August 13, 2008
Donald Erb, 1927-2008
My undergraduate composition teacher, Donald Erb, passed away yesterday at the age of 81. He was a wonderful teacher, and wow — what a character. His office was decorated with Elvis memorabilia, not because he was an actual fan of Elvis, but because he thought Elvis was only popular because he epitomized mediocrity and the American love of mediocrity — and that warranted a mocking shrine in his studio.
Donald Erb wrote some of the ugliest, angriest music I’ve ever heard, but he was careful to never influence the style of his students. His music was terribly dissonant, but the music I wrote when I studied with him sounded like a Samuel Barber ripoff, and he helped me make it sound like a good ripoff. A teacher who teaches craft rather than creating clones is a rare teacher indeed, and Dr. Erb was the rarest of them all.
A few Erb stories…
In an interview many years ago, an executive from WCLV, the Cleveland classical music station, was asked why WCLV didn’t play more music by living composers. “Because composers today are speaking Swahili, and my listeners don’t understand Swahili,” was his response. Erb’s response? He had bumper stickers printed that read, “WCLV Sucks” — in Swahili.
Erb was always brutally, and occasionally painfully, honest, and he didn’t care whom he offended. He was once speaking to a colleague about a recent round of NEA grants, and the colleague told Erb that a certain famous female composer had been awarded $20,000 to compose a piece for an orchestra. “Her music is terrible,” was Erb’s response. “But the NEA just gave her $20 grand for a piece,” the colleague retorted. “Yeah, well that orchestra is going to get $20,000 worth of shit.”
For some inexplicable reason, every year while I was at the Cleveland Institute of Music, the school hosted a Darius Milhaud festival. (Milhaud was a French composer popular in the early-mid 1900’s.) I asked Dr. Erb at one lesson, “Dr. Erb, are you going to any of the Milhaud concerts?” I will never forget his response. “Of course not. John, Milhaud was a terrible, terrible composer. Even you are a better composer than Milhaud.”
We’ll miss you, Dr. Erb.