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Notes from my Apprenticeship: A Personal Appreciation of Alexander Goehr on his 90th Birthday

The greatest teachers are the rare ones who profoundly change you as a human being and whose lessons affect you throughout a lifetime. For me, Alexander “Sandy” Goehr has been that teacher. Since the day I became his pupil in Cambridge in December 1976, he has been the most important influence on my musical and intellectual life as my teacher, mentor, colleague and close friend.

In 2010, Sandy asked me to edit his essay, “Learning to Compose,” which outlines his journey as a composer, student and teacher. It allowed me the pleasure of remembering the more than four decades he had been my mentor and friend, as well as bringing my own journey as a composer into sharper focus. It also gave me the opportunity to consider and appreciate what the gift of those decades has meant to me. Since that essay was published—thanks to the advent of technology and the invention of Skype—we have been able to carry on discussing and elaborating on the matters Sandy wrote about in “Learning to Compose,” and we have spent a lot of time talking about how someone goes about learning to be a composer, and how we as teachers are best able to guide our pupils from our own experiences. Through those recorded conversations, we developed the idea for a book about musical “DNA” and how it evolves and is passed on from one generation to the next.

To create our forthcoming book, Composing a Life: Teachers, Mentors and Models, Sandy and I discussed his experiences as a student of individual composers and mentors—his father, composer, conductor and Schoenberg pupil Walter Goehr, Richard Hall, Michael Tippett, Olivier Messiaen, Yvonne Loriod, Hans Eisler, Pierre Boulez, Ulrich Siegele, Milton Babbitt and others—and went on to talk about the ways he put those lessons to practical use as a composer to create his unique approach utilizing the compositional subjects discussed in the second part of the book—such as modeling, figured bass, modality, and text setting—and how all of this figured into his mentorship of his students. I wanted to understand how he filtered his life and experiences into teaching processes that benefited me as his student, and how I in turn used his life and lessons to create my music and teach my students in a similar way. It also has given me a unique insight into his life and work.

Something that we discussed for many years is how the tradition of music in the context of human culture, from the prehistoric past to the present, is like the Ganges in Hindu myth, a continuum, and that the practice of creating music is still handed down across the ages by successive generations of teachers to pupils, who become teachers. . . , etc. This is the case for all music anywhere in human existence, not just Western classical music. However, the transgenerational evolution and passing on of musical DNA is rarely talked about and is not completely understood. We hope our book will change that and will inspire composers and teachers to examine their own musical experiences and heritage in this way.

Having our special recorded conversations over the past several years provided me with an opportunity to consider the intersection between my journey in life and his. As I have gone on to become both composer and teacher—and always a student of our art—I know that learning music or any skill or art requires more than the study of some form of mathematical or set theory analysis. There is an intellectual intimacy between venerated teachers and passionate students, and when they click, the result is a two-way street that affects both. I find this happening with the young musicians I mentor, and, with many of them, that contact means as much to me as it does to them. That is something that I learned from Sandy. If you treat the students who look up to you with the utmost respect, you get the same in return, sometimes tenfold, and your effect as a teacher is very much greater.

So, how did a young music student from Southern California get all the way to Sandy Goehr in Cambridge in 1976?

The American novelist Kurt Vonnegut was once asked by an interviewer to describe his life in one sentence. He thought briefly, and then said: “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.” I have always felt this simple statement to be profound, and find that it describes my life and anyone else’s I know just as well.

My own youthful journey from my native California to mid-1970s Cambridge to study with Sandy was itself an accident. Graduating midterm in the final year of my BA degree program at the University of California Santa Barbara left me with some time to fill before my planned graduate study. I was feeling a little bit at loose ends and approached my teacher at the time, Peter Racine Fricker, a wonderful man, composer and excellent teacher himself, for advice as to what I should do in the meantime. Fricker, noticing that I was carrying around a few scores of Goehr’s music (the Little Symphony, Pastorals for orchestra, the Second String Quartet and the Piano Trio), asked what I thought of them. I said that I liked them very much and that I thought they were “original, unusual and idiosyncratic.” Fricker said that he was an old friend of Goehr’s and suggested that I go to England and study privately with him, which I found incredibly exciting. To cut a long story short, parents were consulted, letters were exchanged (my other teacher at the time, Thea Musgrave, who had inspired my investigations into contemporary British music that led me to discover Goehr, also sent a letter of recommendation to Sandy), my student scores were airmailed to Sandy in Leeds at his request, and I soon found myself in cold, frozen Cambridge in December of 1976, the first year of Sandy’s long reign there as Professor of Music.

