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Obituaries: Eric Stokes, 68, Minneapolis composer

By Michael Anthony, Star Tribune

March 17, 1999

Eric Stokes, a Minneapolis composer whose experimental operas, orchestral and chamber music earned him national renown, died Tuesday in an auto accident about 3:30 p.m. on Interstate Hwy. 94 at 11th St. in downtown Minneapolis. He was 68.

According to police reports Stokes was driving west on 94 from St. Paul when he collided with a highway repair vehicle parked on the shoulder.

He was coming from a lunch with his longtime friend and colleague Alvin Greenberg, professor of English at Macalester College. They had received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to work on an opera for a month in June. They had known each other since 1966, three years before their first opera, "Horspfal," was premiered by Minnesota Opera, then Center Opera.

"Eric was full of enthusiasm and excitement," said Greenberg Wednesday. "He and I had a wonderful friendship. I feel like I've lost a brother. He was a delight to work with, a shower of ideas all the time. He was a rebel, but he was also one of the least cynical people I've ever known. He was very positive, and I think his music showed that, too."

Born in Haddon Heights, N.J., Stokes studied music at Lawrence College and the New England Conservatory and with Dominick Argento and Paul Fetler at the University of Minnesota, where he received a Ph.D. in 1964. He began teaching at the university in 1961, from which he retired in 1988. He founded the university's electronic music laboratory and, in 1971, spearheaded its contemporary music ensemble known as the First Minnesota Moving and Storage Warehouse Band.

While still a graduate student at the university, Stokes became friends with David Zinman, then, too, a graduate student in composition. Zinman, who later became a foremost conductor, championed Stokes' work. He conducted the premiere of Stokes' most recent operatic collaboration with Greenberg, "Apollonia's Circus," at the university in 1994.

"We remained friends all our lives," said Zinman, speaking by phone from London, where he was conducting. "We dreamed the same dreams when we were young. I went my way, and he went his way. I don't know if he was very well understood. His music was his own. It was very American and very poetic. He also wrote poems. I think he wrote poems every day of his life. I have a lot of the poems he just wrote to me, and letters.

"Some of his music was perhaps a little crude, but there was always magic in it. His music will live on in the next century. But whatever happens with his music, my friend is gone."

In the mid-1960s Stokes' style began to include collage, theater and mixed-media pieces. His main influences, he often said, were the American composers Charles Ives, John Cage and Henry Brant, chief exponents of what has been called the maverick wing of American composition. In later years Stokes developed a special interest in American jazz, hymns and folksongs, and most recently in music for concert and marching band. His last, unfinished composition, said his wife of 40 years, Cynthia Stokes, was titled "The New Band Horizon," a work for middle and elementary school students.

At its most experimental, Stokes' music sought to reduce composition to its most basic elements: rhythm and pure sound. His "Rock & Roll (Phonic Paradigm 1)," which involved the rolling of rocks around onstage, was a hit at the New Music America Festival held at the Walker Art Center in 1980.

The composer Randall Davidson was one of the people who joined Stokes on the Walker stage rolling rocks and hitting them together. Davidson was Stokes' teaching assistant at the university in 1977 and 1978. "Eric was a big influence on me, professionally and artistically," Davidson said. "He had a unique voice as a composer. No one else sounded like him. His music usually had a political message. Ecology and nature were very important to him."

Libby Larsen, another of the many students who seem to have revered Stokes and who went on to become a prominent composer, said her courses with Stokes at the university were among the most valuable she ever had with a teacher. The first Stokes score she ever heard was "Horspfal," and "I've been writing parts of it ever since."

Besides his wife, Cynthia, a professional flutist, Stokes is survived by his daughter Martha, who is studying dance in Los Angeles, and son Ben, a filmmaker and composer in Chicago. A memorial service for Stokes is to be held at 3 p.m. Sunday at the First Unitarian Society, 900 Mount Curve Av., Minneapolis. Cynthia Stokes has requested that memorial gifts be sent to the Eric Stokes Fund of the American Composers Forum, 332 Minnesota St., St. Paul, MN 55101. "It's for composers who are writing about nature or the environment," she said.