Sunday, June 28, 2020

Larry Polansky: These Are the Generations, a conversation with Elliot Simpson

Larry Polansky (1954) is a composer, guitarist, mandolinist, and a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is a founding member and co-director of the composer's collective Frog Peak Music. He co-wrote HMSL (Hierarchical Music Specification Language) with Phil Burk and David Rosenboom.

His new cd These Are the Generations, is now available from New World. A work with extraordinary musicians: Doug Perkins (percussion), Chris Clarino (glockenspiel), Kate Stenberg (vln.), Vanessa Ruotolo (cello), Amy Beal (piano), Genevieve Kromm (trumpet), the William Winant Percussion Ensemble (Willie, Mike Jones, Tony Genero, Scott Siler, all on marimba), Giacomo Fiore (mandolin), Nelsen Hutchison (mandola), Chris Mallett (guitar), Sheila Willey (soprano), and Emily Sinclair (conductor). There are pieces from the 1980s, and some very recent ones as well. The CD design is by Jim Fox. The performers on the recording are similarly of different generations. Moreover, some of these works use some form of algorithmic composition while others use more conventional approaches to composing music. In some pieces, the musicians themselves must enact some kind of procedure to generate the sounds or structures they are to play.

The title of this recording has multiple meanings for its composer. These are the generations... is a translation of the Hebrew title for the second work on the program, Eleh Tol'd'ot, the first words of the thirty-fifth verse of the first book (B'rey'sheet) of the Torah. Beyond referencing Polansky's Jewish heritage, the phrase reflects this particular collection of works on several levels.

Some have known and worked with Polansky since the 1980s or earlier; others are much younger and began working with him as graduate students within the last few years. The compositions included stem from different generations of Polansky's musical output: Some were composed in the 1980s while he was teaching at Mills College in Oakland, California (Eleh Tol'd'otSacco, Vanzetti); some while living in New Hampshire when he was a Professor of Music at Dartmouth College (Glockentood II22 Sounds­); and others are recent compositions completed in Santa Cruz, California, around the time of Polansky's retirement from the University of California, Santa Cruz (five songs for kate and vanessa, kaddish (ladder) canon).

Finally, the works presented here demonstrate Polansky's deep understanding of the history and techniques of experimental music in the United States. Within these compositions one can find compositional approaches that span styles from the Ultramodernists in the early twentieth century to advanced computational algorithms not yet possible in that era. Through these works Polansky somehow manages to integrate older and newer styles of experimental composition into a cohesive voice that despite, or perhaps because of, its eclecticism and diversity is unmistakably the music of Larry Polansky.

Liner notes from the CD by Jay Arms

Elliot: One thing that has always struck me about your work is the stylistic breadth of it — within a single composition we can find influences from historical American music, avant-garde traditions, and your Jewish background, juxtaposed with dense algorithmic forms and extraordinarily expressive, delicate moments, all of which can be communicated in either virtuosically precise notation or in wonderfully flexible open forms. How do you orient yourself amongst these different languages while composing?  

LP: That’s an interesting word, “orient”, and one, for some reason, I was thinking about the other day. It means both “east” and to “find one’s place”, an odd double meaning. Simply put: I don’t “orient” myself. I feel at home in a lot of musical and historical genres, styles, usages, etc., and most importantly, I feel at home in many of them at once. I am interested in blurring unnecessary distinctions, whenever I can, and avoiding labels, restrictions, and categorizations that mostly seem to me to serve purposes other than forward looking music creation.

I pretty much love, and am deeply interested in (as interested as my life and energy allow!) all musics. Some of them I know a lot about, and am sort of deeply grounded in, others less so, but they are no less fascinating to me. My old friend (and greatly missed) Chris Mann had a nice way to characterize, for example, my somewhat touristic use of Jewish and Hebrew materials, something like “not wasting your expertise.” Yet one’s expertise is the whole of one’s life and thought and activity. I see no disjunction between jazz, blues, bluegrass and Jewish traditions — they all concern interesting humans asking interesting questions, and finding even more interesting answers! I’ve always been like that, more or less curious about everything, and I don’t really have to “do” anything to many different things that participate in my work. As a composer, one essentially describes oneself, which is tricky and interesting, because music by itself can’t really describe. I generally (but not always) avoid conscious decisions about my influences, or what body of knowledge I’m knowingly or unknowingly making use of at any given time, other than large scale ones about the “subject” of a piece, or the ideas I’m experimenting with, the title, the dedicatees, the instrumentation, etc. I think a lot about a kind of holarchical or heterarchical approach, of mind, experience and expression. Everything is present all the time, though, for example, in my work with ASL performance and poetry, there are obvious local foci.


