The Magazine of South Carolina

More Than Meets the Ear

Columbia musician/arranger/educator Dick Goodwin earns new recognition as a composer.


   Goodwin backstage before performing with The Palmetto Mastersingers

Goodwin at the piano

Goodwin at the computer

Goodwin in performance attire with The Palmetto Mastersingers

Article by Lynn Nickles, Photos by Michael Seeley

While Dick Goodwin was sifting through quotations of Mark Twain for his recent composition "Mark Twain Remarks," he came across the saying, "One cannot tell about music so that another person can get the feeling of it." That being true, it is impossible to describe the swell of orchestra and men’s voices touting "the power of music" or imitating the "chocolate stream" of the Mississippi River. It is hard to explain the quiet calm of a jazz piano piece Goodwin wrote for his wife’s birthday. Still, Goodwin thinks talking about music serves "a great purpose in that people have more to listen for."

Recipient of the 2001 Elizabeth O’Neill Verner award for individual artist—the highest honor the state gives to recognize exceptional achievement in the arts—Gordon "Dick" Goodwin has given audiences gracious plenty to listen for in recent months. He debuted several major compositions in the 2001 season even before the Verner awards ceremony was held May 9 at the State House.

First, the University of South Carolina presented his "Overture 1801–2001" during its January kickoff of the university’s bicentennial. The South Carolina Philharmonic Orchestra and The Palmetto Mastersingers premiered "Mark Twain Remarks." The Philharmonic played "Fanfare’s Last Stand," the final in a series of millennium fanfares the group commissioned. And the Carolina Chamber Players performed a piece for woodwind quintet called "Boop Music," patterned after the old Betty Boop cartoons. (The USC Faculty Quintet will perform "Boop Music" in its fall concert series.) Goodwin also wrote a bicentennial piece for the City of Sumter.

Long known for his work as a jazz trumpeter, he recently produced an album with the popular Dick Goodwin Quintet called "Studio Time"—the group’s first release since the late 1970s. It has varied musical styles: Dixieland, Latin and, of course, jazz. Goodwin is part owner of a recording studio but rarely finds time to use it himself. "I’m like the cobbler who doesn’t have shoes," he laments good-naturedly.

Since retiring from full-time teaching at the University of South Carolina in 1999, Goodwin has been devoting most of his time to orchestral compositions commissioned by local and national groups. Credited with creating the state’s only doctoral degree in music composition, he still works with a number of doctoral candidates at USC and shares an office with his wife Winifred, the university’s staff accompanist and a member of the South Carolina Philharmonic Orchestra and Carolina Chamber Players.

Born in Missouri on the banks of the Mississippi River, Goodwin has written and arranged music in almost every conceivable genre and medium since he was in high school. Most of the cheers and fight songs the Carolina marching band plays at football games are Goodwin’s arrangements, and he has written for symphonic band, chorus and chamber music ensembles. He writes original music for documentary films and had several orchestral pieces debut this summer at a folk festival in Texas.

Yet, Goodwin understands why he has become more visible as a composer only recently. Even neighbors who might catch a strain of trumpet or piano music while passing his Columbia home tend not to know he spends months working on a new composition in his studio, unless they happen to attend a performance featuring his work.

"Dick Goodwin could be taken as a fellow who just plays at dances," says tenor Charlie Jones, a founding member of The Palmetto Mastersingers. Goodwin’s band, he adds, is "such a masterful group" that the leader could have made a living playing jazz in a city like Hollywood or New York. Happily, Jones notes, Goodwin was happy to stay in South Carolina. The composer is "so easy to talk with and easy to be around, you wouldn’t know he had such depth of talent," Jones observes. "He has the depth of a classic composer and is very studious in his research."

It is no coincidence that Goodwin’s most devoted fans are those who get to play or sing his music. They are at the top of the hierarchy of people he tries to please when composing.

"I really feel like my obligation is first to the performers," Goodwin says. "It tempers the way I write, because I put faces on the parts. You know, it’s not ‘Clarinet II,’ it’s ‘John Bittle,’ and I know who that is. I think most composers will tell you they must first satisfy their own muse or something like that. But I just don’t approach it that way. My first obligation is to the players, and next to the audience. The reason why the audience is second is that they don’t spend nearly as much time with the piece as the players do."

