When Paul Lansky retired from Princeton University after 45 years of service, it was never his plan to stop composing. In fact, he remains as busy as ever with the past few years being a remarkably fertile period. With a sense of humor both wry and dry, he observes that retirement has allowed him plenty of time to compose when he isn’t walking around the mall. “I highly recommend it,” he says.
Some of his recent music will be heard in a special tribute concert, presented in honor of his 75th birthday at Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium on Sunday, November 10, at 3 p.m.
The program will include “Angles,” composed in 2018 for the Weiss-Kaplan-Stumpf Trio; a guitar quartet, “Four’s Company,” written in 2017 for students of David Starobin at the Curtis Institute of Music; and “Textures,” a two-piano, two-percussion piece, composed in 2013 for the Icarus Quartet.
Lansky was on the faculty of Princeton from 1969 to 2014. He chaired the music department for nine years, from 1991 to 2000.
Once seemingly destined for a career in performance — he studied with Joseph Singer, principal horn of the New York Philharmonic and was a member of the Dorian Wind Quintet — Lansky conceived his early works as a composer for standard acoustic instruments. But it was in the field of computer music that he would find his calling.
Fifteen years before the invention of the laptop Lansky did everything old school. “Kids today have it easy,” he says. “I had punch cards, and I had to use massive mainframes. It was exciting. It was like being a pioneer.” Computers back then took up an entire room and were less efficient than today’s cell phones. The process was meticulous, and things didn’t always pan out.
“In 1966, when I was a graduate student, I spent a year-and-a-half on my first computer piece,” Lansky says. “And after a year-and-a-half, I put it on one day, and I listened to it, and I said, sheesh, this sounds terrible, and I threw it out. That was a very liberating experience for a 22-year-old. It sort of shaped my attitude towards my work. If I don’t feel it’s good, I’m not going to do it.”
Despite the occasional hiccup, it is evident that Lansky enjoyed his work in electronics. It allowed him to create a “performance” at the same time he composed the music, and he could play back his work for others, which he found satisfying. He became adept at computer programming and developed a lot of his own software.
What distinguishes his work in the field is that, although the fine tuning is all done on a computer, there is always a human element. Lansky confesses he has never been particularly attracted to “electronic sounds.” Instead, the real world — whether it be mall sounds or traffic noise, or especially members of his own family — have provided the raw material for quirky musique concrete canvases like “Quakerbridge,” “Idle Chatter” and “Table’s Clear.”
His “Six Fantasies on a Poem by Thomas Campion,” from 1979, is based on a reading by his wife, actress Hannah McKay. McKay’s voice appears in a number of the composer’s electronic works. For “Table’s Clear” Lansky and his sons, Jonah and Caleb, then 14 and 9, turn the family kitchen upside down in search of anything that will make a sound.
“I had them bang on pots and pans one night after dinner to create a sort of kitchen gamelan piece,” he says. “It was great fun to do. It’s still the only piece I know that uses armpit farts.”
In 1995 he reinterpreted familiar melodies as “Folk Images.” In 1997 he composed a one-hour computer opera, “Things She Carried.” He achieved wider notoriety when his 1973 computer piece “mild und leise,” built on the “Tristan chord” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” was sampled by the experimental rock band Radiohead for its song “Idioteque,” released on the group’s 2000 album “Kid A.”
In his electronic music Lansky’s aim has been to capture and intensify familiar sounds rather than make avant-garde statements. Speech becomes music, kitchen utensils become a gamelan orchestra. For a composer who valued the ease with which electronics allowed him to share his creations, he believes it is still the type of music that is best enjoyed at home with a pair of headphones.
Heading into the 1990s he began to sense he had said all he had to say using computers and started to shift his focus back to the acoustic realm. He wrote percussion pieces that could be performed in real time. “Threads,” composed for So Percussion, became one of his most frequently performed works. He also happens to think it is one of his best.
Now, at 75, Lansky finds his music as much in demand as it ever has been. He always writes on commission, which means there are plenty of musicians out there, eager for new works. Also, performances are guaranteed.
“Generally I write for a group, and I think of what’s good for the group,” he says. “When you start a piece, it’s just flowing wildly, and at a certain point your ‘wild flowing’ tends to become a little more organized. Finally you know what you’re doing. Then you keep working, and it starts to get a little worse. Then you know you’ve finished the piece.”
He has the further good fortune of having had much of his music documented on Bridge Records, an independent label founded in 1981 by David Starobin and presided over by Starobin’s wife, Becky. Lansky’s latest release, “The Long and Short of It,” was issued in 2018. Another is expected within the coming year. His work has also been represented on Cantaloupe Music, CRI, Meyer Media, New Albion Records, and New Focus Recordings.
Wit has been an inherent quality in his output. His works are often graced with descriptive titles or subtitles that are not only helpful indicators of the music’s intent but also playful in themselves. There’s the “Semi-Suite” for solo guitar, and “Comix Trips” for chamber ensemble, “A Guy Walks into a Modal Bar” for five laptops, and “Note to Self” for solo piano.
That’s not to say Lansky doesn’t take his music seriously. There is always an air of suspense hanging over a new work until he actually hears it. “I don’t usually evaluate a piece until after it’s performed and I see how performers take to it,” he says. “At that point I have some distance from it, and I can sort of sit back and enjoy it.”
Paul Lansky was born in the Crotana Park neighborhood of the South Bronx on June 18, 1944. His father was a singer in Hugh Ross’ Schola Cantorum and appeared with the chorus in Verdi’s “Requiem” under Arturo Toscanini. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he studied audio engineering and became the manager of the New York studio of Capitol Records.
Paul’s mother, who was politically progressive, worked in the administration of the Great Neck School System. Paul was named for Princeton-born bass-baritone Paul Robeson. “They were very supportive,” Lansky says of his parents. “Music was always what I did.”
He played the guitar from boyhood, attending the High School for Music and Art in Manhattan, and later studied French horn and composition at Queens College, where Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Perle and noted opera composer Hugo Weisgall were among his teachers. He did his graduate work in composition at Princeton with Milton Babbitt and Earl Kim. After a year teaching at Swarthmore he returned to join the Princeton music faculty. His university position provided him with the security to experiment, which Lansky says he found liberating.
He admits that he didn’t always do what he was supposed to do, but things turned out all right. “I was a crummy student,” he says. “I never really did what my teachers told me.” He credits that independent streak to his French horn lessons with Joseph Singer, who gradually weaned him off a reliance on teachers. Teachers were there for guidance, but the actual business of honing one’s craft, that was on the student.
“If a student seems to know what he’s doing, then the best thing a teacher can do is just to provide a sounding board to bounce ideas off,” Lansky says. It’s a philosophy he has carried over into his own teaching. “You have to let the student figure out their own way of working and let them sort of arrange their head in a way that’s most productive for them.”
Whether or not he happened to be a good student himself, Lansky is still learning. In his retirement he continues to write music at his home in Princeton Junction, where he has lived since 1976.
“If I don’t enjoy it, then I don’t see any reason to do it,” he says. “I tend to try to get some spirit into whatever I’m doing. I think a piece reflects that. If it’s just busy work, it’s not worth it. I generally know when I’m doing something that’s worth doing if I look forward to getting to it.
“I’m always sorry when I finish a piece,” he adds. “It gets to be sort of a way of life for a while.”
Tribute to Paul Lansky, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, November 10, 3 p.m. Free. Tickets required. For more information or to order tickets: music.princeton.edu.