Was George Cacioppo a relative of yours?

November 1st, 2008 Uncategorized

George Cacioppo was born in the same year as my dad, in Monroe, Michigan.  He was a great composer, a charter member of the ONCE group, head of the WUOM radio station, and an intermittent professor in the school of music there.  He studied with Ross Lee Finney, among others, and at Tanglewood was a student of my own mentor, Leon Kirchner.  People began asking about our relatedness as soon as I got to music school as a freshman.  In the late 1970’s my parents moved from Ohio to Michigan, taking up residence in a town maybe 40 minutes from Ann Arbor, where George lived.  When I’d visit them, I’d drive on up to Ann Arbor to see George, and it was during that period that we first got to know each other well.  We talked endlessly about all sorts of musical questions, hung out in the radio station and listened to rare tapes, ate lunch at one of his favorite restaurants, The Cracked Crab, or made spaghetti together in his kitchen, all the while discussing issues like determinacy vs. indeterminacy, tonal vs. atonal, urban vs. folk, the efficacy of -ism’s, the limits of notation, etc.  We had had the intention to figure out how exactly we might be related, but never seemed to have gotten around to it, because it was more urgent and interesting to talk about these other things.  So I still can’t answer the question genealogically, but can say, yes, we were related – by music. 


George’s reputation reaches nationally and internationally.  I was on a panel with George Crumb not long ago, who was recalling how when he first came to Penn, he conducted “Advance of the Fungi” with his contemporary music ensemble.  In Venice last November, the Ex Novo Ensemble played a new music concert at Teatro La Fenice,  which included one of my pieces, and various members and other participating composers were asking about George.  His “Cassiopeia” score I believe toured extensively as part of a Library of Congress exhibit of contemporary American music, along with those of Cage and others.  At this point I’ve had the opportunity of meeting two fellow members of the ONCE group, Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma, owing to my involvement with the University of New Mexico Composers Symposium.  I teach George’s music in some of my classes, especially “Time on Time in Miracles,” a real masterwork.  His untimely death in 1985 was a tragedy.  Bill Albright set up a memorial fund in his name at Michigan, and not long after, when he came to Haverford to do a concert with me, Bill and I did a 4 hands performance of George’s “Piano Piece No. 11” in his honor.   Actually I think that recording was aired a year or so ago by Chris Shultis on his KUNM radio program.  Equally sad was the loss of Bill a decade or so later, just as he was reaching the peak of an already prodigious career.  I regret that my sons, both composers now in their own right, never had the chance for direct contact with either George or Bill.


In the U.S. the Cacioppo name is rather unusual, but in Italy it’s not at all uncommon – you never have to instruct anyone on spelling or pronunciation.  And particularly in Sicily, it occurs frequently, and in towns like Sambuca, Camporeale, or Montevago, it proliferates.  It’s difficult then to determine how closely individuals from different branches might be related.  Thanks to the efforts of my uncle, Dr. A. J. Cacioppo, I can trace my own genealogy with certainty to the early 1500’s.  Further heraldic investigation suggests that the line may go back to centuries previous, as the coats of arms that have come down to us incorporate motifs from the time of the Crusades (the Templar insignia and the crescent moon, for instance).  The origin of the name itself is still debated.  George assumed a direct derivation from the Greek Cassiopeia, and my Uncle Tony also saw this as a possibility.  After all, Sicily was part of Magna Grecia.  But Sicily was also ruled by Arabs for a long while, and there are still today as many place names in use that stem from Arabic as Greek.  So this becomes very difficult as well.  The Coccia Institute in Florence asserts that “cacioppu” — with a “u” instead of an “o” at the end — indicates an etymology in a term from Sicilian dialect that refers to the trunk of a tree, and is used to designate someone engaged in woodcraft. Who knows?  Maybe the earliest Cacioppo’s were Arab wood carvers in the employ of King Roger or Frederick II making psalteries, flutes and fiddles for use at Court!