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Paul Lansky Interview

January 1997 via email by Paul Clark.

How long do you think it will be before the three minute song element currently prevailant in popular music will be replaced by soundtracks that don't neccesarily need to end at all?

There has been a trend in recent years for people to produce music which has neither a logical beginning nor end. Some of the most interesting things along these lines are pieces in which the sounds are triggered by the environment in one way or another, so the music becomes the resonance of the space and of its inhabitants. I think that this is an entirely different creature, however, than a song or a soundtrack, although you could certainly regard a soundtrack as the resonance of a conceptual space in certain instances.

Do you feel that the tried and tested orchestral scores for blockbuster film soundtracks should be making way for more digitally produced music? A case in point is Blade Runner, in which Vangelis produced an awe inpiring soundtrack that worked so well with the visuals. Couldn't the recent assault on The Rock have faired equally as well with the same kind of treatment instead of the usual Philharmonic Orchestra treatment?

I think that Hollywood has done a really crummy job using sound machines for soundtracks. I'm sorry to say that I did not like the Vangelis track. It sounded to me like the kind of plastic synthesizer music I've grown allergic to. I think that the use of real instruments in recent movies is a reaction to this kind of thing. It really got to sound cheap and artificial. Commercial synthesizers were used much too much. For one reason or another, the sound of synthesizer soundtracks has come to be associated with low budget films, and the sound of orchestras with high budget ones. Unfortunately the music is often no better in either, it just depends on the budget. There is often an underlying assumption in questions like this that machines are eventually going to take over the job of making music. I feel pretty confident that this is not the way things are going to go. Just as listening to music is a basic human activity, so is playing music, by batting, bowing, blowing and scraping things. The real future for technology in music lies in ways in which it will be used to expand these activities.

How much of what we hear on radio, television and at the movies is produced by real instruments anyway? Most T.V.commercials are now created entirely in the digital domain!

The spanner in these works is the use of samplers. In a lot of cases a good sampler can produce results indistinguishable from real instruments in commercial music. You probably couldn't fool anyone if you used Beethoven, but so much pop music has a mechanical ethos these days that it is hard to tell the difference, and drum machines have become pervasive. I think almost all recording and production is done in the digital domain. One thing I've been very excited about is the simple fact that once music enters the digital domain, there is no longer the issue of loss of quality when copying, so the music can last forever and be processed extensively without deterioration. This is a significant event in the history of music and technology, probably the most significant since the advent of recording itself.

Do you spend a lot of time trying to emulate the sound of "real" instruments or is the sound that's never been heard before usually the magic ingredient?

I am interested in being able to emulate real instruments but mainly in the sense that I can get them to assume unreal proportions. For example, I've been using Perry Cook's flute physical model for a few years, but my favorite way of using it is to construct a model of a flute which is about 20 feet long and has a diameter of 3 feet. It produces great sounds.

Are you at the point where you can think of a sound and produce it relatively quickly or do you ever find yourself in danger of forgetting what it was you wanted to do with the sound in the first place?

I never trust what comes into my head at first and always rely on an interactive compositional process to get things done. A sound doesn't become a sound until it becomes a musical sound, and it doesn't become a musical sound until it lives in a musical context.

Your album Homebrew evoked very powerful imagery for me. I also found it very difficult to think about anything else while listening to it, other than what each piece made me think about. What elements in your music create this captivating effect, do you do it on purpose?

This is a very good question, and touches on a very important issue for me. Since my music lives on tape, it is very important for me that people can listen to it lots of times, and never (or almost never) feel that it has grown stale. To this end I compose into the music a kind of complexity and focus which means that each time you listen your ear can trace a different path. In other words there is not a clear story line in the details, but rather in the bigger picture.

The details are generally fairly complex, as in pieces like "Table's Clear". In other pieces, like "Now and Then" the complexity is built into the implications of the text. In a way, the listener has to invent the music in his own head as he listens. The model that I am thus using is different from the classical model of western music. Your observation pleases me a lot since it confirms this.

In order to listen to my music you have to do some work. In other words you have to make decisions about where to listen, and what to rest your ears on. There is not a clear lead tune, story line, or main voice. I hope that I've composed a texture which, as I like to say, gives your ears room to dance.
If, in fact, you find it difficult to think about anything else while listening, that indicates to me that I'm keeping you occupied, and what you're doing is inventing your own path through the music.