Larry Polansky's "Tritune", a large microtonal work for two guitars written for Oh Mensch guitar duo, Matthias Koole and Kobe Van Cauwenberghe

Elliot: You’re an especially important resource for the music of earlier and mostly little-known American composers, who preceded the big bang of experimental music during the generation of John Cage, and you frequently interact, in one way or another, with their work in your own compositions. What is it that you connect to in their music or stories?  

LP: Well, first, thanks for the compliment. I’m not so sure how “important” I am for anything, but I can say that I consider all composers, in fact all artists, to be, in some real and “important” way to be colleagues, and on the basis of their work, my friends, whether or not they in fact are, or whether or not they’re still with us. Johanna Beyer, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Mordechai Sandberg are in my inner circle as are you and James Moore, Giacomo Fiore, Margaret Lancaster, and many composers and musicians of my own generation (like David Mahler, Michael Byron, Teodora Stepancic, Peter Garland, Rory Cowal, Lois V Vierk, Nick Didkovsky, Krys Bobrowski, Brenda Hutchinson) for whom I feel that same respect, and responsibility to help whenever possible. Some of these folks I know well, some of them not as well, but that doesn’t really matter.

 I often refer to myself in a tongue-in-cheek manner as an “amateur musicologist,” in that my work on, and on behalf of older generations of composers (and some contemporaries) is done simply because it needs to be done and is the right thing to do. As an “amateur,” I don’t require any compensation of any kind for this kind of work, other than a good feeling when I’ve accomplished something useful on someone’s behalf. I work on some things simply because “they need doing.” I’ve been fortunate to have had friendships and collaborations, sometimes simply intellectual collaborations, with older generations of composers from the tradition you refer to (to name just a few: James Tenney, David Rosenboom, Lou Harrison, Ezra Sims, Philip Corner, Daniel Goode, Christian Wolff, and Gordon Mumma). I’ve been fortunate to have been treated as a peer by all of them (whether or not I really was…), and that is a model for how I try to treat others, as well as a kind of blueprint for living in the world as a person, composer and artist.

Polansky · Songs and Toods (solo guitar) Recorded by Elliot Simpson, Lou Harrison Just Intonation Resonator Guitar, Microfest Records. Five pieces for the instrument. 3 songs, 2 studies. Can be played in various orders

Elliot: Although there are fewer plucked strings on this new album than previous ones, you are a wonderful guitarist and frequently perform your own music. Has your connection to the instrument affected your compositions? Do you ever have an instrument in your hands while composing? Do you find something special in the guitar? 

LP: Well, first of all, thanks for the compliment (about my guitar playing). Coming from you, that means a lot. The simple answer is: I’m a guitar geek. It was my first instrument, and still is, if you count everything that’s “sort of a guitar-ry thing” (and I’m including the mandolin family) my only instrument. I don’t often compose with a guitar (except for all the rounds, which are most often “written” with a guitar), and, I think if one looks at my work over time, most of the work for guitar, and especially that which I perform myself, begins in the 90s. Some of that is my friendship with Nick Didkovsky, who was a real motivation for me guitar-wise (51 Melodies is a result of that influence). But as you know, I’m obsessed with the guitar; I love playing it, in so many different styles (though I think my body is too old to ever play bluegrass guitar again, which is sad…). I’m fascinated with the instrument and all its manifestations. When I listen to music with a guitar in it, I basically just hear the guitar! My respect for great players (like you and James) is really sincere, with a lot of humility. A long time ago, David Dunn and a few of my grad students were having dinner at my house in Hanover, and someone wanted to listen to some music, so David went down to my basement to find an LP, and came back with something, and said: “Larry: Do you ONLY have records with guitar players on them?”

