Composer / Musicologist  George  Perle

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


The recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, and an array of other major awards and honors, George Perle occupies a commanding position among American composers of our time. Born in Bayonne, NJ, May 6, 1915, he received his early musical education in Chicago. After graduation from DePaul University, where he studied composition with Wesley LaViolette, and subsequent private studies with Ernst Krenek, Perle served in the US Army during World War II. After the War, he took post-graduate work in musicology at New York University. His PhD thesis became his first book, Serial Composition and Atonality, now in its sixth edition.

perle Perle’s music has been widely performed in this country and abroad. Major commissions have resulted in significant works, among them Serenade III (1983) for solo piano and chamber orchestra, choreographed by American Ballet Theater and nominated in a Nonesuch recording, for a Grammy Award (1986); Woodwind Quintet No.4 (Pulitzer Prize, 1986); Piano Concerto No.1 (1990), commissioned for Richard Goode during Perle’s residency with the San Francisco Symphony; Piano Concerto No.2 (1992), commissioned by Michael Boriskin; Transcendental Modulations for Orchestra, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its 150th anniversary; and Thirteen Dickinson Songs (1978) commissioned by Bethany Beardslee. Recent works include Brief Encounters (fourteen movements for string quartet), Nine Bagatelles for piano, Critical Moments and Critical Moments 2 for six players, and Triptych for solo violin and piano. A particularly notable portion of Perle’s catalog consists of pieces for solo piano, many of which have been recorded by Michael Boriskin on New World Records.

Perle's compositions have figured on the programs of Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic, BBC, and other major orchestras in this country and abroad. Perle's works are recorded on Nonesuch, Harmonia Mundi, New World, Albany, CRI and other labels. He has been a frequent Visiting Composer at the Tanglewood Music Festival and Composer-in-Residence with the San Francisco Symphony.

Though Perle is above all a composer, the breadth of his musical interests has led to significant contributions in theory and musicology as well. He has published numerous articles in scholarly journals and seven books, including the award-winning Operas of Alban Berg. He has been a guest professor at major universities and a much sought after lecturer and commentator on TV, here and abroad. He is Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York.

As music critic Andrew Porter has written, “Perle’s renown as an analyst and scholar may have diverted some of the attention that should be given to his merits as a composer…What matters to listeners is his achievement: the vividness of his melodic gestures, the lively rhythmic sense, the clarity and shapeliness of his discourse and, quite simply, the charm and grace of his utterance.”

© 2007 George Perle. All rights reserved.

--  This biography was taken from the official George Perle website 
--  Names which are links (both here and in the interview below) refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD 

As can be seen in the biography above, George Perle lived a long and productive life.  He died on January 23, 2009, at the age of 93. 

In May of 1986, Perle returned to Chicago, and we had a chance to sit down and have this conversation.  He was always smiling and often laughing, and spoke with kindness and enthusiam about the topics. 

As we were setting up for the interview, we chatted briefly about the recordings which were available at that time of his music . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Are you pleased, basically, with the recordings that have been made of your music?

George Perle:    I’m very pleased with some of them, and the ones I’m not pleased with I won’t even mention!  [Both laugh]  The most recent recording is the Nonesuch recording of my Serenade No. 3, which is for piano and ten-piece chamber orchestra, and the Concertino for Piano, Winds and Timpani, which had its first performance here in Chicago, at the University of Chicago with Ralph Shapey, and was a Paul Fromm commission.  Gerry Schwarz is conducting, and Richard Goode is playing the piano.  [Photo of record jacket is immediately below-right.]  I’m very pleased with the recording.

perle BD:    Do you find that performers or conductors discover things in your music that even you did not know were there?

