What Paul Lansky does as a composer turns out to be just about what he does on the tennis court: He plays singles, focuses like a laser, is not competitive, and delights in being where he is.
Just before his departure for a tennis game, Lansky says, “I put away my composing while I’m playing tennis.” He finds the back-and-forth of tennis more satisfactory than having his trajectory determined by where a golf ball happens to land.
Princeton’s Department of Music celebrates Lansky’s 45 years on the faculty with an all-Lansky retirement concert Saturday, May 17, at 8 p.m., in Fine Hall’s Taplin Auditorium. Lansky made his professional mark as a composer of electronic music, and the program registers that component of his career by opening with a four-minute selection from his large output of computer music.
The remainder of the concert consists of Lansky compositions for acoustic instruments, his sole compositional playground for almost a decade. Acoustic performers are the flute, viola, and harp Janus Trio; David Starobin, guitar; and the So Percussion Quartet, Princeton’s new quartet in residence. So replaces the Brentano Quartet, in residence at Princeton for 12 years, which departs for Yale at the end of the current semester.
The concert favors Lansky’s acoustic work because, he says, “my electronic music is best heard at home with headphones.”
“It doesn’t work well in a concert hall. Most people go to concerts to watch people perform. In a concert of electronic music you would just sit and watch the loudspeakers.” Lansky has also observed that composing electronic music is more fun than listening to it. Over a period of 35 years Lansky devoted himself, not only to computer music, but also to its technical electronic capacities.
Personal points of view jut into Lansky’s brief comments on the May 17 program. The concert opens with an excerpt from his early electronic piece “Six Fantasies on a Poem by Thomas Campion.” Says Lansky: “I was less interested in harmony than in making music out of speech. My wife, Hannah MacKay, is an actress. She reads well.”
About the three acoustic pieces, Lansky begins with “Book of Memory.” Performed by the flute-viola-harp Janus Trio, the composition uses William Blake’s poem “Song: Memory, hither come” as a text and incorporates singing as well as percussive elements.
“The whole thing consists of seven movements and seven interludes,” Lansky says. “It’s a piece about other composers.” He recalls six of the seven composers off the top of his head. They range from 14th-century Guillaume de Machaut to 20th-century Alexander Scriabin. “It’s my response to these well-known composers, short tributes to them,” he says. “In my teaching I spend a lot of time looking at other composers. I’m interested in trying to get into another composer’s head.”
Lansky’s playfulness emerges as he talks about the two solo guitar pieces David Starobin will play. The first, from “Semi Suite,” a collection of movements named after baroque dances — pronounce “Semi Suite” to make sure you catch the pun — is “Partly Pavane” — note the alliteration. The second, “Gigue” from Lansky’s “Partita,” a piece for solo percussionist and guitar, is a transcription consisting only of the solo guitar component.
“Threads,” a composition for So Percussion Quartet, gets its name, says Lansky, because “three different kinds of music are threaded through the work. I got the idea from Bach Cantatas,” he says, “which consist of singing, recitatives, and choruses. In my case, the singing consists of melodic arias; the recitatives are percussion noises — each performing group chooses a device with a relevant timbre — and the last piece ends with a big loud drumming movement that’s like a choral prelude.”
“I think ‘Thread’ is one of my best pieces — so is ‘Book of Memory.’ ‘Thread’ has been around about eight years and has had multiple performances. It’s different from other percussion music and is a good piece for conservatory students. The kind of detail in this piece is more highly defined than in some percussion pieces, which are just acres of repetition. I worked on it with a student group at Curtis [Institute in Philadelphia] and one of the students said that for the first time he played a piece that felt like chamber music.”
Born in 1944 in the Bronx to a recording engineer father and a politically progressive mother who worked as a secretary, Lansky was named after Paul Robeson. His father — an amateur singer in the 1930s who sang in the Verdi “Requiem” under Arturo Toscanini — was the director of Capitol Records’ recording studio until the early 1970s. “He started out as an audio engineer,” Lansky says. “If he had to do it over again, he would have chosen to stay in a technical job.” A sister, Marian, is a graphic artist in Duluth, Minnesota. A link on Lansky’s website labeled “My Sister’s website” leads to her company, Kenspeckle Letterpress.
Lansky earned an undergraduate degree from Queens College in composition and French horn. As a graduate student at Princeton he studied with Milton Babbitt and Earl Kim. He joined the Princeton faculty in 1969 and now holds the William Shubael Conant chair in music, formerly held by Babbitt, a pioneer of electronic music.
