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A Conversation with Composer Lansing McLoskey


Lansing McLoskey (b. 1964) first came to my attention through a rave review for his CD in Gramophone in 2008, when he had recently moved from the Boston area to Miami, where he is professor of composition at the Frost School of Music of the University of Miami. His musical background is almost psychedelically diverse, ranging from both prog-rock and punk-rock, through early music, to study of contemporary composition at UC Santa Barbara, USC, The Royal Danish Academy of Music and Harvard.
We conversed in what will be the first of several interviews via Skype on October 11, 2012.
©Lansing McLoskey

©Lansing McLoskey

TM: Please tell me about where you were born and grew up, and what the musical environment was like in your family.
LM: My mother minored in piano in college in the fifties, my dad played saxophone in high school and college, and my grandfather Robert McLoskey was a Congressman who played violin in a regional orchestra in rural Illinois. So I had a musical background in the family, though no professional musicians. My mother tells the story that as a toddler I would put classical records on a toy record player at 78 RPM and dance around the room. I asked my parents for guitar lessons when I was six, because I was into the Beatles. I had memorized all the lyrics on the Hey Jude album. They bought me a guitar but then said, “you have to take piano lessons first.” However they didn’t get me piano lessons until I was eleven. I took piano for four years and went through five or six piano teachers for various reasons. Then, at fourteen, I bought an electric guitar and a distortion box at the flea market for fifteen bucks, and that was the end of the piano lessons. The electric guitar and distortion box are connected directly to the pelvis of a fourteen-year-old boy. Even from the earliest stages I wasn’t interested in playing cover tunes. When I picked up the electric guitar I immediately wanted to start writing my own songs. I kept playing the piano, though I had stopped lessons, and actually became much better over the next several years, just training myself.

I was always drawn to “the other” in music. When my classmates were into mainstream rock I was looking for something different. I was drawn to Jimi Hendrix and The Who when my friends were listening to the Bay City Rollers.

In high school I sang in choirs, and played saxophone in the jazz band. I was never very good, but I loved jazz. I had some friends who got into punk rock. This was long before Green Day and the corporate mainstream-ization of alternative music – the term didn’t even exist. If you were a punker you got harassed.. I had a particular friend who kept trying to get me to listen to the Sex Pistols. I said “No thanks!”, but after repeated urgings from him I finally took it home, and it was a life-changing experience. I can remember it as if it was yesterday: I put the tape on, and I couldn’t tell one song from the next. It all just sounded the same; a wall of noise and screaming. And yet I knew from that instant that this was what I had been looking for. It was outside, visceral, primitive, aggressive; the ultimate in non-conformity. You mentioned prog-rock [before the tape was rolling] – I was also really into King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I learned the entire Trilogy and Tarkus albums on the piano. I was also into Yes big-time.

On the one hand, there was a big disconnect between virtuosic art-rock and punk-rock. Punks hated that stuff – if you read interviews with John Lydon and other early punk artists they all thought that the virtuosic stuff was just over-the-top wanking. But there was something in both those musics that spoke to me. I was a pretty good keyboardist, could play all that Emerson stuff, yet I was drawn to the visceral immediacy of punk. So I started a punk band. From the get-go, it was DIY – no need to do cover songs. We just started writing our own music. The first band I played in was called the Suburban Lemmings, and we played a mixture of surf music and hardcore punk.

TM: Where were you living at the time?
LM: SiliconValley. Cupertino, south of San Francisco in the heart of suburbia.

TM: What year was this?
LM: About 1980. I started going to punk shows all the time – Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, X, Circle Jerks, Agent Orange, the Minutemen, Minor Threat – just on and on, and played in various bands at parties and at clubs in San Francisco. I was fortunate because half of my friends were skate-punks – hardly a cultured, intellectual crowd – but there was a contingent that were older and were filmmakers, painters, writers, into jazz, and so I discovered Miles Davis and Weather Report at the same time that I was getting into hardcore punk.
These were really formative years – The Ramones mixed with Bird, Miles and Dave Brubeck mixed with Robert Fripp….

Then I had some friends playing in a punk band, and they asked me to come join the band. The band was called The Ninth – these were guys with mohawks and leather jackets. I asked them “what’s the deal with “The Ninth”? where’s the name come from?”
And they said “Oh, man! It’s the ninth symphony of Beethoven! It’s the original punk, like the original heavy metal!” So I went home and rifled through my mom’s record collection, and put on the ninth symphony, and was just blown away. I had played Beethoven on the piano, but hadn’t really listened to anything.

