Philip Lasser ‘85: Weaving Music as Tapestry

AUBURN LEE

The audience has to know something of the tradition and of the way music has been thought of and has been created by composers of the past. If they’re unaware of that, then music becomes mere entertainment.

 

P Lasser photo 1Dr. Philip Lasser is a composer and music educator. He has been Professor of Composition and Compositional Studies at The Juilliard School since 1994. After graduating summa cum laude from Harvard College in 1985, Dr. Lasser studied with Narcis Bonet, Nadia Boulanger’s closest colleague and disciple. He subsequently studied counterpoint with Jacques-Louis Monod at Columbia University and composition with David Diamond at The Juilliard School. His music is widely performed and he has published a treatise on the micro- and macro-structural organization of music, The Spiraling Tapestry. Dr. Lasser is also the director of the European American Musical Alliance Summer Music Programs in Paris, France. Programs dedicated to educating composers, chamber musicians, and conductors in the tradition of Nadia Boulanger, teacher and mentor of composers such as Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, and Virgil Thomson. It is here, as a student of the program, that I had the good fortune of interviewing Dr. Lasser in person.

Brevia: What is your perspective concerning music of the 21st century?

PL: We are in a very good time. We are really past the necessary experimental phases of music where the boundaries of music were being tested because of history, because of the [world] wars. The wars created a breach with all the wonderful Western traditions that we had, and therefore composers and artists in general reacted against and tried to destroy tradition. So we had a long period in the 20th century of testing the boundaries of music but not investigating musical content. Mostly, composing around music and thinking about music as an object rather than dealing with the details within music. I think that at the end of the 20th century and certainly now in the 21st century, we are beyond that. We have mostly composers who are returning to a sense that they have to speak and communicate to the public, and again come back to the domain of musical discourse that can communicate, which will naturally tend back towards scales, modes, and loosely speaking, tonality. In the 21st century we’re heading back towards a real re-evaluation of tonal style that was interrupted largely by the two world wars.

Brevia: Where do you see yourself in the time you are describing?

PL: Debussy started a new discourse way back in the early 20th century, a discourse of non-syntactical music. Non-functional tonal tertian sonorities [music made up of familiar chords but without the standard set of functional harmonic rules]. It was a great idea, one that he begins pushing forward as hard as he can, and that was interrupted by the work of the Second Viennese School [Schoenberg, Berg, Webern]. I think it went underground because of all the upheaval of society by the wars and therefore was not listened to very carefully. I think that I have picked up something deep in [Debussy’s] language which I am pursuing further. In other words, you can find tertian sonorities in my music, but you’d be very hard pressed to figure out the music tonally. It holds together as a fabric through counterpoint, sonority, color, and texture, which is something that Debussy began. I think I am continuing the tradition that Debussy had launched – a new type of music which had not really been followed up afterwards.

Brevia: You mentioned the fabric of music.

PL: My belief is that music is a fabric woven together by tiny motivic structures that form acoustic stitch patterns. These heard together, form a surface image like on a tapestry. On a tapestry, the images – knights, horses – are in fact illusions created by patterns of colored threads on a loom. In music we have similar such structures. The elegant weaving of small sub-conscious motives link together in ways that are meaningful and create the images and symbols we recognize on the musical surface with our ears.

Brevia: Would you say this approach to music is unique?

PL: Yes and no. It is inspired by the work of Heinrich Schenker; he was the first to look at the contrapuntal texture of music and I think he would not scream at the notion of music as fabric either. His structures and diagrams form, from beginning to end,  musical continuums that hold the composition together as one big gesture. I think, fundamentally, however, he saw music in hierarchies and I don’t. That is what makes my ideas fundamentally different from his.

Brevia: What do you believe students, performers, and composers can gain from your approach to music?

PL: I think they can gain deep insights into how the music is organized and therefore come to their own conclusions about interpretation and composition. For performers, how to bring out images and symbols, how to understand the overall emotional dialogue or monologue of the piece, and how to make decisions about interpretation. Tempo, dynamics, intonation: all of these things are really easily understood in a much freer way if you understand music as a fabric. A composer must understand these internal structures in order to make them his or her own. I want to say one last thing; also the audience. The audience also has to know something of the tradition and of the way music has been thought of and created by composers throughout history. If they are unaware of this, then music becomes mere entertainment. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Auburn Lee  is a Brevia staff writer. He can be reached at auburnlee@college.harvard.edu