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!

  • Now if we can only get others to quit electronic music… (stares at bt)

  • James

    BT already does full film scores using mostly acoustic instruments…..good job checking your sources though

  • Some people make this out to be some kind of statement – because it makes it easier for them to digest…A 'general' truth is easier to accept that a deeply personal truth. I find his change inspiring, as I find myself recently at questions with my own relationship to technology and electronic music.

    Here's to those who don't allow themselves to be defined or confined by expectations (either their own or those of others)…


    (aka WBL aka Symbiotic)


  • Well, the NYT's job as journalists can be, in some cases, to try to glean the general from the personal. But I agree – and I find, in this case, the personal to be more meaningful.

    Speaking of personal identity, new tags, Symbiotic? 😉

  • TechLo

    That "choice complicates" is a big obstacle for many of us electronic composers. I think the urge to work with just a piano or some such acoustic instrument is a strong pull away from the relentless effort required to stay on the cutting edge of electronic production. Who amongst us hasn't spent a couple of days straight just going through websites (I love this site, don't get me wrong, lol), or auditioning new plug-ins — giving in to an unsettling urge to stay abreast of what's current which goes hand in hand with succumbing to musical procrastination as avoiding potential disappointment and/or failure? No great revelation on my part, clearly, lol.

    I think however, that this is often not such a bad thing! Many people can't qualitatively judge their experience with music making solely by the end product of a piece. Being involved in a community that explores new technology and spending time deepening your understand/relationship with a piece of technology (yes, I think it's okay to spend a week just getting into the guts of your DAW) should be looked upon as time well spent (deadline issues aside for those who have them), otherwise you'll suffer from latent guilt from the necessary time it takes to achieve even a basic mastery of your studio tools.

    I'm sure that the optimal balance of musical output/tech exploring_understanding is different for everyone, and even fluctuates over time. Eh, enough of my random musings, lol.

  • Good points in your musings, TechLo.

    I do agree about limiting choice and creativity … but then again, anyone afraid of *choice* may want to look into a line of work other than composition. 🙂 Certainly, there's no end of choice in acoustic music.

    Viola Farber, a dancer who worked with Merce Cunningham, once told me that she thought a big reason why he and John Cage got into the aleatoric processes was because they just didn't like having to make so many choices all the time. I have to sympathize. (Obvious, yes, but usually a simpler explanation than people give.) And yes, that sense of exploration is partly getting away from everything being such a conscious choice — paradoxically, it can be creativity killing.

  • Haha…yeah…a little re-visioning going on in my life right now, too, Peter. Would love to chat sometime about that and life in general.

  • I too have been feeling the pull to get back to basics. I agree strongly with what TechLo said.

    Part of the appeal of digital music for me was the opportunity to play any instrument under the sun real or imagined without the need for collaborators. Somewhere along the way I got lost in a hoarding mindset and now have gigs and gigs of too many choices and very little completed music.

    Of course, you can fall into the same mind-set with analog equipment too.

    I guess it is knowing what works for yourself creatively. As a visual designer, I have fell into a similar trap with my 2,000+ fonts. Useful, yes, but prohibitive.

    Speaking for myself…I think it's time to unplug.

  • vÄ“er

    Much respect to him for that, i mean, nothing really can beat "real" instruments, i think its every e-musicians hidden dream to be able to make fancy "electro-ish" track with live tools only and play it live 🙂

  • It's a curious article, and Lansky makes some curious statements. First, he's been composing instrumental music all along, going back to the 60s – writing for string quartet and piano is nothing new for him. Second, I have to question his statement "I basically don't like electronic music. I like to compose it. I'm just not a big fan of it." That just seems absurd to me – if you don't like it, why compose it?

    I've heard a lot of his music over the years, and I have to say I've always found his electronic music much more interesting, innovative, and sonically alive than his instrumental music, much of which just sounds derivative to me. He's a true pioneer of computer music, and has composed some of the classics of the genre. And I think he has a real ear for creative sound that I don't hear in his instrumental work, which is just about the notes and not the sound at all.

