BOZEMAN – Eric Funk doesn’t have an iPod, but he’s pretty sure his head works like one.
“Composers are like iPods, only they are filled with their own music,” said the award-winning performer and composer, who recently also won one of Montana State University’s top teaching awards
“At any one time, there are three or four compositions in my head, fighting to get out. So, you need to take time to intentionally listen, really listen, to the music that’s playing (in order to get it out).”
Finding that time can be a problem for Funk, who might be one of Montana’s busiest people. The namesake, creative director and driving force behind the award-winning “11th & Grant with Eric Funk,” he is also a popular jazz musician, performer, recording artist, conductor, band director and church musical director.
He has six CDs featuring his original work and recorded by symphonies and orchestras around the world. His compositions have been performed twice at Carnegie Hall, and he has been featured on National Public Radio, CBS Sunday Morning and in the New York Times.
He also teaches some of MSU’s most popular classes and is so adept at it that he recently was named the recipient of the 2013 James and Mary Ross Provost’s Award for Excellence.
In fact, Funk believes one of his biggest creative leaps as a composer came as a result of teaching. “For me it was education, interacting with young people and mentoring them,” said Funk, who has composed more than 121 major works – nine symphonies, four operas, 16 concertos, five string quartets and an extensive list of choral and chamber works.
Perhaps his most noted composition to date will be introduced to the general public in March when MontanaPBS releases its documentary, “The Violin Alone,” featuring Funk and Hungarian violin virtuoso Vilmos Olah and a complex piece that Funk composed in which Olah plays all parts of the concerto on one violin. The documentary follows a visit to Budapest that Funk made last year to see Olah debut the piece.
“Things are coming to fruition,” said Funk, who is 63 and says he is just in the middle of his career.
“With composers, it usually takes awhile,” he added with a chuckle.
That Funk practices his art in Bozeman, rather than Prague, Paris or even Portland is somewhat surprising. After all, Bozeman is known more for its western swing than its violin concertos.
Funk explains that he works in Montana because it is “where I make sense.”
“In Europe they tell me, ‘Your music is so big.’ I couldn’t compose the music I do if I didn’t live here.”
Born in Deer Lodge to a musical family that also lived in Lewistown, Havre and Missoula, as well as Minnesota, Funk was considered a child prodigy in a family of musical prodigies.
“We were like the Von Trapp family,’ Funk said. “We had a ton of repertoire.”
Funk received his bachelor’s degree in music from Portland State University and studied for a doctoral degree from a tri-university program that included Portland State, University of Oregon and Oregon State University. He taught in colleges and community colleges in Oregon and Texas before returning to Montana in 1985. He has been teaching at MSU’s School of Music since 2002.
Funk is thought to be one of MSU’s most prolific faculty members in terms of numbers of students taught woven with creative pursuits. His music appreciation classes, which are part of the university’s core classes, are among MSU’s most popular. About a quarter of MSU’s students will take a class from Funk.
“Former students rave about his teaching, and due to the large number of students that have passed through his classes, I hear favorable comments very often,” said Greg Young, interim director of the MSU School of Music. “They feel he is knowledgeable, captivating, warm and talented.”
Funk has also served as the music director and conductor of the Helena Symphony Orchestra, the co-founder and conductor of the Gallatin Chamber. He received the 2011 Innovation in the Arts Award (through the National Endowment of the Arts) and most recently was named a Humanities Hero by Humanities Montana.
He is perhaps best known in his home state for the award-winning MontanaPBS series, “11th & Grant,” which he curates. Now in its eighth season, the series features Montana musicians. It is filmed in just one intense week in the summer, airing during the winter.
“I could already program 10 years ahead with the groups that have been submitted,” he said. “There’s always new and tremendous talent out there.”
The producers of the “11th & Grant” series traveled with Funk to Hungary to film Funk and Olah in Budapest for the documentary “The Violin Alone,” which not only features the music but the bond between the two men.
Curiously, the Funk/Olah friendship and partnership did not begin in Eastern Europe, where Funk has performed, conducted and studied frequently during his career, but in Bozeman.
Olah performed at a Mendelssohn Symposium in Bozeman two years ago. Olah, who is not well known outside of Budapest despite his talent, is able to play several parts of music at one time on his violin.
”When I heard (Olah) I had this spontaneous idea,” Funk said. He wrote “Concerto for the Violin Alone, Opus 109” in five days. He said that the music “is not impossible, but it’s not easy. Yet, when Vili saw the piece he understood it like he had written it himself.”
“We are kindred spirits,” Funk added. “We haven’t really known each other very long in real time, but our musical communication is like a life-long friendship.”
Olah practiced the piece for two years before premiering it in Budapest last spring.
Olah plays a Stradivarius violin, and Funk said that the “sound that comes out of that thing is so phenomenal. It actually sounds like an oboe a flute and a trumpet.”
The “Violin Alone” is far from Funk’s last work. About one-third of his compositions are commissioned, so there is “music that always has to get out the door.”
For instance, while recently grading final essay tests from his 635 students from the fall semester, Funk was putting the finishing touches on a piece that will premiere in 2015 in Prague celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Czech composer Jan Hanus.
He was also finishing a chamber opera. His composition “Montana Winter” was performed in December by the String Orchestra of the Rockies in Missoula as well as at Bozeman High School Orchestra.
“Generally composers are writing all the time,’ Funk said, tapping his head. “When we actually have time, we try to get it out in a final form.”