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James E. Sellars

1940 - 2017 Obituary Condolences
James E. Sellars Obituary

James Edward Sellars, the imaginative and original composer, outspoken commentator on music and art, and demanding but inspiring teacher of hundreds of students at the Hartt School, University of Hartford, died at his Hartford home on February 26, 2017. He was 76. In the last years of his life, he suffered from a degenerative nerve disease, which left him increasingly immobile and unable to read or listen to music, though he retained his incisive and sometimes cutting wit to the end. Sellars was born at the Sparks Memorial Hospital in Fort Smith Arkansas on October 8, 1940 to Wayne Edward Sellars and Omah Dodson Sellars. Known as "Buddy" to his friends and family until he was in his thirties, he was drawn to music at an early age. He remembered Beethoven's Fur Elise as an early favorite. When his father took him as a boy to a record store to buy his first record of classical music, he asked the clerk for something sad - the clerk recommended the Pathetique Symphony by Tchaikovsky, who remained a favorite composer of his for the rest of his life. In Fort Smith he studied piano with Ester Graham who recognized his musical talent and recommended that he study music composition. After high school, he moved to New York City. He first attended Julliard but quickly switched to the Manhattan School of Music where he studied with Ludmila Ulehla and David Diamond. During the 1960's he lived with his life partner Gary Knoble in Brooklyn Heights where, in addition to his musical studies, he was music critic for the Brooklyn Heights Press, choral director of the First Unitarian Congregation Society, and owner of a photographic studio on Montague Street. He took a Masters Degree in Music at Southern Methodist University and a PhD in Composition and Theory at the University of North Texas. In 1975 Sellars, Knoble, and their new partner Robert Black moved to Hartford, Connecticut. Sellars was music critic for the Hartford Courant in the late 1970's and early 1980's. In 1976, his First Piano Sonata won first prize at the Stroud Festival in Gloucestershire, England, where it was premiered by the British pianist Howard Shelley. Sellars began teaching composition and theory at the Hartt School in 1978 where he founded the Hartt Contemporary Players and eventually became the chair of the Composition Department. When Virgil Thomson won a Kennedy Center Award in 1983 he asked Sellars to conduct his Sonata da Chiesa at the awards ceremony. Openly gay from an early age, Sellars was an empathetic mentor to many of his gay students. His music was frequently presented in the early years of the experimental art space Real Art Ways, first located in Joseph Celli's loft in downtown Hartford. In 1984, at the closing outdoor gala concert of the New Music America festival on the grounds of the Old State House, the Hartford Symphony featured his Concertorama, a concerto for piano and orchestra with pianist Yvar Mikhashoff as soloist. Sellars' home was an artistic salon for his students, colleagues and friends with guests that included the musicians John Cage, Virgil Thomson, Ross Lee Finney, Brian Ferneyhough, Charles Wuorinen, Morton Feldman, Michael Barrett, Eleazar de Caravalho, and Leonard Bernstein. The pianist Yvar Mikhashoff, the conductors James Bolle and Michael Barrett, the writer Charlie Scheips, and the poets Jonathan Williams and Thomas Meyer, all indefatigable proponents of Sellars' music, were also frequent quests. His music was eclectic and original, labeled by some as post modern. His opera The World is Round, 1993 (based on a text by Gertrude Stein) received several performances at the Avery Theater in Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum. His other major pieces include Return of the Comet, 1986 (first performed by the London ensemble Spectrum); Afterwards, 1995 (a "re-composition" of the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony first performed by the New Hampshire Symphony); For Love of the Double Bass, 1983 (first performed by Sellars and Black at Real Art Ways); Beulah in Chicago, 1981(first performed at the Monadnock Music Festival in New Hampshire); Chanson Dada, 1979 (first conducted by Bolle at the Monadnock Music Festival and later by Lucas Foss at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and by Eleazar de Carvalho at the Memorial de America Latina in Sao Paulo, Brazil); August Week, 1982 (first performed at Sellars' 75th birthday celebration in 2015 at Hartt); Don't Stop, 1996 (first performed by the Bang on a Can All-Stars at Lincoln Center in New York City); Go, 1997 (first performed by the California EAR Unit); String Quintet, 1996 (first performed at the Monadnock Music Festival); Six Piano Sonatas, 1973-1986; and Haplomatics 1983-2014 (with images by the painter David Hockney). Thanks to Finn Byhard and a former student Thomas Schuttenhelm, his musical legacy is being well preserved. Sellars retired from the Hartt School in 2002. He is survived by his life partners Gary Knoble and Robert Black, as well as legions of devoted colleagues, students, and friends. At Sellars' request, no memorial service will be held but a concert in his honor is being planned for the fall.

Published in The Hartford Courant from Mar. 22 to Mar. 26, 2017
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