Three Generations of Teaching Music Composition
PAUL LANSKY: I’m sort of embarrassed by any of my work that I’ve written more than two years ago. And if you go back 20 years, I regard my pieces as juvenile. My attitude towards my own work is that each piece kind of builds on the next and as such it’s standing on the shoulders of my previous work and to my mind a lot of my earlier pieces are groaning under the weight and I’d just as soon rather toss them out. And I do think that you taught me to have a sense of objectivity, so maybe 20 percent of the pieces I write I throw out. I just had the experience of listening to a piece that I had written a couple of years ago, about 5 or 6 years ago and something was bothering me about it and I played it for Steve Mackey, and he sort of agreed. He said it was sort of like home run derby, instead of playing baseball… The piece was never quite getting there. I actually ended up calling it Honorable Mention and then I just had the experience of listening to it again and thinking it’s really not bad; it just needs more work. So I worked on it and I worked on it and I actually re-synthesized it and used different sources and changed it and it was getting better and better and I finished and I listened to it again and it just still didn’t make the grade.
GEORGE PERLE: Did you know why it didn’t make the grade?
PAUL LANSKY: No, I’m not sure. I’m not sure. I think I know why.
GEORGE PERLE: Because I don’t think you have to know why.
PAUL LANSKY: I don’t think I know why. If you knew why, every time you wrote a piece, you could make it successful. That was an interesting lesson that I learned from you early on, that throwing something out can be a very liberating experience. My first computer piece I started working on in 1967 and I was a graduate student at the time and I worked on it for a year and a half. And I just kept working on it and working on it, trying to make it better and then finally one day I listened to it and I said, you know, this really stinks. And I just threw the whole thing out and just discarding a year and a half worth of work was really hard but it was also very liberating because I knew it wasn’t sitting on my shoulders anymore. So, that’s one thing I learned from you, George. Better to throw it out… but you should revise that string quartet! Or change the dedication on one of the other pieces. You still owe me one! Now that I mention the string quartet, why did you throw it out, do you remember?
GEORGE PERLE: Well, it was too…
PAUL LANSKY: Too systematic.
GEORGE PERLE: I don’t know.
PAUL LANSKY: Let me just say one more thing. Another thing I think I learned from you, which is really interesting is that the piece shouldn’t really demonstrate its method, that the piece should be able to stand on its own, without having to refer to its method. You shouldn’t see its construction and that really is my thinking with computer music too. That the piece shouldn’t be a demonstration of its own technology. The piece should sort of rise above its own technology and be something more.