thoughts on Lansky

Something that I have always found interesting about Paul Lansky is his consistent use of tonality, and in particular, diatonic harmonies. This feature is present from his earliest works, such as the pervasive dominant 7th sonority in mild und leise (1973), and still continues today. Given his studies at the “Babbitt-dom” of Princeton in the mid-1960s, as well as his as affiliation with George Perle, it is rather surprising that Lansky does not have even a slightly larger body of early work demonstrating influence of the 12-tone system.

In “The Inner Voices of Simple Things” (1995), Lansky explains to Jeffery Perry that a simple pitch palette allows for nuance in other parameters:

I didn’t decide that I was going to write using tonal syntax. I still don’t think of it that way as much as letting the pitch contours and context occupy a certain relatively uncomplicated niche. It often seems to me as if telling complicated pitch stories is something that performers do so well, while machines have other capabilities, to create worlds and landscapes which have very different agendas (52).

This concept is particularly clear in his works that use technology to manipulate the human voice. The Chatter pieces explode bits of speech into an incomprehensible mass that is (re)constructed into discernible harmonies. Six Fantasies makes use of various filters to “harmonize” the reader’s voice, but also draws attention to subtle shifts in timbre. In these works, Lansky exposes the listener to a new perspective on the voice. Like many other composers, he aimed to “use the computer as an aural camera on the sounds of the world” (52), but rather than magnifying noise elements or the spectra of everyday sounds, Lansky did so uniquely— in a predominately pitch-centered sound world. Since his transition to primarily acoustic composition, this sound world seems to have remained largely in tact.

In the same interview, Lansky insists that “If a piece elicits more curiosity about its production methods than about its content, it is essentially a failure” (45). I largely agree with him— but my question is whether this (consistently diatonic) content is always successful on its own.  What happens when we apply this statement to Lansky’s recent works for acoustic instruments? Do they make us wonder about their “production methods” or “content”?

I became acquainted with Threads (2005) through researching repertoire for my own percussion quartet and also heard it live in concert (although the acoustics of Seiji Ozawa Hall reduced it to a warbling wash). Lansky calls it a “cantata” for percussion and the piece structured as such, containing movements deemed as “Arias” and others called “Preludes”. Even though it is a successful piece, I don’t perceive the same freshness of his earlier works with computer.  Just to be a little polemical, perhaps I might turn Lansky’s own statement around and say that his early computer works are ingenious in how they used sounds of the world as a camera on the expressive potential of the computer.  If Lansky proved the computer to be an effective medium for elegant sounds, might his aims be similar with regard to the percussion quartet?

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