Idle Chatter About Paul Lansky

“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.

Texture and Harmony

As Busoni said, “Every notation is, in itself, the transcription of an abstract idea” (85). True to this notion, the harmonic outline sketched by Lansky for “Notjustmoreidlechatter” is fairly abstract. It contains no key or time signatures, and while his outline goes to 108 bars, the actual piece itself runs about 120 bars [8]. Complicating matters, the incredibly dense texture of the work makes it quite difficult to comprehend all the specific pitch arrangements. This obscurity was certainly Lansky’s intention, but repeat exposures reveal more to the keen listener.

The A-section of “Notjustmoreidlechatter” starts off with all of the Chatter sounds used in the previous works intact: the foreground layer of babble, the lengthy, higher pitched background singers, and the synthetic tones that highlight part of the babble. All of these sounds continue through the A-section up to bar 35 (2:24 minutes into the recording), when the amplitude diminuendos, and a higher pitched drone can be heard, similar the timbre of the ‘background singers’ but more consistent and synthetic sounding.

Also at bar 35, as well as bars 6 (22 seconds) and 19 (1:18 minutes), a layer of static can be heard, similar to white noise but more percussive, like early synthetic hi-hat sounds. That static sounds as though its envelope is being shaped by side-chain compression, or something similar, to breathe, so the speak, with other sounds, rather than obscure them.

The harmonic progression in the first five bars goes through E-flat major, F major, C major, B-flat Major, and F major, with G minor before each movement. Lansky specifically emphasizes G minor early on, placing the chord as straightforward tertian triads at the beginning of each bar, and letting it take up the entirety of bar five, with the G doubled. Starting on G in C major suggests the use of the myxolydian mode, yet he only visits the IV of the scale once, and never touches the V. However, starting from E-flat, this progression is a perfect pentatonic scale [9], which is likely a reference point considering the final note presented in the outline is a C in the background, albeit under an A in the babble. This emphasis of a naturally depressing minor chord and reference to the pentatonic scale, often used in blues songs, assists in achieving the oddly serious tone to the piece.

The progression from the first five bars is repeated twice more in the A-section, starting in bars 14 and 30, which emphasizes the importance of the progression and provides unity in the first half of the piece. Also, before both reappearances, the preceding chord is a G-major, further highlighting the modulation between major and minor chords in the opening progression while further obscuring the emotional impact of the piece. Notably, the static at the 22-second mark begins at the exact point the initial progression comes to an end, on the whole-note G minor. This first appearance of the static stops at bar 14, when the initial progression returns. The static coming in at 1:18 minutes also marks the end of that progression, and again terminates that run at bar 30, the final return to the opening melody.

Also important to note, when the static starts at bar 6, Lansky moved from the modulation of major and minor chords to a series of far more complex harmonies. Though the first chord in bar 6 is an F-major, mirroring the last chord before the resolving G-minor in bar 5, Lansky immediately introduces several seventh chords and tertian chords with added notes. Between bars 6 and the return to the returning opening motif in bar 14, there is an add 2, three add 4s, and three add 6s, as well as four seventh chords and a ninth. Where the ‘background singers’ are heard in closed voicing for much of the opening motif, in this development section, they are mostly heard in octaves and open-fifths. Similarly, in the next static section from bar 19 to 29, almost all the chords are sevenths and nineths.

When the static is reintroduced at bar 35, it marks the beginning of the bridge to the B-section. The static stays from this point on to the end of the piece, and there is no return to the first five-bar motif. A decrescendo in amplitude is indicated in the outline at bar 37, foreshadowed by a substantial re-voicing of the G-minor chord in bar 35. There, the B-flat is transposed up two octaves, leaving the chord sounding like an open-fifth. As previously noted, this incredibly high B-flat also stands out from in the texture because it is a more consistent and synthetic sound than usually heard from the ‘background singers’, though its timbre is similar. The only change in bar 36 is that the high B-flat goes to B-natural. Aside from the diminuendo in bar 37, bars 35-36 are repeated exactly in 37-38.

The B-section clearly starts in bar 39, when all harmony is dropped, leaving behind only a middle B which, over the next couple bars, builds into a tertiary B-major chord. However, while there are a large number of B chords in the B-section, the G chord still remains the dominant sonority. This is alluded to in bars 42-43, where the F-sharp of the B-major in 42 simply moves up a half step to G while leaving the bottom two notes the same for 43, resulting in a G-major. G-major is also emphasized at the end of the bridge; bar 60 contains five whole-notes, moving from D to G and back to D with a held G in the bass clef.

