Texas Tech University

Maestro! New Arts Dean Brings Diverse Musical Experience to Texas Tech

Heidi Toth

January 26, 2017


Noel Zahler, who took over as dean at the start of the fall semester, has a long history of playing and composing music and encouraging interdisciplinary work.

Noel Zahler
Noel Zahler

Most composers have a drawer in their desk, a folder in their filing cabinet or a file on their computer filled with compositions they've written but were never published.

Noel Zahler doesn't.

He's quick to point to the reasons behind this unusual feat – his parents started him on music when he was 7 years old, he's married to a world-class violinist, during the course of his formal education he worked with some of the best musicians and composers in the world. He spent his college years in New York City among some of the most creative artists who combined classical music with New York aplomb and a touch of the maverick.

It was the perfect environment for a young man who had recently dedicated himself to composing.

"It was very exciting to be a young composer in that atmosphere at that time," said Zahler, who started his position as dean of the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts (TCVPA) at Texas Tech University in the fall. "I just knew that's what I wanted to do, and I did it."

Zahler has now spent decades composing music, work he still does, though it has morphed as he learned how to implement changing technology into the process of writing. He also has spent his career helping others work toward success as professor and administrator at a variety of universities throughout the country and a guest lecturer and musician at venues throughout the world.

All of that experience will come into play now as he takes over leadership of the TCVPA at a critical time, as the college begins a significant philanthropic initiative to provide the world-class arts facilities needed for the world-class programs the college offers.

"There are all sorts of challenges we need to look at, but we're not going to be able to get anything done unless we do it together," he said. "It has to be a shared vision."

A love for music

Clara Tatar

Zahler's music career started with a twist of financial fate.

"My parents thought music was very important, but they couldn't afford a piano, so I got a guitar," he said.

That turned out all right; by the time he was 12 he was playing in bands, later he became a studio musician and recorded with many of the popular bands of the 1970s in New York City.

That wasn't the first time finances led him in a direction that changed his life. When he was 19 years old and a student at Juilliard, his father died. Even with scholarships, he and his mother couldn't afford tuition, so he transferred to nearby Queens College – tuition $72 a semester.

There he met the concertmaster of the Queens College Orchestra, an accomplished violinist named Clara Tatar. A mutual friend asked her to perform a duo for violin and cello Zahler had composed. She was impressed the work came from such a young composer.

"It was my first experience performing a new work, and I must say, it was quite difficult to play," she said. "I do not think at the time I did it justice, but I found it extremely musical and fascinating."

Something about the composer struck her as well: "He also seemed really nice and cute."

Zahler felt the same.

Noel and Clara
Noel and Clara

"As they say, the rest is history," he said.

The two married and settled down, as much as two musicians can settle down, with Zahler composing music and Clara continuing to perform with orchestras in New York and abroad.  He graduated from Queens College with some measure of musical success behind him and crossed the river to Princeton, New Jersey, to begin his doctorate, excited to continue building on what he'd done.

That all came to a halt in the first few weeks of graduate school.

"When I got to Princeton they basically said to me, to everybody, put your music on a shelf," he said. "You're here to learn and if you didn't learn it at Princeton you didn't learn it."

Zahler made it through two years and earned his MFA. The environment was more extreme than he would have liked, making it possible for him to learn but not thrive. After graduation he earned a Fulbright scholarship and went to Italy, plunging him into a learning environment a literal and figurative half a world away.

While in Italy Zahler worked with Franco Donatoni, who taught at the University of Bologna, headed the composition program at Conservatorio Guiseppe Verde in Milano and was a composer at the Conservatorio SantaCecilia in Rome and at L'Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena. He was, Zahler said, the most powerful composer in all of Italy.

"He had everything, literally, and I was lucky enough to study with him," Zahler said. "That meant I had certain doors opened for me that I wouldn't have otherwise had."

None of those doors led back to Princeton. Upon returning to the United States he enrolled at the City University of New York, which after Italy felt something like a letdown. He had already worked with the great musicians there, so he didn't feel he was learning much. Finally he reached out to the one professor with whom he hadn't worked. Mario Davidovsky, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, invited Zahler to his home and told him to bring his music.

"I brought my music and played it for him," Zahler said. "In his very thick Argentinean accent, he said, " You know what, kid? You have talent.'"

Davidovsky was leaving CUNY for Columbia University, and he invited Zahler to go with him. Zahler found himself in his Juilliard conundrum all over again – he wanted to go, but with a wife and new baby, he couldn't afford tuition. Don't worry about it, Davidovsky told him – so Zahler didn't. He went to Columbia on a fellowship and he wrote his own music, surrounded by faculty members and graduate students doing the same.

The life and times of a composer

Zahler's career has been anything but a straight line. As a teenager he worked as a studio artist, earning good money though little name recognition and keeping the schedule of a musician – late nights recording.

"In New York, when you worked in recording studios, you literally worked from midnight to 6 a.m. because traffic is too heavy and too loud – at least it was back then," he said. "It was a nocturnal existence."

Zahler with Boulez
Zahler with Pierre Boulez (2005)

That worked for Zahler until the day he realized his passion was in composition and there was no way he could give the time and energy to composing music when he was expending so much of that recording music. The day he realized this, he stopped recording, instead focusing his efforts on compositions. He worked with faculty members at his various universities and throughout the world and found himself again experiencing unwonted success for his age, including being published by three publishers by the time he was 30.

