David Maslanka, a Missoula-based composer whose work was performed and revered around the world, died Monday night at his home in Missoula from colon cancer. His wife, Alison Matthews, died only a month earlier on July 3 from kidney failure.
The prolific 73-year-old composer wrote more than 150 pieces in his lifetime, including nine symphonies (he was at work on his 10th) and a Requiem Mass, in addition to chamber music and smaller ensemble pieces and solo works.
"In the wind ensemble world, he is definitely one of the leading composers worldwide," said Tom Cook, retired chair of the music department at the University of Montana.
Cook, a friend of 35 years who conducted Maslanka's music for the UM band, said it possessed an "intellectual and musical and spiritual depth. His music was original, but at the same time drew upon previous compositional styles.''
As he described it, Maslanka would begin his day playing and studying Bach and use it to "leap off into new sounds and new directions in his music." That music was included on more than 50 albums, many of which were dedicated solely to his work.
Over the past quarter-century, Maslanka reached that stature from here in Missoula, an unlikely home-base for a Massachusetts native and Oberlin College Conservatory graduate.
His daughter, Kathryn Maslanka, recalled how her father had just received a tenured teaching position in New York and was faced with a choice: whether he wanted to teach full-time or compose full-time. Although he was relatively unknown at the time, he and his wife decided to take the risk.
They wanted to move to the Pacific Northwest, and took a road trip through Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming to find a new home. They liked Missoula. They rented a house and a U-Haul and, in 1991, brought their three children, Kathryn, Matthew and Stephen out West.
"It's an enormous leap of faith. It worked out," she said.
Maslanka will be remembered as one of the finest composers of his generation, said Fern Glass Boyd, the artistic director of the String Orchestra of the Rockies. She said Missoula was "very, very lucky to have him in our midst," although he lived somewhat anonymously outside of the music community.
Locally, the SOR, a professional ensemble, commissioned a piece from him in the 1990s and premiered it here. The UM Wind Ensemble and Hellgate High School Band also have performed his works. Beyond Montana's borders, he was invited to places like Portugal and Japan, where he was provided with drivers, and where fans solicited autographs.
Notably, Maslanka didn't support his personal works by taking an academic position or writing commercial music. His compositions were in such high demand in the concert world that "he was able to exist on commissions, and there's very, very few people who can do that," Boyd said.
"He didn't want to lose his soul, as he put it," Kathryn said. "He never touched a film score or wrote a jingle or anything like that."
She said her parents had "absolute faith that this was going to be the right way to go."
Alison Matthews worked as a financial planner for the first few years they lived in Missoula, and then was able to shift to applying that monetary acumen to managing the Maslanka household. "It was her brains and his creativity that made it work," Kathryn said. They bought a house after a year in Missoula and lived there ever since.
The property afforded Maslanka a studio where he could write every day. He was fond of taking walks in the morning. He followed the mindfulness teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, and viewed walking as a form of meditation that could aid his composition if he was stuck.
Kathryn said he was a spiritual person, but not in a dogmatic way. She said he was quiet and thoughtful, with a "very quick mind and a very dry sense of humor," particularly with wordplay and puns.
Beyond his musical passions, he liked taking the dog for walks up Blue Mountain. They kept horses at their house, too. When he couldn't write, he would fill sketchbooks with chalk and oil pastels. They were drawings of "ideas or feelings while he was trying to get the music to come out," she said.
Instead of notepaper, she recalls that he would take 8 1/2-by-11-inch paper, usually with score scribblings on one side, and rip that into quarters to take notes on, "all these little ideas and musical notes and bits, and all those little bits turned into symphonies."
On his website, there's an email exchange with a 12th-grade student who asked him about inspiration.
He replied, "All of experience is the filter through which the impulse to compose makes its way. That impulse comes from a place well beyond my conscious mind. I think of it as universal mind. This is not something apart from us but the very core of who we are. I am moved to compose when people ask me for music. It is my work to find the flow from universal mind that meets the need of the people asking for music. I guess that that can be called inspiration."