It seemed at first as if it might have been a case of oil and water. Sandy, the highly intelligent, extremely well-read teacher and composer with the European pedigree steeped in tradition, and me, the California “hippie” with my ordinary but good educational career, and musical background of playing alto saxophone in school bands and rock guitarist. I was a Johnny-come-lately to serious music composition due to a chance encounter with Schoenberg’s violin concerto at the age of 18. What I know now that I didn’t know then was that Sandy, like me, had come to music composition relatively late in a way that mirrored my own short journey at that time. Like Sandy in his youth, I had found ways to compensate for what I lacked to get to where I wanted to go. What I didn’t know filled a much bigger bag than what I did know, but I was determined to figure it all out and do it in my own way. I think because Sandy had essentially done it in a similar fashion, he understood what I was up to much more than I did myself, and he was uniquely prepared and able to help me. Many a lesser teacher at Sandy’s level of expertise would have surely sent me home to California to sharpen my skills or give up!

In retrospect, I was a pretty green young composer of 22, but eager and willing to learn how to get better. Thanks to Sandy’s guidance, I managed to learn and improve, and I am still doing it. Looking back over five decades, with the advantage of knowing what I have learned in the meantime and with the experience of being a teacher myself, I have a very personal perspective on Sandy the teacher; and, of course, I have the extra added benefit of having discussed the experience with many other Goehr pupils over the years. It should be remembered that Sandy has taught many hundreds of composers from all over the world in his life, and he is certainly one of the most important composition teachers of the past sixty years or so. Some of my fellow Goehr pupils are Anthony Gilbert, Edward Cowie, George Benjamin, Geoff Poole, Julian Anderson, Thomas Adès, Robin Holloway, Silvina Milstein, Nicholas Cook, Bayan Northcott, Nicholas Sackman, Roger Smalley; and Americans Zhou Long, Chen Yi, David Froom, Daria Semegen, Harold Meltzer and Joan Huang.

Going back to Vonnegut, if you are a student of Goehr’s, you know that the concept of an “accident” is seminal to his teaching method and a distinctive feature of his compositional process. One of the first things he taught me was to embrace the “happy accident” and make something of it; even make your whole piece about it, or several more pieces if it is justified. It is often the accident and resulting unforeseen consequences that will propel pieces above and beyond the mechanics of their creation, transcending the preoccupation with “getting from one note to the next” as Sandy puts it, and becoming something original.

One of his unique qualities that makes Sandy an excellent teacher is that he is able to abstract practical methods from his own experiences and struggles as a composer to help those who are going through similar struggles of their own. He believes that failure is a necessary learning experience and an opportunity to improve. His great strength comes from recognizing exactly what an individual student composer is having difficulties with, giving them the intellectual tools to surmount those problems and guiding them to finding their way. He never, ever, imposes his own way of working as a composer on a student as a solution. He nearly always sees and understands how each of his students is actually working, and can put himself in their place and make them see things according to the student’s own methods.

One of Sandy’s early suggestions to me was to always set a specific task for myself as the first step to writing a new piece. At the time, I was coming up with schemes and structural inventions for organizing music without having a clue as to how I would use them. He made me think about what sort of sound I wanted to create first and to come up with an ensemble that I could complete such a sonic design for. Once I set my sights on a specific group of instruments and the particular sound I wanted to create, then, he said, I could let my propensity to create structural coherence loose on making that noise with those instruments. It was a new way of thinking for me then (even though it now seems obvious as the way I should work) that has served me well since. All of these ideas have been passed on to my own students over the years utilizing the methods I learned from Sandy.

I have never found a composer that Sandy did not have a personal perspective on, whether he had an artistic interest in them or not. When I was first studying with him my favored earlier composers were Schoenberg (first and foremost), Ives, Stravinsky, Webern, Varese, Debussy, Ravel and Scriabin, and the recent and living composers I most admired (other than Goehr) were Dallapiccola, Carter, Ligeti, Messiaen, Boulez, Berio, Nono, Krenek and Xenakis. He discussed all these composers with me in some detail, helping me to develop my critical facilities and analytical skills in order to apply what I learned from them to my own way of thinking and composing. At the time, Sandy was very interested in figured bass and he helped me appreciate a group of composers that I was only vaguely familiar with at the time: Scarlatti, Rameau, C. P. E. Bach, Couperin and, more than anyone else, Handel. We also delved into the early English choral composers (in the wake of our studies of chant), and I have a special love for this music—from Dunstable to Byrd—to this day because of those lessons.

