New Albion Records 030 (1990)

The pieces on this recording are concerned with everyday life. Two are about casual conversation and two are about familiar kinds of music. Each tries to create a new view of its subject, to make the familiar into something special, even ideal. In a real sense these pieces are musical documentaries: musical-photographic images and transformations of their subjects.

Sometimes when at the edge of consciousness, perhaps just falling asleep or even day-dreaming, sounds that are familiar will lose their usual ring and take on new meaning. Conversation in particular has this ability to change its nature when one no longer concentrates on the meaning of the words. I remember when I was a child falling asleep in the back seat of a car as my parents chatted up front. I no longer noticed what they were saying but rather heard only the intonations, rhythms and contours of their speech. The 'music' of their talk was familiar and comforting, and as I drifted off it blended in with the noise of the road.

Smalltalk and Late August are musical encapsulations of this kind of experience. For Smalltalk, my wife Hannah MacKay (the voice of many of my other pieces) and I sat down early one August morning and talked for a half an hour, mainly about household concerns. I recorded this conversation, took it to my computer at Princeton (where I teach) and wrote some software which would hide the words we spoke while capturing the rhythms, pitches and contours of our conversation. The process is analogous to blowing up the pixels of a color photograph so that familiar shapes become abstract squares. Against this highly 'quantized' speech, I added a soft, sustained chorus; a place to let your ears rest when listening to the music of the conversation or attempting to hear the words behind it. Smalltalk tries to capture the spirit, emotions and music, behind and within our conversation.

About a year later, I began to wonder how much of the music I found in Smalltalk was related to the musical qualities of spoken English. I wondered what would happen if I tried the same sort of thing with another language, such as Chinese, in which pitch and contour have different meanings. In late August 1989, I asked some young Chinese friends, Hsing-Mean Sha, and Liang-Fang Chao, both graduate students in computer science at Princeton, to do what Hannah and I had done earlier, sit and chat -- but this time in Chinese. I then made a similar composition from their conversation, and tuned my musical choices to their way of talking and their language. The result, Late August, is similar to Smalltalk on the surface, but quite different in substance, as I hoped it would be. Both the spirit of the conversation and the soundworld of the Chinese language led to a very different kind of music.

While Smalltalk and Late August are highly quantized musical photographs of casual conversation, Guy's Harp and Not So Heavy Metal are images of familiar kinds of music. Guy's Harp is a kind of documentary about Guy DeRosa playing blues harmonica. The harmonica is abstracted from its normal associations and placed in a context where the entire universe is culled from harmonica sounds: big harmonicas, small harmonicas, clouds of harmonicas, a double bass harmonica and even a meta-harmonica in which the resonance of a space is tuned to the teeth of his harmonica. Guy's improvisations seed all these passages and form their foundation. In Not So Heavy Metal, rock and roll guitar improvisations by Steve Mackey form the basis of the composition and the piece is more of an attempt to glorify the blazing, whining, intense macho character of a guitar intent on grabbing us by the throat and throttling us, than it is in abstracting qualities of the sound. The computer creates a context, accompaniment and resonance for a guitar characteristically intent in remaining the center of attention -- there is no way he is going to yield center stage. In both pieces the music and performers become larger than life, and what was formerly familiar and easy is now new and unusual.

Technical Information

All the pieces on this recording were created entirely by computer. The original source material was first recorded and then converted into digital form by an analog-digital converter. All subsequent processing, transformation, editing and mixing was done only by computer and exclusively in the digital domain -- no synthesizers, samplers, or effects processors were used. The software used was Paul Lansky's general purpose program Cmix. Guy's Harp was created on an IBM 3081 mainframe, Smalltalk on a DEC MicroVax II and Late August and Not So Heavy Metal on a NeXT computer. The final mix for all four pieces was prepared on a NeXT computer.


A funny thing happened to Paul Lansky on the way to the computer. Originally expecting to be caught up in the search for "new sounds", he instead became much more interested in human sounds and the noise of the world around us. Since the early 70's he has thus been using the computer as a kind of aural microscope on this world-noise. His Six Fantasies on a Poem by Thomas Campion, widely regarded as a landmark work in computer music, takes us on a journey to the inner world of poetry and speech. Idle Chatter and its sister pieces, Just_more_idle_chatter and Notjustmoreidlechatter , make music from the incoherent babble of synthesized speech. As if, Values of Time, Stroll, and Talkshow, all involve live performers in a kind of musical reality play. recent works have make use of ambient noises such as those of shopping malls and highways, and he continues his explorations in search of the implicit music in the way people speak. His music has been widely heard and performed in the United States, Europe and Australia, and has been used extensively by dance troupes, including the well-known Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and Company. In 1989, Idle Chatter was used as the opener for the Zurich International Jazz Festival. Lansky was born in New York City and flirted wit a career as a French Horn player (Dorian Quintet 1966-67) before turning to composition. He is on the faculty at Princeton University.

When Guy DeRosa is not playing blues and country harmonica in the local clubs and halls of central New Jersey with the Western Flames or the Geoff Caldwell Blues Band, he might be practicing and teaching T'ai Chi or teaching political science and gerontology at Mercer County Community College or doing some light hauling with his pickup truck. He does all these with the same devotion, skill and fervor (except perhaps light hauling) that he applies to his harmonica.

In addition to being a "monster" guitarist (and a "wicked" tennis player), Steve Mackey is also an accomplished composer. His Among the Vanishing, written for Dawn Upshaw and the Kronos Quartet, was premiered by them in 1989. The Kronos is recording his Blues Essays and Arrangements on Nonesuch Records in 1990. His chamber work Indigenous Instruments was chosen as one of the American entries to the International Rostrum in 1990. His is on the faculty at Princeton University.


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