Goodwin certainly cares that listeners come away with something they find moving. He also is sensitive to the opinions of his fellow composers, who empathize with the tedious nature of the craft and can judge whether a piece is well made.

Pieces like "Mark Twain Remarks" and "Overture 1801–2001" are rich in orchestral effects and beautiful leitmotifs. What really sets his works apart, though, is Goodwin’s ability to give every musician an opportunity to make a notable contribution to the performance of each piece. "I really do go through each part and say, ‘Have they contributed something that only they can do?’ " Goodwin explains. "I love writing for orchestra, because there are not just so many colors, there are so many personalities."

SC Philharmonic tuba player Ron Davis—also a professor at USC—is one of those personalities. He compares Goodwin to Mozart, as historians note that Mozart would write music that the players really enjoyed performing. The "Mark Twain" piece has a lot of exposed tuba in it, Goodwin points out, because Davis is "a wonderful player." Goodwin remembers that Davis called him after the performance to say, "I really wanted to thank you for that part. People have said to me, ‘I knew that you played in the orchestra and I’ve seen you, but this is the first time I’ve really heard you.’ "

Goodwin is grateful to his first band and orchestra directors for giving him a chance to try his hand at arranging and composing music. "They were willing to invest that time. They knew it was going to be a shambles, but they gave me the benefit of the doubt and programmed the things. And I guess they worked well enough."

One band director gave Goodwin a pile of jazz band scores by a local arranger. "That was the most thrilling thing to me to have those penciled scores," Goodwin says. It was the genesis of his education, which ultimately led to his earning a master’s degree and a doctorate in theory and composition from the University of Texas.

Before starting college, however, Goodwin joined the United States Coast Guard. Shortly after he volunteered to write an arrangement of a Marine retreat and bugle call that a Coast Guard admiral wanted the band to play, Goodwin became assistant band director, then director. He served in that role for the next four years.

Goodwin chose the University of Texas at Austin for his studies because a leading expert in orchestral composition was on the faculty. Ultimately, Goodwin joined the faculty himself, becoming what colleague Bill Moody calls "an inspiring and almost magical teacher of music theory and composition."

When Moody became chair of the music department at the University of South Carolina in 1973, he asked Goodwin to join him. Eventually, according to Moody, "he attracted more graduate students to USC than any other faculty member by far." In his introduction of Goodwin at the Verner awards ceremony, Moody said, "Dick is the most versatile, hard-working, prolific and unassuming musical genius you are likely to ever meet."

As a distinguished professor emeritus, Goodwin can be a bit of a maverick composer. But he has earned respect within both artistic and academic circles, and he glides effortlessly between the two camps as the need arises. "I think that academic music trails," he maintains. "For a while, it was kind of the leading edge, but it tends to be very conservative. So I think that what we’re necessarily teaching in college is not where it’s at right now. Well, we do call it a conservatory—we’re conserving old practices. What’s happened in the last decade or so is that composers have gotten more interested in trying to communicate with audiences. For a while, we tended to write music that was very difficult, that was as much for the eye as for the ear. We were fascinated with process and not as much with the product. I can say this because I’m guilty, too; I’m not just insulting other guys in colleges. I think we’ve all gotten more interested in communicating, and the music has gotten much more eclectic."

Another quotation of Twain, incorporated into the first movement of "Mark Twain Remarks," addresses that issue: "I’ve been told that Wagner’s music is much better than it sounds." Goodwin takes the hint with his new compositions in more ways than one. He was familiar with the prelude to Richard Wagner’s "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg." When he conducted the university orchestra’s performance of it some years ago, he recalls, "I didn’t even get the score to it. I just did things that struck my ear."

Goodwin, who confides, "I’d like to have written something that’s in the literature," has taken several steps closer to that goal this year. In upcoming seasons, audiences in South Carolina and across the country will continue to find that there is much more to Dick Goodwin than meets the ear.


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