BY BECKI DEGEEST
For the full interview with Gwiazda, click here
Professors come and go at MSUM, some leaving behind traces of inspiration in the minds of the students they’ve taught. Dr. Henry Gwiazda is one such professor, and in a year when he retires, his creativity, inspiration and guidance will continue to linger within his students.
Gwiazda has put in more than three decades at MSUM teaching music composition, theory and pop rock courses. At work his students are his priority, but Gwiazda also spends a great deal of time outside of class on his own artistic work, which is equally important to him.
Gwiazda grew up in Connecticut and went to college for music composition in Hartford, N.Y. at the Eastman School of Music. Later, he would move on to do graduate work at the Hartt School of Music and complete his doctoral studies at the Cincinnati College Conservatory. After finishing his doctoral work, he was immediately hired to teach music composition at MSUM and began his journey as a professor. However, that was not the only journey he would take in his life.
“I’m the kind of professor that when I leave the place that I leave, I enter into my own professional world, and it works out well for me,” Gwiazda said. “When I come back (to MSUM) I’m able to give 100 percent … for (students), and when I leave it’s 100 percent for my artistic work.”
In the late 80s and 90s he spent time touring the country as an electronic musician, playing 40-50 shows a year. He said he has always thought of himself as a musician however, in the past couple decades he he’s related more to being an artist.
Since the 90s, his work has become more visual as he began working with virtual sound and virtual reality. Now he creates what is known as video art, an art form created through editing computer animation, film or any other type of moving visual medium.
“As I was experiencing these virtual reality works, I was exposed or introduced to computer graphics,” he said. “I bought one, a very cheap 8-bit graphics software program, just as an experiment and I got a feeling, and I hadn’t got that feeling since I was 16 years old, about music. And it scared me because I was going outside my comfort area.”
When he first began expanding to and exploring video art, he used computer graphics to create artistic pieces and said for him, it was a “big life change,” but it was also a natural one.
“I had been studying visual art prior to that for about 10 years, so I was already interested in it. I didn’t know at the time that I was sort of preparing for this. So, it seemed like a very natural evolution for me and I just kept going in that direction and found that it was really what I wanted to do. I then started to get screenings of my work internationally first and that’s really continued, and I have never looked back.”
He has had many influences throughout his life. When he was 12 years old he remembers listening to The Beatles frequently and credits them as an influence of not only his compositions, but of several other composers of that time period.
“In terms of video art, I suppose one of my favorite film makers is Russian, Andrei Tarkovsky and a French film maker, Jacques Tati. There are a couple of films I saw of his after I started my work that I’ve found a certain connection to,” Gwiazda said. “Almost anyone you could name, there is something about their work that I like.”
He says that he prefers to lecture, because lecturing is “like a performance.” However, he does not consider it his best teaching ability.
“What I am best at, I think, is the music composition lessons. But that’s also the most demanding, because you’re working with students who are trying to be creative and imaginative, and you don’t know what they’re going to bring you,” he said. “You have to listen and look at what they’re doing and try to say the right thing to them to help them. I realize very easily that one person can say the wrong thing or be taken the wrong way, and of course, that’s not what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m supposed to be helping.”
Music is still a large part of his life, especially with his teachings. However, he doesn’t listen to music nearly as often anymore because his art has changed.
“I think that it’s natural for a human being to get saturated at a certain point, and as long as they’re not cynical about it they can move onto something else,” Gwiazda said. “I think more years with yourself as a human is great, so that you can be more interested by all sorts of things and keep growing and expanding, which is the kind of model you want to set for students, and that’s what a university should be about.”
When he first came to MSUM, Gwiazda had just received his doctorate in music composition and began teaching right away. He always wanted to teach and was one of two in his class to actually receive teaching positions immediately following graduation.
“When I got (to MSUM) I found that I really liked the faculty and they were really enthusiastic about my work,” he said. “I was hired predominately because I think they wanted a composer, and they also wanted someone who had knowledge of popular music because they were beginning to get a lot of students who came from a rock’n’roll background.”
Since he began in the fall of 1981, he has watched the department change and grow and says he believes the talent of his students has also grown.
“I think the quality of the students has gotten better in terms of composition,” Gwiazda said. “I don’t know why that has been the case, but there has always been some really talented students who have come through here, and I’ve had a good opportunity to work with them.”
When he first thought of becoming a teacher, he was considering the practical side. It was a good way to sustain an income. He would later realize it was something he was naturally good at. He always did well in academic situations, whether it was teaching guitar when he was 15 years old, or in college when he was tutoring other students on music theory.
“A teacher is ‘here is a bunch of information that I have to communicate to people’ and I don’t really have that,” Gwiazda said. “The higher you get to the understanding of a subject matter, I think the more interesting it becomes. I don’t teach what people expect you to, but more what I think is important about that subject matter. ”
Next year, Gwiazda has big plans for his sabbatical as well as his retirement. Obviously his future holds the continuation of his art. “That won’t change,” Gwiazda said, but it will also include a new way of teaching. He plans on doing lessons and lectures using Skype and will be exploring that in his last year of teaching.
“I like the idea of my last year being a new year,” he said. “I’m exploring something new before I finish my years of teaching.”
Through the years he has enjoyed his time at MSUM and says that his favorite thing has been “working with the students I’ve worked with.” He also wants to remind students:
“Never lose sight of what you would really like to do, no matter how impossible it might seem. The people who don’t give up are the people who succeed.”