Larry Polansky

The Theory of Impossible MelodyNew World Records (80684-2)A scholar in medieval literature was talking to me recently about the Anglo-Saxon word for poet: scop (pronounced ‘shop’). It’s derived from the Anglo-Saxon verb scieppan – ‘to...

The Theory of Impossible Melody
New World Records (80684-2)

A scholar in medieval literature was talking to me recently about the Anglo-Saxon word for poet: scop (pronounced ‘shop’). It’s derived from the Anglo-Saxon verb scieppan – ‘to create, form, shape, make’. In fact, scop can be translated as ‘shaper’. For the Anglo-Saxons, the process of composing poetry was one of shaping, arranging, crafting – the emphasis was on the forming of the thing, not the content. Which is not to say that any materials would do; it’s just that high quality materials were taken for granted as a pre-requisite for the job.

The concept and its implications resonate with The Theory of Impossible Melody, New World’s second release devoted entirely to the music of prolific American composer/theorist/performer/programmer/teacher Larry Polansky. All six pieces are in some sense determined by an algorithm, or a set of interdependent algorithms, that give shape to a set of materials. The acting of algorithm on material is the piece.

Psaltery (for Lou Harrison), a tape piece with a beautifully frail quality, made from recordings of an Appalachian psaltery, is concerned with precisely defined modulations between harmonic series.

In B’rey’sheet (In the beginning…) (Cantillation Study #1), Jody Diamond incants Hebrew verses from the Torah in counterpoint with a live interactive computer generating sounds according to what it ‘hears’ her sing.

Recordings of the composer’s fretless guitar improvisations in just intonation are shaped into an eliding, supple, multi-layered texture in Epitaph (Four Voice Canon #21) (tmfg) by way of a mensuration canon, in which the parts move at different, proportionally related speeds.

Four Voice Canon #23b (freeHorn canon) combines a mensuration canon algorithm with a harmonic process derived from the modulation idea in Psaltery to create a vibrating, subterranean texture in which Robin Hayward’s gentling, rippling tuba playing occasionally dominates the foreground.

Four Voice Canon # 3 (1975) is a miniature computer piece of strange appeal in which an initial sine tone phrase of distinct rhythmic character is transformed into a dense cloud of sound, again via mensuration canon.

Simple Actions/Rules of Compossibility (1989) allows a live computer performer to improvise with certain musical behaviours (computer-generated melodies, glissandi, etc.) within precisely defined parameters. An additional element – the changing pitches and loudness of a recording of Australian poet Chris Mann reading from his work, Tuesday – is also allowed to shape these musical behaviours.

And the result is poetry – music that is entirely its own thing, music that ultimately transcends the technical procedures employed in its creation, music that is revelatory.

Published on 1 August 2009

Garrett Sholdice is a composer and a director of the record label and music production company Ergodos.

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