Interview with Paul Lansky
From the soundout archive (1995). Republished with kind permission of soundout.
Enter the next breed of composer: one who speaks in programming languages with a strong native accent of a musical mother tongue, one whose sonic canvas grows from within the binary belly of a stealth black box and whose palette includes the sounds of the natural world and those beyond imagination. Simmered in a cauldron of æsthetic ferment and painstaking detail, the result is finally splashed across the landscape of the listener’s mind in a magical swirl of sound. Begin to listen, and you will hear the birth of a new musical instrument: the computer.
soundout visited with computer music composer Paul Lansky to sneak a peek at this instrument of tomorrow. In his dimly-lit office at Princeton University (where he serves as chairman of the Music Department), we could find only a hint as to its true whereabouts. Amidst the stacks of papers, a few clues: a thinly wrapped coil of blue mylar tape (which we are told was used with an early refrigerator-sized digital-to-analog converter that has long since disappeared), and some computer circuitry resting atop a file cabinet. Flickering in the corner, however, was the best candidate yet, a NeXt computer, surfing the Web.
Created by manipulating recorded sounds mixed with digitally synthesized sound, Lansky’s music is a unique blend of timbres, both natural and otherworldly. His music often incorporates the sound of ordinary instruments (such as the harmonica in Guy’s Harp), ordinary objects (like the pots and pans of Table’s Clear), and ordinary occurrences (passing trucks in Night Traffic, a discussion in Smalltalk).
“One thing that I’ve done a lot,” said Lansky in an interview with soundout, “is composing a fairly complicated texture, like in my Idle Chatter pieces, in which there’s not any one thing that you’re supposed to listen to.” Instead of creating a texture in which there is a singular focus, such as a primary melody, Lansky creates layers of synthesized voices in Idle Chatter, out of which the listener can choose to focus on one of a variety of different elements, including making sense out of the barrage of word fragments.
Lansky’s use of everyday sound as a basis for his music reflects his desire to give the listener some breathing space while listening to his piece. Unlike live music, tape music in a concert situation can be particularly alienating. “If instead of a string quartet playing up on stage you have sound coming out of a loudspeaker,” Lansky reasons, “you’ve got a real problem, because you’re being confronted directly with the composer’s voice. In other words, you’ve got a situation in which you’re listening at very close range to what the composer is saying. Typically, people find tape music in concerts very exhausting to listen to. My sense of the reason for this is, very often, [the listener has] very little space to maneuver. As a listener you’re being shouted at, in a sense.”
His remedy? Give the listener room to move, to negotiate with the sounds coming from the speaker by incorporating familiar elements. In a sense, Lansky treats the loudspeakers not as the instrument itself, but as a set of windows into a larger world. “What I’ve tried to do is to create a sense that the sounds that are coming out [of the loudspeaker] have some relation to a physical action, for example, speech, or people actually playing instruments. The loudspeakers are kind of windows into an environment in which somebody is able to perceive things occurring that have a kind of physical correlate.” For example, in Quakerbridge, Lansky takes the sound of crowds in a busy New Jersey shopping mall and sculpts musical lines and harmonies out of the mundane sounds of commerce. Throughout the piece, the listener can catch glimpses of the typical American shopping mall experience (screaming kids, roving teenagers) filtered though Lansky’s unique musical vision.
Lansky’s musical career began in a more traditional manner as a french horn player. After going to Princeton in the late sixties as a graduate student in music composition, he got interested in computer music just as the technology was being first developed. Now, over twenty-five years later, Lansky is a talented computer programmer as well, having written countless computer programs to realize his creations. In creating the software used in making his pieces, Lansky becomes, in effect, not only composer and performer, but the instrument designer and manufacturer as well. Lansky is characteristically modest about his software, which is available on the internet as freeware. “I have this program called CMIX which is out, and a lot of people around here use. It’s essentially put together as a toolkit. If a professional programmer were to start from scratch, the whole thing would probably look a little different and be a lot more efficient and easier to use!”
After an hour of chatting with Lansky, the magical instrument of tomorrow had yet to surface. Perhaps it was in the basement of the building, like the mythical Dynamophone of Thaddeus Cahill, as it seemed impossible that the little computer sitting on his desktop could create all those strange and wondrous sounds. Perhaps, like the composers of old, the magic lies within, and beneath his fingers at the keyboard. This time, however, the keyboard isn’t made of ivory, and its limitations are the boundaries of imagination and sound itself.
