Monday, November 02, 2015

Tributes to My Teachers:
Dr. James Sclater, composer


[Photo from Dr. Sclater's website jamessclater.com ]

At age twenty-eight, I had to admit to myself that musical scores, not words, were what I wanted to write more than anything else. I thought I'd quit teaching and go back to college. Fortunately for me, a top-rate composer lived nearby and he took me on as a private student. He told me not to quit doing what I loved, and he advised, "If you get a Ph.D. in music composition, you'll still end up teaching," adding, "unless you're Andrew Lloyd Webber." 

Seriously, he assured me that I'd learn as well by composing what I wanted as by reading about others' works or by doing workbook assignments. There's a lesson in that for all teachers.

Dr. Sclater (pronounced "slaughter") taught by encouragement, and that's not the same thing as praise. He'd study what I'd composed, withholding comment for what seemed to me a long time. He'd ask questions about why I'd written certain passages. Finally, he'd point to a portion of my work and say, "Now, that is interesting!" and he'd point out how good it was, in ways that I wasn't even aware of. Then he'd advise me to "do more with it." That's as close to praise -- or disapproval -- as I ever got. Still, I always left his office feeling that, though it would take work, there would be something good and my own at the end of my labors. That is, he gave me courage to go on.
Here's what I wrote about Dr. Sclater in the preface to my Master's portfolio:
My musical composition teacher, Dr. James Sclater, freed me right away from a misconception. Composition was not about fulfilling grand harmonic designs, though music theory class and program notes at the symphony might give that impression....
Instead, musical composition is about playing with sounds the way children might invent a game with some found object. "Find something that sounds good and develop it," Dr. Sclater said.
But he cautioned, "You need rules, even if you have to make up your own." 
For example of both principles, Dr. Sclater showed me a stripped-down notation of Brahms's Second Symphony, final movement. He pointed to the start, a flourish of just twenty notes. For the remainder of the movement, Brahms tosses around the first four pitches; repeats, transposes, segments, elongates, shortens, and reverses them. Each new use leads to another musical episode, until he moves on to do the same with another distinctive passage from that opening flourish. Dr. Sclater's punch line was that the opening theme itself grew from the bass part in the first measure of the symphony! But one idea's leading to another helter-skelter doesn't satisfy an audience's need to feel a piece's movement towards a goal, just as a game without rules is only chaos. For this example, Brahms followed models that limited his options of key, length, tempo, and final chord. 
Dr. Sclater gave me another useful piece of advice, another way to use material economically. "Never think of just one song," he told me. "Make it a suite."

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