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A Tribute to Stephen Peles

There aren’t many music theorists with the intellectual breadth to be able to connect what Stephen Jay Gould referred to as non-overlapping magisteria, but Stephen Peles was such a one. Long ago, when I gave one of my first papers that attempted to discuss the intersection of biological evolutionary theory and music theory, I was not in the least surprised that it was Stephen Peles who was able to give me notes on 19th century zoological theory that were helpful and relevant. His grasp of the intellectual history of the Western world was perhaps unparalleled in our field.

I’ve known him since 1984, but the truth is that Steve Peles was best known through his work and his conversation. And those were very good indeed.

He marched to the beat of a different drum; starting the composition program at Princeton University sometime in the late 1970s, he was still sitting, and thinking, when I left in 1990. His eventual dissertation, “Reconstructions: Order and Association in Schoenberg’s Twelve-Tone Music,” awarded in 2001, was a signal integration of analytical and historical perspectives. He had already begun to publish a series of articles on the thought of Schoenberg, Schenker, Babbitt, and our mutual teacher, Peter Westergaard, that are among the indispensable sources on those topics.

Hearing that he had moved to Alabama caused his acquaintances to react initially with skepticism-how could this urbane individual, such a fixture on the Princeton campus for so long, thrive in the deep South? His subsequent success as a classroom teacher proved us all wrong. He was a charismatic and popular instructor who conveyed a sense of the joy that he himself felt in making intellectual and aesthetic connections to students who had never met anyone like him.

A lover of fine cuisine and cats, Steve was otherwise a very private, solitary person. I like to think that the field of music scholarship was his family, SMT his home town. His work holds its value-and that is probably the thing that would give him the greatest satisfaction.

-Jeffrey Perry, Baton Rouge, LA (April, 2018)