Wednesday, 03 January 2024 17:30

Using high art as an enrichment, not an escape

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Using high art as an enrichment, not an escape

In October 2023, I had the pleasure of reviewing a book by Jack Van Zandt – Alexander Goehr: Composing a life – published by Carcanet Press, the book reflects on the important figure, and pre-eminent composer Alexander Goehr. My review in the Morning Star covers my joyous feelings around the book, which I believe genuinely reflects and explores Goehr’s life in a way which doesn’t try to deify him but doesn’t underestimate the influence and importance.

I had the pleasure to talk with Jack Van Zandt about the book and his feelings towards his teacher, as well as uncovering the cheeky opportunistic way in which the modest Goehr was eventually convinced to let this book come into being. Our conversation wasn’t particularly linear or structured, but I often find the best conversations with composers tend to meander around, eventually coming to an enlightening result – or a philosophical head-to-head.

After an initial moment of waffling about Goehr’s interaction with Edgard Varese, my first question to Jack was what pushed him to create the book:

“Sally Groves—who for decades was an executive at Schotts, and Sandy’s [Alexander Goehr’s] publisher—and I go way back, and are old friends and we both love Sandy to death. In 2016, I was in Paris for a performance, and I stopped off to visit Sally in London on my way to Cambridge to see Sandy for a few days. I told her about how Sandy and I have these conversations on Skype regularly about all kinds of things and I thought I should try and get Sandy to go on the record to maybe make a book about what we talk about. But I thought he would probably say he doesn’t want to do it or anything autobiographical and the stuff we talk about is just between us. Sally supported the idea of a book, so I said that I was going to try and convince him to do this. If he says yes, then we are good. If he flat out says no or is reluctant, I’m going to send you a text so we can double team him and try to convince him to do it.

The first night I stayed with Sandy we sat up half the night talking, and after a couple of Irish whiskies, I plucked up the courage to ask him, but before I could say any of my plotted speech Sandy said ‘oh so you want to make a book?’ – and then he immediately agreed to do it! But he says, you have to do all the work. I was happy to agree to that. I knew how to do it, having co-authored several books before in the 1990s when I worked as a book publisher, including with Irish nationalist leaders Gerry Adams and John Hume.

I suggested that we just keep chatting on Skype, and I’ll record our conversations, and maybe we can start talking about more specific things like your teachers, which he was very keen to do. So we made a list of topics. I wanted to start with his early life, as he didn’t really talk much about it. So I got him to talk about his childhood, and his memories are endlessly fascinating. From there we went chronologically through his teachers and mentors – Richard Hall, Messiaen, Eisler, Schoenberg and so on. Sandy highlighted how we are part of a great tradition, and each generation passes what they know onto the next. It got me thinking about the concept of musical DNA and how musical skills pass on and evolve through the generations and how we composers incorporate our teacher’s influence into our own music, and in turn pass these traditions on to our pupils. Once we explored Sandy’s experiences as a student and how he put those lessons to use as a composer, I then went on in my introduction and commentary to tie in my own personal connection to him and his influence on me to show how the transfer of this musical DNA works from my perspective.


Once I started transcribing the many hours of recordings of our discussions about his youth and his working with his teachers and mentors, I began to phase out my questions by incorporating them into the answers, mostly to give him as much space as possible to reflect on his life without any distractions from me. When we started discussing the compositional concepts and mechanics that he developed in light of the teachings of his mentors, we kept it more of a dialogue or dialectic.

Personally, I was also really interested in why he accepted this young American guy as a pupil and made me his teaching and musical assistant. I think part of it might be because the posh Etonians who went to Cambridge weren’t like him or me.  We both came from immigrant families and began composing relatively late in our lives, and had to work harder to just be there in Cambridge and truly appreciate it. Sandy’s parents had brought him as an infant to England from Hitler’s Germany in 1933.  My parents were Dust Bowl migrants to California during the Great Depression, and my mother grew up in the Grapes of Wrath camp. Our family members were all good Roosevelt Democrats! Consequently, the part of the book about Sandy’s American experiences was important for both of us, because he is fascinated by America and loved his time in the US, and I think that played a part in our relationship.

We decided to end the book with the chapter on his conductor, composer and Schoenberg pupil father, Walter.  Their relationship was complex and was sometimes a difficult thing to navigate. We wanted to show the reverence that Sandy has for Walter – but not overdo it! Ultimately his father was the biggest thing in his life as a composer and where it all began.”


Our conversation meandered further, and we spent a moment reflecting on Sandy’s position within British classical music and the contemporary music scene of his day and his position today. Because it is truly fascinating looking at Goehr for two reasons. Firstly, he spent a significant period on the outside of a very conservative musical landscape, but many artistically conservative corners of contemporary music today see Goehr as a staple, a solid part of Britain’s tradition.

Similarly, what is also curious about Goehr is that his influence is not because of international fame, like his contemporaries Peter Maxwell Davis or Harrison Birtwistle, who enjoyed a grand international reputation. I asked Jack his thoughts on this part of Goehr’s place within contemporary Britain:

“Sandy’s influence as a teacher of British composers is significant. He also had many American, Canadian and Australian students over the years. I should point out that I discovered the Manchester School composers from Thea Musgrave, my undergrad teacher at University of California Santa Barbara in the mid-1970s. It was Thea and my other teacher at the time, Peter Fricker, who recommended me to Sandy as a pupil. Sandy not only became my teacher, but a conduit to his colleagues Max Davies and Harry Birtwistle as well.  After my first 8 or 9 months with Sandy in 1976/77, he arranged for me to study with Max at Dartington and for a grant from the BBC to do so. This was also a huge educational experience in my life.

