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Jerry Bilik on the transformative power of music

Left: Jerry Bilik as an Interlochen camper in 1947 (a teenage boy holds a trombone and is writing on a music score); Right: Jerry Bilik conducting in 2017
Left: Jerry Bilik as an Interlochen camper in 1947 (credit Interlochen Center for the Arts)
Right: Jerry Bilik conducting in 2017 (credit Chris Scarlett Photography)

The nonagenarian composer reflects on a life in music that took him from the woods of Interlochen to the marching band field of the University of Michigan to the ice arena and everywhere in between.

In 1947, a 13-year-old boy from New Rochelle, NY came to Interlochen's National Music Camp because he was entranced by a photo of a young female harpist in the camp's brochure.

Jerry Bilik didn't find the harpist that summer, but he did find a love of music that transformed his entire life.

He originally enrolled in a music composition course because the classroom's windows had a clear view of the girls' tennis courts.

After hearing a performance of Mozart's Requiem that summer, Bilik fell in love with the power of music and decided to dedicate himself to it. He stopped looking out the windows during composition class and starting learning how to write music.

As a college student, Bilik served as the chief composer and arranger for the University of Michigan Marching Band, which was quite a step up from being the seventeenth trombone (out of 18) in the marching band.

His "Block M" march, composed in 1955, is regularly ranked among band directors' and composers' favorite marches.

Throughout his professional career, Bilik has parlayed his composition and arrangement skills into everything from television to figure skating to magic shows. He worked on music production staff for hit TV shows like "Charlie's Angels" and spent decades as a creative director for Disney on Ice.

Now 90, Bilik remains an active composer and researcher. This year, he published a book about his former teacher Tibor Serly and Serly's original compositional method called "Modus Lascivus." He's also still creating arrangements for the University of Michigan Marching Band.

Bilik recently spoke to Classical IPR about his life in music so far (he still has a lot of things left to do).

Excerpts of the interview are transcribed below. They have been edited for length and clarity.

On what brought him to Interlochen

The band director had posted an advertisement about Interlochen in our band room in New Rochelle High School. I was very much taken by the beautiful picture of the lake, and the pine trees and the blue skies. And it happened there was quite a lovely young woman playing the harp in the middle of the picture.

I wasn't good at anything except music. I was horrible at sports, but I did love music and I would sit for hours, playing and improvising on the piano. My parents thought Interlochen might be useful - maybe I would get some discipline or something.

I was the nerd of nerds, I was totally incompetent and insecure. And Interlochen changed all that.

The Intermediate band at Interlochen's National Music Camp in 1947
Interlochen Center for the Arts
The Intermediate band at Interlochen's National Music Camp in 1947

On how he got interested in composition at Interlochen

I was thinking about harp players, and I wasn't thinking about composition. But they announced a composition class that would take place in I-10, and I remembered that building was right next to the girls' tennis courts. So I took the class and sat looking out the window for the first few days, at least.

And this is where the magic of Interlochen took hold, because they took us to a concert of Mozart's Requiem in the Interlochen Bowl. It was the Festival Choir, conducted by Maynard Klein.

About halfway through, they were doing a section of the Requiem called the Recordare. I can't really tell you why or how it happened, but I had a metamorphosis. I was completely carried away by the music physically. I can't describe it. I was stunned by how it had affected me. It was a transformative experience.

And I said, if Mozart could do to someone what he just did to me, I am going to spend the rest of my life trying to do that to other people because it was not only transformative, but it was so elevating and so ennobling. The next day in class, I started writing. I said, I've got to try to do this.

On becoming the chief composer and arranger for the University of Michigan marching band in the 1950s

I enrolled at Michigan because Maynard Klein, who was the choral director here at Interlochen, was at Michigan, and I enrolled in music education specifically to become a high school choir director. I didn't even know anything about the marching band.

In the marching band, I was the seventeenth trombone out of 18. I wasn't last, I was next-to-last. Every time the conductor [William Revelli] would point to me, he'd call me Dave Green, which was the name of the sixteenth trombone. He didn't even know my name.

So when he announced that the band's arranger had gone to the Air Force Band and asked if anyone knew how to arrange, I raised my hand. I thought I'd earn some brownie points, and maybe he'd know my name.

On his relationship with William Revelli, the longtime director of the Michigan Marching Band

I didn't know who he was when I got there. I remember going in to play for him, and he was absolutely terrifying. I was so scared.

The irony is that I ended up essentially becoming his surrogate son. Over the years we became so close that we actually became like family. And I learned to respect him. A lot of the people at Michigan could never get over his toughness, but he was totally dedicated to making each of his students excel to the absolute limit of their ability.

After Revelli had retired and was quite elderly, I said, you know, I've done a thousand arrangements, but I've never done one for you specifically. What would you like? And he said, what I would really like you to do is an arrangement of the music from Puccini's "La bohème." I go, Oh my God, an opera, and nobody's going to sing. But he said it was his absolute favorite piece in the whole world.

I actually was able to get permission from Riccordi, which is amazing, because they're a very tough publisher, and they published it. He heard it very shortly before he passed away, and he was very moved.

On his compositional philosophy

One thing I learned from [Interlochen's founder] Joe Maddy is that you can't approach a piece as a throwaway. You can't approach it as a performer, and certainly not as a composer. I don't think I ever wrote something that I wasn't really invested in. It had to work, it had to move people like the Mozart Requiem did for me. I don't ever think I come even within a universe of Mozart, but that has been my objective in every arrangement and every piece I've written.

I'm not after effects. I'm after an emotional response.

On his time as creative director for Disney on Ice

They [the executives for Disney on Ice] asked me to do the music for a show where Disney characters skated. I said their idea was all wrong, that children are going to come and expect a story. They're not going to expect Mickey Mouse doing axles and toe loops.

I said, I'd like to take all those individual numbers and turn them into a story, like Pinocchio gets lost in Disneyland and everyone's looking for him in all the different lands. At the end, they'll find him, and the kids will be happy. At first the executives were reluctant, but they said they'd try it.

The people selling concessions were furious at first because the kids were sitting in their seats watching the show instead of running up and down the aisles buying candy and souvenirs. The producer said, just wait until intermission - and they all came flying out buying things.

From then on, I was allowed to write an original story for each show. The second show I did was called "The Great Ice Odyssey," and the evil queen Maleficent captured Cinderella and put her in an ice block.

The skaters were so dedicated. When we did Beauty and the Beast, that Beast costume weighed 85 pounds, and here he was doing jumps and leaps. The people in the characters, like Mickey and Minnie and Donald, they have these big fiberglass heads on and had to convince the audience that they were talking.

They did 13 shows a week, and they were so honest. They knew that for each show, it was the opening night for those people in the audience. We knew that we were giving the audience a genuine experience.

Additional support for this interview came from Eileen Ganter.

Dr. Amanda Sewell is IPR's music director.