Tuesday 4 October 2011

A "thank-you" note to Professor Ian Kemp

There are a few teachers to whom I feel a deep gratitude. My music studies at Manchester, which have underpinned my thinking ever since, were so rewarding thanks to the input of Professor Ian Kemp, who sadly died on the 16th September. His intellectual generosity as a teacher - particularly when he would ask his students questions, valuing the answers they gave so much that he noted them down - was a prime example of a philosophy of teaching which I have believed ever since: you know you are teaching well when you learn more from your students than they do from you!

He was refreshingly sensible about music as about education. When I first met him it was on my first day in the University: "all we assume is that you like music". I last saw him when he gave a guest lecture at the final concert of the Lindsay string quartet, with whom he had given so many inspirational sessions when I had been a student - particularly on late Beethoven. He was going deaf: "I'm a little bad at hearing," he said in a slightly humourous way. Surrounded by the 'new breed' of music academic - professionalised, strategic, rather-too-clever - he drew attention to a particularly intricate passage of a Tippett quartet. "How could you explain that?"... and a few clever explanations were offered by the clever staff: "altered dominant chords, suspensions, etc".. "well, it could be," he said, "but maybe it's just a nice noise!". A nice noise indeed - a I felt a little sad that nobody else has the courage or the wisdom to say that - but that's where academia has got us now. Not that his own approach to music analysis lacked rigour - but it was always sensible. Somehow, the detail never got in the way of driving at the heart of the music: Schoenberg's harmonic analysis appealed to him, as did Meyer's rhythmic analysis. He was sympathetic to Schenker, although I suspect dubious about the Schenker 'specialists'.

Then there was Tippett. I never met Tippett personally, although I did attend a couple of events where he was present before I went to University. But Ian Kemp was in many ways more accessible, and brought out in Tippett more than just the music. It was through Ian that I engaged with Jung and psychoanalysis - so important to Tippett (thinking back, I wonder if he had undergone some sort of individuation process himself). He presented Tippett in the context of the musical cannon. Through Tippett I came to Beethoven, Berlioz (Kemp's other great love), Hindemith (another passion), Janacek and 16th century English keyboard music. And most importantly, it connected-up; it made sense. That was the most important thing: his musical knowledge was not 'specialised'; it was integral. That meant that when he recommended something, it meant something more than it at first appeared. I remember that at the end of my studies, he worried that we hadn't been taught anything about Verdi. That was enough for me to go off and study Verdi after graduating. And he was right on a number of other counts: Porgy and Bess was the greatest opera of the 20th century; minimalism was the only new thing in music in the last 30 years; much modernist music was deficient; and Shostakovich was much greater than I thought at the time. And it wasn't just music: the 17th century mask, the Bauhaus, Bergsonian time.. all of which became enthusiasms of mine.

The most lovely thing was that, as with all great professors, he wasn't afraid of being silly. For his farewell concert on his retirement, the music department came together to perform Peter and the Wolf, with Kemp being the narrator. He did it very well, whilst also pointing out "the best tune in the piece" (Peter's triumphant march home after killing the wolf).

My only regret is that I didn't write this a bit sooner.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am a former student too. I could not agree more. I recall the 'final concert' of Peter and the Wolf. Will be very sadly missed by the music world.!!