"I've heard just about everything I've ever written, and I think that's very unusual for a composer," he said.

It helped, of course, that by the time he was 30 he'd lived, performed, studied and written all over the world, learning from all sorts of composers and experiencing a variety of types of music. He also had Clara's background and expertise; she was a world-class musician whose father left Hungary as a teenager and went to Cremona, Italy, where he was a student, teacher and finally headmaster at the International School of Violin Making.

"It's a lot different being an artist in Europe and living in Europe than in the United States," Zahler said. "In the United States, when somebody asks what you do and you say, " I'm a composer,' they say, " well, what do you really do?'

"In Italy if you say you're a composer, they look at you and they say " Maestro!'"

Their family has since crossed the globe a few times, living in Japan, Italy, Minnesota, New York and Pittsburgh before their cross-country move to Lubbock, most to accommodate a new academic position for Zahler. In each place Clara found orchestras with which to play; she is a member of the Lubbock Symphony Orchestra and a Professor of Practice in the School of Music.

"Everywhere we landed we both immersed ourselves in the music surrounding us," she said.

Introducing technology to composing

After finishing his doctorate, Zahler worked at a number of different universities for a number of different department heads. In addition to composing, his job description frequently included calling famous classical musicians like John Cage, Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez and Nicolas Slonimsky and inviting them to come perform. It was the classical equivalent of calling Beyonce's cell phone and inviting her to perform.

Those experiences taught him even more about the community of which he was a part, creating opportunities that led to almost two decades at Connecticut College in New London, close enough to New York that Clara could continue playing and Zahler could direct his students and faculty to the cultural resources the city had to offer.

From the start Zahler's research was a little off-script, occupying the intersection of music and artificial intelligence through his creation of synthetic performers. These computer programs listen to live performers and respond with their own part as written in the score by a composer. That response may be in the form of computer-generated instruments, visual samples or interactive changes to the output of other acoustic instruments. The synthetic performer actually perceives and understands changes in the tempo and dynamic of the music, mistakes by the live performers and what constitutes a legitimate live performance.

As an administrator himself Zahler expanded use of technology in the arts. With support from the Connecticut College administration he took inspiration from Pierre Boulez, a French composer making headlines in New York for his nontraditional pieces, and Zahler created the Center for Arts and Technology, which included almost 30 faculty members from 17 different disciplines. The center then created a biennial international symposium to bring together experts who combine those concepts to create something that was a hybrid yet also its own unique creative medium.

Zahler ran the center, which for the first 10 years of existence operated solely on outside funding. He became quite skilled at finding grants and other funding opportunities, a skill set that perfectly matched the job description at Texas Tech, which was on the cusp of a major fundraising initiative to redo the School of Theater & Dance and build a new home for the School of Music on campus. That initiative got its first big donation in October, when the J.T. & Margaret Talkington Foundation donated $10 million, opening opportunities for matching funds from the university and the state.

"Dean Zahler has an impressive record of contribution and wealth of experience in the arts, community relations and fundraising," said Lawrence Schovanec, who hired Zahler when he was provost. "I'm excited about what students, faculty and staff of the Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts will accomplish under his leadership."

The future of the Talkington College of Visual and Performing Arts

Raising money undoubtedly is in the college's future, thus increasing its footprint in the arts community worldwide, but it is far from the only area that needs attention. Zahler has visions of growth in many areas.

"We want to be more diversified in terms of our offerings and become nationally and internationally known," he said. "We need to go to the next level of excellence and truly be recognized for the kinds of contributions we've made in the arts throughout the globe."

Reaching global

The rest of the globe is a top priority right now.

Texas Tech is sending recruiters and reaching out in other ways to universities throughout the world who share similar or complementary research projects and programs and building relationships, Zahler said. They will soon be in Hong Kong and are discussing getting into Vietnam and Myanmar. Those markets are experiencing a rising middle class with a generation of young adults who want to go to college.

"The utility of an American degree isn't wasted on them," he said.

He also wants faculty members and graduate students to spread their research through publications or presentations, including at international conferences.

Reaching upward

The School of Music has more than 600 undergraduate students. Many more qualified applicants are turned away every year because there just is not enough physical room for them, Zahler said. The Music building is second on the list for renovations, behind the Charles E. Maedgen Theatre, which right now is so strapped for space some faculty members have offices under stairwells.

The philanthropic initiative, which university officials know is a years-long project, includes renovations and upgrades to the Maedgen Theatre and the Music building. Zahler is confident this investment in facilities will do for recruiting what an earlier investment in top-notch faculty did.

"Our students have come primarily for the excellence of our faculty, but that can only happen for so long and then we have to bite the bullet and realize a world-class school has to have world-class facilities," he said. "That's what we're trying to build."

Reaching outward

Zahler has big plans for increasing the college's stature in the arts and education communities, but he's looking at other communities as well – specifically the Lubbock community. The TCVPA is a significant partner in the East Lubbock Promise Neighborhood, a seven-year, multimillion-dollar grant spearheaded by the College of Education.

Additionally, the college's students and faculty put on about 800 community events a year ranging from full-scale theatrical productions to concerts intended to highlight specific individuals and instruments. It includes programs such as the BurkTech Players, a theater company comprised of theater students and adults on the autism spectrum and Arts in Medicine, a collaboration with the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. We are also reaching out to the professional arts community in Lubbock with hopes that, in the future, together we can do much more. 

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