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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Lewis Spratlan, Who Took Winding Route to Music Pulitzer, Dies at 82

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Mr. Spratlan, whose long road to the Pulitzer and the premiere also included his self-financing the concert that led to the prize, died on Feb. 9 at a hospice center in Mount Laurel, N.J. He was 82. His wife, Melinda (Kessler) Spratlan, said the cause was idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

Mr. Spratlan, who taught at Amherst College in Massachusetts for 36 years, composed works for large ensembles and small ones, as well as solo pieces. He even invented an instrument, which he called the terpsiptomaton and which incorporated metal coils and rods, piano strings and ball bearings.

“When a key is depressed, the ball bearings are released and fall, hitting the rods and the piano strings,” The Boston Globe explained in 1980. Amherst magazine described it as “a cross between a harpsichord and a pinball machine.”

Both the instrument and a piece he composed for it, “Coils,” were given their world premiere in a concert in Amherst in 1980. The instrument seems not to have caught on, but the effort showed Mr. Spratlan’s penchant for whimsy in his works.

In the chamber piece “When Crows Gather” (1986), which was inspired in part by the arrival of a throng of crows outside his studio window in Massachusetts, he had the musicians approximate wintry winds and end with, as Mr. Tommasini put it in The Times, “what could be called the ‘Crow Squawk Toccata.’” In 2002, Allan Kozinn of The Times described another chamber piece, “Zoom,” this way:

“He begins by having the players alternate sharp, loud chordal bursts with all manner of breathy vocalizations, including sighs, heavy breathing, gasping and panting. Eventually the musical content sweeps away the sound effects, only to career between slidey modernist textures and fleeting hints of big-band jazz. A touch of what seems to be the influence of Frank Zappa streams through the last two movements as well, and from there it’s a short step to cartoonish sound effects.”

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