The Rumpus Interview with Paul Lansky

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Paul Lansky is one of the most fascinating people in the world of American music. For many years on the faculty of Princeton University, Lansky was a pioneer in the world of electronic and computer-generated music.

Beginning in the 1970s, his work became a point of reference for composers who were eager to expand the field of music in which composition and performance became one and the same thing. Lansky also wrote software that quickly became an important platform on which younger composers of computer music built their sounds. Much later on, Lansky abandoned the electronic music world for the traditional domain of acoustic music. This ‘shift’ was received with surprise in music circles, and was the subject of a 2008 New York Times article.

Today, Paul Lansky has created (and continues to create) a unique, colorful and brilliant body of cross-genre work that will appeal to listeners of all kinds.

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The Rumpus: Do you think there has ever been such a thing as ‘common practice’ and if so, is there one today in the world of new concert music?

Paul Lansky: There’s less of a common practice than there was; I can’t say that there’s a common practice that has to do with pitch language or with the way pieces are put together because today, anything is fair game. As far as I’m concerned, my own common practice is a piece that engages the attention of listeners from beginning to end, and doesn’t rely on or expect the listener to zone out.

Rumpus: I ask because sometimes, when I’m asked to be a judge in a composers’ competition for, say, orchestra pieces, I’m struck by how so many of those pieces are similar to each other. As if there’s a common practice today similar to the common practice of the Mozart-Haydn-Schubert-Beethoven period. You said that today anything goes, but when I have to review two hundred and fifty pieces written within the last ten years, it looks like we really do have a common language of today.

Lansky: Well, I think that’s a self-selecting pool. People who enter competitions will probably be more similar than people who don’t. I think you’ll find a significant number of people who decide not to enter competitions because their music just won’t fit in that world.

Rumpus: Do you think of your music as being part of a larger stream? And if so, how would you describe your place in that stream? In other words, even though there might not be a common practice, do you feel that when a writer or a visual artist goes to a new music concert and hears music of yours, that that person can connect your music to other things by your contemporaries and if so, by what means?

Lansky: Strangely enough, I think of myself as an experimentalist even though much of my music sounds logical and normal, in a sense. The experimentation that I do has a lot to do with tunes and pitches and ways that melodies are put together. I came up in the ’60s; that was a time when there was a revolution going on in music. Stravinsky had become a twelve-tone composer; even Aaron Copland was writing twelve-tone pieces at that time!

These things influenced my music, and as a result I think of myself as experimenting with different ways of structuring pieces. A lot of it has to do with the computer, of course. Even today, I notice that some of my pieces are explicitly tonal; there are actually tonics and dominants. And then there are pieces that are not tonal. I tend to think that there’s a dichotomy that has to do with the way pitches are structured. Sometimes I imagine that there’s a binary division going on in contemporary practice that has to do with chromatic versus diatonic. I notice that I tend to listen in a diatonic sense, that I register a pitch as a member of a diatonic scale, even in a non-tonal context. There are, however, composers whose music can only be heard in a chromatic sense. George Perle, for example, wrote pieces that you might think of as leaning in a tonal direction but it’s very hard to register a pitch as, say, the sixth degree of a scale, whereas in much of my music I think that’s often relatively easy to do. A lot of it has to do with my teaching. In some seminars over the years, I put together projects that had to do with structuring pieces, with different kinds of experimental procedures. We compared the thinking of Hindemith and Messiaen, for example. There are many different kinds of experiments of this kind. I recently completed a set of piano pieces called Notes to Self which are put together in different ways but even there, I notice that there is most often a diatonic framework.

Rumpus: Sometimes when I’m at a concert where my music is played, I ask my writer or visual artist friends, ‘What did you think, what are your reactions?’ The person often says, ‘Well, I liked it (or I didn’t like it, whatever the reaction was) but I don’t really know whether what I’m saying makes sense or not because I’m not educated in your specialized world; I don’t know what I’m talking about.’ If you were the composer in that situation, what would you say to that?

