Instruments of Change

Below I have included the liner notes from my acoustic album. I have also enclosed some sounds from each track on my album . Click here to go back to Jaron's music page.

1 0:03:50 Come Along

Suling, Esraj, samples: Lanier

I play hundreds of instruments from all over the world. First I study the traditional styles of playing an instrument and then branch out to find my own voice. Finding the hidden forms of motion and breathing that are intrinsic to an instrument is more important to me than playing with abstractions and ideas. My music is more of the body than of the mind.

This is the only piece in this collection which uses synthesizers or samplers. Everything which follows is purely acoustic. This might come as a surprise, given that I have devoted a great deal of my life to computer science, particularly in the area of Virtual Reality.

Why acoustic music then? Ultimately, this is a mystery. I have only very rarely found as profound a level of experience in high-tech music, for whatever reason. I do have a theory, though. Computer-based musical instruments must be built out of concepts of what music is. In contrast, a piano doesn't know what a note is, it just vibrates when struck. A sensitivity, and a sense of awe, at the mystery that surrounds life is at the heart of both science and art, and instruments with mandatory concepts built in can dull this sensitivity by providing an apparently non-mysterious setting for activity. This can lead to bland or "nerdy" art. The physical world, however, is a fundamentally mysterious place and acoustic instruments possess bottomless depth.

This piece was also intended to have a salutary alchemical effect on a difficult love relationship. There are two lead instruments that play in completely different scales that would normally not be able to play simultaneously and sonorously.

One of the lead instruments is an Esraj, a bowed sitar-like instrument from the Bengal region of India and the other is a Suling flute from Bali. They alternate at first, in order to avoid conflict, but at the end there is a chord smeared on the background that has been extended to the point that it contains both instrument's scales, and in this context they can play at once. The abstraction of western harmony resolves conflicts, through an approximate fit, just like western laws.

2 0:06:01 Khaen/Violin Duo #6

Khaen: Lanier

Violin: Barbara Higbie

The Khaen is probably my favorite mouth organ. It is played in Laos and Northeast Thailand. The instrument looks a little like a hand held bamboo forest and sounds like a whole wind section. It has a keyboard-like agility and the expressive power of the voice. The exquisite mouth organs of Asia have been copied repeatedly in the west, contributing to the development of the pipe organ and, more recently, the accordion and harmonica.

Barbara Higbie has forged a playing style on the violin that blends perfectly with the Khaen. I met Barbara when we were both playing in Terry Riley's band Khayal. On the night of our first performance, in New York City, we spontaneously started playing music on the Khaen and Violin backstage. Terry suggested we just go out and play what we were doing for the audience. It was a hit. Since that time we have created a series of structured improvisations for these instruments and performed the music together many times.

An interesting question: Is the Khaen a low-tech or a high-tech instrument? Is it lower-tech now than when it first appeared, thousands of years ago? Musical instruments have often been the most advanced technologies around, sometimes surpassing even the tools of war. More importantly, though, instruments are always the most eloquent technologies of an era. As the most eloquent machines, instruments predict the future of culture, when we will communicate increasingly through machines.

3 0:05:45 The Story of Water Dancing in the Night Sky

solo Gu Zchung: Lanier

The Gu Zchung is one of the Chinese classical harps.Just as the Indian tradition (of Raga) brings us a far more refined sense of tonality than is found in the west, so the Chinese classical tradition of harp playing brings us a deeper awareness of string articulations (types of plucks, vibratos, etc.).

This piece is structured more as a linear narrative than a composition. If Gu Zchung players had somehow ended up in Appalachia, this music might have resulted...

4 0:05:40 Angklung

solo Piano, Angklung: Lanier

Angklung are tuned rattles that are played by groups in Java and Thailand very much in the way that bells are played in bell choirs in the west. Actual Angklung serve to introduce this piano piece, whose texture they inspired. Ravel is a guiding spirit here as well. I sought a bridge between impressionism and the jeweled sweetness of the gamelans of Sunda. The fingering technique creates a phantom third hand, which I think of as an invoked demon. Although this piece hasn't yet been written down, I experience it as a fairly stable composition, which is very different from a full improvisation, such as Cream Soda.