Lansky remembers his earliest experiences with computer music at Princeton. In “mild und leise,” composed in 1973, when computer music was approaching puberty, he transformed the music of Richard Wagner into an electronic composition. “It took a year to compile, and I sweated bullets over every note,” Lansky says. He used an IBM mainframe computer with one megabite of memory for the project. In those days a computer took up a roomful of space and was significantly less capable than today’s cellphones.
Asked to describe the periods of his work as a composer, Lansky says, “The 1970s were mostly electronic music. I was interested in complex approaches to harmony, such as 12-tone harmony.” Twelve-tone harmony, also known as serial music, requires that each of the 12 tones within an octave be used before any can be repeated. Babbitt, Lansky’s mentor, imposed additional restraints, prescribing that a range of dynamics, duration of notes, timbre, and other musical elements be exhausted before repeating a particular feature.
“I noticed that it was exhausting to try to listen to complex harmony. It requires you to squint your ears. I wanted to make it easier to listen.” In the early ’80s Lansky reverted to traditional musical scales in his electronic pieces. “I returned to old-fashioned tonality,” he says.
He also began writing for combinations of electronic and acoustic instruments. “I got more interested in rhythm and also in processing normal speech. Hannah and I sat down and taped a conversation. Then I transferred the sound from recording tape to a computer in digital form, zeros and ones. Once the data is in a computer you can do anything you know how to do with it. I made the conversation trigger musical events.” The product was Lansky’s “Idle Chatter” series.
“Idle Chatter” uses linear predictive coding, a technique invented by Bell Laboratories in the 1960s in anticipation of the time when phones would become digital. Linear predictive coding permits changes in the speed of transmitting sound without changing the pitch.
“I thought of myself as an experimentalist,” Lansky says. “I was finding music where people don’t usually think of it, in speech or in traffic. I tried to create an aural illusion and simulate instruments. In ‘Tables Clear’ I had my kids, Caleb and Jonah, bang on pots and pans. Then I electronically changed the banging.” Caleb, born in 1976, and Jonah, 1981, are now in the financial industry, Lansky says.
Engrossed in electronic music, Lansky thought of himself as a moviemaker rather than as a playwright. “With a movie you can hold the product in your hand and send it to somebody. You have final control,” he says. “There is no written counterpart — no notation, only a recording. You are like a painter in the studio. With instrumental music it’s a different perspective. You notate thoughts in a form that someone else can read. The performance varies with the performers. You don’t have final control.”
In about 2004 Lansky’s composing turned a corner. “I thought I could do anything I wanted on a computer,” he says. “I wanted to see what I could do without computer. I got interested in being a playwright. I wanted to work with performers on a piece and go through a debugging process. Most composers don’t understand all the instruments they write for. With ‘Thread’ I wrote 12 or 13 experimental studies to get an idea of the possibilities. The percussion quartet read through them, and we tried to create a more coherent piece. It was a collaboration.”
Lansky welcomed the new vista of composing for percussionists. “I felt like a choreographer,” he says. “Most percussionists make big arm movements. They move more than other instrumentalists; they have to get around to all their instruments. There are so many different timbres, unlike a string quartet.”
Lansky embraced what he calls “the need to find danger in music. “Electronic music goes from start to finish in a predictable way,” he says. “You’re pretty much guaranteed a perfect performance, unless there is an equipment failure. With live music, there’s always a risk involved. It’s good for listeners to have a sense that problems might arise. Each live performance is different. There’s always a point during the performance of my pieces when there is a surprise. It’s not a mistake; it has to do with the difficulty of performance. I am not in complete control.”
Lansky compares his compositional style with that of other composers. “Bach and Mozart were in touch with God,” he says. “They put down what came to them. Beethoven was otherwise. He wrote down stuff, rewrote it, and made it better.” Lansky places himself in Beethoven’s cohort.
“I start out with sketches. They are unformed,” he says. “I rewrite. If I sense improvement, I keep rewriting. If there’s too much revision, the composition turns south. Then I return to the piece as it was when improvements were happening.”
Lansky verifies the effectiveness of his procedure. “I save the drafts,” he says. “Not infrequently, I go back to a piece when I wonder about the outcome, and discover that I was right. I can tell when I’ve done enough.”
Paul Lansky Retirement Concert, Taplin Auditorium, Fine Hall, Princeton University. David Starobin, guitar; Janus Trio; and So Percussion Quartet. Saturday, May 17, 8 p.m. Concert is free, but reservations are required. 609-258-9220 or Frist Campus Center Box Office.