Princeton, New Jersey, 14 April 1995.
Paul Lansky (1944) has long been recognized as one of the pioneers of computer music. His works are widely available on recording, largely on Bridge Records. His work Notjustmoreidlechatter is included in the Norton Anthology accompanying the widely-used music appreciation text, The Enjoyment of Music. In 2002, he was the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from SEAMUS (Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States). In 1999, he was the subject of a documentary made for European Television, My Cinema for the Ears, directed by Uli Aumuller (available on DVD). Numerous dance companies have choreographed his works, including Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company and Eliot Feld. Though the bulk of his work is electronic, he has kept also written several works for instruments and electronics, and a number for instruments alone, over the years. Recent work includes a concerto for two pianos and orchestra and a percussion quartet.
[Jason Uechi] How did you get started in music, and at what age?
[Paul Lansky] It was about the fourth grade, or so, when I started playing folk guitar and classical guitar. In the seventh grade I started playing the french horn, and got very serious about that, and went to The High School of Music and Art as a French horn player. I got involved in composition in high school, and from there I went on to college, at Queens College in New York, where I majored in music. At that point I was sort of interested in composition, musicology and performing.
After I graduated from Queens, I played horn professionally for a bit. I played with the Dorian Wind Quintet, which was really great, I was twenty-two. It seemed to me, however, that I that was about as good as I was ever going to be as a horn player, but as a composer you continue to develop your whole life, so I got more and more interested in composition and came to Princeton as a graduate student.
You mentioned that you began composing in high school. Is there anything in particular that inspired you to start composing?
I had some friends who were composing, a very close friend of mine was a fellow named Joshua Rifkin, who is now mainly doing recordings of Bach, but was composing at that point. I just loved music so much that I figured that I wanted to do whatever I could to get involved in music, and composing seemed like the most interesting thing you could possibly do.
I wasn’t one of these people who just sort of “woke up one morning with a mission from God” that I had to write music, it just seemed like such an interesting thing to do, and I didn’t see why I shouldn’t do it.
I think its really been a long struggle for me. I don’t really think I actually composed any good music until I was in my mid-thirties. I’m not happy with my early music, and basically, still, the only music I really like I composed in the last couple of years.
Did you first get involved with computer music at Princeton or at Queens College?
I got involved with computer music when I came to Princeton in 1966, and we had just started doing it, and it seemed like an interesting thing to do.
It was insane, because you had to drive to Bell Labs just to hear a sound. Imagine, first of all, you programmed everything on punchcards, then you submitted it and came back the next day, because the computer only ran one job at a time, and sometimes it would take hours and hours just to do anything at all. Then you would come back the next day, and if it worked, you’d check out a tape and you’d call Bell Labs and make an appointment to go up to use their digital-to-analog converter. And of course the thing would sound terrible.
You’d drive up there and you’d park, and then you would have to phone upstairs and have somebody come and escort you, because you weren’t allow to wander through the halls of Bell Labs. It took about an hour and a quarter to get there from here, so you would go with your heart in your mouth, and then you’d go back with your heart in your stomach. I worked for about a year and a half on a computer piece when I was a graduate student, and one day I listened to it and I said “This is really awful.” And I threw it out.
Really? Literally nothing of it left?
Nothing! I don’t think I could reconstruct it if I tried. I remember what it sounded like, but I don’t want anyone else to remember. It was actually a very liberating experience at that age to just abandon a year and a half’s worth of work. I felt good about it after I abandoned the piece, but then I didn’t go back to computer music until after we didn’t have to drive to Bell Labs anymore, when we got our digital-to-analog converter here.
When was that?
I think they got it in 1969, and I started working on it around ’73 or so. And this is all that’s left of it. [Holds up a loosely coiled pink roll of thin tape, about an inch wide] This is a mylar tape, and the converter was run by the first computer that Hewlett Packard made. The converter was a big thing, about the size of a refrigerator, and it had 64K of memory. It had no operating system, so you would have to load the operating system in with a boot-strap loader with 64 words of memory. Then you’d load the program on paper tape, which kept tearing, so we finally made the tapes on mylar, figuring that would last. And now it’s twenty-five years later and the only thing left is the mylar tape with the program on it. The computer disappeared in the early eighties.
