Famous Composers I (Almost) Studied With

There are many important and famous composers, long since gone, whom I would love to have met. Sometimes I think many of the tidbits mentioned to me when I was a student could have come from some of these composers, passed down through many generations of student/teacher lessons. Out of simple curiosity, I decided to do a little research and see if I could claim any connection whatsoever to any of them. Fortunately, I studied with a tremendously diverse, impressive body of teachers, all of whom I highly admire. This list includes Samuel Adler, Warren Benson, David Liptak, William Ortiz-Alvarado, Roberto Sierra, Steven Stucky, Frederick Fox, Eugene O'Brien, Joseph Schwantner, Christopher Rouse, Aaron Jay Kernis, John Harbison and Sydney Hodkinson. I had master classes with a number of others, but I actually took lessons with these composers.

William Ortiz-Alvarado was my first teacher when I was ca. fifteen, and I really only took one or two private lessons with John Harbison, which were more like hangout sessions. But I did sit in on a whole summer of master classes with Harbison and Bernard Rands at Aspen, so to me, those count as lessons. I also sat in on master classes with Jacob Druckman but never took private lessons with him, although I would have loved to. I took one lesson with Syd Hodkinson, but played in the new music ensemble at Eastman for many years, so I would say that I worked with him, even though technically, I really did not take private lessons with him.

Here is a list of how many years (in parentheses) I studied with each teacher:

Key: Eastman School of Music (ESM); Indiana University (IU); Cornell University (CU); Atlantic Center for the Arts (ACA); Aspen Center for the Arts (Aspen); Private (P)

Samuel Adler (1, ESM) Warren Benson (1, ESM) David Liptak (1, ESM) William Ortiz-Alvarado (1, P) Roberto Sierra (3, CU) Steven Stucky (3, CU) Frederick Fox (1, IU) Eugene O'Brien (1, IU) Joseph Schwantner (1, ESM) Christopher Rouse (2, ESM) Aaron Jay Kernis (summer, ACA) John Harbison (2 lessons and master class, Aspen) Sydney Hodkinson (1 lesson and new music ensemble, Aspen)

How could I have studied with Sierra and Stucky for six years when I was only matriculated at Cornell for four? I was in town for an extra year and took lessons, and they often overlapped when they were in or out of town, so we often just consulted with whoever was around at the time since there are only two composers on the faculty. I am guessing that took about three years worth of lessons with each of them.

There are other composers I've worked with who I never really studied with, such as David Dzubay (I played in his new music ensemble for two years at IU) and Bernard Rands at Aspen, whose advanced master class I took. I never discussed my music personally with Dzubay, and Rand's advice was directed toward the group, but was still useful.

I originally entered Eastman as a percussionist. After a semester, I thought I didn't have enough to do, so I went to Adler and asked if I could take composition lessons.

"Whaaat? Why would you want to do that? C'mon. You're a fine percussionist! Just stick to percussion,” he said. "Because I want to compose," I said. In a gruff voice, he said "If you want to take lessons, I'll let you study with this really good doctoral student, on the condition that if you do OK with him, we'll accept you into the department."

I spent the next semester studying with a doctoral student whose name I can't remember. I don't think I learned much from him, but nevertheless, Adler accepted me into the composition department starting my sophomore year. I was proud, as I worked very hard that semester to impress the composition faculty. The piece I remember them hearing in the infamous Room 120 was Humanus Ex Machina for alto sax and three percussionists. They seemed to like it, but if I am remembering correctly, only Adler walked up to me afterwards and congratulated me, but as I learned later, composers often just walk away without thinking that your entire emotional state is riding on their stroking your ego. As you become older and more confident, you hopefully get over this, but this was a huge day for me, so I was very sensitive.

I ended up double majoring in percussion and composition at Eastman and spent five years trudging through a double major, but since I missed one counterpoint seminar, the fine type of my degree (but not the degree itself) says I graduated as a percussionist. To this day, I am disappointed that I missed that one class.

My first "serious" composition teacher was Joseph Schwantner. I will never forget how nervous I was right before each lesson. Joe was a pretty intense first "serious" composition teacher. One of his first assignments was for me to practice shading half and whole notes correctly! My scores at that time had few notes, but boy—did they look good! I remember spending one lesson making a small ruling device out of toy train set parts, a piece of a small plastic ruler and special glue. I think I still have it somewhere in my drawers. I'll never forget trekking to New York City to visit a past girlfriend and searching around Manhattan for these parts to make more rulers, special Black Velvet pencils and "onion skin" paper. Ahhh: the days before Finale and Sibelius.

Admittedly, I was too inexperienced to really absorb the finer points of what Schwantner could have taught me. If I had my wits about me, I could have discussed his harmonic system, how he thinks about timbre, etc., but I wasn't there yet.

After Schwantner, I studied with Warren Benson, David Liptak, Samuel Adler and Christopher Rouse. I would say that Schwantner, Rouse and Adler had the greatest influence on me, but all of them are imbued in my music somehow. People often tell me they hear Schwantner in my work where I don't hear it at all. I often think certain sections of my works have a smattering of Rouse, but then others will say they can't hear it.

Adler influenced me in a way that is more transparent: I wouldn't say I was influenced by his music, but more his teachings and theoretical musings. One saying that has stayed with me to this day is his saying "you must love every note you write." This, I learned later, actually came from Aaron Copland, one of his teachers at Tanglewood. I also remember his reprimanding me for using what he thought were "Jass" chords in my music.

