Modulisme 101

Richard Lainhart

Conception - Layout : P. Petit / Cover Art : Proefrock

Early in 2010 I was lucky to spend some time wth Morton Subotnick and catch his duo with my old friend Lillevan from Rechenzentrum… For the first time that night I heard a Buchla played live.
A few months later, while I was playing with Faust @ the Avant-Garde festival, I was lucky to attend 2 shows from Richard Lainhart. Again I was experiencing some Buchla vibes in real, I was totally entranced by the beauty of Richard’s music and really enjoyed spending time with him and his wife Caroline Meyers.
We stayed in touch, and – in April 2011 – played together at Alfa Art Gallery, NY…
Richard died on 30 December 2011, much too soon…
Once he said :

“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.”

And so it is, with great emotion and pride, that I receive the gift from Caroline.
This Session!
A more than deserved tribute, proving that his music should never be “lost”.

Richard Lainhart was one of the seminal figures in contemporary American electronic music, composing more than 150 works over the course of nearly four decades. Originally from Vestal, NY, Lainhart earned his degree in music from the State University at New York at Albany, where he studied composition and electronic music with composer Joel Chadabe. Besides his own works, he worked and performed with such new music luminaries as John Cage, David Tudor, Steve Reich, Phill Niblock, Rhys Chatham and Jordan Rudess, among many others.
His distinctive sound was characterized by organic textures inspired by natural phenomena, such as clouds, water and fire, typically arranged in minimalist structures and treated with microscopically observed harmonies. These explorations dated to the early 1970s and pre-figured the electronica, ambient, trance and other sound art movements that would eventually celebrate him as an aesthetic figurehead.

Excerpts from interview with EdisonRex a/k/a Paul Harriman:

You play the Buchla 200e system which is an impressive piece of equipment. And it is obviously quite obvious that you put this together. That’s not a stock system, is it?

No, it uses stock modules. There’s nothing custom in terms of the modules themselves, but the configuration. Like any modular system, you can sort of get a prefab package. But if you have a particular goal in mind, it’s very common for composers like me to design their own system, design the components of the system, and assemble them together into a final system, which is what I did in this case. And as I said, it’s inherently a quad system. And when I can, I play it in quad and do performances, whereby there are speakers in the four corners of the room and diffuse that sound using the quad processing in the instrument itself. And also externally, I have a quad lexicon, quad reverb processor that does surround processing, and I have a fader panel that’s attached to that that lets me control the size of the space and the locations of things and that sort of stuff. So it’s a system that is inherently designed to do four channel spatialized playback.

I’d love to know your influences, your classical influences or where you’re coming from that gets you to put such nice tones together?

Well, there’s a lot of influences there. I started out playing bass in Rock and Garage bands when I was in high school. From the beginning, I wasn’t interested so much in pop music as in the more creative kinds of music that was around at the time, the more progressive music. And that would be things like Frank Zappa, King Crimson, even earlier, the sort of more jam band-oriented guys like Cream and Jefferson Airplane. They were my favorites, among the reasons being that they had really strong bass players. But they also were interested in the whole world of improvisation and that kind of thing, just like I was. And so I was really drawn to that kind of music early on, and music that was a little bit more complex than the standard pop music at the time. As I started getting more and more interested in this kind of more somewhat more esoteric kind of music, I started to hear about electronic music, which had been around for a while, but was really kind of an underground phenomenon, really, until the era of Wendy Carlos.

There was a guy I studied with, Peter Reuter, who was a concert pianist, but also a designer, an industrial commercial designer, and also a really wonderful watercolorist. He ended up designing Moog’s logo. The logo that was the kind of 8th note logo that Moog used for years. Peter Reuter designed that and rather than get paid for it, he decided he wanted a theremin. So he had Moog give him one of his early thereminvox and Peter played with it for a while, and then he lent it to me because I was kind of interested in it.
So I had an early moog theremin to play with, and had a lot of fun with that, and would run that through my wah wah pedal and stuff like that. Around the same time, I started to find out more about electronic music. And particularly, like I said, “Switched-On Bach” came out around then. But also I discovered Morton Subotnick, who was a really huge early influence. “The Wild Bull” and “Silver Apples of the Moon” in particular. Those two records really made me want to decide to be an electronic music composer. I decided after hearing that stuff that I wanted to go to music school, get into a place that had a studio, because people didn’t own individual studios, didn’t own synthesizers back then, because they cost what a house cost. So you had to go to school someplace, to a studio that had one, which meant, consequently, that you had to go through a standard music education program in a conservatory or wherever that may be.
And so I went to school so that I could work. This was actually was at Binghamton University, which was near where I grew up, which had a very nice electronic music studio. There was a Moog 55 system, I believe, two sequencers, two keyboards, and nice Scully multi track tape picks. The whole thing was put together by a composer named Karl Korte, who was actually also one of the earlier electronic music composers. So I went there and studied for a couple years and learned a lot of the basics, but wasn’t really getting the musical direction that I wanted.
Then I found out about Joel Chadabe and the studio at the State University of New York at Albany and decided to go there. Joel Chadabe became my composition teacher. He is not especially well known as a composer, but he is one of the great pioneers of electronic music and particularly with interactive music. Interactive electronic music. He founded a company called Intelligent Music in the. Was among the first to do MIDI software for personal computers. And I worked for him at that company. This was after school, and they had products called M and Jam Factory.

with Joel Chadabe (06/2011)

And then consequently, because I was going to music school, I had to study theory and history and all that sort of stuff that you study in music school and go through the regular composition course of instrumental composition and that kind of thing. So I picked up a lot of the fundamentals of the classical composition path that way, even though I wasn’t really doing that kind of music, I really just was working in the studio as much as possible. But I learned a lot about music history, going back to pre history, all the way up into contemporary music, and really fell in love with a lot of that kind of music that I had not been exposed to before, particularly impressionism with Debussy, Ravel and things like that. And that’s where I got a lot of the harmonic ideas, harmonic and melodic ideas that I kind of am working with today was through that music study. So that’s really my background is kind of as a classical musician and studying, as it were, classical electronic music in a studio like that.

