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Interview with Larry Polansky

Family Values Day

Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #32, 30 December 1995. In the WGDR studio, also with guest Jody Diamond. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [1:05:39–1:58:52].

Larry Polansky is a composer, theorist, performer, teacher, writer, editor and publisher. He is the Strauss Professor of Music at Dartmouth College, where he also teaches in the graduate program in electroacoustic music. Prior to moving to New Hampshire, he worked at the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music Center as staff and faculty. He is one of the three co-authors (with Phil Burk and David Rosenboom) of the widely used computer music language HMSL, and has written a great deal of other musical software. His music has been recorded, performed, reviewed and written about widely, and his articles and writings have appeared in numerous publications, on diverse topics including theory, computer music, and American music. He is the co-founder and co-director of Frog Peak Music (A Composers’ Collective), the founding editor of the Leonardo Music Journal, and works actively with other musical journal and institutions.

[Kalvos] Larry has joined us, Jody [Diamond] has taken the other seat in front of the computer console, and we’re about to have… and there it is!

[Jody Diamond] Ready for the quiz?

[K] We have a guest-initiated quiz on the the Kalvos & Damian show together!

Larry Polansky (centre), flanked by Damian (left) and Kalvos (right)
Larry Polansky (centre), flanked by Damian (left) and Kalvos (right). Photo © Kalvos & Damian.

[Larry Polansky] Now, we can’t hear during this, so…

[JD] Well, I can change to a different filter, and we’ll see how different they are.

[LP] Should I explain what we’re listening to? This is a piece of kids’ computer music software I wrote about a week ago. It’s called Anna’s Music Box, and this is a setting that I call a kind of a bonehead gamelan, in deference to my wife. It’s a little music box that kids can play with and change the sounds, and it runs on a Macintosh. I discovered I could make it sound kind of like a crummy gamelan pretty easily, so I did that for Jody, just to annoy her. Well actually, I should thank Jody and my daughter Anna, who helped me beta test this at home over a couple of days. What Jody’s doing now shows you can change the moods, which are basically just scales in the program, you can switch between different scales. It just noodles in different scales in lots of different ways. Now it’s making these sort of farting sounds. So I guess the quiz is to guess what scale we’re in in a given moment?

[K] [Laughter] Yes, well… I don’t know, I have not a clue. Maybe you do. 454-7762, that’s 1-802-GLIP-SOB, give us a call and tell us what… well, you want to re-iterate that quiz again?

[LP] Shouldn’t be giving something away, though?

[K] We always give something away, we have a prize.

[LP] Could we give David away?

[Damian] I’m available.

[K] [Laughter] Damian is available for a New Year’s Eve date, as long as you go to Burlington and go hear Ahmed Lives in Istanbul and Drives a Taxi, a new composition that will be premiered by the what?

[D] I’d rather not go into that.

[K] On New Year’s Eve. But back to the quiz! Please call us and identify the…

[LP] Scale. I don’t think there’s a setting for Lydian scale in there, but I’ll put one in.

We listen to a live Mac Powerbook performance of Anna’s Music Box, software by Larry Polansky [1:08:23–1:09:10].

[K] Are you making this software available?

[LP] Yeah, it’s going to be available on the web, it’s freeware. It will soon be in its first major installation in Mrs. Burgeon’s kindergarten class in Lebanon, where I’m hoping to have some very expert beta testers.

[K] Trying to break it for you? Break that software.

[LP] [Laughter] Yeah, they all signed non-disclosure agreements.

[K] [Laughter] Where will we find it? Will we find it at the Bregman Studios?

[LP] No, it’ll be on my website, as soon as I get it together, it’ll be free. And it’s guaranteed, it doesn’t have any bugs. It doesn’t do anything.

[K] It’s guaranteed!? What do they get back?

[LP] They get their money back. They get David. [General laughter] But it’s a lot of fun. It’s something I’ve always wanted, because our five-year-old daughter likes to play at the computer when I write new software. So I decided to write her something that was really something just for her, and this is that.

[K] Right now it’s sort of quacking at us.

[LP] Well, I can’t do anything about Jody, she’s out of my control. She’s lost around here, she’s not even paying attention to this.

[K] I think she’s given up on us.