I then started playing in a band called Stanly in the Sewer, which was a combination of art rock and punk. We wrote a punk opera, a concert-length set of songs, like Tommy, or Quadrophenia; punk, alt, country, heavy metal, surf, all mixed together. We recorded it in the studio, and had big plans.
At the same time I had a huge spiritual crisis, began another journey, and ended up dropping everything, and going on a mission for my church (Mormon) in Denmark. So I was a skater/punk-rock/Mormon guy, and went off to Denmark, dropped the band, who were understandably perplexed. They changed their name to The Social Club, and recorded several albums after that.

TM: And the opera was never released?
LM: No. I have the studio recording, but it was never released.

TM: How many punkers are also Mormons? Is that a big subculture?
LM: Not that many [laughs]. I was really drawn to the straightedge movement – these bands that were all about no drugs, no cigarettes, no alcohol, keeping your life focused, without distractions from things that alter your brain or your body. They were not Mormon, of course, but I was naturally drawn to that scene.

While I was doing the missionary thing, I decided that I wanted to be a concert pianist when I came home, so I applied to UC Santa Barbara for undergraduate school while I was in Denmark. I hadn’t had a single piano lesson in eight years. The hubris and naïveté was kind of crazy.

They accepted me, and after getting home I went right to Santa Barbara to audition. I was 22. The faculty was sitting there, and I walked in and said “well, I don’t have anything memorized, and I actually haven’t studied piano in eight years. And I’ve been living in Denmark, so I haven’t had access to a piano for a year and a half.” I can only imagine what they were thinking. So I played a couple of Bach inventions and the first movement of the Beethoven Pathetique. They sent me out of the room so that they could confer, and when I came back they said “We can’t accept you as a piano major, but we see something in you, so we will accept you in the College of Creative Studies. Go study piano, and come back and reaudition.” So I was happy.

In that semester, though, I had to have an ensemble, so I walked into Capella Cordina, Alejandro Planchart’s Renaissance choir. I was also in his music history class, and the very first day of class he played Landini’s Non avrà la pietà, and it just blew me away. “What is this!!?” It was the same feeling that I had had when I first heard the Sex Pistols in high school. I had no idea that music like this existed. I think it was that same week that I heard Rite of Spring and Berio’s Sinfonia for the first time. So I heard Trecento music and Stravinsky and Berio all at the same time. Boom! That was it. I never went back and reauditioned for piano. The piano was killed for me twice; once by a $15 electric guitar, and then by medieval and contemporary music.
I took Composition 1, and had never written a piece of music in my life. The only music that I had written were punk songs. It all came together – the early music, the contemporary music, the composition, and that was it. The next year I transferred to be a composition major.

I kept involved in early music almost to the present. Alejandro has remained a mentor and friend for twenty-five years. I went to USC to do my master’s in composition, but went straight to Jim Tyler’s office [the eminent lutenist and musicologist] and asked “What can I do?” It turned out that they did not have a vocal ensemble at USC, so I spent half my time hanging around with the master’s students in early music performance, and formed a six-voice vocal ensemble. We did everything from Machaut to Monteverdi, and after a year we went semi-pro. Brian Asawa (the first countertenor to win the Met National Council auditions) was in the group. It was a lot of fun. The name of the group was Clamores Antiqui.

TM: What part did you sing?
LM: I am that accursed baritenor –the tenor with no low notes, and baritone with no high notes. But it turns out that that range is ideally suited for the Trecento and early Renaissance stuff. I can’t sing baroque music very well since it doesn’t fit. I was running Clamores Antiqui, and we had some singers from Santa Barbara who would come to LA for rehearsals. We had already formed a group in Santa Barbara with Alison Zelles and Andrea Fullington, who went on to sing in Theater of Voices, recorded with Steve Reich, and founded the boundary-pushing early music group Bimbetta.
All during my undergraduate years I had kept playing in alternative/experimental bands, postpunk/industrial/goth bands. One was called Spangled Blew, which was Bauhaus crossed with Tones on Tail. I had also started doing a lot of electronic music and tape music in the studio, due in part to my discovery of experimental/industrial music like Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubauten, and Zoviet France.

