On Thursday, I met with Alexander Radvilovitch’s composition class from the Conservatoire. We met in an astonishing room of faded, 19th-century splendor: red walls and dark, patterned woods, scuffed into indiscernibility (I will post photos from the seminar and other events on this trip when I return home — my time on the internet here is too brief and scattered to attempt a camera hookup).
Just before I left the States, I got word that Radvilovitch wanted me to bring scores and CDs of music that had influenced my work. I didn’t have the time or the luggage space to fully answer his request, but I quickly packed scores and disks to two brief, contrasting works that I felt would provide a provocative introduction to my Amadeus ex machina: the overtures to Adams’s Nixon in China and Ades’s Powder Her Face. It was a gamble: I had been warned that the students would be unaware of Charles Ives.
The atmosphere in the class was fascinating on several counts. First, a pleasant surprise: the students, all composers, seemed to be evenly split between men and women, a balance that has been rare in my encounters with composition classes in the US. Second, the seminar was conducted through three interpreters — two students from the Conservatoire and one recent alum. Third, although I am accustomed to encouraging discussion, an informal give-and-take, in these kinds of encounters, Radvilovitch made it clear that he expected me to hold forth, lecture style, and he would save his responses for last.
All of this made it very challenging to gauge the temperature of the room, not only in order to give my music an effective presentation, but also to share my experience in a way that might benefit these young composers. In my younger, more sensitive days, I might have felt like a trap was being laid for me, that they were going to let me go out on a limb and then attack me for my aesthetics, my technique, or even my manner of presentation. But over time I have become more and more supportive and nurturing of all composers — even the jerks — and I’ve developed a corresponding sense of confidence in these situations. In ways I can’t quite explain, even to myself, I’ve experienced a growing sense of closeness to everyone who feels this strange compulsion to shape sound that helps me feel more trustful and readily communicative.
So I talked briefly about minimalism and played the Adams. I spoke of distortionism and played the Ades. Then I started talking about the compositional process behind Amadeus ex machina. I quickly found myself abandoning any attempt to explain or represent American music, which is an uncomfortable stance for me to take in any circumstance. Instead, I spoke to them directly as composers, about the things that all composers are familiar with: the little epiphanies that have far-reaching consequences, the puzzling and rewarding journey toward self-awareness.
I’m going to have to stop here, but I will pick up this story as soon as I can, to tell you about the amazing questions and responses I got at the end of the seminar. That’s it for now, though.