In bar 45, while the dynamic level is still at piano, the rhythmic shift hinted at in bar 42 continues as the middle C-sharp is tied over the bar line into bar 46, where a D-sharp and F-sharp are also tied over into the whole-note B-minor chord in bar 47. Up to this point, the piece has a fairly linear feel. Though the pacing is somewhat obscure, one can vaguely feel the strong beat of each bar. As heard in the bridge, the rhythm for the B-section is less predictable. Independent melodic lines are heard in bars 51-53, 56, 57, and from bar 80 to the end of the piece.

Bar 51 is also noteworthy for featuring the first complex harmony of the B-section, an F-minor-seventh. The D from this chord ties into bar 52, which otherwise consists of two open-fifth chords starting on E and F respectively. Bar 52 consists of a secundal harmony, with a quarter-note A-B-C# progression between a held D# in the treble and B in the bass.

Also significant, Bar 80 alludes to the opening motif, through the offset rhythms. A G-minor chord is noticeable to the ear on the strong beat, and visible when one combines the first half-note of the treble clef (D) and the first quarter-note (G) and half-note (B-flat) of the bass clef. Then, with the B-flat carrying over, an E-flat is heard in the treble, and another G tying over the bar line, making an E-flat major (the second chord in the opening motif).

Another G-minor chord can be made, and heard, on the downbeat of bar 81, but from there, the similarities to the opening motif are lost. The ‘backup singers’ and foreground babble appear to run independently after this. When this motif variation returns at bar 88, the G on the downbeat of the bass clef is pushed over by a quarter-note A tied over A from the previous bar, and extended to half-note length, and the B-flat ends the bar without being tied over. Another variation can be seen in bars 96 (except an F gets in the way of the pure G-minor sound, extending it more to a seventh) and 104, which is missing the B. The piece fades out shortly thereafter.

With “Notjustmoreidlechatter”, I believe Lansky succeeded in his goal of making a piece that withstands the monotony of archival recording. I certainly tested this notion, having listened to the piece literally dozens of times in a period of a few days, and I still come away with a new understanding of it every time. All the methods Lansky tried during “Idle Chatter” and “just_more_idle_chatter” came together in this work, pushing the listener from the first sound all the way through the fade-out at the end. Though technology continues to develop amazing, new techniques for digital sound manipulation, “Notjustmoreidlechatter” still stands up over twenty years later as a breathtaking, mindboggling experience.

Footnotes:

[1] From Lansky’s article “My Radiohead Adventure”

[2] From Lansky’s liner notes to More Than Idle Chatter

[3] From Lansky’s liner notes to More Than Idle Chatter

[4] Pic “notjustmoreidlechatter”

[5] Pic “Idle Chatter”

[6] Pic “Just More Idle Chatter”

[7] From Lansky’s liner notes to More Than Idle Chatter

[8] When one puts the piece into a digital audio workstation and sets the tempo to 60BPM, as is written on the outline, the piece comes out to 120 bars.

[9] Whole step-Whole step-1½ steps-Whole step

Bibliography:

Antokoletz, Elliott. “Lansky, Paul.”

Oxford Music Online, (Dec 3, 2010)

Busoni, Ferrucico. “Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music.” Three Classics In The Aesthetic of Music. (1962) New York: Dover Publications, Inc. pp. 74-102

Cody, Joshua and Paul Lansky. “An Interview With Pail Lansky.” Computer Music Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Spring 1996) The MIT Press. pp. 19-24

Lansky, Paul. “My Radiohead Adventure”

(Dec 3, 2010) Paul Lansky; Princeton

Lansky, Paul. More Than Idle Chatter [compact disc liner notes] (1994) New York: Bridge Records Inc.

Lansky, Paul. “Notjustmoreidlechatter.” The Norton Scores: Eighth Edition, Vol. II (1999) Ed. Kristine Formey. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. pp. 893-893

Perry, Jeffrey and Paul Lansky “The Inner Voices of Simple Things: A Conversation With Paul Lansky” Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Summer 1996) Perspectives of New Music. pp. 40-60

PopMatters