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Interview with Richard Lainhart 2

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hi! I’m very well, thank you. I’m in my studio in Rockland County, New York, awaiting the New Year and watching the gently swirling snow.

What’s on your schedule right now?

Quite a bit, actually. I’m in the middle of a series of projects I’ve been collaborating on with my neighbor, Jordan Rudess, including demo product videos for Roland and Mark Of The Unicorn; a DVD of our “A Fistful Of Patchcords” synthesizer performance from last summer, which we’ve just released on our own Airglow Music label (; a CD of our Moog Birthday Space Jam from a couple of years ago, also to be released on Airglow; assembling a music video for Jordan’s daughter’s 13th birthday; converting all the videos on Jordan’s Online Conservatory ( to Flash format for a redesign. At home, I’m installing a new music computer, transferring  authorizations and saying goodbye to the old but useful software that doesn’t work on the new machine anymore; rewiring my studio; and recovering from my main PowerBook’s recent, sudden death (which is partly responsible for the delay in completing this interview; sorry.)

Beyond all this technical stuff, I’m continuing to work on new music for Kyma and Continuum. The Haken Audio Continuum, which I just picked up a couple of months ago, is a wonderfully expressive “fretless” MIDI keyboard, possibly the first that lets the performer play polyphonically with three continuous dimensions of control. I’ve really enjoyed exploring it. The Continuum will also be a part of the new electronic performance system I’m just starting to put together, which I hope will be complete by this Spring and which will, I hope, signal a new direction for my own work. (I won’t be abandoning my One Sound music by any means; this is just something new in addition to all that.) I'm also about halfway through a year-long timelapse film project that, if all goes well, will go into post-production this summer. I haven't done any new personal film work for a while, and certainly nothing in which the basic photography has taken a full year. I'll be recording a new sound track for it as well. I'm looking forward to completing it.

After being one of the early pioneers of the Synthesizer, you are currently very much into Software synthesis. In which way does composing differ with these two methods?

The analog modular synthesizers on which I learned synthesis were completely hands-on, in the sense that they had no presets or even a default state – they wouldn’t make any kind of sound at all until the modules were patched together and the knobs and switches set. From there, at least during the learning phase, the composer would have to experiment endlessly to understand how the modules interacted and, eventually, come up with interesting sounds. As a result, there were many frustrations and many clichéd sounds, but also many happy accidents and sometimes, a new way of working that could lead the composer to sounds that had never been heard before.

This happened to me, in fact – I came upon a method for producing rich, complex and unpredictable harmonic structures using interacting chains of frequency modulation sources acting on simple sine wave oscillators that, as far as I know, no one had ever done before and which I used for a number of compositions (including my “White Night” remix on the “I, Mute Hummings” compilation from Ex Ovo).

Beyond that, though, since the modular systems weren’t designed for realtime performance, and were essentially monaural, multitrack tape recorders were an essential studio tool, and so the composer had to plan well in advance how the individual tracks would be structured and interact with each other, even in seemingly simple and spontaneous compositions. If the music was the kind that couldn’t be written down with standard notation, the composer would either have to keep everything in his head or come up with some kind of charting or graphic system to keep track of it all.

With software tools and computers, the mechanical techniques are completely different. Synthesis and performance control are all essentially realtime, and multitracking is no longer necessary, since it’s now possible to achieve almost unlimited density and complexity in realtime with a single system. This realtime capability allows, I think, for a much higher degree of spontaneity and improvisation in the compositional process than was ever possible in the old monosynth/multitrack days. And the fact that the personal computer is at the center of all this allows for powerful, high-level organization, and even opens up the possibility of creative human-machine interaction – for good or ill, depending on your viewpoint.

The tools are a lot cheaper than they were too, of course, which means that more people can make technology-based music than ever before. And, since software synthesizers and sound processing plugins have presets and memory, it’s generally much easier for the beginner to get started. The negative aspects of all that are obvious, naturally – many technological musicians never go beyond the presets, and so never learn to make their own sounds or truly understand the acoustic or musical principles behind the technology. (It’s this situation that in part led me to create my “Adventures In Analog Synthesis” training video series for Jordan’s Online Conservatory.)

Would you say that Software tools have made it easier to realize your personal musical ideas? If so, in which way?
Absolutely. I first started using personal computers in the very early days of MIDI, and with the addition of a few MIDI synths and samplers and a digital recorder, found that I could produce professional-quality recordings in my own studio without being dependent on professional recording facilities. The digital audio processing tools like Sound Designer, Softsynth, and Alchemy that became available soon after that allowed me to multi-track digital audio and to create and process my own digital sounds with the same facility as in the old analog studios. Eventually, those tools came to include methods of creating unique and beautiful sounds that could never have existed in the analog realm. For someone like me, whose work is based on the creation of sound, to be able to do all this on a computer that you can now carry under your arm is incredibly liberating. And in any case, the Minimalist in me finds the elegance of the laptop-based studio pleasing.

