Idle Chatter About Paul Lansky

by Alan Ranta

6 June 2011


“Notation, the writing out of compositions, is primarily an ingenious expedient for catching an inspiration, with the purpose of exploiting it later. But notation is to improvisation as the portrait to the living model. It is for the interpreter to resolve the rigidity of the signs into the primitive emotion.”
  – Ferrucico Busoni, Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music

As electronic music technology developed, two distinct approaches to the medium came to the fore. One approach was concerned purely with the artistic sensibility of the form, hoping the never-before heard sounds and processing ability would be the perfect platform to continue atonal exploration, enabling machines to play compositions beyond the capability of humans. Others saw the technology as simply an addition to or substitute for traditional orchestral instruments. Either way, these new sounds and technological capabilities required new methods for composition, listening, and analysis.

In the late ‘60s, Paul Lansky was deeply invested in serial composition. He received his B.A. from Queens College in 1966, where he studied with George Perle (Antokoletz). In 1969, while Paul was working towards his masters and doctorate at Princeton with Milton Babbitt, he wrote a piece using the idiosyncratic 12-tone modal system developed by Perle. This inspired several years worth of collaboration between him and his former professor. Lansky ended up writing his dissertation on the subject, using linear algebra to construct a mathematical model of the approach (Perry 50, 51).

In the early ‘70s, Lansky was drawn to electronic music, believing it “to be a way in which the properties of the 12-tone system could be more deeply investigated” (Cody 19). Indeed, his first electronic work, “Mild und Leise” from 1973, was based on Perle’s system and Wagnerian chromaticism. However, the limitations of synthesis and processing, compared to the unbridled vibrancy of live sound, ultimately pushed Lansky in a more tonal and psychoacoustic direction.

The Chatter Piece

When Lansky started work on the piece “Idle Chatter” in 1985, he was still quite concerned with Perle’s 12-tone system. Yet, as the piece took shape, he found that he merely sustained an F for a long period, which was eventually joined by a D and a B-flat. That was all he felt the piece needed, rather than push through chromaticism and serialism. It would be his first specifically tonal piece (Perry 49, 52).

The computers that existed at the time were incredibly demanding to learn how to use. His first piece, “Mild und Leise” was composed using a series of punch cards, and the IBM 3081 mainframe used to make “Idle Chatter” filled an entire room. As a result, the construction of complex pitch relationships became less important to Lansky than learning how to write computer programs to achieve the results he desired, dealing with the nuts and bolts of pure, recorded sound (Cody 19). Importantly, Lansky did not want to listeners to come away from his pieces with more curiosity about the technology used than about the textural aural landscapes he created, which required intensive mastery of the machinery (Perry 45, 57).

The follow-ups to “Idle Chatter” were “just_more_idle_chatter” and “Notjustmoreidlechatter” from 1987 and 1988, respectively. These two pieces were made on the DEC MicroVaxII, which was about the size of a washer and dryer. All three pieces were made using a process called linear predictive coding, an analysis tool that essentially breaks down the digitally recorded human voice into sibilants, plosives, and the remaining buzz of the vocal chords, and granular synthesis, where sounds are broken down into 1 to 50 ms ‘grains’ and then transposed and layered [2].

Similar to the work of John Cage, Lansky’s goal was to tap into the musicality inherent in common sounds. In his own words, he was “interested in harnessing the world-building power of familiar musical conceptions to enhance our perceptions of the sounds of the world” (Perry 43). All three tracks were produced with the same basic material: samples of the voice of Lansky’s wife Hannah MacKay processed and arranged [3]. Audibly, Lansky became more comfortable with the computers used as time he moved through what could be seen as three attempts at making the definitive version of a track.

Contrasting Chatter

Lansky’s Chatter pieces fall in the category of electroacoustic music. As such, any proper analysis of them requires careful attention to texture. For many electroacoustic pieces, this is the only approach listeners can take. Luckily, though, Lansky himself prepared a harmonic outline for “Notjustmoreidlechatter”, so for my discussion, I will be able to address both texture and notation (Forney 892).

Especially on a first listen, the Chatter pieces can be a little overwhelming. All of the sounds heard are either micro-samples of the human voice, or synthetic extrapolations thereof. Though they are a little discombobulating at first, they all have a surreal, ethereal, oddly depressing undercurrent provided by the disembodied ‘background singers’, as Lansky frequently calls them.

This song cycle represents Lanksy’s ongoing effort to maintain the sense of danger in recorded music typically lost in the digital archiving of live performance. While a piece may be fresh and interesting on first listen, repeat exposure leads to boredom, and so Lansky sought to avoid such routine. In these pieces, “the texture is so complicated that, every time you listen to it, you can choose to pay attention to a different thread” (Perry 42).

The overall form of 1988’s “Notjustmoreidlechatter” falls into a traditional A-B structure, apparent from a glance at its waveform [4], which is similar the form of the original 1985 piece “Idle Chatter” [5]. The A-section of both pieces runs about three and a half minutes long, though the B-section of “Idle Chatter” runs a little longer. However, the texture of “Notjustmoreidlechatter” is clearly much thicker than “Idle Chatter”, and the gesture of the piece is far more realized than either of its predecessors. The entire A-section of “Idle Chatter” presents a foreground layer, a steady babble of incoherent syllables, which is joined about a minute in by a background layer, a more melodic and considerably longer chorus of high pitch vocals. The B-section of “Idle Chatter” is a little more complicated, containing more recognizable tones in the background, that highlight certain phrases in the foreground babble, while the ‘background singers’ remain consistent throughout the movement.

It’s important to note that the 1987 version “just_more_idle_chatter” was far more sporadic overall than the two other pieces [6]. In that piece, Lansky was more concerned with constructing different relationships between the foreground babble and the droning background layer, and he broke-up the overall form with a series of dramatic amplitude changes. The sonic exploration in that piece, choppy as it was between its many sections, was certainly more complex than “Idle Chatter”, as Lansky gave the ‘background singers’ a more significant aural and harmonic role [7]. It was a necessary steppingstone to “Notjustmoreidlechatter”, the final and, in my opinion, definitive installment of the series.

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