It always intrigued him how a group of people entering a room for the first time made decisions about where to sit. He stood quietly by a window to give the impression that he was looking out on a wilderness of garden that fell steeply away to a barrier of trees. But he was looking at them, all fifteen of them taking in their clothes, their movements, their manners, their voices (and the not-voices of the inevitably silent ones), their bags and computers. One of them approached him and, he smiling broadly and kindly, put his hand up as a signal as if to say ‘not just now, not yet, don’t worry’, or something like that.
This smile seemed to work, and he thought suddenly of the woman he loved saying ‘you have such a lovely smile; the lines around your eyes crinkle sweetly when you smile.’ And he was warmed by the thought of her dear nature and saw, as in a photo playing across his nervous mind, the whole of her lying on the daisied grass when, as ‘just’ lovers, they had visited this place for an opening, when he could hardly stop looking at her, always touching her gently in wonder at her particular beauty. In the garden they had read together from Alice Oswald’s Dart, the river itself just a short walk away . . .
As he finally turned towards his class and walked to a table in front of the long chalkboard, half a dozen hands went up. He had to do the smile again and use both hands, a damping down motion, to suggest this what not the time for questions – yet. He gathered his notebook and went to the grand piano. He leafed through his book, thick, blue spiral-bound with squared paper, and, imagining himself as Mitsuko Uchida starting Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto, fingers placed on the keys and then leaning his body forward to play just a single chord. He held the chord down a long time until the resonance had died away.
‘That’s my daily chord’, he said, ‘Now write yours.’
Again, more hands went up. He ignored them. He gave them a few minutes, before gesturing to a young woman at the back to come and play her chord. Beside the piano was a small table with a sheet of manuscript paper and a Post-It sticker that said, ‘Please write your chord and your name here’. And, having played her chord, she wrote out her chord and name – beautifully.
He knelt on the floor beside a young man (they were all young) at the front of the class. He liked to kneel when teaching, so he was the same height, or lower, as the person he as addressing. It was perhaps an affectation, but he did it never the less.
‘Tell me about that chord,’ he said, ‘A description please’.
‘I need to hear it again.’
‘OK’, there was a slight pause, ‘now let’s hear yours.’
‘I haven’t written one’, the reply had a slightly aggressive edge, a ‘why are you embarrassing me?’ edge.
‘OK’, he said gently, and waved an invitation to the girl next to him. She had no trouble in doing what was asked.
Next, he asked a tall, dark young man how many notes he had in his chord, and receiving the answer four, asked if he, the young man, would chose four voices to sing it. This proved rather controversial, but oh so revealing – as he knew it would be. Could these composers sing? It would appear not. There was a lot of uncertainty about how it could be done. Might they sound the notes out at the piano before singing (he had shaken his head vigorously)? But when they did, indeed performed it well and with conviction, he congratulated them warmly.
‘Hand your ‘chord’ to the person next to you on your right. Now add a second chord to the chord you have in front of you please.’
Several minutes later, the task done, he asked them to pass the chords back to their original owners. And so he continued adding fresh requirements and challenges. – score the chords for string quartet, for woodwind quartet (alto-flute, cor anglais, horn, baritone saxophone – ‘transposition hell !’ said one student), write the chords as jazz chord symbols, in tablature for guitar, with the correct pedal positions for harp.
Forty minutes later he felt he was gathering what he needed to know about this very disparate group of people. There were some, just a few, who refused to enter into the exercise. One slight girl with glasses and a blank face attempted to challenge him as to why such a meaningless exercise was being undertaken. She would have no part in it – and left the room. He simply said, ‘May I have your chord please?’ and, to his surprise, she agreed, and with some grace went to the table by the piano and wrote it out.
A blond Norwegian student said ‘May we discuss what we are doing? I am here to learn Advanced Composition. This does not seem to be Advanced Composition.’
‘Gladly’, he said, ‘in ten minutes when this exercise is concluded, and we have taken a short break.’ And so the exercise was concluded, and he said, ‘Let’s take 15 minutes break. Please leave your chords on the desk in front of you.’
