and
talent for jazz last year, playing with WSU
colleagues at Rico’s club in downtown
Pullman. (Photo by Robert HUbner, WSU
Photo Services)

As the founder of the WSU Festival of Contemporary Art Music, Charles Argersinger has worked for the past 20 years to bring the best composers in the country to Pullman.

 
From John Corigliano to Morten Lauridsen to the inaugural composer, Michael Schelle, Argersinger has brought guest composers to the Palouse whose works are of our time, but also timeless in the way that all great works of art transcend time and place.
 
At this year’s festival, Feb. 5-7, Argersinger is the featured composer. The guest composer concert will be 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 7, in Bryan Hall theater.
 
“In my mind, Charles stands with all the other composers who have been featured at the festival,” said Greg Yasinitsky, WSU music professor. “I think he is one of the best composers in the country — even the world — and we are lucky to have him at WSU.”
 
The first piece in the guest composer concert, “Fanfare,” premiered at the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. From there the concert will feature a vast range of music, from chamber pieces to symphonic pieces to music for a concert chorale.
 
All of it, though, will be distinctively Argersinger.
 
Transparent logic
James Mobberly, the 1993 festival composer and the Curator’s Professor of Music at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, expressed it this way: “…there is a transparent quality in both mind and heart in the pieces. You can sense the logic on multiple levels, and you can also just close your eyes and feel the emotional shape of the music.”
 
And then there is the description by Cliff Colnot, principal conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s contemporary MusicNOW series: “Charles Argersinger does what all great composers do and have done over the centuries: he composes music that is unique, compelling and sounds like no one else’s. Musicians love to perform Charlie’s music because it is at once challenging and accessible, and audiences enjoy his music for exactly the same reason. One would be hard pressed to find a more sentient and soulful musician.”
 
But creating that kind of music is painstaking work.
 
“As a composer, he sweats over every note,” said Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn, a former grad student who is a colleague on the WSU faculty. “He really wants every note, every chord, every rhythm to matter.”
 
In his exquisitely constructed pieces, every note does matter, said Martin Rokeach, the 1998 guest composer. But more than that, Argersinger finds musical ideas that matter — ideas that can sustain a composition and communicate something worthwhile to the audience.
 
“That’s the rarest quality of all, actually,” Rokeach said.
 
‘We need this guy’
Yasinitsky, director of WSU’s jazz studies program, was the head of the committee that hired Argersinger back in 1988.
 
“His stuff just jumped out as being unique and special,” he said. “I thought, ‘We need to get this guy here.’ ”
 
At the time, Argersinger was head of the jazz studies program at DePaul University in Chicago. But, even while he was creating one of the best jazz programs in the country, musicians with leading national symphonies were performing and recording his concert works, including two pieces that will be performed at Saturday’s concert: “Divertissement sur l’homme arme” and “Doxology Variations.”
 
WSU ultimately prevailed, Yasinitsky said, because here Argersinger was asked to coordinate the composition and theory courses and was promised faculty support to bring an existing festival of new music to a higher level.
 
Erich Lear, who became director of the School of Music and Theater in 1989, said the idea of a new music festival in Pullman wasn’t audacious, but was imperative and he fully supported it.
 
Indeed, Argersinger would seem to be a kindred soul with one of WSU’s earliest president’s, Enoch Bryan, who said music is “an essential element in the human soul.” Precisely because WSU is isolated, he argued, faculty must work to ensure that students have access to a rich cultural environment.
 
Retiring to emeritus
Under Argersinger’s leadership, WSU students have had the opportunity to experience the best of contemporary composers. That will continue, even though Argersinger plans to join the ranks of emeritus faculty next month, a move that will allow him to concentrate his energies more fully on composing.
While Argersinger is the public face of the festival, it is and always has been a department-wide endeavor. Unlike inviting guest performers, when WSU invites a guest composer to campus, the pressure is on faculty and students to perform at the highest levels.
 
And they do.
 
“If you go down the list of music faculty,” Argersinger said, “you’ll recognize what a priceless group of people we have here. They can play anything.”
 
On Saturday night in Pullman, they’ll be playing some of the most beautiful, soul-enriching music in the world.
 
Who’s who of works and working
Not everyone’s academic vita is a page-turner, but Charles Argersinger’s is:
 
• First there is the list of more than 40 new music compositions, starting with “Sonnets Upon Music,” a piece commissioned for the rededication of Kimbrough Music Building after a major renovation in 2002. Many of the titles come from Greek myths, Shakespeare or other classic writing. But right between “Seven Deadly Sins” and “Dream of Venus” is “Gene p53”, a piece he wrote for WSU biology professor Michael Smerdon’s Distinguished Faculty Address in 2000.
 
• Then the listing of jazz compositions begins, and it is nearly exactly the same length, starting with a 2001 arrangement of “Windmills of Your Mind,” which was composed for and recorded by Voice Trek, a vocal jazz quintet in Minneapolis. Jazz compositions stretch back to 1974 when, as a first year student in a master’s program at Arizona State University, he was tapped to arrange music for Dick Van Dyke’s nightclub act.
 
• The list of vocalists he performed with is a who’s who of the 1970s. A short list includes Glen Campbell, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Lennon Sisters, Phyllis Diller, Ray Bolger and Danny Thomas. His studio recordings included work for United Airlines, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and many others.
 
• And then there’s this little nugget: “Expert witness in music copyright infringement litigation.” Turns out that Argersinger was the prosecution’s expert witness in a trial to determine if Michael Jackson stole significant sections of “Thriller” and two other songs from former friends. It was a grueling experience and one Argersinger never wanted to repeat, but the 17-foot grand piano in his Moscow home that he was able to buy with his fees has helped dull the edges of being in the middle of a fight over $400 million in royalty fees.
 
Inside the piano Argersinger affixed a plaque that reads: “To Charles, From Michael. It was a Thriller.”