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Saturday, January 29, 2011

for Paul: the creation of Threads

The title of this entry is taken from a piece that Jason Treuting wrote a few years ago.  It reflects the lasting influence that Paul Lansky's work has had on all of us in So Percussion.  Although the following article is mostly about his wonderful percussion quartet Threads, as composers we have all been profoundly affected by Paul's unique mix of head and heart, rigorous thought with emotional content.

My first exposure to any of Paul's music was unwitting, as I'm sure it has been for many people:  the gnarly, distorted portion of Mild und Leise that Jonny Greenwood found in the back of a record shop and pasted into Idioteque.  I was astounded to learn years after Kid A came out that this loop was actually the tiniest passing chunk of an 18-minute long computer piece from 1973 based on Richard Wagner's Tristan chord (and making reference to one of his most famous arias):

Mild und Leise:  



To talk to Paul about the evolution of computer music is to hear its entire history: when he was working at Princeton and Bell Labs in the 1960's, the computers were "as big as this room and less powerful than your cell phone" (as he told an audience of our Summer Institute students last year who were sitting in a very large room).  

I highly recommend reading Paul's keynote speech from a recent ICMC (International Computer Music Conference) here.  For a younger person or percussionist who only knows Lansky through his acoustic compositions, this speech will give you a powerful sense of where he is coming from and his place in the last 50 years of music history.  If you ever meet him, you shouldn't let his unassuming manner fool you: his is a powerful, probing intellect and musical consciousness.  

Paul wrote Threads for us in 2005.  When So searches for composers to write percussion music, we consider many factors, but the most powerful is our desire to find a voice that speaks naturally through percussion instruments.   As a result, we sometimes find ourselves off the beaten path of contemporary chamber music.  There are many wonderful composers out there, but percussion has a special voice. 

We approached him after a concert of student pieces that So performed at Princeton in 2004.  He was hesitant at first, saying that he "had never actually written for percussion before."  We protested that three decades of computer pieces said otherwise.  Here's a portion of Table's Clear:

Table's Clear: 


In fact, many of our favorite percussion composers were heavily involved in electronic media (Cage, Reich, Xenakis).   We thought that Paul's work with algorithms and computer processing might yield fascinating results.  The conversation went something like "you write interesting music on four lines, we'll help you figure out what instruments to put it on."  

Paul came out to our studio the next year with a series of 10 etudes in hand, exploring toys, melodic instruments, and drums.  We talked about timbres, limitations, all of the issues inherent in playing acoustic instruments with human hands.  He was a voracious student of the medium.  Interestingly, he carried none of the baggage that a life-long percussionist has... to us, sleigh bells meant Leroy Anderson, while to him they sounded quirky and interesting.  

Astonishingly soon after this workshop I travelled down to Princeton to see what he had come up with.  I sat mesmerized in his studio as he played a continuous 30-minute, ten movement piece for me.  He kept looking up as if to ask "is this any good?" I was spellbound.  

Threads quickly became a staple of our touring repertoire.  In my opinion, it stands toe-to-toe with pieces like Cage's Third Construction in defining what percussion chamber music can be.   

When we coach young ensembles that are playing Threads, the first question we always ask is "have you heard any of Paul's computer music?"  The answer is almost invariably "no."  At which point, we ask the students to hang out for 20 minutes or so while we play excerpts of Table's Clear, NotJustMoreIdleChatter,  or The Sound of Two Hands (below)

NotJustMoreIdleChatter


The Sound of Two Hands

Why does this matter?  Well, to begin with Threads can be disarmingly transparent and elegant.  Take this opening melody:

Threads, Movement I: Prelude
>



This line is beautiful on its own terms, but I find it fascinating that it was written by a man who once spent a year composing the 18-minute Mild und Leise on a multi-million dollar computer.  And who, by his own account, spent six months in 1982  designing an I/O driver for a converter (not that I have any idea what either of those things are).  That context for such a transparent melody matters to me, because this is a composer who is clearly comfortable with handling complexity.  But his technological accomplishments never get in the way of music-making.

Here's another excerpt from Threads, the 3rd movement for all drums:

Threads, movement 3: Chorus



To me, this movement displays the best of what Lansky's style gains from his computer music.  The patterns on the drums are tweaked, layered, and manipulated in very subtle ways.  Every favorite device of percussion composers is evident here -  hocket, hemiola, and groove  - but carried off with the lightest touch.  

Edgard Varese wrote percussion music partially because he could not yet realize the electronic music he was hearing in his head.  Lansky pulls a sort of reverse-Varese move:  what might have been perfect material for synthesized sounds is now converted into bottles, ceramics, and sleigh bells in movement 5 and throughout:

Threads, movement 5: Recitative


In that session with Paul, my excitement grew with each passing moment:  it was obviously a terrific piece.  But as the last movement began, a chill ran up my spine.  There were no exotic rituals, no virtuosic displays, just rolling vibraphone harmony and a chorale for glockenspiel and metal pipes:

Threads, movement 10: Chorale Prelude


I think now that this must be what Brahms' clarinet player felt like when he opened one of the late trios: I hadn't heard my instrument do anything quite like this yet.  It was simply...beautiful.

If you play or listen to Threads without encountering Paul's computer music, you will certainly enjoy it, but it's more difficult to appreciate how hard-won those beautiful melodies are.  His journey as a young composer began in the studios of Milton Babbitt and George Perle, steeped in the intoxicating complexity of post-tonal music.  And yet that journey continues, after numerous achievements, with recitatives for glass bottles and heartfelt arias for metal pipes.  



Samples used in this article:


Many samples and excerpts can be found on Paul's homepage, including Mild und Leise: http://silvertone.princeton.edu/~paul/mymp3.html

Table's Clear and The Sound of Two Hands are from
Homebrew: Bridge Records, # 9035


NotJustMoreIdleChatter is from
More than Idle Chatter: Bridge Records, #9050


Excerpts of Threads are from:  
So Percussion: Paul Lansky Threads
Cantaloupe Music  #CA21064





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