”Robert Turner — an anecdote”
Robert Turner was my first composition teacher and I was one of his last students. When we met in 1984, I was twenty-two years old and he was one year from retirement. The contrast in age, breadth of knowledge, world-view and experience couldn’t have been greater. This created a few difficulties for me in these early years because Bob understood these differences much more acutely than I did. He also knew the level of commitment required for this kind of work.
As a beginning composition student, it was common (for me, at least) to have very little work to show at my weekly lessons. Over the course of the week, I consistently deluded myself into thinking that I had made some monumental progress on my music. Bob would dispatch my efforts within the first fifteen minutes and search my sketches for a bit more material to fill the hour. As you all know, Bob was a gentle and soft-spoken man, not prone to improvised platitudes. I think it would be reasonable to say that Bob was unenthusiastic about my progress, at least initially.
I was writing a Guitar Sonata in that first year with Bob. One of the movements had a musical homage to William Walton (who had died in 1984) embedded in the counterpoint. Robert was looking over this movement in sketch form and lingered over this passage. Without any explanation or prompting from me he said, “tell me about William Walton.” I sheepishly explained what I was trying to do–pay tribute to a composer I admired, but in the process, feeling like I had ripped off one of his tunes. This became our common ground. The passage of borrowed music sparked a remarkable series of conversations and a study of English music that kept us going for a good number of weeks. This is when I first saw Robert’s true passion for music, his depth of knowledge, his ability to offer perspective and encouragement in the gentlest of ways. I was also introduced to his delightful sense of humour.
From then on, this became our pattern. I’d present my own clumsy and half-baked work, discuss it, then spin off into other music, Bob’s included. Using the considerable gravitational pull of these wonderful masterworks, and Bob’s ability to relate this work to my own meagre attempts, I gradually became a little more informed and confident as a composer. This was one of Bob’s many gifts as a teacher–his ability to provide a foothold on this very slippery and vast creative terrain.
Robert Turner was an inspiration to me as a student and went on to become a musical mentor, a colleague and a friend. He will certainly be missed, but always remembered, by his many students and through his music.