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Interview with Richard Lainhart

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
And hello to you. I’m fine, thanks, now that I have my Internet access back – we had a severe windstorm last week. I live and work in Rockland County, NY, just north of New York City, surrounded by woodlands and wildlife. Some of those woodlands fell down in the storm, apparently squarely on my broadband connection, which is why I had no access for a while.

What’s on your schedule right now?

I recently finished up producing some demo videos for EastWest Sounds with my neighbour Jordan Rudess, the keyboardist for Dream Theater. Then there’s a series of analog synthesis instructional videos I created that are about to be released on Jordan’s Online Conservatory. Two of my short films were just shown at a festival in upstate New York. I’m in the midst of recording a definitive studio version of my first Kyma piece, and working on a new piece for lap steel guitar with Kyma processing. I’m also involved in an ongoing electronic free improvisation project with Jordan that we’re looking forward to reviving again soon, now that his long album tour is coming to an end.

Only a few weeks ago, you made a huge chunk of your unreleased pieces readily available on the Internet for free. Why?
Music is meant to be heard, and there’s a body of music I’ve made in the past 30 years that either hasn’t been heard in a long time, or has never been heard at all. It’s far more important to me at this point in my life to let those who have the capacity to enjoy my music hear it than to attempt to profit from it.

The Internet is an ideal medium for disseminating music to the widest possible audience, and it also has at least the potential for allowing my music to live longer than it might if released as commercial recordings. Most of us, I’m sure, have experienced the loss of some valued music that was originally released on vinyl and never reissued, or on tapes or CDs that have gone out of print. Releasing music online as digital data means that it may well be archived somewhere, maybe permanently, thus giving it the possibility of an infinite lifespan, even if it’s in a somewhat compromised format – because the material I’m giving away is somewhat compromised sonically. The music on my site is in MP3 format, which, while it gives a reasonable representation of the music, certainly doesn’t reveal all the detail of the uncompressed masters. So I don’t feel that I’m really losing anything.

Let’s take a few steps back to your beginnings: What sparked your interest in electronic music in a time, when this was not even a genre at all?

I first felt an interest in making music when I was in my early teens, at a time when rock music was becoming more adventurous and experimental – the mid to late Sixties. I had been listening to music my whole life – my father was a Hi-Fi enthusiast and enjoyed classical music and particularly opera – but I really didn’t feel that music was something I wanted to create or participate in myself until I started hearing the later Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Hendrix, and Zappa. I realized then that I wanted to make music like that. So I started playing electric bass, formed a garage band with some friends, and just fell in love with the power and beauty of electric sound. That led me to search out more music that focused on that power and beauty, which in turn led me to the Experimental and Electronic category in the old Schwann record catalogue. I bought and listened to everything there that I could afford.

Those listening experiences made me realize that there was quite a bit more to electric sound than just pop music, and that it was possible to make interesting sounds on my own, using many of the same simple techniques that the pioneering composers of electronic music had used. My father had an Ampex consumer reel-to-reel tape deck with multiple heads and sound-on-sound capability, and with that, my electric bass, and some effects pedals, I began my first experiments with making my own sounds. The feeling I got from creating sounds on my own – sounds that I had never heard before – was genuinely transcendent, and I have never forgotten it.

That was around the same time that modular analog synthesizers first started to appear in recordings, and once I heard them, particularly in the work of Morton Subotnick and Wendy Carlos, I knew I had to learn how to use them for myself. So I started learning as much as I could about synthesizers and synthesis, and decided to attend a college where I could work on such a system while learning more about music theory and composition in general.

Those old synthesizers were huge and complex – did you approach them rather as instruments or as machines? And: How difficult were they to play?
I think I saw them as both instruments and machines – instruments in the sense of sound-creation devices rather than performance devices, and machines in the sense of complex hardware that I had to learn to control.

When I first started using modular synths, they weren’t intended to be used as performance instruments, and they certainly were not instruments with the same immediacy and flexibility of electric guitars or mallet percussion instruments, which is what I was playing at the time. Since those synths, even the large ones, were strictly monophonic, the standard method of producing polyphony then was to work in layers by multitracking, either by playing a part on a keyboard or programming it on sequencers, and then bouncing down the tracks to add more tracks. So, as performance devices, the modulars were quite limited, and I don’t think I approached them with the same feeling as “real” instruments.

However, as machines that could make new and unique sounds, the modulars really opened up new vistas of sonic possibility for me. Playing them wasn’t really difficult, since the parts that you could play were limited. Their difficulty lay in understanding the nature of electronic sound, learning to create sound in what was then an alien landscape, and then coming up with unique sounds of your own.