[LP] Well maybe we should hear some more, um, goal-oriented music.

[K] Time for that. Well, I have to ask the questions first, so why don’t we listen to this in the background. Larry Polansky, you have arrived into the eastern cold establishment from the west coast, and let’s have a little bit of your background, because I first heard of you when I got some interesting stuff in the mail. I said, “Oh, who is this guy,” so tell us a little bit about who this guy is.

[LP] That must have been one of those obscene letters I was sending out. [Laughter] As you say, I was living in California for about ten years before I came here, which is where Jody and I met. I also worked at Mills College at a place called the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills, which is a venerable old experimental music studio. A lot of wonderful people have been there, and that was a great ten years. Very productive and fertile, and very interesting. Then, we got a great opportunity to come east to teach at Dartmouth, we took it, and we’ve been very happy ever since we’ve been here. It’s also been equally productive. It’s kind of fun to switch coasts and have a whole set of friends on the east coast, and a lot of the people we sort of lost contact with in New York and Boston are now frequent collaborators. Since the theme of this show is sort of collaboration, I thought I’d bring some things I’ve done recently with people here.

[K] Great. Just to sort of remind the listeners who have heard the show, we have played a couple of your pieces. We have played excerpts from The World’s Longest Melody, and B’rey’sheet as well. We’ve played all of that. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous piece.

[LP] That’s Jody singing. That’s our old road piece, that was our gigging piece, we played it at bars.

The first piece I brought is also really hot off the press. This is a collaboration between myself and Daniel Goode, a New York clarinetist and composer, one of my favourite composers. This piece has a kind of a story to it. It also is a compositional collaboration between myself and I Wayan Sadra. When I was living in Indonesia with Jody, Sadra was about our best friend, and I would spend hours and hours talking with him about composition, theory, and whatever. I was commissioned by a choir in Australia to write a piece for them. I decided to do something that involved choir and gamelan, and all kinds of stuff, computer, et cetera. I took a Woody Guthrie tune named Ranger’s Command, which is a great song. It’s kind of unique in Woody Guthrie’s output for its gender instincts: it’s a very interesting tune about a woman warrior. There’s also a very beautiful dance in Central Java that we would see a lot of dancing called the bedhaya, which is also about women warriors. Very slow-moving, formal, just fantastic classical Javanese court dance.

[K] Why do I hear a musical morphing about to happen? [Laughter]

[LP] You’ve got it, my musical reputation precedes me. So, I took the Woody Guthrie tune, I yanked Sadra into my room and I said, “Now, Sadra, here’s the Woody Guthrie tune, now you write one.” It was in pelog, one of the Javanese scales. “Write one that I can morph between,” and he understood what the meant because I was doing a lot of it and was always talking to him, he had so many ideas. So, he wrote a beautiful tune that’s very similar to Ranger’s Command, which is kind of a waltz. The piece was performed a couple of times, and it was performed when we got back from Indonesia by Gamelan Son of Lion in New York, with Jody singing and Dan Goode. Dan is one of the founding members of Gamelan Son of Lion, and at the time he was putting together what he calls his “Interesting Melodies Project,” which is just a set of solo clarinet pieces — not his, but other people’s — which are just melodies. Tom Johnson’s pieces, for example, are part of this, and he really wanted us to do [the bedhaya piece], because it is just a long melody that morphs between Sadra and Guthrie in various ways. So he made a solo clarinet version, which he’s been performing all over the world, just for solo. Recently we had the opportunity to do a collaborative residency at PAS [The Public Access Studio] in New York. There’s a version of this piece I’ve always wanted to do, which was to take Dan’s version for clarinet — which is really his own composition — and combine it with the original gendér part, which is one of the gamelan instruments that I’d always played when we’d done it. Also, three kemanak, which are kind of hand-held metallic-sounding instruments, you’ll hear them. So we actually made a new recording of this piece, kind of a third version of a piece called Bedhaya Sadra/Bedhaya Guthrie, but really Daniel Goode is the co-composer. It’s him on clarinet and me on gendér, and both of us are on kemanak, and the engineer is Alex Noyes from New York, who’s wonderful.

We listen to Bedhaya Sadra/Bedhaya Guthrie by Larry Polansky [1:16:05–1:25:35].