GP:    I would say yes, but I hesitate a little bit, because it is sometimes after the composer finishes a piece and gets involved with it.  The composing process is such a strange one.  It’s come to life in the composer’s mind, and now people have to start playing it.  The rehearsal time is usually limited, and you’re busy with the relation of what you’re hearing to what you conceived.  So there’s such a complicated psychological process between all of this which is going on, that a composer sometimes may not remember what it was that he was doing.  It has to be recalled for him in the living experience.  But I think one does sometimes discover things that make good sense in a piece that you didn’t know you put into it.  I’m just thinking of an example in one of the pieces that I mentioned today, the Serenade No.3.  The third movement is titled Elegy in Memory of George Balanchine, and it was really a kind of accident that it got involved with Balanchine.  I’d written an introductory section to it, as the third, slow movement of the piece, and then I got very badly stuck.  I always start composing around four o’clock or four-thirty in the morning.  I got up this morning feeling that I’ve got to get going on this piece.  I’d been hung up on a very, very beautiful opening, and then I couldn’t get any further after about the first fifteen bars.  I started going on and I got a good idea.  It got into some kind of chorale, and I thought of a set of variations.  It had a certain character that I liked about.  It was going, and then I suddenly remembered that my wife and I were attending the Balanchine memorial service that morning.  I had been working for about three or four hours and I had to wake my wife up.  We had to have an early breakfast because we had to be at this church at eight o’clock or something.  At that moment it occurred to me that I had been writing a piece that was so appropriate for the feelings one might have in connection with something like this.

BD:    It almost sounds like divine inspiration.

GP:    Who knows what it is?  This was a wonderful coincidence that I should have gotten un-stuck on the piece.  I know perfectly well that it didn’t occur to me until I realized I was going to this service, but how does anybody know what the connections are?  One doesn’t know.  We went to the service and when I came back I knew that it was connected in some way.  I went ahead with the piece, and at one point I realized that the piano, which is a solo instrument throughout the whole piece, had dropped out.  There was still so much of the movement going on without the piano.  This is supposed to be a piano concerto, so how can the piano drop out like this?  It’s not really appropriate, but it has dropped out.  Then it suddenly occurred to me that it was terribly appropriate, because it fitted exactly in a programmatic way, into the notion of the soloist disappearing, or the celebrity disappearing.  The special person was disappearing.  That I know was completely unconscious.  I’m as far from being a mystic as anybody can be.  I don’t believe in ghosts.  I’m rational.  I think I know what I’m doing when I’m composing, and I don’t deliberately put programmatic things into a piece.  I don’t lay out some kind of a scheme as Alban Berg did.  I just compose because I have a musical idea.  But there you have something.  If anybody ever studies this work and gets involved with it, they might conceivably say, “What a lovely, poetic idea, that the piano should drop out in the middle of this movement, and you’re just left with the other instruments.”

BD:    So then it would be a mistake for a theoretician to say that this was pre-planned and pre-ordained?

GP:    He would be wrong.  He would be absolutely, completely wrong! [Laughs]  Which gives you pause.

BD:    Well you straddle both sides of the fence; you’re both composer and teacher.  Do you feel that sometimes you can over-analyze or mis-analyze masterpieces of the past?

GP:    If you mis-analyze music, there’s something wrong.  Yes, one can mis-analyze, but I suppose it’s quite possible that the composers who have done things that we regard as so poetic and are working in a metaphorical way, have done it in the same kind of unconscious way as I did.  That’s not always the case.  Sometimes I do have some special ideas.  When you’re handling words, as with my Thirteen Dickinson Songs, there certainly must be things there that were deliberate.  There were certain uses I made.  In the poem I would notice a certain concept coming back at a certain place later on in the poem, and I would use it deliberately.  On the other hand, there have been places where extraordinary kinds of relationships were totally unplanned, like the one I was just telling you.

BD:    Are most of your pieces of music written on commission, or because you feel that they should be written?

perle GP:    There isn’t any conflict between the two things.  For example, the Serenade No. 3 for Piano and Chamber Orchestra was commissioned.  Here is how my conversation with Frank Taplin, who commissioned the piece, worked.  Taplin is a pianist himself, but he’s also a very well-known and established businessman, patron of the arts, and former president of the Metropolitan Opera Company.  He wasn’t commissioning these pieces for his own playing, it was just that the piano is an instrument that he’s interested in.  He likes to play chamber music with the piano, so he was commissioning a number of American composers to write chamber music for the piano.  I had written my first serenade in 1961, which was for solo viola plus ten-piece orchestra, and then I’d written my Serenade No.2, which Koussevitzky commissioned in 1968, which was no solo instrument, but eleven instruments.  So I had these two pieces, each of them with eleven different instruments.  There’s a saxophone included among the woodwinds in each one of them, which is sort of unusual.  Both of these pieces have five movements, so they sort of participate in a certain musical concept, really a kind of eighteenth century notion of something which is between a suite and a symphony, like a divertimento, and I had been thinking ever since the second one that I would like to write one with a piano solo.  It would also have five movements and be the same kind of scheme as the others.  There was something about the format that I found attractive.  The instrumentation is not exactly the same; it’s a little special in each one.  This was in my mind, that I’d like to write this, so what do you do?  Well, you wait until you have time to write it.  You don’t necessarily wait for a commission, because, I’ll tell you the truth, it’s only in recent years I’ve been getting enough commissions to be kept busy.  If I had depended on commissions up until eight or ten years ago, I wouldn’t have written much music.

