Curt White

“What goes around comes around.” Distinguished Professor Curt White experienced the symphonic version of that adage as the Illinois State University Symphony Orchestra took part in his distinguished professorship lecture on April 23.

White and everyone at the free event heard the world premiere of the concert drama “Heretical Songs,” composed by Boston composer and choral director William Cutter and based on a 1975 Curtis White short story. Glenn Block conducted the orchestra and the vocal soloists were baritone John Koch, mezzo-soprano Debra Austin, and tenor Tim Hollingsworth of the School of Music faculty. Kim Pereira of the School of Theatre was the narrator.

White, named a distinguished professor in 2007, was only 25 when he wrote one of his first published works, “Mahler’s Last Symphony,” which appeared in Southwest Review and in 1981 in his book, “Heretical Songs.” In the 1980s, Cutter, who was a graduate student at Boston University College of Fine Arts, happened to read White’s historical fiction and asked permission to use it as the basis for his concert drama.

“The story is a fictionalized version of the rumors regarding Mahler and his wife, Alma, especially speculation about Alma’s infidelities,” White said. “It also has a crazed character, Rott Krisper, who is loosely based on Mahler’s friend, fellow composer, and lunatic Hugo Wolff. The story is divided into four ‘movements,’ its prose is very musical and its structure symphonic in that it tries to slowly move toward a kind of crescendo of emotions and language.”

“The story means absolutely nothing,” White said. “It has no themes at all. None of the characters are realistic. It attempts to achieve an intensely emotional state in exactly the same way that music does. But of course we don’t know how music achieves its emotional content. It is pure, blissful play set on the field of human pain.”

In addition to Cutter’s “Heretical Songs,” the orchestra began the concert with Brahms Symphony No. 3 in F major and closed the evening with Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. They also performed Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder,” featuring Koch and Pereira. The event was sponsored, in part, by the Illinois State University Sage Trust.

White, who attended San Lorenzo, Calif., public schools and the University of San Francisco, was deeply influenced by the counterculture of the 1960s, by the anti-war movement and by the psychedelic art/music scene in San Francisco in the late ’60s. He attended the Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University and was coached in fiction writing by novelist John Barth. White then went to the University of Iowa and received his Ph.D. At Iowa he studied with Gayatri Spivak, the leading American expert on the philosophy of Jacques Derrida. Barth and Spivak provided the two poles for White’s work throughout his career, first as a novelist and later as a cultural critic.

White joined the Illinois State faculty in 1980. He has published 11 books and more than 100 stories, essays and reviews. Notable among his works of cultural criticism are “The Middle Mind,” “The Spirit of Disobedience” and the forthcoming “The Barbaric Heart.” He also has published frequently in Harper’s Magazine, Orion, The Village Voice and Playboy.

Composer William Cutter currently is director of choral activities at MIT and a director of choral ensembles at the Boston Conservatory. He is assistant to John Oliver for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, where he has prepared the chorus for recording sessions and television tapings for Keith Lockhart, John Williams and the Boston Pops.