William Goldstein On the Art of Instant Composition

The former child prodigy looks back on a rewarding and fascinating career as he prepares for his latest release, “Collaborative Composition”

Posted in News on September 8, 2021 by
Photo: Katherine Fox

Imagine discovering, as a young child, that you have the ability to sit down at the piano and instantly play anything you hear. This skill is so natural to you—you don’t even recall not being able to do it—that it feels entirely normal. You don’t realize it’s unique until adults start marveling at the extraordinary talent they’re witnessing and urge your parents to have you evaluated at Columbia University at the age of nine.

This is one of the many remarkable circumstances in composer William Goldstein’s life. The former child prodigy eventually learned to read music, writing his first orchestral work at age 18 and formally studying music composition in college. He credits multiple life-changing experiences—serving as composer in residence for the U.S. Army Band during the Vietnam War, signing with hit factory Columbia Picture Screen Gems and, later, with Berry Gordy on Motown Records—as miracles.

Even if Goldstein did have a miracle or two thrown his way, he’s made good use of his exceptional talent, collaborating with adventurous composers and artists in real time to create “instant compositions” and leading master classes on the art of composing in the moment. He’s had a long and fruitful composing career, contributing music to film and television projects ranging from The Twilight Zone to Fame. As a founding board member for the California State Summer School for the Arts, Goldstein serves as a mentor to young composers and has instructed students at performing arts high schools across the U.S. He also has a hit classical album, The Bach Effect, which has garnered hundreds of thousands of streams since its March release.

BMI caught up with Goldstein from his home in Los Angeles, as he prepares for the release of his forthcoming album, Collaborative Composition.

You started improvising on piano around age three or four, and by age eight you were playing by ear the theme songs and scores you heard in movies. How did this lead to your interview and evaluation at Columbia University at age nine?

There was no piano at home until I was eight, and I already played well. If there was ever a case for reincarnation, I’ve got to tell you—I was born with the ability to speak the language of music. My folks were in the hotel business and during the summer we lived in the summer hotel in Belmar, New Jersey. There was a piano in the ballroom, and I’m told that I’d go over and start picking out things. By the time I was eight years old I’d go to the movies—there was a movie theater around the corner from the hotel, and during the day it was only nine cents for a child, if you can believe that—and I’d come back and play themes and songs from the movies that I heard. By the time I was eight or nine, I gather some of the sophisticated guests at the hotel, got after my parents, saying, “What are you doing about this kid?” This is conjecture; I don’t know how it happened, but that’s probably how I ended up being interviewed at Columbia University Teachers College when I was nine by Professor Raymond Burroughs, who was the leading piano pedagogue and music educator.

Having this talent as a child must have felt normal to you. You didn’t realize that your ability to create compositions in real time was incredibly uncommon until you participated in the Transatlantyk Festival in Poland in 2011. Can you explain how you came upon this realization, and how it impacted your creative process and your career?

My ability to create in real time was so normal, I thought that every one of my colleagues who wrote music could do the same thing. And it wasn’t until 2011, when I was invited to the Transatlantyk Festival—I was president of the jury in the first competition in creating music in real time —that I realized that my ability was not common, and actually rare. Because Jan Kaczmarek, also a BMI writer who won an Oscar for Finding Neverland, the first thing he said to me was, “You have to eliminate the three-note thing.” Well, the “three-note thing” is when I would do a live performance, so people would understand I’m creating in real time, I have them pick three notes on the piano. And then I take those three notes to become the first three notes of the melody, and I do a whole concerto on the three notes. And Jan said, “It’s impossible, nobody can do it.” It was something historically that [Hungarian composer] Franz Liszt used to do. And that was a wake-up call. So, my life changed in 2011, and my focus shifted to doing more recordings, events, and compositions—like collaborative compositions creating ballets—in real time.

Although you’ve always played by ear, you did learn how to read music and wrote your first orchestral work at age 18. Can you explain how your creative process works when you write music?

When I started, I couldn’t read music, obviously. I picked up the trumpet in middle school—I wanted to play with the school band, so I learned how to read treble clef—and I made all-state band in New Jersey. When I was 17, I was a freshman in college and wrote a dramatic score for a school play that was going to be performed by an orchestra, and I could only write a melody line, and then people had to fill in the rest and orchestrate for me. But when I was 18, I composed and orchestrated my first orchestral work.

When I started out, the idea of earning a living writing music didn’t occur to me. I didn’t even know it was possible. So, when I graduated high school, I was on a joint program with Trenton State College in New Jersey, to get a degree in music education, and Juilliard, where I went once a week to study trumpet. I never took piano lessons because the piano was always easy, and it was always there. But after two years, I took all the courses that they offered in Trenton, and then I wrote this piece. It was performed when I was 19, and I got to conduct it with a local orchestra in New Jersey. I was on the front page of the Asbury Park Press, and I thought, “My God, if you can do this without studying composition, what happens if you study composition?”