Taylor Levine, James Moore, Gyan Riley with Nick Didkovsky & Larry Polansky 

But yes, my relationship to the guitar, mostly the electric guitar, has been a huge influence on my composition. It’s taken me a long time to sort of normalize that relationship, starting with pieces like 34 Chords (which is sort of seminal to me), and 51 Melodies, and then with huge projects like Songs and Toods (which you so courageously and brilliantly brought to life), and for jim, ben and lou, the guitar is very present, and still one of my great passions, both writing for it and playing it. I’m incredibly fortunate to have so many great guitarists (all technically WAY better than me) as friends: Giacomo Fiore, James Moore, yourself, Toon Callier and the Zwerm guys, and Doug Hensley and Paul Binkley from the Mills decade, again, to name just a few. That means I can write something that I would probably not have the technical chops to play (or the time or the patience to learn!), and just kick it “upstairs” to another guitarist. That’s one reason I enjoy playing other composers’ works for guitar (in particular, that of Lois Vierk, Christian Wolff, Warren Burt, Barbara Monk Feldman, Ron Nagorcka). Playing, acting as a guitarist instead of a composer, gives me the opportunity to be on the “receiving end”. 

Guitarists like yourself, James, Giacomo, Nick, Toon, Claudio, Tom Pauwels and a few others have been extremely important to me and my work. For instance, Giacomo Fiore, in his PhD thesis, re-aquainted me with, and in a number of cases re-educated me about a lot of my own work! And then we played it (I often think of ii-v-i as being as much his piece as mine, after all the times we’ve played it and recorded it). Another example is a piece like minmaj, which was a project in the back of my mind for many years (originally conceived as something that Claudio Calmens and I could play on a little tour we did). But minmaj is SO thorny, weird, hard from a guitar-technical point of view, that it needed the kind of performance relationship I have with Giacomo, who is like a second (and more organized) brain for me. I owe him a tremendous debt for how much he’s done for my work, and how much he’s taught me about it! He did the same thing for me with Tenney’s guitar music, some of which, like Harmonium #2 and Septet, I had premiered (and in the case of the Septet, recorded several times!) years ago. Giacomo was instrumental in bringing that music back to life, exploring it, and performing it! He’s a kind of warrior for important guitar music.


In this 16 minute handmade film, composed of more than 4000 collages, the actress Lillian Gish is seamlessly appropriated from silent-era cinema and plunged into a new and haunting role. Night Hunter evokes a disquieting dreamscape, drawn from allegory, myth and archetype. Music and sound by Larry Polansky.

Elliot: Many of your pieces are written with specific performers in mind, and this disc in particular seems to be the fruit of many personal relationships, both long-time friends and collaborators and more recent students and colleagues. How do these relationships affect and inform your composing? 

LP: Well, to start off with, I’m 65 years old, have been playing music (of almost every conceivable type) and composing since I was a teenager. So it’s not all that surprising that I have a lot of good musician friends and long-standing relationships with other musicians. I’ve worked with a LOT of musicians, which has been one of the nicest parts of my life. I also taught, mostly graduate students, for close to 40 years before retiring from teaching last July, and I keep in touch with many of my students (or they with me). I tend to want to play music with my friends, many of whom are wonderful musicians.

So yes, I often write for friends, not as commissions, but because I know what they can do, it’s a nice thing for me to have someone to write for! They don’t always play the pieces which, as you know as well as anyone, can be difficult and unusual. I still have pieces that have never been played, or been played only partially or in some simpler way, due to their difficulty. But lately, more and more often, someone like you comes along and says “I’d like to play the complete Songs and Toods”, and after I kind of shake my head in disbelief, you do it, and do it beautifully (I’m still shaking my head in disbelief that you make Sweet Betsy from Pike look so easy, not to mention Dismission of Great I).

