Three Generations of Teaching Music Composition

Three Generations of Teaching Music Composition

GEORGE PERLE: You were responsible for the most important aspect of our relationship, which is that you came to me with a piece of mine and wanted to know what I was doing. What was the piece?

PAUL LANSKY: Was it a string quintet?

GEORGE PERLE: No, the string quintet… there is a string quintet. That’s not this discussion. Well, it doesn’t matter.

PAUL LANSKY: Well, this is when I was already at Princeton.

GEORGE PERLE: Yeah, so you had been at Queens for how long?

PAUL LANSKY: I was at Queens for five years.

GEORGE PERLE: So you were studying with me all the time?

PAUL LANSKY: Yeah, pretty much, pretty much. I took Hugo Weisgall‘s composition class, but you were the one…

GEORGE PERLE: You showed me things.

PAUL LANSKY: All the time. Sure, sure.


PAUL LANSKY: We had two years of harmony and counterpoint and two years of composition lessons and you gave me my lowest grade, you know, when I was at Queens—

GEORGE PERLE: Sorry about that.

PAUL LANSKY: You gave me an A-! So, but I interpreted that well, that was good. But your book came out when I was a freshman.

GEORGE PERLE: My first one?

PAUL LANSKY: Yeah. Serial Composition and Atonality. And, there’s a section in there where you talk about your own theoretical work, which I never understood and you refused to talk about it. I remember you said something like if you can’t figure it out, you’ll never want to know. So after I left Queens, I was writing a wind quintet, which I’ve since thrown out, and I decided to start with that. And I arbitrarily did something that you didn’t describe in your book, and I then I wrote you a letter apologetically and said, “You know, you’ll probably think this is really silly, but I did this,” and you wrote back saying I had doubled the possibilities and you had never thought of doing that. So that led to a pretty intense series of creative collaborations that lasted about three years and then we sort of parted. I was interested in a different sort of approach and you went on to write ten more books about it.

GEORGE PERLE: You’re exaggerating.


GEORGE PERLE: Well, yeah, they stop. You have an extraordinary capacity for significant theoretical work and when I showed you my own work you had been a student of mine for five years at that time. Because even when you weren’t studying with me, you still were in a sense…and you began to ask me about my own work and came up with unbelievably relevant analytical observations about it.

PAUL LANSKY: It’s always much easier to look at somebody else’s work than to look at your own!

GEORGE PERLE: Well, you had a special insight into what was involved, which eventually led to some confusion on your part as a composer. But that’s something else…

PAUL LANSKY: [laughs] Tell me about it, George.

GEORGE PERLE: You know it very well. You went through a state of profound depression because, as a result of what the two of us were doing together, you got stuck in your own composition.

PAUL LANSKY: That’s true.

GEORGE PERLE: I think that you quit the composing thing for about a year. For a long time…

PAUL LANSKY: Yeah, that sounds about right. Sounds right.

GEORGE PERLE: And, you’re probably blaming me for it!

PAUL LANSKY: Oh, no, I wouldn’t blame you for it. It is interesting. The thing that I learned was that no matter how rich the theoretical approach is, everyone has to work out their own way of dealing with it. But you were just exploding with musical output. Every time I turned around, you know, there was a new piece. And that was also kind of demoralizing.


PAUL LANSKY: I was trying to put together everything and I just kept getting pieces in the mail. You threw out some of them though. You threw out the Toccata. The string quartet, which you dedicated to me, you threw out, too.

GEORGE PERLE: Yeah, I threw that out. But the Toccata I saved. That was later.

PAUL LANSKY: You saved that, yeah. Maybe you should revive that string quartet. You have to dedicate a piece to me. You owe me one since you threw out the piece that you did dedicate to me. I think I’ve dedicated some pieces to you.

GEORGE PERLE: Well, the collaboration that I had with you was enormously influential on my work and that’s not something that always happens between teacher and pupil. It happened between Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg.

PAUL LANSKY: But they didn’t collaborate, though, did they?

GEORGE PERLE: No, but it wasn’t the same thing. Schoenberg’s influence on Berg was tremendous, but it had different consequences on Berg than it did on Schoenberg. The business with Bartók is very interesting because Bartók never talked about technical aspects of his music. He never taught composition. I think he lost something by not teaching composition. Just as I lost something by not working with you earlier…

PAUL LANSKY: Well, I don’t think we were ready to…I certainly didn’t…

GEORGE PERLE: You didn’t know what you were doing, but the connection between the teacher and pupil can be—I’m not saying it always is—but it can be very important for the teacher and this was the case for me when you and I were working together. I didn’t anticipate this, but that’s what happened. And I think it would have been better for Bartók if he had wanted to talk about the special things that he was doing in his music—He gave piano lessons. You know, he was a great pianist; he taught piano, but he didn’t want to teach composition.

