WHEN CHARLIE ROSE interviewed the late Time Magazine art critic Robert Hughes, he asked him what he looked for in art. Hughes responded, “coherency and intensity.” With the music of Joe Sekon, that’s what you get. And you also get it from his award-winning wines. Having just tasted his 2012 Vino Rosso, a blend of syrah, zinfandel and malbec, I can attest to it.
But in Sekon’s case, coherency and intensity should not be taken to mean easy. Both his wine and his music come with some challenges. The 2012 vintage demands a hearty meal to match its intense fruit and robust tannins. In equal measures, Sekon’s piano music is boldly original while recalling the example of the pioneering Henry Cowell and the unique piano roll compositions of Conlon Nancarrow. He cites the music of György Ligeti and Brian Ferneyhough as influences. Sekon’s pieces, many named after poems written by his piano-playing wife, Maria Davico, are driven and impulsive. A string of rapid static chords will seamlessly break off into a totally surprising new idea at a completely different tempo. Common scales and angular arpeggios can overlay one another. Quiet, tender musings are the exception to fast-paced fortes and fortissimos. Dissonances flavor the brew while consonants can hammer. At times, the tonal and the non-tonal flirt with potential mutual annihilation. No corner of the keyboard is safe from Sekon’s demonic imagination. And all of this energy contained within what other composers would consider miniature forms; the longest of several I’ve heard lasted eight minutes with the others less than five. Where the majority of Monterey Bay composers I’ve heard can’t conceal their reticent self-doubt, Sekon is fearless.
Sekon was born in Cleveland to parents immigrated before 1920 from what is now Slovakia but who only met in “maybe Scranton.” His father worked in the coal mines of Pennsylvania and later in the steel mills of Ohio. Joe Sekon took his Bachelor’s Degree in music at Kent State and completed his DMA in 1975 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Sekon has two older siblings. Growing up he says of his family, “work was more important than education.” His father played violin and his mother “loved to sing.” With parental support, he took piano lessons “when I was a kid” and dabbled on the accordion. “My father loved the violin and serious music, which was always a part of my life.” He attended two Catholic schools, a Dominican elementary and Benedictine high school. “When I left school to follow my friends my education crashed. In public high school they were still counting on their fingers.” He quit school as a junior and joined the navy. “I went down the West Coast to Chile,” he recalls. Leaving the service he was advised by a friend, “Joe, we have to go to school.” His education resumed at the Cuyahoga Community College, the first of its kind in Ohio. “I was working at a record store and studying piano. I listened to everything. Karl Haas’ Adventures in Good Music radio show was like lighting a candle in the dark.” At Kent State Sekon started to write serious music for small ensembles, including a quintet and a song cycle. At UI he composed works for orchestra.
In 1976, Sekon received a job offer from New York University. At the same time, he got a call from UC Santa Cruz saying they wanted him. “So I carefully weighed the options and decided California would be better for me than New York.” When he called NYU with his decision, the person there said, “If I were in your shoes, I’d go to California.”
The year after joining the faculty at UCSC, Proposition 13 was passed into California law, ending Sekon’s position there in 1979. “Last in, first out.” He was hired by Cabrillo College in ‘80 and “the same thing happened again.” His work was reduced to just two days a week. In the mid-1980s, Sekon became the father of his third (of four) sons, Joey, who, at 10 months of age, suffered an internal injury that resulted in permanent brain damage and need for round the clock care. “I’m his caregiver,” and though he cannot speak, “he’s my financial adviser, my legal advisor.”
Sekon began making wine in 1975 with “great success.” His 2008 syrah won double gold at an Orange County competition. He has taught wine making at Monterey Peninsula and Cabrillo colleges. Meanwhile, Sekon continues to teach and tutor music theory one day a week at Cabrillo, tailored to each student. “I make it simple for them.”
A “beautiful” opportunity showed up in the mid-‘90s when Sekon received an invitation from the music department of the Federal University of Bahia in Salvador, Brazil. He taught theory, analysis and composition there for three years. “I was the guy who helped young composers dot their ‘i’s and cross their ‘t’s.” That included making sure the students “know what each instrument can do, and understand intervals and harmonics.” While there, he met Davico; they were married in 2001.
In many ways, Joe Sekon is enjoying the best time of his life. “In the last year I’ve had five world premieres, including the string quartet played last season in Santa Cruz by the Del Sol Quartet and a piano solo piece in the Music from Almost Yesterday series at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. He launched his Aptos Keyboard Series in May 2015 when the Czech pianist Veronika Boehmova premiered another piece. On September 20 the second in the recital series included two more premieres by Anna Dmytrenko. (See Richard Lynde’s review at our Music Reviews page.) “Both promised me the same thing, ‘I will pick a piece that is nearest to me.’”
Photo by rr jones