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Composer recounts influential career

By Connor Iapoce

The composer inspires the crowd with his love of music (Jennifer Somers / Photo Editor).

Technology dominates the modern music industry, but there was a time when composers first started experimenting with technology to make “dumb computers sing.” 

The College welcomed influential 20th-century composer Paul Lansky on Sept. 25 for a conversation hosted by Teresa Nakra, an interactive multimedia professor, and Florencia Pierri, the Sarnoff Collection’s curator, as part of the exhibit – In the Groove: A Century of Sound. 

Lansky spent the majority of his career working with these “dumb computers” and helped define a generation. The conversation consisted of his lengthy career in music, as well as his 45-year teaching career at Princeton University, where he was the William Shubael Conant Professor of Music.

Lansky shared anecdotes from his career, including his beginnings in the 1950s and 1960s working with computers and played excerpts of various forms of his own “sound synthesis.” 

“I worked on a piece in the 60s, it was a really hard-nosed 12-tone piece,” Lansky said. “I worked on it for a year and a half. I listened to it one day and said, ‘you know what, this sounds terrible.’ I threw it out and for a 22-year old composer to throw out a year and a half worth of work, it was a very liberating experience.” 

For Lansky, computers seemed like the next logical step in the era to create music. He focused on learning how to create music on computers in the late 1950s rather than the newly released RCA Mark II sound synthesizer because the machine was installed at Columbia University and not easily accessible. 

This work was instrumental in facilitating the computer as a serious way to write music. One of Lansky’s earliest computer works from “Mild und leise” (1973) was sampled by English rock band Radiohead for its song “Idioteque” on the 2000 album “Kid A.” Lansky joked of wanting the spacey music to die a quiet death, until the band used it in its song. 

Lansky shared his most lasting works, including “Six Fantasies on a Poem by Thomas Campion” (1978-1979) and the series of “Idle Chatter” (1985). 

“Six Fantasies” is a recording based on the poem “Rose-Cheeked Laura” by Thomas Campion and read by Lansky’s wife Hannah MacKay. The piece was slowed down, adding a choral effect to the speech, as well as Lansky’s preferred technique of linear predictive coding and various filtering techniques. 

“This was a moment in my musical career where I felt as if I hadn’t chosen the wrong major,” Lansky said.”What happens technologically in this piece is a bit of magic.”

Lansky’s experience with the piece helped reinforce his role as an innovator and pioneer in computer music, as he continued to work steadily in the computer music field for the next 25 years. 

Lansky also played for the audience part of his series, “Idle Chatter.” 

“It occurred to me that I wanted to do something on tape that didn’t get to sound old,” Lansky said. “I discovered random number generators and I used random selection without replacement. The thing I discovered about this was this didn’t get as old quickly on recording. It still sounded fresh each time.”

The “Idle Chatter” series used the same technique of speech, having babble in the background create harmony. Each series had different structures to make it sound as if the machine had made it up on the spot. Lansky had been influenced by early rap music in the 1980s to create the piece. 

Lansky also reflected on his later years as a composer, including meeting the creator of the theremin in the 1990s, the importance of access to places such as Bell Labs in New Jersey and the leap forward in technology to computers like the neXT and the iMac. 

Lansky also wrote his own software, Cmix, with the C-based programming language. He also used the software SuperCollider to aid in the random number generation and linear prediction techniques of his music. 

Lansky stopped making computer music around the early 2000s and made the switch to instrumental music. To this day, he continues to work on writing music for people to this day.

“I discovered one day I was trying to reinvent my relationship to the computer,” Lansky said. “I turned 60 and decided maybe I should change my major. I often miss writing for the machine, I really enjoyed going into a room and coming out with this finished product. Writing for people is a totally different experience.”


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