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Interview with Eric Lyon

Strap-On Classical: The Beat is Back

Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #218, 24 July 1999. In the WGDR studio. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:31:34–1:40:25].

Eric Lyon is a composer and developer of computer music software. He is co-developer of FFTease, and developer of the LyonPotpourri objects for Pd and MaxMSP. His recent compositional output includes works for the Smith Quartet, NeXT Ens., Kathleen Supové, and a Trio for flute, clarinet and computer commissioned for the opening of the NOVARS research centre at Manchester University. Lyon has taught computer music at Keio University, The International Academy of Media Arts and Sciences (IAMAS), Dartmouth College, and the University of Manchester, before joining the School of Music and Sonic Art at Queen’s University Belfast. Lyon’s current compositional work focuses on computer chamber music, spatial orchestration and articulated noise.

[Kalvos] Today’s theme is “the beat is back,” and we’ve got Eric Lyon here, hi Eric!

Eric Lyon
Eric Lyon. Photo © Kalvos & Damian.

[Eric Lyon] Hello.

[K] Welcome to the show. We’re really, really glad to have you here. So, you’re the professor now at Dartmouth, and you’re kind of an unlikely professor. We’ve played some of your stuff on the show before, and we never saw professors jumping out of that music.

[EL] Well, this has been one of my life’s cherished goals. From when I was four or five years old, I always said, “I want to be a professor at a good university.”

[K] And you went to school where? How did you get into composing? We’re going to hear some of your music, and it is really very diverse and unusual. You called it conservative, and in some respects we can talk about it as that, but in others, quite not. So, how did you get into it?

[EL] Well, I fell into it. I became very enamoured of the music of Paul Hindemith when I was about 11, and started buying Hindemith records. Shortly after that, it occurred to me that, “Well this is so much fun, why shouldn’t I do it too?” So I just started composing some pieces. I studied violin since I was about five, so I started writing pieces for two violins, and after a while I decided I could write for other things too. So I just kept on doing it, and that was pretty much it. So, I was doing instrumental music since I was about 11, and when I got to college, I was at Princeton, where they have quite a bit of computer music and have for quite a while.

[K] Yeah, it’s one of the original sources, the famous Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Studios.

[EL] That’s right, with Bell Labs. As a New Jersian, I’m very proud to recall at any time that computer music was invented in New Jersey. … After I left Princeton, I went to Eastman, and that’s where I really got into computer music.

[K] Eastman’s kind of a band school.

[EL] A band school? Because of Frederick Fennell, right?

[K] Yeah.

[EL] Right, and Howard Hanson. Well, the story going around Eastman was that one of Howard Hanson’s proudest achievements was not giving Bartók a job when he looked for it. Because it was a little bit too avant-garde for him, and we definitely have the example of professors there telling students not to play contemporary student works. But in many ways, that was quite good, because at most of the places I’ve gone, people have been pretty apathetic to contemporary music, I mean, they could take it or leave it. But at Eastman, there was a block of resistance, and of course, that made us try to be as obnoxious about it as possible. Of course, the best way to get people to do something is to tell them not to do it, so the professors who were telling students not to play our music were doing us a big favour. There were a few people I hooked up with, Paul Reller and Robert Constable and a few others. Todd Levin we talked about earlier. We just started doing things that were fun for us, and part of what was fun for us was experimenting with sound on computer. So I got into computer music that way and never really lost the interest for it.

[K] But in a lot of what you do, and we’ll hear a variety of things, is not what you would classify as the kind of grandfatherly kind of computer music, of noises. Now, we do have a couple of examples of stuff. We have one that is entirely opposite from that, which is a piece you wrote for Margaret Lancaster, and we also have something from a CD called Red Velvet, and they’re about as different as you get. We’re going to hear both of those, but give us a preface to, first of all, this one piece you wrote for Margaret Lancaster called Heavy Rotation, and then give us a little talk about the piece from Red Velvet, so we can hear them one against the other.

[EL] Heavy Rotation was the second piece I wrote for Margaret for percussion and flute. The first was Double Globe, and it was basically named after a brand of heroin that was very popular in Vietnam during the war. Actually it’s Double U-O Globe, but I really liked the sound of “Double Globe,” because it seemed like a vaguely sexual term, so anyhow, I thought that because it was a duo, it would be a good name. It had absolutely nothing to do with the music itself. I took the melody from a pop song I had written earlier called Girl in a Wheelchair and basically submitted that to a series of variations. That piece was really a much more sort of serious academic piece, and for Heavy Rotation, I really wanted to use pop music techniques, and apply them to basically new complexity sounds.

[K] Yeah, explain briefly about new complexity, because you were a student of Brian Ferneyhough.

