Vol. 25 Issue 1 Reviews
Paul Lansky: Things She Carried
Compact disc, 1997, Bridge 9076; available from Bridge Records, P.O. Box 1864, New York, New York 10116, USA; electronic mail bridgerec@bridgerecords.com; World Wide Web www.bridgerecords.com

Reviewed by Jon Appleton
Hanover, New Hampshire, USA

Paul Lansky and Hannah MacKay's collaboration, Things She Carried, brings to mind Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's verse:

When she was good
She was very, very good,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

The eight movements that comprise the hour-long work have a distinctive, largely laid-back aesthetic which at times recall the feelings evoked by the music of Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Charles Dodge, Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, and the percussive way Igor Stravinsky used the piano. These references are only intended to place the work into context stylistically.

The first movement is the weakest and I suggest that one start with the second, Things She Noticed, as it is a much more subtle introduction to what follows. This movement evolves from spare recitation to a rhythmic flowering with a wonderfully understated bass-line. It continues through several diverse musical and poetic episodes that are effortlessly stitched together.

Mr. Lansky is famous for the moods he creates with voice processing and sustained gestures. These qualities carry the work along with grace and internal consistency. The third movement, Wish in the Dark, one of two called "wordless songs" by the composer, is one of the most striking and evocative pieces of electroacoustic music I have heard. I don't know why he calls it "a fake pop song" since it contains no evidence of falsehood or even parody.

The fifth movement is stunning. Mr. Lansky calls it an "interlude" and it consists of various ostinati that evolve and revolve around sustained pedal tones. The seventh movement has some magnificent chordal, choral passages and contains momentary, dramatic harmonic movement, yet it concludes merely a half-step lower at the end of its 6:33 min duration.

I listened to Things She Carried in several different settings: when first awakening at dawn in the quiet of my house, while following a woman walking around in a supermarket, while seeing the wind blow the clouds across the sky. All of these experiences enhanced the out-of-body sensations created by the music.

In this musical portrait of a contemporary woman, the authors claim that "we learn a lot about her," but one never cares much about what one learns. The weakest part of the work is the text but the liner-notes provide a "listening suggestion" which in part states that "it really doesn't matter that you understand all the words." Intentional or not, it is difficult not to understand the text in the sixth movement, Things She Read, which is loaded with clichés. These make it difficult to care about the woman. The movement includes traffic sounds and is supposed to have "the resonance of a detective story," but its exaggerated dramatic content makes it seem out of place in the larger work.

The seventh movement, Everybody Heard, is based on stepwise, mostly ascending, vocal lines. It includes a return of the lovely chords of the Interlude, layered with a filigree of rapid, bell-like tones. Underneath this two-part texture often emerges a percussive, "electric piano" rhythmic motive that creates darkness in the otherwise serene environment.

The final movement, Things She Knew, is the longest. It brings back several of the more prominent timbres from earlier in the work, and momentarily introduces (at 1:27) a harpsichord passage that is remarkably like the passacaglia movement of César Franck's Symphony in D minor. There are, unfortunately, some slightly annoying passages of text:

She knew her stuff.
She knew her way around.
She knew the back of her hand.
She knew the shape of things to come.
She knew what she had to do.

She knew London, she knew France

She knew how to hedge her bets.
She knew a faker when she met one.

Still, the movement makes a successful finale and leaves one aware of the distance traversed by the work as a whole. Mr. Lansky has always created his own path in electroacoustic music and Things She Carried is no exception. He is not afraid of embracing diverse traditions, or of being stylish and attuned to contemporary sensibilities. These traits are what make his work rewarding and original in the best sense of the word.