This happened in 1981. I was a student at Bennington College. I was considered one of the best composition students at the time. I used to feel a lot of tension before my composition lessons with Jeff Levine. He was a top notch instructor. I loved that he was so demanding. One thing he used to do was to point out certain places in the pieces I had written and ask me to justify that section.
It was a thrilling challenge to do this. Every note, every line, had to serve a purpose, otherwise, Jeff would tell me to scrap it or change it.
Another thing he said was to consider Form and Content. We had lengthy discussions about the relationship, or shall I say, agreement between the two. In fact, Jeff sometimes said they were the same thing.
At the time, I read up on some advanced music theory stuff. I loved reading about super complex ideas, and trying them out myself. I loved reading about the way music affected the psyche. Really, music is tension and relaxation, mixed just so, meant to stir the soul and imagination.
These were fascinating ideas indeed. The Music Division faculty liked me. I remember that clearly. I could tell, and at times, I found it embarrassing.
My composition lesson was at 1pm on a certain day. I don’t recall which day, but people used to tell me that 1pm was not a good time to have a lesson with Jeff. I never knew why they said that.
I was naive, I suppose.
One day, Jeff came in looking different. I had no concrete idea of why I felt this. Something about his eyes were not right. He was silent in his usual way. Then, he laid it into me very badly. My lesson was supposed to be a discussion of music. But this didn’t quite fit the category of “music lesson.” He continued to bash me. I had no clue why he was doing this. His demeaning remarks had nothing to do with music at all, nothing to do with the piece I had brought in that day. I tried several times to get him to stop. I wanted to leave! I was afraid to, though. When I finally left, I was in a daze.
Much, much later that day, I was leaving the building. I was walking down those stairs to get to the door to the Jennings building, to go home. Jack Glick, a longtime faculty member, was coming up the stairs passing me at the same time.
He must have caught my eye. He asked me what was wrong. I almost wish he had not asked. I couldn’t control myself. I suddenly started crying.
He knew. I don’t know how he knew. He said, “It’s Jeff, isn’t it.”
It was late. No one was around. No one else saw me crying. I was 23 years old.
Jack assured me I had not done anything wrong. Whatever Jeff was reacting to, he said, wasn’t something I should take personally. He told me I was a great student and reminded me of how much the faculty respected me and respected my work.
In retrospect, or shall I say, what I found out later on, told me about the same thing. Jeff tended to go out to lunch and came back right before my 1pm lesson with him. Something hadn’t gone right at lunch, and he was taking it out on me. Likely also, he had a few drinks in him. Maybe more than a few.
I tried not to think about it anymore. Oddly, Jeff never brought it up again. It didn’t matter to me that he hadn’t apologized. It was almost like he had forgotten. I was glad he forgot, because honestly, this wasn’t typical of him, and whatever had provoked it, that, too, was all buried and over with.
In fact, those days were gone in a flash. After I left Bennington it was like I never existed there. Oddly, they don’t seem to have any record of all the concerts I participated in, all the rehearsals, all the pieces I wrote and performed, and it seems that no one remembers what a great student I was. I do not see a single photo anywhere. You can find my academic records, mostly hand-written, mostly illegible now.
Maybe time just works like that. Your life is gone, your accomplishments don’t matter anymore, and oddly, no one cares, either. Anyone who would have remembered is dead. That leaves me. That leaves the rest of us.
It’s a good thing I’m still around to tell these stories. Maybe the story itself, odd as it is, lives on. It’s more than a memory. This story, like any other, comes alive just by telling it. The Jennings building, the faculty and the music they made, the joy of learning and achieving, the sound of the concerts. It’s all there still.