William Goldstein: The Musical Journey Of A Boy Prodigy

Wednesday, 13 Feb 2013, 9:05:00 AM

Beverly Cohn

William Goldstein in his studio.
Photo by Beverly Cohn
William Goldstein in his studio.

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

and continuity.

What happened when you were nine years old at

Columbia University?

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

rarified life?

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

Oscar picks. 

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