Larry Polansky: Open Source
As an extremely prolific DIY publisher, editor, music software developer, theorist, musicologist, and composer, Larry Polansky has had a major impact on contemporary music as well as how it is made and disseminated. Read the interview…
He’s nowhere close to being a household name (something he’d probably never want to be anyway), yet few people have had as significant an impact on as many facets of contemporary music and how it is made and disseminated as Larry Polansky.
As the co-founder of Frog Peak Music, Polansky has helped make available the music of hundreds of composers and established an alternative paradigm for the distribution of printed music, reading matter, and recordings decades before the DIY era of self-publishing. As a pioneering music software developer, his work in the development of Hierarchical Music Specification Language (HMSL) eventually led to Max/MSP and SuperCollider. As a theorist and musicologist, he has written major treatises on tuning as well as many other aspects of music theory and has also played a key role in documenting and explicating the music of many important American mavericks, including Ruth Crawford Seeger, Johanna Magdalena Beyer, and James Tenney. As a teacher, first at Mills College and now at Dartmouth, he has been a mentor to generations of musicians. As the founding editor of Leonardo Music Journal, he helped to set a broader purview and more open-minded perspectives in scholarly writing about music. And as a composer, Larry Polansky has created a vast body of compositions that defy stylistic pigeonholing, from 2-second canons to massive solo piano showcases as well as works for rock band, interactive computer environments, and solo piccolo in extended just intonation.
To Polansky, all these activities are symbiotically related:
It’s all one world of doing music in lots of different ways, and they feed into each other. I’ll be working on a theoretical idea or a software idea and that will feed into a piece, and vice versa. So it’s not quite as distracting as it might sound.
Every project he gets involved with ties into his social philosophy, as well. In everything he does, Polansky aims to create a model for a better world, a place where hierarchies cease to be oppressive and barriers are abolished. To that end, he aims to create music and promulgate music by others that defies one-line explication.
Every time you give a name to something, you hasten the decay of information; you’ve made things more simplified and less interesting than they should be. I don’t want to have sound-bytes associated with anything I do. I think also the people whose music I respect the most have a similar kind of attitude. I want to follow musical ideas out to their natural fruition, at their most complex, at their most deep, at their most other.
And perhaps most importantly, he aims for maximum availability:
[Frog Peak] gets a lot of people’s work out into the world in a very honest, simple, sincere way, with no cosmetic nonsense and also no hype. I’ve been committed to that all through my life—never selling anything, never convincing anybody of anything, of really staying true to the musical idea as much as possible. [N]ow with the web, there’s no reason not to put all your pieces on the web as well, and, certainly, we encourage that. […] All of my computer music life has been devoted to making cheap, public domain available software.
This non-propertarian attitude applies to Polansky’s own compositions, as well:
Music should be open source and should be a collective activity. It always has been […] It shouldn’t be about me guarding my style or me putting down historical claims on things. It should rather be a fluid bidirectional and N-directional process.
Ultimately, whatever your stance on today’s seemingly irresolvable intellectual property debates, Polansky’s idealism has ramifications that go well beyond music and how it is composed and distributed.
People can do a lot more than we think they can do, especially if you relax ideas like practicality, time, things like that. In some kind of ideal world there should be time enough for the most complicated thoughts and ideas and skills.
Frank J. Oteri: Before we turned the camera on, we were talking about dividing time between composing and other activities. I’m just floored by how much music you’ve written. I’ve deduced from the CV you’ve posted on the web site that you average about seven compositions a year, and some years you’ve written more than ten, which is staggering, considering all your noncompositional activities.
Larry Polansky: I don’t know what those numbers exactly mean. I do write pieces constantly, but some of them are smaller pieces. I work in a lot of series, like The Four Voice Canons or the Etudes or all these rounds I’ve been writing—hundreds of these in the last couple of years. I make a list of everything I write, but some pieces are only two seconds long. Schoenberg lists Pierrot and I’m listing a piece that’s two seconds long! But I always have a couple of big pieces that I’m working on, and I keep going. So I wouldn’t say I’m all that prolific; I’m reasonably constant. It’s slowed down a tremendous amount as I get older.
What is interesting to me is to not distinguish too much between composing and performing and teaching and doing theoretical stuff and the kind of amateur musicology stuff that I do plus working with Frog Peak. I keep pretty busy. But it’s all one world of doing music in lots of different ways, and they feed into each other. I’ll be working on a theoretical idea or a software idea and that will feed into a piece, and vice versa. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past five or six years playing music with Christian Wolff. That directly informs what I write, and, hopefully, what I write directly informs how I play with him. And being at Frog Peak, it’s all with composers. So it’s not quite as distracting as it might sound, although sometimes it can be.
