When Thomas Riis was growing up in upstate New York, he and his younger brother had to take turns with the family record player. But it wasn’t so they could share equal time spinning their favorite vinyl.
“My mother used to say there was conflict because I wanted to play the records and my brother wanted to figure out how the record player worked.”
His brother went onto become a pilot. Riis went on to become one of the foremost scholars in 19th- and 20th-century American music. Since coming to the College of Music in 1992, Riis has also been the director of the American Music Research Center, the oldest musical archive of its kind in the United States and one of the assets that Riis says sets the college apart.
“It’s not just a concert-giving organization. The research component is very important,” he explains. “The mission of the AMRC is to tell the world about new discoveries being made in American music. And that could be popular music, folk music, traditional music, experimental, religious. Eclectic is our middle name.”
This spring, after 26 years at the helm of the AMRC, the professor of musicology and Joseph Negler Endowed Chair in Music will retire from teaching. But after decades in music, Riis won’t be giving it all up: He says he plans to keep performing, researching and writing, and you’ll probably see him around as he helps the College of Music celebrate its centennial in 2020.
“We’re still finding new information about the history of the college. It’s been fun for me to discover that there is some substance to our background. Really fascinating things were going on here, even before the college was so dubbed in 1920.”
Riis himself has had a fascinating musical history. He says when he was 10 years old, his mother and music teacher could see that his was more than a passing interest in music.
“So my mother and Mrs. Naugle got together and decided they would give little Tommy something to do. Since most of the violins at my school were taken at that point in the school year, I started on cello—which was only a little bit bigger than me, compared to the string bass.
“I felt I had been saddled with this giant instrument, but I knew even at that time that I was somehow fated to continue with this music thing.”
After playing cello throughout high school, Riis went to Oberlin, Ohio, for college. But he didn’t enroll at the renowned music conservatory at Oberlin College. Always interested in history and literature, he opted for a liberal arts degree.
“I really wanted that diverse education. I wanted to participate in music, but there were all these other subjects I hadn’t had a chance to pursue in high school. It was also at that time that I learned about musicology, and that seemed like an obvious choice given my love of music and history.”
The music world seemed bent on keeping Riis in the fold. After he graduated from Oberlin, he took a series of odd jobs back in New York state before getting the phone call that would set his ultimate career in motion. He took a position in admissions at Interlochen Center for the Arts in northern Michigan.
“It was such a gift, and totally out of the blue,” Riis recalls. “I spent two glorious years living in a cabin in the woods, working with wonderful people at one of the most prestigious music institutions in the world.”
From there, Riis pursued a master’s degree at the University of Michigan, where he met his musicological mentor, Richard Crawford. He stayed in Ann Arbor for doctoral studies and after graduating in 1981, landed a job in Athens, Georgia.
“I put out 25 applications, and in the last batch was one for the University of Georgia. I had never been there—never spent any length of time in the South—and they were the ones who called.”
Despite his initial reserve, Riis stayed in Dixie for 11 years, becoming associate professor of musicology and publishing his first book during his time at the Hugh Hodgson School of Music at Georgia. Then a position opened up in Boulder.
“It was the perfect job. My field was American music history and African-American music, and this job was even more focused on that, instead of just music history in general,” Riis says.
He came on as a full professor and took on leadership of the AMRC, which the college had acquired under the direction of then-Dean Robert Fink, musicology professor Bill Kearns, Dean of Libraries James Williams and then-Music Librarian Karl Kroeger just a few years earlier. Over the next quarter century, the center grew to include more than 90 collections from artists ranging from Glenn Miller to Irving Berlin. Riis edits the yearly American Music Research Center journal, helps host the Susan Porter Memorial Symposium, put on the recent Recreate Your Roots Festival, and manages the regular offers by area music lovers to donate collections of records and songbooks to the center.
“I see my role as director as an opportunity to spread the word about the diversity of American music and be a link to the community.”
To that end, Riis says he’ll always treasure the relationships he cultivated at the College of Music—relationships built on a shared respect and love for the power of music.
“There’s that sense here that you can take musical feelings and questions and excitement to someone down the hall and they’ll get it,” he explains. “When I hear a colleague do something impressive, I’ll shoot them a note and tell them that was really inspiring.”
As he looks back on a career spanning 37 years—one in which learning and music have always been intertwined—Riis says he can’t help but reflect on how his experiences have come full circle.
“I remember earlier this year, Dom Flemons played at Bear Creek Elementary School, and you could see the stars in the kids’ eyes. One of those boys went home and dragged his dad to Dom’s concert that night at Grusin. When Dom talked to him after, the kid lit up. I think of those experiences and I would love to know where that kid will be in 20 years.
“It’s just like I remember my third-grade teacher and my mom, thinking, ‘We’ve gotta get little Tommy to play an instrument.’ It’s fun to see that whole thing happening again this many years after my first experiences with music.”