four-voice canons   CB0011

The music

Over the past 25 years, Larry Polansky has been composing a series of fascinating mensuration canons (a formal concept dating back to the Renaissance) that run a sonic gamut from wildly boisterous (#6) to serenely introverted (#17, Guitar Canon). This disc brings together thirteen of these pieces (one of which is found here in three different realizations).

In these canons, each successively entering voice moves proportionally faster than the previous one (i.e., each successive voice is to some degree a temporal compression of the voice that precedes it, allowing all voices in any given canon to contain roughly the same amount of information yet all end simultaneously), causing each piece’s density and rhythmic complexity to increase from beginning to end.

Usually, but not always, the individual voices in Polansky’s canons are permutation lists of a small number of musical elements (e.g., four or five or six elements), which may include any and/or all of a voice’s parameters (pitch, rhythm, instrumentation, etc.).

Each of the canons on this disc could be considered a different orchestration of two basic concepts—the mensuration canon and the permutational cycling of a small number of musical elements. The instrumentation varies widely: gamelan, electric guitars, children’s voices, computer-generated sounds, marimbas, non-pitched percussion, choir, and chamber ensemble. The pitch materials, rhythms, tempos, tunings, and textures also vary dramatically from piece to piece.

Three tracks on this CD involve the collaboration of noted composer-performers who have “realized” (created from a set of specific instructions) their own distinct versions of Polansky’s canon #13 (the DIY Canon), filling the piece’s malleable template with their own pitch and rhythm materials and instrumentation.

The composer

Larry Polansky is the composer of a unique body of work that sets highly intellectual, computer-based systems into action in the creation of wonderfully inventive music that sometimes incorporates “low-brow” source materials and vernacular musical styles into its “high-brow” mechanisms. He is also an active performer, theorist, software designer, writer, and teacher.

Polansky’s music has been performed around the world, including performances at such venues as Internationale Gesellshcaft fur Neue Music Zürich, the Darmstadt Summer Festival, Mobius, the Here Gallery Performance Series, the Experimental Intermedia Foundation, Roulette, and the Music Gallery, and released on the New World, Artifact, Frog Peak, Cold Blue, Centaur, Opus One, and Cuneiform labels. He has received many awards and commissions from various organizations, including the Parsons Fund (Library of Congress), the Astra Chamber Society, Meet-the-Composer, the Japan/United States Interlink Festival, the American Music Center, and the Mellon Foundation.

Polansky’s writings on computer music, music theory, and visionary and iconoclastic American composers, including Ruth Crawford Seeger (on whose work he is a noted expert), have appeared in numerous publications. As a software designer, he is one of the three co-authors (with Phil Burk and David Rosenboom) of the widely used computer music language HMSL. Polansky is the co-founder and co-director of the composer’s collective Frog Peak Music, the founding guest editor of the Leonardo Music Journal, and a member of the board of directors of the periodical Perspectives of New Music. For five years he was on the board of the International Computer Music Association. He has taught at Dartmouth College, teaching in the graduate program in electro-acoustic music, chairing the music department, and co-directing the Bregman Electro-Acoustic Music Studio. For ten years, he worked at the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music. Currently, he teaches at the University of Claifornia, Santa Cruz.

Polansky’s Lonesome Road (The Crawford Variations), performed by Martin Christ (New World Records, 2001), was nominated for a Grammy.

The performers and collaborators

William Winant, “one of the best avant-garde percussionists working today” according the Los Angeles Times, has collaborated with many innovative musicians, including John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, Keith Jarrett, Cecil Taylor, Steve Reich, Frederic Rzewski, Ursula Oppens, and the Kronos Quartet. Among the composers who have written works for him are John Cage, Lou Harrison, and Terry Riley. Winant is principal percussionist with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and the John Zorn Chamber Ensemble. He has performed as a guest artist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, the Berkeley Symphony, the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra, and at the Ravinia Music Festival. Winant has made over 100 recordings. His recording of Lou Harrison’s La Koro Sutro (New Albion) was the New York Times Critic’s Choice for best contemporary recording of 1988. His recent recording of 20th-century avant-garde compositions with the rock band Sonic Youth (Goodbye 20th-Century) was heavily praised by the Los Angeles Times and the Village Voice

Daniel Goode is a New York-based composer and clarinetist. His solo, ensemble, and intermedia works have been performed throughout the U.S. and in Canada, Australia, Western and Eastern Europe, and Japan, including presentations as such venues as the New Music America and Bang on a Can festivals, the Interpretations Series, the Yogyakarta International Gamelan Festival (Java), and the Pfeifen im Walde festival (Berlin). He has composed for and performed with Gamelan Son of Lion since 1976, and his gamelan works are recorded on Folkways (Smithsonian) and GSOL labels. His innovative music for solo clarinet includes Circular Thoughts (Theodore Presser Co.) and Clarinet Songs, recorded on the XI label. Tunnel-Funnel for 15 instruments is available on the Tzadic label. He was director of the Electronic Music Studio of Rutgers University (1971-1998) and is currently co-director of the DownTown Ensemble, which he co-founded in New York in 1983. 

