Be­ing taught by Ian Kemp wasn't just en­light­en­ing, it was life-en­hanc­ing

The Herald - Arts - - GALLERIES - Michael Tumelty

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.

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