And then I did a lot of tape pieces, and there’s a record out on XI [XI Records, a project of Experimental Intermedia founded by Phill Niblock] which has a number of those pieces, some of which are electronic and some of which are kind of acoustic, processed electronic music.

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.

How did you surive the 80s?

I was in a jazz band, actually. I made this sort of left turn in the late 70s that didn’t really abandon the music I was doing, but I was working professionally. I was making my living as a sound man and as a recording engineer. And so I picked up with a band that was a kind of a string band that was doing like blue grass music and I was their sound man. And that band kind of morphed into a swing band. And I had been playing vibes in a kind of uneducated way before then and doing kind of free jazz and things like that. And they asked me if I wanted to play vibes with this band. Because that was kind of an extra thing that I could do. In addition, I thought, yeah, sure, that’ll be fun. And I started playing vibes in this swing band.

I started playing music from the exclusively from the 20s and 30s for about ten years. I kind of stopped working with electronics. I only had a mono turntable because I only listened to mono records. My stereo had one speaker, basically my hi fi. It was a low fi, actually. And through that started to find out about and started to listen to some of the more sophisticated jazz of the period, like Duke Ellington and people like that, and became interested more in sort of writing some of that music and learning more about the theory behind it. And so I did some studying of jazz composition and jazz theory and learned a lot about jazz harmonic structures, which is also something that I use these days as well.

A lot of the harmonic structures that I use kind of come from that and also from other composers who are also influenced by that, with people like Harold Budd, Daniel Lentz and other composers along those lines whose music I really love and who were also a big influence on me. So a lot of the harmonic ideas, harmonic and melodic ideas that you’re referring to are kind of a mixture of classic impressionism and sort of the modern post impressionism, and also jazz.
So that’s kind of all where that comes from. So ultimately, I got away from doing that professionally. I played in that band commercially for quite a while and did a lot of performing, and eventually got away from that because being a performing musician, eventually, it’s something that you tend to get tired of. But playing every day and doing gigs every day can be debilitating after a while as you get older. So I came back to doing this music, and I went to work for Joel at Intelligent Music. And that was really where I first started working with computers in any kind of.
Mac Plus, Mac II was like the big one at the time. And I found I had a kind of rapport with those computers. And so for a long time, I made my living as a kind of Macintosh technician, in fact, and had a MIDI studio and all that stuff and that sort of thing. And then later on, when computers became fast enough to do audio processing, I started working with audio directly as opposed to MIDI.

Did you have particular software that you were fond of at the time and are still fond of.

At the time? I was using the MIDI sequencers at the time. There was the Opcode software. There was our own Intelligent Music software. There was the Digidesign stuff, Sound Designer and those kinds of things that were really wonderful programs. And then our company was actually the first to develop Max, what became Max MSP, ultimately, because it was being developed by ERCOM in France, and our company was going to commercialize it. And unfortunately, the company [Intelligent Music] went out of business before we were able to do that, and ultimately Opcode picked it up.
Miller Puckette was the guy who originally developed Max and has subsequently developed a free version of that. Pure Data [visual programming language developed by Miller Puckette in the 1990s] is very similar to Max yeah, so I started working with Max, and I started working with then other related software and then audio processing software, and then later on got into working with the Kyma system and that sort of thing, which I still work with, which is a wonderful system for doing audio processing.

And beyond the Buchla-[Hakken] Continuum work that I do, I also have a whole side of music that is based on the processing, playing guitar and processing guitar. And I have a bunch of works that are guitar-based works that I will use the computer for processing or use the computer in conjunction with Kyma. Many of those are kind of structurally similar to the electronic stuff that I do, I should say the synthesizer stuff that I do. So all of that music is really based on the same kind of structural ideas that I developed when I was studying, which was to, I guess if I had to describe what I do in terms of the music itself, it’s music that focuses on the sound rather than on things like the musical structure or certain kinds of melodic or harmonic ideas.

Really, the whole basis of what I do is as much as possible to focus on the sound. So I have a whole series of pieces that I call One Sound pieces, which are basically one sound that is a sound that is rich and complex, that will ideally bear a lot of detailed listening, but that on the surface, there may not be a lot of change. And by analogy, I think of those as being kind of related to a lot of natural, organic structures. Like, if you look at the surface of a lake, for example, that doesn’t change a lot. It doesn’t turn red or it doesn’t explode or any of that sort of thing. But from a distance, It’s like when you look at a natural scene where there’s not a lot of unexpected things. Or so it seems because when you look at the detail, there’s enormous change, constant. And so it’s really a question of the focus of detail. That is really what, in a lot of cases, I’m trying to get at in this music and in the synthesizer music I do, it’s really a similar kind of thing. Other times, there’s more of a free improvisation element involved where I’ll just sort of play with the sounds in different ways.
Typically, a lot of my music is slow because I’m trying to make it easier to hear those changes.