Nick Didkovsky is a guitarist, composer, and computer music programmer. In 1983, he founded the avant-rock septet Doctor Nerve, which to date has released seven CD’s on Cuneiform Records and has toured extensively. He is also a member of the Fred Frith Guitar Quartet, and has the duo Body Parts with drummer Guigou Chenevier. As a composer, Didkovsky has had music commissioned by Bang On A Can All-Stars, Kathleen Supove, Steve Schick/Maya Beiser Project, Meridian Arts Ensemble, and Sirius String Quartet. With Phil Burk, Didkovsky created JMSL (Java Music Specification Language), which is a music composition framework written in the Java programming language. He teaches computer music composition at New York University. 

Jody Diamond is a composer, performer, and scholar and the founder and director of the American Gamelan Institute, and editor of its journal, Balungan. She is also a co-founder and co-director of Frog Peak Music, a composers collective for the dissemination of new music scores, writings, and recordings. Involved with gamelan since 1970, she has worked with artists throughout Indonesia and produced gamelan recordings for the Lyrichord and AGI labels. She teaches Indonesian studies at Dartmouth. 

The York Vocal Index was founded in 2001 by Edward Jessen and John Potter, who now co-directs the ensemble with William Brooks. Comprised of no more than sixteen singers from the University student body, it is devoted to one-per-part repertory from all historical periods. It generally performs without a conductor and in collaboration with composers. Future projects include a program on the subject of Orpheus, to be presented as part of the 2003 University of York Spring Festival. 

William Brooks is Reader in Music at the University of York (England) and also Emeritus Professor of Composition-Theory at the University of Illinois. Composer and scholar as well as performer, his work is concerned with memory, quotation, and the relationship between art music and popular culture. Current composition projects include a trilogy on texts by Gertrude Stein and a suite for steel band; he also has begun work on an episodic overview of American music to be published by the University of Illinois Press.

Chris Mann, one of Australia’s important creative artists, is an innovative poet and composer/sound-artist/performer. His writings are generally made available as specially produced limited editions. A recent recording of his is available on the Lovely Music label. 

Ha-Yang Kim is a cellist who specializes in new music. She performs with Non Sequitur, a mixed sextet, and Odd Appetite, a duo with percussionist Nathan Davis, which specializes in improvisation and commissioning and performing new works. She also performs with violinist/composer Stefan Poetzsch, presenting original compositions incorporating electronics, improvisation, and multi-media. Her festival performances include the Ought-One Festival of Non-Pop, the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, the BONK Festival for New Music, the Dartmouth New Music Festival, the Bowdoin Music Festival, the Boston Microtonal Society, the IX International Festival of Electro-acoustic Music in Cuba, and the SoundArt Festival in Germany. 

Nathan Davis is a percussionist and composer. He performs with MIT’s Gamelan Galak-Tika and the ensembles Non sequitur, Odd Appetite, and Rrrr…. He has performed and/or had his music performed at numerous festivals in the North America and Europe, including the Ought-One Festival, the BONK Festival, Festival de la Musica Electroacoustica in Cuba, the Outer Ear Festival, and the FringeNYC theater festival. 

Ray Guillette is a composer, electronic musician, and artist living in the Boston area. He has studied and performed with composers Larry Polansky, Christian Wolff, and John Cage. He has received international awards and commissions, and his works have been presented at such festivals as, the Warsaw Autumn Festival, The Stockholm Electronic Arts Festival, and the Gaudeamus Festival in Amsterdam.


“The music of Larry Polansky is as much fun to listen to as it is to think or get serious about…. the results are dazzling as each canon defines its individual properties and unique sound world…. The transformations are ubiquitous and compelling. For instance, a sepulchral gamelan quickens to become a euphony of oriental bells; the sound texture of seven speaking children thickens until we no longer hear voices but only a dense, pulsed, multi-layered timbre; separate, computer-generated sounds turn into a brilliant, bell-like tintinnabulation. Part of the seriousness of all this fun is that it has something, or rather many things, to say. Notably about time, for instance: time as a process that can exist simultaneously in multiple versions of itself, as several processes; time as multi-layered, each layer unfolding according to its own temporal logic. Or about perception: about how the familiar can be made strange, or the strange appear familiar, as the passage from simplicity to complexity becomes a process in which we reflexively participate. And implied here is a further, crucial suggestion: that these transformations have as much to do with the world as with ourselves. With so much on offer, this is one of the best discs Cold Blue music has issued since the company’s revival two years ago.” —International Record Review

