Three Generations of Teaching Music Composition

Three Generations of Teaching Music Composition

PAUL LANSKY: I think the relation that Virgil and I have is similar to the relation that George and I had in that just as I don’t think that Virgil thinks of me as his composition teacher, he thinks of me as someone whose work he admires and from whom he can learn something and I feel the same way about him. I mean, I’ve learned a lot from Virgil. That really, in a sense, mirrors my relation with George.I was in George’s harmony class for two years and I had to write Bach chorales and Beethoven scherzos and he was unrelentingly critical. That was sort of a kind of more traditional educational experience, but what I really learned from George was that he was in a sense, somebody who, first of all, I knew felt strongly about what he was doing and he really liked what he was doing. So the ethical model that he presented was one that I took very seriously, because he really knew that he was his favorite composer. And I think, in a sense, that, I think every composer should be his or her own favorite composer and in George’s composition lessons with me, we’d often hit a brick wall where he couldn’t say anything about my music; it was either fully formed or it was never going to be born. So, George would sometimes resort to, “Well, let’s go and look at some of my music.” [laughs] And so, I didn’t really learn the act of composition, the art of composing through George as much as really developing an attitude to get into your own head and doing something that you liked and that you took seriously. And since I had such great respect for George’s abilities as a musician and as a composer and I really like his music, and I still do like his music, I felt that what I really learned from him, was, as I said, the ethics of composition more than the physical process of composing. And I feel the same way about my graduate students. We don’t get graduate students here who really need to be taught how to compose, so of the few students we admit here every year, we almost always admit students who already know how to compose. So our relation to the students is to give them room to breathe and give them elbow room, room to maneuver and discover what it really is that they really like about their own work and the kinds of things that they feel are compelling. And to, in a sense, not only teach them to be their own favorite composers, but also their own best composition teachers. And I think my relation with Virgil is more along those lines, than maybe…

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: I certainly agree with everything you said. I never felt that, in fact, I probably would have expected to just have something to resist as I said earlier in this conversation. The doors were simply open and you could run through them at any speed you wanted and I found a pace that was comfortable for me. There are a number of things here that were simply overwhelming to me. One is the general level of achievement that you’re around when you’re here. The other is, I believe I was told the first week I was here, “Well, you know, anything you write will be performed.” So I wrote an orchestra piece, and it was read by the New Jersey Symphony… The kind of resources you have around here are just staggering and that, in fact, is practical. You know the concerts that happen here where everybody gets together and you listen to an electronic piece of an orchestral composer and vice versa. I think it’s a great exposure to all those different things. But in terms of our actual “lessons,” I believe they did consist in fact of my playing what I was working on and you playing what you were working on.


VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: And I found myself very interested in what you do and how you do it because it was very different or really it extended to me what really is possible, it gave me a wider conception of what is possible. And, of course, innovation is failed imitation, so you know, if I do try to imitate you it comes out sounding different because only you are you and I’m me.

PAUL LANSKY: Of course.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: And that’s also something that I got here and I really find—it’s not been so long since I left the place—but I find myself simply continuing to pursue my own path and I think there are enough things laid out on the table, you know, between my years in New York and then coming here and then topping it all of with the concentrated experience to keep me busy for a lifetime.

PAUL LANSKY: One thing you said sort of reminds me of what I think is an interesting metaphor. You know, in T’ai Chi there’s a thing called push hands?

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: No, I don’t know that.

PAUL LANSKY: You don’t know T’ai Chi at all? Well, the idea in push hands is you push but the other person doesn’t push back but yields and you’re sort of swept forward in the process and that’s sort of a lot like our compositional teaching model. We sort of encourage our students to sort of show their work to everybody and what actually very often happens is that we give contrasting advice. So you know, he’ll show something to me and I’ll say, “Well, you know, I like it a lot, but maybe you should do blah, blah, blah, blah.” And then you’ll show it to Steve and he’ll say, “I don’t like it a lot, or I do like this a lot but maybe you should do something else.” That’s sort of the analogy of this, the metaphor that you use about finding something to push against because as soon as you find something to push against, it yields…


PAUL LANSKY: You fall flat on your face.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Yeah, well, that is essentially—I mean, we talk about all being free, and the thing is that when you really are free you’ve got to make choices. And there’s not someone standing over you saying you have to make this choice. Then you’re really left with who’s going to make the choices? Well, you have to do it yourself. But, yeah, I really enjoyed the generally uncritical attitude you took. I always felt that I could play you stuff in progress. It didn’t always have to be polished and perfect. And that’s a very vulnerable position to be in as a student.

PAUL LANSKY: Yeah, composing is especially delicate in that respect. You’re really putting your life on the line.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: [laughs] Yeah! Absolutely!

