Rick Lesemann: A Remembrance

The beloved USC Thornton faculty member is remembered by friends, colleagues, and former students. 

An Obituary by Bill Alves

Frederick “Rick” Lesemann was born in 1936 and grew up in an artistic household in southern California. His father was a poet with connections to artistic communities in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the family often traveled. These stark, vast landscapes would later influence several of Lesemann’s compositions, including Mesita Dreams (1985) and Shotsona (1986), the latter an electronic work based on indigenous mythology of the region. 

Lesemann studied with Schoenberg’s assistant Richard Hoffmann at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio before returning to southern California to study with Ingolf Dahl at USC. He absorbed rigorous craft from these composers and was known for his bookish interests in poetry, art, and medieval history. However, he also created minor scandals through his experiments in chance, graphic notation, and other emblems of the 1960s avant garde. When the USC faculty refused to authorize a student recital of such experiments, Lesemann and fellow student Michael Tilson Thomas organized one anyway. He had his beatnik side, spending many afternoons playing street chess with West Coast cool musicians such as Dave Brubeck and Paul Beaver. 

Beaver opened the first West Coast studio with the then new Moog synthesizer in the late 1960s. Lesemann, who by then had joined the faculty at USC, enrolled in a short class on the new technology at Beaver’s studio. Soon he was spending nights in the studio, and in 1970 began teaching a new USC class there in electronic music, one of the first such courses in the western U.S. By 1972, he raised the money to outfit a studio at the School of Music annex building including a Moog modular synthesizer and would continue teaching this course until 1992. He was a leader in the electronic music scene in southern California, organizing outdoor concerts with such organizations as SEAMUS, SCREAM and the LA County Museum of Art. In the late 1970s, he studied then emergent digital audio technologies at Stanford University and instituted a ground-breaking computer music course and studio at USC. Many of his best-known works are electronic yet still retain his characteristic stylistic diversity: the minimalist processes of Hammer Phase (1979), the cool abstractions of Metakinetic Inventions (1984), the serene meditation of Mesita Dreams, and the human versus digital virtuosity of Concerto for Piano and Computer (1980), written for Leonard Stein, the then director of the Schoenberg Institute at USC. 

Unlike many electronic composers though, Lesemann retained his love for acoustic instruments, composing such works as the colorful virtuosic dance for prepared piano Nataraja (1974), recorded by the legendary Ralph Grierson; the sly contrapuntal aphorisms for string quartet Sir Blue Slips a Trend (1985), written and recorded as part of his long association with Southwest Chamber Music; and his medievalist contemplations Preludes after a Tenor by Dufay (2013), written for his wife, pianist Susan Svrcek. His greatest joy, though, was writing for orchestra, including such works as his Symphony in Three Movements, premiered by Michael Tilson Thomas with the Buffalo Symphony (1971); the water in the boat (1989) with chorus singing his own texts; and Grand Hope Crossing (2003), written for the Thornton Symphony to inaugurate Disney Concert Hall. His polystylistic insights, his careful craft, his enthusiastic experimentation, and the humanistic core of all of his creativity inspired generations of students.

He is survived by his second wife, Heidi Lesemann. His third wife, Susan Svrcek, predeceased him in 2022.

Bill Alves

Composer and Professor of Music, Harvey Mudd College

A Nexus of Lives

There are those among us who, in the nexus of time and place, change lives. As I have experienced, the word teacher tends, more often than not, to be the person any given one of us will look back upon and say, from the depth of our being, that person was my teacher, and changed the course of my life. That person, for me, was Rick Lesemann. Was that Rick’s character? Were we simply two people who, at a particular point in time, needed to form a mentor-student bond that went far beyond a classroom, far beyond a subject, and reached into the foundations of what was important for a life? 

