Street Cred: Non-Composers Teaching Composition—A Personal Perspective

[Ed. Note: Earlier this year, while reading through back issues of the Australian Music Centre's magazine Sounds Australian, I came across this provocative article which we are reprinting here with their permission in the hopes of sparking some interesting debate on this side of the Pacific Ocean now that the fall semester has begun. -FJO]

I think I would have been about 22 when I came to the conclusion that, since there were so many composers whose work interested me far more than my own, it made sense to stop composing. From memory, it was a singularly painless decision (which shows it was the right one): more like a mental shrug of the shoulders. So when I found pieces of mine lying around (there weren’t many), I simply put them in the wastepaper basket. I’ve never regretted that decision, but, on the other hand, I’m glad that I did compose for while: it vastly changes the way one looks at other people’s work. I’m sure that my ongoing fascination with composers’ sketches, and with the whole creative process of making pieces, stems from that early experience.

How do non-composers teach composition? Basically, of course, by showing what other people have already done. That gives one a lot to draw on: perhaps too much, at times. I seem to remember Gerry Brophy complaining in the early eighties that every time he came up with a new idea, I’d tell him who had already been there and done that. Frustrating, perhaps, but also useful: it’s always good to have something—a work, a technical standard—to test one’s own work against. After all, art music operates in a highly competitive arena, and one needs to know sooner rather than later what the competitors are capable of.

Then there’s the whole question of analysis, which doesn’t have to be a preview of Purgatory. Analyzing a piece, if done in a way that highlights compositional strategies and decision-making, can also be a form of composition lesson; in fact, this is essentially how many European composers teach—by personal example. Musicologists, theorists or whatever can’t quite occupy that high ground, but they can compensate by showing a wide range of solutions to basic problems, made by many different composers.

Still, the argument that, unless one is prepared to get off the critic’s chair and get one’s own hands dirty, there is always going to be a dimension missing in one’s composition teaching is probably true enough, though I don’t think it’s a fatal flaw. It would be a problem, I think, if one was the only person teaching composition in a department, but that’s not a situation I’ve ever been in, or am ever likely to be.

One way of getting around this, for me, was to make “versions” of relatively freely conceived works. When I was Karlheinz Stockhausen’s teaching assistant, some 30 years ago, I wasn’t hired to teach composition, but to give analyses: half of them of his work, and for the rest, whatever I liked, assuming it was mainly contemporary. But inevitably, given that contact with Stockhausen took the form of a long afternoon session about once a month, the students soon started discussing their work with me, more as “first among equals” than as an instructor (in fact, at 28, I was exactly the average age of the composition class). One of the students, Kevin Volans, was not actually composing anything at the time, but I finally managed to extract a rather elegant graphic score from him, in the manner of Cardew’s Treatise, which he said he had made a couple of years earlier. “So fine,” I said, “Now make a version!” “Oh, I can’t,” he responded, “It’s too conceptually self-contained to be realised.” At this, I hit the roof, and told him to come back in 36 hours (or perhaps it was 48), and I would have a performable version ready; I did, and Kevin got (probably) his first public performances. In another semester, we made a group realization of Dieter Schnebel’s Glossolalie (Claude Vivier’s typically bizarre contribution involved eating money, or something of the sort), and I too chipped in with a section. Curiously, I’m just about to go back to that sort of thing, i.e. making a realization of Stockhausen’s Plus Minus to discuss at his Kürten Courses this year.

Stravinsky once claimed that one reason for his not teaching was that if a student brought him a piece, there would be just two possibilities: either he wouldn’t be interested, or he’d want to steal it. The second of these, clearly, has never been my problem! But, with very few exceptions, neither has the first. Occasionally one sees a score where one can only roll one’s eyes in despair, yet there’s almost always some angle one can work on—something that can be better realized. But there has to be something there to look at! If students don’t produce anything till the last week or so of semester (a not unfamiliar situation in undergraduate years), then one can’t help them, which is what one wants to do. Why, after all, does one teach composition? Among other things, in the hope that one will have something else good to listen to, not just now, but in the future too! But ultimately, it’s one’s students who pass judgment, whether immediately or in retrospect. As a composition teacher, composer or not, either one has “street cred,” or one doesn’t.

***

name
Richard Toop

Richard Toop is Reader in Musicology at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. In 1973-4, he was Stockhausen’s teaching assistant at the Cologne Musikhochschule, where his students included Claude Vivier and Kevin Volans. Composers who studied with him in Australia, institutionally or privately, include Gerard Brophy, Riccardo Formosa, Elena Kats-Chernin, Damien Ricketson, Michael Smetanin and Michael Whiticker.