Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Who's your teacher?

While some composers are entirely self-taught, and the best composers inevitably have to become self-taught, most classical composers have teachers, and -- usually with pride, but sometimes in defiance -- add their names to our resumes, sometimes even the names of our "grandteachers", attaching ourselves through that lineage to a tradition.

But the precise nature of the teacher-student relationship, however institutionalized in CVs and dictionary entries, is far from fixed, and indeed, often very mysterious. While there are some lineages in which the students' music can be heard to be continuing the work of the master, there are as many in which the relationship to the master's music is ambivalent, critical, negative, or simply not recognizable. But neither of these styles of musical relationships to the teacher and her/his tradition says one bit about the personal relationship, which may be tender or tendentious either way.

The composition classes at UC Berkeley in the late 1950s and early 1960's are illustrative. These classes were one of the birthplaces of the radical music which would come to include the more promoted minimalism of the early 1970's, and included a number of students (Young, Riley, Rush, Leedy, Oliveros) who have become well-known. The composition staff at UCB was, however, a bit difficult to square with the nascent radical aesthetic, including names like Andrew Imbrie, Juaquin Nin-Culmel, Seymour Shifrin, and William Denny. The first two of these names were active opponents of the young radical, while the latter two, although coming from very different aesthetics became important teachers. Shifrin, a friend from youth of Morton Feldman, was committed both to a high art tradition and an atonal style that is best described as academic. One member of Shifrin's seminar said "we argued all the time with Seymour, but we loved him to death, he was a mensch." And Denny was game enough for the new ideas that he accompanied his graduate students to a festival in Provo, Utah, where he took part in a performance of La Monte Young's Poem for Chairs, Tables, Benches, etc., by playing catch onstage with Terry Riley. A visiting professorship by Robert Erickson brought a more like-minded teacher into the mix, but the fact is that these young musicians found a positive impulse in working with teachers whose own music was far from their own.

A further complication is the quantitative aspect of a teaching relationship. Some students can go in week after week for years of lessons with the same teacher and never profit from the effort. Other students are sparked for life by a pair of words at the right moment from a composer who will otherwise be a perfect stranger. A lot of resumes are padded these days with "studied with" lines for a visit to Tanglewood or Darmstadt, in which the relationship was transient, while the more decisive orchestration or counterpoint teacher back home goes unmentioned. What of all the composers who have made a summer pilgrimage to the Stockhausen Courses in Kürten in recent years? Stockhausen lectured on his own works but did not give private compositional instruction as he did earlier. While one might now speak of a small contemporary "School of Stockhausen", it's not quite accurate to identify the members of this school as Stockhausen's students.

The relationship to a teacher changes over time, too. I had the luck to have some great composition teachers, and one of the pleasures of this life has been the gradual unfolding over time -- and a long time, at that -- of what exactly I learned from these good people. It's a continual surprise. I was recently writing a eccentric little passacaglia, and suddenly realized that my fussiness about balance and symmetries owed everything to Gordon Mumma, with whom I did not explicitly study counterpoint; indeed I do think that he ever used the term in my presence. But it turns out Gordon taught me a lot about counterpoint and his ideas about balance and density are inescapable parts of my toolkit.


Anonymous said...

I've shared the experience you describe of gradually synthesizing, years later, what I've learned from several good teachers. One of them, incidentally, was Andrew Imbrie. Although this was decades after the period you mentioned, I have a hard time imagining him as an "active opponent" of anyone's aesthetic. On the contrary, with us he was a very gracious, humble and supportive teacher, who took it as his responsibility to help a student bring out whatever kind of music he or she was trying to create, and I was quite impressed by his ability to think his way into other people's musical languages. He certainly didn't see it as his job to promote his own aesthetic preferences through his students.

--David McMullin

Charles Shere said...

There's a distinction to be drawn between "student" and "pupil," though it's rarely observed these days. We're all students of Mozart, I think; and some of us of Cage. My only teachers were Berio, for a semester, and Erickson; the latter was most influential.

But surely much "study" is done otherwise...