Three Generations of Teaching Music Composition

1. A Lifelong Relationship

PAUL LANSKY: We’ve been talking for 40 years, so…

GEORGE PERLE: As I approach my 87th birthday, I sometimes feel I’ve talked too much.

PAUL LANSKY: Well, it’s been over forty years since I showed up at your freshman harmony class. Your first day at Queens was my first day at Queens.

GEORGE PERLE: Yeah.

PAUL LANSKY: And, I thought, you looked so young at that point. You were already in your forties but I thought you were so young that you’d just gotten out of graduate school and I learned you were already a famous composer.

GEORGE PERLE: Was I?

PAUL LANSKY: Well, that’s what they told me. So, that’s 1961? For two years you were my theory and counterpoint and harmony teacher. I think that was my best composition training…

GEORGE PERLE: It was a harmony class.

PAUL LANSKY: Well, yeah, but it was still composition. You taught it as a composition course, but I remember you made us write a piece based on a Beethoven

GEORGE PERLE: Bagatelle?

PAUL LANSKY: No, not a bagatelle.

GEORGE PERLE: Sonata?

PAUL LANSKY: I don’t know. (hums)

GEORGE PERLE: Scherzo, yeah that’s probably right.

PAUL LANSKY: Yeah, the Scherzo from Opus 28. And then you always insisted on doing the exercises yourself and that was a very good composition lesson, but you never talked about your own music. There was something implicit that it was immoral to teach your own music. I think you tended to think that you weren’t a very good harmony teacher, I think that you were very good. And the thing I remember most, as I think back on it, was this incredible attention to detail. I mean, you’d spend a half hour trying to decide if G-sharp was a better note than A in a given context.

GEORGE PERLE: And there’s something else, which is that composition students come into class and show a piece, but there’s nothing there but notes. No phrase marks, there’s no dynamics, there’s no articulation markings.

PAUL LANSKY: Yeah, right, right. (laughs)

GEORGE PERLE: And I don’t understand that. That’s not the way you hear it. You can’t play that way, you can’t do anything without these other things and then I find out that they don’t know what to do.

PAUL LANSKY: Was that the case with me? I was a terrible composition student.

GEORGE PERLE: I don’t remember that you were terrible at anything. I mean you were always the best student in the class.

PAUL LANSKY: You’re just saying that!

GEORGE PERLE: Even though you didn’t have absolute pitch

PAUL LANSKY: I still don’t have absolute pitch. Do you? Have you lost it?

GEORGE PERLE: I still do, I still do.

PAUL LANSKY: But I tried to study composition. I was a very pretentious student, I remember. I thought I knew how to compose, but I really didn’t.

GEORGE PERLE: Well, what did you learn?

PAUL LANSKY: Well, your way of teaching composition was never to suggest specific things that I should do, but you used to grunt and groan a lot about what I showed you, and I kind of inferred that you were trying to make a subtle point, but I wasn’t picking it up and I remember spending a lot of time, in a way, trying to read your reactions to pieces. I think I understand what you were talking about, but they were never really about the pieces as much as they were about the approach to composition, that way of putting together a piece. You probably don’t remember anything I showed you. I probably don’t remember anything I showed you.

GEORGE PERLE: I remember you showed me a piece that was very much influenced by Webern.

PAUL LANSKY: Is that right?

GEORGE PERLE: Yeah, do you remember that?

PAUL LANSKY: No, I’ve forgotten that. What piece is that? You probably remember it better than I do! I think our most intense time was in that harmony class.

GEORGE PERLE: Were your lessons private or was it a class?

PAUL LANSKY: I would bring pieces around to you after a couple of years… I would bring pieces in just one at a time. I was always very hesitant. You were always very gentle. But, in a sense, very often, you were trying to say something that I wasn’t quite understanding. And you did suggest I write a solo flute piece at one point, because you thought that was a good solution…

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