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LARRY POLANSKY INTERVIEW by Daniel Junas _1983
Junas: When did you become interested in avant-garde traditions?
Polansky: As a composer, immediately I felt the things to look at were the things being done now. That wasn't so new, because I had done that in jazz all along. And in rock and roll and folk music.
My tendency is to look at the current state of the art and work backward if necessary, but always to start with what is the most interesting currently. If you start the other way you tend to get waylaid and never make it. That's what I've done all my life, start with the goal and work backwards.
What [my early] pieces all have in common is very stripped down ideological and thematic material. I like to think of them as elegant, although another word might be boring. They're not dramatic in any way. They're usually a single idea developed in some complex way.
Four Voice Canon #3 is probably the best example. It's a simple mathematical idea I got from group theory that reflects on perception and has theoretical ramifications...and that idea is developed in all its ramifications without ever using any other idea -- that is the idea of a single permutation function moving in a continuous way. The work is realized on a computer, and that simple idea permeates every parameter of the music. These pieces are a little strange because they don't do what the listener expects. They don't bring the listener up or down. They just start and keep going.
Junas: A common reaction to these ideas is that this is music to be thought about more than felt.
Polansky: I don't think the emotions and the intellect are separate, I think the role of music is to integrate the, and that's what I try to do with my music.
Junas: What is the latest stage of your music?
Polansky: Somehow, without giving up those formal ideas my work has started to integrate as source material American music of various sorts -- jazz, folk music -- and it has become my own version of folk music. I haven't stayed completely in the academic music world in the last ten ears, which is maybe my only salvation. I've done a lot of jazz playing and arranging, a lot of bluegrass and traditional music and rock and roll. I haven't made any distinctions between them unless I have to.
Junas: For commercial reasons?
Polansky: Right. But I don't think I've ever done anything, no matter how banal and commercial, that doesn't interest me. All the things I have ever done have all been arrangements that were somehow new. I have never been interested in leaving a genre alone. And I always integrate things I have learned in other disciplines.
Junas: One piece that seems to have been transitional between these two stages was Psaltery.
Polansky: It was the end of a whole, long period for me of serious experimentation in just intonation and the harmonic series, and in static, monothematic pieces. It also ushered in a new stage of interest in American music. Psaltery is a seventeen minute chord continuously modulating. The sound source is one complex tone derived form a very small, bowed, Appalachian psaltery. The chord is then built up into one of huge harmonic content.
Generally there are 17 or 18 pitches sounding at once, and those are all completely tuned to the harmonic series. There was a tremendous amount of multitracking involved in the piece. Like a lot of my music it explores an abstract notion of continuity, the whole notion of continuous perceptible change.
Junas: Does this have anything to do with music being fun? I guess I am getting back to the question of intellect versus emotion.
Polansky: The idea is to get all this stuff happening together. There is some very sophisticated music that musicians have a hell of alot of fun playing. Jazz players love to play Coltrane's "Giant Steps." That has as much to do with its being a nice tune as its being a bear to play. It has really difficult changes, and there are some incredible theoretical things that happen.
I don't think modern composers are any more guilty of overintellectualizing than classical composers or Indonesian composers or Bill Monroe. Any really good music has a powerful intellectual base....
Junas: ..., let's talk about one of your more recent pieces, which is an adaptation of a bluegrass standard called "Little Maggie," arranged for two mandolins. What motivated you to write that piece?
Polansky: One thing is I like the tune so much. I should describe the piece. Little Maggie is a set of variations for only two mandolins -- which is a strange instrumental combination -- of the tune. All the verses are played in standard bluegrass style, except there is no band. And there are a lot of instrumental variations, ranging from twin mandolin fiddletype solos to "out" patterns, or rhythmic percussive patterns.
They're actually very expressive and romantic. It tries to be emotional entertainment. A lot of my pieces have gotten that way. Another You, the harp piece, is 17 variations on "There Will Never Be Another You."
Junas: Do you think you are part of a larger trend? Do you think American composers are getting to the point where they can take the tradition and do whatever they want?
Polansky: American composers have always been able to do that. That's the nice thing about us. European composers have had a pretty hard time of it because they've had more tradition. ...
Junas: Perhaps we're inventing a new culture that has not fully emerged yet.
Polansky: Right. A culture of invention. That's always been the image of America -- the rugged individualist inventor who creates something out of nothing, simply out of adversity. That's a good tradition to stay a part of. There are a lot of composers doing this in really interesting ways.
David Rosenboom's music is now turning into an incredible hybrid of electronic, classical, disco, and avant-garde sound poetry.
Every grad student at the Center for Contemporary Music has his own version of this hybrid and they're all equally interesting and wonderful. We have grad students who don't feel obligated to learn to read music very well, and they shouldn't because they don't need it, because it doesn't really have anything to do with the music they want to create.
Typed by Cheryl Vega 6-11-95