In Search of Ramon Conrad Fuller

First published: August 2015

I came across the name Ramon Conrad Fuller in the BYU Music Library. Bound theses and dissertations have a section of the Harold B. Lee Library all to themselves. It was on these dusty shelves that I found “Concerto for Piano and Chamber Band.” I was able to discover that it had been premiered at BYU on May 14, 1958. The composer wrote the piece as a prerequisite for his Masters degree in Music at the University.

David Day, a librarian and curator at HBLL, has recently posted all of the concert programs of music performances at BYU from 1948-2008 at I looked up Ramon Conrad Fuller. There, I discovered that Fuller had four additional works performed in Provo, presumably in student recitals: a string quartet, “Andante Cantabile” (1953), a brass quintet, “Suite for Brasses” (1954), “The Tiger” (for male chorus, 1957), as well as a saxophone quartet composed in 1957 and performed on campus in 1967, “Conversation Piece for Saxophone Quartet.” 

And that was all I knew.

Who was this Ramon Conrad Fuller? What ever happened to him? There had been a number of international composers at BYU during the Merrill Bradshaw era. Was Ramon one of these? But this was pretty early: 1958.

It was weird though because as I did a Google search, the name popped up very few times; it was almost as though he didn’t exist. I found a couple of citations, but they were connected to a scholarly analysis of the Modernist composer, Anton Webern. There was also a compositional credit for “Music for Two Channel Tape and Two Percussionists” in the library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which was part of a Ph.D. program. I had no idea whether this was the BYU Fuller or not.

When I Google-searched for just “Ramon Fuller,” I got additional hits, but I easily discarded most of them as being unrelated to my quest. A couple were connected to music though, and they were tantalizing: a co-author credit of Fuller with Lejaren Hiller? That’s interesting, I thought. That name rang a bell.

I got sidetracked a little and researched Hiller. Ahhh. Hiller was a pioneer in using the computer as a compositional tool in the 1950s (long before anybody you know had even seen a computer). He founded the Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois. Hiller ended up teaching at University of Buffalo alongside a bunch of amazing mid-century composers including Lukas Foss and Morton Feldman. If Fuller was connected to any of these guys, that would major.

One of my friends, Jeremy, is a musicologist who has published widely about Mormon fine art music. I sent him a quick note. Were these red flags significant? Could I be onto something?

It’s a frustrating thing having only tidbits of information. You want to get excited about them, but in the back of your mind, you’re mostly certain that the dots won’t connect. Still, I kept digging. I went to the University of Buffalo library website. I typed Fuller’s name, and up came three listings. Nothing new, but why would Buffalo even have them if he hadn’t studied or taught there?

The card catalog said he was born in 1930.That would make him about 85 years old today. That’s a problem, for obvious reasons. I did some obituary checks. I also went to Nothing. Could he still be alive? And even if he were alive, I had no real reason, other than his BYU graduation, to assume he was Mormon.

I went to the White Pages website. I just typed his name. There was a Ramon C. Fuller in Harvey, IL (there’s the Illinois connection, possibly); a Ramon C. Fuller in McCalla, AL; and a Ramon Conrad Fuller in St. George, UT. It listed his address and phone number. What? Could it be that easy?

Cold-calling is one of my least favorite things to do in the world. If I were a salesman forced to do it for a living, I’d surely starve, but I picked up the phone, nevertheless. I felt compelled to. Who else would ever do it? It was ringing. And then the dial tone was replaced by a recording: the number was no longer in service.

I went to high school in St. George although I haven’t lived there in 35 years. Sort of on a whim, I called a dear old friend, Sheri, from Dixie High School. I asked her to look in her local phone book for Ramon Conrad Fuller. She had the same number I did. I was almost ready to give up on it when she said, “I can just drive over there. It’s close. Do you want me to go knock on the door and see what I can find out?”

So I hung up with a big smile on my face, and shortly afterwards, I had a call back from Sheri. There was nobody home. But when she was at the door, a little neighbor girl came by. Sheri asked her about Fuller, and she said she didn’t know anything. Sheri left a phone number. Dead end.

But later that night, Sheri called me again. Turns out that the little neighbor girl went home and asked her mother about it, who got Sheri’s number and called her back with a little more information: the Fullers had lived there until a month earlier, and they moved to Salt Lake City. Would she like the name of the Fuller’s daughter?

In the back of my mind, I still thought that all of this sleuthing would probably be fruitless. But I had come this far, I said to myself. So I looked up the phone number of Ramon Conrad Fuller’s daughter. The phone rang. It was an answering machine. “Hello,” and I think I said, “I’m Glen Nelson, and I’m researching the music of Ramon Conrad Fuller. I was given your name. If it’s not too much trouble, could you call me back?”

A little time passed, and no phone call. Oh well. Good, solid try, I thought.

And then I received the loveliest call. She was slightly incredulous at first, as I remember. Who was I again and why was I calling? I had been pronouncing his name, Ramón, like a Spanish name, but it was actually RAYmon, and his daughter’s name was Ramona. And over the course of our conversation and others that followed, I discovered more of his story.

Ramon was indeed the same composer I had found earlier. He was a returned LDS missionary when he graduated from BYU. He received his PhD in Illinois and then taught at Buffalo. But he had left teaching and eventually retired to St. George. Lately, he had been experiencing memory troubles, and the family decided it would be best to move Ramon and his wife closer to them, in Northern Utah. As it turns out, at the exact same time I began researching Ramon Conrad Fuller, his family was boxing up a lifetime of his recordings, documents, book manuscripts, and scores. They were justifiably overwhelmed with it all. What were they supposed to do with so many boxes of documents in their basement?