3 New Hampshire Songs (for 16 part choir), for example, is a piece that I wrote for precisely nobody except myself, and is off-the-charts wild and difficult. But Bill Brooks decided to do it with his group of student singers at York in England, and they did it beautifully. B’midbar is another example, which was written for Sarah Cahill, who did some of it (wonderfully) but it took Rory Cowal, and later Teodora Stepancic, to take on the whole project (it’s a set of 17 piano pieces, many of which require the performer(s) to do some very unusual things). It just happens… it’s as if these pieces serve as friendly “challenges” for you folks, and the simple idea of them being so hard (and unplayed) creates something interesting and challenging to do battle with! In every case, the piece, when performed, sounds better to me that I thought it would.

In 1994, there was a sort of one-day festival of my music in Zurich, two concerts. Marino Pliakas, who is another insanely good guitarist (and bassist), asked me to tell him pieces that had never been played, so they could play them. We did 51 Melodies (together, with Stephan Wittwer playing bass, which was a real treat!), and they performed Eleh Tol’d’ot with me doing a live computer part (aside from the new CD, that’s the only performance that I know of for that piece). Marino put together a string quartet to play Roads to Chimacum, again, something that had never really been played. And they dedicated a whole concert to Lonesome Road, which was still in pencil draft, maybe 150 pages or so of hard piano music, with three pianists, one for each section (“tag-team”). Martin Christ was the third pianist, and we became friends (as I did with Thomas Bachli and Urs Eggli, the other two pianists). Martin decided that he’d learn the whole thing (it’s almost an hour and a half long). He premiered that solo version, I think, at a house concert in Hanover, where I was living, and then recorded it in Switzerland for release on New World. I had NOTHING to do with any of that — Martin saw it as an interesting and challenging project, so he just did it!

I’m fortunate in that this has happened to me often! Matt Ingalls did something similar with the seemingly unplayable solo clarinet piece, Approaching the Azimuth (actually, not too long ago), and of course Margaret Lancaster, one of my dearest friends, bandmate, and favorite flutist did that with Piker. There’s something kind of screwy in the universe if Piker, which is a candidate for the most impractical piece ever written, can be played so beautifully and perfectly — harmonic series tunings on a piccolo? Margaret plays it like it’s no problem at all.

There are still a few pieces that will probably never be performed. One of my favorites (what an odd thing to say) is 3 Cello Tunes, which I wrote for Anton Lukoszevieze, who I’d worked with and become friends with when I spent a few months in London in the 90s with a group of Dartmouth students. Anton can play anything, and does, but he (rightly) says that 3 Cello Tunes is off the charts impossible, and I kind of believe him. It was one of those pieces where I was thinking more about the integrity of the ideas (which are complicated) than the sonic realization. There is a cellist in Chicago who has been working on it for a long time, and he’s actually played it, although it still presents some formidable difficulties. I think the 4 Violin Studies are the same kind of piece, written by someone (me) who was almost deliberately avoiding the issue of playability in writing it. In my experience, that may mean someone will come along and nail it just to show that they can. 

But I like having pieces in all forms of performability, and difficulty, and it’s always interesting and fun to hear performers take a crack at them. I learn a lot, and so do they I hope!

Elliot: This CD was released in a particularly turbulent moment in recent history, in the midst of a global pandemic and outpouring of pain and anger centered on long-standing systemic inequalities, and it seems to touch on several political issues. The text of Glockentood II seems particularly emphatic, but also reassuring in this moment: “Why be so grandiose? Just do something, do something. Now and then, now and then.” I’m reminded also of Christian Wolff saying that experimental music is “a music that suggests the possibility of change.” What role do you think we, as musicians, composers, artists, can and should play in this moment in history?

LP: Hmmm… on the global, social, economic, political level: precisely none. That’s why we’re so necessary. 3 Cello Tunes is not going to get rid of Trump, no matter how well it’s played. 51 Melodies, Ensembles of Note, or any of Christian’s (wonderful) pieces are not going to level the global economic playing field. But, these kinds of pieces are about musicians doing things that musicians haven’t quite done before, and while it doesn’t help anybody, it doesn’t hurt anyone either (well, unless someone stood too close to us in a performance of 51 Melodies, Nick liked to say “play loud!!!” before we played it).