[EL] That’s correct. The idea of new complexity, I think at first, was a few English composers in the 70s, who were really annoyed with the fact that nobody wanted to play their music…

[K] That would be Ferneyhough, Richard Barrett, and…

[EL] Yeah, probably Ferneyhough and maybe Michael Finnissy. Barrett is a bit younger, although of course, he was in that school later. They said, “Well, okay, if you’re not going to play our music anyway, we’re going to write unplayable music, and we’re going to write deliberately ridiculously unplayable music, and of course, as soon as you do that, it becomes a challenge, and people go out of their way to try and play it. So after that, of course, a critic came up with the name “new complexity.” Of course, if you’re going to be doing anything important, it has to be “new.” So it was complex, and it was new… Anyhow, while I studying with Brian, I came up with a few genres of my own. One was “new complexity lite,” which is to use the new complexity style, and superimpose a disco beat. The idea being that actually that was more complex than new complexity, because it had all of the complexity of new complexity, but it also had the multiplicity of having a disco beat, and also all of this weird stuff happening on top of it.

But then I got into another idea that I liked a lot better, which is the “new sensitivity”. [K laughter] Because I felt that in academic music people were just too into techniques, and I was really very interested in techniques. I really like the idea of technique as something that makes music really cold and unemotional, and forbidding. When I got into it, I mean, that was very appealing to me but I thought that part of reinventing yourself, keeping yourself fresh and essentially, manufacturing yourself as a composer personality has to do with reinventing yourself. So after I had pushed myself to the extremes of cold, forbidding, intellectual academic music, I decided to discover that I had emotion too. And that was when I invented the new sensitivity.

[K] You decided to discover, this is good.

[EL] Yes! So I discovered that, and of course, whenever I would have a new genre, which would usually be every one or two pieces or so that I composed when I was in San Diego, I would have a manifesto that would be part of the program, announcing my new style. More recently, I’d been involved in what I called “Strap-On Classical music.” Strap-On Classical was based on the sort of post-modern idea that all these different genres are out there, and in a sense, you’re not so much making a pastiche as you’re putting something on. And of course, you could say, “Well, you’re putting on a mask,” but it didn’t feel that way when I was composing, so I wanted to have something that would be more expressive of the compositional process. “Strap-On Classical” really seemed to capture it for me. Even though I started out as a classical music composer, writing classical music now was essentially a strap-on operation. But that’s more recent.

Going back to Heavy Rotation, the idea was to adopt some of the techniques of pop music. In particular, I wanted to adopt the idea of a hook. The idea of a hook, of course, is that in order to make something stick in your mind, so that you want to buy the album, you have to use the Wagnerian leitmotif idea. You just have a very small idea, and you just repeat it over and over again. My idea was to use that technique, but as an experiment, since of course I have to consider myself an experimental composer, if the classical musicians are going to take me seriously.

[K] Yes, and if you’re to stay a professor.

[EL] Well, that’s another issue altogether. [K laughter] I think as far as the former issue, as they say, “we’re well beyond that now,” the latter remains to be seen. But the experiment was: what if you apply the idea of the hook to absolutely unmemorable, unlistenable, totally complex and unrepeatable music? I was also inspired by a quote that Brian Ferneyhough told me about. When [Irvine] Arditti was playing through Ferneyhough’s violin concerto he said, “It’s a very good thing that there were no repeats in this piece.” Because of course, he would have played it totally different a second time. So I thought that I’ll make a little snippet of new complexity material, and it’ll just keep coming back over and over again, and that’s the only thing that’s going to repeat, and everything else in the piece would be so transparent and inane, that it would in a sense provide a good backdrop for it. That’s basically the story of Heavy Rotation, other than that it’s the first instrumental piece I wrote in Japan, so I tried to give it a bit of an Eastern feel by using a woodblock and a bass drum.

We listen to Heavy Rotation by Eric Lyon, performed by: Margaret Lancaster, flute; Paul Reller, percussion [0:44:50–0:51:50].

[K] Tell us about Psychedelic Relapse from your CD, Red Velvet.

[EL] Well, it’s kind of an imaginary. I’ve never really taken any psychedelic drugs ever, so I just tried to imagine what would happen if you had a relapse from an experience that you never had. But more technically speaking, it’s a kind of second-order refuse, or detritus, because this piece was basically written with a bunch of other computer music pieces that you have on Red Velvet, put out by my company, which is Smart Noise Records. We’ve put out one record so far, and I think we’ve sold about 25 copies. Doing quite well. But actually I’m expecting to maybe sell another 25 copies, because there’s allegedly going to be an article in Pulse! Magazine of Tower records that’s going to have some mention of the CD.