You also mentioned that you did not speak of “composing” but of “realizing” pieces in the early days. Were the aesthetics of electronic music entirely different from today (possibly more scientific and “serious”)?
I think so. For one thing, the old modular synths had no factory presets, unlike today’s hardware and software instruments, and they couldn’t make any sound at all until you patched them up yourself. Doing that required a fair amount of fundamental knowledge, and there wasn’t much literature available to help out – getting even the simplest sound meant either getting mentoring from someone else willing to share their knowledge, or a great deal of isolated experimentation. (I think that’s where the idea of “realizing” came from – rather than composing, you were experimenting with processes, and the final result was the realization of the process or the outcome of the experiment, rather than a formal compositional procedure.) Working with those early instruments was not unlike working in a laboratory – it’s no accident that the first electronic music experimenters wore white lab coats. And of course, the instruments were so prohibitively expensive that only universities could afford them, and you had to attend a university and go through the standard music programs to work on them, which implied a certain seriousness of purpose.

The aesthetics of electronic music at the time were almost entirely aligned with the “serious” avant-garde of contemporary classical music. Very few popular musicians were using synths then. Most practitioners were academically trained composers whose teachers were solidly grounded in the classical composition tradition. There were a few mavericks outside that tradition, of course, like Tod Dockstader and Raymond Scott (Julliard-trained, but mainly a pop musician), but they were the exceptions. As a result, much early electronic music partook of the aesthetics of the avant-garde of the time – an avoidance of tonality and pulse rhythms, an interest in highly complex structures, and so on. Of course, with the rise of Minimalism, all that changed, which was just fine with me.

Many of the early pioneers built up a very personal relationship with these first synthesizers – which took a long time to get to know, unlike today’s keyboards. How was that for you?
I have to say that the synths, even then, were always just tools to me. I certainly enjoyed learning to use them and discovering what they could do, but I saw them simply as means to an end rather than an end in themselves. It’s true that I invested thousands of hours in coming to understand the old analogs, but when something better came along, I left them behind and didn’t look back. I have the same relationship with my computers – computers need to be upgraded regularly to take the fullest advantage of new software tools, and it’s a lot easier to do that if you don’t get sentimental about them.

I feel much the same way about my regular instruments, too. I love my marimba and vibraharp and electric guitar, but not as objects, only in what they allow me to do. I’ve owned many instruments in my life, and as a professional musician, the only way I could afford new ones was to trade in the old ones. I’m pretty settled with my current instruments, some of which I’ve owned for 20 years or more, but if by selling my lovely Musser 4-octave marimba I could get a nice 5-octave instrument, I’d do it in a shot. I’m not a collector.

Your biography mentions Joel Chadabe as an early important influence. Who was he and in which way would you say was he influential to your progress as a musician and composer?
Joel was, and is, a significant figure in the history of electronic music. His music isn’t particularly well known, but he’s an influential composer and thinker, particularly in the field of interactive music – music made with the active assistance of machines. He founded and directed the Coordinated Electronic Music Studio system at the State University of New York at Albany in the late 1960s, knows and has worked with most of the important composers and performers in the new music world, and has taught hundreds of composers in the course of his teaching career, including myself. (His personal website is at, if you’d like to learn more about him.)

I first attended the State University of New York at Binghamton just to work in the studio there and learn the basics of analog synthesis and studio techniques. The studio was first-class, but I didn’t feel that I was getting the compositional direction I needed. Within two years I became aware of Joel and his studio, and transferred to Albany to work with him. Admittedly, the studio itself was a big attraction, as it was probably the largest and best-equipped analog synthesis studio in the US at the time, but Joel’s music and writing was an even bigger attraction.

Joel’s musical concepts were a revelation to me, and I still consider him to be my single biggest influence. My music doesn’t sound at all like his, but one of the things I’ve always admired and respected in him was that he didn’t expect his students’ music to conform to his own style, unlike many composition teachers. Instead, his focus was on bringing to his students an understanding of how to listen, of the fundamental structures of music, and how to use those structures in composition.

In particular, I think the most important thing I learned from him was to always strive for elegance in composition – elegance in the scientific sense of the simplest, clearest, most refined expression of an idea. This, of course, is what Minimalism is all about – stripping away all the extraneous stuff that gets in the way of clear expression in order to expose the music’s fundamental nature.

Another important thing I learned from Joel was that music created by machines is a valid form of composition. That the composer didn’t need to be entirely responsible for every note of his or her music was a pretty radical idea at the time, and one that met with much resistance in “serious” music circles. The fact that this idea is widely accepted today shows, at least in retrospect, that he was right.