Christian Wolff: Ten Exercises. Exercise 1 · Christian Wolff · Frederic Rzewski · Robin Schulkowsky · Larry Polansky

Christian Wolff is one of my closest friends, and someone I have immeasurable respect and affection for, but he’s very clear about the relationship of politics (power) to music (very little). I like his idea, though, very much, that his music is about the social organization and politics of the musicians themselves, embodied in the piece. I think that’s a beautiful, efficient, smart, and very practical notion, and it’s influenced many of us. Recording the Exercises with him and the ensemble in Italy really taught me a lot about playing with other people, it’s a remarkable “exercise” itself.

 I tend to encourage students to “trust the performers” and give them some room to be creative, to try new things, to make the music express some of their own ideas. Christian does that implicitly in a nice way. Nothing gets fixed in the social fabric when we do a gig (Christian and I and Robyn Schulkowsky and Joey Baron and Robert Black, and the other members of his somewhat fluid “virtuoso” group), but we all change.

I Improvisation for Two Pianos and Fretless Guitar, Session 1 · Christian Wolff · Larry Polansky · Kui Dong Trio ℗ 2012 Henceforth Records

I believe, though this sounds like some sort of warmed over 60s hippie idea (which would be not unlikely in my case) that when you give a musician like Joey Baron or Robyn Schulkowsky a lot of interesting material and a lot of freedom, the musicians around them (and I think, hopefully, the listeners) change indelibly as a result of the magically benevolent anarchy of the group musical experience. In that way, and others, his music models beneficent ways to change things, without attempting more than is possible at some larger scale. I’ve played a lot of his guitar music, and every time I play, for example, Another Possibility … (solo piece), I have to sort of rethink how to play, but also, WHY I play.


Filmed and edited by Simon Mølvig. Music by Larry Polansky

Elliot: It seems to me that we have reached maximum heterogeneity in modern classical music, where more composers than ever before are incorporating a vast number of fundamentally diverse compositional techniques and concerns. Do you think we have arrived at some evolutionary musical plateau, or are we in an era of transition towards some rethinking of classical music, composition, or their role in society?  

LP: Not to be unnecessarily contentious, but I think the answer is none of the above. It’s certainly true that everything that has ever been done is more accessible than it ever has been. And also, young musicians and composers are educated at a very high level now, due to the proliferation of universities that take contemporary music seriously (which necessitates, I think, a base of understanding of other, older and distant musical styles). On the other hand, every musical generation should rethink the music that has come before them, that’s how musical (and for that matter artistic and scientific) progress is made.

Oddly, I think guitar players like you and me (and all of our peers, like James Moore and Nick Didkovsky, and others) grew up with a kind of stylistic open-mindedness that by definition recasts “music history”. As a young person, I listened to and emulated George Barnes, Jimi Hendrix, Kenny Burrell, Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotton, Rev. Gary Davis, Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Clarence White, James T. Burton, Eric Clapton, and pretty much everyone I ever heard play guitar in an interesting way. I think many of us (meaning “baby boom” guitar players) did the same, which went along with respecting, if not venerating, and becoming proficient in lots of styles of music. Guitar players of our generation are musical chameleons. We don’t really feel the need to over-categorize music, because our instrument is like a passport into so many different musical countries.

A little anecdote: For a while now, I have been learning the Bach Cello Suites on the instruments of the mandolin family (mandolin, mandola, mandocello), as musical post-retirement-from-teaching musical project. It’s been fun, quite challenging, and interesting to do it on three instruments in different clefs and keys (well, only two keys, really) with exactly the same fingerings. But I also practice jazz guitar a great deal, and play a lot of fiddle tunes, fingerpicking tunes and bluegrass on both guitar and the “mandolins. I think nothing of playing a few of the Bach movements and then playing 8th of January or Bonaparte’s Retreat for a while, without switching instruments. But that seems like a happy situation! 

It’s all guitar/mandolin (plucked string) music to me, and all worthy of deep study and, I hope, new ideas in performing it. I’m not an exception. Most of the serious guitar players I know can “context switch” easily on their instrument(s), which is I think, a ramification of growing up with so many different styles of music in our heads and ears, and having a tool (the guitar) with which to learn those musics. That musical world includes Schoenberg and Buddy Guy, Lightning Hopkins and Bach, Segovia and Lenny Breau, and really everyone who’s ever written for or played a guitar of any ilk. 