(5-7) Suite For Saxophone Ensemble

5 0:03:27 Memory Play

6 0:03:07 TheTired Heart

7 0:03:06 Medieval American Open Sky

George Brooks: Musical Director, Soprano

Steve Adams: Sopranino, Alto

Danny Bittker: Tenor, Bari, Bass

Jim Norton: Soprano

Rob Sudduth: Alto, Tenor

Bruce Unsworth: Bari, Tenor

These pieces were written during the tiny cracks of time left as my life was increasingly consumed by the world's initial interest in Virtual Reality. They helped me maintain a connection to an inner world under assault. While intended primarily for saxophones, they might also be played by other ensembles of like instruments that can achieve the same extremes of range. These pieces are highly contrapuntal, filled with hockets, make occasional use of medieval cadences, and tend to repeatedly sample all of the available triad harmonies above pedal points, but without regard for a tonal center. The slow, central movement, "The Tired Heart", is a waltz with a repeating bass line.

8 0:01:10 Tremolo Silence

solo Piano: Lanier

The piano's sustain pedal finds a fleeting voice of its own during the decay of chords. This piece is from a series, called "Ways of Touching the Piano: Blooms of Silence", inspired by the Gu Zchung. The second part of the title, "Blooms of Silence", refers to a profound property of the piano, which is that you cannot add energy to a note once it has started. It inevitably and resolutely falls to silence. This is unlike the Chinese harps where energy can seem to be added to a note through vibrato (which teases out hidden resonances). The symbolism of the piano is irrevocably tied, for me, to the many short human lives that inevitably fall to death, but collectively live as a culture.

9 0:03:20 Circular Saw

solo Bowed Psaltery: Lanier

The instrument is a medieval bowed harp which found its way into Appalachia as a folk instrument. Two bows can be used at once, with one in each hand. This tenor instrument is rare; most examples are limited to a higher range. The curious dappled resonance is real, not a studio effect.

10 0:05:35 Breaking Song

solo Piano: Lanier

Instruments are cultural and time travel machines. What we know of many musics from before the dawn of recording is only what could be written down, and that doesn't include the sense of flow and gesture, the musicality. But the design of an instrument reflects the collective body motion of a culture, and in playing an instrument one's body feels at least a trace of the movement gestalt of a people, something which is otherwise lost; a bit of the lilt of a lost dance.

Instruments build bridges of shared movement, breath, and form between people, just as words build apparent bridges of shared symbolic meaning. (Technological instruments, alas, change so quickly that the tradition is found in their development rather than their use.) At any rate, much of the Western tradition is a fiction because we believe our notations of music to be more complete than they can be. I have tried to rediscover the piano as if it were an exotic instrument. Even though I grew up with it, I strive here to approach the Western Classical tradition as if it were just another world-musical culture, and a particularly wonderful one. This piece luxuriates in the somatic European classical piano tradition, but is otherwise unteathered.

There is more: When I was in my teens I became obsessed with the player piano music of Conlon Nancarrow. In trying to sound like his sweeping arpeggios, I experienced the body music of a phantom culture, perhaps one that will exist in the future.

11 0:02:40 The Breath of the Earth

Contrabass Clarinet, Hadgini Drum, Bolivian Quena, Alto Saxophone, E Flat Clarinet, Bowed Psaltery: Lanier in overdub

Musical instruments transform breath and motion; an audio parallel to the magical transformations that theatrical masks offer to the eyes.

Here is a connection with Virtual Reality, in that Virtual Reality is a masked world. I play many wind instruments from around the world, but in this case I was trying to get unusual sounds out of common western wind instruments. The Alto Sax sound, for instance, is inspired by Ney flutes, found in North Africa and the Middle East.

