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15 Questions to Richard Lainhart

img  Tobias
Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I'm fine! I'm in my studio in Rockland County, NY, under the clear blue sky. The birds are singing, and it's cold as hell.

What’s on your schedule right now?
Today, I'm preparing tracks for a new online album of Buchla/Continuum music for MusicZeit, editing some instructional videos I produced with my partner Jordan Rudess for a couple of music manufacturers, and admiring my Ex Ovo "White Night" CDs, which just arrived. And answering these questions.

Would you say the music scene is in a state of crisis? How hard (or easy) has it been for you finding performance opportunities and audiences for your music?
The music business is certainly in crisis. CD sales are down for all genres, online re-distribution of recorded music without compensation is up, and there seems to be a growing feeling among consumers that music, indeed all digital data, should be free. Taken to its logical conclusion, it would seem that the business of selling music is doomed.

On the other hand, the Internet has provided me and many other musicians like me with much greater exposure than would ever have been possible in the old days, and as a result, there seems to be more music being made now than ever. When I started out as a composer, getting heard was tough, particularly for me and other composers of electronic music on tape. Performance venues for that kind of music were very rare, and so about the only way to be heard at all was on records and college or public radio. Getting airplay meant distributing records, but there were few record labels then releasing and distributing that kind of music, which meant self-publishing and distributing your own music. If you didn't want to be in the record business, as I didn't, you had few other options, and so much of the music from that time has gone unheard. Much of it may now be lost, in fact.

So, ignoring the financial question for a moment, it's wonderful that it's so easy to distribute music online now and reach an international audience. And it seems now that there's an audience out there somewhere for even the most esoteric and difficult music. Music is meant to be heard, and given that I've never made much money from my music anyway, I'd rather it be heard than lost. It may well be that the idea of composers and performers being compensated for their recorded work is going away; at the rate things are going, it certainly looks like it. It will be a shame, because it may mean that any number of great musicians will no longer be able to make a living doing what they love. But if it's inevitable, one might as well accept it. I don't know how it will all turn out, but it will be interesting to see what happens.

As for myself, having a strong Web presence has been very beneficial in increasing my visibility, which has in turn created many new performance opportunities for me. I've performed more in the last two years than in all the previous 10, and I expect that to increase in the coming years. So it hasn't been a crisis for me - far from it.



What do you usually start with when composing?
Usually, a sound. Much of my compositional time is spent coming up with new sounds, often based on a particular technical process or an interesting combination of hardware and software. Once I find a sound that interests me, that I feel has depth, I'll then work with that sound and try to find the music that allows that sound to be heard most clearly.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
For me, and especially for my One Sound pieces, the sound is the composition - that is, the structure of the sound determines the structure of the composition. I think my most elegant and successful pieces are those whose structure most closely mirrors their sound. But even in my more recent electronic improvisatory work, the sound is more important than the notes, for the most part.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
Not very. I occasionally write music that's composed in the traditional sense, in which I'll imagine melodies, chords, rhythms, and textures and notate them. But I usually create my music by improvising ideas and refining them over time into a final structure.

Harmony? Dissonance? The freedom to choose both, none or just one?
Both, certainly. Much of my own work is consonant, because I love harmonics and I feel consonant tonalities allow them to speak more clearly. But lately, since I got my Buchla synthesizer and Haken Continuum, I've been working a lot with non-consonant FM sounds, especially sounds that I would liken to long, deep bells without attacks. These sounds are "dissonant", in that they're completely outside the realms of standard tonality, but they have a great beauty of their own. I would not want to give them up just to satisfy the demands of tonality.

Russian composer Alexander Danilevski said: “The musical innovations of the 21st century will not be intonational ones; they will be based on developing a new musical form and dramaturgy.” What are your thoughts on this?
If I understand him correctly, he's saying that we've gone as far as we can with the 12 tones, and that more divisions of the octave, or more exploration outside the realm of equal temperament, won't help create a genuinely new music. He also seems to be saying that innovation will come from new modes of presentation, not new content.

I disagree, for the most part. I don't think that microtonalism is the answer as such - that further blurring the focus of tonality will help create a genuinely new music - but I also don't think we've truly explored everything that just intonation can offer us. Just intonation can be defined as the perfect tuning of the notes in a chord so that all the notes and their harmonics are completely consonant. When they are, new tonalities arise spontaneously from the re-combination of the harmonics, and when it works, it's a glorious thing to hear. As someone whose work is so dependent on the interplay of harmonics, I don't think we've heard everything possible there.

But I do think that new forms of music presentation are important too, and it may be that we will see some true innovation there as the world becomes increasingly networked.



How would you define the term “interpretation”? How important is it for you to work closely together with the artists performing your work?
Interpretation is the bringing-to-life of a composer's work - the realization in sound of an abstract score. A score isn't the music - it's the instructions on how to make the music, and so it has to be turned into sound by an interpreter. Sometimes the score is loose, and the interpreter has a lot of freedom in how to make the music, as in graphic scores or jazz charts in which the performers are all expected to improvise around the score's structure. Other scores are much stricter, and the interpreter is expected to adhere as closely as possible to the composer's instructions. I think that any composer, though, has to tread a fine line between allowing too much freedom, so that his or her intent is lost, and being too restrictive, so that the performers just feel like machines.

