George Perle, Transcendental Modulations

by Richard Wilson

Written for the concert American Variations: Perle at 100, performed on May 29, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born May 6, 1915, in Bayonne, NJ
Died January 23, 2009, in New York City
Composed in 1993
Premiered November 21, 1996, in New York City by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Jahja Ling
Performance Time: Approximately 25 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 1 alto flute, 2 piccolos, 3 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 1 E-flat clarinet, 1 bass clarinet, 4 French horns, 4 trumpets, 2 tenor trombones, 2 bass trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (xylophone, glockenspiel, vibraphone, chimes, tamtam, bass drum, temple blocks, cymbal), 1 piano, 1 celesta, 1 harp, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

To modulate one’s voice means to vary the tone, to avoid monotone. To modulate in music has traditionally meant to change the key. In recent composition another usage has emerged: tempo modulation, which involves changing the speed of the beat by keeping some fraction of that beat common in the shift to another beat. Thus the triplet in one tempo might become the eighth-note in a faster tempo.

George Perle’s Transcendental Modulations, the title of which evidently arose from a slip of the tongue intending “Transcendental Meditations,” may be said to reflect all three meanings—and more. This work presents a succession of character images, contrasting in mood, and including even a trace of jazz in the bass pizzicatos toward the end. Musical ideas (such as the bubbling-up of clarinets at the opening) reappear at different pitch levels to effect changes in tonality as well as timbre. Twelve distinct tempos are carefully linked by common pulses. After completing the work, the composer chanced upon a paragraph from, appropriately enough, Ralph Waldo Emerson, that he felt might serve as a motto for the piece:

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on midnoon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.

It has been suggested that Perle’s music in general meets a description of a new classicism envisioned by Thomas Mann:

Something conspicuously logical, well formed and clear, something at once austere and cheerful, no less imbued with strength of purpose, but more restrained, refined, more healthy even in its spirituality.

The recording of this work by the American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein conducting, appeared in 2005 on a New World Records CD.

Richard Wilson is ASO’s Composer in Residence and the Mary Conover Mellon Professor of Music at Vassar College.