It’s probably been discussed on these pages before, but now that friends of mine are actually starting to hold down faculty positions in respectable music departments around the country, it makes me wonder: What are they actually teaching? With no disrespect to my own teachers, who will always have a special place in my heart, I don’t think I learned much about composition during all those one-on-one sessions. Composition professors are more like therapists than anything else. They may help students forge personal strategies for coping with whatever musical dilemmas one may encounter, and possibly boost the overall confidence level of a budding young artist; but teach the art of writing music? I don’t think so.
Through individual mentoring, I’ve met some amazing teachers. Although I didn’t spend all that much time with them, I know that folks like Brain Ferneyhough and Kevin Volans have shaped my musical thinking to some extent, but I can’t put a finger on anything in particular. For sure my long stint studying with Alvin Curran manifests itself in my music in some way, shape, or form. But again, I don’t know how. Moreover, if I were to land an academic job—not bloody likely—what the hell would I have to offer besides my idiosyncratic first-hand knowledge of the bizarre little world of modern composition? Perhaps that’s all that teachers really impart: Simply their very own über-specific, personal take on things.
I remember back in my grad school days, visiting artists—such as Lou Harrison and Eliane Radigue—had a shamanistic air about them. They weren’t on campus very long, so the expectation of learning anything was all but absent. It was a simple matter of basking in someone’s aura or getting a glimpse of what these composers were like as people. I was lucky as a young composer to have several interactions with a wide range of composers. After my first of three private lessons with Toshio Hosokawa, the composer asked me in his soft voice, “Is it too late for you to study something else in school?” At the time, I was irked, but obviously he must have felt that he was giving me the best advice possible. Could I be so brave if I were in the same position?