That’s when I decided to switch schools and majors. I became a composition major at Manhattan School of Music, moved to New York, and through a contact in my hometown, was introduced to Allan Becker at BMI, who had just started the Musical Theater Workshop with Lehman Engel. And that’s how I was able to audition for that. Lehman took me immediately and it was one of the real life-changing moments … I’ve had several.

BMI helped me with all kinds of wonderful things since early in my career, from age 19. I attended the Musical Theatre Workshop and I was the youngest person in the class. By the time I was 22— and because of the workshop—I wrote a one-act folk opera called A Bullet for Billy the Kid that CBS Television produced.

Tell us a little more about how you’ve worked with BMI over the years.

When I became a composition major, I had to start all over as a freshman composition major because they taught on a very different level. So, I had to go four years and I did a year of graduate study. BMI actually arranged for music publishers to sign me and give me advances.  So, when I started out, I was playing in bands on weekends and summers, six nights a week to support myself. And then, I didn’t have to play anymore—I could go out on a date on the weekend.

During the Vietnam War, there was a draft. I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood—there was nobody to go except people like myself. So, after seven years of college, when I was 24, my draft board said, “Well, you’re going.” So, I was going to join the Peace Corps. I was going around saying goodbye to people and one of the people I said goodbye to was composer John Cacavas, who worked at Chappell. He said, “Oh no—don’t go. I just got off the phone with the commanding officer of the United States Army Band in Washington. They are looking for someone with your qualifications. I was with the band during the Korean War. It was the best thing I ever did.”

I went down for an interview and ended up as composer in residence for the United States Army Band. Because miracles happen. During my time in the army, I was commissioned to write a trombone concerto called, “Colloquy,” which is my most-performed concert work. I wrote when I was 25, it’s been recorded about eight or nine times—including by Joe Alessi, the principal trombonist in the New York Philharmonic, and Ron Barron from the Boston Symphony. When I got out of the army, a BMI executive named Ron Anton arranged for me to be under contract to Columbia Picture Screen Gems, the hotbed of popular music—Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Jeff Barry, Carole Bayer Sager. They got me my first movie and my first single, which I wrote with Sandy Linzer, called “We’ll Be Alright.” So that was an incredible experience, also completely due to BMI.

You’ve had an incredibly rich musical life so far, and we haven’t even talked about you signing with Motown under Berry Gordy as a recording artist, composer, and producer.

That was another miracle. I always enjoyed R&B and when Diana Ross released her version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” I was so blown away. I was doing a lot of record arranging in New York City at the time—commercials and all kinds of stuff—and I started doing work for ABC Television. I wrote the theme for A.M. America, the ABC morning show that preceded Good Morning America. Berry Gordy fell in love with the song and Motown hired me to do a singles deal—make a record version of that theme and two other sides. Since, in a session, you have enough time to do three sides—that’s what we did.

So, I did the “A.M. America,” I did the B side, and then, I realized I could do anything I wanted, and I had a theme going around my head since I was on vacation I took after I delivered the A.M. America music package. In January ’75, I went down to a Club Med in Guadeloupe and met a girl on the way down. We spent the rest of the week together. It ended up almost a two-year relationship—which would have gone on except for me coming out to L.A., and Motown, and my not being too excited to make a commitment to a really fine person. That’s possibly a big mistake in my life, but anyhow, I’m not perfect. So, I had this theme going on in my head because on the beach, there was this open-air bar and an upright piano. So, I’d go swimming and lie on the beach, and I’d be smelling salt water and suntan lotion. During the day the bar was completely empty, so I’d go in and start playing the piano, and this really romantic French theme came out. So, I decided to record that. It’s called “Rêves d’une Jeune Fille,” or “Dreams of a Young Girl.” It changed my life, and it’s what convinced Berry Gordy that he had to have me as an artist producer on the label.

I sent the masters out to L.A.—I was still living in New York—and I got a call from Suzanne De Passe, who said, “Are you ready to be a star?” To make a long story short, I contacted my attorney, and we had a deal in a very short time. In September of ‘75 I was out here [in Los Angeles]. I never moved out of New York—I still have a co-op in Manhattan—but I bought my home here eventually. It’s been a wild ride and I’m proud to say that I think I’m the only person in the world who has been an artist with both Motown and CBS Masterworks.

One of your latest projects, the forthcoming Collaborative Composition, features works created in the moment with seven different artists. Can you share how this project came to fruition, and explain how the collaborative “instant composition” process works?

Even the idea of instant composition, everybody thinks, “Oh, everybody improvises,” but not everybody who is improvising creates a composition—an idea that’s developed. If you were to listen to any of my improvised composition albums, you can even forget the word “improvise,” because they’re all compositions. Collaborative composition is something I didn’t think was possible. But I have a very good friend who I met when I was a composition major in school, Jim DiPasquale. Jim is wonderful composer in his own right—film, television, worked with the Chicago Symphony, saxophone player. He said, “We should try to do something.” I said, “Jim, it’s not possible—when I’m doing this, I’m in the zone. How can anybody follow me, and I don’t want to be distracted.” But I reluctantly gave it a try, and that changed my life.