I’ve been editing the works of Johanna [Magdalena] Beyer over the past fifteen years. That’s something that has to be done in a very focused way. Or writing that book on Ruth Crawford [The Music of American Folk Song]—that was an amazing composition lesson, but it also took a couple of years of my life to really address. I find that the one thing that gets sacrificed is my ability to spend long periods of time writing software. That has really ratcheted down. Maybe as I’ve gotten older it’s a less attractive personal activity: it doesn’t involve other people; it’s very grueling. And I also teach full time. So that has changed a little bit over the years. I find myself doing less software, but I suppose I still do quite a bit, relatively speaking.
FJO: You say that all these activities are somehow complementary, and indeed they are—they are all connected to music. The theoretical stuff, the publications of other composers, performing other people’s compositions—it’s all music. But all of these things involve different parts of your brain, or at least occupy different spaces. So I’m curious about how you make the space specifically for composition amidst all this other stuff.
LP: I often exile myself to some place, like I work in the Hanover Public Library quite often. There’s no email and no phone, so I can just sit at a table and compose. When I’m working on a big piece, I’ll often go there three hours a day and just do that. You may mean space metaphorically, but I take it seriously: physically. I have a family. Frog Peak is in my house. I have students at Dartmouth. So I tend to find these isolated spaces, and I tend to work in libraries a lot. Even in New York. NYU, thanks to Kent Underwood, has very graciously given me privileges there, so I work there and I work at the New York Public Library, just because they’re quiet and they’re nice places to sit and really, really think. And when I do that I only think very carefully about pieces.
But it’s hard. Waking up in the morning it’s often hard to know what to focus on. More and more as I get older—one’s brain is not as quick—I work on one thing at a time, and if that thing is big that means I don’t do much of anything else for that period of time. Then I’ll work on the next thing. A lot of this fall I was working on a heavily mathematical theoretical paper, in collaboration with Alex Barnett and Mike Winter, and while I was doing that it was hard to think about other pieces. But once that was done, all of a sudden I was in the middle of a big string quartet. I find it’s mostly the very serious, large-scale activities that completely consume you. I can do that and practice at the same time, or that and run Frog Peak. But the kind of musicology I did on Ruth Crawford, or software, or theoretical work, or composition—it’s hard to do more than one of those things at the same time for me anymore.
FJO: So you don’t allot a specific amount of time every day to composing.
LP: No, but I’m always composing. As I said to one of my students the other day, I think this is true of a lot of composers my age. Most of the time some significant percentage of your brain is working on [your own] music and some lesser percent is focusing on the world. That’s a humbling admission to make to your students or when you go to concerts. You know the feeling. You go to a concert and you love it and might be really interested in it, but you start thinking about your own work. The older you get, the more that’s the case. It’s not a question of not paying attention, it’s a question of paying such hyperattention that everything is focused back on what you’re working on.
FJO: I find it curious that the space that you find to create your own work is not a space of your own making. It’s not a studio. You go to a library, which is actually a public space. And also you don’t necessarily have tools at your ready disposal there. You have to bring your tools with you. So, despite all the work you do with software, are you a pencil and paper guy?
LP: I do a lot of pencil and paper and I do a lot on the computer with software. Often I’ll have a guitar around me or a piano.
FJO: But not at the library.
LP: No, but I find that I don’t need much. I’m getting less and less interested in having devices. And I’ve never done a lot of “synthesis” electronic music; I’ve never used a lot of gear. All of my computer music life has been devoted to making cheap, public domain available software—DIY kinds of experiences. That’s what HMSL [Hierarchical Music Specification Language] was all about, and SoundHack (Tom Erbe’s brilliant program to which I was privileged to contribute a few ideas), and projects like that. So I’ve never needed much, and in fact the less I have, the happier I am. I’ve mainly been a software guy since 1973.
FJO: But that’s a long time ago. [laughs] It’s interesting that public domain availability is important to you because you also run Frog Peak, which is a publishing company, although it’s a very unusual type of publisher. How and why did you start doing that?
LP: My wife, Jody Diamond, and I started it. It was in the early days when I was at the Mills Center for Contemporary Music and Jody was working at the other end of the building with Lou Harrison, as Lou’s gamelan director. At that time there was a whole community of people who really had no outlet for their work. And there were a couple of significant theoretical works I read that I had manuscripts of and that I thought should be out in the world, like Jim Tenney’s Meta-Hodos and John Chalmers’s Divisions of the Tetrachord.
There were no personal computers at the time. Jody and I had just gotten a KayPro, which was an early CPM machine. And we started with this idea that composers would take control over the distribution of their own work. Not to be so much a publisher, but to be what I like to call an availability site. That by pooling resources, instead of composers going to a photocopy store and mailing it out when somebody asked you for something, there’d be one place where people could get it. Make it a collective and to dedicate ourselves to no interest in advertising or promotion whatsoever, and also to try to have no interest in the notion of imprimatur. We weren’t certifying anything. David Mahler joined Frog Peak and David controlled everything about David Mahler. Or David Rosenboom, or Anne LaBerge, or whoever came in. So it was a philosophical, social, artistic experiment in every possible way.
