Saturday, January 22, 2005
the role that teachers have played in my development
My first composition teacher was Helen Lipscomb in Lexington, Kentucky. She had about 40 published pieces, most of them charming teaching pieces. She also wrote chamber music for her friends and relatives to perform, and she taught me piano when I was 14-16. She showed me that there were women composers and that it was possible to publish. She showed me how to take seemingly unrelated scraps of music and put them together into a simple composition.
In high school I wrote a term paper for American History that was entitled “Music Since 1950”. I loved the library at the University of Kentucky and in doing the research I spent most of my time reading Cage’s books. SILENCE and A YEAR FROM MONDAY must have been out then. I also followed up each of his footnotes and read those books. My term paper had way too much Cage and not enough everybody else, so I think I got a B+ instead of an A. It was a good paper but my teacher didn’t think that John Cage was a significant enough person in the 20th century to justify a whole paper in American History. I still think she was wrong but she would not let me change the title/focus of the paper and I insisted on writing about Cage. I had a little trouble dealing appropriately with authorities and being a bit too stubborn even in situations where it didn’t benefit my goals. So I didn’t get the best possible grade but I fell in love with Cage who did become my teacher when I was 19.
My high school concert and marching bands were very fine and I played 8th chair, first flute in them. In the summer I was 15 my band director, Richard Borchardt, taught me how to write 12-tone music. It was a revelation. To me it meant that I didn’t have to wait for inspiration. I could think about music and make choices within the system. I wrote a 12-tone woodwind quartet (flute, oboe, English horn, bassoon) that ended with one of the players breaking a supposedly delicate wineglass in a garbage can. It was performed on the summer band concert at Henry Clay High and on a noon concert at University of Kentucky the next year but the wineglass never broke. It survived to be sold in a box of glassware at an auction.
After high school I attended UK where the study of composition was reserved for 3rd year students and above. Since I had been composing for years I showed my work privately to the two composers on staff, Dr. Kenneth Wright and John Barnes Chance. Dr. Wright was a serialist who could play jazz piano and Mr. Chance was a tonal composer who created electronic scores for theatrical events (and repaired televisions). Dr. Wright was very kind but I don’t remember anything he taught me, except perhaps that ‘ephemera’ is a good name for short pieces. Mr. Chance taught me that it is impossible for a composer to have writer’s block since there are only 12 tones and it only takes a few minutes to try each one added onto the phrase you have just written. Then you can pick a pitch and move along.
I met Cage when I was 18 and immediately dropped out of school. When I came back at the University of California at Davis, Cage was there and I was able to have a semester with him. He told us stories and gave us mushrooms. We performed his music and did the first of several performances of Satie’s VEXATIONS. He gave us the feeling that anything was possible in music and that duration was primary among the elements of music. Of course he also told us that there was no reason to write music because we could simply open our ears and hear music all around us. I was very surprised to discover later that he was in fact writing music like crazy and had not stopped at all.
I had gone to UCD to study with serialist Richard Swift (a lovely man) and to be at the school where the famous avant-guard magazine SOURCE was published. Richard arranged for me to have a student loan and a campus job (in vegetable crops department cleaning seeds and cross-pollinating tomatoes). He convinced me that what I was writing was about 50 years out of date. Between that comment and Cage’s encouragement to be still and listen, I wandered off to both practice piano 6 hours a day, and make happenings and electronic music (with Larry Austin and Jerome Rosen).
I went to Mills College in Oakland for graduate work in piano performance and eventually became a member of Hysteresis, a women composer-performer collective. Our first concert 3/3/73 I did a new piece, PEACHY KEEN-O (which recently came out on a Pogus CD of that name only 30 years later). Robert Ashley heard it and offered me the opportunity to stay at Mills an extra year to do an MA in composition in addition to the MFA in piano that I was about to complete. Ashley told me that I could be a composer. He was the first person to say that to me. It had the miraculous effect of making it possible for me to be a composer. He also taught me the difference between collage and process.
In the process of obtaining this degree I also studied with Terry Riley who showed me how to take parts of phrases and to rearrange the parts with other parts of phrases and to make compositions. The class was entitled Cyclic Composition and consisted of learning basic Indian singing. It had a profound effect on me in its encouragement of the intuitive.
My teachers were very important to me. Their smallest remarks changed my life.
Of course, my 20 years of working with dancers was a tremendous education and being quiet and listening continues to be useful.