The Hit-and-Run Composer

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.


  1. says

    Walter Aschaffenburg, gruff and opinionated person that he was, was so valuable for my thinking precisely for the negative things he said. I was heavily under the spell of Hindemith’s “Kammermusik” series then (and love them still to this day); the first thing that came up in the conversation was that Hindemith had never written an interesting thing in his life… hmmm, mouth shut, grind the teeth, but trust Walter, or trust my own brain?… Going through some piano pieces of mine, the first thing that caught his eye were the octaves; why the hell were they there!?!… Well, why the hell not?…

    The clincher: the last piece had a series of ascending chords; in their first performance the pianist had allowed one slip of the finger, so that in my recording there was this stray note breaking the sequence. Well, I grew to like and expect that note, so much that I ended up putting it into the score. When Aschaffenburg was looking it over, the first thing he saw was this note. “Don’t ever do something like this again!” The note’s still there; I trembled a little then but knew it was right. I knew right then I’d be my own composer, not someone else’s, and what greater lesson than that can there be?… (And don’t get the wrong idea; I still think Aschaffenburg’s own work is quite good; I’d love to see someone pick up his opera Bartleby again.)

  2. says

    When I was taking the second year of Brandeis’s undergraduate music theory sequence, the class was taught by an adjunct professor who wasn’t any good — most of the students loved him, but the two or three of us who actually wanted to learn something were frustrated. He and I didn’t get along, and I get along with just about everybody. I won’t name him, because I don’t want to undermine his well deserved obscurity.
    Anyway, one day we had a homework assignment to write a chord progression for some dopey little major-key melody. I knew I could do what he was looking for in my sleep, so I decided that to make the assignment a little more interesting I would harmonize it in the relative minor. He refused to accept it, saying that he had looked at it and could tell it didn’t work without needing to play it. I was pretty sure it did work, so I took it down the hall to somebody else, who played through it, made one minor adjustment, and said that it worked fine. I don’t remember if I redid it anyway, but I probably did so as not to exacerbate the already delicate office politics.
    The only thing I learned in that class was that the only legitimate chord progressions are derived from the cycle of fifths — which isn’t even true.
    Anyway, I wonder if Foss thought your ending didn’t work because he only saw it on paper and it didn’t _look_ like the kinds of things that he knew worked, much in the way that pieces with too few sharps and flats or dynamic markings or square rhythms get dismissed as amateurish after only a cursory glance at the score.

  3. says

    My own favorite Great Man encounter was with Berio, not while I was his student, but several years later. I played him two short tape pieces I had just made at the Brandeis studio. This was the pre-Buchla studio that consisted of a dozen sine wave generators, a band-pass filter or two, and – the star of the show – a variable speed 4-head tape loop unit. I had spent an entire summer splicing fragments of tape into loops. Very labor-intensive and enormous fun. Berio’s only comment was,”I don’t like repetition.”

  4. says

    Foss is a funny case. Hot in the 60s — I wore out my recording of “Time Cycle.” Near total fizzle since, although I was always fond of his “Solo Observed” from the early 80s. He was often championed under the heading of “Why can’t more composers perform their own work?” We had him as a guest here about 20 years ago. He was a pleasant fellow, no more, no less. But you are right — these drive-by perusals of young composers’ works are worthless, as a rule.

  5. Richard says

    Sometimes it seems that delusions of godhood are an occupational risk for composers. I’ve long given up the idea that good music is always written by good people. I still love Ruggles even though he was an irredeemable racst anti-semite

  6. says

    Yes yes yes! Annie Gosfield being the notable exception, most guest composers haven’t been overly insightful. And many of them made me wonder why I went. I see the composition teacher and student interaction like any other relationship, one that takes time to develop