Being taught by Ian Kemp wasn't just enlightening, it was life-enhancing
Ihad a moment of profound quiet recently as I read the obituary, written by my colleague Conrad Wilson, of Professor Ian Kemp, the writer, teacher and academic who died last month.
I was one of Ian's students in the music department of Aberdeen University in the early seventies. Without question, he was the single most influential figure in my musical life, my father apart. The way I listen to music, the way I think about it, and the way I express myself on the subject, with whatever confidence I can muster, all developed under Ian Kemp's influence.
Apart from his sheer brainpower, which was lightly carried and exercised with a wonderful dry wit, Ian's charisma was legendary. He was an irresistible figure. Students flocked to his classes and hung magnetically on to his words. The girls loved him. There's a scene in Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark where we see Harrison Ford in his academic role, teaching his archaeology class. One of the besotted students flutters her eyes at Indie, revealing the legend, “I love you”, stencilled on to her eyelids. To this day, when I see that scene, I think of Ian's class. The girls adored him; the guys didn't want to be like him: they wanted to BE him.
When he announced, I think in my first year, that, with the University Choral Society, we were going to learn and perform Stravinsky's electric and earthy choral masterpiece, Les Noces, I nearly fainted with fright. I couldn't get my tongue around the text or my head around the rhythms: I was a mature student, a late convert to academe, and had lost much of my musical literacy in the vacuum of my delinquent teens. I spoke privately to Ian (you could do that with him) and emerged with a new confidence and a degree of selfbelief. Les Noces was still murderous, but it was now do-able.
His history classes were unforgettable. In second year his brief was to teach us 19thcentury Romantic music. is introduction to the Tchaikovsky strand electrified the class: “Of course, Tchaikovsky was queer; and everything we will learn and understand flows from that fact.” This was from a time when the word “gay” meant something else.
I recall studying the vividly graphic score of Peter Maxwell Davies's Vesalii Icones, at that time a newish musictheatre piece whose firebrand composer was provoking outrage in conservative musical circles. I asked Ian: “Is he the real thing, or is this just iconoclasm for shock effect?” His reply was immediate: “This is a masterpiece, Max is absolutely the real thing, and he is going to go very far indeed.”
Ian brought the class down to Glasgow for a Musica Nova concert, where pressure was put on us to sit during the performance with the score on our lap. “Don't feel you have to do that,” countered Ian. “I never look at the score of a new piece while it's being played. It gets in the way of listening to the music.” Since that night I have religiously followed that advice, occasionally to the chagrin of publishers and other critics who believe the score essential to the listening process.
Working with this great man wasn't just enlightening; it was life-enhancing. Three or four years ago, in one of my many interviews with the outstanding pianist Steven Osborne, the name of Ian Kemp came up in conversation. It was in connection with Osborne's fantastic recording of Tippett's piano music. Ian had been involved with the project and had written the liner notes. Osborne revealed that he, too, had studied with Ian Kemp, in Manchester. Moreover, he confessed, he had engineered his course choices so he could get into Ian's class. And, for a few minutes, we chortled through our Ian Kemp stories, swapping tales of his enormous influence. We must have looked like groupies giggling with glee at our experiences with Ian Kemp, our guru and a good man.