P. Lansky; Club vs Academic Electronic Music

Some thoughts on the amorphous middle ground between between the hissing, honking, and chittering of academic electronic music and the clicks, stabs, and skronks of its club-based variants.

Princeton professor and computer music pioneer Paul Lansky helped lay the groundwork for the economically thriving business of digital sound manipulation--time stretching, spectral analysis, morphing--being plied today at software synthesizer companies like Steinberg or Native Instruments, then further hacked and jacked on thousands of home computer workstations. Lansky's essay The Importance of Being Digital could be a blueprint, or manifesto, for scenesters currently laboring in the trenches. Drawing on his own experience making music with mainframe computers in the '70s, Lansky presents the case for digital production with a theoretical heft usually lacking in chatboard discussions, which are mostly concerned with technical problem-solving: especially compelling is his consideration, based on film theory, of where sound is "located" and the fictions we accept as listeners. Lansky also shines in the studio: hear, for example, his "Night Traffic," 1990 (scroll down for excerpt), which digitally adds pitch and timbre information to the sounds of cars barreling hither and thither on a four lane highway, creating original, listenable music that is both powerful and oddly poignant. Lansky's gravitas and command of the Western tonal pallette puts this closer to the symphonic tradition than any one-off formal experiment.

For a "pop" mirror to Lansky's essay, consider the following review from amazon.com. The topic is the CD Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center 1961-1973. A reviewer obviously steeped in that electronic music that evolved out of the club scene--now a kind of parallel universe to academic camp that is arguably just as vital (see previous posts on the music at Reaktions.com)--yells back across the wormhole to musicians of Lansky's generation who worked with Wollensak tape recorders and refrigerator-sized computers. The review merits sociological attention for the language accommodations the writer makes to explain the academy's music to his own tribe (or I should say, "our own")--mostly cheeky apologies but some deft rock-crit turns of phrase. Lansky, for his part, has made overtures to the popsters from his side of the wormhole, name-checking Autechre and Radiohead (the latter of whom sampled him).
OK, first off, these folks are writing art music, not pop. In fact, they're the folks who brought you "Who Cares If You Listen?" So it's their job not to sound dated, quaint, or collectible, even 30 years (and thousands of Dr. Sample units) later. How well did they do?

Well, the effect on a dance music-drenched listener like me is kinda like sensory deprivation but more fun. The reptile in my hindbrain hears the electronic tones and expects prominent beat, lots of repetition, and a climactic hook or two. When it fails to get what it expects it zones out, and lets me concentrate on more abstruse things like musical structure, drama, emotion, you know, all the edifying stuff.

All the tracks (sorry, compositions) have that Columbia-Princeton "sound" - sort of a silky, bubbly deluge of myriads of hand-spliced tape snippets and oscillator callibrations. You get the feeling there's a lot of complexity behind the scenes. Despite risk of extra-musical contamination, it's hard to resist looking in the back of the book to find out how they made these pieces.

My favorites follow, your mileage may vary. Charles Dodge's "The Earth's Magnetic Field" features geomagnetic data converted to pitches and sent through a comb filter (a.k.a. flanger with LFO turned off - think Skysaw). "Cortez" by Ingram Marshall is one of those "see how far you can get with one sample" exercises, in this case the syllable "Oh". I like the way things suddenly sweep into focus when the context is revealed. "Out Of Into" by Bulent Arel and Daria Semegen is the soundtrack to an animation, full of fun melodic lines and evocative, dancing timbres. Even my inner reptile liked it.

--John R. Hodgkinson