 [N.B.: I learned to play mandolin via the Schoenberg Serenade, which I performed with a group of musicians a few times when I was a graduate student at the U. of Illinois. Basically, I learned that fairly hard piece by finding each note on the instrument which, except for some doubling on it in my busily gigging bluegrass band, I was completely unfamiliar with].


Big Sounds, Small Sounds, by David Fuqua

Elliot: In your previous Prepared Guitar interview you wrote a beautiful response to a question about your own musical education. Now that you have retired (officially, at least) after a long and storied teaching career, have you had any insights into what influences your teaching has had on your own composing? 

LP: Many, and daily. It’s impossible to teach without having frequent insights about music, one’s own work, and how students can blossom into creative performers, composers, scholars, and teachers. I think part of it is that while it’s extremely common for teachers to be, at least sometimes, BS artists (an occupational hazard), if you have any intellectual scruples, you know when you’re doing that, and you should castigate yourself and stop doing it the moment you realize it’s happening. After close to 40 years of teaching music, I believe that teaching is some form of secular/sacred trust. The job is to convey to students how serious and how beautiful music is, and how it gets more and more so when it’s understood at multiple levels, and a multiple of perspectives.

That’s a bit of a boiler-plate response, but more pertinently, I will say that whenever I teach, especially composition, or theory, I get excited again about either what I’m teaching, or how it relates to something I’m working on, or thinking about. In other words, talking about the music of Ruggles or Tenney or Vierk or Crawford Seeger or Harrison or …. well, whoever… gets me excited about music in the same way that I’m trying to get the students excited. 

I believe that teaching, especially at the university level, is almost not at all about facts (they can look up when Ives was born!), but very much about the teacher illustrating a mode of commitment, excitement, and dedication to something important. I may be wrong, and am certainly over generalizing — I’m extrapolating from my own experience. I was fortunate (actually, just plain dumb lucky) to have teachers who did that, mainly James Tenney, Gordon Mumma, George Barnes and Ron Riddle (among others), both formally and informally. It’s true that I learned actual “things” from them, but more, I learned from those very committed, very brilliant people, how to “be” in music in a way that allows you to keep following that passion as a way of life. I’m not saying I’ve succeeded with my own students in the way that those older composers succeeded with me — if indeed they did, I’m not making any claims for myself, only for them — but I’ve tried.

When I was teaching at Dartmouth (for some 23 years), I enjoyed teaching the beginning music theory class. Interestingly, so did Christian Wolff, and we would rotate in teaching it. Both of us brought in lots of extra, non-four-part-chorale music, and I think that was great for the students. One of my favorite things to do was to bring in, say, a country song, and spend the entire class talking about it. I did that several times with George Jones’ classic recording of The Race Is On, which has some wonderfully innovative musical ideas in it. Somewhere in the back of my head was the idea that I could just as well talk with them for an hour about this song/recording (which is to me a country music masterpiece) as I could about the Eroica (which I also did, but it wasn’t as much fun). I don’t think they all went out and became George Jones fans (too bad….), but they did see how a more experienced composer and musician, me, got really excited about things that, I think, they didn’t know they were allowed to be excited about! Doing things like that also, for me, constitutes a response to your question: how did teaching affect my own work? Teaching can be a way of building new and unusual bridges between what one does compositionally, and what one teaches. It forces you, if you’re awake, to make previously unknown connections between not only your musical worldview and theirs, but to connect all music together. 

There’s no music that one wouldn’t learn to love if one had studied it, immersed oneself in it. An assignment I would often give them would be: “Pick a musical style that you think you dislike, or even hate. Spend a week listening to as much of that music as you can, reading about it as much as you can, and listening to some instance of it many times. My prediction is that you will like it a great deal at the end of the week”.

Elliot: Also in your previous interview, you mentioned: “I enjoy music most when I am 1) writing it or playing it or 2) humbled by it.” The second item caught my attention. What is it about a piece of music that humbles you? 

