Three Generations of Teaching Music Composition

Three Generations of Teaching Music Composition

PAUL LANSKY: I think, a large part of learning to compose is learning to listen. And it’s amazing to me always, how many things you don’t hear at first…Especially when you’re doing electronic music you set up sort of a minimal set of expectations and what you did that really was tremendously valuable to me was to come in with ears that had been trained in the studio and you just were able to say, “If you really want to do this right, then this is what you ought to do.” Teaching here is just such a joy because I basically think it’s a big scam because the students here teach us and I’m constantly making appointments with graduate students to show me how to do things.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: It’s the trick I’ve copied from you! I’m finding the same thing! As I was telling you over lunch today, it’s so nice to have graduate students who will solve problems that one need merely think of. It’s a wonderful resource. I think that’s a really interesting point. I was surprised by your reaction. Because I basically came here from running my own recording studio in New York and people would come in regardless of level of talent and they wanted something for their money. You were always on the spot as far as making the best possible recording. And so, just in the field I got that training of just how good it sounds, because otherwise my skills as an engineer, as the designer of the studio, are not up to par. But that’s what I ended up doing, and that’s where you influenced me I think, is to go to the other side and say, well, that’s the orchestra now. We’ve used this metaphor a lot. Our orchestration is what the quality is of the samples we use or in your case, with your very high level of manipulation of samples or even how the music itself is put together in the computer. And what I got from here was the transition. In my older recordings there’s this sort of two-sided thing going on where I’m paying attention to the production, but really I was writing out every note.


VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: And thinking about the notes as the important thing. And the other thing was that it was just a good recording. When I got here and was exposed to your music and the kinds of things that we talked about here on the electronic side was the idea that “Oh, look, we don’t have to write every note.” As you’ve said, we can gently tap the computer and send it on it’s way. And that is really what I got, thinking of the orchestra inside the computer or in the studio. They’re increasingly becoming the same thing.

PAUL LANSKY: Well, it’s extending the metaphor of composing. The metaphor of composition as a note to note process is something that doesn’t exist in the studio in some way because you’re dealing with data which is not quite time-lined in terms of specific note-time events, so that’s really useful. But yeah, I learned a tremendous amount too. We taught a course together.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Oh, that was fun!

PAUL LANSKY: Yeah, that was interesting. I couldn’t have taught the course without you…


PAUL LANSKY: Well, I’m not sure that’s true. I’m sure you would’ve been fine. But it was a lot of fun. We taught an electronic music composition course.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: But one which didn’t use the traditional model of what an electronic composition course would be. We were basically using commercial recording software and bending it to our purposes.

PAUL LANSKY: But my educational model there too was to sort of throw people into the deep end and they’ll either drown or come out with something.


PAUL LANSKY: A couple of students drowned, I think.


PAUL LANSKY: But most of them came out.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: I do remember one student not showing up all semester and showing up at the concert, before the intermission, with his CD, which we played. It didn’t sound that great, though.


VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: I really got a lot out of that. I discovered that I really loved teaching being here, and that was really the course when it came into full bloom for me because you tended to work in that course in the way that I think I have assumed, I would call it organized chaos in that we didn’t say, you know, here’s the handout, here are points one through seven, work these and come in next Tuesday. We said, here’s the studio, here’s how you do a couple of things, play with it and bring in a composition of one minute in two weeks. And they did!

PAUL LANSKY: My attitude towards technology and studio stuff in general is that you have to learn it by yourself. Nobody can really ever tell you anything and the stuff that people can tell you, you can figure it out or you can read the manual. I was telling you before that my proudest educational moment was about 10 to 12 years ago when some students were building an application and the sound icon on the application was me saying, “You’ll figure it out.”

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Oh, I see. They had put it in.

PAUL LANSKY: They had put that in.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: They had sampled your voice and put it in the about window.


VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Yeah, that’s a great little “earcon.”

PAUL LANSKY: I have no idea…

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: I think that’s an important part of how I can now say we work in our teaching; all the work that I did with you was always project driven. It wasn’t so much, “You’re going to learn the principle of this or of that.” It was, “We’re going to make something.” And so then the working out of the issues comes from finding your way toward making your product sound the way that you want it to be, which is really how the world operates. I mean, that’s how we actually learn and exist. We pick up these pieces and we construct actions out of them.

PAUL LANSKY: My experience from the very beginning working with computers was that there’s just an endless stream of stuff that you could learn. And, at least, the way I function is that I can’t learn anything unless I have some sort of immediate application for it. The analogy I always use when people ask my advice is, just imagine trying to learn tax law. Why would you want to learn tax law? Well, the reason you want to learn tax law is because you can get some money back!

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: [laughs] Right!

PAUL LANSKY: So, the reason that you’d want to study LISP or C++ is that you have some reason to get sound out of it. And I’ve actually learned this the hard way. Like, I’ve studied a bunch of computer languages, I went through the book and I did a few of the exercises and I didn’t have any application for them and then in two weeks I’d forgotten them entirely.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Absolutely. I remember asking in a class how you had put a composition together. And you said, “I forgot.” [Lansky laughs] and I thought you were being disingenuous. I thought, “Paul Lansky, great composer, does not want to share his secrets.” Well, you know, a couple of weeks ago, I was looking at one of my older MSP patches, and I couldn’t remember what I’d done. It still worked, but I had to go back and trace and trace—Oh, that’s what I was thinking! It really does leave you, because you’re engaged in making the product and unless you have a use for it, there’s so much information out there.

PAUL LANSKY: Well, I was being disingenuous.


PAUL LANSKY: No, the question of how you put something together is, for me, not as interesting as trying to describe what it ultimately is that you put together. I was very proud of that talk I gave in my course on Idle Chatter Junior because I had never thought about it before. I didn’t want to tell the students what it takes to put these patterns together, because their eyes would glaze over and they would fall out of their seats. So, instead what I wanted to do was to try to reconstruct what it was that I thought I had to learn to do in order to deal with the constraints I was operating under. And I had never actually thought about it before in that piece in terms of noticing that since I didn’t want to use linear predictive coding, I didn’t want to use some sort of fancy technique, I went through this much simpler processing. I was much more limited as a result, to a narrow bandwidth and that my reason for using other sounds in there was to flesh out the spectrum and that’s much more that kind of thing that I think is useful to people. Especially in technology, the sort of how-to stuff, I think, is best done with the manual.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Or even not the manual, if you can possibly get away from it.

PAUL LANSKY: Actually, what happens with me very often is that other people do an RTFM, so…

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: [laughs] You might want to explain what that is.

PAUL LANSKY: RTFM is an acronym. Anyone who knows or does this stuff will know what that means.

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