restricted access 2 - Al O’Connor’s Life Before Steelpan
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C H A P T E R 2 AL O’CONNOR’S LIFE BEFORE STEELPAN There is a Chinese saying which goes like this: “Tian Shi, Di Li, Ren He,” meaning “Perfect Timing, Suitable Place, Cooperative People.” NIU in the 1970s seems fit to this saying. —Dr. Kuo-Huang Han1 The NIU Steelband started with Al O’Connor, a native of Long Island, New York who loved music from an early age. O’Connor earned college degrees in music, focused on electronic and avant-garde music, taught in high school, and came to Northern Illinois University (hereafter NIU) to teach percussion. The program had no steelband, and only because of his desire and drive would one eventually exist. At the time O’Connor began his steelband endeavor there were almost no steelbands as part of university music programs in the United States; O’Connor had to create it all on his own. If Al O’Connor had been an ethnomusicologist, things would have been different. That is, if O’Connor was not a musician, someone who on a cellular level wants to play and needs to make music, the NIU steelband program in its present form surely would not exist. Throughout academia there are many different philosophies of learning, some more theoretical and some more practical or application-based.Yet for O’Connor, there was only one way: the“learn by doing”philosophy. If he was going to teach percussionists, they were going to learn by playing. Likewise, if O’Connor was going to start a steelband, the band was going to learn by doing. Yet even O’Connor interpreted the latter more broadly than most, which is to say that at NIU not only do students learn steelpan by playing steelpan, but they also learn by arranging, gigging, touring, tuning, building, and living steelpan. If C H A P T E R 2 12 O’Connor was going to have a steelband, this band was going to play top-notch arrangements , with the best-sounding steelpans played as well as possible. It is this drive to learn by doing that fundamentally shaped the NIU steelband program, and indeed O’Connor’s entire career. O’Connor had never touched or played a steelpan of any kind until after he finished college in 1967. This fact alone makes his lifelong journey with steelband all the more remarkable . He is, first and foremost, a musician, and beyond his skills as a pannist, O’Connor is an accomplished percussionist and performer. The pedigree of this would-be panman is typical for someone in academia in the United States. O’Connor earned a Bachelor of Science degree in education with a performer’s certificate from SUNY–Fredonia in 1966. He immediately auditioned and was accepted as a graduate student to pursue a master’s degree in percussion performance at the University of Illinois in Urbana, Illinois. In the 1960s the University of Illinois housed one of the most progressive schools of music in the country, and O’Connor was excited to be a part of the creative atmosphere fostered on campus. He studied percussion with percussion professor Jack McKenzie, and it was here at the University of Illinois that O’Connor befriended a group of percussionists who would go on to become highly influential in the development of percussion programs in the United States. This group included the likes of Thomas Siwe (University of Illinois), Larry Snider (University of Akron), and Michael Udow (University of Michigan).­ McKenzie encouraged O’Connor and the other percussionists to work with living composers and composition students in order to foster relationships and create new works. Beyond the confines of the traditional percussion department, O’Connor was drawn to the legendary Studio for Experimental Music at the University of Illinois. The program had gained a reputation of being on the cutting edge of electronic and computer music technology and composition since its inception in 1958.With his compositions“It’s Gonna Rain” (1964) and “Come Out to Show Them” (1965), Steve Reich effectively invented the concept of phase music in the Studio for Experimental Music in Urbana, and the place was still pressing new boundaries on O’Connor’s arrival in 1966. Remarkably, it was for a concert and recording session with members of the Studio for Experimental Music and the University of Illinois Contemporary Chamber Players that O’Connor was first introduced to the steelpan in the spring of 1967. The work was called “Underworld” and was written...