[LP] That’s with Daniel Goode on clarinet. Also, he’s really one of the co-composers, because he sort of takes this giant choral piece and makes into this shorter clarinet version. I guess Jody’s back there noodling, is that right?

[K] She’s back there noodling. Well, as soon as I make sure things are connected, we’ll hear her noodling. [synthesizer] Oh, there she is.

[LP] I wrote this software for five-year-olds, but it turns out that my wife really likes it.

So, when we were thinking about doing the show, it seemed like a fun thing to do to not play stuff that was out on CD and available, but also emphasize the idea of collaborations, because you’ve got Jody and I here, and we collaborate a lot.

[K] How the heck do you do a collaboration, an artistic collaboration, and like each other?

[LP] Oh, don’t… let’s not talk about that. There’s not enough time on this show. This room isn’t big enough.

[JD] We do such different things.

[LP] We do different things, and we do support each other’s work as much as possible. But, you know, the idea of working with your friends and sort of a big family of artists is really important to us. So I thought it’d be fun to bring some of my favourite artists who I collaborate with, and this next one really is one of my two or three favourite composers ever and also one of our best friends, a guy named David Mahler. He lives in Seattle, and is really well-known among composers, especially among experimental American composers, but hasn’t much made it out of the Seattle area, because he doesn’t like to travel. He loves Seattle, and he’s such a warm person and a composer of such high integrity that he doesn’t really promote himself very much. That’s sort of part of his charm. Also part of his charm is that he does a lot of different things, not all of which are readily classifiable as classical music. One of the things he does, for example, is run a big twenties orchestra called the Volunteer Park Conservatory Band, which does Whiteman charts and things like that.

He does tons of things, and one of the things he does most beautifully is songs. He writes songs, and sings them. Some of them are folk songs, and some of them are art songs, and he also performs other peoples’ art songs. Back I guess about ten years ago, David called me and asked if I could come up to Seattle and just simply play on a few of the songs that he was recording. He had got some money together and was recording a few of his songs, and one of the songs — I said yes immediately, because I would do anything with David — is one of Jody’s and my favourite songs, and we sing it all the time. It’s called Elvis is Watching You. So, it’s a pretty good country band up in Seattle playing with David, and I’m playing guitar. David would also used to do the music on a kind of a prairie home companion type show up in Seattle. David and the band from that show — a violinist and a rhythm guitarist — are on this recording. Then, while we were in the studio, we did a second tune of David’s, called Christmas Time of Year. That one is really just David and I and a sax player. I’m playing mandolins and guitars and steel guitar, things like that. So, we’ll hear both of these. David released these as kind of a private cassette single, I guess. There were two different cassette singles with another tune of David’s on the flip side.

[K] They’re definitely private. They have this magic marker written on them. [General laughter]

[LP] Anyway, I love these songs. So I guess first we’ll hear Elvis, then we’ll hear Christmas Time of Year.

[K] Elvis is Watching You first, this is the Saugus Newhall Band. Is that a pick-up name?

[LP] That band was together for about three hours, yeah.

We listen to Elvis is Watching You by David Mahler [1:30:50–1:33:45], followed by Christmas Time of Year by David Mahler [1:34:00–1:38:07].

[K] That last arrangement by Larry Polansky, our 0.5 family values character for today. [Laughter] Well, that was interesting. It was certainly singable… You promised us something serious.

[LP] Well, the third member of our family is not with us, and I thought she could be represented. What we’ll hear now is three very short pieces that are all using my daughter Anna’s voice. They range over about the last two or three years. One of them is actually out on CD, it’s the first thing we played today, that you could actually buy, but I don’t know where you could find it. I call them collectively Three Anna Studies. The first one was made using a recording of her voice when she was six months old, and it’s just one scream, when she was in a very bad mood, as I like to say. The piece, which is only a minute long, is just that scream taken apart and recombined, and et cetera. The second one is called Four Voice Canon #9. This one uses five short vocal sounds, when she was I guess three years old, and none of them are words. There’s a breath, an “eeee,” and things like that. It’s a four-voice canon in the same way all my other four-voice canons are, which I don’t want to go into. [Laughter]

[K] The studio isn’t big enough, as you said, right.

