A Virtual Conversation with Jaron Lanier
WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Who were the other composers that made a big impression on you? Who formed your background with music?
JARON LANIER: Boy, there are a bunch of them. Bach was the really early one. And then it turns out that I had weird parents out in New Mexico and they had a 78 collection of all kinds of stuff. So I had an Uday Shankar 78 of Hindustani music which was great and I had a 78 of microtonal piano music which was wonderful. It was Christopher Columbus. I don’t even know who composed it. It was an early piece for a quarter-tone piano.
WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: That was the Mexican composer Carrillo, wasn’t it?
JARON LANIER: I believe so. But then, when I was a little bit older, another one who just completely floored me was Harry Partch. The first Harry Partch I heard was an LP for a film called Windsong. That really excited me on many, many, levels: the notion of not just playing with a new tuning system as an intellectual exercise but really getting something out of it. I mean, God, he really got it. That thing worked like crazy. And then designing the instruments and the visuals of them and everything. I always wanted to meet him but unfortunately he died when I was about 14. In my hitchhiking adventures I did eventually find my way to San Diego and I met Danlee Mitchell and a few times he let me crash in my sleeping bag underneath the Marimba Eroica. So I was able to get a little bit of a posthumous connection to Partch. But I would have loved to have met him. And I discovered Scriabin‘s late piano music and that, really floored me. I just adore the last 10 Scriabin piano pieces. In a way, I think he did something that was much more profound than anyone who came later, and with extraordinary emotion and extraordinary depth. There’s just so much in that music. There’s an unquestionable power to it. And for a pianist, it’s also an interesting challenge to play. It’s an exercise in ergonomic extremity. It’s not only that it’s hard, but there’s also this interesting communication that comes out of it. There’s this fusion of different elements. I’ve always had an affinity and fascination with that pre-revolutionary Moscow scene, so I’ve always been interested in Scriabin. And then, much later, I was able to meet both Leon Theremin and Nicolas Slominsky and compare their stories to get a sense of who Scriabin really was, and that was wonderful. As with Partch, I felt I was able to develop a little bit of a posthumous connection to him.
WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: What about jazz and rock? Was that influential?
JARON LANIER: It’s a funny thing, but because of the place I grew up I didn’t have as much access to them as you might think. Southern New Mexico is one of the odder spots in America in that, on the one hand, you have by some measures the densest concentration of scientists and engineers of any other place in the world. On the other hand, aside from them, the remaining people are the poorest people in America and the county I grew up in is consistently the poorest, or the second poorest, county in America. And nothing came there. The radio stations we could hear were usually from Mexico. There weren’t stores of normal sorts. It was very backward. A lot of American mainstream commerce and culture didn’t reach it until later. So I don’t think I was aware of jazz until I first moved to New York. I don’t think I’d ever heard of it, which might sound incredible, but really, there’s no particular way I would have. I don’t think I even heard of something like Frank Sinatra or any big band or any of that stuff. It just wasn’t around in my environment. Some rock’n'roll was and so I heard the Beatles, which was very intense stuff. But I was also rebelling, and since other people were listening to it, I tended to not want to listen to it. But I was pretty impressed by the Beatles. And once again, when something touches me I try to develop a personal connection to it. So with the Beatles, I have a side band that plays every now and again with Sean Lennon, John Lennon‘s son. And we play the piano parts on the Beatles’ records, so there’s a little connection and I have a feeling for what was going on with them. I still hear the Beatles as having this kind of luminosity, this feeling of awakening. Is it just because I and a bunch of other people were young at the time, or is there really something in the music that someone else would hear that has that quality to it? I don’t really know. I really have to say, when I first heard them, I kept thinking there’s so much in this music that is so good, but if only a few little things were changed it would be so much better and I still feel that whenever I hear it. I still feel like there are all these missteps and schmaltzy, stupid things and, you know, I still wish that a few little things were improved here and there. And I’m sure they would too, actually. I also had access to a lot of Mexican pop music. I heard a lot of polka and mariachi and other sorts of things happening in Mexico. The place where I grew up didn’t have so much of an African American or African diaspora quality; it was much more Mexican influenced. And I heard quite a lot of American Indian music.