What attracted you so much about the “One Sound” idea?
As I began to listen to and fall in love with Minimalism, and to apply Joel’s concept of elegance to my own work, I found myself increasingly drawn to the idea of harmonic motion slowly evolving over time. At that time, in the early 1970s, I was listening to a lot of ethnic and world music, particularly the classical music of India. The rich acoustic drone of the tamboura, normally heard only in a supporting role in that music, was just the kind of sound that I was beginning to find more and more attractive. So my first drone pieces were a kind of emulation of the idea of the tamboura, without attempting to reproduce the actual sound.

At first I tried combining the drone with other elements, fearful that the drone by itself wouldn’t be enough to sustain the work. Eventually, though, I came to feel that with only a slight change of listening focus, it contained everything necessary for a beautiful musical experience. A process of continual refinement led me to the concept of One Sound, as I tried to remove everything that diverted my attention from the sound itself. From those first electronic drone pieces came my later bowed percussion and voice tape works, the computer-controlled sampling pieces of the 1980s, and my current processed guitar compositions.

I’d like to add that I didn’t really formalize the One Sound concept until quite recently, when I put up my revised website and wanted, perhaps egotistically, to provide a label for the work that I felt was my strongest and clearest to date. Since many of those pieces consisted of just a single evolving sound with no other focus than the sound itself, One Sound seemed like a good descriptor.

Would you agree that your releases always have a strong spiritual and “mysterious” component? I found that quite a lot of them work without the use of rhythm and melody, intuitively and inexplicably.
Thank you.

I don’t know about “always”, but I like to think that there is a spiritual, or perhaps more accurately, a contemplative aspect to much of my work. I’m not a member of any organized religion and don’t follow any formal spiritual path or New Age philosophy, and I suspect that my own feelings about religion and our place in this world are at odds with many, maybe most people’s cosmologies. But it pleases me to hear that some people who listen to my music use it for meditation practice, or that they find it a calming refuge from the stresses of our society. For myself, I do try to express some of my spiritual interests in my music, but the nature of those interests are entirely my own.

As I mentioned before, I try to be as clear as possible in presenting my ideas, but music isn’t merely an intellectual gambit. It’s also an emotional pursuit. The best music should, it seems to me, evoke a deep emotional response from the listener. In my case, though, what that response is may not be obvious, and I prefer it that way. In music with words and vocals, so often the emotion being expressed is perfectly obvious in the words themselves, and the music becomes simply the carrier for the words. With instrumental music, the emotion is more subtle, and that applies particularly to mine, I believe. I think it’s better that way – each listener can then draw his or her own feeling from the music, without my having to lead them there, which is something I am really not interested in.

Of course, not everyone is prepared or even able to do that, and I realize that my music is not for everyone. But I believe that for those who are willing to listen to my work with focus and patience, something of enduring worth will come in return.

Which of the other early pioneers of electronic music interested you back then? And: What was the scene for electronic music like in the USA? Today’s journalism seems to concentrate almost exclusively on Germany...
There were many composers and recording artists I found interesting back then (and still do), some of whom wouldn’t ordinarily be considered electronic pioneers but whose ideas seemed to resonate with me: Morton Subotnick, and Wendy Carlos, as I mentioned, for their technical ability and ears for sound; Tod Dockstader, who also had an unusual and fascinating way with sound;  Steve Reich, for his sense of rhythm, and Terry Riley, for his focus on improvisation; Phill Niblock, a wonderful filmmaker-composer, and a good friend, with his own unique sonic sensibility; Charlemagne Palestine, who when I first met him was creating very beautiful electronic drone pieces; La Monte Young, for his interest in harmonics and tuning, his extended sense of time, and his rigorous artistic sensibility; Harold Budd and Daniel Lentz, for their lovely harmonic languages.

It seemed to me at the time that the US was the center for electronic music activity. That’s no doubt at least partly due to my American biases, but it really did seem to me that most of the  innovation in the field, especially in synthesizer design and composition, was happening here. Germany has, of course, an important place in the history of electronic music, with Stockhausen, Friedrich Trautwein, and Oskar Sala coming readily to mind as early innovators, but by the late 60s and early 70s, I felt much of the important work was being done here in the US. A lot of that was in universities to be sure, and as such didn’t get heard much in the outside world, but throughout that period, interest was growing in the general music world, especially through recordings.

It’s important to remember that the electronic music of the time was almost never performed live. It was much more common to hear new electronic music played back from tapes in darkened concert halls, which was not a particularly compelling audience experience. It was really through recordings and college radio stations that the music began to be widely heard. Once Wendy Carlos released “Switched On Bach”, everything started to shift, and electronic music started to become a popular music phenomenon.

The next big step was MIDI, which has somehow turned into a negative term. How did it feel like at the time and what’s your point of view on it now?