I had a few ideas. But I had only seen reference to a half dozen works. I would need to see the archive before I could give any useful advice. But if it were something bigger, and any of these markers of importance panned out, this could get quite exciting, quite fast. Ramona told me that there were dozens of compositions and recordings. Because much of this was new to them as well, they hadn’t cataloged their holdings. It sounded like they needed some help to get started.

A plan came to mind. I was scheduled to fly to Salt Lake City to work on a project at the Church Museum in mid-May. Might I come by their home and take a look at the archive, I asked, to get an idea of its holdings and start working on an inventory of compositions?

Shortly after that, I was at the Salt Lake airport waiting for Ramon’s son-in-law to pick me up and drive me to his and Ramona’s home. (Ramon and his wife live nearby.) I spent a few hours meeting members of the family—though not Ramon and his wife, who called repeatedly throughout the evening asking when they could come by and meet me. We circled around the dining table and dug into it. Ramona had reel-to-reel recordings of many of his compositions, and the family had transferred them to digital files. As we cataloged the boxes and boxes of his works, we listened to his music, which was exactly what I hoped it would be: astringent, gorgeous, avant garde, computer-manipulated, atonal, fascinating, fresh, adventurous, and brainy music from the 1950s forward.

Here were works that were performed at Carnegie Hall, were used for a documentary on the artist Sam Francis, played at the Albright-Knox Museum, and by important performing ensembles. Here were letters from famous composers all over the world seeking information about computers and composition processes. If you were looking for a pedigree for a fine art composer of the period, here it was. Furthermore, it was music that virtually nobody else knew anything about.

The manuscripts took some time to organize. Fortunately, Ramona is a musician herself, and together we found compositions whose pages had been scattered between boxes. I felt like we were reuniting members of families separated at birth. Occasionally, I would take music to the piano and play through it. It was all cool. I found original hymns, and LDS hymn arrangements too that retained their melodies but incorporated beautiful and strange harmonies.

Not only were there numerous compositions that, on the surface, looked to me to be worthy of attention, performance, and scholarship, but I found correspondence, letters, journals, manuscripts of unpublished books (tomes, really) on advanced math and music, too. I wished that I were smarter. (Let’s just put that out there right now.) I could take the discovery only so far, but I sat there with tears in my eyes. This had become one of the happiest experiences of my life.

It was late Sunday evening. Finally, Ramona could keep her mother and father away no longer—we were quite sure that as soon as they arrived, our organizing and digging would probably stop for the night, and it did, mostly. In they walked. Ramon now walked with a cane, but I immediately recognized a quality that I’ve seen many times before: the sprightliness of elderly creative artists. There is something undeniable in their eyes and smile that other people simply do not possess. It is a sense of aesthetic play. He nearly bounced into the room, so full of exuberance and fun. Both he and his wife were charming and talkative. We met, and I told him what were attempting to do although he could see the piles of his music all over the room.

I had been warned that it was entirely possible that he might not remember too many details of his compositions, and indeed that was the case. I would ask about a specific work that sounded especially interesting, and I’d question him about the performers or the events leading to its premiere. But although he looked happy to have the questions put to him, the answers for things in the distant past were lost to him now.

My mother-in-law has memory issues too, and she has for some time. She lives in an assisted-living facility. I’m aware that conversations can take circuitous routes with people who struggle to reclaim earlier experiences. With Ramon, I tried, a few times, to come at a question from different angles, but unfortunately for me, I didn’t have much luck.

I didn’t find this sad, somehow. Here in front of me was a trove of work—truly a lifetime’s worth of exploration and devotion to his art form. Did I really need him to tell me additional anecdotes about it? I considered myself lucky to have both him and his music before me. I also wanted to be respectful of him and his family and not make any of them uncomfortable. It had been a long day for us all—I had been up since about 2 a.m., and we separated.

Graciously, Ramona’s husband drove me to where I was staying, but before we left, we made arrangements for me to come back to help finish the job in a few days. In the meantime, I took the listing of Fuller’s compositions and organized them chronologically. I cross-referenced them with what I had discovered earlier, and I made some notes about my findings.

During the next few days, as I met with people in Salt Lake City and Provo, I told them a little bit about Ramon—how they had this unknown composer in their midst. Wouldn’t it be amazing, I thought, if I could encourage someone to publish a little of his music, if I could find someone willing to program a piece of his on a concert that Ramon, his wife, and family could attend (before it is too late), if I could find a repository for this music which represents an era of such radical change and experimentation? But could I manage it? I’m just one guy.

Ramon Conrad Fuller is something of a pack rat. Nothing makes librarians and scholars happier. He kept everything. As it turned out, he left Buffalo and went into a bit of a tailspin at the thought of saying goodbye to academia. After a brief tenure at another school, he changed careers entirely. But all the while, he composed. There were works in his archive dated 2014. Ultimately, we were able to document 101 compositions—everything from a symphony, to choral works, chamber string, wind, and brass works, piano compositions, works for orchestra, music for the stage, music for electronics and ensembles, hymns, songs, choral works, and a few arrangements of LDS hymns. That number doesn’t include numerous studies and notebooks full of ideas and fragments, and the large manuscripts on music theory for the age of the computer. 

Postscript: The Harold B. Lee Library acquired Fuller's archive. The publication Hymns Today published a hymn by Fuller, his first published work, and performers and preparing music for performance. I can imagine him attending a concert with one of his early works on the program. Hopefully, it will happen soon. Can you picture him walking into the hall, seeing his name in the program, and hearing the music again in live performance after all these years? I imagine the audience listening through his ears, too. It’s going to be fantastic.