1966-67. Rick was a doctoral student (Middle English, as I recall, was his outside exam topic), a lecturer in theory, and a composer ready to absorb the uneasy currents of mid-century musical discipline. Expected practices bumped up against the new, the avant-garde, an age of new approaches, and something that was a medium with potential: “electronic” music. Rick took it all in. Music was a chess game. He could solve the Knight’s Tour.”

My sophomore year, I studied theory with Fredrick Lesemann. There was something vibrant and dynamic in both what he taught, and how he expressed his craft through these foundations. It wasn’t just the materials of a practice. It was an art that deserved and demanded our immersion. Rick planned, strategized and, in front of students who sometimes didn’t know what hit them, constructed lectures out of careful and sometimes truly radical methodologies. Don’t believe me? 

Let’s move on a few years. Our association deepened. Rick became my composition instructor, to keep me from getting thrown out of the school. I graduated (with his help). He made me his teaching assistant for a semester of radical education called the “Semester of the Arts.” In a lecture for those hand-picked non-music majors, Rick decided to make a music lecture that exposed hidden structures in music that formed an architecture hidden from perception of non-musicians—underpinnings that practiced musicians often take for granted. He chose to play the Saint Matthew Passion in its entirety over a three-plus hour period without saying a single word! He delineated movements, recitative, chorus, numerology, changes in tone—the depth of structure—even Bach’s visual example of devotion, through a gigantic chalk-drawing. We worked hours to create a giant structure on two huge blackboards in the lecture room. He began a recorded performance of the work, and as it progressed, he ran, pointed, gestured, and stumbled (at least once) from one visual graph to another. From letter block to letter block, we saw structures, recursion, introductions, conclusions, and were directed to written comments as the work progressed: “Remember this!” then, “Have you heard this before?” or, “Now who is speaking?” He pointed to the handouts—none of which could resort to a musical staff, since the students could not be expected to read music. Not a word was spoken in that lecture. The students didn’t know what hit them! But I learned more in that three hours than I have ever been able to absorb at one time since. No, not the analysis of a great work of art, but rather, the phenomenal ability that our art has to couple intellect with a depth of personal meaning. Oh, I knew it was there, but Rick put it on the board in front of us. US. “This is what we wrestle with! This is what we know is there, if we can only, barely, have the good fortune to touch it. 

Years later, I created a lecture delineating Bach’s violin D minor Chaconne for a similar type of class—a performance (played twice), my visual gyrations before a white board, another age, new media, but the same Intent. There is more to teaching than the communication of facts. If lucky, just, even, maybe, we can communicate something not written in the prospectus. 

There were times when Rick’s lectures didn’t work. He ordered us out of class, hurried, confused. What did we do wrong? A pencil lead flew out of the second story window of Widney Hall. There were demons. I inherited some of those, too. 

Rick and I began teaching electronic music courses together in the 1970’s. We created the first electronic music studio at USC. Well, not at USC. First, the class was held at a private studio (Electron Musics) and later on, the seventh floor of an empty building on Broadway—one that once housed an army audiology lab. For a while, we inhabited a room in the Engineering building. A new discipline of instruction developed at USC. 

Time. Students become colleagues, teachers and then professors. We moved on, lost touch. We taught generations of new students, some hungry to understand. Our students continued on. Suddenly, there is a hole in our lives, a stopping point for someone we wanted to go on and on even if we didn’t speak. Couldn’t it be wordless? I point to a life’s composition with its forms, its greater structures, continuing to build what we do for another generation. Thank you, Rick. 

Dan Wyman

Emeritus Professor, Composition, Director, Studio Arts

School of Music, San Jose State University

Past City Councilman, Mayor, City of Monte Sereno, CA

A Non-Musical, or at Least Partially Non-Musical, Remembrance of Rick Lesemann

My name is Allan Kotin, and I am a partially retired real estate consultant and a fully retired adjunct professor of real estate after 41 years of teaching, 36 at the USC Price School of Public Policy. 

