Last summer, Alex and I were talking about our early experiences learning composition, and the people who influenced us in our youth. I started telling him about my harmony teacher at Vanier College in Montreal, Robert Jones, who had been my earliest compositional influence. Robert was a composer of incredible talent, a keen ear, wide-ranging tastes, open-minded, supremely irreverent about music and music-making. He was the greatest possible teacher for a young person with composing ambition, however inchoate. Deeply involved in his community, Robert taught full-time with endless energy and enthusiasm, while finding time to compose the most beautiful, moving, stylistically diverse music you've ever heard, for whatever forces he could get his hands on. Friends, school faculty, church choirs, anything. He was a terrific pianist, too, performing constantly on student recitals and faculty concerts, always involved in the making of living music. If any example set me on the path I currently walk, it was Robert's.
Did I mention irreverent? He was beyond funny. Once we were walking down the hall and heard two pianists rehearsing Mozart's two-piano concerto in the concert hall. Robert snuck in and started playing the accompaniment, from memory, a half-step higher, on a third piano. Another time, we read through the Britten Serenade together, with Robert playing the piano reduction and singing a pitch-perfect impression of Peter Pears. His music was that way, too, a wildly eclectic mix in which fake Brahms abutted tone rows and all manner of musical gestures from all periods. Once, in his series of organ preludes, he found a single, unbelievably irritating stop on his local church organ and wrote a whole piece for it. The very next piece was the most shockingly spot-on tango you've ever heard, lewd, swaggering and funny as hell coming from a huge pipe organ, and a massive relief from the pain that preceded it. He was the type who would giggle if you told him his piece was annoying or grating. In all likelihood, he'd meant it to be. All in the cause of good fun.
As I struggled to put into words all that Robert had meant to me, Alex said, "You should write him a letter and tell him all this. I bet he'd like to hear it, and people never say this stuff until it's too late." I'd lost touch with him over the years, and touching base again seemed like a great idea. So I went home and wrote Robert a long letter. While trying to find his address online, I came across references to a recent illness, and the huge oratorio he'd written during the recovery period. It added a sense of urgency to the whole thing, so say what I had to say before it was too late. But as these things go, the letter went unmailed. I couldn't get an address for him, I couldn't get anyone at the school to answer my e-mails, and so on. I could have, should have tried harder.
And now, it's too late. Robert died a few weeks ago, and I only found out today. All the things I wanted to say to him went unsaid, and I'll never get the chance to tell him what he meant to me. It's a regret I'll have to live with, if only out of pride. Robert was so good at what he did, and touched so many lives, that he couldn't have been unaware of just how important he'd been to his students, and I'm only one of them. But as a tribute to my teacher, the man whose example I try to live up to every day I wake up to do this, I offer the letter I wrote to him, lightly edited of more personal details, in the hope that a few people will read it and see how much one person's life can affect another's.
Rest in peace, Robert. You will be sorely missed. The world with you in it was a better, less oppressive place.
I hope this finds you well. I’ve been thinking about writing this letter for a long time, but for some reason never made myself sit down and do it. I’ve often wondered how you were since I left Montreal, what you were up to, what music you’d written. Occasionally I’d see a comment of yours on somebody’s blog and smile, if for no other reason than that it was good to know you were out there. I suppose the catalyst for writing this was a recent conversation with an American composer friend about the people who’d had a strong influence on us in our early careers. I told him about you, and the things you’d done that had an impact on my life, and he said, “You should put that in a letter and send it to him. I bet he’d like to hear it. People never do that until it’s too late.” So I thought to finally do it.
Naturally, the first thing I did was Google you, and of course I found out about your recent oratorio, and your illness. To say it hit me hard would be an understatement. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to go through that, and I hope you’re recovering your health. I was amazed to hear that you’d kept composing during that time, and a huge piece at that. Reading the descriptions of the music, how eclectic and moving it is, I thought, “Of course that’s what the piece is like. It’s Robert’s.” I wish I could have been there for the premiere, and hope it went well for you. Then again, your music was always well received, as I remember.
A bit about what’s happened to me in the past fifteen or so years. I’ve been living in Helsinki, Finland for the past decade, since I bailed out of the academic world Stateside after doing my Master’s at Stony Brook. I’m married, six years now, to a lovely Estonian musician who plays a chromatic zither native to the Baltic region. You’d love the sound of it, as well as her sense of humor. We have a wonderful, bright, exasperating two-year-old son named Oliver whose mission in life seems to be to make my head explode. I work freelance as a composer, having given up the horn many years ago, and in addition to writing about music for various local festivals, I teach part-time at the Sibelius Academy, where someday I hope to stagger across the finish line of my doctoral degree. The one hurdle left is my thesis, in which I’m writing about how the idea of nature manifests in Mahler’s Song of the Earth. I do a lot of amateur choral singing, as there’s a particularly good culture for that here, and it keeps me in touch with real music-making. It’s a good life, with my family, good friends, and lots of terrific musicians to work with. After being virtually unemployed for the first few years and doing odd jobs, my career somehow just took off. The Finnish radio orchestra is premiering my viola concerto in March, and I’m currently working on a piece for the Helsinki Philharmonic, a setting for soprano and orchestra of texts by Hildegard of Bingen.
