Sounds Heard: Paul Lansky—Imaginary Islands
Alabama Symphony Orchestra conducted by
For almost 40 years, composer Paul Lansky has been using computers to generate some of the most magical as well as immediately appealing electronic music around. Part of the excitement in listening to the pieces he creates this way has always been in how he takes material from the acoustic realm (e.g. the sound of a human voice speaking or singing, a piano) and then does things with it that are just slightly beyond the edge of human possibility. The results have been simultaneously otherworldly and completely down to earth.
While Lansky’s computer music compositions have always very effectively exploited the extended timbre possibilities of electronically generated sound, all of his pieces have still first and foremost been about melody, harmony, and rhythm. At one point he even did a series of computer arrangements of classic folk tunes (which are collected on the disc Folk-Images). Even Lansky’s earliest computer piece, the heady, hard-core mild und leise created at the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center in 1973, channeled Wagner and, as a result, somehow seemed more approachable than most of the music created there at that time. (Decades later it remains an extremely appealing piece, so much so, in fact, that 27 years after Lansky composed it, Radiohead wound up sampling a portion of it on their song “Idioteque” released on their 2000 album Kid-A.) Some of my personal favorite Lansky compositions have been the 1978-79 Six Fantasies on a Poem by Thomas Campion which creates psychedelic layers of myriad timbres all from a brief recording of a woman reciting a poem (his wife, actress Hannah McKay), and a series of pieces collected on the 1994 Bridge CD More Than Idle Chatter which take recorded fragments of conversation and render them incomprehensible as language yet make them utterly compelling as music. As technology improved over the decades, the level of Lansky’s manipulations seemed increasingly subtler. Parts of the compositions collected on the 1998 disc Conversation Pieces really are not terribly far away from symphonic music in the breadth of timbre combinations that sound remarkably like winds, brass, and a giant string section. In the notes for that recording, Lansky coyly acknowledges this remarking that “any impression that this is an attempt to emulate the luxurious sound of a large orchestra is entirely justified.”
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the new Bridge CD Imaginary Islands, the latest entry in their now rather extensive Lansky discography, is composed expressly for and performed entirely by a symphony orchestra with no electronic elements whatsoever. Throughout his life, Lansky actually has composed for corporeal performers on acoustic instruments, or—as he jokingly describes them in his notes for the present CD—“carbon-based life forms,” even though his reputation as a composer was established almost exclusively on the basis of his electronic music. The three compositions collected on this new disc, all of which were composed within the last five years, nevertheless reveal a remarkable new compositional direction for him. They are his very first compositions for orchestra, despite sounding like they were written by someone who has had a lifetime of experience taming this behemoth ensemble!
It opens with Shapeshifters, a double piano concerto composed between 2007 and 2008 for the Colorado-based duo Quattro Mani (Susan Grace and Alice Rybak) for whom Lansky previously created his duo piano suite, It All Adds Up. During a conversation with Justin Brown, conductor of the Alabama Symphony, Lansky proposed the idea of writing a work for Quattro Mani and orchestra and thus the new piece was born. The opening minute of the first movement is actually a remarkable sonic metaphor for going from creating chamber music to working with a full orchestra. At the onset, a single pianist is heard joined shortly thereafter by the second pianist; they continue to play together without anyone else for about half a minute. Then suddenly the strings enter, seemingly out of nowhere, and soon thereafter the flutes. It is not until roughly a minute in that a glockenspiel suddenly chimes in and then we realize we’re in the midst of something really large. Layers continue to build on top of each other, somehow all seamlessly fitting together. The entire first movement feels like it is constantly expanding, the relentless momentum never letting up, but then it just as suddenly ends. (The whole arc of this movement, which is called “At Any Moment,” is somewhat reminiscent of Lansky’s similarly titled 1997 computer piece For the Moment, a piece with electronically generated timbres that suggest the sound world of a piano concerto.) While the orchestral music of the second movement, “Florid Counterpoint,” moves much slower overall, Lansky rarely gives a break to the pianists whose interlocking runs require a real feat of virtuosity. The next movement, “Confused and Dazed,” as its title suggests, is rather amorphous not only in terms of its tempo—which seems to be always changing—but also in its kaleidoscope of instrumental combinations. (Knowing that at the work’s premiere it would be performed alongside a string orchestra composition by Radiohead’s lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, Lansky includes a four chord sequence from his mild und leise about a third of the way through.) The real showstopper, however, is the finale (called “Topology”) in which Lansky pits seeming Latin rhythms against percussive pentatonicisms resulting in a strangely Gershwinesque gamelan mambo that could only be possible in the 21st century.
With the Grain, a 2009 concerto for guitarist David Starobin, also opens with the soloist unaccompanied, setting the sonic stage for the orchestra which is the exact opposite of the relationship between soloists and orchestras in the earliest European classical concertos. Also like Shapeshifters, With the Grain is in four movements, again atypical for concertos. Each of its four movements—“Redwood Burl,” “Karelian Birch,” “Quilted Beech,” and “Walnut Burl”—are named after wood grains; Lansky carries over the kinetic qualities of these different types of grains into the music he fashions for each of the movements. The opening is slow and features circular melodies that are constantly evolving. The second showcases longer wavy lines. The third is much softer and more introspective. The concluding movement is aggressively busy.
The most recent piece on the disc, Imaginary Islands from 2010, is the only piece herein which does not involve a soloist. It is collection of three movements, each of which is a self-contained sonic island. According to Lansky, his titles for the three movements “tell all”: “Rolling Hills, Calm Beaches, Something Brewing”; “Cloud-shrouded, Mysterious, Nascent”; and “Busy, Bustling, With a Heartbeat.” Most people associate the word island with isolation and tranquility, but it’s important to remember that Manhattan, Montreal, Hong Kong, and Singapore are also all islands. While Lansky’s second island offers opportunities for reflective contemplation, his first and especially his third are sprawling urban soundscapes that offer many reasons for numerous return trips. I have already come back to this piece, as well as the others on this disc, several times; one listen through them all should make you want to do the same thing.