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Paul Stofft

Paul Stoft taught musical composition, counterpoint, and harmony to me, first as a professor, and then as a mentor/friend. Paul was as much a musicologist as he was a composer, always sitting in his corner chair with a tall stack of music he’d collected, music that could have been from a tribe in the Amazon, or from cultural traditions found in the Sierra Morena in Andalusia, or found deep in Siberia. He read these manuscripts like people read the newspaper: he opened each one in his lap, then whistled or sung the various parts, absorbing the entire music before putting it aside and opening the next manuscript, one after the other, for hours late into the night—all with no other ambition but to digest the musical happenings in the world, past or present.


In our afternoon sessions, Paul not only discussed the abstractions of music and music theory, but demanded full apprenticeship, drilling me in harmony and counterpoint, not allowing sloppiness to slip into my work. We analyzed Bach, unpacked Berg, uncovered sequences in Ives. I wrote passages in one key, then another, then another. The discipline was rigorous, but welcome, as it taught me that many micro-skills are the foundation of excellence.


For months, virtually every evening in Montana where I had traveled to study with him, he and his wife shared the vast riches of their knowledge, knowledge which ran much further than music. While picking strawberries, or cooking a grand meal or driving through the Sapphire Mountains, we discussed literature, architecture, business, art—the gamut of human endeavors—with great intensity and insight.


Paul had a life-long passion about the relationship between art and music, which was the subject of his doctoral dissertation. He didn’t have the tools that were later discovered in neuroscience, but, in his terms, he tried to find the connections between the visual and aural systems—an advanced idea in his time. As a master of both art and music, he drew many parallels, trying to work out a theory of how perception—the epistemology of perception—influenced our understanding of them. For instance, he correlated the vanishing point in a painting to the tonal center in music, the building perspectives in a painting lining up like the harmonies in a piece of music. Among these synethesias, he caught glimpses of deeper truths about our perception that have since been validated with neuroscience. I was lucky to follow this distinction from my seminal discussions with Paul through their broader evolution in neuroscience, since they go to the heart of my thesis about why some messages light up the mind while others seem to dissipate into oblivion.


I see Paul in my memory always looking down through his reading glasses at some manuscript, focused and invested, leaving an indelible impression of a man acquiring vast knowledge, driven for no other reason than his own passion, fueled nightly by its own rewards. He later developed highly successful strategies of investing, becoming a wealthy man: I can imagine that he tilled his imagination about business the same way he had about art and music, a further testament to the totality of human perception, a summary larger than music or art, business or investing, larger than any category of human endeavor, a summary that points to zeriosantalios, a view of all incoming signals to the nervous system.