The reason I’m telling you all this is that when I think about how I got here – the ideas that fascinate me, the kind(s) of music I write, my approach to composing, even the notion that I became a composer at all – it always seems to lead back to you. Years ago, I had to write an essay in my application to some big school – I think it was Julliard, but whatever, I didn’t get in – about the musician who’d had the greatest influence on me. I wrote about you. I’m not even sure what I wrote, but as I try to recall what it was that made your presence in my life so important, I struggle to keep up with the flow of memories.
I probably never told you this, but my studying music was pretty much a fluke. I had no ambition other than to get away from my hometown and do something I enjoyed for a change. If I hadn’t gotten into music school I probably would have ended up in languages or history and never looked back. To say my parents were confused at first would be putting it mildly. Considering I barely knew one end of the horn from other at the time, I can’t say their skepticism was misplaced, but they’ve since come to understand why I decided to do it. I’d had no training, little support, and came to Vanier knowing nothing about music, barely able to even read it. Some people, as I recall, was always eager to remind me of that, and thought I showed very little talent, which I suppose I did back then.
But I wanted to learn. Anything. As much as I could, as fast as I could absorb it. That’s where you came in. You were one of the few people in those first couple of years who took me seriously. You encouraged me in so many ways large and small that I can’t recall all of them. I remember you randomly bringing me scores and tapes of things I’d never heard of, just so I could hear them. Once I mentioned that I was writing a paper about Stravinsky, and the next day you came in with a stack of scores and tapes it must have taken you hours to copy, just to help me out. I also remember you bringing me Mahler’s 3rd, which I took home and listened to immediately. I didn’t get it. Not then, not until many years later. But I eventually got it, and as Mahler grew into a sizeable influence on my own music, I always thought back to that day, when you brought me Mahler’s longest, weirdest, most out-of-this-world piece, something I had little chance of understanding, and let me have at it. A therapist once told me that I consciously make things difficult for myself because it’s the only way I can learn. He traced it back to my being put in a French-only kindergarten class at age five, not speaking a word of the language, and having to figure it out through a fog of incomprehension. Thinking back to that now, the way you taught me was the same. You threw me in at the deep end, unprepared, knowing nothing, and let me figure it out. The people who tried to hold me back, make me “patient” and learn little things always failed, but you gave me huge ideas to swallow whole, maybe because you knew that was what I needed most: to learn everything, right now. On whatever level, conscious or simply intuitive, you understood me. You accompanied me at recitals, in competitions, dragged me into rehearsals of whatever was going on in the building, gave me advice on my first scratchings of composition, and listened to me talk and complain and boast and grandstand like the clueless kid I was. The most moving part is that you didn’t have to do any of it. Your only real responsibility toward me was teaching me harmony a couple of times a week, but you took an interest in me and my development that few others did, before or since.
Less tangible was your influence on my music. Again, I don’t think I ever told you this, but with the exception of a few terrible high school band pieces, yours was the first contemporary music I ever heard, and you were the first composer I ever met. I didn’t even know people still did that. (I grew up in a very small town.) I even remember the piece, Sangeet III. I was completely knocked sideways by it, and it was probably that moment where the idea, however inarticulate, of being a composer got into my head. I wanted nothing more than to create something that beautiful, that moving. Sometimes I think I’ve spent my life since then trying to live up to the example you set for me in that piece, and failing miserably. But in the trying I’ve written some nice stuff, which I suppose is the point. In a sense, your music saved me from the influence of a lot of well-meant but destructive teaching later on. Before I got to university, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t still write tonal music if I wanted to, or mix it with atonal music, or write a single chord, or that simplicity was something to be apologized for. None of that academic dogma ever got to me, no matter how hard they tried to push it, because I had your music to show me the way, to let me know I could do whatever I wanted. Although I’ve been through several of the usual artistic crises over the years, wondering if I should even be doing this for a living, if I’m any good, I always seem to come back your principle of total freedom to follow my instincts and not care what others think. It’s served me well. Anecdote: a couple of years back, I stumbled on a Vanier web page that had a bunch of your pieces on it and listened to them. The Solace of Fierce Landscapes schooled me once again, and changed the way I think about chamber music. Whenever my vision faltered, yours was there to guide me.
I should probably wrap up this ramble in the interest of not boring you to tears. This whole missive has just been a long way of working up to saying, “Thank you.” For taking me under your wing, for giving me what I needed most, for giving me the courage to be myself without apology, I owe you more than I can express in these few pages. If you ever doubted that you had a strong influence on your students, don’t. You taught me to think, to listen, to make serious art without taking myself overly seriously, and to be irreverent when needed. Your light-hearted cynicism about competitions and awards and your community involvement taught me that there are other paths to, and other definitions of success as a composer than through the institutional channels. Whatever success I’ve enjoyed in Finland came from following your example and being a community member first, and jockeying for status second. In my darkest hour, after I could no longer play due to injuries and was writing terrible music, wondering if I should walk away from music altogether, I’d think of you, and know that if someone like you had believed in me, I must have something to offer. You made me a better musician, and a better teacher.
I wish you all the best for your return to good health, and hope I’ll be able to think of you out there somewhere for many years to come. The world – my world – is a richer place with you in it. I don’t make it back to Montreal much these days, as my family’s all moved on, but I hope we’ll meet again someday sooner rather than later. I’d love to have a chat and learn some more.