[LP] It’s about four minutes long, and it’s from when she’s two years old. The final one is the most recent piece, and it’s called baa baa birthday have you any star, and it’s based on my daughter Anna’s voice, and also her friend Eleanor’s voice. I recorded them just singing songs to each other, and they were singing songs like Puff the Magic Dragon, Happy Birthday, Baa Baa Black Sheep and Twinkle, Twinkle. Thus the title, those are all the same tune.

[D] A bit exploitive, are these children getting any residual out of this?

[LP] They’re getting union scale. [Laughter] They get credits, yeah, I named her, Eleanor Wilson, who’s the second five-year-old. Most of these pieces use my own software to play around with the sound, and this third one uses some software I wrote which does morphing, like I did with the melody in the other piece, but this morphs sounds, so this third piece, which is only a minute and a half long, works with changing their voices into each other. I thought one of the nice things about it is that when you sing Happy Birthday to someone, you have to say their name. So, when Anna sings it, it’s “Eleanor,” and when Eleanor sings it, it’s “Anna.” The first time Anna sang it, she forgot Eleanor’s name and said, “Happy birthday, dear anyone.” [Laughter] But I eventually got her to say Eleanor’s name, so a lot of it is based on morphing each of them saying each other’s names, into their other names, if that makes any sense. You’ll get the idea. So these are three short pieces, about a minute, about four minutes, and about one and a half minutes.

We listen to Three Anna Studies by Larry Polansky [1:41:53–1:49:27].

[K] Those are really interesting pieces. Tell me about the software. What does this software do? And you wrote the software.

[LP] I should preface it by saying that as long as I’ve been composing, I’ve been writing software for composing, so it’s always been kind of one and the same activity for me, and I have a certain æsthetic about software, which has always been focused around writing my own. “Rolling your own,” that is, if you write your own, you get to kind of have a little control over what happens. But, the first of those three pieces was the first piece I ever did using somebody else’s software, again another collaborative idea, my good friend Tom Erbe, who wrote a program called SoundHack. We’re very close friends and we’ve collaborated on a lot of things, and I said, as a tribute to him, I’ll just use his stuff in a piece, and I did the first piece. In the second piece, I used my own software, HMSL, as the kind of composing engine, and then used SoundHack and another program called CSound, just for a little mixing. But it’s mainly a computer-composed piece (that’s the Four-Voice Canon). So the idea there was kind of a mind-meld between three different pieces of software.

[K] So you use your software much in the manner someone would use an instrument.

[LP] Often I do, kind of as a second brain. Not that I have a good first one, but… [Laughter] The third one is all this mutation software, this sound morphing software, but that’s actually now shareware. It’s part of SoundHack, and you can download it off the web. So there’s nothing used in any of those pieces that’s not basically public domain or shareware.

[K] Jody has given us a new piece here to play, this is Tony Prabawa. Exsperimen Komposisi Karawitan. This is a piece for bass recorders, flute, and a few other instruments that I can’t read off this list.

We listen to Exsperimen Komposisi Karawitan by Tony Prabawa [1:51:57–1:54:55].

[JD] Tony Prabawa is one of the composers I met when I did a year-long survey of Indonesian composers back in 1989. I tracked him down in Jakarta, where he had been doing a lot of film and theatre music. His music is really fantastic, he does a lot of multi-tracking with mixed instruments and voices. I was collecting music from Indonesian composers, so I could inform people about the experiments that were going on there. We sat in his house and dubbed things that he had that he had been working on. Actually, last year he came to Seattle and worked with the Gamelan Pacifica on a big multi-media work for shadow puppets, Balinese gamelan, and Javanese gamelan and dancers, a piece called Visible Religion, which is now out on videotape.

We fade into Visible Religion by Joel Chadabe [1:56:45–1:56:46].

[JD] One of the things that Tony told me when I interviewed him about the challenges facing experimental composers in Indonesia was that it’s fine, if you write music for gamelan you might have a chance to work on a theatre piece, but if you write for Western instruments you really have a lot of trouble getting your music played.

[K] That’s the same for us, what’s new? [Laughter]

We’d like to thank Jody Diamond and Larry Polansky for joining us today on the show, this has been an absolute delight, great pleasure, and all too serious. [Laughter]

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