At what point did you get involved with programming and developing software?
Very early. That was one of the things that attracted me. When we first started to use computers, using what’s called a assembly macro language, we would write something like “oscil” and the program would then compile that into a couple of lines of assembler. This was an assembler called BEFAP on the IBM 7094. One of the things that got me first interested in programming was that it was such a pain to punch cards. There were these things that we used to have called A and B subroutines. These subroutines were written in FORTRAN, and what you used to be able to do was to use the subroutines to actually generate notes. I learned FORTRAN to write these subroutines, and I would generate note lists. I’m still doing that sort of thing, actually.
Then when we moved to a bigger computer and had a program here called Music 360, by Barry Vercoe, which was a predecessor of Music 11, which was a predecessor of CSOUND. It was a very good program, it ran very fast on the IBM 36091. But then Barry left, and you would never knew what was wrong with the program. I decided the only way in which I was going to become comfortable doing this sort of thing was if I was my own best expert. My thinking about these things is what you really want to do is maximize the number of experts you have nearby. If you become the leading expert then that’s the maximum optimization you can get.
So one day I said “Well, what will it take to write my own synthesis program?”, and I wrote a very small synthesis program and it really turned out to be easy. One thing led to another, and I’m still using software that I write. I really like that, because I hate being dependant on other people, and having to say “How does this work?” My philosophy has been that you learn enough so that you become your own best expert.
At any point did you stop what you were doing musically to study programming specifically?
No, it’s all on the job training. I learned it all on the street. I’ve never taken a programming course, and I’m actually not a very good programmer. I write lots of programs, but when you see programs written by a professional programmer they are clearly another order of thinking about how programming goes. My programs work, but I don’t feel that comfortable about advertising them as “the way to do things”.
I have this program called CMIX which is out, and a lot of people around here use. It’s essentially put together as a toolkit. If a professional programmer were to start from scratch, the whole thing would probably look a little different and be a lot more efficient and easier to use.
The toughest question: How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it before?
Oh, that’s a very hard question. I can deal with that sort of question in general terms. I think I can field that in a sense as “How do I recommend approaching music that you are unfamiliar with, in general?”
The kind of thing that I think is important for somebody to think about is to take the analogy of meeting people. When you meet a person, your first take on them is to try to abstract the qualities that the person has and say, “Well, this person reminds me of this group of people, or this friend of mine.” Your way of indexing your response to that person has a lot to do with all of the people you know, and it has a lot to do with your attitudes towards people. Then what happens, and I’m sure everyone’s had this experience, is that as you get to know the person better, all the things that you used to classify, quantify and categorize the person to start with, drop by the wayside. The person’s qualities become unique qualities.
Then change the word “music” for the word “person”. You have the same relation the first time you hear music that is unfamiliar music or that you’re not used to hearing, what you try to do is classify and index it by the kind of music you’ve known. Then, as you get to know it better, it becomes its own world. This is the case with Mozart as well as with new music. You hear a piece by Mozart and the first thing you do is classify it by thinking about all the kinds of Classical music that you’ve heard, with these kinds of configurations, and with your experiences with music theory, tonal theory, and syntax. This all tells you a lot things. But at a certain point, the piece utterly transcends those things. The interesting thing about thinking in those terms is if you have a piece which ultimately fails to transcends those categories perhaps it tells you something negative about the piece.
Everyone’s had the experience when they were about eight years old of wondering how you could ever invent a tune. There are all these tunes, and they seem to be God-given things. You can’t imagine something you know as an object that was invented from scratch at some point. That sort of leads back to the whole concept of what music is. To cut to the bottom line: my recommendation for anybody who is listening to my music and finds it unfamiliar or bizarre (and I don’t think most people do, I think my music is less unfamiliar or bizarre than a lot of music that is made with computers) is to give it several tries, and come back to it. Then if you don’t like it… [pause], don’t listen to it again! [Laughter]
I think that’s the best I can do with a question like that. I go to parties and things like that and people say:
[Mocking dialogue] “Oh, you’re a composer! What do you write? Is it sort of like Pearl Jam?”
