Percussa micro super signal processor

Paul Lansky, a titanic name in classical computer music, Princeton professor, and real-time algorithmic pioneer, has gone acoustic. He’s also known in more popular circles for having been musically quoted on Radiohead’s Kid A. The New York Times reports:

After 35 years immersed in the world of computer music, the composer Paul Lansky talks with wonder about the enormous capacities of primitive objects carved from trees or stamped from metal sheets: violins, cellos, trumpets, pianos.

"To create the sound of a violin – wow!" he said in a recent interview. "I can’t do that on a computer."

Paul Lansky: An electronic-music pioneer pulls the plug

The Times seems to want to spin this as the end of an era. But while it correctly argues that electronic music is out of the lab and onto the laptop, to me this is more about Lansky’s own personal reinvention. I like this quote:

“Here I am, 64, and I find myself at what feels like the beginning of a career.”

Whether you’re 64, 84, or 24, the ability to feel like you’re making music as if for the first time is truly invaluable. Whatever you have to do to achieve that, it’s worth it.

Lansky does reveal that some elements of electronic music and computer music no longer appeal to him. But we should be clear about how specific he’s being when referring generally to computer music. Of course, the world of computer music as embraced by many CDM readers is not only technologically different from traditional, academic acoustic music. It also represents a different approach to process. The Times’ Daniel Watkin says, “what drives many creators of computer music is the desire to have total mastery over how a piece of music sounds.” And that indeed seems to be true for an earlier generation of computer composers.

By contrast, the last decade or two, even in the academy, has been dominated by musicians interested in building interactive instruments and interfaces, “playing” electronic music live, introducing uncertainty into composition and sound, and – in conjunction with a much wider, non-academic underground of hackers – doing strange things with DIY electronics and hacked digital gadgets.  These to me are the electrically-powered equivalent of some of Lansky’s primitive devices. And many of these people also like playing things made from trees. Some of this exploration has much earlier roots in those same laboratories, but those experiments were often a minority, or limited by available technology.

That’s not to say any one working style is better than another. I love going back to the tightly-controlled worlds created by people like Lansky. I likewise enjoy talking about electronic music with one of my teachers, David Olan, who was one of the punchcard-using composers – he has a perspective that I don’t have. In fact, I never cease to be struck by the way in which early electronic pieces seem to change over time – not because the piece itself has evolved, but because our ears have. And I find that lots of people inside and outside academia are likewise falling in love with tracks that, previously, they would have thought un-listenable.

I think it would be a real tragedy if the conventional wisdom that “everything’s been done” were allowed to apply to electronic music, when it remains very young. There are plenty of new sounds to discover in electronic realms, and they’re in no way mutually exclusive to working with acoustic sound. Acoustic instruments have a millenia-long head start. I hope we can approach electronic sound with the same freshness Lansky did – and now will bring to things made of wood.

Maintaining that freshness, though, does require occasionally unplugging. Personally, after months of electronic composition, I have a piece to work on for the rebec, which hasn’t been big since about the 16th Century. Now that’s retro.

If you want to check out some of Lansky’s music (plugged and unplug), plenty is available. Here’s where to start:

PAUL LANSKY – “Notjustmoreidlechatter” [paperthinwalls, with free stream by So Percussion]

Paul Lansky MP3s

Discography (many available via iTunes)

Thanks to Jacob Joaquin for the tip!