There is no doubt. Alan Belkin is not only an excellent composer: he is also a very kind person. I contacted him only a few days ago and I already received his answers to my questions …
When and how was your love for music born?
My mother used to listen to classical music recordings when I was a child. I remember at age 8 falling in love with Beethoven, Brahms, and so on. And I have never stopped since then.
What are the most important things you have discovered in your musical studies? Who were the masters who guided you along the way?
I have had a few good teachers, from whom I learned a lot. I first studied piano with Phil Cohen; from him I learned to be a perfectionist, always to aim for the best. Then I studied harmony and counterpoint with Marvin Duchow, who was a very sensitive and devoted musician and musicologist. Finally, I studied composition with David Diamond at Juilliard. From him, I really learned the essentials of the craft of composition and orchestration.
I also learned, and still learn, a tremendous amount from the great composers of the past. It’s wonderful having these models who are better composers than I am, since I can always learn something from them. I hope I never stop learning.
When and why did you decide to dedicate yourself to composition?
Almost immediately on encountering classical music, at around age 8 or 9, I knew I had to compose. I simply never considered anything else.
What was your first composition? What is your composition that you love most? And which is the one that was most appreciated?
My first composition I really don’t remember, but I do remember composing two piano concertos when I was 12, one was like the Schumann piano concerto and the other was like the Grieg. Needless to say, nobody will ever see them!
My favorite piece of my own is the first movement of my 4th symphony; I think the musical ideas are the best I ever had. I had to revise this movement many times until I felt it was right.
I think the piece of mine that people liked the most was my Adagio Symphonique for Strings.
What were the goals and what were the obstacles to overcome during your life as a composer?
My goal was always to develop my craft as a composer to the highest level possible, and to find my own voice. These were not easy things, because there was nobody in Montreal who taught this when I was a student, and I was not really attracted by a lot of the contemporary music that was fashionable at the time. Only when I arrived at Juilliard – when I was about 30 – did I find the level of teaching I wanted.
Do you think that a composer, through his compositions, must express his emotions or should try to give shape to the emotions of the world around him, or should do… something else?
It’s hard to answer this question. A real composer needs to compose, and while it no doubt reflects what is happening in the world at the time, I’m not sure this is something one consciously decides. Especially not in my case, since I was never attracted by program music. So my composing reflected my inner world.
The men of the Middle Ages often said: “We are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants”. In your opinion, does this statement also apply to today’s composers? What could be the giants of the past who hold them up?
I have always wanted to be part of the great classical tradition – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Ravel, Shostakovich and so on. And since I continue to learn from these and other great masters, I agree that any serious composer has a lot to learn from them.
Technique and fantasy. Can they live without each other? The technique can be studied, but can fantasy be taught?
All the fantasy in the world is no use to a composer without a good technique, just as a cellist can be the most wonderful musician, but if she cannot play cleanly, with good intonation, subtle control of the bow and so on, the result is of no interest.
Fantasy is not always under our conscious control but there are things we can do to encourage it. Brahms did counterpoint exercises when he felt he had no inspiration. I think that once the inner musical machine is running, the fantasy comes much more easily.
What is your relationship with technology and with all the possibilities it offers musicians? When you compose do you prefer the Piano or the PC?
Since I started off as a pianist, I often compose at the piano. I do use notation software (Dorico) to get an idea of more complicated textures, and I spend a lot of time doing simulations of my orchestral pieces, since it is not easy to arrange to be played by really good orchestras, and since I am by nature a symphonist: I have written eight of them.
Also, I often teach people in other countries by Skype, and I also have many YouTube videos of my own music and as a teacher. The Internet has made an enormous difference in my musical life.
The readers of our site are mainly cellists. What place does the cello have in your musical palette? With what other musical instruments, in your opinion, can the cello weave the most significant dialogue?
The cello has always been one of my two favorite instruments (the other one is the French horn). I love it for its wonderful capacity to sing, making every single note expressive. When I was a teenager I started playing the piano in chamber music by Brahms, Franck, and others, and the pieces with strings were always my favorite ones. I have written one Sonata for piano and cello, and I would love to write another one, if the occasion arises. I have also written a Cello concerto.
What are your dreams for your future, for the future of your students and for the musical world that surrounds you?
I am 68 now, and I hope that more of my orchestral music will be performed – well!
For my students, I want to give them the best craftsmanship possible, so that they have the tools to realize their dreams. And for the musical world, I hope that respect for craft and really expressive music will increase. There are many factions in contemporary music, and not all of them care about the listener! But for me music is ultimately aimed at the listener’s heart; that is what I think is essential. Music allows us to make an imaginary voyage where we cannot go on our own and, for me, this is the highest freedom.
Thank you very much and best wishes: that all your dreams can come true!