Only gradually has the music world come to realize how individual George Perle's music is, what a flexible musical language he has developed, and how different that language is from serialism. Perle never writes down to an audience and never worries about "accessibility," but he is a firm believer that "a piece that 'makes sense' will reach one, at some intuitive level, even at first hearing."
Perle's divergence from mainstream twelve-tone music came early. In 1937 he borrowed the score to Alban Berg's Lyric Suite through which he discovered Schoenberg's twelve-tone system; but instead of regarding the row as an inviolable ordering of the twelve pitches, he considered it a modified scale that the composer could move around in at will. By the time he realized his mistake, he had discovered so many possibilities in his own, more flexible system that, as he said, "Schoenberg's idea of the series seemed so primitive compared to mine." Perle persevered in developing a "twelve-tone tonality," method of using the entire chromatic spectrum that corresponds closely to the major/minor system of traditional tonality.
The differences between Perle's system and serial music may look abstruse on paper, but they are quite obvious to the ear. Perle's harmony glides between the simplest and most complex sonorities with unique fluidity. If serialism retains a vestige of romanticism's angst, Perle has invented a chromatic classicism in which opposites are seamlessly reconciled.
These quantities are nowhere more apparent than in Perle's wind quintets. The First Quintet (1959) closely follows an eight-year period during which Perle wrote nothing. Though Berg and BartÃ³k were the first composers with whom Perle felt strong affinities, this quintet's juxtaposed panels of sound, recurring in new combinations, seem distinctly Stravinskian. However, in the Second Quintet, written only a year later, we are in another world. Its melting harmonies and evanescent melodies look to no other composer, but only to Perle's later music. The Second also experiments with the related idea of metric modulation, which is more clearly audible here than in the more heavily layered music of Elliott Carter.
Soon after writing the Second Quintet, Perle moved to the City University of New York (Queens College), where he taught until 1985. In the Third Quintet (1967) he expanded metric modulation to a more complex system in which tempos are related by ratios of four to five, four to seven, five to eight, etc.
In 1986 Perle received the Pulitzer Prize for his Wind Quintet No. 4 (1984). The piece abandons the strictures of metric modulation for a freer conception of tempo with frequent ritards and accelerandos. The work's most fascinating feature is possibly the a-rhythmically contrapuntal texture of the Scherzo (forever interrupted by the rabble-rousing horn), unique in the genre's literature. Symmetry on every level is an increasingly important aspect of Perle's late music, and the finale quotes heavily from the opening movement.