David Benedict Reck was born on January 12, 1935 in Rising Star, Texas. His father was a minister of German origin descended from a family of farmers and ministers. His mother, descended on her mother’s side from Anglo-Indians, was a devoted parent and deep believer in education. She was a church organist who encouraged David’s interest in music and whose family connection with India influenced him greatly. All three of David’s brothers achieved PhD degrees—Thomas in English, Jon in psychology, and Gregory in anthropology. Like David, Thomas and Gregory became professors.
David's childhood was full of diverse musical influences ranging from musics of the Texas/ Mexico borderland, Grand Ole Opry and Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, to Houston Symphony performances. He worked his way through undergraduate studies at the University of Houston (1956) and master’s work at the University of Texas (1960) playing country and jazz. Through his early thirties, David was, true to his birthplace, a rising star composer blending jazz and improvisation with contemporary classical music. He studied with Paul Pisk, a student of Arnold Schoenberg, at UT Austin, George Rochberg at the University of Pennsylvania, and at the 1959 Princeton Seminar in Advanced Musical Studies with such luminaries as Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland. In 1965, David's composition A Study in Musical Proportions or How to Love the Row was featured at the Festival of New Music at Tanglewood, and a few years later, Aaron Copland praised David's work in his influential book Our New Music: "Composers like… David Reck make one suspect that the last word has not yet been said about the influence of jazz…” This plug, according to David, made his mother especially proud.
In the early 1960s, David was an active member of New York's experimental music scene alongside figures like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Gunther Schuller. At this time, David made ends meet working as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art, and it was during one of his shifts guarding the Picasso "Guernica” room that a young woman approached him. David asked her to wait for him to have coffee at his next break. That fifteen-minute break was David and Carol's first date, inspiring a relationship that became the marriage lasting for the rest of David's life.
Despite his rising star, David grew restless in the New York experimental scene. Indeed, hearing Hindustani music concerts in New York and the famous "Curry Concerts” of Indian music at Wesleyan University, and his friendship with Indian author Raja Rao, changed the course of his life. Connecting back to stories of India related by his missionary grandfather, David combined his experience in composition and improvisation with his new love of Indian music. In 1968, David was awarded a Rockefeller grant (and later a Guggenheim) to study Indian music. He and Carol, a gifted photographer, lived in India from then until 1971, primarily in Chennai, while David studied the multi-stringed South Indian veena with the master musician Sri Veena Tirugokarnam Ramachandra Iyer. David's artistry on the veena brought him to the center of the Carnatic musical world in Chennai and to stages across South India and the globe for decades to come, performing in some of the most important venues for Carnatic music with renowned artistes. Eventually, David was honored with the title "Sangeetha Sethu” ("Bridger of Musical Traditions”) by the Brhaddvani Music Centre in Chennai.
Returning to the United States in 1971, David enrolled in the signally influential PhD program in ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University, completing a dissertation in 1983 analyzing the improvisational practices of Tirugokarnam Ramachandra Iyer that developed the cross-cultural analysis of music from live performance data. David joined the Amherst faculty in 1975 as one of the first ethnomusicologists appointed at a liberal arts institution in the United States, arriving with Carol in a well-traveled VW bus called Garuda—the divine eagle who serves as Lord Vishnu's mount and ally. This was a moment when the college was expanding its fields of teaching and research, and David's arrival had an immediate impact in the music department and across the curriculum, weaving a colorful thread into the tweedy texture of Amherst life. In 1977, he published the groundbreaking book Music of the Whole Earth, a beloved ethnomusicological text republished in 1997 and used in Amherst College classrooms to this day. Writing against the area-studies grain of discrete, geographically bound musical traditions, David taught us to hear and grow through musicians around the world working with shared sonic materials and processes. His novel approach in Music of the Whole Earth, rooted in an anti-colonial musical ecumenicity and the open-mindedness about performance and notation David obtained as an experimental composer, rejects the primacy of Western analytic categories. Part of why Music of the Whole Earth has aged so well is that David's ear and graphical approach to analysis were ahead of their time, doing what digital audio analysis does now with a distinctly human touch—a touch that, for a reviewer in The New York Times, "betray[s] a really original musical mind.” And humanity was always at the center of David's scholarship. "I study music, and play it,” David writes, "primarily for that magical touch, an emotional contact with music itself that mystically makes me (and others) more human, more attuned to the ecology of ourselves and the world.”
