Lansky's 'Notes to Self': An Electronic Music Pioneer Goes Unplugged

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In the liner notes for his latest album, "Notes to Self," Paul Lansky – the Princeton-based electronic music pioneer and onetime Radiohead reference – describes its five pieces as originating "from a different toolkit in my composer's workshop" and "later-in-life adventures in music that needs no electricity." That, of course, refers to his gradual shift away from the complex electronic works with which he's made his name over the last four decades.

The album’s luminous title track for string orchestra leads us into the world of Paul Lansky the orchestral composer. Built on the same transparent simplicity as the music of Arvo Pärt, the piece is an arrangement/manipulation of Lansky’s string quartet Ricercar Plus – itself an extension of an earlier quartet, Ricercare. The first half – constructed on bits of ascending scales – is marked with a pensive, transcendent lightness progressively colored with accumulation of darker textures.

Horizons opens as a tick-tocking metronomic trio of piano, cello and percussion. It's one of the instances on the record where Lansky's background in electronic music surfaces: matrices of woodblock and vibraphone wall in piano figures that bubble like the product of a hyperactive MAX/MSP trigger.

The movements of the solo piano Notes to Self – alternately clinically and sensitively performed by Mihae Lee – comprise an advanced student’s notebook. The first three movements make commentary on George Perle, Milton Babbitt and Igor Stravinsky, while the finale is fittingly subtitled “In which Ravel moderates a conversation between Hindemith and Messiaen." Similarly, the aniquatedly-titled Partita for guitar and percussion tours moments of flamenco, minimalism and even Zappa-esque jazz fusion. Line and Shadow – a lush, Romantically-charged piece for orchestra – uses the musical device of a canon to construct, in Lansky's words, “shapes and textures that die away.”

Nearly all of the music is driven by concept – distance, shape, various approaches to pitch organization. It makes sense, given Lansky’s history as a master of programming and synthesis, but the startling thing about “Arches” is how personal, how human it all sounds. Poised nearly perfectly on the fulcrum of didacticism and pensive, emotive release, it's the sound of a toolbox that over the course of Lansky's mythical, multifaceted career has been opened and closed, internalized and ignored, and ultimately rediscovered and revitalized.

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