And as it has remained an experiment, it remains fun. Not so parenthetically, but somewhat surprising, it has started to become all those things it has tried to avoid—that is, being at Frog Peak may have a certain kind of non-functional importance to people that we never wanted it to have. But it still serves the community. It gets a lot of people’s work out into the world in a very honest, simple, sincere way, with no cosmetic nonsense and no hype. I’ve been committed to that all through my life—never selling anything, never convincing anybody of anything, of really staying true to the musical idea as much as possible.
FJO: So how does one sign up with Frog Peak?
LP: Well, one asks us [laughs]. We try to take people, but it’s hard. The overhead of taking someone in is pretty significant. We lose money. Jody and I subsidize it. We’re also not a nonprofit. We decided at the very beginning to never apply for a grant and to never devolve into arts administration. It was always two crazy composers running a crazy thing in their house, and we’ve stayed that way. So we seldom, but regularly, take people. We try to take people who are very committed to their music and very sincere. We have to like them, because they become a part of our family. But the other abiding principal when we started was, since there is no imprimatur involved—we’re not saying anything about these people, it’s just a collective—if we’re not a comfortable fit for someone, we can very easily say, “Do it yourself.” That’s all we’re doing. Buy or rent a copy machine, or go to Kinko’s like we did for the first ten years in the 1980s (or whatever the copy stores were called in Oakland!). There’s nothing we’re doing that’s not completely transparent.
FJO: So what are the things that you’re doing—you’re copying and binding scores and then mailing them out; I imagine with big people perhaps you’re also dealing with rental parts?
LP: No, never. Nothing like that. We don’t rent scores or parts, and except in rare instances when really extraordinary people donate them, we don’t take any [ASCAP or] BMI royalties. We don’t function as a traditional publisher in any way. We don’t own anyone else’s work. We have published several books and we’ve put out about 15 CDs in 25 years, but there it’s not really with the notion of being a CD company or a book company. We’re only interested in availability, simple design, no promotion, serving the music itself. There’s a garage somewhere where there’s a master of hundreds of Philip Corner and Dennis Kitz scores and you can get them from us. That’s the abiding principle. We’re not going to try to convince you to get them and we’re not going to make it all that easy (because we’re a small group, so personnel and labor are issues), but if you want it, we will send it to you for a small price. And then we pay rather small royalties to the composers based upon the actual item that we sell, which is not economically viable. A lot of composers have chosen to support Frog Peak by foregoing even those royalties, and in general, they’re not all that substantial. No publisher would survive two weeks if they operated like we do, but we’re not supposed to be economically viable, so we’re O.K.
FJO: So if this is all run out of your house, you must have a big house.
LP: We have a big garage. And we have another older house that we rent out and we keep a garage there, too. It’s gotten a little smaller because of technology. Computers have helped us keep things in PDF. And we also mostly take one copy of a score. Some composers, like Eric Richards, will make their own multiple copies. They want it to look exactly their way. So they’ll send us a box of 15 or 20, but mostly we have big file cabinets full of master copies and more and more of those are PDFs.
FJO: So you don’t keep a stockpile of ten copies of each title.
LP: Well, we do have a lot of things, because we’ve also rescued physical items. We have all the back issues of Soundings. We have all of Lingua, too, which is huge. We have old LPs, cassettes, art objects, books, all kinds of things like that as well, which we simply keep available. Part of our mission has been to enter into the history of the American experimental tradition of publishing, which I trace back to [William] Billings and [Arthur] Farwell, who is a great hero of mine. And [Kenneth] Gaburo and Peter Garland and [Henry] Cowell, a number of people—I mention the people I have personal connections to, but there are a lot of them—Carla Bley, for example. A lot of us composers over the years have decided we need to do it the way we want to do it. And really it’s not an economic decision, it’s a personal and artistic and social and political decision and it’s a labor of love kind of decision.
FJO: So what is the difference between being published by Frog Peak and being self-published?
LP: It’s whatever distinction you want it to have. [laughs] None as near as I can tell, except that you don’t have to send out your own score. That’s from my point of view. Stamina is everything in the world. I always say to a young composer or to my students, that the only thing you want to aim for is that the person keeps composing. It’s almost irrelevant what the piece is today. It’s a good piece, it’s a bad piece, whatever. It’s got to motivate the next piece. It’s got to be interesting enough that you keep composing. And I only consider myself a successful composition teacher if I’m getting letters from 45-year-old ex-students who are still composing. It’s really what I care about.
I think with Frog Peak, its main virtue is that we’ve stayed afloat for a very, very long time. We’ve kept small. We’ve kept to our basic principles, as high in integrity as we possibly can. And to our surprise we’ve gotten noticed. We have a lot of standing library orders. Complete collections are in a number of really good libraries. So now it’s a good thing for composers because they get out in the world, to safe, widely available places. But really now with the web, there’s no reason not to put all your pieces on the web as well, and certainly we encourage that.
FJO: I found it interesting—and now that you’re explaining your philosophy it totally makes sense—that even though you’re the co-founder and co-director of a publishing operation, you’ve made all the scores of your own music available to be downloaded for free on your website.
