Atlanta composer Charles Knox (2nd from left) with former music theory students Richard Rogers, Michael Wilson, and Bob Scarr -- all trombonists with the DeKalb Symphony Orchestra. (courtesy of Rogers Digital Recording)

Composer’s Notebook: Who will perform our music in the future?

Mark Gresham | 2 MAR 2019

Atlanta composer and educator Charles Knox will turn 90 years old this April.  He is frequently referred to around music circles as “The Dean of Atlanta Composers.”

“That’s just because I’m the oldest,” says Knox, an Atlanta native, with his typical self-effacing modesty and humor.

The more substantive reason for that honorific title is that Knox is a critical part of Atlanta’s thread of “classical” composers, the connecting persona in the city’s composing legacy  to one of his early mentors, Hugh Hodgson (1893-1969), who founded the school of music at University of Georgia, where Knox earned his bachelor’s degree. From Hodgson, the connection goes back another previous generation to the Italian-born immigrant Alfredo Barili (1854-1935), credited as “the first professional musician to move to Atlanta” [New Georgia Encyclopedia] and playing a major role in establishing the city’s classical music culture. Knox is significant living history for Atlanta composers and performers of my own generation. KNox taught at Georgia State University for over three decades.

DSO music director Fyodor Cherniavsky with Charles Knox aft5er the concert. (Courtesy Rogers Digital Recording)

DSO music director Fyodor Cherniavsky with Charles Knox aft5er the concert. (Courtesy Rogers Digital Recording)

This past Tuesday, the DeKalb Symphony Orchestra performed Knox’s Brazen: Rondo for Brass and Orchestra as part of their concert at the Marvin Cole Auditorium on the campus of Georgia State University Perimeter College in Clarkston, Georgia. DSO Music director Fyodor Cherniavsky chose to open the program with Brazen, which included Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466, with pianist Alexander Wasserman as soloist.

It was the DSO’s first performance of Brazen, which may not have been performed by anyone since the 1980s, when it was premiered by the Georgia State Univeristy Orchestra. Being a near nonegenarian, Knox doesn’t exactly remember the details, and written documentation on the work itself is slim. Knowing Knox as one of his publishers [Lux Nova Press*], it’s highly likely it was premiered and then put on his shelf. Unlike many composers, he is not a self-promoting personality.

It’s unusual to hear an orchestral work by Knox in the first place — he wrote very few. Among approximately 140 original compositions written by him between 1950 and 2014, Knox is best known for his music for brass ensembles and a body chamber music for mixed ensembles, much of the latter written for cello/piano duo Dorothy and Cary Lewis and their close musical colleagues while they were living in Atlanta, where Cary taught piano at Georgia State Univeristy.  Knox was a member of the music faculty for over three decades, and retains the title of Professor Emeritus, though long retired.

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There’s where connectivity begins to loom large. The DSO’s three trombonists had all been Knox’s theory students  at one time of another (see the featured image at the top of this article). That is made more serendipitous by the fact that Knox himself was a trombonist. He played in the trombone section of  the early Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under its first music director, Henry Sopkin, from 1944 to 1953, and was its principal trombonist from 1950 – 1951, after which he was All of this leads to the question of enlisted in the Third Army Band at Fort McPherson in Atlanta, but had to step down from the principal chair due to his military obligations.

All of the above leads me to the question for composers: “Who will perform our music in the future?”

While we all want people who don’t know is to play our music, quite often it is those personal connections that make a difference, either people we know in some way or another or people who come to know is through our music or other encounters. Sometimes, the story can become weirdly roundabout and surprising to Knox’s fans and friends.

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Before GSU, Knox taught from 1955 to 1965 at Mississippi College in the city of Meridian. Their band needed a rallying theme for their sports teams. Known as the Choctaws, they needed what, in that day, gave the impression of  a Native American war chant, so Knox wrote one for them. It was later picked up by the Seminoles at Florida State University,  despite claims that it originated at FSU in the 1980s  — perhaps the “tomahawk chop” arm movement did, a separate issue. 

In 1991, the Atlanta Braves signed former FSU football cornerback Deion Sanders to play pro baseball, and Sanders brought the chant and chop with him. By then, the origins had been forgotten, Knox never copyrighted the short tune — after all, who would be interested? — the public doesn’t care who wrote it. This is has become his most heard composition, though completely unattributed. Royalties are not collectible, of course, especially given the current apocryphal nature of various stories surrounding it. I got it from the composer himself, who as a bit hesitant about relating the story. For me, it likely means a road trip to Meridian, Mississippi to try to authenticate Knox’s personal story through research.

It’s hardly the first research I’ve done about his music. I’ve gleaned through Knox’s entire extant catalog, not only for publication purposes but to help establish the holdings of the new Charles Knox Archives as part of the Special Collections Library at Georgia State University. I was not alone in that effort to preserve Knox’s legacy.

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One result of that work has been to personally recommend scores to various musicians to celebrate Knox’s 9th birth year. Hence, I introduced Brazen to conductor Fyodor Cherniavsky, in the hopes that he could program it. It just happened to fit well in the program for Tuesday’s concert. With Mozart and Beethoven on the docket, Brazen gave the orchestra’s larger brass section something both meaty and fun to dig into. And the fact that members of the orchestra were former students of his made it all that much more fabulously  fitting.

Charles was able to be there there with his entourage, getting around on his rolling walker, thoroughly enjoying the moment. I was personally basking in the fact that Charles and his music have not been forgotten, and that maybe I’ve been able to be a small piece of that. he has been an inspiration to several generations of Atlanta’s composers through his teaching, his compositions, and the optimism and wit found in both. May those who were his students pass along the love and admiration of Charles and his music to a few more generations by teaching and performing it. That’s how we best encourage today those young musicians to discover his music and in turn become those who perform and teach it in the future. ■

*Full disclosure: Lux Nova Press is also the publisher of EarRelevant.