Composer Herbert Bielawa Dies

Janos Gereben on January 4, 2016
Herbert Bielawa, 1930-2015
Herbert Bielawa, 1930-2015

Herbert Walter Bielawa of Kensington, CA, died on Dec. 23, at age 85. A prolific composer and long-serving music professor at San Francisco State University, he was also active as a pianist and conductor. Bielawa is survived by his wife, pianist-organist-harpsichordist Sandra Ilona Soderlund; his two children, Bruce David Bielawa and Lisa Carol Bielawa; and two grandchildren, Caden James Bielawa and Ryan Cathleen Bielawa.

Bielawa was a professor for 25 years at SFSU, where he founded Pro Musica Nova, created the electronic music and computer music studios, and developed courses for them. Bielawa composed music for mixed instrumental ensembles, piano, harpsichord, pipe organ, choir, electronics, chamber opera, band, and orchestra.

His last and recently finished work, Drone on D, is on the March 14 program of Earplay; it is for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, and cello. His recently published memoirs are Enough About Me: Notes and Anecdotes from a Composer.

Peter Josheff — clarinetist, composer, and a founding member of Sonic Harvest and Earplay — worked with Bielawa on Drone on D:

When he finished the piece a few weeks ago, I went over to his and Sandra's home and looked through the score with him. It was nice to hang out with Herb, to feel his enthusiasm and what I always thought of as his innocent joy in creating music.

His studio was always very well-organized and he was in the process of archiving all of his scores, recordings, and writings. I admired Herb's integrity, industry, good humor, and humanity, and his strong, mutually-supportive partnership with his wife, and their family.

Soprano Susan Narucki said of Bielawa: "He had a profound effect on my life. He made me aware of what it means to be a musician of quality and helped me to take steps so that I could enter into that life."

Lisa Bielawa followed her father's passion and learned piano, voice, and violin, has a notable career as a composer and performer, won a 2009 Rome Prize, and became Artistic Director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, where she had sung as a young child.

Other Voices' Charles Amirkhanian, a friend and collaborator of both father and daughter, drew a parallel when commenting on Lisa's big 2013 Crissy Broadcast Project:

Lisa Bielawa's father Herb had organized a city-wide composition which, at the time was pretty astonishing. He linked up the electronic music studios of UC Berkeley, the San Francisco Conservatory, San Francisco State University, and radio station KPFA via high quality broadcast lines (expensive at the time) to do some interactive pieces with various composers.

The date was Feb. 23, 1974. Lisa (b. 1968) was a child, but maybe precocious enough to have been impressed by it all. In any case, Herb talked about it for years, and I'm sure she was very aware of how proud he was of the entire enterprise.

The year following the 1974 city-wide project, Bielawa became composer-in-residence for the San Francisco Summer Music Project, sponsored by the San Francisco Symphony and the S.F. School District.