LP: Sure. I don’t see why not. I think they should just be available in every possible way. The disconnect between paper and PDF is that there’s a whole generation of composers who are not comfortable or facile with those technologies. And in that case, Frog Peak helps them. Or if my friends who are older want to put something up, I have a whole website of my friends’ work as well. There’s a lot of people who still don’t have access to the web, or unlimited storage or whatever. The other thing is libraries are still in a very transitional state, and they’re learning how to deal with distinctions between paper and electronic formats in a lot of domains. And as far as I know, no library has really decided that all their scores will be digital at this point. At a certain point we turned a corner where economically we’re being kept alive by major libraries.
We certainly wouldn’t survive—not that we survive anyway economically—by one person in Belgium needing a Peter Garland score or one person in New York needing a Paul Paccione score. That should be on the web, and we’ve had trouble keeping open even for that level of business. For the first ten or fifteen years, that’s what we did—one-shots to people. But now the web has made it much easier for even someone with no web or computer chops whatsoever to find someone to help them do that to a certain extent. We don’t really want to make money, and we don’t really want to survive if what we’re supposed to survive to do is not interesting anymore.
FJO: Of course the tricky thing there is if the scores are all available for free, isn’t one of the few revenue streams a composer could have gone?
LP: That’s a matter of some contention, and one that I think is widely misunderstood. I don’t think most composers make much money from the physical sale of scores. There are certain cases where they do, of course, if you’re a choral composer for high schools for example. But most of the composers we represent are not like that. And if they want that kind of relationship, they can go to a traditional publisher. We don’t own anything (for the most part). We have no rights. In a few cases we do, but it’s sort of accidental. So there’s no notion of exclusivity. We don’t even have contracts. People don’t sign anything when they come to Frog Peak, because nobody’s bound to do anything. I didn’t want that kind of relationship with anybody. These folks are my friends. I play music with them, I have dinner with them. I don’t want to do business. And finally, I don’t think it’s the score itself that generates revenue for composers; it’s the performance royalties.
I have a lot of respect for traditional publishers. And Frog Peak has always maintained I good relationships with Peters, and other companies, even though I think they kind of scratch their head in wonder when they figure out how we do what we do. Yet the most enlightened of them, I think, understand that what we do has an important function in our world. They can’t take all the people that we can take. When we take Frank Abbinanti, or Frederic Rzewski or Brenda Hutchinson or Daniel Goode, we are willing to take everything they’ve ever done in any form they choose. If Ron Nagorcka wants to write a piece on a paper napkin and sell it, we’re fine with that. My standard joke is that we draw the line at pieces made on bowling balls. But we really don’t care. We make no editorial or curatorial decisions; we choose people. A big publisher has to make economic decisions. We don’t; we make no economic decisions.
FJO: You say that revenue comes from performance royalties, but you don’t track those. So it’s up to composers themselves to contact ASCAP or BMI.
LP: And we don’t take the publishing rights.
FJO: Normally composers share a 50-50 split of the performance royalties with their publishers, but at Frog Peak the composer gets 100 percent.
LP: Yes. That’s why we’re not viable.
FJO: That can be a huge amount of income.
LP: Well, it is the income of a publisher. And we decided not to be a business, so we don’t take it. That said, in a few cases composers have donated one piece, or some pieces, and we call them the angels because that helps. Some people in my mind are saints—Ezra Sims, or Eric Richards, Paul Paccione, just to name a few. There’s no reason for the donation of these royalties that they do donate, but they do, I guess, because they think Frog Peak is doing a nice thing, and we happily take the money. And as I said, many of the composers decide to forego even the smaller royalties on the scores themselves, just to help them get out in the world. These composers do a lot to keep FP viable, and we’re really grateful to them.
FJO: With the roster of composers that you have—a lot of them are friends or at least kindred spirits in some way—is there something that links all of these people’s musics somehow?
LP: Quite honestly they’re the people that Jody and I decide we want to invite to this family. Of course we like their music but it may not even be that, we may like the way they deal with the world, their integrity, how serious they are. Some of the people are very, very different. Some of them can be kind of annoying, some of them are amazingly thoughtful and helpful. [laughs] But they’re all friends. That’s my criteria. I can’t not like someone in some profound way and commit so much of my life and resources to them. On the other hand, I tend to like most people for a lot of different reasons. So we’re fortunate in that way.
FJO: So it might be an oversimplification to say that most of this music is coming out of the American experimental tradition.
LP: I don’t know that that term means much to me anymore. We use it as a kind of shorthand, but it comes from a community, and that community is ever-expanding and ever-malleable. I’d be hard put to find connections between a lot of the people in Frog Peak. I work with New World Records a lot and I’m very dedicated to that company. And [New World’s Director of Artists and Repertory] Paul Tai has a phrase: “things coming over the transom” – things just arriving. And Frog Peak submissions are that way, but not a lot of composers enter that way, although we try and listen and look and respond to everything. We have to establish a relationship with people in some way, or often it will be that core Frog Peak composers will recommend someone very strongly and I’ll take those recommendations seriously. If Christian Wolff or Kyle Gann or David Mahler or Lois Vierk or Jim Tenney and Lou Harrison (the latter two are sadly not with us anymore)—if they said this person really belongs, I take that very seriously, and have in the past, that’s how a lot of younger or lesser-known composers have joined.
