Musical ancestry

I have written before about how most musicians have supported their composing or performing with other work, and recently I’ve been thinking about the importance of teaching in the lives of musicians. Not for myself – I’ve known since before I went to uni that I absolutely never want to teach (and have steered my career with this in mind) but the idea that there’s a chain of teachers going back in time.

I had a composition teacher (two actually, Paul Newland at GSMD and Matthew Hindson at Sydney University) and they had teachers. I started to wonder if you could trace a family tree back through time. My grand-composers would be Peter Sculthorpe (who from Australia isn’t ‘related’ to him) and Jo Kondo (as well as extended family of Harrison Birtwhistle and Ross Edwards. It’s a simple jump to get those four names (and those are the ones that have the most direct lineage), but I think it would be fascinating to trace the networks and to see who the most unlikely family members are.

I started thinking of this in concrete terms after attending a wonderful ‘Lock In’ by the aurora orchestra at London’s Kings Place concert hall. It was a programme of works by composers connected to the legendary French teacher Nadia Boulanger. She taught at the Paris Conservatory, as well as privately, and it is a testament to her influence that the programme ranged eclectically from Elliot Carter and Aaron Copland, to Quincy Jones and Leonard Bernstein (to pick the american contingent). She was undoubtedly a teaching superhub, but this story of influencing an entire generation of composers will be mirrored throughout the community in various ways and various scales.

I’d like to make the point that there are many musicians who don’t have a conservatoire training, and so would not be fairly represented in a study such as this. The Beatles, for instance, are not diminished for the lack of prestigious teachers, neither are the bulk of electronic and folk musicians. Film composer Hans Zimmer, with his “two weeks of piano lessons” has done very well for himself.

If we were to look past the role of formal teaching we could include the networks from training studios like those of Hans Zimmer. There are a large number of other film composers who spent time in his workshop and are clearly influenced by his way of working, and you could make a similar net of these composers and the links between them and get insight into an industry and a family.

It may be an interesting study for non-western traditions such as gamelan or Indian classical music, but I do not have the expertise to do this project. With western music, on the other hand we can connect the popular and experimental worlds, and composers and performers going back decades.

Frederic Chopin, known today as a composer, was an important teacher in his lifetime with students coming from all over Europe to study in his salon. You can draw a direct teaching line from Chopin → George Mathias → Paul Dukas → Olivier Messiaen → Pierre Boulez → Richard Rodney Bennett (who aside from his compositional career taught at RAM 1963-65, 1994-2000, where he would have taught countless contemporary musicians who unfortunately do not have fulsome wikipedia pages).

This was a quick selected wander through a Wikipedia link chain, and takes us through 6 generations and 150 years of pivotal music history. Imagine what we could do with a bit more data.

There are some similarities between this idea and that of the Bacon or Erdős numbers (for actors and mathematicians, or multi-talents). There was a craze for Bacon connections a while ago, perhaps a similar pastime can be made to link André Rieu to Felix Mendelssohn (it exists, in only four generations). The similar craze for family ancestry could also feed into this activity (although you couldn’t do it by a cheek swab, and it’s probably a little easier to fake your ancestry).

Do these networks matter? Probably not. Not all great musicians come from great teachers. This kind of network perpetuates elitism and exclusion and can be used as a false proxy for talent. Just like a real family dynasty (in acting, politics or real estate) a pedigree doesn’t guarantee success or talent.

Are these networks interesting? Yes! Particularly with the creative fringes of the canon, finding a way to link Michael Jackson with Gabriel Faure can be entertaining and forces us to think of artists in more nuanced ways. People aren’t destined to stay on the path set out for them by their teacher, but equally are set on a course by their ancestry of composers, looking over their shoulders, comparing notes.