“Larry Polansky reveals yet another unashamedly tactile approach to musical material, forging an oblique angle to tradition…. Polansky’s cool and elegant set of 16 four-part canons…it’s a mark of his resourceful mind that he can adapt the basic rules into a series of such complex and varied works…. Polansky’s canons show the extreme liberties that can be born from such exacting discipline, given imagination and willing.” —The Wire magazine

“Larry Polansky is the modern dean of the mensuration canon…. These canons are clever, mysterious, and comical – part theory of relativity, part Rube Goldberg.” —ClassicalNet

“15 imaginative variations in the realm of canon, a type of composition where the writer gradually adds layers of musical material, creating density, complexity and texture. Anna Canon features Polansky’s 3-year-old daughter’s voice processed through a PC. This delightful cut prompted my cat to come over to the right speaker and cock her head at it in Nipper fashion. It’s the sound of elemental spirits having fun and one of the best pieces I’ve heard from anyone in years. #4 for marimba, played by William Winant, gradually becomes more rhythmically rich as it develops, sounding like more-accessible Conlon Nancarrow. Nerve Canon might be called the Procession of the Pachyderm Machines because of its elephantine assuredness. Elsewhere, Anthony Braxton and a field recording of frogs is laugh-out-loud funny, something all too rare in New Music. Only a couple of pieces come off as dry and academic. Almost all are intriguing and pleasurable. Hats way off to the very inventive Polansky.” —Richard Grooms, The Improvisor

“I was not familiar with the music of Larry Polansky before receiving this disc, but after enjoying the witty, clever, generally untraditional canons here, I will be keeping an eye out for more…. On every piece, regardless of its technological genesis, careful attention reveals the rigor Polansky applies to his materials, of whatever sort. The variety of sounds is entertaining and attractive, and sometimes amusing.” —Steve Holtje, Fanfare magazine

“Larry Polansky couples the gradual compression tactics of mensuration canons with the permutational cycles of several musical elements including pitch, rhythm, instrumentation, tempos, etc…. A concept so rich and productive as to involve different noted composers and performers and their own distinct versions. A concept as eagerly applied to the marimba, school children’s voices, a midtown Manhattan restaurant recording and a fretless electric guitar/cello/percussion trio…. There is something for everybody here on this CD. —I Heard a Noise webzine (Romania)

“A tranquil and delicate beginning ends in a chaotic whirlwind…and the result is pleasing…. The album is praiseworthy and accessible, especially when listening with an intellectual curiosity and leaving ones heart to doze.” —Deep Listenings (Italy)

“Each piece has its fascinating quirks.”All-Music Guide

“A strangely varied but at the same time also a static CD. It has an entertaining appeal.”Vital Weekly (The Netherlands)

“The works, which span nearly a quarter of a century, from 1978 to 2002, are sounded by a wide variety of instruments. Those played on marimba, gamelan and fretless guitar remain fairly quiet and forlorn throughout, while others like Kid Canon and Four Boys Mannin’ for strange, computer-manipulated voices really pack a punch at the end. Some other standouts in this vein include Nerve Canon, which sounds similar to one of Keiji Haino’s awkwardly lurching and slashing metallic synth nightmares, and an old favorite, #6, which collages together samples of pond frogs, a Javanese rebab, a baritone sax played by Anthony Braxton, and an ascending sine wave preset of a Kurzweil 250 sampler. The samples initially appear one after another, then gradually get cut up, rearranged and layered in myriad ways for quite a colorful quilt. Other tracks, like Headphone Canon, with its pleasantly pulsing and percolating computer, and Trio Canon, which boasts a hairshirt free improv battle between a guitar, cello and percussion, seem to inhabit a special realm all their own…. Overall, the Four-Voice Canons album is a fun, delightful, attention-to-detail listen that flows through a much more academic experimental vein than the lush atmospherics usually associated with Cold Blue.”—Arcane Candy

“This West Coaster-turned-Dartmouth prof is the heir apparent to the Cowell/Nancarrow/Tenney genius experimentalist mantle.” —Kyle Gann, Village Voice

“I like Larry Polansky’s work very much. He’s got a real point of view, which is one of the things that is hardest to come by.” —Ben Johnston, Perspectives of New Music

“Larry Polansky—one of America’s most influential theorists and composers…. It is interesting too that a composer whose work would be categorized by some as ‘academic’ is popular with fans of the noise and ambient-industrial scenes as well as the uptown new music world…. Polansky’s work in computer music is especially unique.” —E-Pulse (Internet newsletter of Pulse! and Classical Pulse!)

“Polansky is a highly original and uncompromising composer.”Logosblad (Belgium)