David taught at Amherst for over thirty years, holding appointments in the departments of music and Asian languages and civilizations before retiring in 2006. Thanks to the range of his talents, curiosity, generosity, and expertise, his teaching indeed embraced music of the whole earth. Many of his courses were legendary, with scores of students gathered in Buckley Recital Hall to learn about David's three Bs—Bach, the Beatles, and Bollywood—and a large part of the football team learning to sing South Indian ragas. At the ends of semesters, the corridor outside David's office swelled with fantastic musical instruments handmade by students in his course called "The Sound Machine”—a testament to David's conviction that students learn about the material and spiritual foundations of music by making and doing. David's dedicated teaching was intensely specialized and personal as well. His student Tim Eriksen remembers going to David's house six days a week at 5:30 AM for 2-3 hours of veena instruction and journeying with a class out into the bird sanctuary at 11 PM to listen to Schoenberg's Erwartung, which David blasted from a boom box.
David's teaching extended beyond Carnatic music, Western classical and American folk music, and song writing and instrumental composition to embrace an inclusive vision of the liberal arts. His Introduction to Liberal Studies course called "Mirrors and Windows” examined exchanges between Europe and the Indian subcontinent through visual arts, literature, film, and music and served as a model of creative, interdisciplinary teaching for his colleagues.
David's teaching, performing, and curating intensified all aspects of South Asian life on campus and beyond. He brought world-class Carnatic artists to the Buckley stage (and performed with them), gathering together the South Indian community from all over Western New England at these events. David and Carol were and are beloved figures in the South Asian communities in the valley, organizing and participating in major festivals with music, food, and conviviality.
Another of David's musical loves was folk fiddling, and, on more than one occasion, he helped transform the campus into a massive bluegrass and old-time music convention. Along with Carol on banjo, George Greenstein on hammered dulcimer, and other faculty friends, David played fiddle in the ragtag Scheisskopf Mountain Boys and Girl. At a raucous gig at a local high school gym, the Scheisskopfs found themselves not playing their absolute best, at which point David leaned over to George and asked, "What are you playing?" "Old Joe Clark,’” was George's reply. "Well,” David responded, "the rest of us are playing 'Arkansas Traveler'!” David's nonchalant delight at the Scheisskopf's tuneful confusion reminds us that, for him, musical perfection is sometimes incidental to joy.
We remember David as an especially kind, generous mentor and colleague at Amherst and across the Five Colleges. His standing monthly lunch dates with newer colleagues let them know they were supported and had an advocate in David. Indeed, a community of ethnomusicology colleagues formed around David, blossoming into the now-thriving Five College Certificate Program in Ethnomusicology, which bears his imprint in its purpose and ethos. In 2021, at the program's tenth anniversary, David was fêted by generations of ethnomusicologists and Carnatic musicians from across the globe whose lives he has touched. David's service as chair of the music department was characterized by a humane, improvisatory approach to all the burdens of administration.
In addition to Amherst, David held guest teaching positions at The New School for Social Research, Brown University, and The American Institute of Buddhist Studies. Other influential publications include the co-authored textbook Worlds of Music and numerous articles on Asian and South Asian music, including "Beatles Orientalis: Influences from Asia in a Popular Song Tradition,” still one of the most-downloaded articles from the flagship journal Asian Music. In addition to his Rockefeller and Guggenheim fellowships, David received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Institute of Indian Studies. Among many prestigious venues around the world, his compositions were performed at the Library of Congress, Tanglewood, the Museum of Modern Art, Carnegie Hall, and at festivals in London, Tokyo, Berlin, Paris, and Rome. As a veena player, David performed throughout India, Europe, and the United States.
It was rare not to see David smiling or to hear an irrepressible joy in his silver-timbred, Texas-tinged voice. Having survived cancer and a heart attack, David was an ardent believer in the restorative power of music, coupled with his lengthy daily walks around South Amherst. From his hospital bed, David played Shree Satyanarayanam by the great Carnatic poet-musician Muthuswami Dikshitar on his veena. He died on September 30, 2021.
David is survived by his wife Carol, his daughter Nina, his son Daniel, his grandson Oscar, and two brothers.
Jeffers Engelhardt (chair)
President Martin, I move that the faculty adopt this memorial minute by rising to listen to a recording of David playing the veena, that it be inscribed in the permanent record of the faculty, and that a copy be delivered to Professor Reck's family.