PASADENA >> Gregoria Karides Suchy has always marched to the beat of her own drum.
For her 90th birthday celebration last month, the composer, educator and musical trailblazer found herself on a whirlwind trip to New York. On Nov. 5, she once again lectured a classroom filled with students at the Crane School of Music at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Potsdam, the same day a new piece made its world premiere.
"I could have gone on and on and on, because for me, it's a joy," Suchy said. "The students were a real challenge that I enjoyed a lot."
Suchy, who turned 90 on Nov. 14, has always lived a symphony of music and education, from when she was just a child being raised by Greek immigrants who spoke music better than English, to leading a Renaissance of avant-garde music and budding musicians at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
"I can't remember when I didn't do music," Suchy said.
Suchy's career would be inspiring music to the ears of a musician of any age. In addition to her lecture, her latest piece, "Jessica's Tango," premiered on Nov. 5 during a five-concert tour in New York. It was played by Suchy's band, the Crane Harp Ensemble, directed by Suchy's daughter Jessica Suchy-Pilalis,
"I played it all by ear, but that was the best because it really reached them," Suchy said.
By 9 years old, Suchy played the piano and, when needed, the accordion in her family's band. She was joined on stage by her sister on the drums, her brother on the accordion, and her father, uncles, and family friends on the mandolin.
"There was no other Greek family who could do what we did," said Suchy. "The Greeks loved it because there was nothing else available at that time."
Her family struggled on her father's salary, but under her parents' roof, music literacy was a requirement, even over everyday necessities.
"She had piano lessons even though she might not have had the fanciest clothes or shoes," said Mara Suchy, the youngest of two daughters and a violinist since she was 5 years old. "Music was a priority in her home growing up, and in our home growing up it was also a priority."
After Suchy's mother was hit by a bus and died, her father died of a heart attack a year later. Then she and her two siblings were adopted by their uncle.
After graduating from the Wisconsin College of Music, Milwaukee Normal School-Milwaukee Girls' Trade and Technical High School, and then the Milwaukee State Teachers College, Suchy taught music composition at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. While there, she created the 17-minute avant-garde ballet "Skins and Exposure."
"I had to use tape recorders of all kinds and we spliced the tape," Suchy said, "and it was an avant-garde sound."
"Skins and Exposures" earned just two reviews. One said "Beethoven would be turning in his grave if he could hear it."
The other writer "extolled it," Suchy said. "He thought it was very far into the future and suited well the choreography."
At the university, Suchy coined the term "soundscaping," or making experimental music with unconventional music items such as beer bottles. She also taught music theory classes.
"When I think of her roots, she continued on with great prejudice against her," said Jessica Suchy-Pilalis, a professor of music at the Crane School of Music at SUNY-Potsdam and Suchy's oldest daughter. "Now it's pretty easy to be a female composer. When she was doing it, it was not."
Suchy met her husband Raymond, a physicist, while teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. They moved to Pasadena in 1996. He died in 2012, at the age of 99.
Suchy was known by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee music students as the "weeding professor" - if students weren't cut out for the music profession, the difficulty of her classes would weed them out of the program.
"She never accepted mediocrity, ever," said Leah Duckert, current band director of West Bend High School near Milwaukee. She failed the third level of Suchy's music theory class in 1998, but rebounded after taking it again and receiving extra tutelage from Suchy at her home after school.
"She was by far the most academically challenging professor I ever had," said Duckert. "She never accepted mediocrity, ever. She never accepted good either when great was possible. She would not ever let you work on anything below the capacity for greatness."
At 90, Suchy continues to walk, travel, and, according to family members, do the one thing that's kept her going for so long: music.
"Playing music, you have all of those hand, ear, soul connections," Suchy-Pilalis said. "For my mother, composition is a creative process. That keeps a person alive."
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