I met Rick Lesemann in 1952 when we both attended Glendale High School. Rick, and another friend, Maitland Hardyman, became very quickly close friends and, quite remarkably, remained very close friends for seven decades—almost family—as long as they lived (Maitland died in 2017). Rick and I were only children and as such each of us was for the other as close as we had to a brother. Rick was married three times, and I am the only person besides Rick who attended all three of his weddings, the last of which was to Susan Svrcek and was about the best thing that Rick ever did. 

Rick’s multiple marriages created a humorous situation when, several years ago, a composition of his was premiered at Bovard Auditorium. I attended that concert along with a fellow faculty member from the Price School. At the intermission I saw Heidi Lesemann and Susan Svrcek chatting in the lobby. I then, with some difficulty, introduced my colleague to Heidi who was the ex-wife of Rick, and to Susan who was Rick’s wife. He seemed only mildly puzzled.

I titled this document as a “non-musical—or at least partially non- musical—remembrance” because it is impossible to describe Rick without reference to music. When I met him in high school, he had been for some time a trombone player in the Peter Merenblum California Youth Orchestra which was an early precursor to the many classical music youth orchestras we have today. There was much classical music in the Lesemann household. His mother played the baby grand piano in their living room and was a sometime church organist. His father was a poet and writer, with a day job as a copy writer for an ad agency. 

When Rick went off to the Oberlin Conservatory in 1954, I was uncertain as to whether he would come out as an orchestra level instrumentalist, a budding composer, or simply a well-educated entrant into law school or some other track that would manifest his interest in constitutional law. My sense is that he was not sure either, but music composition quickly became his main focus.

During Rick’s and my college years, I dropped out of school and took a job working in the last purely classical music record store in Los Angeles since my love for music was responsible for a lot of spending and I coveted the employee discount for working in a record store. I got a foretaste of Rick’s talent for teaching when, over the course of a school year, I probably got one of the best educations in music appreciation that one could ever wish for. Rick took it upon himself to make sure I had a really good background in classical music and, since I could “check out” any records I wanted from the store, we began with Adam de la Halle, Palestrina and Gesualdo and, over the course of 10 months, progressed to Bartok, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky. He would check in with me to tell me what to listen for and to check my reactions. When I, as a long-term lover of chamber music, told him that I really couldn’t get into the Bartok string quartets his reaction was “play it again and then again and then again until you get past the apparent dissonance, and you can really hear what’s going on.” I did that and he was absolutely right. They are magnificent works. 

As high school students at Glendale High School which was a hotbed of conservatism and “white Christian nationalism” at the time, Rick and I were both very much outsiders with no interest in sports or traditional campus events. Rick’s interest at the time was divided between the very few thought- provoking courses at school—one of which is where we met—reading, cars, music, and girls—not necessarily in that order. During the summers and later when he came back married, he was much more interested in cars and owned and MGA coupe which he dearly loved and upon which he showered money and affection. After graduating Oberlin, he enrolled at USC in the music school but his progression there was not continuous. After getting his Master’s, he paused and worked for social security administration for several years as the claims representative before returning to graduate school. I had the pleasure of hosting parties to celebrate both Rick’s master’s recital and his doctoral recital. 

As a sidelight to those recitals and the after-recital celebrations, I would note that my friend Rick got seriously drunk on both occasions. His fondness for alcohol was clearly inherited from his father. He and I—and I didn’t drink much but I did occasionally get drunk—would often drink together. On one earlier occasion, after a party at my parents’ home, Rick and I decided that we would play chess while emptying the remaining alcohol in the various partially empty bottles on the table.  We gave up the chess game when we realized that he was taking my queen for the second time and that I had two bishops on the same diagonal. Some years later Rick recognized that he needed to stop drinking altogether, which he did. Abstinence improved both his health and his disposition.