Another important aspect of this period of my study with Sandy was reading the ongoing list of his book suggestions and the subsequent discussions we had about them. Lucky for me that I was (and still am) a voracious reader because it was all I could do to keep up with his “suggestions.” Something that seemed odd to me at the time but I later came to understand is that I was not encouraged to read any analytical or theoretical books on contemporary music. When I asked about this, Sandy said I should learn to compose by listening and doing and that no after-the-fact theory of music was going to help me do either. What I did do, according to his prompting, was read books on art, aesthetics, ethnomusicology, history, philosophy, theater and cinema, literature and poetry. He also had me reading across the board geographically—American (Sandy has a great appreciation for and knowledge of American culture), European, and Asian—something that was rare at the time. What he was getting me to do was to understand what we were doing as composers in the context of world culture and helping me find ways to reflect these discoveries back into my own musical work. This set up a crucially important habitual pattern in me that is still a very big part of my daily activity.

For example, I remember early on we started discussing Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook followed by his notebooks The Nature of Nature and The Thinking Eye. At one lesson we discussed Klee’s concept of “taking a line for a walk” and how it could be applied to composing. We discussed many artists at the time that seemed particularly appropriate to musicians, including Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Henry Moore, the Italian and Russian futurists, and Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art and the Blaue Reiter writings.

After attending a performance of Sandy’s Sonata About Jerusalem in London, I expressed an interest in composing political music theater and I was sent off to read Erwin Piscator’s Political Theatre, Eisenstein’s collected writings on the theory of cinema, and a book on Noh and Kabuki whose title I have forgotten, all works that had been important to Sandy’s development of his music theater triptych (Naboth’s Vineyard, Sonata about Jerusalem and Shadowplay) and numerous other theatrical works and operas (including Arden Must Die, Behold the Sun, Arianna and Promised End). We have had many discussions over the years on this subject and it made me an avid student of film and theater theory, which I still am today.

In my undergrad years, I had been a devotee of the works of Orwell, Huxley, Hesse, the aforementioned Vonnegut and a long list of science fiction authors. Sandy got me reading Joyce and Beckett (two authors that would assume a special significance for me later when I took up citizenship and residence in Ireland), and Kafka and Mann. I also began to become familiar with the linguistic works of Noam Chomsky at this time, as well as the philosophical works of Wittgenstein and others. Our discussions stimulated my great interest in the parallels and differences between music and language as well as the origins and history of the development of both.

More directly to the point of my musical studies, I was reading a lot of poetry at the time and we often discussed poetry and music and their close relationship. I was setting some poems for soprano and chamber orchestra in the original language by the Spanish surrealist Rafael Alberti and Sandy guided me through discovering the best way of setting these and any other words to music. I was “noodling about” too much in his opinion, and so we started by my reading the poems out loud, and then writing down the words with the rhythm I used while reading. The result was a revelation to me. I was trying too hard to cover far too much territory with the words in a way that was not intended by the poet. Sandy taught me to respect the nature of the original and preserve the integrity of the poet’s creation by “reading” it into my musical setting.

After several months, Sandy suggested that I should get “a different perspective from another composer” while I was visiting England. He arranged for me to attend Peter Maxwell “Max” Davies’ class at the Dartington Summer School that year (1977). Everyone knows that once upon a time in the 1950s, Sandy, Max and Harry Birtwistle were the primary members of what was called the “Manchester School” of composers, and for a period of time they were all very close friends and colleagues, along with pianist John Ogden and trumpeter/conductor Elgar Howarth. By 1977, however, that was all in the past. Sandy and Max had taken separate paths and their friendship was no longer as close as it had once been (though they became closer again in Max’s later years). Considering the situation, it was all the more amazing to me that Sandy would write to Max on my behalf and that Max would take me in the class that was restricted to eight students, of which I was the last admitted. (I was already very much a fan of Max’s music—especially Eight Songs for a Mad King and the Second Taverner Fantasia—and his ensemble, The Fires of London.)

