What was my training as a composer? I’ve tended to think that it was pretty traditional (I mean, traditional for the time). Was that true? Actually, no. Was I self taught? In many ways, yes.
The most traditional academic part of my training was as an undergraduate at Duke, where I studied theory, history, piano; but with only a semester of orchestration and two semesters of conducting. I really don’t remember if I formally studied composition with Iain Hamilton. Upon reflection, I think that the answer is no. I was on my own, and completed a couple of pieces as an undergraduate, a piano solo work and a piece for brass quintet, inspired by Stockhausen’s Momente.
Instead of pursuing the academic Ivy League (Yale, Columbia, Princeton — post-Webern) or the conservatory (Eastman, Juilliard — more traditional craft-oriented) paths, I decided to attend to CalArts, then in its second year of existence. California… that was a different experience. Strangely, my composition teacher was Mel Powell, from Yale and a member of the “Ivy League” school. I rarely had lessons. Mel was too involved as Dean of the School of Music in organizational issues. I have great respect for him, but remember mostly his classes in analyzing the works of AntonWebern. I do remember hearing for the first time music of Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Phillip Glass at CalArts. California” composers Morton Subotnick and Harold Budd were also on the faculty, but I didn’t formally work with them. In fact, I didn’t formally work with anyone — just absorbed a lot. Students were pretty much on our own. It was tough for the undergrads, but having gained the basics in theory, piano, etc. it was much easier for me as a grad student, especially as I was fairly self-directed. I have always felt that, at its heart, education is about growth, exploration and learning, not about merely preparation for a career.
Then SUNY at Buffalo. Mel was a friend of Morton Feldman, one of the ultimate non-academic composers. Morty had just been named Edgard Varese professor at SUNY. The piece that got me into SUNY, I believe, was what one might term a “minimalist” piano piece – it was a study in changes of register and density, based on a simple scale and chord set. Morty was what I consider my only real teacher. What I learned from him: listen, and trust your ear. (The “urgency of now.” I’m not sure where that phrase comes from, but it is on my mind this morning.) One of the very profound things I remember him saying about composition: “You must choose your poison.”
I had lessons at his apartment. My strongest memory is of him hunched over the piano (his eyesight was very poor), looking at the music paper in front of him, playing and listening intently to chords and single notes at the piano. He lived in the world of each piece as it unfolded. As he completed a page of score he would tape it to a bedroom wall, in sequence with the previously completed pages, so that he so he could stand and “walk through” the piece, looking at it closely, to see it unfolding. His trust in himself was complete. As he finished composing a page of music he would immediately copy it (in ink and on vellum). Actually, I now do somewhat the same in many works. When I trust what I have done, which is usually pretty quickly these days, I begin “copying” it. Today that means putting it into my notation software. And yes, I still have my ink pens and black ink, even many pages of blank vellum that I will probably never use (Note from a few years later: I have finally let them go, except for a page or two… sentimental reasons.)
I have never belonged to any “school” of composition. There are so many these days. In our world it is almost impossible to escape the multiplicity of styles and approaches. Yes, I was influenced by Morty’s style for awhile. He did not insist on composing in a particular style, however, but his influence was inescapable. My own style obviously evolved, though I think that my works still reflect his intuitive approach, of using the ear.
It may be hard to pin down my “style” if you listen to more than one of my works, or even more than one movement of a given work. There might appear to be different styles being used in the same work. But it is always a question of my intent, my inspiration, and using what I need in order to accomplish my intent at a given moment. The variety in my works displays different aspects of my sensibility, identity and experience. In a way, I am composing for myself.
If one asked, I would say that these are the composers who have made the greatest impression on me:
Igor Stravinsky (his clarity; and I am something of a neo-classicist at times)
Claude Debussy (his ear, his sensitivity to harmony, that would lead him to where it must go)
Arnold Schoenberg (his imagination, leading to liberation of the dissonance)
Morton Feldman (his direct, intuitive approach that is solely his own)
Hildegard von Bingen (she heard, then sang her melodies, so original for her time)
Claudio Monteverdi (the great pivotal figure from the Renaissance to the Baroque; he took
the leap and created something new)
Ludwig van Beethoven (the passion, the individuality)
Johannes Brahms (the voicing, the thorough-going craftsmanship, plus I love playing his
mature piano works)
Franz Schubert (a natural lyrical gift beyond compare)
Edgard Varese & Morton Feldman: What did I learn?
I studied with Morton Feldman at SUNY Buffalo (1975 – 77) as the first holder of the Edgard Varese Fellowship in composition. I’m sure that Feldman named the fellowship himself, and know that he regarded Varese very highly.
How can I express the essence of what I learned in those years? A few years ago I came across this passage by Paul Griffiths in the program notes for the CD Boulez Conducts Varese (on the Deutsche Grammophon label). Griffiths sums it up beautifully:
“After the explosion of Ameriques Varese honed his technique in pieces for smaller groupings – Hyperprism, Octandre, Integrales – before returning to the large orchestra to create Arcana (1925-27). This was a closer approach to his ideal of music in which the sounds themselves, by virtue of their force and energy, would create structural demands – for repetition, calming, change, recollection – quite independently of any pre-ordained scheme: music as a play of sheer, vital sonority.”