BD:    So you would commission yourself just to make sure the music gets written?

GP:    Well, look, I’m a composer!  I couldn’t help it if people thought I was a musicologist all those years, and didn’t pay attention to me as a composer.  Now that I have the Pulitzer, I suppose they’ll change.  About a year ago, I saw in the paper that I was identified as “George Perle, the composer, who is also well-known as a musicologist.”  That, I must say, made me happy, because up until recent years it was always
George Perle, musicologist, who also composes.  [Both laugh]  I don’t compose on the side; I never have composed on the side.  My musicology, my studies in Berg and my work as a theorist, flow out of my interest in composing.  I got involved with Berg because I needed him as a composer myself, and because of the things I discovered there, and my interest in theory.  I’m surprised every composer isn’t a theorist.  In a sense, every composer is a theorist, but I happen to be more articulate than most of them.  Somehow I got involved in writing, not because I wanted to write, but because nobody else had written these particular ideas or had said these things.  About three months ago I had a call from San Francisco, a TV station or radio station wanted me to give a talk on Lulu.  I said I didn’t have time to do that because I had a performance coming up; I had to finish a commission, and the person that was speaking to me paused for a long time, and then she said, “Well, surely you’re not the same George Perle who composes?”  [Both laugh]  At least they knew there were two of us, and one of them was a composer.

BD:    Then how do you balance it?

GP:    You mean which do I do more of at a particular time?

BD:    Perhaps.

GP:    I compose very early in the morning.  After a certain point, you’re no longer really efficient at composing.  What I used to do was spend all my time composing, and then all my time writing, and shoved the composing aside.  I don’t do that now.  For one thing, I’m retired from teaching, so I have more time.  Another thing, thank God, I have a computer, and I learned how to use it.  My writing time has been cut down to one eighth of what it used to be.

BD:    Just think, if some of the greats had been able to use this trick!

GP:    It turns each one of us into a genius.

BD:    [Laughs]  Or if not a genius, at least a speed demon.

GP:    [Laughs]  Right!  The word processor is making it possible for me to continue writing.  I’m very busy composing now, and if it weren’t for the word processor, I wouldn’t be able to do the writing that I’m also having to do at this point.

perle BD:    So you would dump the writing and keep the composing, if you had the choice, if it was of necessity?

GP:    If it was a necessity.  My life has been composing, really, but these other things have been essential because I think about music, and it’s fun.  But we were talking about three serenades and the commissions, so let’s get back to that.  Frank Taplin, who I didn’t know at the time, called me and said that he’d like to commission me to write a piece of chamber music involving a piano.  I knew that he meant a piano quartet or a piano and violin sonata, or what people usually think of, so I said, “I’d love to write a piece in five movements, for eleven instruments, with a piano solo.”  He said, “Well, that’s a little bigger than what I anticipated,” which means it should also be more expensive to have the parts extracted.  So that’s how that commission came about and it didn’t conflict with what I actually wanted to do.  There are certain pieces I do want to write.  I have two commissions now.  One of them is for bass trombone, an instrument for which I’ve never written except as part of a full orchestra, but it’s a piece of chamber music.  The bass trombonist is the one who asked me to do it, and he had an idea of something he wanted me to do involving a singer and the piano.  I thought about it and I didn’t want to do that, so I told him I’d like for him to come around and play for me.  What I’d heard about his playing was that he had this wonderful control over the instrument, and that it can be used with chamber music in a rather extraordinary way.  I thought that I could have a companion piece to another piece I’d written, my Sonata Quattro, which has four mixed instruments, and I’d like to write something like this for five.  We talked about it on the phone, and I suggested that I would like the bass trombone and a clarinet, and he said, “I don’t have a clarinet in my group.”  So I said, “I wish you would get a clarinet, because I’d like to have a clarinet.”

BD:    You heard it that way in your mind?

GP:    Yes.  I hadn’t started composing, and sometimes when you start composing things change.  You’ll start, and you think you wanted a clarinet and it becomes something else.  But I knew I wanted a clarinet with the violin and a cello and a piano.

BD:    One of each family!