Lansky: I would say ‘That’s too bad’ because I don’t think of my music as a riddle that has to be solved; I think of it as a narrative of sorts. If you listen to it with open ears, I would hope that even if you’re not educated in the specialized world of new music, you’ll still understand it. It’s very interesting for me to listen to music with my wife, Hannah. She’s not a musician but she very often makes comments about pieces in ways that are similar to what I’m thinking. So if you think that a piece of mine is like a joke that either you get or you don’t, that’s really missing the point. If the music has a logic of its own—as I think my music has—an open-minded listener will apprehend and understand. It’s similar to the question of telling a story. It’s not a joke that you either get or don’t get.

Rumpus: Do you design your pieces to open themselves up more and more on repeated listenings? Would you like a non-specialized new music listener to be able to say ‘Well, it took me five or six listenings but now I’m beginning to make sense out of a piece in a way that I hadn’t at first?

Lansky: Yes, that’s an ideal way to approach it. Very often, when you’re listening to a piece for the first time, you’re listening through a model of other pieces that you know. At a certain point, a piece becomes idiosyncratic and you start to understand it on its own terms. I notice this with virtually all music. For example, with a piece of classical music by Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven, on first listening I’m referencing it with other pieces by them that I know. I think that most people do this—they listen to pieces through the filter of pieces they already know. With repeated listenings, a piece eventually becomes its own being. I very often say to students that this is like meeting a person for the first time. When you first meet someone, you reference that person with others who are similar; but, as you get to know that person better, you begin to understand his unique qualities. I think a piece of music is similar. It both references other works and also reveals its own terms.

Rumpus: That makes a lot of sense. Would you say that your music is about anything or would you say that it’s not about anything other than itself?

Lansky: I don’t think of my music as being about something. There’s a difference between my computer pieces and my instrumental pieces in that sense because of the differences between performance and electronic production but as we were saying earlier, I don’t think there’s something that you have to ‘get’ with my music. It tends toward the dramatic side rather than the narrative. However, there are certain pieces of mine that do have a narrative sense, like my Horn Trio Etudes and Parodies. Among other things, it’s about the sorts of things that horn players practice (I was a horn player).

And my string quartet Ricercare Plus refers to older music in a certain way. I very often do things that refer to other music but not, in general, explicitly.

Rumpus: Your work has been central in the world of computer music, almost from its inception. You left that world some years ago, and I know some were disappointed and perhaps confused by this move. Why did you leave that world, and with what have you replaced it?

Lansky: There are several reasons. First, around 2004-2005, I found myself recycling ideas and I saw that I had to invent reasons to compose a piece rather than start from some exciting idea. Also, opportunities started opening up to write instrumental music. But the basic reason had to do with the music that I was writing. I had been creating music on tape that was to be listened to as a recording, rather than through performance. I came to what I think of as the critical problem: the aging process of a piece of music. I noticed in the ’70s that pieces I wrote would sound great the first time I listened to them and then on repeated hearings they sounded older and older until what seemed exciting and vibrant on first listening became stale.

I know I had this experience as a kid listening to recordings. I remember a Bruno Walter recording of the Brahms Second Symphony and I remember getting annoyed at some idiosyncratic things after listening to it for the tenth time. At any rate, I noticed things in my computer music that were getting old, and I started to figure out that this has to do with the way the listener interacts with music. In the mid-’80s I did pieces like Idle Chatter, which uses random number sequences that create a chaotic listening scenario. Every time you listen to it, there isn’t a logical way for you to understand things. More specifically, certain things are logical and others are not. For example, the harmonic language is logical, but the “orchestration” is not (my use of random number generators in this piece is actually the orchestration).

So it requires the listener to squint his ears, in a sense, to try to figure out what is going on. I’m happy with these pieces, in the sense that I can listen to them after thirty years and still find them exciting whereas some of the older pieces I find difficult to listen to.

But also, I didn’t want my music to be seen as examples of an electronic culture; I just wanted them to be thought of as pieces of music. Also the kind of thing that I wanted to do was not that easy to do anymore. People were not interested in listening to these tape pieces at concerts, and actually I didn’t design them to be heard at concerts. In 2004, I wrote a piece for five laptops for the Princeton laptop orchestra and it came out okay, B+; I worked with some students on it and it sort of worked.