PAUL LANSKY: When we were collaborating it was still in the days when people wrote letters and you were an inveterate letter writer and your collective correspondence is probably huge. So we had a stack of correspondence this big and all kinds of other things came up. We had a fight that came up once, actually about teaching, I think because I think I either implicitly or explicitly made a criticism of your teaching. And I said something, you were talking about states of transition—one thing led to another and I said something, I can’t remember the details, but I said something to the effect—

GEORGE PERLE: I remember exactly what you said.

PAUL LANSKY: Oh, really? You have a better memory than I do. I shouldn’t have brought this up! [laughs] What did I say?

GEORGE PERLE: I don’t know if I really want to repeat it. [laughs] I was his teacher but he wrote me a letter that said, “I wish you wouldn’t get so upset when I say something that you don’t understand right away.” I should’ve said go find yourself another teacher, but…

PAUL LANSKY: Well, that was also a kind of discussion we had when I started working with computer music because you thought that only computers should have to listen to computer music!

GEORGE PERLE: Well, I’d make an exception out of you.

PAUL LANSKY: You’d make an exception! Well, I’m very grateful to you.

GEORGE PERLE: Well, you sent me one of your first compositions after this connection that we had and I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but it wasn’t very good.

PAUL LANSKY: I don’t mind!


PAUL LANSKY: What was it, a piano piece?

GEORGE PERLE: Yeah, a piano piece.

PAUL LANSKY: I had written a really nice piano piece before that, remember? That you liked a lot.

GEORGE PERLE: Yeah. And that had nothing to do with…

PAUL LANSKY: Nothing to do with that…Right.

GEORGE PERLE: And it was the first thing that had to do with my own composing in all the years that I had been teaching.

PAUL LANSKY: The first?

GEORGE PERLE: The first—

PAUL LANSKY: The first time that anyone had sent you a piece?

GEORGE PERLE: People had shown some kind of interest on a theoretical level, but I had never had anybody trying to do the same thing. And you tried, so I remember that that was a momentous event in my life.

PAUL LANSKY: But it wasn’t any good!

GEORGE PERLE: Yeah, but still, it was a momentous event in my life that there was somebody besides me—I had been working since 1940, before 1940.

PAUL LANSKY: Thirty years? This would have been the late ’60s…

GEORGE PERLE: That’s right. To see what the implications were of this different way of thinking about 12-tone music. And here, let’s see, it was more than 20 years, because I wrote my first piece based on symmetries in…


GEORGE PERLE: I got very interested in the Berg Lyric Suite. Did I talk about the Berg Lyric Suite in class?

PAUL LANSKY: Oh, all the time. We used to derail you from covering the lessons by asking you to talk about Berg. It was a standard technique in class if we weren’t ready, we’d say: “George, please talk about, or Professor Perle, please talk about Berg.” [laughs]

GEORGE PERLE: Anyway, you sent me a piece that was based on these principles that I hadn’t talked about and I had some criticisms of it and then you came up with something, you wrote me, but there was a difference in our basic philosophy about composition. I think there was.

PAUL LANSKY: Well, there still is.

GEORGE PERLE: There still is and this is the thing that eventually led you into the computer music. There aren’t really a lot of people who are interested in the thing that interests me, whether it’s my composing and you probably aren’t either.

PAUL LANSKY: No, I’m interested in…

GEORGE PERLE: Yeah, but you’re interested in—you’re not interested in the way I’m interested.

PAUL LANSKY: No, I think we’re very different at this point.

GEORGE PERLE: Nobody thinks the same way about these things as the way I’m interested in thinking.

PAUL LANSKY: Well, I think the same is true for everyone. I don’t think anyone’s interested in things the way I’m interested in them. I think I wrote one successful piece that was a result of our collaboration, that was my first computer piece, mild und leise, which now is actually my most famous piece because part of it’s been sampled by a famous English rock group Radiohead, so I get mail about it all the time, but that has nothing to do with our collaboration. But, that was the first piece I did that I thought was directly the result of the collaboration, it was my attempt to really do something in my own terms. And your response to the piece was fairly clear. Well, you may have been faking it but I wanted to believe that you actually like it. Do you remember it?

