In the history of obscure art there are many causes for obscurity. Some art is difficult to understand. Some art is under-promoted. Some art is simply poorly made. And some artists are cut short before their time. And the latter case is the most unfortunate, because in many cases advocates must work much harder for much little product, not all of which may be fully developed. Today I’m speaking of Monroe Couper, who as of this writing may only be remembered for one recording of one piece.
Monroe Couper was born in Waynesboro, VA, and was on the faculty at Kingsborough Community College as Associate Professor of music from 1980 until his death. He had an orchestral work of his, In Memoriam, performed by the Prague Symphony Orchestra. In 1994, he went on a mountain climbing trip with his friend Eric Lattey on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. Couper had been trained in mountaineering and ice climbing, and broke off from a larger group in order to reach the peak. Unfortunately, Mt. Washington is notorious for quickly changing weather. When the search party found the two the next morning, they had frozen to death. None of Couper’s pieces had been published. This recording, his obituary, and various articles on the accident are all that publicly remain of his existence.
I don’t believe in precognition or omens, and I’m loathe to give much credit to writers who see certain artworks as anticipating major world events or personal tragedies. However, the subject of Couper’s last piece is too eerie to ignore. In Memoriam was inspired by two Angolan refugees who were starving to death; my limited information prevents me from knowing how he came across them. It’s an arresting work, highly reminiscent of Carl Ruggles, an unprolific but extraordinary composer whose compositional language is so emotionally intense and harrowing it evokes nothing less than the War in Heaven in my mind. Couper’s swan song is also borne of a deep anguish, and like Ruggles’s pieces is not very long (under 6 minutes, quite short for an orchestral piece). He evidently put a great deal of thought into the piece, and the result is both economical and shoots straight to the heart.
I’m offering this work not just as a memorial for Couper, but also as a charge for my fellow musicians. The loss of Monroe Couper to the music world is one I’m unable to judge but feel is greater than we can tell from this lone work. It’s possible that he’ll only be remembered as one of the many victims of Mt. Washington, one of the deadliest peaks of North America. And the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t take an untimely death to lose an artist’s œuvre. If any of my readers have more information on Couper I’d love to see it, but there are countless more composers who need our help. I’m sorry that this post is a morbid one, but I feel that I couldn’t let it slide, and I hope that I’ll be able to uncover more of Couper’s works in the future. And in the meantime, here's to considerate YouTubers.
Couper's obituary: http://www.nytimes.com/1994/03/05/obituaries/monroe-couper-40-composer-and-teacher.html
Yankee Magazine article on the accident: http://new.yankeemagazine.com/article/fatal-attraction
National Geographic article on the accident: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/0411/excerpt13.html