With that announcement almost everyone got out their mobile phones, some leaving the room. He opened the windows on what now promised to be a warm, sunny day. He went then to each desk and photographed each chord sheet, to the surprise and amusement of those who had remained in the room. One declined to give him permission to do so. He shrugged his shoulders and went on to the next table. He could imagine something of the conversation outside. He’d been here before. He’d had students make formal complaints about ‘his methods’, how these approaches to ‘self-learning’ were degrading and embarrassing, belittling even. I’m still teaching he thought after 30 years, so there must be something in it. But he had witnessed in those thirty years a significant decline in musical techniques, much of which he laid at the feet of computer technology. He thought of this kind of group as a drawing class, doing something that was once common in art school, facing that empty page every morning, learning to make a mark and stand by it. He had asked for a chord, and as he looked at the results, played them in his head. Some had just written a text-book major chord, others something wildly impossible to hear, but just some revealed themselves as composers writing chords that demonstrated purpose and care. Though he could tell most of them didn’t get it, they would. By the end of the week they’d be writing chords like there was no tomorrow, beautiful, surprising, wholly inspiring, challenging, better chords than he would ever write. Now he had to help them towards that end, to help them understand that to be an ‘advanced composer’ might be likened to being an ‘advanced motorist’ (he recalled from his childhood the little badges drivers once put proudly on their bumpers – when there were such things – now there’s a windscreen sticker). To become an advanced motorist meant learning to be continually aware of other motorists, the state of the road, what your own vehicle was doing, constantly looking and thinking ahead, refining the way you approached a roundabout, pulled up at a junction. He liked the idea of transferring that to music.
What he found disturbing was that there were a body of students who believed that a learning engagement with a professional composer, someone who made his living, sustained his life with his artistic practice, had to be a confrontation. The why preceded, and almost obliterated, the how.
In the discussion that followed the break this became all too clear. He let them speak, and hardly had to answer or intervene because almost immediately student countered student. There evolved an intriguing analysis of what the class had entered into, which he summarised on a flip chart. He knew he had some supporters, people who clearly realised something of the worth and interest of the exercises. He also had a number of detractors, some holding quasi-political agendas about ‘what composition was’. After 20 minutes or so he intervened and attempted a conclusion.
‘The first rule of teaching is to understand and be sympathetic to a student’s past experience and thus to their learning needs, which in almost every situation will be different and various. This means for a teacher holding to an idea of what might, in this case, constitute ‘an advanced composer’. I hold to such an idea. I’ve thought about this ‘idea’ quite deeply and my aim is to provide learning opportunities to let as many of you as possible be enriched by that idea. You are all composers, but there is no consensus about what being a composer is, what the ‘practice of composition’ is. There used to be, probably until the 1970s, but that is no more. ‘
‘You may think I was disrespectful in not wishing to engage in any debate from the outset. I had to find a way to understand your experience and your learning needs. In 40 minutes I learnt a great deal. My desire is that you all go away from each session knowing you have stretched your practice as composers, through some of the skills and activities that make up such a practice. You all know what they are, but I intend to add to these by taking excursions into other creative practices that I have studied and myself been enriched by. I also want to stretch you intellectually – as some of my teachers stretched me, and whose example still runs through all I do.
Over the next seven days you are to compose music for a remarkable ensemble of professional musicians. I see myself as helping you (if necessary) towards that goal, by setting up situations that may act as a critical net in which to catch any problems and difficulties. I know we are going to fight a little over some of my suggestions, the use of computer notation I’m sure will be one, but I have my reasons, and such reasons contribute towards what I see as you all developing a holistic view of composing music as both a skill and an art form. I also happen to believe, as Imogen Holst once said of Benjamin Britten, that composing music is a way of life . . .
With that he walked to the window and looked out across that wilderness of green now bathed in sunshine. He felt a presence by his shoulder. Turning he suddenly recognised standing before him a young man, bearded now, and yes, he knew who he was. At a symposium in Birmingham the previous summer he had talked warmly and openly to this composer and jazz pianist in a break between sessions, and just a few weeks previously in London after a concert this young man had approached him with a warm greeting. Empathy flowed between them and he was grateful as he shook his hand that this could be. She had been with him at that concert and he remembered afterwards trying to recall his name for her and where they’d met. She was holding his arm as they walked down Exhibition Road to their hotel and he was so full of her presence and her beauty no wonder his memory had failed him.
‘Brilliant,’ the young man said, ‘Thank you. Just so much to think about.’
And he could say nothing, suddenly exhausted by it all.