If we may believe the stories from the 70s, coincidence and the “malfunctioning” of machines was an important part of composing (the classic Tangerine Dream track “Thru metamorphic Rock” e.g. consists mainly of a sequencer gone mad). What’s your stance on this? Do you prefer the precision of modern tools or the “charming irregularities” of vintage equipment?
Those “charming irregularities” were things we all struggled hard to overcome! It was absolutely maddening back then to have to spend 2 hours just getting the oscillators in tune with each other enough to record a single track of a complex drone, only to have to tune them again for the next track. Having spent a lot of time in analog studios, I can honestly say there’s no comparison to the flexibility and stability of a computer-based system. Analog has its place, of course, but there’s so much more you can do in the digital domain that I have no desire to ever return to those days exclusively.

Perhaps ironically, the centerpiece of the new performance system I mentioned above is a modular analog synthesizer, but it’s a modern incarnation that has solved the stability problems of the older models, as well as adding many new features that makes it a viable machine for live performance. The charm of analog sound-making for me is in the organic quality of the sound and in the immediacy of analog controls, not in its inherent instability.

You’re no stranger to software development yourself. Have you ever thought about developing your own software to match your exact needs? Or do you prefer exploring the sound worlds someone else has designed for you?

I’ve been in and around the music software world for some time, and have done a certain amount of my own programming in Max and Kyma, but I’m not a real programmer – certainly not to the extent of being able to create my own music programs from scratch. It would be wonderful to be able to do so – I have some ideas for an additive synthesizer I’d like to see implemented, for example. But I just don’t have the skills myself, and at this point, I feel that the time required to develop those skills would be better spent elsewhere – like learning all the wonderful software already available that other, more talented programmers have created.

One of the programs you’ve been working with a lot with recently is called “Kyma”. In layman’s terms, what are its difficulties and what its benefits?

Symbolic Sound’s Kyma system is a combination of hardware and software – Kyma is actually the software, and the hardware is called Capybara. The Capybara is just an expandable rackmount box with an audio interface that contains digital signal processing (DSP) chips with memory; DSP chips are the general-purpose audio processors that power most current digital synthesizers, mobile phones, iPods, and so on. The Capybara can be thought of as a black box you pour DSP code into to make sounds, and you create that code with the Kyma software.

The difficulties are that the Kyma software has a steep learning curve – it’s been around since the 80s, and really does things its own way. That way doesn’t have a lot in common with most of the other programs I’ve ever used, and it takes some time to get used to the Kyma mindset. Admittedly, DSP code is complex stuff, and it’s amazing that Kyma’s graphic interface lets non-programmers create it at all, but getting comfortable in Kyma’s world can be a lengthy process.

The benefits are that Kyma does things that simply can’t be done in any other music production environment, and lets a composer like me create and control sounds unlike any I’ve ever worked with.

Something, which has been keeping you busy over the last year is your ongoing collaboration with Jordan Rudess. How did you two meet? Were you aware of Dream Theater at that time?
It was purely coincidental. We met when my wife and I left New York City and bought the house directly next door to Jordan and his family – in fact, we share a long driveway. I had heard his name before, but I only knew of him as a sound developer and programmer for synth companies like Korg and Kurzweil – I had no idea he could play at the level he does, or even that he was a performer. As for Dream Theater, we moved in just at the time Jordan was negotiating with them to join the band, and it was a big secret at the time. Danielle, Jordan’s wife, mentioned it to me, saying that Jordan would be joining this well-known band but to keep it to ourselves until it was officially announced. “No problem”, I said – I’d never heard of Dream Theater.

How did the idea for your total live improvisations develop? What was the fascination in defying all rules?

The first musical interaction I had with Jordan was an afternoon-long free improvisation, some of which you can hear on my website as “January 5, 2000.” Jordan came over to my studio that cold afternoon and simply started playing while I was still setting up my instruments and the DAT, so that by the time the DAT started rolling the first piece had already begun. Without discussion I just joined in, and it worked out so well that it’s become the pattern for all our improvisational work together since.

Beyond a lifetime of rigorous training, Jordan also has perfect pitch, which makes him a wonderful partner to improvise with – I can play anything, and he can hear it and play something that complements it instantly. And he has a delight in the pure creation of sound, which makes him an excellent partner to make electronic music with. I don’t have perfect pitch, unfortunately, but most of the time I can keep up.

And when it all comes together, it’s truly magical to spontaneously create something beautiful from nothing, something that’s never been heard before. If an audience is there to share the experience and interact with the performers, so much the better. I think that under those circumstances, improvisation can be the highest form of musical expression. I’m not saying we’ve attained those peaks, but it seems possible, so it’s worth pursuing.

I often say that I’m an improviser, for better or for worse. And it’s true that even for the best improvisers, things sometimes don’t work out. But when they do, it’s an extraordinary experience.

Jordan is a keyboarder from a totally different generation. Where do you see your differences and where your similarities? In which way do you complement each other?
One enormous difference is that Jordan studied piano at Julliard from the age of 9 and I’m largely self-taught as a keyboardist. I can’t hope to match Jordan’s virtuosity, but my musical interests trend more towards longer, more slowly evolving events anyway, and that’s where I think we complement each other – I add a more contemplative layer to his virtuosic flights, and he provides a dynamism for my more static contributions.