The introduction of MIDI and the ability to control synthesizers with personal computers was enormously significant to me, and I believe, to the development of electronic music in general. For the first time, composers working on their own had the tools and resources available to create professional-level recordings without having to work in professional recording studios or universities. What’s more, MIDI and personal computer control allowed for the live performance of truly expressive electronic music, something that hadn’t been very practical before then. With MIDI, the performance of electronic music became a genuinely musical experience.

Having said that, it’s easy to see why MIDI has some negative connotations. For one thing, MIDI is rather rigidly note-oriented – that is, MIDI is intended to reproduce keyboard performances, with no real thought given to the sound being played. For me, that became a great limitation. It’s hard with MIDI control to shape sound in truly flexible and interesting ways. Before personal computers became powerful enough to work with sound data directly, MIDI was the only choice, but more recently, I, and many other composers interested in pure sound, have gotten away from MIDI, favoring instead direct sonic manipulation.

But it’s still worthwhile to note that none of the current tools would be available if it weren’t for the groundwork laid by MIDI’s development, and I’m thankful for that.

The 80s also saw the release of “These Last Days”, your first solo effort. Why did it take so long to publish your work? Or weren’t you interested so much in actually recording CDs?
I certainly had an interest in releasing recordings, whether LPs early on or CDs later, but I didn’t have the resources to do it. At the time, there were only two routes for composers like myself  to release recordings – self-financing or grants. I decided early on that I didn’t want to finance my own recordings or start my own record label, mainly because I couldn’t afford to and I didn’t want to be in the record business anyway.

As for the other route, being a successful receiver of government funding in the US involves abilities and attributes that I apparently don’t possess. I’ve always been a little out of step with the new music mainstream, and a little out of touch with the kind of networking and interpersonal skills that a modern American composer needs to have at his disposal for traditional survival. So those opportunities didn’t come my way, and I didn’t pursue them. The release of “These Last Days” was really just a fluke – Ron Goldberg, the founder of Periodic Music, the label on which “These Last Days” was released, advertised for composers of interesting electronic music when he started the label. I happened to see the ad, and sent him a tape of my music. Thankfully, he liked it.

I should also mention that for a long period in the late 70s to mid 80s, I became almost completely immersed in studying and playing swing music, and largely stopped composing electronic music during that time. The traditional swing music of the 1930s and 40s, especially the vibes playing of Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo, occupied my musical energies almost entirely during that period.  I owned and used no electric instruments at all. The only electronic device I possessed was a mono turntable, and I listened to music composed between 1920 and 1950 almost exclusively. Since then I’ve gotten away from that era and returned to my own compositions, but I’ll always love that music.

If you have a look at the development of electronic music, how would you describe it? Are there certain aspects that you feel have been lost and should be found again? And has anything actually improved?

The progression of electronic music has been from an art form created by a relatively few practitioners, viewed by the public with disinterest or even deep suspicion, to one with a much wider practice and popular acceptance. This is both good and bad, in my view. I’m pleased that the more thoughtful and sincere electronic work of the past is now finding a wider audience than it ever had (including my own work, of course – I’m not immune to ego), and that some younger artists are developing those ideas in interesting new ways. And I’m also glad to hear that there seems to be a growing interest in both creating and listening to music of the more contemplative variety.

However, I must say that I’m disappointed that so much current electronic work is so tied to dance rhythms and forms, and I’m particularly disappointed in the lack of creativity in much contemporary electronica. So much of what I hear seems to use the same old tired analog sounds, the same sampled drum loops, the same 4/4 rhythms and the same 8-bar structures, to the point where we now see entire genres of music separated and defined by little more than their slight differences in tempo. Certainly there are many younger electronica artists who are creating fascinating new sounds and interesting new rhythms – I’d mention Autechre and Richard Devine as outstanding examples – but all too many seem simply interested in repeating what they’ve already heard with only the slightest variations. 

But that’s the way it always is when an obscure art form moves into the mainstream. While there may be many new electronic practitioners who don’t have anything new to say, inevitably there will be, and are, some who do. And I think that’s all facilitated by what I see as a real improvement in the development of electronic music, specifically the greater availability of useful tools to more people. As I mentioned, when I started out, you had to attend a university to have access to the tools, something that just wasn’t, and still isn’t, an option for many people. Now, almost anyone can afford or have access to a personal computer many times more powerful than the ones I first worked on, and hardware and software sound-production tools undreamed of when I first started composing. And that, I think, is all to the good.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
I think that rather than create one singularly defining magnum opus, I would rather create an ongoing body of elegant and beautiful music that will live on after I’m gone. I believe that my best One Sound work is that body, and I intend to continue adding to it as long as I can.

These Last Days (1987) Periodic Music
Ten Thousands Shades of Blue (2001) XI Records

Richard Lainhart

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