Paul Lansky (1944 - ) is one of the founding fathers of modern electronic music
. After getting an undergraduate degree in composition from Queens College
, he played French horn
for the Dorian Wind Quintet
from 1966 to 1967. He left the group to go to Princeton
, and earned a PhD in composition in 1969. Also in 1969, he discovered computer
music, which drew his interest and distracted him from the instrumental composition he was doing before. From 1969 to the present he has taught at Princeton
, while also releasing papers, CDs, individual pieces, and even software.
Central to Lansky's method of composition is the idea of the listener taking part in the music. He composes music that the listener has to take an active role in -- searching out the melody, reconstructing words broken up with formant synthesis, filling in the missed beats of the rhythm. The listener is central to the music, and it's up to the listener to turn sounds that are sometimes chaotic into music. In this way, his work in much like today's minimal techno (Richie Hawtin's minus label springs to mind) and ambient pop (Radiohead's Kid A). As an aside, Radiohead sampled Lansky's first electronic piece, mild und leise (1973), for use in Idioteque from Kid A. Lansky was pleased with the results, and noted that Jonny Greenwood (who did production on Idioteque) was the same age as he was when he wrote mild und leise.
Another of the concerns Lansky deals with in his music is the lack of performability. In his experimentation with computerized composition, he found that works committed to tape and played a few times often lost their vibrancy. That is, once their single message was communicated, listening to them again was boring and produced no new insight. He atributes this problem to a lack of the danger, the possibility of mistakes, that is part of performance-based music. Lansky builds this feeling into his music with the use of randomness. His music itself is not random -- it is composed tonally and by his own hand -- but the individual sounds that make up each note, or beats that make up each pattern are sometimes chosen at random. Having enough complexity that the listener can be an active part of the music also makes for repeatability, as the listener may choose a different thread or voice to pay attention to upon each listening.
Throughout his career, Lansky has been interested in the music-like qualities of the human voice. His Six Fantasies on a Poem by Thomas Campion (1979) was composed using a method that read spoken words -- in this case, a poem -- from tape, tuned each to be part of the composition, and put them back on tape. In this way intricate music is made using simply a processed voice. Lansky's Idle Chatter series of works is done with formant synthesis, taking the individual phonemes from words and rearanging them in coherant, non-speech patterns. They come together as beautiful, complex-yet-somehow-minimal opera evocative (to me at least) of Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach. One of his latest CDs, Things She Carried, is six tracks of his wife's (Hannah MacKay) spoken words about herself, processed with and integrated into music.
Lansky views the computer as any other instrument, albeit one that can be played in many more ways than most. He mentions The Residents and Nine Inch Nails (!) as being groups that use computers the same way he does. He has created his own software for playing this instrument, CMIX, which builds a sound file from the output of multiple C functions defined by the composer. Others have taken the concept and written RTcmix, which makes the sounds the same way in real time, allowing it to be controlled as an instrument over midi. Both CMIX and RTcmix can be compiled on on NeXT, SGI, and Linux (and presumably other unix) systems. Lansky also wrote RT, a NeXT program for digital sound mixing and processing, and ein, a sort of scratchpad for experimentation with DSP algorithms. All of Lansky's software is in the public domain.
Discography, as of May 2001:
More Than Idle Chatter, (1994)
Fantasies and Tableaux, (1994)
Folk Images, (1995)
Things She Carried, (1997)
Conversation Pieces, (1998)
Alphabet Book, (2002)