What I found was that in jazz improvisation, performers are following a roadmap of an existing composition. They follow the chord changes or melodic changes. When I’m doing a collaborative composition, what I’m doing is creating a structure, and it’s immediately recognizable to who I’m collaborating with. I toss out an idea—it’s a musical conversation—and we continue the ideas. So, when you listen to any of these collaborative composition albums, they do not sound improvised, because they’re tight compositionally. And while these people don’t do it on their own, I guess I have an additional ability to throw out the magic.

I don’t know if I’ve explained it, but it’s a simultaneous composition. It’s easier to see. If you look at me improvising a ballet with a dancer, you see the dancer responding. It looks pretty choreographed and pre-composed. But what’s happening is, I’m inspired by what I see, and the dancer is inspired by what they hear. It’s simultaneous and effortless. I don’t know how to explain it, the power of what is happening—that is beyond my comprehension.

You were a pioneer in the recording of computer electronic music, creating the first computer sequenced/direct-to-digital score for oceanQuest (released via CBS Masterworks as Oceanscape) in 1985. In 1987 you created the first musical score for a video game. What initially drew you to this innovative technology, and how do you see technology shaping composition in the future?

Well, technology is a tool, like pencil and paper. How I came to it was, I was at a music convention—the NAMM Show in Anaheim in 1984—and I walked by a guy who had an electric keyboard hooked up to a computer. He was playing with this musical notation going across the screen, and I had never seen anything like it. I stopped to speak with him. At the time I was doing a show called Fame, so I was highly visible. He said, this is new software that the Roland Corporation is going to be marketing, and would I like to beta test it? I said sure, and I bought a computer and started using the software. I was an initial tester for the first MIDI/Musical Instrument Digital Interface.

Then, I got an assignment to do Oceanscape, which was the first direct-to-digital score ever recorded on a computer. The series was oceanQuest—they changed the title of the album to Oceanscape. And Entertainment Tonight came up and did an interview with me; they proclaimed me the first humanoid to record a musical on the computer. That opened the door for a lot of other technology companies to come to me to beta test, which led to my doing the first video game score a couple of years later.

So, you’ve mentioned Fame, for which you scored every episode, and you’ve contributed music to a wide variety of film and television projects. How do you view the role of music in film and TV, and how do you approach collaborating with a director or producer on a project?

Carefully. First thing you have to determine is what they know, what they don’t know, and what they think they know. Composers have to be really good psychologists, I think. Music is obviously the most direct route to the emotions, so music in the film is powerful—it’s a no brainer. I read a script, I see a rough cut, I get immediate ideas, I get inspired. When I started writing it was before computer mockups. It was a simpler, kinder, gentler world—you’d play a theme on the piano and they’d have to trust what was happening. Now, it’s so complicated. I’m glad I’m focusing on my recording career now.

But mostly, you need to decide whether to play with a scene or play against the scene. And I’ve had some really interesting collaborations—my first studio picture was The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, and that was through Motown, starring James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor, and it was directed by John Badham. John Badham’s next picture was Saturday Night Fever. He’d asked me to do Saturday Night Fever and I turned it down because the songs were written by some unknown Australian group called The Bee Gees. That was a big mistake; I confess to that one!

But I had a really interesting collaboration with Wes Craven. I’m not much into horror films, but my collaboration with Wes Craven started on Twilight Zone, where he did a beautiful Twilight Zone called “Her Pilgrim Soul.” It’s a romantic piece and I’m an incurable romantic—I wrote a beautiful score, which I really loved, and so did Wes. So, then he asked me to do the film Shocker, so I did an electronic score that had a lot of humanity in it. I can’t do anything without adding humanity for murderers and killers. And it was also innovative because I took the major sound effects from the sound effects department and I incorporated them into the score, so it was a very interesting project.

You’re also involved the California State Summer School of the Arts, where you teach master classes.

I’m a founding board member—the reason they asked me is because I was working on Fame, which was a school for kids in the arts. So, automatically I was judged as an educator. It was a wonderful opportunity to do wonderful things. I was on the board for 30 years and in 2012, the executive director organized a tour for me. I gave free master classes at performing arts high schools across the United States—mostly inner-city schools—and that was a wonderful experience. I love opportunities to give back.

What advice would you give a young composer starting their career right now?

Meet as many people as possible—everything happens in life through the people that you know. Do student films. Meet up-and-coming directors.

And it’s a lot harder now. I pioneered the use of technology, which makes everybody a composer. When I started out, you needed to be able to orchestrate and have certain skills that you don’t need today. So, there were fewer people trying to get into the business. It’s very hard now, so you really have to be able to demonstrate extraordinary facility.

Personality is very important. Being supportive is very important. Everybody wants to have somebody on their team. You have to know when to say, “I don’t think that’s a good idea”—once you get hired, which is a different question.


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