    To me, that's the difference between electronic music and instrumental music – electronic music is about the sounds, and electronic music is about the notes. (That's a simplification, of course, but basically that's how I see it.) The reason I got into electronic music in the first place was to make my own sounds, and to be able to create and hear my own music, instead of leaving it up to others. (I've written instrumental music too, although not a lot, and I certainly don't think I have much more to say with the same sets of notes that hasn't already been said a thousand times.)

    If he's serious about not creating electronic music any more, I think it's a real shame, because I don't think his instrumental music is going to fill the gap created by the loss of his beautiful sounds. If his concern is that instrumental music is superior because it's performable and interpretable whereas electronic music isn't, well, we all know that if that once was the case, it certainly isn't now.

    And the thing I particularly object to in this whole matter is that somehow Lansky's declaration is seen as a blow against the whole practice of electronic music composition and a validation of instrumental composition, whereas I think electronic music is more valid, active, and creative now than ever, and will continue to be.

  • A common problem with new media is to look at it through the mindset of an older media. For example looking at mp3s as if they are cds, looking at new video game systems as if they are NES, or looking at electronic music as if it is supposed to be tradition composed music. Even though an early pioneer has lost interest in his idea of electronic music, does not mean at all that electronic music is no longer interesting. His lack of interest could perhaps embody the collective progression for viewing electronic music as eccentric traditional composed music to a more modern approach towards electronic music that is not boxed into this standard.

    Perhaps this is not even an issue to us, the younger generation, because we do not have such a distinction between 'natural' and 'electronic'. We have grown up with computers, sequencers, synthesizers, cds, mp3 players, etc. We are not in a position to abandon electronics and retreat to 'natural' means, because it is natural for us to incorporate both into our lives and creativity.

  • DooKoo

    I have great respect for Lansky's music, but I don't understand why he finds it necessary to make it into a public 'pronouncement' (nor do I understand why I should care–I don't mean that disrespectfully because I AM interested in hearing his next piece…I just don't see the point in making public pronouncements about the kind of aesthetic decisions that composers make every time they begin a new piece).

    When I want to write acoustic music, I just do it. When I want to create electronic music, I just do it. Same for when I want to combine the two. If all I had at my disposal was a stick and rock, I would make music with THAT. When I discover or rediscover a way of making music, I go through the same feeling of 'rebirth' or starting anew that he describes. It happens every few years (not just once in a career).

    To quote: "To create the sound of a violin – wow!" he said in a recent interview. "I can’t do that on a computer." A computer is NOT analogous to a violin or any other instrument, It's a brain-magnifier! (in a way that none of our previous tools have been). Lansky's computer pieces are clearly NOT attempts to imitate acoustic instruments…they are more like transformations of everyday sounds into music…so I don't buy this particular argument.

  • Well, in Lansky's defense, I'm not sure he intended this to be a public event, though that would have been hilarious.

    Press conference: Paul Lansky is retiring from electronic music. Says he will focus on acoustic music.

    It may have been the NYT author who chose this angle. But it is interesting to me, as always, to see how artists do choose to focus over time. You know, on a personal level, I think it's fine — just as it's fine to focus on writing choral music and stop taking orchestral commissions, or break up the band and keep the duo going, or whatever it happens to be.

  • DooKoo

    Making a statement in a NYT interview IS a public announcement. But I've heard Lansky saying this same thing for a couple of years now. The NYT interview is just to promote his new album.

    And to be fair, you did give it the headline: "Pioneering Composer Paul Lansky Quits Electronic Music"

  • press conference: i am fasting from air. i will breath only oxygen rich fluid.

    who hasn't seen the abyss?

  • ben

    once it hits the microphone its electronic

  • Jimson

    ben: while technically true, that fact is useless to the discussion. The fact remains that 'electronic' music for all intents and purposes means that it was MADE using electronic, (or digital) means, as opposed to acoustic or electro-acoustic (in the sense of electronic pickup of acoustic vibrations a la electric guitar).

    Regarding the subject, I've also felt the pull of simpler instruments that can ONLY be used as instruments. Something about the endless choices and the possibility of distractions (not to mention gearheadism) makes it hard sometimes to actually make music with a computer for me.

  • stevesg

    This presumed dichotomy is idiotic!

    painting=representative creation of light

    media: oil, watercolor, charcoal, graphite…

    music=representative creation of sound

    media: violin, orchestra, theremin, computer, hollow log…. independent