Apart from being a big boost to my self-confidence, attending Max’s intense and very long daily classes was an eye-opening experience for me and a perfect place for me to get “perspective” on my time with Sandy so far. I learned a hell of a lot, and applying what I had learned from Sandy to the work we were required to do at Dartington paid dividends with Max, who knew very well where I had picked the stuff up. In retrospect, I would say that Max was very careful with me and I think he paid a lot of attention to me, making sure I got something out of the summer that I could take back to Cambridge. It was a wonderful experience, one of the most important in my life, and I met a lot of new people and made many friends there. But the important thing to remember in context is that I only went to Max in the first place because it was part of Sandy’s plan for me as his student to get the most out of my time in England and go home to California having learned a great deal and having had some life-changing experiences. I bring it up only to illustrate the absolute concern and respect that Sandy showed for me as his student and how guiding my education was more important to him than any personal issues. (I think it was also a sign of professional and personal respect for Max and vice versa.)

After my first ten-month period in Cambridge, I returned to California only briefly—long enough to make some money and apply through official channels to become a foreign Ph.D. student at Cambridge under Goehr. I had found my place for the next stage of life quite by accident!

I returned in late 1978 to Cambridge and to Sandy as an official grad student, though from day one, my unofficial position was something altogether different. I was almost immediately conscripted (most willingly) by him into service as a teaching, music and personal assistant. Thus began what I call my “apprenticeship” in an old-fashioned sense, something that is rare in this day and age.

So, what was this apprenticeship exactly?

I began to fill the role of teaching assistant, helping to plan and organize a few undergraduate courses, a weekly student composer seminar and events with visiting lecturers, composers and players. I remember one course that was a music perception lab where we played Webern’s Symphony, Boulez’s Structures and Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, among other pieces, and the students would discuss and analyze the music only from what they heard, not from any printed score. My fellow Ph.D. student, music theorist Nicholas Cook, was also involved in running this course. At the weekly composer meeting, undergraduate students would come to Sandy’s Trinity Hall rooms and play their pieces and discuss them, or some other topic chosen by Sandy.

These experiences were very important learning experiences for me in terms of becoming a teacher in the future, but other duties were more important to my growth as a composer. I was drafted in as a musical assistant to Sandy the composer, a role that took on increasing significance over the coming years. At this time, in early 1979, Sandy was composing Babylon the Great Is Fallen, four large-scale pieces for chorus and orchestra, to fulfill a commission from the BBC Symphony and Chorus. These pieces would become the musical/dramatic pillars on which he would hang his next opera, Behold the Sun. My first job was to prepare the orchestral score (as it progressed from week to week) and, later, the parts for the performance. It was fascinating for me to get an inside look on how Sandy worked from sketches to a short score, giving me the indications for the final orchestral score, followed by a series of revisions.

I moved into his house during the summer of 1979, to facilitate the work on Babylon the Great Is Fallen (which was premiered by the BBC Symphony under Michael Gielen at the Royal Festival Hall on Dec. 12, 1979). Sandy took a sabbatical around this time and went on an extended trip to China that was financed by the British Council, becoming the first Western composer to make an official visit there in many years. I remember helping him prepare some lectures for the visit. There were trips to Europe and Israel during this time, and it was during an extended residence in Jerusalem that he met his wife, Israeli sinologist Amira Katz.

Back in his home, Sandy composed several new pieces while I was living in his house. After Babylon the Great Is Fallen there were other sections of the upcoming opera, including the stunningly beautiful aria Behold the Sun, Op. 44a, which was one of the first times Sandy’s experiments with figured bass and adaptations of quasi-tonal harmony yielded the fresh, original sound world that his works have inhabited ever since. Also during my time there, he composed Sinfonia, Op. 42, Deux Etudes for orchestra, Op. 43, and the Kafka songs for voice and piano, Das Gesetz der Quadrille, Op. 41. I attended the premieres of all these works.

I was amazed at how Sandy could fulfill the enormous responsibilities of being the Cambridge Professor of Music and at the same time compose one work after another without much space for rest in between. He used to get up very early in the morning and I would hear him in his study playing bits over and over on the piano with slight variations while singing/humming in an “unearthly” harmony. This would begin at 5 a.m. most mornings and continue until breakfast, after which he would be off to the day job during term weekdays, leaving me behind most days to get on with the work in his studio.

I was lucky enough to watch and hear these works come into being from conception to the premiere performances. I learned much by observing and asking questions about how he was working. He would show me his sketches and how they progressed. I understood his idiosyncratic “modal serialism” system of composing that he had developed from Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique, but since he had undergone a kind of compositional overhaul in 1976 with his three Psalm IV works—which led him in a completely new direction—he was composing music so different from mine or anyone else’s that I was mystified and intrigued by it at the same time. It gave me a new appreciation of music traditions and history and also made me realize that music did not have to be ultra complicated and anti-tonal to be something revolutionary, fresh and new.