TM: Who was doing electronic music at UCSB?
LM: JoAnn Kuchera-Morin.
It was at this time I was exposed to all that seminal early electronic music – the Columbia/Princeton scene, Varèse, Robert Ashley, Pierre Schaeffer/Pierre Henry, Stockhausen; those early electronic music pioneers remain my favorite of the genre; everything was so new and experimental, yet primitive. I continued composing electronic music at USC. I don’t do any electronic music anymore, but it continues to inform the way that I think about sound. This is not so uncommon. You have composers like Crumb and many others, who don’t do electronic music, but are influenced by it immensely.

I started getting interested in contemporary Danish music while I was at USC, which started off as a project for a graduate class. When I finished at USC, I thought that I was done. I had no interest in doing a doctorate, but I quickly discovered that all that a masters’ does is qualify one to apply to doctoral programs. You can’t get a job at all, and so I started working in high tech. For the next four years I worked at an automation and systems integration company – started off as file clerk and worked my way up to being a project manager for multimillion dollar jobs. It was very interesting, but a complete sidetrack from what I wanted to do.

TM: Was that in LA?
LM: This was in Santa Monica. I was living in Venice Beach with an aspiring writer and a filmmaker; the quintessential “starving artist/Bohemian scene.” It was great. I was a skateboarder, a bad surfer, but I loved surfing, and lived five blocks from the beach.

©Lansing McLoskey

©Lansing McLoskey

I applied for a grant to study at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. I was named an American/Scandinavian Foundation Fellow, and studied composition with Ib Nørholm, and Renaissance and contemporary choral techniques with Bo Holten, and his choir Ars Nova. They are huge in Renaissance music, and also focus on contemporary music. I also had lessons with Per Nørgård and others, and started researching Danish music. When I came home I just had volumes of research and scores and recordings, and I ended up writing a book, published by Greenwood Press. There have been all these fantastic Danish composers in the past hundred years, and aside from Poul Ruders, and Per Nørgård and Carl Nielsen, nobody knows them. It’s still a topic of great interest to me.

Then I went to Aspen, which is where I met Bernard Rands. The high-tech company was very kind, because they let me take time off, and go and do these things, including Aspen, where Jacob Druckman and Bernard Rands were the composers. I asked them “I have a master’s degree. What should I do?” They both said “You don’t need a doctorate. We don’t have doctorates. Your music is mature – you don’t need a Ph.D.” But they come from a different generation, when nobody had doctorates. They both also said “If you do decide to go back to school, come to Yale/Harvard.”

So that’s how I ended up going to Harvard. I could see the handwriting on the wall – there was nothing I could do without a doctorate. Those four years off, even though I hadn’t been studying, were very informative to me as a person and an artist. I went to Harvard with a different perspective from most of my classmates – I was hungry for the classes. They were complaining about musicology requirements, and I thought “Wow – I get to take classes on the sixteenth-century parody mass with Lewis Lockwood!” I took as many early music courses as I could including a course on Trecento with John Nadas.

TM: What year did you start there?
LM: 1995. I finished at USC in 1991. Between 1991 and 1995 I met my wife, we dated, got married, and spent our honeymoon driving across the country. She was an opera singer, Kathleen Jordan. She was starting at New England Conservatory when I was starting at Harvard.

TM: At what point did you start to think of yourself as a composer?
LM: That’s a great question, because I had three feet in three different places. I had one leg in composition, one leg in early music (I had also attended the Amherst Early Music Institute, and at USC I was conducting, and singing, and studying voice – I took early music performance very seriously), and I had this musicology thing going on with the Danish music. Really, I wanted to do it all. I wanted to be Bo Holten, who is a very active composer, a musicologist and successful early music and choral conductor.

One of the first things I did upon arriving at Harvard was to go across the street to the Longy School of Music and started taking classes with the early music Masters students; transcribing Hildegard from manuscript, singing DuFay, studying voice with Laurie Monahan from Project Ars Nova, and took a class with Michael Collver from Project Ars Nova….and then we had a kid. And then two more (twins). At that point my wife said, “Listen: You can’t be a composer, a singer, a musicologist, and a decent father and husband. Something’s got to give.” She was right of course.

So I stopped studying voice, cut back on my singing, and focused on composition. It’s hard enough to just be a composer, and a husband and father. I stayed in Boston, did free-lance teaching, had a church job as a singer and an organist, and started a skateboard company which I ran for eight years and was teaching full-time at Harvard as a lecturer, and full-time at Wellesley for a year.. I taught at Longy….there were times where I had four jobs, working 70 hours/week, working on my dissertation, with three kids, trying to compose — it was insanity.