Rick had an abiding interest in southwest Indian culture and its physical setting. Throughout his adult life he collected American Indian memorabilia and, particularly in the years between his marriages he would travel every year by car to Arizona and New Mexico. After marrying Susan, that travel pattern “morphed” into an almost religious annual visit to the Santa Fe opera during the week when they play all the operas. They stayed regularly at a charming but unpretentious hacienda inn in Chimayo outside of Santa Fe.

Rick’s early and continuing fascination with atonal and experimental music had several interesting offshoots including a fascinating aleatoric piece called Knight’s Tour which mimicked the unintuitive progress of a chess knight across the entire chess board thus melding Rick’s fascination with both music and chess. For a few years after grad school, Rick and I would play chess. I was nowhere as good as Rick, but I served a useful function as a kind of sparring partner. Rick was ever the organized competitor, and he would learn a new chess opening and try it on me until I finally figured it out and then go on to another more exotic opening. 

Perhaps one of the most interesting intersections between Rick’s career and mine involved the use of a computer to generate a series of random notes that maintained the proportionality of their position in the musical scale over a series of multi-minute intervals. This was just the type of “analytically based” musical idea that fascinated Rick in that early stage. My work in real estate finance and market research led me to learn computer programming, and Rick asked if I could create a program to generate such a series. I offered to do that, and, to my everlasting amazement, it was the only computer program I ever wrote that ran perfectly the first time. I have no idea what happened to the music piece.

Throughout Rick’s life, he had a continuing broad interest in history, culture and current events. Some of my best memories are of the occasions when the three of us friends spent evenings together in often very eclectic conversations together solving the problems of the world initially rather lubricated but later less so.

Sadly, the last years of Rick’s life were a 10-year trajectory of medical issues with a tragic outcome. Roughly 10 years before he died Rick was hospitalized for a ruptured appendix with potentially life-threatening peritonitis complications. His doctors recommended an antibiotic medication which had a high rate of success but also had a 5% chance that the patient’s sense of balance would be permanently affected. Unfortunately, Rick did experience that deterioration in his sense of balance and over the next 3-4 years proceeded from the occasional use of a cane to being confined more or less full time to a wheelchair by 2017.

While this limited his physical activities and, over time, created the need for his wife Susan and later his caregiver to wheel him everywhere, his composing continued with some of his best and most lyrical works created for Susan to play. Particularly striking was his last major composition, Barcode for two pianos. It is a rhythmic and propulsive piece unlike any other that Rick ever wrote and the background for it was Susan’s request to Rick to write something “with some repetition”. Listening to Barcode shows how well he met that challenge.

As though Rick’s disability were not sufficient punishment, Susan contracted abdominal cancer in early 2022 and died after about six months of round-the-clock care at Rick’s home which, incidentally, had been built by his parents in 1936 and which Rick inherited in the early 90’s. Following Susan’s death, Rick was desolated and somewhat unmanned. He did, however, continue in his effort to complete the issuance of CDs of his recorded music with the help of Donald Crockett. Ironically, those CDs list Susan Svrcek as producer. 

In late December, Rick had an abdominal episode that required paramedics who took him to a hospital to which he had never been previously admitted. He did not recover quickly and was kept in the hospital in part because no one contacted his primary physician or his relatives—as there were none known. His only point of contact at that time, since I was out of the country on an extended vacation, was his caregiver Emma. Emma did not contact me and when I returned to learn of his condition, I was frustrated in my efforts to help him as I was not a blood relative. I did help get him transferred to a nursing home after seven weeks in the hospital, but that turned out to be the final tragic stage in Rick’s decline. Shortly before his scheduled discharge from the skilled nursing facility, it was closed due to a Covid outbreak. Rick did catch Covid and, because of his very weakened condition, died within a day on February 20th.

Rick was one of the smartest and most interesting people I ever met, and I am proud to call him my friend. His friendship much enriched my life, and particularly my knowledge and appreciation of music.

Allan Kotin

Former faculty member at USC Price School of Public Policy

Longtime friend