Have you ever included any kind of subliminal messaging in any of your works?

I think subliminal messaging is really what music is all about. Music really works its way into your brain in all kinds of subliminal ways, all the time. One of the most interesting, and paradoxical things about it, moreover, is the fact that a lot of the things one person may enjoy or respond to in a piece of music has a lot to do with personal history, and is thus not intersubjective.

I once recorded the sound of rain on a warm summer evening hoping to sample a portion of it and was amazed when I couldn't find one single completely 'rain only' segment without some other noise going on in the background.

I've noticed the same thing. I suppose that we're so used to focusing our ears on one sound or another that we lose track of the bigger picture.

Have you ever heard any music that you felt would really bring electronic music to the forefront of popular music?

Most "pop" music uses music technology in a very primitive way. Either it's made from plastic, cheesy, synthesizer sounds, or from weak emulations of real instruments. I consider the *real* advanced technology in pop music to be guitar technology. This is an instrument with has grown up in this music, and has not only been shaped by the music but also helped to shape it.
Now, the question you ask is more complicated, however. There are several groups which have done things which end up making young people, in particular, more sensitive to the kind of thing I've been doing. The Residents and Nine Inch Nails come to mind right away. What they have going for them, however, is a very imaginative and sensitive use of good commercial technology. I don't think that the kind of thing I like to do is ever going to appeal to the size of the audiences for even unknown rock groups. I don't see why it should, and I don't have any expectation that it will.

Are you ever completely satisfied that your latest creation is exactly as you wanted it or does the "big picture" ever remain in your head?

I never begin a piece with an image of it in my head. For me it's always been an interactive process. I usually begin with a general idea, try some things, revise my expectations and internal images, try again, etc. Particularly when working with machines it is important not to come with too many preconceived notions. So many times, wonderful things happen by accident, and even more often the things that you think will work well turn out to be awful. Almost all the time the piece I end up with has very little to do with the piece I thought I would write. Once in a while it turns out to be a crummy version of what I thought I'd like to write, which indicates to me that I just haven't worked very hard. And even less often it turns out to be even better than what I thought I'd like to write, which just indicates to me that I got lucky.
I think a composer is in trouble if the piece he writes is just what he imagined in his head. Maybe Mozart could do this, but for we mortals composing is a trip into unknown territory.

What are you currently working on?

I've just finished an hour-long text-based piece called Things She Carried. It's a portrait of a woman through lists of things about her, and about her mind and memory. The reader and co-author of the text is my wife Hannah MacKay, and it will come out on Bridge Records later this year. I'm quite excited about it. I think it's the best thing I've ever done.

What do you think the first hundred years of the next millenium will bring in the way of musical styles and equipment development. Will we still be playing black and white keys and twiddling knobs?

New instrument designs will come along, and will increasingly rely on technology. Again, people should really look at current guitar technology. It's really at the head of the line. But what has to happen is that a music has to grow up along with the technology. This happened with pianos, violins, saxophones and guitars. It's certainly the case that computer technology will solve certain problems, but they may end up not being the problems we thought we needed to solve. For example, even-tempered tuning has always only been approximated.

I don't think anyone could ever tune a semitone so that it was exactly in a 2 to the 1/12 ratio, but the interesting thing is that as soon as people were able to really do this with synthesizers and computers it became clear that this was not what they wanted, and the big push was on to create synthesizers which could do more complex and random tunings. Also, at the beginning of the computer music revolution, people imagined that since they could pile up sine waves with almost infinite precision that it would be possible to create extraordinary, unimagined sounds. Very quickly, however, musicians began to realize that this was not where the powerful stuff was, but rather in the instruments we'd been taking for granted.

I think we're very poor predictors of musical futures. I've often felt that one problem with the 12-tone system lies in the fact that there is a logic in the progression from Beethoven to Wagner to Schoenberg. Back in the 1970's nobody would have been able to predict rap music.

Technology is not going to allow us to make better music. It will allow more people to make music more easily. I don't believe that music improves as time goes on. It just gets different and reflects the mind of its age. There are some depressing conclusions one could draw from this, but I'll restrain myself.

Website: Paul Lansky