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[Rediscovered Treasures]

A column by Eldad Tsabary about works from the past that he has recently revisited: an appreciation of both the “classics” and lesser-known works.

Paul Lansky — The Lesson (1989)

Paul Lansky — The Lesson (1989), for computer synthesized tape
Published on GrimTim Music [Bridge Records, 9050CD].

My Rediscovered Treasure this time around is Paul Lansky’s The Lesson, released on his album More Than Idle Chatter [Bridge BCD9050, 1995].

The album comprises six pieces that are all very characteristic of Paul Lansky’s usage of voice as source material for computer processes and in combination with computerized sounds, a technique he uses to breathe human life into the often (audibly) synthetic sound of the computer music medium. Excluding The Lesson, the voice of Lansky’s wife — the actress Hannah MacKay — is the primary sound source in all pieces. Two compositional techniques are most prominently used in this album. The first is a computerized reorganization and layering of vocal fragments into complex unintelligible vocal textures (in the Idle Chatter pieces), and the second is based on a type of cross-synthesis between vocal and synthesized sounds, a process programmed by Lansky in CMIX — a programming language he developed at Princeton in the early 1980s. This cross-synthesis method uses the principles of Linear Predictive Coding (LPC) and phase vocoding to analyze the vowel-determining resonances of a vocal signal (formants) and superimpose them on electronically generated sounds to make them “talk”. These two techniques combined with recorded voice provide this album with an extremely homogenous, yet delicately varied, sound.

The Lesson is of a slower and more relaxed pace than the rest of the album, and like the piece Word Color before it, it uses the same cross-synthesis between electronic sounds and voice, this time the voice of Lansky’s colleague composer J.K. Randall conversing on the differences between Beethoven and Mozart. The texture in The Lesson remains unchanged throughout the piece, with Randall’s conversational tone providing it with rhythm and life. The verbal content is not immediately coherent, although it can be picked up with careful listening. The vocally-morphed electronic sounds are arpeggiated with a timbre reminiscent of a harp. Among all the pieces of the album, the pitch structure and harmonic movement in this piece is the richest, most complex and to my mind the prettiest, and despite the unchanging texture, it provides a significant sense of motion. The piece is a bit on the short side (if you like it…)

Paul Lansky’s website

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