Having said all that, though, none of this really applies to me, because I don't create music for others to perform - my music has almost always been only in recorded form or for my own performance. I don't get commissions or apply to competitions, and in fact have only ever written one piece of music for someone else - a work for cello and electronics commissioned by David Gibson, a cellist and one of my composition teachers in school. (In fact, I worked closely with David for the performance, if only because the electronic processing was complex and difficult to set up, and it was successful.)

Other than that, I've written a few tunes in the jazz idiom that were just lead sheets (melodies and chords). Music in that style is mainly intended to provide a framework for group improvisation, and in group improvisation, pretty much anything goes, for better or for worse, so directing the interpretation didn't seem appropriate to me.

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?
No. There has been some truly powerful and moving political or social art in history - Picasso's "Guernica" comes immediately to mind. But for myself, I feel that the best art, truly timeless art, stands outside of its time. So much political or social art is really just a commentary on, or a parody of, current events, and when those events are no longer current, the art is no longer valid. Topical art, which is how I see political or social art, doesn't last, for the most part. I try my best to make music that will last beyond the moment, and that to me means art that doesn't explicitly reference its own time.

Would you say that a lack of education is standing in the way of audiences in their appreciation of contemporary composition?
To some extent, certainly. Not necessarily in the sense that audiences need to have gone to music school to enjoy contemporary music, but in the sense that much contemporary music isn't obvious and needs deeper listening for full understanding and enjoyment. I agree with Charles Wuorinen that one of the things that separates art from entertainment is that entertainment is immediately understandable, but that once you do understand it, spending more time with it doesn't lead to any deeper understanding. With art, on the other hand, comprehension may require repeated exposure and contemplation, but once you've made the effort to comprehend, you're rewarded with a deeper beauty, a greater enjoyment of the art, and even perhaps of the human condition.

I don't feel that the differences between art and entertainment are simply binary, that all human creation is just one or the other. Instead, I think that there's a continuum of creativity between the shallowest entertainment and the deepest art. But I do feel the deepest art is better appreciated if the perceiver has some background and prior experience with the art in question. A good example is gastronomy - everyone enjoys a good meal, and sometimes a plain, simple meal is just right. But there's no question that those who have greater experience in tasting fine foods or wines are better able to appreciate the subtleties of those foods than those with less experience. And with that experience comes a deeper understanding, and, I think, a deeper and richer pleasure. I think that applies to all aesthetic appreciation.



How, do you feel, could contemporary compositions reach the attention of a wider audience without sacrificing their soul?
I'm not sure they can, or should. Certainly, part of what limits a wider audience is the stuffiness of the classical concert experience, and I wouldn't mind seeing that whole presentation loosen up a little - why shouldn't people be able to enjoy themselves at a concert? I'm definitely more comfortable on stage if my audience is comfortable, and I much prefer venues where people can drink and relax while listening, instead of having to sit bolt upright in hard chairs, afraid to cough.

But I cringe when I see classical performers try to get hip with goofy haircuts and costumes, or by playing classical arrangements of popular music that just doesn't translate to the acoustic instrumental medium. I don't think that's the right approach at all, and I feel that the audience sees right through it as an attempt to pander to popularity. Again, I think the best approach to widening the audience may just be to widen the distribution of the music; ultimately, it may be the Internet that saves contemporary music from disappearing, as contradictory as that may seem.

True or false: The cultural subsidies doled out by governments are being sent to the wrong kind of people and institutions.
False and true. Clearly, some of the art supported by governments is worthless, and some clearly is. I don't necessarily feel that art should be subsidized, and I don't apply for or receive grants myself, but there are many worse things our governments can, and do, spend our money on. I wouldn't mind seeing more of my government's money spent on the arts, and less on missiles. If it did, inevitably some would go to support work that I don't care for, but it would be better spent in any case.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?

As many varied, interesting live electronic musicians as I could find, some of whom are my friends (you have to help out your friends, right?). Ideally they'd include, in no particular order, Morton Subotnick, Joel Chadabe, LaMonte Young, Richard Devine, Autechre, Murcof, Moldover, Charles Cohen, Don Preston, Jordan Rudess, Phill Niblock, Eliane Radique, Tetsu Inoue, Jason Kahn, William Basinski, Carl Stone, o.blaat, Laurie Spiegel, Koji Asano, Steve Roach, Richard Chartier, Annea Lockwood, Bass Communion, BT, Taylor Deupree, Tod Dockstader, Pamelia Kurstin, Todd Barton, Fear Falls Burning, Monique Buzzarte, Al Margolis, Fennesz, Edmund Eagan, Barry Schrader, Pauline Oliveros, Maryanne Amacher, Harold Budd, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, USO Project, Christopher Willits, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Feu Follet, Aalfang Mit Pferdekopf, and me, along with a bunch of others I've probably overlooked.

It could never happen, of course, but we'd hear some extraordinary music if it did. And for the grande finale, I'd have them all improvise together, except that everyone would have to play someone else's equipment, sight unseen. Now that would be experimental....

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
I don't think I'll ever create a single piece of music that will be the ultimate expression of my ideas, and I don't think I'd want to. I see my work as a continuing process, and I hope that my best work will all be a part of the great work.

Richard Lainhart
January 27, 2008

These Last Days (1987) Periodic Music
Ten Thousands Shades of Blue (2001) XI Records
Five Nocturnes (2007) MusicZeit
Staring At The Moon (2007) MusicZeit
The Beautiful Blue Sky (2007) MusicZeit
White Night (2008) Ex Ovo

Richard Lainhart

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