(Eulogy for Sue Knussen)
Alan Warhaftig
Given at the Los Angeles World of Sue Celebration
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion May 19, 2003

Many of us have been struggling, these past two months, with the unreality of Sue Knussen’s shocking demise. It is “a small, good thing,” to borrow Raymond Carver’s phrase, that we assemble this afternoon – the day before what would have been Sue’s 54th birthday – to celebrate the life of our remarkable friend.

The work Sue and I did together, a Los Angeles Philharmonic program called Music for Educators, was based on the conviction that music belongs in every classroom. Always the evangelist, Sue believed that children would benefit if their teachers’ lives were enriched by music. For three years, we brought eminent musicians and scholars to speak with classroom teachers, who were treated with great respect. No one talked down to the audience.

Sue was the ultimate colleague. Her knowledge of music, musicians and the linkages between music and culture was breathtaking. A world-class documentary filmmaker, she had a nuanced view of how to develop and juxtapose ideas. Her intellect was powerful and agile, and she had a tremendous, sometimes wicked sense of humor. There was nothing solemn or somber about Sue.

Until I met Sue, I thought I was pretty good at “winging it,” but Sue exposed me for the control freak I am. She loved to wait for the last minute – or possibly just appear to wait for the last minute – to reveal which member of the orchestra would appear at an upcoming Music for Educators. Sue knew what she was doing; her method was to arrive at a structure that allowed for and encouraged happy accidents – then stay out of the way and trust that they would happen. For Sue, it was not about playing the score; it was about finding the music – and music was the center of Sue’s life, something not always understood by those for whom music was merely an interest or profession.

Working with Sue was like being in a master class, though she never, ever conveyed the impression that she was the master. To the contrary, Sue had too little ego, too small a sense of the role she played in so many lives, of her influence on musical culture, of her genius at making people appreciably better at what they do.

Sue was my ideal reader. The other day I was searching for the origin of the term and found a quote from Finnegan’s Wake about “that ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia.” Definitely Sue. She was able to selflessly interact with works-in-progress without being intrusive. I sent her many drafts in the short years of our acquaintance, and each was substantially improved as she precisely put her finger on the problem with the “thingamabob.”

Sue loved conversation. We spoke often, usually at great length. Before she returned to London, my phone invariably rang Wednesday evenings at 10: Sue calling to discuss that evening’s episode of The West Wing. She’d often phone from her car, usually en route to or from a concert. Our topics ranged from music, literature and politics to silly wordplay, but our conversations always had value – if only to confirm that there was someone I could really talk to. We even devised a noun to describe our conversations: purpoyak – short for purposive yakking.

After Sue returned to London at the beginning of last year, we continued to talk, though only about once a week. By the time I’d arrive home from work, it was usually well after midnight in London, and I felt guilty for keeping her awake.

Sue fell ill as she was about to return to Los Angeles for a visit. Her final two weeks were marked by a series of e-mails from Sonya, Sue’s beloved and amazing daughter, updating the “World of Sue,” as she called us, on her mother’s condition. As the recipient list expanded, people who had never met each other suddenly felt themselves part of a community in crisis. Our collective spirits rose as Sue briefly improved, then sank as the end approached.

I’ve never lost such a close friend, so this is new territory for me. Not a day has gone by that I haven’t felt an impulse to forward an article or e-mail to Sue, or thought of a question to ask or story to tell the next time I speak with her. Without my ideal reader, who will understand perfectly what I am trying to say but have not quite said?

I’ve puzzled over this since Sue’s funeral, on a sunny, early-spring day in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and have failed to generate an original thought. I can only conclude that it’s best not to focus on what has been lost but on the friendship I was so blessed to have, albeit for far too short a time.

Everyone should have a friend like Sue.