New Music Advocate Don Gillespie Steps Down At C. F. Peters



Don Gillespie
Photo by Sabine Matthes

In September, Don Gillespie stepped down from his post as Director of Copyright as well as Vice President and Director of the Board at the C.F. Peters Corporation, bringing to a close a career that has spanned 31 years. During that time, Gillespie established an outstanding reputation among friends and colleagues for the breadth of his knowledge, his editorial and musical skill, and his openness to new ideas in contemporary music.

Martha Hinrichsen, C. F. Peters’ President and CEO, has worked with Gillespie since he joined the company in 1970. “I think what our composers and everyone here who worked with him during the course of all these years has greatly respected in Don is his openness to various forms of contemporary music,” she says. “He was never locked into one school of contemporary music or [a definition of] what music was. He had a tremendous openness to musical expression and became a very, very close advocate of many of our composers, and they have developed deeply personal relationships with Don.”

Because of his interest in the Downtown music scene, Gillespie also provided a connection to “composers and musical expression that perhaps others at C. F. Peters didn’t who were very much connected to the Uptown school,” Hinrichsen notes. He was also instrumental in assisting with the preparation of manuscripts — the sale of which ultimately supported much of Peters’ contemporary music activity.

After so many years, he also carried a unique knowledge of how each of the departments in the company worked. Even later in his career, Hinrichsen says, “It wasn’t like he stayed in his corner and only did copyright. He had a real feel for the entire company. He still does.”

“As far as what I have always respected in Don is, I think, primarily his openness,” Hinrichsen emphasizes. “And people trusted him. They knew he was honest.”

Looking back

For his part, Gillespie is decidedly more reserved when assessing his career and achievements.

After a childhood spent in a small Georgia town, Gillespie studied piano at the University of Georgia, where he also picked up a master’s degree in musicology. He continued his studies at UNC Chapel Hill where he earned his doctorate in musicology. Completing his dissertation on experimental music of the 1920s and ’30s then required that he come to New York and have access materials in the New York Public Library.

“I had to find a job and, my goodness, I went all around,” Gillespie recalls. By chance, he says, he found a place at C. F. Peters. The head of the music division of the NYPL at that time, Frank Campbell, was a fellow North Carolina resident and offered to help him. “He picked up the phone and called Peters” and before Gillespie knew it he had a position in the company’s billing department.

He worked his way through the company’s ranks, eventually landing in what would become his specialization — copyright — in 1979.

Though Gillespie didn’t set out to be a company man, that serendipitous phone call set up a lifetime career. “I found it exciting,” Gillespie explains. “The association with all the composers, the concerts, the people that you got to know being involved in new music. I liked it a lot better than, say, going back to North Carolina and teaching.”

He also points out that “it was a very exciting time when I started there. Peters had just taken on George Crumb who was hardly known at that time. That coincides almost to the week to the time I started. Getting to know all these people and then musicologists and writers about music. I found it a lot of fun really.”

Recalling some of his proudest moments, Gillespie mentions several significant undertakings. While head of Special Editorial Projects for Peters, he says, “I was able to do a number of books and composer profiles” covering names such as Roger Reynolds and George Crumb. “I was the co-editor of the John Cage Reader and I was very proud of that. I was also proud of doing something for the New York Public Library called Democratic Souvenirs with Richard Jackson, head of the Americana division and a really fine scholar.” The installation, for which Gillespie was in-house editor, surveyed American music in the 19th century through music and essays.

Gillespie also penned a biography, The Search for Thomas F. Ward: Teacher of Frederick Delius (published in 1996 by the University Press of Florida), which he refers to as “a bit of an eccentricity.” Critics, however, praised his outstanding research and narrative abilities. In 21st CENTURY MUSIC, contemporary music scholar Richard Kostelanetz applauds the biography, calling it “a masterpiece of historical recreation — personal and yet factual, detailed and yet thorough.” Kostelanetz even goes so far as to declare, “Indeed, were I a professor of graduate musicology, this is the sort of book I would give to my best students as an example of how to do uniquely valuable scholarship with otherwise forgotten eminences. The awards this book did not receive upon publication are hereby discredited.”

