To What Degree: Teaching Musical Composition

To What Degree: Teaching Musical Composition

There has always been a healthy amount of cross-fertilization between Europe and the U.S. In the 19th century, Germany was the place many Americans chose for advanced study; later, the action moved to Paris and Nadia Boulanger. Many who assumed roles of leadership in what would become an “American music tradition” spent time with this extraordinary individual. Boulanger’s first American pupil was Marion Bauer, who studied piano and composition in 1906. Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, Ross Lee Finney, and Elliott Carter later made the pilgrimage. (For an enlightening and delightful look at student life in the “Boulangerie” see Elliott Carter’s “France-America Ltd.” in Composers on Modern Musical Culture by Bryan Simms. New York: Schirmer Books, 1999.)

Although Paris still remains a viable choice for Americans (especially in electro acoustic music with IRCAM and GRM), composers now are gravitating to Amsterdam.

I asked four composers to share their experiences of studying in Amsterdam—James Aikman, Kevin Beavers, Derek Bermel, and Joanne Metcalf. Three studied with Louis Andriessen; one with Theo Loevendie. They are several of the many composers and performers who have been drawn to Amsterdam during the last 10 years. Their comments reveal several things: the city had a lot to offer; the primary attraction was the teacher; and they learned a lot about being an American composer.


Amsterdam provides a unique atmosphere for the composition and performance of contemporary music. Opera, orchestral, and chamber music abound. The city is invigorating and inspiring; one can’t help getting caught up in the exciting culture.

There doesn’t seem to be a short explanation for the Amsterdam phenomenon. KB

I saw the city itself as past, present, and future, a bringing together of all the deep historical associations that Louis brought into play in ‘de Materie.’ In essence, I went there to live inside that piece of music. JM

…composers are genuinely respected there. After all, streets are named Beethovenstraat, Jacob Obrechtstraat, etc. JA

Amsterdam provides a supportive environment for young composers and musicians from all over the world, and living in the city is fairly inexpensive. The Dutch can be critical and blunt, but I found them rarely judgmental, which made Holland a particularly fertile place to learn and try out new things. DB

He (Andriessen) always made time to call me and keep me informed of the many concerts and events in Amsterdam. These ranged from new and old chorales in the Oude Kerk (a church in the Red Light District dating to the 12th century) to groundbreaking concerts in the Icebreaker, the spot for new music and jazz overlooking the Amstel Canal. JA

I think a lot of people get hooked when they go over for the Gaudeamus Festival. JM


A teacher is a profound influence in the life of a student. The models of success have been varied—the taskmaster, the mentor, the facilitator, the pervading inspiration. Perhaps a combination of all is needed at various times. Aikman, Bermel, and Metcalf studied with Andriessen, who has been an important force in European contemporary music. A different but equally effective presence is Theo Loevendie, who worked with Beavers.

Louis immediately welcomed us to his apartment on the Keizersgracht (the King’s Canal). My whole family fell in love with this warm, philosophical man. JA

Louis Andriessen is a formidable musician with strong and cogent ideas. He has contemplated, questioned, and sometimes rejected tenets, which he learned in school, whether formal, harmonic, contrapuntal, or philosophical. That fact alone made it inspiring to work with him. DB

I met Louis Andriessen when he was a guest at Duke University in 1991 and followed him back to Amsterdam on a Fulbright two years later. The first time I heard his music, I knew that I had to have some of that, whatever it was that made the music so fresh and energizing. JM

Theo Loevendie is a unique personality. His studio had a wonderful diversity of students from around the world each doing completely different work. Theo is incredibly kind and personable and has a very friendly and collegial approach to teaching . . . I think that Theo is generally a ëhands-off’ teacher in that he doesn’t really make any impositions upon his students and makes no assumptions about style—something I admired greatly. KB

Each of these teachers brings a rich tradition to his studio. Not surprising is an appreciation of jazz.

He (Loevendie) was remarkably appreciative of the jazz and American roots of my work. I think that that had a lot to do with his own background as a jazz performer—one of the reasons that I chose him as a teacher! I knew that we would have some overlap at a basic level. KB

He (Andriessen) comes from a classical European background, studying first with his father then at the Royal Conservatory, and finally with Berio, and so he retains a deep knowledge of and a respect for some of the central traditions of European music. This accounts for his extraordinary musico-architectural concerns and when combined with his love of American jazz and current musics, his music is infused with unique vitality and an uncompromising, hard-edged beauty. JA

Aikman spoke about his lessons with Andriessen:

His teaching is legendary! At various points throughout the progress of my second sonata for violin and piano, he showed me parallel examples in the music of history, which abstractly mirrored the music which I had brought in that day. One day it would be the way in which Chopin treats octaves versus single pitches in the bass. Another Monday (being so busy as a composer, he only teaches every other Monday), J. S. Bach would be sought to illuminate an augmentation over a much faster moving music. There are many other specific examples of his ability to spontaneously discover synchronicity across the ages. JA

Beavers’ lessons with Lovendie were somewhat different:

I found that I had to press him and ask questions of him to learn about his techniques, style, and craft He has an interesting system of generating modes and permutations of them to use as the basis for many works. I tried using his techniques in a work of my own with some degree of success. KB


What does it mean to be an American composer? Living and working abroad can give one a new perspective.

I have learned a great deal about what it means to be an American by seeing myself and my work through the eyes of others; thus learning music in Amsterdam, Ghana, and Jerusalem has been crucial to developing my own compositional language. Confrontation from without and within has always helped me to grow, both personally and artistically, because it has forced me to be aware of the choices I make. DB

I very quickly discovered that not only was there a different aesthetic in place, but it was also in direct and sometimes violent conflict with my own and with most of what is taught in America. The different ways that Dutch composers receive financial support drives some of the differences. The public support for the arts in the Netherlands has nurtured a slew of unique ensembles and outlets for composers far different from ours. While some American composers like me focus upon mainstream musical ensembles and outlets like the symphony orchestra or the string quartet, the Dutch composers that I encountered often find such a focus to be passé. Not having access to those ensembles, I can understand why the Dutch composers may prefer other outlets. Unlike their American counterparts, Dutch presenters need not worry about filling the house or offending the patrons. However, offending or straying too far from the establishment set forth by the leading composers could lead to exoneration resulting in a lack of funding and performances. Thus, there is a higher degree of artistic uniformity in Dutch music. KB

Americans are respected in Holland principally for saving the country from the Nazis. They have not forgotten and will not forget. I remember feeling deeply proud of the nobility of my country and all that we stood for during WWII. JA


I remember telling Louis that, after all of my academic degrees and after attending Aspen and other summer festivals, I first felt like a real composer in Amsterdam. That was the day he said, ‘James, you don’t need lessons anymore…’ JA

I found that investigating this foreign musical clique gave me a true sense of how societal the whole enterprise of music making really can be. Music is far from being an international language. In a sense, music making is tribal in nature in that it operates within the boundaries of aesthetic goals shared by a small group of people. I guess I went to Holland to gain this type of perspective. KB

James Aikman teaches at the University of Michigan.

Kevin Beavers teaches at the University of Texas, Austin.

Derek Bermel is a 2001-02 fellow at the American Academy in Rome.

Joanne Metcalf teaches at Lawrence University.

From To What Degree: A HyperHistory of Teaching Musical Composition
By Marilyn Shrude
© 2002 NewMusicBox

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