Professor of the Week: John Benson

Nicole Capozziello

As just a middle schooler, when asked what he wanted to do later in life, Professor Benson said “teach at a small college.” This goal was eventually realized but, like many, took some meandering, second-guessing and experimentation to reach.
On Tuesday afternoon, I entered the office of Instructor of Music John Benson, thereby unwittingly entering his world. He sat at a keyboard, doubtlessly focused on the sounds in his headphones that I couldn’t hear. The only sound I heard was of trickling water emanating from a boom box in the corner. I looked around, examining the odd instruments dangling in clusters from the ceiling, the art on the walls, Benson’s own antique table from home. Thus began my hour-long interview, or shall I say life lesson, with Professor Benson.
Benson came to music the way many of us do: as a youngster put in piano lessons. However, unlike most of the population, piano lessons stuck with Benson and he continued, eventually beginning to compose music of his own. At age 14, he composed his first piece, a prelude for piano. I even got the pleasure of hearing this gem which, chuckling, he described as “really bombastic.”
When he enrolled at UW-Madison, Benson first went into music education, then, influenced by his love of the outdoors, temporarily thought about going into natural resources before considering the idea of becoming a cartographer. As seems to always happen in his life, he returned to music, graduating with degrees in music theory and music history. “I do things kind of slowly,” Benson laughed.
After earning his master’s degree in music theory from the University of Washington, he and his wife lived in a remote mountain town in Washington for two years. While she taught K-12 science, Benson was able to compose. He credits this time, during which he diligently logged all his hours of work in a notebook, as greatly helping him develop as a composer. “It taught me to think through things,” observed Benson.
Soon after, both he and his wife went on to get minors in computer science. For a few years in the 80s, Benson worked on a software development team at the University of Minnesota. “It’s ironic,” Benson said as we both eyed the intimidating and complex machine in the corner, “computers have changed so much since then.” During this time, he made a conscious effort to step away from music. He lived without it and, for the time, gave it up — unsuccessfully. “I realized then that music is just a part of me,” he said.
Since then, Benson has been working as a music teacher, teaching at public and private schools, with students spanning the whole K-12 spectrum. He came to Lawrence in 1997, where he has taught music theory and composition ever since. He particularly loves to teach the Fundamentals of Music Composition course, which “challenges students to create something new.”
Benson admitted that he is “not much of a verbal person,” preferring more abstract forms of expression. However, when he does read, he greatly enjoys Hemingway, particularly “The Old Man and the Sea.” His favorite musical work from the twentieth century is Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” while Beethoven’s “Eroica Symphony” and Toru Takemitsu’s “Cassiopeia” are other staples.
Benson does not listen to music very much in his free time as he really likes to focus when listening rather than merely hearing it on in the background. “And the water?” I asked, gesturing to the boom box. “In the middle of my farm there’s a trout stream” Benson began, referring to a farm 60 miles west of here, where he one day hopes to retire. The sounds of the trickling creek were recorded there, where Benson fishes. He always throws his catches back.
At the end of the interview, I looked down at my notebook. The lines I had laid to answer individual questions were blank. My writing and scribbles were everywhere, randomly scattering the pages, just as Benson would be proud to see.
This Saturday, May 31, Benson’s 12 movement piece “Symphonic Episodes” will be performed by the Lawrence Symphony Orchestra. Those in the audience will hold their breaths and applaud, not thinking that its composer once toyed with the idea of becoming a cartographer.