Paul Lansky, Things She Carried

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 12.14.11 in Reviews

Paul Lansky is one of America’s finest composers of computer music — in part, because his computer works have such an organic, human sound. He has created many works out of reconstituted fragments of human speech, often presented in witty and accessible ways; he’s also released an album of quasi-covers of traditional folk songs called Folk Images that’s also worth checking out. This, though, is in some ways Lansky’s most curious and curiously affecting project. Things She Carried is essentially a series of lists, read by the composer’s wife, the actress Hannah McKay, accompanied by a computer-generated soundscape that blurs the distinction between sound effects (street sounds, etc) and music. The opening title track immediately leads to questions, — who is “she”? Why do we care about what appears to be the jumbled contents of her purse? And exactly who is detailing this list? The ominous sound of an electric guitar note dopplering by, and the almost clinical reading of the list, suggests a police investigation, or a morgue. But it could just as easily be the thoughts of a woman absent-mindedly looking through her purse for something. “Things She Noticed,” “Things She Remembered” and “Things She Read” extend the elusive narrative, and the continuous use of the past tense (“The day began like any other,” begins “Things She Read”) might give you the unsettled feeling that you are watching a life unspool in reverse from its end.

Effectively at the boundary between speech and song

“Things She Noticed” is one of many pieces of computer music that Lansky has written over the years where the sonic source material is Hannah McKay’s voice. By playing with the boundaries between voice and sonic accompaniment, Lansky effectively puts us at the boundary between speech and song. “Things She Read” makes effective use of “found sound.” And there are several “instrumental” pieces, though one uses that word advisedly with Lansky: “Wish in the Dark” is a beautiful song made of processed vocal sounds but no words. “Interlude” has the chiming sounds of Indonesian gamelan music. And the final piece, “Things She Knew,” suggests both in quietly dramatic music and straightforward words a smart, likable woman who knew what she was about. But whether she is still with us is left tantalizingly ambiguous.