Tar Heel of the Week: J. Mark Scearce’s talents encompass music, teaching, composing

CorrespondentApril 20, 2013 

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Dr. J. Mark Scearce, director of the music department at N.C. State University, at Broughton Hall. Scearce was recently commissioned to write an opera for the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York City.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • J. Mark Scearce

    Born: Oct. 9, 1960, Kirksville, Missouri.

    Residence: Raleigh.

    Career: Director, Music Department, N.C. State University.

    Education: B.A. Music, concentration in theory, B.A. Philosophy and Religion; B.M. Horn Performance, Northeast Missouri State University (earned concurrently); M.M. and D.M degrees in Composition, Indiana University.

    Awards and honors: Composer of the Year, N.C. Chapter of the Music Teachers National Conference, 2013; appointed to the executive council of the Academy of Outstanding Faculty Engaged in Extension, 2012; Raleigh Medal of Arts for Lifetime Achievement, 2010; Raymond and Beverly Sackler Prize in Music Composition, 2009.

    Fun Fact: Scearce says he was Missouri State Rifle Champion when he was 12 years old. He participated in annual contests for years as a youth and was a good shot, but he did not pursue the hobby as an adult.

— In Birkenstocks, shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, with a perpetual smile and a take-nothing-seriously manner, J. Mark Scearce does not fit the stereotype of the classical composer.

Raised in a tiny Missouri town by a blue-collar family, high culture wasn’t exactly his home turf.

But the 52-year-old director of N.C. State University’s music department is, as he says, “the real deal” – a working classical composer who has written more than 60 pieces over 30 years, including numerous collaborations with the N.C. Symphony and the Carolina Ballet.

Scearce was recently commissioned to write a full opera by the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York City – a massive undertaking that puts him among a tiny group of composers nationwide working on commissioned pieces.

In nine years at N.C. State, Scearce, whose last name is pronounced “scarce,” has worked to grow and strengthen the music program, promoting music as a way to foster the creative process even among students who aren’t musicians.

He was recently awarded a tenured position in the School of Design at N.C. State, an unusual appointment that will allow him to share his love of music with students in new ways.

“It is important to me that my music be useful to my community,” says Scearce, “not perceived as some elitist activity nor as entertainment, but as a philosophy of living in sound.”

Grant Llewellyn, conductor of the N.C. Symphony, says Scearce is a skilled composer who enjoys an international reputation. But he is also devoted to promoting the arts in North Carolina – using his unusually outgoing personality to both create and advocate for music.

“He’s special, and we’re lucky to have him here,” Llewellyn says. “He speaks passionately and articulately not just about his music, but music in general. He’s a great spokesman for what we do.”

An instinct for music

Scearce is the eldest son of a factory worker and a mechanic. He grew up in Kirksville, Mo., a county of about 20,000 people.

His family had been farmers before that, and he remembers riding on tractors, fishing, and chewing on fresh wheat at his grandparents’ farm.

His talent for music came as an utter shock. He was in fifth grade at a session to introduce students to instruments when he picked up a trumpet and started playing it.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘How do you know how to do this?’” Scearce says.

His parents had little interest in music, but they fostered his unexpected talent. He played trumpet and French horn in the school band, and wrote some jazz pieces while still in high school.

Scearce played at weekly church music sessions, and took lessons with anyone in town who could teach him. He eventually drove as far as St. Louis, four hours away, for instruction.

“It was not a popular or understood phenomenon that this kid hears music,” he says. “Because I had this talent, though, I was railroaded into music at a young age.”

When it came time for college, the expectation that he would study music weighed on him, and he initially chose to study other topics.

But he came back to music, and ended up graduating with a triple major in music theory, horn performance, and religion and philosophy.

He says the varied training has helped him over the years. He has composed pieces inspired by world religions, and he teaches courses with a philosophical bent for nonmusicians.

He wrote his first classical piece in college, and that composition won a contest put on by the Chicago Brass Quintet. In graduate school, he chose to focus on writing music over performance.

After graduation, Scearce taught at universities in Ohio, Hawaii and Texas, taking occasional time off to compose.

He first came to North Carolina in the early 1990s as a composer in residence at N.C. State. He returned to the state a few years later, spending a three-year grant period composing from a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

He was at the University of Southern Maine when he heard about the opening at N.C. State. He jumped at it.

‘Stewing’ before writing

Heading the music program at a school known more for engineering and agriculture is perhaps not the most glamorous job; N.C. State does not even offer a major in music.

Scearce admits the department was “a little sleepy” when he arrived. But he liked the idea of making an impact in a smaller program, comparing his time in large programs to working in a factory.

He came to N.C. State with plans to move the department from the Price Music Center, which he believes is inadequate, to a new building. But without funding for new facilities, he has built the program in other ways.

He’s grown the program to 10 faculty members who all hold doctorate degrees, including one who is an expert in arts entrepreneurship, a new and popular minor that the department added.

The department now offers 90 courses and runs 18 ensembles. It grew from one to five jazz ensembles.

And he’s worked to extend the influence of music from its most visible form – the marching band – to other parts of academic life.

Scearce sees music as a way to enhance creative thinking among students who are often adept at more technical topics.

“I’m not really teaching music,” he says of many of his classes. “I’m teaching the creative process using music as a metaphor.”

His own creative process involves months – for the opera, perhaps even a year – of “stewing,” followed by a brief period of furious writing, a habit that has earned him a reputation for composing at amazing speeds.

“I don’t sit down to write till I’ve thought the thing through and I know where it’s going to go,” he says. “People will think I wrote a ballet in two weeks, but I thought about it for six months.”

A year ago, he took a sabbatical to write a two-hour mass and a symphony, which are both under consideration by the N.C. Symphony.

In December, he got the call asking him to write an opera based on the book “Falling Angel” by William Hjortsberg for the Center for Contemporary Opera. It will be his first opera, and his largest undertaking yet as a composer.

Scearce says his job allows him to enjoy several roles: the introverted composer, the jovial professor, and the administrator and salesman who promotes his own work and his department.

“When I’m engaged in this process, cooking with gas, there will be nothing else,” he says of his composing. “But the other side helps me be an effective teacher and helps me sell my wares, so to speak.”

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