But after that I started to write pieces for instruments and players started to ask me to write pieces for them. I found that very different because the random element has to do with dangers in performance whereas in the earlier pieces—the electronic pieces—the random elements replace the performers. When you have performers, there’s the uniqueness of live performance and what performers do in concerts. This is a very different kind of experience. I was in my early sixties at the time, and this was new and exciting; I had to learn all kinds of things that I would have otherwise expected to learn when I was in my twenties. So it was rejuvenating. For example, I never thought that I would write orchestra music, but in fact I did write a group of orchestra pieces. I even had a residency with the Alabama Symphony; that was very exciting.

In 2008, there was a New York Times article about my ‘shift’, and one of my friends quipped, ‘When you shift back again, maybe there will be another article’! I was really a computer programming freak. I wrote a lot of software to do various kinds of special things, and I loved the idea of composing pieces in an electronic studio. But that’s in the past.

Rumpus: You have held a very prominent position in the American academic music world for decades. As a creative artist, what is your relationship to that world, and what is your relationship to the world of music production outside of the academic field?

Lansky: I was very lucky. I was hired for a really excellent academic job early in my life; I was twenty-five when I started at Princeton and I got tenure early on. I really didn’t deserve this; I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

But I can see in retrospect that I worked very hard to earn it. So my perspective on the academic world is very favorable. I did certain kinds of things that I could never have done otherwise. I would never have had access to the computing technology and I would never have been able to do the experimental things I did. Also I was very fortunate to be at a wealthy institution. I do recognize the drawbacks and limitations of the academic world but it’s basically the world I grew up in and there’s no way in which I would have been able to survive in the so-called real world.

I was able to do certain things. For example, when I wrote Idle Chatter, I started out experimenting with radical pitch structures and finally settled on just starting with F and finally unfolding into B-flat major. At that point in the mid-’80s, it was really not acceptable to write “tonal” music, but nobody ever questioned it because I had the mask of technology to give me credibility. So the piece earned its stripes that way. The real world—the world in which people struggle to survive—is quite a different thing and I would have never survived, at least not at that point. Really, I don’t think I could survive in it now either. I’m not sure how many people can, but I know many who try. I know lots of composers, yourself included, who span both worlds. I’ve had a lot of fun writing percussion music. It feels quite similar to writing computer music. But I now found myself in the role of choreographer in a way, worrying about physical movement and such. It’s always a thrill for me to see new versions of my pieces on YouTube. Just last week a video was posted of a performance by students at Eastman of my percussion quartet Threads.

I’ve also written a lot of guitar music, thanks largely to David Starobin.

And lots of people are posting videos of my marimba solo piece Three Moves. I somehow have written enough marimba music to fill a CD. Just out is a disc called Idle Fancies, performed flawlessly by Gwen Dease.

Rumpus: That’s wonderful! For someone who doesn’t know your music at all, would you suggest a good place to start? Which piece would you recommend as an introduction to your music? And please suggest two or three after that.

Lansky: I’ve been really fortunate to have Bridge Records interested in publishing my music for the past 25 years. Most of my music is available in their catalog. To start with, I’d suggest one of my computer pieces called Notjustmoreidlechatter.

Rumpus: That’s a beautiful piece; one of my favorites of yours!

Lansky: Then I would say go to my CD called Homebrew and listen to Table’s Clear.

Lansky: In terms of instrumental music, my most successful piece is Threads, which we already talked about, and I would also recommend Textures for two pianists and two percussionists. This was recently recorded on a CD with Threads.

Lansky: I have a string orchestra pieces called Arches, which I like very much.

Rumpus: That’s an extraordinarily beautiful piece!


Joel Hoffman has been a resident artist at the MacDowell Colony as well as at other artist colonies, including Yaddo, the Aaron Copland House, the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France and the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, Italy. For thirty-six years he was a Professor of Composition at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He is currently a guest professor at the China Conservatory in Beijing, China. He has also served as Composer-in-Residence with the Buffalo Philharmonic and the National Philharmonic in Washington D.C. and has received awards from the American Academy-Institute of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts and ASCAP, among others. More from this author →