LP: Well, not to be overly dramatic, but pretty much all music humbles me, but in a nice way. Hearing a great virtuoso guitarist (like yourself, or, more recently going to a gig of Julian Lage’s here in Santa Cruz) can put me into a kind of hyper-elated-depressive state. I love hearing and seeing the possibilities of the guitar explored like that, and that makes really happy. On the other hand, knowing that my fingers will never do what Lage’s fingers do, or for that matter, have the same kind of harmonic creativity that he has on our (very recalcitrant) instrument, puts me in a “joyous and depressed-better-go-practice-even-though-it’s-futile” state of mind. 

But, more importantly, I’m humbled when I hear my student pieces and out jumps some crazy, interesting idea that I wouldn’t have expected from them. We don’t understand creativity that well, I think, but when there’s clear evidence of its existence in a 20 year old college student in a beginning music theory class, that’s something to be humbled about.

But that humility needs to be put to good use, as a teacher, and also just as an older musician. Our job is to fan that spark, gently, but with a communicable excitement for it. We should seize it, hold it up for praise, try to figure out “what happened” with the student, and tell them “DO IT AGAIN”. They need to know the feeling of “holy cow, I just did something interesting”, whether it’s on their instrument or on the page. That’s such a great feeling, for me and you as well as that 20 year old, that it is our job to help them acclimate to that creative sensation. If we (and they) can do that, their musical lives will be a lot of fun, and I think, impactful. 

But to get back to your question: all music humbles me. I know it’s a basic human enterprise, but still, whether its Froberger or Ellington, it’s magical in the sense that you don’t know how they did it. And that’s a wonderful sensation.


Music of English composer Dirk Rodney, Boston, MA, Mobius, spring, 2000. Tom Plsek, trombone and bhodran. Larry Polansky, guitar. Douglas Repetto, electronics

Elliot: I’m going to indulge in one guitar question, guitar geek to guitar geek!

LP: Uh oh! 

Elliot: You have a number of beautiful instruments- can you tell us about one that has been grabbing your attention recently, or that is particularly important to you? 

LP: That’s a tough one, like asking “which is your favorite child” (to risk a kind of insensitive comparison). I like all my instruments, and there are a lot of them, and some of them are pretty unusual. But I can say that lately I’ve been concentrating on the “mandos” for Bach and traditional American music, and my two favorite electric guitars for playing jazz and blues. Those guitars are both custom instruments: a Sadowsky half-tele, half-strat that he made for me in the late 70s in NYC, and is still my go-to guitar for gigs, and pretty much anything. It’s tremendously beat-up, but it still sounds great. 34 Chords was written on and for that guitar, and I use it for that piece, as well as for when I perform Christian’s solo guitar pieces (Another Possibility, Going West) or with the ensemble.. The other of those two electrics is again, a kind of hybrid tele/strat (more tele than strat by far) that was built for me by my close friend in Hanover, Charlie Conquest. It’s a masterpiece of guitar design and building, and has some really unusual and wonderful qualities (I won’t go into them here). It’s extremely special to me, because Charlie and I worked on its design for about a year (especially the neck), and he finally finished it and gave it to me, and then he had a series of massive strokes a few weeks later and passed away. I call it the “Charlie guitar”, and it jousts with the Sadowsky for occupying the guitar stand at the music stand in the living room where I practice a lot.


This is the kind of guitar nerd question that could take a couple of hours to answer. Each instrument has a long story, and set of stories associated with it. I have instrument that date back to when I was in junior high (my Martin D-18, an early 60s Fender Mustang) which I still love. I also have the Marchione fretless electric, also built for me (it was my version of “post-tenure freakout” at Dartmouth, and I blame Nick Didkovsky for introducing me to the amazing Steve Marchione), which is a guitar I use for specific things: ii-v-i, Dirk Rodney’s pieces, and it was the guitar I used exclusively for 15 years or so with Trio (myself, Kui Dong, Christian Wolff). I have a hand-made mandocello, a very old and cranky mandola, and three mandolins, two of which have really nice histories (one was Lou Harrison’s!), and a Gibson Long Neck banjo that Christian gave to me a long time ago when he gave up on being a banjo player (he shouldn’t have bought the long-neck, it’s hard to play!). And a bunch of other things, many of which you’ve seen. I’m gonna stop now, because this is the kind of question that only guitar nerds will be interested in reading the answer to!!!!