We listen to Psychedelic Relapse by Eric Lyon [0:55:05–0:59:05].

[K] Sounded psychedelic to me.

[Damian] I’ll say, I was tripping myself.

[EL] Were you feeling gamma rays?

[D] Gamma raves.

[K] You were suggesting we should have some raves up here, you thought this was sort of a quaint area for raves.

[EL] Oh, absolutely. As a matter of fact, just invite me up any time, and I’ll bring three or four new music afficionados.

[K] Three or four’s enough for a rave.

[EL] We’ll play some Milton Babbitt, and put on some break beats on behind it, I think it’d be fun.

[K] You collaborated with the other composer we played a little bit of earlier, Erik Belgum.

[EL] Erik Belgum is the greatest writer of the 20th century so naturally, as the greatest composer of the 20th century, I would be drawn to collaborate with him. It’s sort of like Mozart and Merisant, or whoever he worked with.

[K] You’ve done two chamber operas, and a third coming up?

[EL] Yeah, the third is coming up. Everyone I’ve described the synopsis to has been so revolted, that we’re wondering if maybe it’s more than our audience can take.

[D] I guess you’ll have to tell us about it, then.

[EL] Basically, in the second opera, which we’re going to hear a selection from, the insane drill sergeant is audited by Satan, by Lucifer, the bringer of light, and loses all his money. His wife makes fun of him and henpecks him the whole time. But he still wants to have some wars… I mean, it’s his job. He decides the best place to have wars is in Central America, so he’s going to go down there and start some wars, but then he realizes he doesn’t have any money. You can’t have a war without any money. That’s why we have the whole thing about the audit, causing problems. He’s audited, doesn’t have any money, can’t have a war. So he has this great idea for how to get the money: he’s going to start a chain of abortion clinics in Central America, take the fetal issue and then sell it on the black market to North America. Especially to aging politicos with degenerative brain illnesses, like Parkinson’s.

[K] You proposed this…

[EL] I proposed this recently, and…

[K] It didn’t get a great reception at Dartmouth?

[EL] Well, the person I proposed it to, I could just see the eyes glazing over, and sort of the looking over your head, and…

[K] Where did the glazing begin? What phrase did you use, that…

[EL] I think it was the chain of abortion clinics… and the fetal tissue… Well, when I told her that there were some dance segments — there were two fetus dances already, but I had requested that we have a pro-life square dance at the end for the two fetuses, the priest, and little Jimmy Watkins, the newspaper boy — that’s when she told me that it really was not the sort of thing they were looking for.

There you go. Anyhow, one of the reasons we were inspired to go ahead with the second opera… I think we maybe sold 5 or 10 copies of the first opera, and this was after our… we had a couple different sales techniques. Erik Belgum, really, came up with them. One is you suggest to sell the CD to someone, and they say, “How much is it?” And you say, “Ten dollars.” If there’s any hesitation at all, you say, “No! Five dollars.” Any more, “Two dollars.” And you say, “No,” and you give it away. The other thing is that we were planning to sell them with the wrapping still on, to used CD stores for, like, $1.50. [K, D laughter]Well, anyhow, the thing that made us really want to go ahead with the second opera, is that Erik got an email from this scientist in France, who had gotten his hands on the first retirement fund opera, and totally loved it, it was his favourite thing. He was listening to it over and over again, and Erik said, “How did you ever get your hands on this CD?” And he said, “Oh, I found it in the garbage outside of our building.” [General laughter]

[K] Where it was thrown by Charles Amirkhanian.

[EL] Well, I was thinking maybe, maybe Erik found an even better way to distribute our work.

[K] Yeah, absolutely. Throw new CDs into garbage cans, so people say, “They can’t throw that away, it’s brand new!

We listen to They’re Sucking Us Dry, and Three Strangers from The Audit by Eric Lyon and Erik Belgum [1:04:45–1:09:20].

[K] We just had a caller who said, “That’s really The Kinks, right?”

[EL] Well, that’s a really great compliment. I mean, The Kinks, as I recall, we able to sing in tune.

[D] Well, I think that…

[K] Well, yeah, but here we have Professor Eric Lyon himself on vocals and bass.

[D] Oh, we need more historical context. What can we hear next?

[EL] Well, how about Thalidomind?

[D] Tell us about this, and what brought this on.

[EL] Actually, nothing much really. This is one of my most boring pieces.

[D] Boring? Yes, do explain.

[K] [Laughter] We don’t play boring pieces on the red alert for new music, you know.