“Sort of like Cole Porter?”
“No. I work with electronic music.”
[With a hint of recognition] “Oh!”
And I remember someone said, “Like Peter Gabriel, right?”
“Well, not quite…”
[Chuckle] What they are trying to do is to index it immediately.
Your music incorporates natural sounds into a musical environment. Where would you point to as the beginning of this æsthetic? I thought of perhaps Cage, perhaps Pierre Schaeffer and musique concrète?
No, no… I’ve thought about this a lot recently. Essentially, you start out with the fact that what I like to do is create sound on tape. If you just accept that as an activity that I’m going to engage, the next thing I notice is that it really creates a lot of paradoxes that have to do with how people take it in. There’s not a familiar social institutional structure to be received: it’s not music that’s designed to be played in the concert hall, it’s probably more congenial to be played at home. Still, it’s a complex problem (over the years I haven’t ever really thought explicitly about this), and I think basically what I’ve been doing is responding to the social situation that the music sets up.
The way I like to think about it these days is this: if you think about sitting in a concert hall and listening to a string quartet play, or something like that, you have a comfortable relation to the composer’s voice because the composer’s voice is being activated by people. It’s being activated by a live ensemble and people are interpreting and performing it, and you as a listener have a fairly large space to roam. You can wonder about the performance, you can notice how the players are doing, you can concentrate on the way the music goes, you can do all kinds of things. You’re in a fairly comfortable position to have a good relation to the music.
Parenthetically, I feel that listening to music is an intensely interactive process. When you listen to a piece of music, you’re constantly negotiating deals with the piece. You’ve got this chatter going on in your brain, and the piece is telling you something, you’re working on what the piece is telling you and it’s coming back and telling you something else and you’re going back and dealing with it, and so on. This is why I have real questions about the notion of “interactive” composition. I think music is interactive to start with, reading a book is interactive, all these things are intensely interactive.
Now, if instead of a string quartet playing up on the stage you have sound coming out of a loudspeaker, you’ve got a real problem because you’re being confronted directly with the composer’s voice. In other words, you’ve got a situation in which you’re listening at very close range to what the composer is saying. Typically, people find tape music in concerts very exhausting to listen to. My sense of the reason for this is, very often, [the listener has] very little space to maneuver. They’ve got very little room to tinker with the experience, they’re actually being confronted by the composer’s voice directly.
So there’s no question of interpretation…
There’s no question of interpretation, but as a listener you’re being shouted at, in a sense.
My take on what I’ve been trying to do over the years is to create in the piece itself a space that the listener can use to maneuver. This is all sort of “Monday-morning quarterbacking,” because I didn’t calculate this before I went in to doing these pieces. I just tried to respond to what I thought was going to make an interesting piece. I think that what I’ve been trying to do is to engage a lot of things in pieces which make it more comfortable for people to deal with the piece, and to give them room to walk around.
For example, one thing that I’ve done a lot of is composing a fairly complicated texture, like in my Idle Chatter pieces [Idle Chatter, just_more_idle_chatter, and Notjustmoreidlechatter are available on Bridge CD 9050 “More Than Idle Chatter”], in which there’s not any one thing in particular that you’re supposed to listen to; there’s not a lead tune. So instead what happens is that you’re put in a position where you can browse up and down the spectrum, and there’s not one thing that you have to listen to. Also, the textures are fairly complex, so that the kinds of things that you will do will very often not be easy to parse. They’ll be seemingly easy to parse, but essentially they’re kind of difficult. In the Idle Chatter pieces dancers have had a terrible time because it seems rhythmic and perfectly obvious, but as soon as they try to figure out how to count the thing, everything falls apart, and they have had very little luck in doing it.
Another thing that I’ve done that sort of gives the listener room to maneuver is to create textures which have a lot to do with the sense that the loudspeakers themselves are windows into a larger space. The traditional notion of recording, for example, is that what you have is an archive of an event that actually existed, that the sounds themselves originated by some physical action. The notion of sound as abstracted from any physical action is a fairly new one. That’s what leads people to describe early electronic music as outer-space music. What I’ve tried to do is to create a sense that the sounds that are coming out [of the loudspeaker] have some relation to a physical action, for example, speech. Another thing that I’ve done a number of pieces with is to use people actually playing instruments, and actually playing familiar kinds of music. In a sense, the loudspeakers themselves are not the actual instruments, but the loudspeakers are kind of windows into an environment in which somebody is able to perceive things occurring that have a kind of physical correlate.
