Three Generations of Teaching Music Composition
PAUL LANSKY: I remember you showed up…when was it?
VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: October of ’94.
PAUL LANSKY: October of ’94. And you were really interesting to us because you have such a diverse background… Did we admit you the first time?
VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: I didn’t apply.
PAUL LANSKY: You didn’t apply!
VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: It was a pre-emptive strike on my part!
PAUL LANSKY: Actually, we were waiting for you to apply because you had this diverse background in recording and electronics and comparative literature and spoke five languages and would have no trouble writing a thesis. So we were sort of waiting for you to apply and you would have gotten in the first time, but then you applied about a year later. So, in a way, you’re the model of the kind of student we like here because you didn’t come expecting us to clue you into things, but you came because you expected to engage in a community of people who were doing similar types of things. What we liked about having you around was that you brought things that we really didn’t have very much of. We did have some connection to recording and some connection to popular music, especially through Steve, but your background was quite different so this must have been sort of a culture shock at first.
VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Yeah, it was and it wasn’t. What I liked when I came here basically was getting the news that it wasn’t about whether this should be a B or a B-flat, I think, was the expression you used when you first spoke. And, you know, in a way, it felt like a stretch, coming from playing with bands like Swans and Glenn Branca that were in a totally different world. But what I wanted was really to be able to stretch out as a composer and to be given the time to do that. And to be around people who also were not only doing it, but engaged in a community and really talking to each other. I had the choice between here and another place and I just remember being fascinated by what was going on with your music, because one can turn that around and say, well, it was very unusual in the academic world and that the kind of music that I was finding, that people do, defined what you do there. I saw a lot of things I wanted to, I heard a lot of things there that I wanted to know more about, so—yeah, it was a good situation in that I wasn’t coming here to be shown note by note how it should go.
PAUL LANSKY: Well, we don’t know!
VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: [laughs] There weren’t really any doors to run into. They were kind of open and you could sort of run through them at any speed you wanted, which could have various consequences. [laughs] No, I absolutely loved my time here.
PAUL LANSKY: Oh, it was great having you here. I think implicitly that you never really teach anyone anything. You really just teach them to learn. So what I always tell people when they come to interview is that we want to teach you to be your own best composition teacher and that anything that we could tell you would probably be something that you would just file away. So it’s, you know, a sort of a mixture of approaches we use. We never assign composition teachers. So, I don’t regard myself as your composition teacher and I don’t think you regard yourself as my composition student.
VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Well, I don’t know about that! I actually got a lot more of that than I expected. I thought that I was going to come here and essentially spend four years composing and just keep right on going the way I was going and doing what I was doing only more so. I was actually surprised at the extent to which I became involved in being influenced by your music and by other people’s music here, and really finding a community of graduate students that I learned a lot from. I just thought this would be a retreat to compose, and somehow an exam got in there and the dissertation got in there [laughs], and now I’m teaching people. But I think for me, if it had been a situation in which it was expected that I come see you every week, I probably would not have shown up or not wanted to. It would have been “I have to do this,” but what worked very well for me was that I could show up or not, so it was attraction or promotion. We did meet rather regularly.
PAUL LANSKY: Yeah, we met but I think I was the one that learned more from you.
VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: Well, I think it was a former President, Shapiro, who said once in one of the papers here that Princeton will change you but you will also change it. And in my small way, I like to think that that’s what happened because I remember when I got here, the idea of the studio as a musical instrument, you know, stealing from Brian Eno, was foreign to a lot of people. And actually you were the person who asked me, “Will you come to my seminar tomorrow?” on 24-hour notice and talk about the studio: the Brian Eno studio as a musical instrument. And I remember a light going on because that just felt like a whole store of knowledge that I had that I had never really talked about, it was sort of implicit.
PAUL LANSKY: I remember you came with a huge stack of CDs. We couldn’t even possibly process a tenth of them in the time of the seminar.
VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: I remember the clock just going like this [motions to imitate clock] three hours just went by like that and nobody seemed bored. So that was the beginning of what I do now. The day in which I realized I have something to offer here.
PAUL LANSKY: But what you were doing you had done for a time.
VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: I had been doing it but not thinking about it in terms of knowledge to be passed on, it was more almost unconscious activity. Of course I compose this way. Of course this is what I do. It wasn’t self-conscious. Now it’s more so because here we talk about what it is that people do when they compose.
PAUL LANSKY: I owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude. I remember when I played a bunch of piano things that I’d done for you and you just looked at me and said, “Paul, your piano samples really suck!”
VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: [laughs] Did I put it that way?
PAUL LANSKY: Yes, it was something like that.
VIRGIL MOOREFIELD: I probably did.
PAUL LANSKY: So you clued me in to using Kurzweil samples and it just changed everything. And ever since then I have been listening a lot differently to things.