1 of 5
T.J. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News
Crawford Gates, a composer, conductor and musician, plays a piece that he says he started composing in his sleep at his home in Salt Lake City.

Crawford Gates: composer, conductor, arranger, music man extraordinaire.

Now one more thing can be added to his list of credits: subject of a doctoral dissertation.

Matthew Thompson, a doctoral student at the Kansas University, recently completed his dissertation on the instrumental conceptions of Gates' choral arrangements. His premise was that the introductions and interludes were instrumental in character, which is unusual for choral works.

"He felt it gave them a thematic unity that was very successful," Gates says.

It has been an amazing experience, the 88-year-old musician says. There are numerous doctoral dissertations on Bach, Beethoven, Chopin. "I was dumbfounded to find out he was studying me. I did not ever think I would be the subject of something like that."

Another unusual aspect is the fact that most doctoral students defend their dissertation in front of a committee of five faculty members in a private room on campus. But in this case, Thompson appeared not just before his committee, but in a campus auditorium before an audience of about 1,000. He not only presented a verbal summary of his dissertation, but he then conducted one of the university's choral ensembles in excerpts from three of Gates' musical creations.

Gates attended the event and also was asked to conduct a seminar for student composers. "The audience was indeed warm in its response to both the program and my presence," he says. "I never dreamed of something like this. It was a massive surprise."

Gates is probably most known locally for his religious music, such as the score for "Promised Valley," music for hymns such as "Our Savior's Love" and "Ring Out, Wild Bells," and various other works such as his "Book of Mormon Symphony," which served as the soundtrack for the Hill Cumorah Pageant.

But Thompson's dissertation focused on three of Gates' secular arrangements: "Londonderry Air," Cole Porter's "So In Love With You Am I" and Debussy's "Maid With the Flaxen Hair."

What Gates finds even more interesting is that the topic was not suggested by Thompson, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but by his major professor, Paul Tucker, an African-American who is "a brilliant musician but has no ties to the (LDS) church," Gates says. "How he became familiar with my work I don't know."

On the other hand, there is a lot of Gates' work out there. "I'm now working on my 875th composition," he says. "I started at age 8, so in 80 years, you have time to do a lot. I've worked in virtually every music medium."

Gates was "famous in the third grade in Palo Alto (Calif.) for the songs I wrote for my friends." At one time he had a girlfriend who played the flute, so he wrote something for her. Later on, there was girlfriend who played the cello. "I got a lot of frank feedback from my friends."

His first commissions were "from a lady down the street. She paid me $3 a song to write music for songs she had written. I did eight of them. Three dollars was a lot of money in those days."

In high school, he played with a local jazz band, and they were paid $5 for arrangements for Big Band era songs.

Still, when it came time to go to college, he was in a bit of a quandary. "My friends were all applying to colleges, a lot to Stanford, which was almost in our backyard. And I said to my father, shouldn't I be thinking about that? He said I should, but the question was where should I go and what would be my major?"

The elder Gates said he knew his son was interested in music, "but, he told me, 'I just don't know who will ever pay you to write and conduct classical music.' I told him, 'I don't know who will pay me, but I feel like I've got to go that direction.' I guess I said it with enough conviction, because he said, 'I don't believe in that direction, but I believe in you. Go for it.' And I did."

When, as a 26-year-old, Gates was commissioned to write the music for a musical celebrating the centennial of the arrival of the pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley, his father came to see "Promised Valley," and "he said he didn't have to ask who would pay me any more. That was a proud moment."

Gates went on to get a bachelor of arts degree "with great distinction" from San Jose State University, a master's degree from Brigham Young University and a doctorate from Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. He was a member of the music faculty and chairman of the department at BYU before he left for conducting positions for the Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra (Wisconsin), and the Quincy Symphony and Rockford Symphony Orchestras (Illinois), a career that spanned more than 30 years.

And the commissions kept coming. "That has happened virtually all my life, for $5,000, for $10,000, even for $35,000. It was unheard of for many composers to make that kind of money," he says. His works were performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic, among others.

"But I was also very lucky that I had my own orchestra to play my own stuff." Over the years, he did more than 75 compositions and arrangements for his orchestras and for annual Children's and Pops concerts.

One memorable project involved an African-American choir in Beloit. "Their director came to me and said they would like to sing with the symphony. But it was a jazz choir, and they sang by ear, rather than by reading music. So, what could we do together? Finally, I had them make a recording of their accompaniment, and I made an orchestral instrumentation to fit their improvisation. When we put it all together, it was the most incredible thing. It was our biggest Pops Concert in 25 years." What was even more remarkable what how it brought the blacks and whites in the community together in those struggling-for-civil-rights years, he says. "It was wonderful."

His has been a life filled with remarkable achievements, but this last one is very gratifying, he says. To be honored as an American composer of note is very special. "I was overwhelmed by the whole event in Kansas, its concept and its realization."

Composers can't demand that kind of attention, he says. "They can't even expect it. The fact that it happens is an incredible blessing in my life."