And often one isn’t accompanying the other, but we’re just creating sound together, and I think we’re on a more equal footing there. Indeed, some of our favorite moments on our recordings are when we can’t tell who’s making what sound, when it all just blends together into one unique new sound.

In our interview, Jordan said: “Richard is the grand guru of all things technical especially related to music and graphics.” What would you say about him in return?

I’d say that I’ve been working in music for almost 40 years, in many different capacities – composer, performer, hardware and software technician, recording engineer, live sound engineer, design consultant, manual writer, tech support, even as a music calligrapher in the pre-computer days – and I’ve worked with thousands of different musicians, from the most obscure to the most famous. The only one I’ve known whom I can describe as a true musical genius is Jordan Rudess.

Your performances normally just start with someone beginning to play without any form of prior arrangement. How do you experience things from then on? Do you like the intuitive move towards structure or are you content remaining in your separate domains and allowing “chaos” to create beauty?
We’re always listening to each other, of course, and I think we’re always heading towards some sort of structure, but its always evolving, and sometimes the structure isn’t obvious. We’ll frequently create structures in which we may, for example, be juxtaposing Jordan’s non-tonal noise with my tonal keyboard pad, and it may seem that the sounds don’t complement each other at all. And maybe they don’t – it’s improvisation, after all. But often they do, in a way that allows us to evolve into a section where Jordan’s playing tonal melodies against my own chord progressions in a simple song structure. Or it might evolve into completely non-tonal noise, in which the structure is one of slowly progressing from low dense clouds of noise to high thin clouds.

We also tend to know intuitively when it’s time to change direction or end an improvisation, and so we always have those larger structures in mind as well. Creating structure from chaos is really the point of free improvisation, after all.

In which way do joint musical interests with Jordan play a role in your understanding on stage?

First, we both love to make noise with synthesizers. Jordan has often mentioned that among his favorite musical experiences were the “Space Jams” he took part in just after he left school, in which he’d improvise for hours on his MiniMoog with other like-minded musicians, programming the synth on the fly and continually coming up with new sounds - the model for our own collaborations. No doubt the exhilaration of complete musical freedom after 10 years at Julliard had something to do with it, but it’s still remarkable that someone like Jordan, who studied only traditional classical piano his entire adolescence, developed such a immediate rapport with an electronic instrument.

For myself, the desire to make my own sounds was the reason I became a composer in the first place, and so electronic instruments have always had a special place in my heart, whether in real analog form or virtual digital. And I also indulged in many electronic improvisation sessions with my friends at school and afterwards, often incorporating long tape delay systems and Moog synthesizers. That common performance history, and our common listening history I think, along with a common harmonic language, are the key elements that let us interact well on stage.

The “Space” theme is a red thread of the Rudess/Lainhart duo, but spaciousness and shimmering clarity have always been important aspects of your music in my opinion. How did you develop interest in these qualities, after a youth spent listening to rock?
The first music I seriously listened to wasn’t rock, but classical, and particularly opera. My father was a serious opera fan, and a hi-fi aficionado, and so had both an excellent stereo system and an excellent record collection. I grew up listening to all the classic operas, and know many of the arias by heart, even if I never learned what operas they’re from.

I do remember, though, that I was always more interested to the lusher late Romantic composers than the Classical-era music, and to the Impressionists in particular. I love the tonalities and instrumental colors of the music of that time, and certainly “spaciousness” and “shimmering clarity” are qualities of my favorite Debussy and Ravel compositions. So I think that attraction was always there.

Even later, when I started listening to and playing rock, I was soon attracted to the more experimental and “spacey” of the progressive rock bands, with King Crimson being a particular favorite. But perhaps it’s simply that I’m drawn to the kind of music that takes us out of this world, rather than reinforces our place in it.

Even for two experienced performers as you are, playing in front of an audience without any rules must be some sort of a risk. Are you still nervous before the first note is being struck?
I’m not. I’ve performed in many different circumstances and before many different audiences, and there came a time when I realized I wasn’t getting nervous anymore. It happened sometime after my 1500th performance, I’d guess, but it was a gradual process and I don’t know for sure when it actually occurred.

I think it’s important to play well and to put on a competent performance for the audience, and so I always prepare as thoroughly as I can before a performance. If I feel that I’ve prepared musically and technically as well as I can, then there’s no reason to be nervous. I know some performers feel that nervousness helps amp up the performance, that the adrenaline adds to the excitement on stage, but that doesn’t work for me, and so I do everything I can to avoid it. And since I perform with technology, there are always problems that come up that have to be dealt with, and that requires a clear mind.

There should be a kind of heightened awareness before one goes on stage to perform of course, especially in improvised music where a sensitivity to the other performers is essential, but with experience and preparation, I’ve managed to get rid of the negative aspects of nervousness in favor of a greater focus on the music. Most of the time, anyway.

Richard Lainhart
December 31, 2006

By Tobias Fischer

Picture by Treavor Hastings

These Last Days (1987) Periodic Music
Ten Thousands Shades of Blue (2001) XI Records
Track "White Nights (remix)" on "I. Mute Hummings" (2006) Ex Ovo

Richard Lainhart

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