FJO: Silly question—where does the name Frog Peak come from?
LP: I used to be a mountain climber when I was younger and I climbed a mountain in Idaho once called Frog Peak. There’s probably a Frog Peak in every state, but that was an unusually tough experience, so when we started it no one could think up a name and I kept saying “Frog Peak! Frog Peak!”—I had this vision of crawling out of the woods in Idaho—and just from my tenacity of saying it over and over again, we stuck with it.
FJO: To bring it back to you the composer—and you are one of the Frog Peak composers—this operation seems like it could be a very time-consuming operation.
LP: Less so for me that it used to be. We have one person who works for it full time and who does all of the grunt work. I do a lot of the curating and steering of the thing. Jody does an enormous amount of the design. She’s a brilliant designer, and she’s also good at the practical and tactical sorts of things in the office. So it does kind of have its own inertia at this point, but that took a long time.
FJO: We talked about how the different streams in your life feed each other—a composition could lead to a theoretical idea, a publication could lead to a musicological idea or could feed a composition. Do you feel that dealing with all of these composers has directly influenced the music you write?
LP: Sure… Maybe. Oddly I don’t see it all. Once somebody joins I don’t need to see their submissions. They could have 300 pieces in Frog Peak that I’ve never seen, because it’s all under their control. It has more to do with my philosophy; it’s just an extension of how I feel about being in the world: You do things with other people and nothing is a solo act. There’s no exultation of person. Everything is a kind of collaboration. So I think that the act of doing it is a composition in and of itself, much like my other pieces. But I’d still be interested in Lois Vierk’s music, or Philip Corner’s music, David Mahler, Michael Byron, Daniel Goode—these are people who are my close friends and whose music I love and respect, and I’m interested in it, as you are. But having their scores in my house doesn’t actually have much of an effect on me, oddly enough, because I feel the act of making this collective is much more important than seeing more of their scores. The only thing I yell at people about is when they send me, at home, a score to put in Frog Peak. I say, “No, I don’t need to see it unless this is for me, the composer. Render unto Frog Peak that which is Frog Peak’s, to the P.O. Box” because I don’t want to get involved in their work in that way in my role as Frog Peak director. That’s not at all interesting to me. It’s their work, and I’m just giving it a home.
FJO: You alluded to using “American experimental tradition” as a shorthand, but admitted that it doesn’t really mean that much to you. How do you think the term relates to your own music?
LP: Only historically and personally. The people I have been closest to in my life, the people in the previous generation who have been my closest friends and biggest influences and probably my peers are called part of that tradition. I don’t know what it means, and I certainly don’t know what I have in common with some of those people other than a long-standing personal connection. My music and Lou Harrison’s music are completely distinct. My music and Christian’s music are completely distinct. I think we’re often talking social groupings, the people who hung out together. I think the longer it’s gone on, the more people feel free to cross boundaries that they wouldn’t have crossed.
FJO: One thing that all this music shares, which is definitely an attribute of your music as well, is that it’s somehow other than what the mainstream is, whatever the mainstream is at any given time. It’s in a different tuning than the mainstream of 12-tone equal temperament, or it uses different instruments than what is mainstream, sometimes homemade instruments, the rhythms are not quite the same as those of mainstream music, so it’s somehow going against the grain of the normative.
LP: Maybe we should just call it “unusual music.” But there’s a lot of unusual music out there that comes from different musical cultures. Gordon Mumma used to say, “Every time you make a tape dub you pick up more noise.” Every time you give a name to something, as Herbert Brün would say, you hasten the decay of information; you’ve made things more simplified and less interesting than they should be. And these things become brands and slogans. And then people argue about the slogans and the brands. And that’s fine. I think there’s probably an interesting musicological socio-historical reason to do that, but I have zero interest in it just by nature. I don’t care about branding and slogans and simplification. I don’t want to have sound-bytes associated with anything I do. So it’s not so interesting to me to figure out why that’s the case. I think also the people whose music I respect the most have a similar kind of attitude. I share that with them. Maybe there’s no time for that kind of nonsense. I’m not trying to sell anything. I’m not trying to get a gig. I don’t want to have a one-sentence: “He’s the tuning guy” or “he’s the “morph guy”. I don’t want any of that. I want to follow musical ideas out to their natural fruition, at their most complex, at their most deep, at their most other. That’s what I want to do with my life. I don’t have time to figure out what school I’m in, nor do I want to be in any school like that.
FJO: Although to some extent it would be fair to say that you’re a tuning guy. Just intonation has been a very big concern of yours for decades and still is.
