William Goldstein, a true
Renaissance man, was born with the rare gift of genius that was manifesting by
the time he was three years old when he could sit down at the piano and play by
ear. By the time he was eight, he would go to the movies and was able to play songs and themes after seeing the film just once.
His musical accomplishments, which span all musical
genres, are legion, scoring 50 film and TV projects, including 48 episodes of
“Fame,” Disney’s “The Miracle Worker,” “Twilight Zone,” and “Shocker.”
He is a founder of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los
Angeles, a director of the California State Summer School for the Arts, and
serves on both the Music Branch Executive Committee and Foreign Language
Committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Goldstein also achieved prominence as an innovator of
new technology and pioneered the first completely computer sequenced direct
digital score for a Peter Guber project called “oceanQuest” which CBS
Masterworks released as “Oceanscape,” and created the first full musical score
for an interactive computer game called “King’s Quest Four” which
revolutionized that industry. He is also a roving ambassador for the Academy
and lectures all over the world on contemporary aesthetics and the role of
music in film.
Goldstein recently sat down with your reporter in his
studio for an exclusive interview and the following has been edited for content
What happened when you were nine years old at
Goldstein: I was there for an interview and an
evaluation with Professor Raymond Burrows at the Teachers College at Columbia
because I was a child prodigy. But we should back up before then. I grew up in
a non-musical family. We didn’t have a piano in the house. My mother couldn’t
carry a tune, but she liked classical music. My parents were in the hotel
business and during the summer, we lived in the summer hotel where there was a
piano. I was told that when I was three or four I started picking out stuff on
the piano. My parents moved into the house I grew up in when I was nine. Before
that we lived in a two-story house and the girl downstairs had a piano so I
could play occasionally, but my parents didn’t buy me a piano until I was
eight. I remember that when I was eight, my parents went to California and we
were at my great aunt’s house in Stockton for two months. She had a piano and I
had a tremendous breakthrough. That summer I was going to the movies and going
home and playing scores, themes, and songs I heard. What I imagine happened,
because I don’t really know, is that some of the very sophisticated guests at
our summer hotel said that my parents had to do something about this kid which
is how I wound up going to Columbia University for that evaluation, which I
remember very well.
What was the result of that meeting?
Goldstein: Burrows ideally wanted me to go a
conservatory. In the old days, you sent your kids to live in a host home in
Moscow or Berlin, but that wasn’t going to fly. He said if I couldn’t study
full time, how about once a week in the prep division. The prep division met on
Saturday but my folks were Orthodox Jews so that wasn’t going to fly either.
Burrows said he would get me a teacher at a convenient time.
He really wanted to see that you got the proper
Goldstein: Oh yes. He said something that blew me away.
You know I didn’t feel special. I just did what I did. But, at the end of this evaluation
period, my mother said it wasn’t practical for us to do any of these things and
Burroughs looked at her straight in the eyes and said, ‘Trying to stop him
would be like trying to stop the river heading to the sea.” My mother did try
to find someone in Lakewood (New Jersey) to teach me the piano but I was
already playing and the only teacher she could find, who was a Julliard
graduate, told me that I had to stop playing by ear. Well, if I heard
something, I played it. That was never going to stop. So that lasted just a couple of weeks and that was it. So,
I’m a classically trained pianist who never took piano lessons.
When did you learn to read music?
Goldstein: Reading music came much later. I think in
eighth grade I started playing trumpet so I read treble clef, but I didn’t
learn how to read bass clef until I was close to sixteen or seventeen. When I
was 18, I was able to write my first orchestral work, which was performed when
I was nineteen and made the front page of the Asbury Park Press and I said to
myself I can do all this without studying composition.
Given that you were a child genius, did you live a
Goldstein: I lived a rather normal life except I
was one of the youngest kids in my class but I was one of the most emotionally
insensitively developed, but I didn’t know that. How could I know it? So, outside of the fact that I could
sit down at the piano and do stuff, I played tackle football with the other
kids, went sledding in the winter, and during the summers I was a really good
belly surfer. In high school, I was voted the most talented in my class.
What did you do after you graduated college?
Goldstein: I was fortunate enough to become composer in residence during the Vietnam War for the United States Army Band in Washington D.C. and was commissioned to write music including a trombone concerto when I was
25. It is the most performed trombone piece and has been recorded eight or nine
times by principal trombonists around the world and this year was selected by
the International Trombone Association as the their competition piece.
