He was my mentor. He had a huge effect on me and I still talk about him all these years later. I even use some of his improvisation exercises with my own students. Alfie Nieman was a formative influence on me and, in an unsentimental sense of the word, I loved him. This meant I could profoundly disagree with him over individual matters, yet this would not affect the pivotal position he held in my life.
I first encountered this tall, dignified, fair-haired musician – and the word “musician” describes him better than anything – at the improvisation evening classes he did at Chiswick Polytechnic in the days when there were still polytechnics. It was in the late 1960s. For me it was as if he’d been sent from Heaven. I was deeply engrossed in many kinds of open form music from graphic scores to free jazz. Cornelius Cardew and John Cage, Cecil Taylor and Archie Shepp, were heroes of mine. I lacked two things: firstly, a regular platform that stretched my playing; secondly, informed encouragement. I got both in spades from Alfie.
The regular platform was his classes, not only in Chiswick but as I got to know him better I’d go over London to his Hampstead class too. He actually had graded exercises which took you through a ten week course. He began by writing impressionistic titles up on a board: clouds, traffic, circus, clowns, stormy sea – and so on. Each member of the class had to choose a title and, with that in mind, improvise a short piece at the piano. He was uninterested in whether or not you were a pianist. People who protested that they couldn’t play the piano were shown how to use to flat of their hand, their forearms, the strings inside the piano and even their fingers on the keys!
He recorded everything and played back each improvisation immediately and asked for comments. He banned two words: “like” and “dislike”. We were asked to describe each piece and to evaluate it. Whether we liked it or not was beside the point.
Gradually, over the ten weekly sessions, the tasks got more complex. We might be asked to improvise a piece with two very different ideas in it, and after week 1 this would be done in groups of two or three. Eventually he set us some very formal classical ideas for improvisations: rondo, sonata, theme and variations. He even got us improvising serial pieces – no mean feat!
Part of me rebelled against this classical formalism. I was also fascinated by the work of Cardew and AMM, exploring sounds or, as John Tilbury once put it, “tracking” sounds. I was also in a trance called John Cage. Alfie distrusted both of these experimentalists. He was ambiguous about Cage. He loved Cage’s “Music of Changes” and was incredibly proud when Fred Turner, one of his students at the Guildhall, played the whole very challenging piece. But the more experimental gestures of Cage left him unimpressed. As for Cardew, Alfie could be quite rude about him. Therefore for many years I lived with an extraordinarily fertile contradiction embedded in my own psyche as a musician – the more formalist intensely musical world of Alfie versus the exploratory sonic art of Cardew. Of course, they overlapped and interchanged. Alfie had a real streak of expressionism in him, and Cardew could be very formal when he wanted to be.
As to informed encouragement, Alfie was the only person I knew who was highly accomplished as a musician/composer/improviser, and who could evaluate my own performance in helpful, incisive terms that made sense to me. He chose me to play solos in the public concerts given by the improvisation class. He told me (frequently) how talented I was – which even became a little embarrassing. His evaluation of me became a hard act to live up to. If I played below capacity he’d tell me he knew I could do much better and not to be lazy. He invited me to his home in Well Walk, Hampstead, where I had piano lessons followed by his wife Aileen’s wonderful cooking. Eventually I decided to study with him at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
His lectures on the history of music and analysis and composition were good, solid stuff. But it was still his improvisation classes that had me captivated. He did a weekly class for music therapists and had me along as his right-hand man. One week I had an LP of John Coltrane’s “Ascension” with me. I told him it was brilliant. He insisted on playing some of it in class. I thought he’d hate it, but how wrong I was. He gave an instant analysis of how the use of dissonance and screeching was beautifully woven over simple modal chords. I still hear “Ascension” like that.
But going to the Guildhall was a fraught decision on my part. The Guildhall back then did not accept composition as a first or second subject. You had to play two musical instruments and this was non-negotiable. Although I had skills at the piano they were not in the classical direction, and I knew in my heart that three years at the Guildhall would be a form of agony only relieved by my piano and composition lessons with Alfie. After one year I moved on to Dartington College of Arts in Devon. I know that this hurt Alfie, and I lost touch with him and regretted doing so. London suddenly became a long way away, and my life took other directions. I saw him once in the mid 1970s and told him I was now specialising in folk music. He thought that was a complete waste of my time.
I did see him once more. I called on him at his home in the early 1990s, not many years before he died. He hadn’t changed. Not in essence. He was more frail – I knew he’d had serious health issues. But the bond I used to feel between us was still there, and his passion and seriousness about music and its disciplines were still infectious. I gave him a lift somewhere – I forget where. All I remember is him getting out of my car somewhere on the edge of Hampstead Heath and watching him as he walked off, tall and imposing.
Years later I found myself playing in a free improvisation group, “Half Moon Assemblage”. Our pianist/cellist, Elie Fruchter-Murray, is a trained music therapist. When I casually mentioned that Alfred Nieman had been one of my teachers he was mightily impressed. Alfie was, indeed, a pioneer of improvisation n music therapy. He was also a composer, pianist, teacher, and friend.
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