Gillespie found that he was often drawn to the outsiders in music, especially John Cage. “Experimental music appealed to me very much and the idea of the outsider in music, the person who goes his own way. I think central to my whole career at Peters was the association with John Cage and with the Cage school.”

Cage’s relationship with C. F. Peters began in the 1960s — according to Gillespie, Cage picked the publisher out of the yellow pages one day and inside of a week the deal had been signed. Though Gillespie was never Cage’s editor, he frequently served as the company liaison with the composer. “Cage used to do a lot of composing at Peters,” Gillespie remembers. “And he was such a genial person, brought the sunshine with him. It was nice to be doing your business, filling orders, and there’s John Cage back there composing.”

Full of anecdotes about the legendary composer, Gillespie relates one that captures Cage’s personality. He remembers the day Cage brought a new score for Living Room Music to the C. F. Peters office and was asked how many copies he’d want for himself. “He was leaving on the elevator,” Gillespie says, “and he turned around and said, ‘None. I don’t have a living room.’ I’ll never forget that. Then he was gone. The elevator doors closed and everybody was laughing.”

Composer William Duckworth, who first met Gillespie in the late 1960s, remembers the “just amazing relationship” between Gillespie and Cage and credits him with helping to shape the direction of the editorial policy at C. F. Peters “so that people like Cage and that whole crew of experimental people had a home for quite a long time. Still do. It always had a reputation for being experimental, so it always went in that direction, but it was a direction that fit Don perfectly.”

When publishing got more conservative in the ’80s due to economic concerns, Duckworth says that Gillespie “was able to help keep the ship headed toward a more contemporary point than otherwise would have happened.”

Though Gillespie was never an editor at C. F. Peters, Duckworth says he was recognized as the company’s “new music” person. “Anybody who thought about new American music thought about Don in relation to Peters. The other people were very good, but Don… I think that one thing that made him stand out was that he was a good musician and he was also a good musicologist, so he came to this music both from the mind and from the heart.”

Looking forward

After thirty years in the business, Gillespie is leaving an industry very much in flux. “There’s no doubt [publishing] is changing very much,” he acknowledges. “I think the main area [of change] will be in rights — especially musical rights and the Internet, which is still being worked out. It’s an area that really has not come to any kind of clear definition.

“So in a way, I’m leaving at a breaking point. I feel closer to the print era. Publishing is going in a new direction,” he observes. But he’s content to see it develop without his input. Copyright issues in publishing will likely move to the fore due to new technologies, and though publishing companies have shown resistance to embracing them, “that’s why I think it’s important for the young people who really are totally versed in computer technology to come into this area.”

As for his own future, the musicologist and author in him won’t be retiring anytime soon. Gillespie has it in mind to tackle a biography of Alan Hovhaness next. He’s already made several trips to the West Coast to discuss the project, one that falls in line both with his interest in the work of composers on the West Coast looking east and his fascination with “outsider” composers. Hovhaness, he feels “hasn’t really gotten his proper attention, especially from the academic world. He had a very rich life in music here in New York and on the West Coast. I think he had a unique composing style, and he was very prolific. I think it would be exciting to do a serious book on him. I hope it will come about, but we’ll see.”

Meanwhile back at C. F. Peters, Gene Caprioglio, previously Logistics Manager and a staff member for more than 23 years, has taken over Gillespie’s duties as Rights/Clearance Director. Hinrichsen considers him “the perfect person to fulfill this core position” citing “his depth and breadth of musical knowledge (which also goes far beyond Peters) and his integrity, perseverance, and intelligence.”

But Gillespie’s influence won’t soon disappear from C. F. Peters. “His retirement is a tremendous loss for new music. And you know we’re all happy for him, and kind of sad for ourselves because of that,” Duckworth confesses, remembering “you would see him everywhere. He went to all the concerts. And so no matter what you went to, there was Don, both as a representative of Peters and as somebody who loved the music.”

Gillespie’s dedication to the music sets him apart in Duckworth’s mind. “He brought that love of music into working at Peters, so it was just always a pleasure to work with Don. Those of us who are at Peters really feel a tremendous sense of loss. I mean, they have good people there now and it’s not going to be a problem, but you can’t replace Don. You can have somebody come in and do the same work, but you can’t replace Don. He’s an institution.”