GEORGE PERLE: Yeah, I remember it.

PAUL LANSKY: I think you disagreed with some way I was constructing some things in there.

GEORGE PERLE: Yeah, but I also realized I wasn’t going to have much impact on what you were doing.

PAUL LANSKY: I wrote a string quartet too, which sort of is along those lines.

GEORGE PERLE: There comes a point where if a pupil and a teacher are close, there comes a point when problems develop. There becomes a point where there’s some kind of a conflict which it doesn’t do any good to talk about.

PAUL LANSKY: When do you think that point came about with us? Was it about that time, the early ’70s?

GEORGE PERLE: Really as soon as you began to compose.

PAUL LANSKY: Yeah, that’s probably true.

GEORGE PERLE: After that long period where you couldn’t compose at all and I was composing like crazy.


GEORGE PERLE: Thanks to the insights that I got in our discussions and the opposite things happened with you.

PAUL LANSKY: Well, I was a much younger composer. I was in my late twenties and I was really just learning how to begin to compose at that point and I really don’t think I knew what I was doing, so to be presented with such a formal theoretical apparatus at that point, I think is not that helpful in a lot of ways. For you, this was sort of a way to help you tie together things that you had been doing for 30 years. I hadn’t even been alive 30 years.

GEORGE PERLE: Yeah and things I had missed out on by not showing them. I never talked about these things until after I had been composing for over 20 years, doing certain things that I believed in and that I described in some articles, but I never mentioned any of my own composing.

PAUL LANSKY: That’s right.

GEORGE PERLE: And afterwards I came out with a book that showed most of the examples from my own music.

PAUL LANSKY: So it was at that point that I moved more towards computer music and away from…

GEORGE PERLE: As a way of getting rid of me.

PAUL LANSKY: Well, in a sense I think students have to exorcise their teachers.

GEORGE PERLE: Yes, they do.

PAUL LANSKY: A very good moment for me came when it ceased to upset me if you didn’t like something that I did!

GEORGE PERLE: Well, it was a big responsibility trying to teach you because you took everything I said very seriously.

PAUL LANSKY: Very seriously. But, you were an enormous influence, George. In all aspects of music you were a tremendous influence and it took a lot more time to have more faith in my own judgment. I think that’s an important aspect in teaching composition, to give your students enough confidence in their own judgment that they don’t take what you say as an absolute fact. So by the time I was 45 or so, I learned that you were going to dislike things that I thought were terrific.

GEORGE PERLE: Well, I also learned that if I wanted to do certain things, I would have to do them myself.

PAUL LANSKY: We started to collaborate on a book and it became clear very quickly that there were going to be two different versions of the book. My version of the book would have taken 6 pages and I actually wrote those 6 pages, and your version of the book which is about 12-tone tonality and is about 220 pages. Your book was much more interesting than my 6 pages!

GEORGE PERLE: When you wrote the 6 pages, I agreed with you.

PAUL LANSKY: [laughs] So I actually wrote my thesis on this and in a way it kind of took the fun out of it because I used kind of baby linear algebra to explain the whole thing and it sort of took the mystery out of it. And your ways of talking about it are much more exciting because they’re more complicated in a way. There are more nooks and crannies, more dark corners, more mysteries. I think my approach was to try to tell the more all-encompassing, simple way of looking at it and that kind of took the fun out of it, because I don’t think that’s the way music works.

GEORGE PERLE: But, in my experience being your teacher, I owe you more than any teacher I ever worked with, so I learned a lot from teaching you. Schoenberg said something like that about his own pupils. You had a special insight into what I was doing and a real gift at seeing certain connections. And a big part of it was not only your own special gifts, the special way that your mind works that was relevant to it, it was that you were coming at it from the outside, and you see things, which I did when I first tried to figure out what Schoenberg’s 12-tone system was about. I came up with this stupendous insight that…

PAUL LANSKY: That was totally wrong.

GEORGE PERLE: That was wrong. I mean it came from a wrong interpretation. But you’re making a mistake that is pregnant with meaning and that was the case—what you did when you looked at my work, or when I explained my work to you, was what I had done when I first looked at Schoenberg. I made a mistake in interpreting something, and my mistake was truer than the thing that I was looking at. You know what I mean? And you, coming from the outside also without any preconceptions about what 12-tone music was supposed to be, came with a new insight to it as Bartók would’ve done when he was writing his fourth quartet if he had ever talked about this music to someone instead of keeping it all to himself…

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