The percussion instrument is a new invention (by Jamie Haddad and Frank Giorgini) called a Hadgini Drum, an open holed ceramic chamber on the which the player's hands move in order to tune speaker feedback as heard by microphones inside the chamber.

12 0:02:40 Sentiment and Strut

solo Piano: Lanier

A rarity for me, something approaching a normal, simple piano piece. Reducing a level of esoterica from what one has become accustomed to is, in my experience, one of the most challenging esthetic transits.

13 0:02:30 Cream Soda

solo Piano: Lanier

A comic deconstruction of "Sentiment and Strut".

14 0:05:36 Khaen/Violin Duo #4( music is sex w/god)

Khaen: Lanier

Violin: Barbara Higbie

We return to music for Violin and Khaen. Can one ever describe musical energy with words? There is a swirling between the instruments that I find to be sexual. I sometimes think that music would never change and would just be a part of sex if human sexuality weren't such a moving target. I think sex might be "a moving target" because reproduction has to be more than instinctual in animals capable of displaying such varied behaviors as people do. If the definition of sex were bounded, I fear that creatures as nuts as we are would never get around to reproducing. Sexuality has to be ever-changing, to compete against curiosity, exploration, and cultural drift in people, much as the immune system must be ever-changing to compete with germs, and music is one piece of this creativity that has broken off with its own momentum. This is only one theory among many, of course. I think about these sorts of things all the time.

The phrase "Music is sex with God" was never intended as a provocation. It was rather a private definition of the transcendental aspect of what it is to play music and feel it deeply. It found its way into the marketing department of Polygram by mistake and for a while it was contemplated as the record's title, but I am happier to see it in a subordinate role.

15 0:04:40 Emerging Light 1992

solo Piano: Lanier

The piano has often been misrepresented as a push-button instrument, capable only of starting and stopping notes at various volumes. This defines it as something rather like a computer, and indeed we find the concept of a digital piano more acceptable than, say, a digital saxophone. I have always experienced the piano differently, as an expressive string instrument. The fact that you can only reach the strings indirectly is part of what makes the piano so romantic. The expressive range is harder to get at, so it takes more work and sensitivity.

From an engineering point of view, I can't say for certain what about a piano isn't a button box. The piano holds a special place among instruments as the musical bridge between the mystical world of matter and the discrete, mystery-less world of information. Why is matter mystical? The heart of scientific method is that we can never know anything for certain about the physical world; all scientific ideas are waiting to be falsified. To interact with this sea of mysteriousness that is the physical world in the form of musical instruments is a mystical activity. The piano is somehow, mysteriously, more than a button box, and so perhaps might computers be, someday.

Indeed, I might seem to be distancing myself from computers with these adventures in acoustic music, but that is not the case at all. However, that story will have to wait for the next record...

Produced by Peter Scherer

Recording Studios Tracks

Looking Glass 3, 4, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15

Different Fur 5, 6, 7

Future Tickle 1, 2, 14

King Street 11

Recording Engineers

Kurt Munkacsi 4, 8, 10, 15

Stephen Heart 5, 6, 7 (Mark Slagle, assistant)

Dante DeSole 3, 9, 11, 12, 13

Peter Scherer 11

Jaron Lanier 1, 2, 14

with additional recording and editing by James Law and Anne Pope


Roger Moutenot All except 11

Peter Scherer 11


Scott Hull, Masterdisk

Thank Yous

Geoff Brown (use of pre-release software to score sax pieces)

Jamie Haddad (use of Hadgini drum when mine broke)

Baldwin Pianos (use of piano for some tracks)

Maria Wilhelm, Linda Goldstein, Sima Wolf, Sussan Deyhim (studio listeners)

Shabda Owens (assorted assistance)

Philip Glass, Ornette Coleman (mentoring)

Terry Riley (facilitated khaen/violin duo)

Jaime Wolf (text editing)

Management: Linda Goldstein, Original Artists (212) 254 1234 fax 254 3121

Go back to Jaron's music page.