GP:    I guess that’s it.  I hadn’t thought of it.  Well, there are two strings, actually.  I did want the strings in pairs, you see.  In a way it’s really two of each family if you think of winds and strings, and then the piano as the bigger instrument.  There you have some kind of color.  I don’t always stop and analyze every aspect, but I’m hearing something in my head.

BD:    You just instinctively come up with kind of a balance of contrast?

GP:    Of course.  That’s right.  You put it exactly.  You’re so used to thinking this way, you don’t stop to analyze what you’re thinking of.  There
’s a Molière play about this newly rich man who decides he’s going to get an education, and finds out he’s been talking prose all his life and didn’t know it.  He’s getting a literary education, you see.

BD:    [Laughs]

GP:    So, if you’re a musician, if you’re a composer, you think in music and you don’t stop to analyze all these balances.  If you do stop, it’s rather interesting about what should make one decide he wants a clarinet as well as a bass trombone.  When you have the clarinet, there are three of them that the player can change to.  Besides the standard B-Flat, you have a bass clarinet, which can go down not quite as low as the bass trombone, but almost.  And then way, way up, he can change to the E-Flat clarinet. 

BD:    When you’re writing, do you purposely take advantage of all of the possibilities of every instrument?

GP:    No.  There are certain things I don’t like to do, which hadn’t been as popular for a long time.  I don’t like for the pianist to slide down, and only once in my life have I gotten into the piano on the inside.  Amazingly, the piece is going to be played tonight.  It’s the only time in my life I did that, in one of the etudes that’s being played this evening.  I like limits, just as you have watercolors or charcoal drawings or you have a painting.  That’s a kind of an old-fashioned idea, I guess.  I think this is more interesting, and then when you exceed the limit, you know that you’re doing something.  When you go outside of that or when you play around with the edge, it has some kind of special impact.  Besides, the instruments are more characteristic when played in the normal way.  To me, an instrument is a personality.  That’s why I have never been sympathetic to some of these kinds of techniques.  Although I love Webern’s music very much, I don’t like what’s followed from it, where there is a note here from an oboe then a note up there from a clarinet and a note in the middle from pizzicato and so on, because the instruments don’t have their personalities.  Instruments are like people to me.  A flute has got such a wonderful character.  It’s a flute!  It’s somebody.  And the oboe is so special.  Every one of these instruments has a real personality, and its technique has a character, and its limits are part of that language.  When you get down to the open G-string at the bottom of the violin, the very color and the open sound of it is giving you a certain limitation.  You work against that as you compose.  Now, those limits change historically.  In one of the Bach partitas, he gets up to a top note, and then he gets up again, and then he gets up again, and the tension that is built by this artificial limit creates a kind of intensity that you wouldn’t have if that limit wasn’t there.  In Beethoven it was higher.  Some editors would tell you we’re much better off than Beethoven was because our piano goes up higher, so you don’t have to stop here.  You can add the upper octave.  That’s all wrong, and not because I’m a purist, but because the composer conceives things within a kind of spectrum.  That’s where his musical language and his expression comes from.

BD:    You never think of tuning that violin G-string down to an F-sharp once in a while?

GP:    Yes, that’s possible.  But if you do, you’re doing something special, just as in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, when he tunes the violin up a half step.  You have a new color and you have a special thing.  It’s becoming the Viennese equivalent of a contra-fiddle.  It creates those associations, even if you don’t know exactly what it is.  It’s something special, and you lose that special thing if you just go ahead and do any old thing.  I think that’s what’s happened with a lot of so-called avant-garde.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask you what might be a strange question.  Are there too many composers today?

GP:    [Laughs]  What can I say?  There are too many composers who don’t know anything about composition, and aren’t really composers.  The number of real composers is probably limited, but there are a lot of composers who would not have been composers twenty or thirty years ago.

perle BD:    This is not necessarily a good thing, then?

GP:    That is not necessarily a good thing.  I don’t know that it’s a bad thing.  It’s a bad thing for young composers who are serious, but there were other problems that young composers who were serious had when I was their age.  My composition students have certain problems and I had other problems.  I think my problems were healthier ones.  They were isolation, unemployment, having to go to some trouble to get music and to get records.  Those problems have mostly disappeared.  I don’t know if that’s so good.  I mean, I don’t know that it’s such a healthy situation that everything has to come to you from the university.  If you want to find out about Louis Armstrong, you take a class at the university.  I’ve been in the university, and I’ve been a university man.  I just retired after teaching for forty years in universities but I didn’t find out about Arnold Schoenberg or Alban Berg in a university!  When I was going to school my teachers didn’t know about these people!