Another thing that I’ve tried to do in pieces, and this is something I’m increasingly interested in now, is to create a kind of ambiguity so that you’ve got to actually do some work in order to figure out what’s going on. The first piece [in which] I actually succeeded in doing this is called Now and Then [Bridge BCD 9035], which just consists of phrases from children’s stories. When people listen to this piece they hear something that sounds like it should be a story, but they don’t hear the story, they just hear some connecting phrases. As a listener, you’ve got to actually go in and pick apart things and make associations. I’m trying to engage a kind of interactive sense in the listener. These are all things that I didn’t plan. I didn’t say, “A-ha! What I’m going to do is such-and-such, in order to do such-and-such!” But as I look back, I think essentially what I’ve been trying to do is to create a space for the listener to move around, with respect to the piece. This is particularly because these things are on tape and because they are not performed by people, in a sense I am the performer.
I think that a lot of really powerful electronic music pieces, which can really knock you out, are in a sense very oppressive, and almost abusive in a way.
“Knock you out” meaning…
Well, you know, just impress you with all kinds of “zingo” sounds that swirl around the room and shatter your ears, and do all kinds of things to you. It’s sort of a real macho view of things. Those are fun, but what happens to me is that I just find myself backing away because I don’t have any room to interact with the piece, I’m being told what to do. There’s also a kind of paradox that has to do with the way in which a lot of us are trying construct a new model of what musical continuity and musical discourse is all about.
What would you say is “the venue” for your music? Do you purposely conceive of it to be played in concert hall, at home, or does it not matter?
I don’t think that the venue matters as much as the overall context. If you take one of my pieces and you try to play it as the seventh piece on a whole concert of electronic music, I think it’s going to essentially fall flat. On the other hand, we’ve done a number of concerts around here where we’ve mixed computer pieces and instrumental pieces, and you can do it really nicely so that you get a flowing sense of one thing rolling into another.
What I like a lot is putting pieces out on CD, so that people can use them any way they want. I know dancers have used them, and I just got a royalty check from Public Television because they used one of my pieces as the background music to something called The Sports Connection. [Laughter] I haven’t the slightest idea what they did with it, but I was perfectly satisfied. One of my pieces was used as the ambient sound of the opening of a jazz festival in Zurich a couple of years ago. And somebody who runs an alternative rock and roll magazine in Minnesota got very excited about my recent CD, and she likes to put in her Walkman listen to it on the bus.
I would say that I have no sense of any kind of sanctity about the way in which it is to be used, but there are certainly contexts in which it’s going to be awkward, and contexts in which it’s going to well used.
A few of the things you mentioned earlier still play a important part in who you are now. In a sense you’re still performing.
And also talking about controlling the technical aspects, and becoming your own best expert, that’s still a part of making tape music. Now what about writing for acoustic instruments? Do you still interested in doing that?
I have, usually kicking and screaming. It’s happened several times that some performers say “Hey, we’d love to commission you to write a piece for tape and our instruments.” And I say “Oh, alright. That’s not my favorite combination… but I’ll listen.” So then they apply and they don’t get the grant [to fund the commission], so then I do the piece anyway, but without the tape [Chuckle]. Because I essentially don’t enjoy doing pieces for instruments and tape, although I’m still open to the idea, I haven’t been that good at it.
I did a piece entitled Hop recently for Marimolin, a marimba and violin duo, which they’ve recorded very nicely [Marimolin, Combo Platter. BMG/Catalyst 62667-2] and performed all over the place. I just heard them do it last week in New York and they just creamed it, and it was great!
I think in order to write instrumental music, it’s like anything else, you’ve really got to do a lot of it and get experience at it. I don’t think I’ve spent that much time over the years doing it, so it’s difficult for me. When it works, it works okay. Marimolin loves this piece, but I was very fortunate because the marimba player lives here in town. I must have gone over to her house eight or nine times and showed her things, and every time I’d go over there then I’d throw it out.
