Arts & Events

Julian White

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday July 28, 2006

Julian White, pianist, composer, speaker on music and the humanities, and piano teacher extraordinaire, who died at his Kensington home on June 23, will be celebrated in a memorial gathering this Sunday, July 30, 4-6 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, 1 Lawson Road in Kensington. 

The memorial will include some vocal compositions of White’s and an invitation for those present to share a brief vignette, up to three minutes. Written vignettes of any length are welcomed at 

Julian White was born in Chicago in 1930, and began studying piano at 5, giving his first recital at 6 and beginning to compose at 8. He graduated from the Julliard School of Music, settling in Berkeley in 1958, where he quickly established himself as a performer, teacher, lecturer and composer. 

White hosted music programs on KPFA-fm in the 1960s, and gave many lectures and seminars on music as self-knowledge, often sponsored by the Association of Humanistic Psychology and the C.G. Jung Institute, sometimes sharing the stage with Joseph Campbell, James Hillman and Robert Bly. 

His more formal teaching was at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, UC Berkeley, Cal State Hayward, Dominican College in San Rafael and Mills College in Oakland—and through master classes, seminars and private piano lessons. 

White’s compositions include two piano concertos and many works for solo piano, voice and piano, and chamber ensemble. They have been premiered in major American cities, including his “Piano Toccata” at Carnegie Hall. He composed ballets, including ballets for children: The Man Who Died (the title from D. H. Lawrence) was commissioned and performed by Berkeley Ballet Co. in 1985. Other pieces having a Berkeley premiere are “Parables for Chorus and Orchestra” (1992) and “The Children’s Hour,” a setting of seven texts for chorus, orchestra and mezzo-soprano (2001). 

His most recent commissioned work, “She Walks in Beauty,” Byron’s poem set for a cappella chamber singers, will be performed by the Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra in December. 

Of his playing, Charles Shere noted in the Oakland Tribune that White’s idiosyncratic treatment of the score had “something of the manner [in which] Mahler handles his themes, probing, extending, collapsing the metrical structure if it gets him to a more interesting part ... His audiences allow him every leeway because he has earned his own way ... But beyond this, White is a humanist. His playing suggests luminosity and power; his knowledge of the composition, and of the composer, and of the humanity the music participates in, is profound.” 

His influence on several generations of piano students has been a great one. Himself the student of several notable musicians, he singled out Egon Petri as his true mentor, speaking of him as his “healing teacher,” describing him in words similar to how his own students referred to his ability to liberate their instincts and artistry: “He basically said, without actually putting it into words, ‘You could use me in a pinch, but you have the capacity to figure all this stuff out yourself.’” 

But White did put it all into words as well, and strove to make his endeavors true collaborations, changing the traditional relationship between musician and listener, student and teacher, lecturer and auditor. 

“I am more and more turned off from those instances when the audience and the performer are deliberately set apart from each other with no exchange beyond applause and a fee,” he said. “The mystique of the 19th century concert setting is a totally unnatural way to enjoy music.” 

About the improvisational nature of creating, he said, “There’s a little match for a second. You don’t need a huge explosion to get the thing going. The tiniest little flicker is enough.” 

And on modern music: “Music, any art form, any metaphor, has to be bite-sized.” 

Catherine Framm, who now teaches and plays in Berlin, studied with White during the ’70s and ’80s, said: “I think of his teaching as ‘The Zen of Piano Playing.’ He had a way of making the really difficult simple. I’ve internalized that a lot, so, when I’m approaching a piece, I’m always asking myself, ‘Is this me? Is this Julian?’” 

Framm emphasized White’s teaching “being right there for each note, not striving forward for the next” and that “if a student could only play a piece at one speed, they could still make it an artwork.”  

Aaron Percefull, a student over the past two years, recalled his last lesson, about two weeks before White’s death: “He was using oxygen and very frail, but his mind was fine. He asked me to bring Chopin’s Etudes; I wasn’t anticipating that! Julian showed me very precisely the technique for three of them, then gestured towards the score and said, ‘One day you’ll say you play the piano and somebody will ask you to play ... they’ll be expecting ‘Elise’—and you’ll play this. Won’t they be surprised?’” 

White leaves his wife, Laurie Bates White of Kensington, nieces Margo Gallagher of Petaluma and Sarah Riccabona of Santa Cruz, nephews Matthew, Douglas and Joel White of Mill Valley and Petaluma, respectively, and eight grandnieces and nephews.