BD:    But now the teachers do, and they try to explain it all.

GP:    That’s all right, but everything has to happen there.  You have to find out about the Beatles in the university.  You have to find out about the current Broadway shows in the university.

BD:    Rather than experiencing them yourself?

GP:    I suppose people also experience it themselves, but they think that everything has to be discussed on an academic level right away.  I don’t think it’s so good for the academic world, but I guess I’m talking about things that I’m maybe not an authority on.

BD:    Well, you’re involved in these things.

GP:    I’m involved, but I consider myself an amateur about them.  You’ve got all these sociologists.  You have all these deep thinkers who are speculating about these things, and I don’t want to be confused with them.

BD:    So I shouldn’t ask you what is the ultimate purpose of music?

GP:    I guess not.  [Both laugh]  For that, you should as a philosopher.  As a matter of fact, I very often get rid of musical questions by answering them in that way.  If you were now to ask me what I think of John Cage, I would say that I’m not a sociologist.

BD:    Okay, but what do you think of the music of George Perle?

GP:    Well, I happen to be George Perle, so you could be asking that question from a number of points of view.  Some of them I wouldn’t give a reply, and some questions I never think of
which may be hard for people to believe.  I never, for example, consider whether George Perle’s music is going to be played after he dies.  It would be nice, but I swear, I don’t give it a thought. 

BD:    Does it please you, though, to know that at least some of the pieces have been preserved in flat plastic?

GP:    That interests me very much.  What I do want is that it should be possible if people care about it.  But in the process of writing music, neither I nor any other serious composer has ever thought about posterity.  I don’t think so anyway.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Even Wagner?

GP:    Maybe Wagner’s an exception.

BD:    Do you feel that you fit into a lineage of composers?

GP:    Yes, I do.

BD:    Past and future?

GP:    About the future I don’t know, but I feel very strongly that my music is bound up with the whole tradition of music, because I love music.  I’ve always loved music, and when I say I love music, I mean I love Bach, and I love Josquin, and I love Machaut, and I love Beethoven and Chopin, and in recent years I’ve even learned to love Tchaikovsky.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Horrors! 

GP:    And Mendelssohn.  Just the night before last I went to the ballet and heard Balanchine’s wonderful Midsummer Night’s Dream.  When you see a Balanchine ballet, it’s a dream!  The ballet means a great deal to me; it always has, and has had an influence on my musical career, my musical thinking, although I’ve never written for the ballet.  I would love to.  I wish someone would ask me to.

BD:    So now you’re waiting for a commission for that?

GP:    I keep waiting.  I’ve been waiting now for so many years for a commission for the ballet, and it hasn’t come.

BD:    Why no operas?

perle GP:    [Sighs]  People have asked me that because I’ve been so involved with opera, and because I read all the time and I’m interested in literature.  It’s my one great love next to music.  The reason is because an opera is not something I would write on my own.  [Laughs]  In the days when I didn’t get commissions, I would write a string quartet on my own.  Now, if I get a commission I can twist it around, turn it around into something I want to write, or I may get interested in what’s proposed.  That’s what it is with the bass trombone piece, which I mentioned.  I got interested in the combination.  I hadn’t thought of it.  Then I converted it into the concept that I was interested in, and when the bass trombonist said, “What about that piece I suggested with the text and the baritone?” I said, “Well that’s not...”  There was a long silence, and then he said, “I know why.  It’s because you heard it that way,” which is what you said.  I was very pleased that the performer who was commissioning the piece should have responded in this way.  That piece is just about finished now.  I also have a commission from the Houston Symphony for a ten-minute first-piece-on-a-program.  I’m told that there’s hardly any music by American composers that is good for opening a program.  I hadn’t thought about that, but I always love to write for orchestra.  As a matter of fact, my Short Symphony has been used for that kind of an opener.  It’s had about a half a dozen performances, and I think on almost every one of the performances, the conductor decided to play it first. 

BD:    On an orchestral program, is it better to have your music with other great masters, or all contemporary, or all George Perle?

