Three Generations of Teaching Music Composition

Three Generations of Teaching Music Composition

PAUL LANSKY: There are several aspects to learning to listen that I think are central. One is learning to hear through culture. I remember when I grew up in the fifties, I loved rock ‘n’ roll. I couldn’t get enough of it. Jerry Lee Lewis and the Platters, I just loved ’em. And then I got really serious about music. And I remember very distinctly, forgetting how to listen to the music that I loved and I remember very distinctly, for quite a while, just hearing it as noise.Mozart was my idol and nothing, I imagined, was more interesting than Mozart. It wasn’t until the Beatles came around. The Beatles were actually a little bit older than I am, but maybe just a year or two and what the Beatles are doing are actually responding to the same music. All the early Beatles music is essentially a response to early rock ‘n’ roll. That coincided with that really violent period in the ’60s and I think listening changed radically. Things really made a big turn in my listening so I noticed that I was able to listen to a lot more. And all of a sudden my listening was not so culturally focused, it was more sort of focused in a way that was much more able to tune to various kinds of things. Then coming to Princeton in the ’60s was very interesting. There was a whole new dimension to listening that was being engaged and contrary to what a lot of people think, Princeton was a good place to learn to listen. A lot of people around here were doing experimental things… One aspect to listening is being able to tune your ears and not just to the details of the music, but also to the cultural and social aspects that surround the music and you know, this is happening all over the place, with Steve Reich and African music and Indian music and those kinds of things. It’s still amazing to me how many people in academic circles are not able to really tune their ears to a real variety of ways of listening to things. That’s one thing that I tried to do a lot in composition teaching is to help people to sort of learn what it takes to readjust their listening apparatus to understand something. I’m doing a graduate seminar now, which is so interesting and it’s been O.K. so far. The topic of the seminar is music that forces you to recompile your software. The idea is to engage some pieces that are not directly down your alley, that are not exactly the kinds of things that you’d engage, and try to figure out what it takes to accept them on their terms. We’ve done a variety of pieces. We started out with a Feldman piece for string quartet and piano, which is a wonderful piece. It’s not that difficult really, but it does require a different measure of listening, in terms of time span and being able to understand the modification of detail. And we’ve done Louis Andriessen‘s De Tijd, which I think is a wonderful piece, but very difficult. Yesterday we talked about Ferneyhough‘s Fourth Quartet and had a really interesting discussion. We tried to come to grips with Charles Ives. We spent a whole seminar on Ives’ Fourth, which is a really hard piece to understand. I think it takes a lot of work… But anyway, the whole focus of the seminar is on learning to listen to pieces that are just not down your alley. This sort of goes back to the moment that rock ‘n’ roll started to sound good to me again. I noticed that one has to do something with one’s head in order to adjust to the music coming in. Music is kind of a sharing of minds: someone is saying something in a language, in a culture, and you have to learn to deal with it. So those are the kind of things that are sort of at the basis of my attitudes about composition and listening and the idea of the Generals Concert that we do. What piece did you engage for the Generals Concert.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: I did Varèse‘s Ionization.


VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: I conducted that and I did a production piece.

PAUL LANSKY: But Varèse is probably down your alley.


PAUL LANSKY: What we like people to do is to take pieces by composers who are sort of not really down your alley. But that’s O.K. The other education—the other critical thing that is in my education philosophy is I think it’s interesting for somebody to find compelling reasons not to do the things that we suggest…

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: That was always acceptable. It seemed that if we had a good reason or did what you did well, you could really just say—you just wanted us to do something and mean it! But coming back to what you said about the Beatles, that was a very interesting cultural moment for me too because the first LP I owned was Revolver. I was 10 years old at the time.

PAUL LANSKY: That was a big record collection you had.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Yeah, well, you know as a 10-year-old my budget was limited! But I remember in terms of engaging listening—first of all, that was when I sort of came on board, when I teach those things now I have to sort of try to divorce myself from all of the sort of emotional content that it has for me, so I can hear it the way someone hearing it for the first time today would. But what’s interesting about that cultural moment, the mid-1960s, that you were talking about and also the composers that you mentioned which I think to most people would be a sort of an unlikely link from what we were saying about the Beatles (of course, you were talking in a different context), but in fact, that is to me a very interesting place and I found a way into experimental music and a love for, shall we call it art music, and popular music and really not accepting the distinction through that period of the Beatles. You know, that period in the mid-1960s is when Paul is listening to Stockhausen and John is going out with Yoko Ono and the whole conceptual thing is coming in to play, and, you know, the very experimental work, which now looking back did start with Revolver. I mean, “Tomorrow Never Knows” was one of my very favorite tracks and I think it’s no accident that “Setting Sun” by the Chemical Brothers sounds a lot like it and that’s a contemporary or 1990’s record. And that actually seems to have coincided historically with my time at Princeton strangely enough, at the turn that a certain part of popular music has taken. And that is that there is sort of return in, for lack of a better word, electronica or intelligent dance music, what people refer to as IDM, to real experimentation and to engaging, interestingly enough, the sorts of things that you and other electronic composers have been doing for a long time. I think it’s no accident that Radiohead is sampling your music and there’s this sort of interest in popular circles because in fact, in a way, that generation has found you in a different way–has found the things that were experimental when they first came out between the ’50s and the ’70s let’s say–and is really influenced by that. I really like the idea that we can talk on all different levels; that our serious music is in fact also listened to by someone outside, beyond the walls of the institution and that’s something I think people don’t think of this place as at all. Seeing how some kind of cognitive dissonance with me, with my Ph D. from Princeton, you know, and having written music in a rock style and toured as a drummer with various rock bands. But there again for me, it goes back to having worked with Glenn Branca; I was first exposed to his music in the 1980s and I started playing guitar with him in 1987 and, of course, Glenn sort of works that same spectrum, you know, because his whole spectrum is entirely rock ‘n’ roll: Theoretical Girls and, of course, Sonic Youth coming out of his group and playing with them.

PAUL LANSKY: You played in Sonic Youth.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: No, we opened for them at Royal Festival Hall last summer.

PAUL LANSKY: Oh, I thought that you had played with them last summer.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: No, that would be nice. They’re a great band. No, I actually joined right when Glenn was replacing them because they all left his group at the same time. But working with him was this way in for me to actually engaging all of these different levels of music at once because, you know, Glenn’s music can be forbidding or/and can be at the same time loud, of course, and can be an absolute, you know, torrent of rock emotion. And it’s very interesting, of course, because he also works on this level as a “serious composer” and is certainly taken very seriously. But the interesting parallel that I found to your music is that you have a very different musical personality—in some ways they couldn’t be more opposite, but it’s very interesting to have worked with both of you because there are certain commonalities in the music. I see your music as also running the gamut. One can listen to it as a very highly advanced work of art that engages both the technical and the emotional and puts them all into one place, or one can simply sit back and say, “This is great!”

PAUL LANSKY: The three-minute pop song.

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Yeah, well, maybe sometimes 20-minutes!

PAUL LANSKY: The six-minute pop song…

VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Right, the six-minute pop song! But that was something that I was really able to work with and working here, particularly working with you, and I gravitated, I think, toward you because of that very span. That’s something that’s still hard on the other side to get people to engage as well.


VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Oh, that art stuff, you know. You can also get, you know, rock is supposed to be the Sex Pistols

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