Another part of my continuing education took place around the kitchen dining table. Much of this was one on one, talking about books we’d read, music we’d heard, art exhibitions and films we’d seen, etc. Sandy would often challenge a statement or interpretation I would make and urge me to explain or defend it. These conversations really developed my critical thinking skills and I learned to think before I spoke up and ventured an opinion.

Also at that dining table was a succession of dinner parties. Some of the many guests who regularly gathered around that table over the years that I came to know included composers Harry Birtwistle, Hugh Wood, and Robin Holloway; composer/conductor Ryan Wigglesworth; the head of new music at Schott and Co., Sally Groves; Cambridge philosopher Bernard Williams; Nobel Prize-winning economist Sir James Mirrlees, computer music pioneer Peter Zinovieff; Boosey and Hawkes managing director David Drew and his wife, Judy; BBC executive Jimmy Burnett and his wife, Janet; Cambridge music lecturer Iain Fenlon; and ethnomusicologist Simha Arom and his wife, Sonia. Many of those conversations have stuck with me and I often think of how much I learned from them about music, art, philosophy, literature and other things.

I attended countless concerts and premieres with Sandy over the years and was introduced by him to many interesting people before and after them. I remember meeting a young (37) Maurizio Pollini after the premiere of Babylon the Great is Fallen at the Royal Festival Hall. Pollini had played in the performance of Beethoven’s choral fantasy in the same concert. I also received introductions to composers and conductors—including Oliver Knussen, Pierre Boulez, David Atherton and Michael Gielen—and many leading performers. My head spins when I think of it now, but it was all part of my education. I learned that well-known figures are just people like everybody else, and you can talk to them as easily as someone in your own family (sometimes more easily!). Because of those experiences, I developed the ability to talk to anyone about anything at any time without feeling nervous, something that has served me well throughout my life.

Even after I left Cambridge and moved to London and then Ireland, I continued to assist Sandy until 1985. I spent more than two years (1982-1985) preparing the orchestral score and parts for the premiere performance of the massive three-act opera Behold the Sun, Op. 44, in Germany in April 1985. I thought I knew quite a bit about orchestration, but working on that huge project was like going to orchestration graduate school. As Sandy finished portions of the score, we would get together in his studio and spend a couple of days going over the orchestral design. We would make rough sketches for me to work from. Sometimes Sandy would give me a list of instruments and let me decide the exact deployment of the orchestration for a short section, which was much appreciated and very encouraging. I would complete a full pencil draft on manuscript paper at my cottage in Ireland, and then return to Cambridge to show it to Sandy who would make the final changes and adjustments (sometimes they were extensive). Then I would return to Ireland to make the final copy on vellum in ink. This would get looked at one more time by Sandy and then I would make any last corrections in Cambridge before taking them to the production office at Schott and Co. on Great Marlborough Street in London on my way back home to Ireland.

The premiere of Behold the Sun by Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg, Germany, on 19 April 1985, which I attended, marked the end of my nearly nine years as Sandy’s pupil and assistant. By then, I had moved to Ireland and had become a music teacher myself. All of my students have benefited from the teaching methods I learned from Sandy, and a few of them have gone on to become professional music teachers, performers and composers and are continuing the “tradition.” It always cheers me up to think about this fact and it is an honor to pass on Sandy’s teachings to the next generations and to know that it will continue long after our time on planet Earth.

My position as Sandy’s pupil did not end in 1985, and it never will. Over the years it has continued, albeit at a slightly different pace and level of discussion, given that I now live in Los Angeles. Thanks to modern technology, we are in fairly regular contact through the magic of the internet, and I go to Cambridge for a visit of a few days whenever I can.

I thought about making a list of items that I learned from Sandy over the years, but I realized that would be impossible, because, in a sense, everything I have learned since the first day we met in 1976 has been influenced by him in some way. There hasn’t been a day that has gone by in 45 years that I have not used something I learned from Sandy in my life, either as composer, teacher and writer, as I am today, or as a book editor and publisher, as I made my living in the 1990s. The development of project management skills and powers of self-initiative that I learned working with Sandy have proven crucial for what I have accomplished in life so far. Reflecting back over the years to try and put it in a nutshell, I see that the great lesson I learned from him is that it isn’t the destination in life that is important but the journey: Music is life, and life is music. My gratitude to him for this and everything else I learned from him, and the delight and joy of our many years of friendship, knows no bounds.

Happy 90th Birthday, dear Sandy!

Copyright 2022 by Jack Van Zandt, All Rights Reserved

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