LP: But you could also say I’m a computer person, or a guitar person. I have interests and they inform my music. But my way of dealing with tuning has nothing to do with Ezra [Sims] or even Lou [Harrison]. It’s maybe closer to Jim Tenney. But that’s sort of like saying someone’s a note composer or an orchestra composer. It may be true, but it’s not that meaningful a thing to characterize somebody’s music. And I sure hope my music survives a deeper analysis and encourages a deeper consideration, as should everyone’s, I think.
FJO: But I would still like to talk to you more about your use of just intonation, just in a practical sense, because it does raise performance issues. You can do a computer piece in just intonation with no problems whatsoever, which is one of the wonderful things about the technology. Or you could retune an electric keyboard and even an acoustic keyboard, and that’s taken care of, if you limit yourself to a pitch gamut of only 12 pitches per octave.
LP: I’ve done all of those things.
FJO: Sure, your Piano Study No. 5 uses a retuned Fender Rhodes, and Psaltery is a good example of an electronically generated piece in just intonation—that’s probably not something that you could pull off live.
LP: There are live versions, but you have to tune a lot of things.
FJO: However, you also have a piece like Piker that does all this oddball tuning stuff with a live piccolo player. That’s amazing. That’s something that’s meant to be done by a human performer in real time in live performance, in this case Margaret Lancaster. I would imagine that she had to learn a bunch of new fingerings, because those aren’t standard pitches coming out of that piccolo, and at times it races by.
LP: And writing it for piccolo was even more foolish, but I’m just blessed to have Margaret Lancaster in my corner and as a good friend. And there are a couple of performers like that who it’s wonderful to be able to ask to do things that you really shouldn’t ask them to do, and then they do it, and do it beautifully. And they still are your friends. That’s the part I haven’t figured out. [laughs]
But my approach to tuning has been to try a lot of different approaches. And that’s different than, say, building a set of instruments or typing in scales on a computer, and I think that has to do with my attitude towards intonation which is it’s really a deep, philosophical topic of interest to me, the whole idea of what is a tuning system, or what is a scale. When I started working on what I call paratactical tuning systems, that piece B’rey’sheet is probably the most important example where computers are thinking on the fly and adapting, thinking formally as an improviser might think about tuning, but making some very sophisticated and very rapid decisions. That in a way comes out of my interest in Lou Harrison’s free style experiments, those three pieces where things are tuned to the previous note. That’s also insane, to ask humans to do things like that. But Ben Johnston asks performers to do very sophisticated things.
I think the best way I can exemplify it is to mention a piece that’s just been recorded—it’s coming out on New World—called for jim, ben and lou. One movement’s for Jim Tenney, one movement’s for Ben Johnston, and one movement’s for Lou Harrison. And what the performers are asked to do is pretty crazy. The piece for Jim is for guitar, percussion, and harp. The percussionist retunes the guitar continually throughout, and the guitar player is playing some pretty difficult stuff. The percussionist is tuning the strings to different just intonations as the piece progresses. As I’m writing this, I’m going: “This is a crazy thing to ask.” And I’m also thinking of the Smothers Brothers, because they used to have a bit where they did that. I remember showing the score to Jim and he said something like “Good for you; someone needs to push it to the next level.” That’s an interesting thing to say, not so much as a compliment, but more in terms of recognition that if we don’t try it, it’s not going to happen. That piece has now been played a lot by a group in Belgium [featuring] a guitarist named Toon Callier, who’s a spectacular player.
So you wait long enough and you have enough tenacity of idea and confidence in what you’re doing and they happen. Toon has done that piece now beautifully, and Margaret does Piker. But you’ve just got to be patient. And you’ve also got to not go for the cheap laugh. What we’re doing is somehow different from entertainment in that we’re not trying always to make an immediate splash. We’ve got to have a lot of faith in history and what comes next, and the possibility of people like Margaret Lancaster or Toon Callier or Nick Didkovsky, performers whom I’ve worked with who do things that are not practical. They’re not in the day-to-day New York practical musical world. They require a kind of dedication to idea that composers have and some performers have.
FJO: Then, of course, there are computers and they can do some things that people will probably never be able to do.
LP: That’s an interesting dynamic. Although, again, people can do a lot more than we think they can do, especially if you relax ideas like practicality, time, things like that. In some kind of ideal world there should be time enough for the most complicated thoughts and ideas and skills.
FJO: So you wouldn’t necessarily think to work on something and have it be a computer composition because it’s something you know that nobody would ever be capable of doing.
LP: No. All my work stems from an idea. And that idea gets manifested through different performance media. But I’m not a practical composer. I really come up with philosophical and aesthetic and musical ideas and they get implemented in some way that I don’t exactly understand. Why write a five movement piece for piccolo like that? It’s probably because Margaret said, “Hey, write me a piece for piccolo.” And I knew that I could ask her to really think about some new ways of playing and she did. And I’m eternally grateful to her.
FJO: Your Hierarchical Musical Specification Language is sort of practical in a way.