GP:    Let me be perfectly frank.  I love all George Perle concerts, and there are a number of them coming up.  So far, the Chicago Symphony hasn’t offered to do an all George Perle concert, but they did give the first American performance of my Three Movements for Orchestra when Martinon was still here.  They did that twice, and last season at Ravinia Levine did a fantastic performance of the Short Symphony.  That had two performances in Chicago
one right after the otherbecause your other very good orchestra, the Orchestra of Illinois, with Guido Ajmone-Marsan did a beautiful performance just three weeks apart.  [To see a brief item about Ajmone-Marsan, click HERE.]  But rather than on an all contemporary concert, I would much prefer to have my music on a general concert.  I don’t like a special audience, which comes knowing they’re going to hear some difficult music.  It isn’t arrogance on my part that I want my piece played on a regular program, it’s that I feel that I’m writing music, and I think contemporary music should be played on that kind of a program.

BD:    You don’t feel any trepidation about standing between a Haydn symphony and a Beethoven concerto?

GP:    No.  It’s not because I think I’m as good as Haydn or Beethoven.  I don’t.  I think these are two of the greatest masters that ever lived.  I think I’m good in my own way, and I live in a particular time when there are certain tasks that composers that can accomplish.  The time imposes a certain kind of possibility and a certain kind of responsibility on a composer, and those things change.  So I’m not in competition with Haydn and I’m not in competition with Beethoven.  I love both of them.

BD:    Are you in competition with other contemporary composers?

GP:    That’s true, but that’s not why I don’t want to be on an all contemporary concert.  I’m not saying I don’t want to be on an all contemporary concert.  There is a place for these, too.  Every summer I’m at Tanglewood, and quite often my music is played there.  But that’s a special kind of situation, and you don’t have the general kind of audience
although there are a lot of people at Tanglewood who have that feeling in some sense.  I’ll give you an example.  Bethany Beardslee asked me to write some songs for her, and I told her I would love to do that.  I’ve known her for many years.  She’s a wonderful singer of contemporary music, but I told her I didn’t want her giving the first performance on an all-contemporary concert.  I love the German lieder, and I would play for her sometimes and she’d sing.  We had just been looking at the Debussy Mallarmé Songs, which are so absolutely marvelous.  I told her I’d like to be on a program with some German lieder, and the Debussy, and Perle, which would be American songs.  So I wrote my song cycle the Thirteen Dickinson Songs.  You probably have the record.  She gave the first performance at Princeton, at one of these Westminster Choir choral clinics for voice.  They have a festival every few years where singing teachers and choral directors, people connected with the voice, come from all over the country.  Many of these people have heard very little contemporary music, but they love song and they’re interested in song, and they sing and they know Bethany’s a great artist.  They come there not to check something out; they come there because they’re interested in learning something, and because they like songs.  So she gave a concert which opened with the second group of Eichendorff songs, Liederkreis.  Then there was an intermission, and then she did a French cycle, the Debussy Mallarmé Songs.  Then there was another short intermission, and then she did an American cycle by George Perle, who happened to still be alive.  [Both laugh]  The poems were by Emily Dickinson, and the text was there.  People looked at the text just as they did at the Eichendorff and the Mallarmé.  You asked if I have a connection to tradition.  I consider my songs as part of that tradition.  I hope they are.  It’s a very great tradition, and I believe disposing with tradition is nonsense.  You and I couldn’t talk to each other if we didn’t have a tradition.  Tradition is what makes people human!  It’s a difference between us and animals, who are simply instinctive.  We talk because we have tradition.  We have music because we have tradition.  At one time I was an avant-garde composer because people thought I was a twelve-tone composer, which I never really was.  I worked with the twelve-tone scale, but I had my own way of working in it, which I called twelve-tone tonality.  But forty years ago, if people came up to me and asked if I was a twelve-tone composer, I would say yes.  What was I going to do, give a lecture on the difference between twelve-tone tonality and twelve-tone serialism?  So, I said yes. [Laughs]

BD:    But the tradition always has to grow, does it not?

GP:    Of course, of course.  But it can only grow out of the tradition.

BD:    But no one can call you a traditionalist!

GP:    No, but if they do, I don’t care.  [Both laugh]  They have, just as at one time I was supposed to be an avant-garde composer.  It was a long time ago.  Then the twelve-tone system had some currency immediately after the war, and all of a sudden everybody was a twelve-tone composer, which I never really was.  I was doing something different.  But that lasted a short time, and then suddenly, to be a twelve-tone composer was reactionary.  So the same people who thought I was a twelve-tone composer before, thought I was still a twelve-tone composer, and now I was no longer avant-garde.  Well, I have no time to waste with this kind of thing.  I consider myself avant-garde.  Avant-garde means that you’re doing what is necessary in view of the situation you’re in.  Most people don’t do what’s necessary in view of the situation they’re in.  They’re hung up with certain kinds of conventions, which I never was, and which I’m not today.  So I consider myself really avant-garde.