PAUL LANSKY: And it’s really hard, I find this especially with undergraduate composers because they work really hard on something and you can criticize it, but you have to be very careful because it’s not just the composition that you’re criticizing.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Right. The person is very identified in the composition. Yes, this is their work.

PAUL LANSKY: Their inner-being and their inner-turmoil is very often in there and I think it’s a mistake to teach people not to invest their music with their inner-life and the things that they care about, so it’s a very delicate process and it is good in a way to not give them something to push against.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Yes. At the same time, I do recall times when you would say, “I would put that first. It’s a good place setter.” Or I think you once said to someone, “The advice is free; it costs nothing.” And suggested that they change some particular part. So, the attitude is supportive. I don’t want to generate that somehow nothing happens and that everybody just does whatever, because that’s not what happened.

PAUL LANSKY: Oh, what I like to say is, “I’m gonna really tell you what I think, but I’m only gonna tell you what I think if I feel that you won’t take me seriously. So, what I really want is for me to give you my opinion, but I don’t want you to feel that you have any obligation to believe what I say.” So I like it a lot when I feel free to say, “I really think…” I don’t want to pretend that as a composition teacher, I don’t tell people what I think, because I try to really say what I think, you know. If I think something is not working, then I will say it, but the thing that I always say is that it’s really up to you to develop the inner resources to evaluate my opinion reasonably and if you cannot evaluate my opinion reasonably, then I’m not going to give you my opinion, so, yeah, you’ll get your money’s worth only if I think that you’re not investing your own money.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: [laughs] Yeah, I see exactly what you’re saying. It’s kind of like, “I’ll tell you what I think, but don’t take it to the bank.” Right? You really need to come out. You’re responsible for your own actions, I mean, that’s what it basically comes down to.


VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: And news is that that doesn’t just mean that everything is hunky-dory, it means actually more responsibility than being in a situation where you must do A, B, C, D, and E.

PAUL LANSKY: For instance, George was sometimes similar in regard to that in that there were many times when it was clear to me when he didn’t want to tell me what he thought because he didn’t think that it was fair to criticize the object so much, as it was reasonable to evaluate the sort of process that you used to get there. So that’s why he would then bring out his own music because he would say, you know, “I got something that I liked and this is how I got here,” rather than saying, “I think that you were wrong in that respect.” So in a way I think I’m responding to George’s hesitancy as a composition teacher. Maybe he was hesitant for the same reasons that I am bold because he knew that I would take what he said very seriously, so I guess I try to act like a fool so my students don’t take me too seriously, so I can say what I think.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: I don’t really think that’s the effect you have. I know what you’re saying though as a concept. Yeah, that’s a very tricky thing that I find in teaching composition. Sometimes, I’d wonder, “Well, do I just not get it, or do I not like the kind of thing they’re doing.” And then I have to step back and say, “Well, if they’re doing it well, I have to try to understand what they’re doing,” and then, if they’re doing it well, I say, “You know, fine,” because maybe I hate a certain kind of progression or, you know, a piece that’s all piano or something like that, you know. Piano, bass and drums, for example… Something I might hate just on the face of it, you know that combination and yet, if they’re doing well, leave them be because it’s not their problem I don’t like that. It’s a perfectly legitimate thing to do.

PAUL LANSKY: But I think as a composition teacher, you do have to learn, that’s why I’m so interested in the seminar I’m doing at the moment, the one that forces you to recompile your software, because I think as a composition teacher it’s really important in a way just to suspend judgment and to learn to evaluate things and learn the terms. So that’s why I think it’s important for our graduate students to be able to deal with music that is just not down their alley and also with the Generals Concert. I should say, what we do in the General’s Concert, part of general exam is, we tell the students to prepare two pieces one by some composer who they admire but with whom they don’t feel this close kinship with and then to prepare a performance of that piece and then to prepare a performance of a piece that’s a response to that …

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Which is general composition.

PAUL LANSKY: The point is to prepare a piece by a composer that they admire and but don’t feel is someone who’s just down their alley.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Well, in a sense, that’s an interesting duality. Because I did that with Varèse because I like beats and Varèse has no beat. It’s not 4/4 or 5/4 it’s all this really overlapping, highly complex, dense structure.

PAUL LANSKY: It’s events.


PAUL LANSKY: And pulsations.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Exactly. It’s a very different conception of rhythm so, I was in fact walking that line between something that’s not what I do but that I do admire. It’s a tricky place because, you know, if you have to prepare something by someone you hate, well, you just might hate it. You know, you might night have to get on the other side of that one.

PAUL LANSKY: Yeah, oh, yeah.

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