LP: [laughs] Not really. Again, it was another kind of experiment. At the time that we started it, there was no real-time interactive, intelligent language for composition. And this was also before personal computers, so we were modeling something that couldn’t really be pluralized. Then when personal computers happened, it did get pluralized. But it remained a very arcane kind of environment, because you had to be a fairly sophisticated Object oriented programmer. It wasn’t shrink-wrapped in any way; it was a pretty hardcore coding experience. [There were] maybe a hundred composers using it seriously and a lot of other people scratching their heads. I think its influence was probably a lot stronger than its use patterns. What Nick [Didkovsky]’s doing with JMSL at NYU, lots of things like that, SuperCollider—HMSL had an impact on all of those things, I think. And that makes me happy, because we had a really theoretical and idealized view of what a language should be and we resisting any attempt to make it easy or more accessible or to implement some kind of stylistic idea. We had this notion that it would be a nonstylistic based platform.
FJO: So how does it work?
LP: How did it work? It was a full-fledged computer language that you could also write a database in, if you were so inclined, that had some fundamental concepts of how music is structured in time: scheduling; hierarchical representations of music, some drawn from Tenney’s work, others drawn from David Rosenboom’s work, others drawn from mine. Phil Burk, one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known, is largely responsible for the final software design, and is the third author with David and I. And those data structures were implemented so that composers had these tools, but they didn’t do anything that looked like quote, unquote music. They were meant to facilitate real-time improvisational structures or coming up with your own, like what George Lewis does. I think he still uses it, or maybe his computer finally died. [laughs] And you can write your own musical ideas in it, not just your own music: environments for improvisation and/or experiment.
Our goal was that nothing should be precluded, but that also meant that nothing was easy. Later, with an environment like MAX, you could probably do 95 percent of what you wanted to do in about a 1000th of the time it took in HMSL. But that other 5 percent is what we were interested in, and in maintaining a structure that never precluded the wildest possible idea. To do that you had to make it general enough that it was difficult. Generality is inversely proportional to usability, so the more general you make something the harder it is to use. And I think that’s true about the world. The more quickly you can sum up someone’s music—i.e. they work with anvils on reverb units—if you can say that and that’s true, there’s probably not a lot else to say. I’ve always been interested in working in those domains where there’s a lot else to say and very hard to make that first statement. And HMSL was very much about that.
FJO: You’ve used these tools to generate your own algorithmic compositions as well. And what I love is that there’s no stylistic boundary to it vis-à-vis your own music, either. You can wind up writing a virtuoso solo piano piece like The Casten Variation or a piece for a rock band like 51 Melodies.
LP: Yeah, and they have similar structures.
FJO: But very different end results, at least sonically.
LP: Though both are written in HMSL. When I moved to Hanover in 1990, I shifted my focus away from live stuff to scores, because I didn’t want to travel as much. And I was hitting certain computational boundaries doing things in real time, which are interesting and sort of inviolable. If you’re truly in real time, you can’t know what’s going to happen, so you can’t have a structure that depends upon the future. And so I wrote a whole series of works like 51 Melodies and The Casten Variation, which are very complex structurally, especially The Casten Variation. I couldn’t really explain it to you except to say that it’s a kind of reworking of the Ruth Crawford Piano Study in Mixed Accents by abstracting its essences in these distant spaces and then resynthesizing it. After I finished it, my friend Charles Dodge remarked, very insightfully, that it was analysis/resynthesis in the classical computer music way where you take a sound and break it down and resynthesize it. This is a kind of a formal analysis and resynthesis of Crawford’s Piano Study. But those pieces were the result of having this very powerful language that didn’t preclude the wackiest idea you could possibly throw at it. But they were also both really hard to write. They took a lot of time and a lot of software.
FJO: The rock band piece is a piece that you’ve actually played in.
LP: Yeah, and that’s part of my philosophy as well. I should not just write for Margaret and Nick and people like that, but I should be able to play my pieces, and difficult but important works by others, too. So Nick and I played it. And I play with Margaret. I recorded Lois Vierk’s Io on Margaret’s CD. That’s important to me. I’ve always been a musician; I’ve always been a playing musician, and I don’t want to ever lose that skill. I don’t want to simply off-load that responsibility, I want it to be a direct relationship. I play all the time.
FJO: As a performer you also play mandolin and you told me earlier that you had studied with Frank Wakefield, who is one of the legends of bluegrass.
LP: I did. He is a genius.
FJO: So do you play bluegrass?
LP: I did for many years. I mostly played bluegrass guitar and then learned mandolin later on. Then I got a mandocello, which is one of my favorite instruments. But I don’t play much of that anymore. I don’t really play any kind of popular music anymore, just because of time. But last Saturday I played a wonderful gig with Dan Zanes. We did a duet concert down in Washington, D.C. for the 75th anniversary of the school that Ruth Crawford helped found. I was just playing mandolin the whole day in Dan’s music, which is children’s music—or family music, as he calls it—really embedded in the American folk tradition. That’s something that I’m very interested in and love. So I spent hours playing folk tunes on the mandolin for kids. And I’ll do that if the right situation is there. Dan Zanes is definitely the right situation—he’s a great musician and a good friend.
