Greetings everyone. This is yet another "previously unopened/unheard" cd piles post; I think this is possibly the best one yet...I have been enjoying *everything* about this recording so very much that I feel bad that I had it sitting in my closet for a couple years-what pleasure I inadvertently denied myself! I had heard of Paul Lansky however I had never heard anything he composed until now (he has been known mostly for his electronic/computer-based composition, and I just never got around to sampling any...now I realize I probably should). All three works I find to be terrific, and perfect examples of 21st century composition that's not only highly accessible but unique and exciting. This disc it but thrice played (my free time is so scarce still) however it's clear to me that this is something really special. Paul Lansky is a first rate composer who knows how to weave several musical styles together effortlessly and with magical effect. A triumph for Bridge and anyone lucky enough to get their ears on this music.
Typing out the booklet notes:
Paul Lansky's burgeoning career shift - from composer of computer-generated music, to composer of music written for, as he humorously puts it "carbon-based life forms" - is documented on the present recording, comprising three symphonic works created during the past five years. In Lansky's words: "I never expected to write orchestral music. On the other hand I never planned to spend more then thirty years doing little but trying to get dumb computers to sing." Lansky's comment about his work with computers is self-effacing to a fault, as his mastery of the digital genre has long been praised for its expressive qualities in a field that has struggled with this issue from its inception. To whit, a number of Lansky's compositions are regarded as classics in a genre that has all too often produced the ephemeral. These include: Table's Clear (1990), employing kitchen instruments and the voices of the composer's children; the series of "Chatter" pieces (1985-2006), featuring chanting choruses of synthetic voices which produce glorious contrapuntal and harmonic tapestries; and the ethereal transformation of folk materials in the collection, Folk Images (1980/81 and 1991). And the praise comes from all sides. Fellow composers have hailed his technical expertise and innovations, critics often point to the wide variety of his expressive palette, and average listeners love his directness of expression, his ability to make computers "sing". So the obvious question is, how did he move from computer to orchestra?
Lansky writes: "By 2005 I had pretty much switched over to writing for instruments; life is short and I wanted to try new things. Orchestral music, however, seemed out of reach. But, that spring I taught a graduate seminar at Princeton in contemporary approaches to harmony and wrote a set of piano preludes to explore some of the things we were studying. My agent, Beck Storobin, asked if I had any two-piano music that the duo Quattro Mani might perform. I re-scored and expanded some of these preludes, and the suite "It All Adds Up" was born. At about the same time, Justin Brown, the conductor of the Alabama Symphony, was staying with David and Becky for a few days. The idea of a two-piano concerto for Sue and Alice and the ASO was discussed, and the next thing I knew, I was writing "Shapeshifters."
The first performance of Shapeshifters became a turning point in Lansky's compositional career. The work was premiered in April 2008 to an enthusiastic sold-out house in Birmingham--an event that had more of the aura of a rock concert than a symphony performance, because the biggest draw that night was the string orchestra piece "Popcorn Superhet Receiver", by Johnny Greenwood, the lead guitarist of the English rock band Radiohead. Radiohead had encountered Lansky's music at an earlier date, and borrowed a four-chord sample from his 1973 computer piece "mild und leis", as the basis for the song "Idioteque" on the band's hit 2000 album, "Kid A". When Lansky learned that Greenwood's piece was to be on the Birmingham program, he included the same four-chord sequence in the third movement of "Shapeshifters" (listen to track 3 at 2'22''). The cheering, standing ovation earned by Shapeshifters at the premiere performance gave rise to the idea of Lansky working with the orchestra, and during the 2009-10 season he was named as the Alabama Symphony's first composer-in-residence. The ASO commissioned "Imaginary Islands" for the occasion, premiered the guitar concerto "With the Grain" (commissioned by the Fromm Foundation for yours truly), and also played two shorter orchestral pieces Lansky had just written, "Line and Shadow" and "Arches".
And how did our novice symphonist do? Judging by the results herein, admirably! Lansky's musical world seems to find its most complete expression in his orchestral works. The busy surfaces of his computer music remain, and so does the expressive imperative to communicate with swinging rhythms, soulful melodies and a mixture of tonal, polytonal, and at times, nontonal harmony. Melodies have become more expansive and quirky, suiting those carbon-based exponents and the instruments they play, and the timbral possibilities of computer music have been amplified in orchestrations that are almost pictorial in their detail (Lansky writes that he "learned a whole lot about orchestration from writing computer music: spectral balance, envelope, masking, texture etc."). But best of all, the largeness of spirit--the ability to write exalted music that makes us want to dance, meditate, or even cry, finds its fullest expression in these beautiful works, which unabashedly mix popular and classical elements. Whether or not Lansky ever returns to the digital domain, he has given us a body of repertoire that has the communicative power of a modern day Gershwin.
-David Starobin, New Rochelle, NY
Notes on the music by the composer:
"Shapeshifters" (2007-8), for two pianos and orchestra, was commissioned by the Alabama Symphony and Justin Brown for the piano duo Quattro Mani, Susan Grace and Alice Rybak. The title, Shapeshifters, denotes a kind of homage to music's ability to change and morph itself in uncanny and unusual ways. The idea was inspired while composing a moment about 2/3 of the way (4'26'') through the first movement, "At Any Moment", when an interruption of a sudden B minor chord in the horns and strings changes everything. What had been a good day is now overcast and gloomy, like what happens when you get a phone call out of the blue telling you something you may not have wanted to hear. In the other movements shapeshifting occurs in different ways. In the second movement, "Florid Counterpoint", twisting contrapuntal lines evolve into a kind of Andalusian lament. In the third movement, "Confused and Dazed", the music exhibits a kind of collage mentality, switching back and forth between different kinds of materials rather than evolving a thematic idea. In "Topology", the final movement, the music evolves from a kind of frenetic and percussive texture to full-blown dance music. "Shapeshifters" is not a concerto in the romantic tradition. Here the pianos move back and forth between being articulate soloists and being members of the orchestra.
"With the Grain" (2009) was commissioned by the Fromm Foundation at Harvard for the guitarist David Starobin. The four movements (about 22 minutes) are named after wood grains and their kinetic qualities (these also describe the music): "Redwood Burl (slow, round, evolving shapes)", "Karelian Birch (long, sinuous, wavy lines)", "Quilted Beech (quiet, with soft contours)", and "Walnut Burl (busy, with aggressive twists and turns)." The piece is a celebration of the classical guitar, an instrument that is manifestly about wood, and it is dedicated to David Starobin. It was David who first encouraged me to write guitar music over ten years ago, a suggestion for which I am forever grateful.
"Imaginary Islands" (2010) was commissioned by Justin Brown and the Alabama Symphony with the generous assistance of the members of Sound Investment and the National Endowment for the Arts. The work is in three movements, each a kind of sonic landscape for an imaginary island. The movement's titles tell all: 1)"Rolling Hills, Calm Beaches, Something Brewing"; 2)"Cloud-shrouded, Mysterious, Nascent"; 3)"Busy, Bustling, With a heartbeat". Each of the three "islands" has an outward appearance and a back story; a clear first impression, but up close a deeper meaning. Then again, this is what any interesting piece of music should be all about: when you look more deeply you start to see its particular and unique aspects - each island/piece has its own story to tell, something under the surface. -Paul Lansky
Enjoy (and Happy Passover & Easter to all!)