In addition, he introduced me to Harry who became a mentor to me as well. So, all of my composition teachers and mentors were British, including all three Manchester School composers! Certainly Max and Sandy were excellent and very effective teachers as well as influential composers. Harry was never what I would call a teacher as such, but the influence of his musical thought has been powerful by its example.”

We had pondered a long while about Goehr’s class consciousness, as well as his reverence for America. I mentioned that a parallel between Sandy and Alan Bush can be spotted considering Bush’s adoration of the North-East musical and political history. I was curious how Jack saw the role of politics within Goehr’s work:

“Sandy thought that Bush was a very good composer. Sandy was and is a man of the left, as I am, and he is very interested in politics. Early on as his student, I was really interested in Agitprop, and I had this idea I wanted to compose music with that political tinge, though I found it difficult to bring it to life. Sandy totally understood it, he gave me a reading list (including Piscator’s Political Theatre), and suggested I look at his friend Luigi Nono’s work, and that’s where I started, though it took me decades to figure it out and I have only recently managed to write such a piece, my 2022 The New Frontier: An Atomic Age Jazz Opera.

One of the wonderful things about Sandy as a teacher is that you could go to him with an idea like that and he would know how to help you find your way. He was aware of my interest in leftist political theatre was due partly to the fact that I came from a working-class family who had been kicked out of their homes during the Depression by the bastards in the banks. (It’s all in Steinbeck’s
The Grapes of Wrath.) Sandy really understood that, and respected I was upfront and honest about it. That’s one of the many reasons why he is so important to me. He never said my ideas were stupid. We would sit down and explore and analyse my ideas together, and he’d suggest books to read and musical examples to listen to, and we’d come back to these ideas over and over as I progressed in my learning about them.”

Personally it was interesting talking more about that side of Goehr, as many composers tend to be sanitised when discussing their music. In Goehr’s case commentators would spend more time on his theoretical and compositional architecture – which is important – but overlook the political elements which exist in pieces like my personal favourite Behold the Sun, which is  a three-act opera based in the city of Munster, looking at the radical Anabaptists of 1543.

After much more pondering and meandering around, our conversation shifted to another element of the book which I deeply admire – namely the book’s incredible ability to show how a composer interacts with their influences, this question of musical DNA, and how a composer can take their lessons and pass it down the line to their own pupils. The book highlighted the distinct differences in approach from Messiaen to Eisler or Boulez and his experiences in America. Jack recalled:

“One of the stories we tell in the book that I love is when Messiaen sent Sandy to do strict counterpoint study with Yvonne Loriod. He says that he learnt a valuable lesson from that experience, and that is that often your first solution to a musical problem isn’t the best, and you have to put some sweat into it to making it work by redoing and refining until you make it the better.  This is much the same way as he, and I, approach composition.

By the way, Thea Musgrave said the same thing about studying in Paris with Boulanger, where she learned that music is hard work (and you and I both know how hard it is to compose!).  You have to work your ideas like wood – you can’t just throw out rough wood but you must work and rework it and smooth it out with sandpaper to make it into something. For me, that was a big lesson I got from Sandy.

I think the title of our book is perfect because our life is composing, and we compose our life from our many influences. Everything in my life relates to me as a composer, as it does for Sandy and almost any other successful composer I know. Since we have a wide range of influences and experiences in our lives, in order to use them we need to assemble a “composer’s toolbox” that we add to throughout our lifetime so we can synthesize all these influences into our music. I often lecture on this subject and it’s something that I learned aspects of from both Sandy and Thea.”


I found that sentiment really wonderful – life is composing, and we compose our life. I’ve always been a strong believer that composers and their music are born out of the world they exist in. Their experiences, the way they came to music, the people they were able to work with and write for, and their reception all influence how popular a composer is and how much their music is remembered; as well as how the music can sound.

But none of this is particularly guaranteed. We can experience the most original experiences in life, and have a truly wonderful story to tell, but without the ‘composer’s toolbox’ we are unable to bring it life. The challenge we have is, we can always make ideas – but how do we make them? That is what our teachers do. By highlighting other things.

Overall, I would highly recommend the book to anyone, because it shows that we composers are very much creatures of the world – as opposed to divine beings who magically appear as artists. Similarly, discovering elements of Alexander Goehr’s life which are often overlooked – particularly his political leanings – deserves further investigation.

Chatting with Jack was a similarly lovely occasion, and it was little surprise to see Sandy gets so much joy from their discussions. But it was wonderful coming across many gems about Alexander Goehr – like his great opposition to royalty and having refused knighthoods – while also getting a real confirmation that he was is not some lofty ivory tower individual. He was someone deeply connected with life and humanity and readers of Culture Matters need to revisit Goehr’s music, as it gives an interesting light in how we on the left can use high art in a way which isn’t an escape from our class, but something that can enrich our lives – much like William Morris’s views of art.

Composing a Life is an important book, and I do sincerely hope future discussions on other composers will learn important lessons from it.

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Ben Lunn

Ben Lunn is a composer, music critic, trade union activist, and helped found the Disabled Artist Network, an organisation which is bridging the gap between the professional world and disabled artists. He also has a monthly column in The Morning Star.