FJO: When we were talking about things that might influence you earlier on in this conversation, we never talked about the impact of being married to another composer has had on you, which is an interesting dynamic.
LP: Another composer who works in a very specific area.
FJO: Gamelan. And you’ve also done gamelan music.
LP: I’ve only done a couple of gamelan pieces. We lived in Java for about a year and I learned to play gender, but mainly as a practical thing to help Jody and not be dead weight on gamelan gigs with Lou [Harrison] and Jody. But I’m not really involved in that world. That’s Jody’s world, and I’m only involved in it by marriage. Her project was amazing. She went to Indonesia in 1988 and interviewed and recorded and documented 50 new music composers coming out of Indonesia. And that was a fascinating experience. I was her sound guy and carried the equipment, and I learned a lot and met a lot of great people, some of whom are still good friends. But gamelan is her part of the house [laughs]. I don’t even carry them anymore. And I’ve only written three pieces—or four, maybe—for gamelan.
FJO: But that’s quite a bit, actually. Most people haven’t written any.
LP: I know, but most people don’t have several gamelans in their house, or have been to hundreds of gamelan concerts, or lived in Java for over a year, or, heck, speak Indonesian! It would be hard for me not to have written a couple.
FJO: What I find so interesting, though, is that the year you were in Java, the piece you wrote was Lonesome Road, a gigantic nearly hour-and-a-half set of piano variations which pretty much has nothing to do with gamelan music, at least directly.
LP: There are a couple of transcriptions [in it], but they’re all kind of woven in. It was, again, a practicality. We travelled an enormous amount, and in Indonesia you travel very, very slowly. We went all over the place, and I realized that I needed a big piece to be working on all the time. She’d be interviewing these guys for two hours and I had nothing to do for a lot of the time. It was a very modular piece; it’s a set of variations. I had plenty of time to write it, but what was hard was being away from the piano. I’m not really a pianist, so that wasn’t that great a problem. Then when I got back to the States, Sarah Cahill, who’s a close friend of mine, sat in a practice room with me on a regular basis for almost a year and played all the drafts, so I could revise it using her as the pianist. I’m very grateful to her for that. And then later when these three Swiss pianists—Martin Christ, Urs Eggli, and Thomas Bächli—started to do it consecutively and then Martin started to do it solo, it kept getting revised and revised and revised. So it was written in a year, but the score didn’t appear until five years ago, and it was almost a ten year process from starting it to making a score of it to having the recording done.
FJO: One of the things I find so frustrating about that recording is that all the variations couldn’t fit on a single CD, so some of them were cut.
LP: That’s a red herring. Together we picked just a couple of minutes of the piece that we left out. But even in performance he’d shift it around a little bit. In the middle section the variations are quite long and heady. The piece is huge and there are places where you can cut down a couple of minutes here and there and you wouldn’t know. I’m not sensitive about that at all.
FJO: But I’m a completist, so I want to hear those missing variations. How could I hear them?
LP: I have other recordings, just ask me.
FJO: How can the rest of the world hear them?
LP: Maybe I should put them up on the web. There are actually some funny bootleg recordings of that piece, some other pianists have done them. One pianist in Berkeley did it in well temperament; it’s quite beautiful. Joe Kubera and Michael Arnowitt have made their own shorter, but quite beautiful suites. But as far as I know, Martin’s the only person to have ever performed the whole piece in public; it’s pretty daunting.
FJO: Another big piece, which is ongoing, is The Four Voice Canons. I’d love to talk to you a bit about those.
LP: I tend to do these things over many years, developing an idea. But then it hits a certain point where they need to evolve into some new level of existence, not just my own cleverness in orchestrating another four-voice canon, but rather liberating them from the bounds of my own me-ness. So the Four Voice Canon No. 13 is simply a do-it-yourself manual for other canons. For a while I was talking about those pieces a lot in public, and the talks would simply be an invitation for other people to write them. And a lot of people did. Then Al Margolis put out a wonderful two CD set of other people doing four voice canons and that was really gratifying.
Music should be open source and should be a collective activity. It always has been. Schoenberg invented the twelve-tone system (although I think it was Hauer!). It’s a pretty simple idea, but a lot of people got a lot of interesting music out of those very fundamental ideas. [We need] to change the notion of what composition is, whenever that can be done explicitly and in a kind of truly collaborative way. It shouldn’t be about me guarding my style or me putting down historical claims on things. It should rather be a fluid bidirectional and N-directional process. And I like it when that happens. It was kind of a revelation to me with The Four Voice Canons that that was pretty easy to do. Pieces came out that were charming and funny and interesting and completely different from anything I would have done. And it made me able to continue, because then I knew I was just one of the gang, I wasn’t this precious futzer.