A typical conversation would go like this:

"What is that? A JASS Chord? Take it out." "But it's not a jazz chord. In context...." "C'mon, that's a Jass chord. If you want to write jass, go down the hall and study with those jass guys. We teach serious music in the composition department."

And so the semester went.

What I remember most about studying with David Liptak was his insistence on my approaching composition from different perspectives. If I felt like writing directly to score for an orchestral work, he would encourage me to orchestrate (i.e., like Ravel) instead. I also remember him playing a record of John Cage's 4'33" (the "Silence" piece). That was pretty memorable, as we sat there silently, but in an Escher-esque way, there was, as usual no true silence, as we were listening to record static and the sounds of our own subtle movements in our chairs.

Warren Benson was intimidating. One of his legs was a little longer than the other, and although he wore a platform shoe, he walked with a cane and had a slight limp. He was usually a little late for lessons, and when he came walking down the hall, you couldn't help but be a little frightened. He had some amazing stories about his travels, particularly to South America, which we all loved to listen to—the first few times. After the fifth time or so, it got a little tiring, but each time he would tell the story a little differently, so it wasn't so bad. I remember him having a bag of tricks he would tell us to use, in particular, he would tell us to add variety to melodic lines by shifting octaves for individual notes. If nothing else, I could be assured that he would suggest this for every piece. Otherwise, his suggestions were usually pretty interesting.

I enjoyed Chris Rouse so much that I spent my last year (my fifth year) at Eastman studying with him. I think even Chris will say that I wasn't a star student by any means at that point and hadn't really "found myself" yet, although in my defense, I did present the first ever Composer Forum concert with all of my own music because no other students had anything ready, so I must have been doing something right, regardless of how good or bad. To this day I consider him a great friend and mentor.

Regarding that composers forum, I remember having everything ready, except one movement of a small piece for vibraphone in a series I was planning on writing called Prisms for vibraphone. I was planning on playing two, but had only written one. It was too late to pull it from the program, and rather than embarrass myself by announcing to the audience that it was cancelled, I put the music on the stand, played the first one, and proceeded to play the second as if I was reading off the music, when really I only read the first line or two and then improvised the rest. I think I even turned the page at one point to make it look like I was actually reading music. To my amazement, that was the piece Adler liked the best! That was intensely irritating. The one piece he liked the best was the one I hadn't even written.

I was in school with a number of other talented students, although I wasn't really close to many of them. I knew Carter Pann and played a piece with him by a composer friend named Howard Yermish, and I was in one class with Kevin Putz, but we didn't travel in the same circles or really know each other. I hung out with Christopher Theofinidis a couple of times, and Michael Torke was a few years before my time.

At Indiana University, I knew a few talented composers, a couple of whom I still know today. I played early works by Daniel Kellogg (who eventually left to go to Curtis) and Stephan Freund and knew Yotam Haber, who also ended up going to Cornell.

As for my teachers at IU, I really enjoyed studying with both Eugene O'Brien and Fred Fox. They were both two of the best teachers I ever studied with, for different reasons. Gene was meticulous, but also deeply perceptive. Fred was the one who taught me about sensitivity to formal structure. He also cured me of my liberal use of mezzo-pianos, the pseudo dynamic that almost all young composers use too much.

At Cornell, almost everyone seemed exceptionally talented, and I still count among my friends many of the composers I was in school with at the time, including James Matheson and Yotam Haber. There were two composers in my class, Joseph Phibbs, a very gifted British composer, and Damon Lee, who I've remained great friends with all along. Damon and I have a lot in common, including our love of cooking and great wine. We also have similar sensibilities, although our music is quite different.

Steven Stucky and Roberto Sierra were my teachers at Cornell. Both are exceptionally fine composers. Steve is one of the brightest composers I have ever met, and he would often say something profound (or at least enlightening) that didn't quite register until days later, something like "well, you could do that...", which meant that it would be pretty awful if I did it. He was a master of making you tap into your insecurities and become your own harshest critic, and although he always smiled, his focused seriousness didn't make me feel any more comfortable. He would also take a long time to look at a piece, and then, as if by magic, find that one spot that you were not so sure about, without you having told him about it. Steve is also an incredibly gifted interviewer, as anyone who attended his recent New York Philharmonic interviews with famous composers knows.

On the other hand, Roberto was gregarious, a master multi-tasker, and more like a jovial, wise father figure with a serious side. Unlike Steve, who's more like a fine Scotch, Roberto is like an exquisitely-made Pina Colada (although personally, he loves fine wines). Before I end accepted into the program at Cornell, I remember him interviewing me in his office. While talking, he reached behind his head for a soft drink chilling on his windowsill, opened it behind his head and shut the window, the whole time talking to me about the composition program at Cornell, without losing focus or eye contact. He is a master orchestrator, and although he sometimes seemed to only passively look at one of my pieces, he was really paying attention. He knew exactly how an effect would sound, and always gave great suggestions for how to make something come across in the most effective way possible.

Now for the best part: figuring out whether I have any sort of attachment to these famous dead composers I mentioned earlier. To do this, at some point in the future I will make a sort of student teacher family tree for various composers I studied with. Stay tuned for a future blog entry where I'll present the tree.