My whole relation to composition is I basically have to have feedback, in terms of sound. I’m not a good abstract, pencil- and-paper composer. I’ve really got to sit in a room and have sound coming at me, and then sort of punch it and do things with it. [Mocks internal dialogue] “That sounds better?” “Okay…”, and that’s really what I love about doing tape music. My happiest moments have been just sitting in my room at home, playing something and saying “Well, how can I make this a little better?” Then I tweak something, and “Yes!” And finally after a day’s work you get something that sounds great.
I’ve always been very frustrated putting notes down on paper because it takes so much time to do. I think that if you’re going to write for instruments, you’ve really got to hear it a lot and work with players.
What are your views on the future of live music?
People are always going to play instruments and sing and shout. That’s just part of being human. I don’t think anyone should have any fear that somehow computers are going to replace humans. There was a period, I guess we’re coming back from it now, when a lot of musicians were being put out of work by machines. Essentially, I think we discovered that machines were not that good substitutes for people.
I don’t think that somehow we’re going to see, a generation from now, people who just don’t play instruments. Take the guitar, for example. If you walk along Forty-Seventh Street [in Manhattan], or you go to any music store and there are guitars all over the place. All of a sudden you see three or four guys in there (usually men at this point, but I think women are getting involved, too), and they pull down the guitar off the rack and they play incredibly. The level of guitar playing in the world at this point is just astounding, and the nice thing about the guitar is that you can get up to speed fairly fast. There are all kinds of great players out there who are doing wonderful things.
I think we will see more automation in live performance, in a sense. You already do see it with a lot of guitar effect boxes, and MIDI studio type things. You see lots of kinds of things where people are using machines in a variety of ways.
I don’t think, in the long run, that technology is going to force the issue by virtue of being technology. People are ultimately not going to be interested in the fact that something is done on a computer, and already that’s happening. “Computer Music” as such is becoming a dead issue and in effect what I’ve been working towards for a few years is “the death of Computer Music”.
I would really like to see us reach a point where the fact that something is made on a computer is just totally uninteresting to anybody out there. You already see it in popular music. My stuff still sometimes ends up in the computer music bin [at record stores], although I try to avoid it. But Peter Gabriel’s stuff doesn’t end up in the computer music bin, and his use of computers is much more sophisticated than mine. He probably spends much more on hardware than I do, and I’m sure the number of CPU’s in his studio is twenty-times the number in mine.
You briefly mentioned MIDI. What’s the relationship between MIDI and your music?
I’ve been very unhappy about MIDI. I’ve used MIDI on a couple of occasions for gesture capture. I did one piece which was kind of a real-time version of my piece ‘Smalltalk’, which was sort of a voice activated system. The thing I don’t like about MIDI is the musical situation that it puts you in with respect to timbre. In the piece that I did, which was called Talk Show, you basically speak into a microphone and it activates all kinds of stuff. The piece works best when you turn the gain up and let the thing improvise on it’s own output. That sort of worked well as a nice installation.
What I really disliked about MIDI was the way in which timbre and physical action are detached. I don’t like the way that you arbitrarily link a patch and a note. Anybody who has worked a lot with MIDI would say “That’s obviously not the way I think about it.” But I think the basic structure of [MIDI] — in as much as it is arbitrary with respect to timbre — leads you to thinking about things in a rudimentary way, so that what you do is you compose the music, then you orchestrate it. It’s almost a really primitive view of orchestration, at least that’s my take on it. So, I haven’t been that pleased with MIDI synthesizers and I haven’t got that involved with them. You know, they’re fun and you can do a lot with them.
I think what we are going to ultimately see, and we’re very seeing it somewhat right now, is a merging of software and MIDI, so a lot of the things that you do on a MIDI keyboard, for example, will be able to be done in software. There’s a company that’s coming out with a child’s game next Christmas that does a gigaflop worth of processing. If you realize that the DX7 is a 25 mps machine, the difference is a huge amount of processing You could have five hundred DX7s being synthesized in real time on one of these machines.
Along the same lines, what changes in technology over the last fifteen years have most profoundly affected your work? Perhaps, where do you see that going in the future?
