The Mailman anecdote reminds me of another early disappointing encounter with celebrity. The first time I ever had a famous visiting composer look at my music, I was a freshman at Oberlin, and Lukas Foss was the composer. I had written a song for soprano, flute, and piano on a poem by Jean Valentine. It wasn’t good – if I thought there were any risk of it being resurrected after my death I would burn the ms., but there is no cause for such apprehension – but it was seven or eight minutes long and rather elaborate, dissonant, effect-seeking, and as avant-garde as my 18-year-old sensibility could muster, probably most under the influence of Berio’s Circles. In the last section I attempted a negative climax by suddenly isolating the soprano in a line dotted only by occasional single-note shrieks from the flute. This tendency to close a piece anticlimactically by making it suddenly turn quiet and sparse has been lifelong with me, employed as recently as last March.
In came Maestro Foss. The German accent with which he had stepped off the boat in 1937 at age 15 had shed little of its Schichtdicke by 1973, giving him an air of Old World authority. He had just authored Elytres and Paradigm, and, from the reverent way he pronounced their titles, seemed proud of them. I got in line, and when my turn arrived, he went slowly through my score, as my circle of peers looked on. When he came to the dramatic final page, with the soprano suddenly abandoned to a silence cut only by despairing blasts from the flute, he said:
“It looks like you got tired of vorking on ze piece, and just finished it very quickly.”
Nothing in my experience had prepared me to argue with Great Men, just as nothing in my character predisposed me to accept their judgment. I had never heard the term “negative climax,” and didn’t have it handy to use in self-justification. I had never verbalized, even to myself, my instinct that that was an effectively counterintuitive way to end a piece. It seemed obvious to me that abruptly robbing a soloist of her contrapuntal support was a dramatic gesture, and one that I was undoubtedly not the first to have thought of, but I had no words in which to advance this theory that would outweigh his frank dismissal. Least of all had I been raised impolitely enough to utter the one sentence that my besieged brain managed to string together: “Geez, for a Famous Guy, you’re sure not very insightful.” So, by reflex, I silently nodded.
Ever since that day I have been dubious of hit-and-run assessments by Great Men, even when I myself am the great man. A composer recently asked to have a lesson with me, and I replied that, while I am always happy to look at someone’s music, “a lesson” is something I feel capable of giving only the fourth or fifth time I see a student, after I’ve gotten an idea what they’re trying to achieve in piece after piece, and have had a chance to observe what is holding them back or subverting their intentions. The inept feature that sticks out and ruins a young composer’s otherwise suave piece might be the only original thing in it; it may be that they should keep the flaw and lose all the suavity they learned from other people’s music, but it would take some depth of observation before I’d chance recommending that. I am no fan of the “professionalizing” type of composition teaching that tries to make a student’s music conform in notational style and sound to some reputed common standard. To become a “professional composer” is one thing, to become an artist almost the opposite. The type of teaching I believe in is more like therapy, untangling the person’s misassumptions and motivations and trying to clarify what appeals to them musically. I almost never write notes into a student’s score, and I live by a saying of Blake: “If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.” It’s a long process, and the times I’ve felt like I was really able to help a student, it’s usually been over a period of a couple of years, and was a rewardingly intense (and mutually beneficial) encounter.
There have been a few times I’ve been “Great Manned” and enlisted to visit a school and comment on student compositions. I do it with the understanding that it’s a kind of game, and that one of the ground rules is, if a student gets an urge to tell me, “Geez, for a semi-famous guy, you’re not very insightful,” I’ll be happy to nod in agreement.
UPDATE: By the way, I don’t mean to imply that there’s no point in bringing composers in to look at student works. On the contrary, it’s tremendously valuable – for the composer. Looking through student works gives me new ideas and grist for my writing mill, while showing me which way the winds are blowing. But I think the best the student can hope for is that I’ll say something so boneheadedly mistaken that he’ll enjoy recounting the story 30 years later, as I did this.