BD:    Is composing fun?

GP:    Composing is... [sighs] let me tell you.  I don’t know what to say, because I compose at four o’clock in the morning.  I don’t have the alarm go off.  I just automatically wake up, and the first thing I think about when I wake up is usually some musical idea.  So I like to compose at that time, when it’s quietest and somehow my mind is working.  I solve problems which I haven’t been able to before, which had been driving me crazy when I went to bed.  I will compose, but it’s hard work because you may compose for four hours and then find you have to throw it all away.  That happens all the time.  Then you find that there’s one bar there that you didn’t throw away which has got some possibilities.  It’s hell!  [Both laugh]  But I must enjoy it because I didn’t have to do it.  My adopted daughter may have hit the nail on the head.  We adopted these two children who lived on a farm.  One of them was nine and the other was seven, and they had never seen anybody sitting at a desk working like this all the time.  So one daughter came up and watched me for a while and said, “Daddy, what are you always doing there?  Why are you always sitting looking like this, doing this stuff?”  I was silent.  She said, “Does somebody make you do that?  Do you have to do that?”  She couldn’t understand, otherwise, why.  I said, “No, I don’t suppose you could put it that way.”  She said, “You mean you sit there all the time and do that because you want to?”  I said, “Well, I guess you could put it that way.”  “You must be out of your mind!”  [Both roar with laughter]  So that answers your question. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I’m glad you’re back in Chicago.

perle GP:    It is a pleasure.

BD:    Do you have special feelings for Chicago?

GP:    Chicago is so beautiful, it’s breathtaking.  I know there are other parts that are less beautiful, but the part that you come to see when you’re a visitor has always been staggering.  It was, forty years ago, but now it is unbelievable!  Looking out here and seeing that, and then looking down there and seeing the old Chicago, it’s just simply breathtaking!  It’s one of the great cities in the world.  From a visual point of view, there’s Venice and Amsterdam, and I think Edinburgh is a beautiful city, and San Francisco is nice, and Chicago is outstanding among these great cities.

BD:    Why are we sort of neglected, then, by the New York crowd?

GP:    Well, it shouldn’t be.  I’m not neglecting it, and I’m from New York now, although I lived in Chicago for many years.  I like New York for certain reasons.  My wife and I go to the ballet three times a week, which would be hard to do here, but you have an absolutely fantastic symphony orchestra and a first-rate opera company.  You have the Auditorium Theater, where I used to usher when I wanted to see the ballet when I was going to school in the thirties.  I also used to usher at the Civic Opera, which became the City Opera.  Now it is the Lyric Opera.  When I first ushered there, they were still at the Auditorium Theater.  Then the Auditorium was closed for a while after I left Chicago.  I was in the Army, and they were talking about tearing it down, but it was saved.  Last year my Short Symphony was played in the Auditorium, and it was an absolutely extraordinary feeling for me because the last time I had been there had been fifty years before.  It was ’36, ’37, 38, around those years, so just shy of fifty years.  As a youngster, after showing people to their seats I was sitting down there and watching the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Massine.  This was my introduction to the ballet
going to every performance because I was so in love with the ballet.  I wonder if sitting there, if I ever reflected that maybe I would have a composition played there someday.  Probably not!  [Laughs]  I had forgotten what a wonderful theater it is.  It has a kind of sweep to it when you’re inside.  It has a majesty that’s overwhelming.  I don’t know anything like it.  I’d really sort of forgotten.  I realize there are some of the columns that block your view, and this and that, but what does it matter?  When you stand up and look around the theater, it’s a show in itself.  It’s just a thrill!  Wonderful.  [To see some photos of the Auditorium Theater, click HERE.]

[At this point, Perle was off to another appointment.  So we said our good-byes and thanked each other for the time we spent together.]


© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on May 20, 1986.  Portions (along with recordings) were broadcast on WNIB in 1990, and again in 1995 and 2000.  It was also used in programs on WNUR in 2007 and 2012, and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2012.  A copy of the unedited audio was given to the Oral History of American Music archive at Yale Univeristy.  This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.