The thing that has most directly affected me was the availability of cheap workstations. The fact that the prices just keep going down, so that now you can get for the price of a cheap used car, what used to be the price of a Mercedes Benz, what before that was the price of a fairly expensive house, and before that was a couple of million dollars worth of things.
In the early and mid-eighties I used to really feel terrible. I would go around to schools and play things for people that I had done on a two million dollar machine, and show them what could be done, but there was no way in which they could do it. One of the things I liked about MIDI was the democratization of the field, so that anybody could set up a studio fairly cheaply.
The drop in prices has been the most sensational thing, and the increase in speed has certainly allowed us to contemplate kinds of processing that we wouldn’t have even considered years ago. People now routinely do convolution of sounds, which is fairly time consuming, but in the old days that would have taken two days and now you can do it in a few minutes. Just in the past four years we’ve seen a speed-up of almost two orders of magnitude in computers. Going from 68030 NeXt Machines to a 90 MHz Pentium, basically that’s about a hundred fold increase. At the same, the cost has dropped by a factor of ten, so you’ve had a two fold increase in the order of magnitude of computational ability, and a one order of magnitude decrease in cost.
Now you can get a gigabyte disk for eight hundred dollars. We spent twenty-eight thousand dollars for about six hundred megabytes a few years ago, and it wasn’t too long ago that people were spending a million dollars just for one megabyte of memory. You were probably practicing piano really hard at that point. [Chuckles]
That kind of acceleration has not been matched by musical developments. Music has moved much more slowly, but I think that’s the way that music works. Music does not move at the speed of technology, music moves at the speed of human development. I would say that essentially there’s probably not all that much difference between computer music today and computer music twenty years ago. I think that we’re doing things in a more complicated way, and we’re experimenting with things and not so interested in the “sci-fi” aspects anymore. The technological aspects are not knocking us out so much anymore, and the fact that it’s done on a computer is not making that much difference.
Essentially the use of computers to make music is still in its infancy. It’s really not a mature field at all, and I don’t think there is any reason why you would expect it to be. People didn’t learn to write for the piano in thirty years. If you just look at the difference between Scarlatti and Chopin (what’s that, a period of about eighty, ninety years?), that’s a really interesting development. Even Scarlatti to Beethoven, which is a period of fifty years. Things moved more slowly back then, but still I don’t think that music is ever going to move at speeds which are comparable to what you see in science. It’s just not the nature of the thing. The way we listen develops very slowly.
Actually, a really good measure of this is to look at what’s happened in recording technology. Recording technology is now a hundred years old. It’s gotten significantly better, particularly in the last couple of years, although there’s still a lot of things that have to be worked out. Still, what people use recording for is fairly similar to what they were using recording for forty or fifty years ago. Basically the market is being driven by a lot of recordings of things that have the appearance of records of live performances. It’s less true in popular music, but it’s still the case that these things move slowly.
I would say that maybe fifty years from now we’ll be able to assess how things have developed, but I don’t think things have moved all that much, although people disagree with me.
An easy ones to finish up: What’s on the table? What are you working on now?
Umm… I’d prefer not to describe what I’m working on. [Chuckles] The last thing I did was a very interesting project. I did a piece for Tim Brady, who is a Canadian guitarist, for electric guitar and tape. The tape part is essentially a seventeen minute, wacky drum track, and the guitar part is entirely improvised.
Nothing is written down?
That’s right, nothing. I didn’t even tell him anything! When I first started to do it, I realized, as I started to try to figure out how I was going to write for guitar, nothing I could ever do would come near what an electric guitarist could make up on the spot. So, it’s kind of a collaborative composition. It’s really interesting to me, because it opens up an interesting space for the way in which people interact. I’m sort of building a studio in which he plays, or another way to look at it is I’m doing the soundtrack for his movie, or he’s doing the soundtrack for my movie. The two components really interact. A lot of people have been interested in doing this piece. It’s gotten an interesting reaction.
What’s the name of this piece?
The piece is called Dancetracks. Right now, I’m working on a couple of things but I’d prefer not… If I describe them, then I’ll have to know how I want to think about them. So…
Soundout was an early online website about new music coordinated by Jason Uechi, who did the interview with Paul Lansky.