[EL] That’s right, but I mean, since you have me on, you really don’t have much choice. Well, this just happened for the Bonk Festival, which is something I do with my friends out in Tampa every year, we got ourselves a wind ensemble. So we all wrote pieces, and I wanted to try my hand at writing some large ensemble music, since it’d been a long time since any large groups of musicians would get within ten feet of a score of mine, so I decided to just have some fun, and be sort of like the genie in the bottle who finally gets out, and takes a instant revenge on the people who let him out of the bottle, in a sense. I had this idea of performer verification. You know, it’s really fascinating. At the same time that there’s what’s called “historically-informed performances,” where people rebuild harpsichords and try to figure out exactly what pitch…

[K] The natural horns were used, and…

[EL] Yeah, these totally mediocre pieces from the 17th century, you know, how they were supposed to be played, and they put all these energy into it. Most people just kind of fake their way through new music pieces, and so finally, I had enough of this. Around this time I was working on the Strap-on Classical manifesto, and I came up with a technique called performer verification. Basically, the idea of performer verification is that no matter what happens, the composer comes off looking great, but if the performer makes a mistake, the performer looks like a chump.

[K] Yeah, Margaret Lancaster actually described this to us during her interview, about how you kind of dropped that on her head.

[EL] Right. Anyhow, performer verification, I had been using that for a few years. So I decided then, in Thalidomind, what I would use is artificial performer verification. Artificial performer verification is that if the performer performs the piece correctly, they also look like a chump. [K, D laughter] That’s basically what it is, so why don’t we spin it and see what happens?

We listen to Thalidomind by Eric Lyon [1:12:28–1:21:45].

[D] Boy, you just don’t hear music like that on the radio anymore.

[K] No-sirree, I certainly did like that lost double-reed player there, just waitin’ for the rest of the group to pounce! [General laughter] That’s a revenge piece, you said?

[EL] I wouldn’t call it a “revenge piece” exactly, I would call it more “instant gratification orchestration.”

[K] I’m sure there are people listening who are thinking, “Well, he’s got all these skills, why is trying to be funny so much?”

[EL] I don’t think that’s funny, do you?

[D] Well, I guess not.

[K] [Laughter] No, my sides hurt for some other reason, I’m sure.

[EL] Well, I don’t know, I just try to write music that cracks me up a little bit.

[K] Too much seriousness in the world of [“serious” voice] contemporary music.

[EL] Oh, but we’ll try to end with a serious piece, though.

[K] Alright.

[D] This is one of your academic influences?

[EL] No, this is pre-academic. This is my, sort of, last chance to write a really nasty electronic piece before joining the club.

[K] [Laughter] Well, we have time for a couple more pieces, so let’s do Bonko Bonzo. How did that one come about? We played that, gosh, must be three or four times on the show so far, and it’s a lot of fun.

[EL] Well, there’s not much to the story. There was a two-piano group at UC San Diego, and they said, “Write us a piece,” and it was the dumbest title I could come up with.

[K] But it’s not a dumb piece.

[EL] Well, I mean, compared to my other pieces maybe. It’s pretty dumb. The only thing I’d say is that it’s a strict twelve-tone piece. The reason for that is because I was in Amsterdam at the time. Basically, it’s a twelve-tone piece, but I decided to improve upon the usual twelve-tone techniques, because usually you can’t tell whether the tone row is going right side up or right side down. Basically what I do is that if the tone row is going right side up, I double it in major triads, and if it’s going upside down, I double it in minor triads.

[K] Just what we need, triads in twelve-tone music, that’s what it’s for. [Laughter]

[EL] Yeah, that’s what it is for. It’s a way to extend the tonal hegemony of Germany for the next hundred years, or whatever Schönberg is hoping. So I thought I’d just give him a little assist after it became an obsolete technique. So that’s Bonzo for you.

We listen to Bonko Bonzo by Eric Lyon, played by the Thump piano duo: Drew Krause and Paul Marquardt [1:24:49–1:38:35].

[K] From the piano duo CD available from Frog Peak Music. Eric Lyon, we have got no time left, we have one piece to play, if you’ll give us 30 seconds of… we’ll time you.

[EL] So we’re going to listen to, I think, 1981. This is the last electronic piece I composed in Japan, and it’s really the only sort of quasi-serious piece that we’re going to hear. It’s sort of looking at America from another place, so there’s stuff about Viagra, and the bombings in Iraq, and you know, just all kinds of fun things. So, we’ll just let you throw it on and see how you like it.

[K] Okay! Thanks Eric Lyon, for being our guest today, we hope you can get you back, since you’re nearby and a professor now. We’ll have to postpone our declining look at the music of the 20th century, because we don’t have time for it, so here it is.

We listen to 1981 by Eric Lyon [1:40:25–02:02:00].

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