Eventually, I signed a contract with Columbia Pictures/Screen Gems in New York
so I was with their publishing company, which was the place to be. It had everybody including Carole
How did Motown’s Berry Gordy find you?
Goldstein: The Screen Gems thing led to my first movie
and then I did a lot of work for ABC Television and the connection with Berry
Gordy came about when I was asked to write the theme music for the morning
show, “AM America.” I was also doing a lot of commercials and Gordy got in
touch with me to do a singles deal where I would produce as well as be an
artist and composer.
Did you enjoy all of those roles?
Goldstein: I enjoyed everything. During the period when
I was Motown artist, I had just done my first movie score and the National
Symphony was premiering my “Celebration Overture – 1776-1976,” so I was wearing
three hats – movie composer, disco artist on Motown, and symphony
Are you equally at home playing jazz and classical
and who are some of the composers who influenced you?
Goldstein: I play jazz, but I would not call myself a
jazz artist. You might say I’m equally as uncomfortable with jazz and classical
because I don’t fit in anywhere. All the great classical composers have
influenced me. I was improvising inventions at the keyboard, which are little
Baroque pieces with a couple of ideas that interact with each other. I was doing these things in the style
of Bach before I knew Bach. We didn’t meet until a few years later. Then when I
was at Motown, I did this thing called “Back to Bach,” which was a disco
record. I love all the Russian
romantics: Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and the French: Debussy, Ravel – and American: Leonard Bernstein and Aaron
Copland, whom I met when I was a student. I’m influenced by everything I’ve ever
heard and as far as favorites, I can’t choose because I’m a person of great
You conduct Master Classes
from Las Vegas to Poland. How did that come about?
Goldstein: When I was doing FAME, a number of people in
the industry around 1981, decided to start the California State Summer School
for the Arts. It’s a fabulous program. We take high school students from all disciplines in the arts – music,
acting, writing, photography, and production design – and take over Cal Arts
for a four-week intensive program. Graduates of our program include James
Franco, a lot of the guys at Pixar, and Broadway performers, and singers. We’re
turning out a lot of people who go on to become very successful. I’m a board
member and once a year I do a Master Class. Outside of being a visiting artist here and there, that was
the extent of sharing what I knew because I didn’t know I had anything to
share. The other thing is I earned a nice living writing, but my real gift is
sitting at the piano and doing instant compositions. A: I didn’t think it was
that special and B: I didn’t know anybody else who did it, but I didn’t think
it was as rare as I now know it is. I only know one other person who does it
full time and that’s Keith Jarrett. I know people who improvise, but
improvisation in jazz is very different because it’s improvisation around an
existing structure or piece. What I’m doing is starting with nothing and
creating something. Later, I’ll ask you to pick three notes on the piano and
those three notes will become the first three notes of the melody. That sort of insures that it is not
something I’ve done in the past.
Were there specific
events that changed your life?
Goldstein: What really changed my life were two things:
One: Rob Jaffe, the Executive Director of the California State Summer School
for the Arts, who sadly passed away a few years ago, found out about the
instant compositions and suggested that I share my creative experience and show
the kids what I do. This is what I had been doing since I was a kid, but that
experience changed my life.
How did the
Transatlantyk International Film and Music Festival in Poznan, Poland come
Goldstein: That was the second thing that changed my
life. My instant compositions didn’t really get big until in 2011 Jan Kaczmarek
invited me to a festival he was putting on in Poland. He and I were talking at
an Academy Music Branch meeting and I told him I had just released my second
solo piano album of instant compositions. He said that was a lost art and that
he wanted to have a competition in instant composition and invited me to be on
the jury and do some performances. So I did and became president of the jury,
did workshop performances; improvised ballets with dancers, musical
conversations with singers, and it changed my life because the response was
just amazing. We had 50 contestants from the entire world and not one of then
could do the three-note exercise. So I began to realize that what I do is very rare.
To see the complete discography of more than 50 of
Goldstein’s works, visit www.williamgoldstein.com.
In Part Two, Goldstein explains the
technique for his famous instant compositions, how the demands of his career
impacted on his personal life, his worldwide Master Classes, and his favorite
Copyright © 2011 by Santa Monica Mirror. All rights reserved.