Chester Biscardi did not set out to be a composer. It fell to his Wisconsin composition teacher, Les Thimmig, to convince him that pursuing a degree in Italian made little sense; he simply was a composer, no two ways about that. It was at just this crucial juncture in his career that we met, introduced at a fairly hectic party by our mutual friend Ron McCrea in 1971. A lot of history has filled these 26 years.
In the summer of 1997, it was my great privilege to introduce Chet at an awards ceremony held by the Lesbian and Gay Interest Group of the Wisconsin Alumni Association, which each year recognizes two Wisconsin graduates for outstanding achievement. Chet was the first person in the arts to be so honored. It was a powerfully emotional occasion for us both, and indeed for most of the audience as well. The mere fact that there even was such an event added to the intensity of the experience. Chet gave a characteristically moving acceptance speech.
Born and raised in an intensely emotional and somewhat chaotic Italian family in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Chet went from Madison to Yale, where he continued his composition studies, eventually completing a Doctorate of Musical Arts. Along the way he collected the coveted Prix de Rome, a year-long retreat (1976-77) supported in fairly luxurious style at the American Academy in Rome. The Rome Prize is steeped in long tradition; Ravel was a now-famous recipient. The house where Chet lived that year, the Casa Rustica, had previously been occupied by Franz Liszt during one of his Italian sojourns.
Since Yale he has been on the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College in New York. I love visiting him, because he is endlessly fascinated by anything and everything that sounds, and his tiny apartment is crammed with bells, gongs, music boxes, rain sticks, little drums, chimes, and of course a piano. I love to listen to music with him, too, because he one of a very small number of people I know who can communicate a whole universe with a mere glance while music is playing. Even other musicians do not always have this facility, this just knowing.
In June, I got a phone call from Chet, telling me that I'd been selected for one of this year's two Distinguished Alumni Awards by the Wisconsin Alumni Association's GLBT Alumni Council. Chet himself had received this award in 1997 and I had introduced him. This year it was the other way around. When he got the award, I didn't keep a copy of my introductory remarks, though (see link above) I did record his. This year, I have both his introduction and my own speech.