James Moore (guitar) and Andie Springer (violin) perform a benefit concert for and at Exapno New Music Community Center. June 16, 2011. Featured in video: "10 Strings (9 Events)" by Larry Polansky and "in absentia" by Paula Matthusen

Elliot: Two options for question ten:

Can you describe a recent dream?

What is one question that you have been waiting for someone to ask you in an interview?


LP: I’m going to pick the second one, which is a really guitar nerd question. I don’t generally remember my dreams, so… 

I wish someone would ask me, for the record, what my (two) favorite guitar solos (not my own) is. Then I could answer, first, the out-chorus solo by the great James Burton on Merle Haggard’s tune Got Lonely Too Early This Morning. It’s a masterpiece of doing amazing things at a point where amazing things may or may not be front and center. There’s a guitar solo in the middle of the song as well, but I don’t think it’s by Burton, I believe he was the second guitarist on several of the songs on this fantastic record (“Serving 190% Proof”).

Burton’s solo occurs after the song is already over, and fading out. It is a marvel of pull-off quintuplets, wonderful funky octaves, quirky chromatic arpeggios, all with a beautiful sound and tight rhythmic feel. It’s impossible to know if he knew that it would be almost unheard because at that point, the average listener is not really paying attention. But it completely transfixes me, and always brings a huge smile to my face. He’s doing it for himself, and because he can… he has so many ideas and such amazing chops that he can just have fun with the “outro” playing a solo that many guitarists would have loved to play. I feel like I’m a kind of one-person audience when I listen to it, validating Burton’s impulse, so that at least somebody appreciates the magic of his playing.

And the second answer would also be James Burton (of the paisley telecaster) on his well-known solo on Gram Parsons’ Grievous Angel LP, on the song Return of the Grievous Angel, preceded by Parsons calling out “pick it James T!” It’s beautifully crafted, and segues magically with the other instrumental solos. To me, it’s what an electric guitar should ideally sound like.

Obviously, we all have hundreds and hundreds of favorite guitar moments, solos, etc. But these two Burton moments (they’re both really short) are special to me.


American composer of mostly chamber, choral, vocal, piano, and electroacoustic works that have been performed in the Americas and Europe; he is also active as an electric guitarist and writer.

Prof. Polansky initially studied with Ron Riddle at the New College of Florida in Sarasota, then at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he earned his BA in mathematics and music in 1976, and with James Tenney at York University in Toronto in 1977. He studied composition with Ben Johnston at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and there earned his MA in 1978. He also had private studies in jazz guitar with George Barnes, Mick Goodrick and Chuck Wayne.

Among his honours are the Fulbright Fellowship (1995–96) and the Sony Music Fellowship (2001).

As an electric guitarist, he has often played contemporary music, notably with electric guitarist Nick Didkovsky and in Trio with Kui Dong and Christian Wolff. He also plays gendèr (metallophone from Indonesia), mandocello, mandolin, and other instruments. He has occasionally performed as a singer, including with the Enfield Shaker Singers.
As a writer, he has contributed articles to various publications. He co-edited with Judith Tick a critical edition of The Music of American Folk Song by Ruth Crawford Seeger (2003, University of Rochester Press).

He is also active in other positions. He founded the collective of experimental composers Frog Peak Music in New Hampshire in 1982 and has served as its co-director since 1982. He later co-authored with Phil Burk and David Rosenboom the computer-music language HMSL (Hierarchical Music Specification Language) from 1985–92. He co-founded the Leonardo Music Journal in 1990 and has served on the board of directors of the journal Perspectives of New Music since 1995.

He taught as an assistant professor at Mills College in Oakland, California from 1981–90 and taught at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire from 1990–2013, where he served as chair of the department of music from 1998–2013 and taught as the Joseph Strauss 1922 Professor of Music from 2000–13, now emeritus. He then taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz from 2013–19.