I started writing for early music ensembles – that’s when I wrote for the medieval vocal trio Liber UnUsualis. I had sung with them at Longy. I wrote a piece for Tapestry, which is Laurie Monahan’s group, and I wrote a piece for the Hilliard Ensemble. That’s where I kept my early music interests alive.

TM: What was the focus in studying composition at Harvard while you were there?
LM: When I went to Harvard, I went with some trepidation, since in my mind figures like Bernard Rands and Mario Davidovsky were high modernists. I thought it would be a rigid structural approach, and it wasn’t like that at all. They both approached the teaching of composition in a very holistic way. They never pushed any sort of agenda. When I studied with Mario for four years, we would talk about poetry, philosophy, religion, and politics for 45 minutes, and only then would he say “let’s see what you wrote this week”. That’s not to downplay that part of the lesson – we would look at notes and see what worked, what needed to be longer, or shorter, all the traditional “composition stuff”…but the poetry and the politics were as much a part of the composition lesson as notes and rhythms. It’s hard to put into words how or why, but it was. That sort of composition teaching wouldn’t have worked when I was an undergraduate, since I needed to learn craft. But when I was a doctoral student, having taken several years off, it was precisely the sort of lesson environment that I needed as a composer.

TM: What would be your opus one as a composer? Does that make any sense in your trajectory? The first piece that you would acknowledge as being your work as a mature composer?
LM: That would be my String Quartet from 1989. I was an undergraduate. It’s the earliest piece that I feel would represent me as a twenty-five year-old, but also as a forty-eight year old. There’s a part of that voice that is unchanged to this day. Everything else has long been deleted from my catalog.

TM: Since you mentioned voice, how would you describe your compositional voice? Is there something constant between your various pieces for early music ensembles and for modern ensembles?
LM: Yes. Melody always plays a huge role. I like music that is aggressive, and forward-moving, and full of energy, and yet I also like music that is placid, transcendent, ethereal, almost static; I love music that is very consonant, music that is very dissonant – but almost universally there is a thread of melody which runs through everything. This is of paramount importance. I also love juxtaposition, so much of my music has highly contrasting musics which are juxtaposed sequentially or vertically [hand gestures]. I am fascinated by consonance and dissonance; one idea I’ve been exploring for twenty years the the consonant use of dissonance and the dissonant use of consonance.

This is one of the reasons that I find Messiaen so compelling. He has some of the most dense, contrapuntal, dissonant music that you can imagine, and then there are these major triads that pop out, or these stunningly gorgeous melodies that to me have an early music sound. Since he is working with modes, that lends itself to a certain timelessness, an echo of the past.

TM: Please bring us up to the present.
LM: After several years in Boston, I took a job at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. That was seven years ago. There are great things about Miami. It was a big change from Boston, where there are a dozen contemporary music ensembles, a thriving early music scene, and several orchestras. Miami does not have one professional contemporary music ensemble, or an early music ensemble, or a professional orchestra. As a composer 99 percent of my performances are elsewhere, which is difficult.

Several years ago I formed an ensemble called The Other Voices, a 10-12 voice a cappella group doing pre-tonal and post-tonal music. Our first concert was a mass where the ordinary was 14th-century anonymous works, and the proper was Ives, Meredith Monk, Nørgård, Messiaen, Stravinsky, Gorecki, a chant of mine….and a few other things – a high mass that straddled the centuries. Our second concert included Steve Reich’s Proverb. He came to the concert and said “you made me hear this piece in a way that I had never heard it before. But after a year I had to drop it, since I have so many commissions backed up that any time that I am not teaching I have to be composing.

TM: What are the projects you are working on right now?
LM: I have several in different stages. There’s a commission from the soundSCAPE Festival in Italy for a clarinet and tape piece – that’s for next summer. The Crossing Choir asked me to write a concert-length oratorio on texts by Wole Soyinka, based on a recent work I wrote for the Cincinnati Vocal Arts Ensemble.. I have also just been asked by ensemberlino Vocale in Berlin to be composer-in-residence for 2014, and will be working with other Berlin new music ensembles and the Vocalconsort Berlin; a fantastic chamber choir with a focus on Renaissance, Baroque, and contemporary music. We haven’t worked out any details, yet, though. There’s a piece for Miranda Cuckston, a phenomenal new music violinist in New York, commissioned by the New Spectrum Foundation.

Just this past weekend I had a piece premiered by Chatham Baroque in Pittsburgh, for Baroque violin, gamba, and theorbo. That was a lot of fun. I spent twenty years in early music, and wrote pieces for early music vocal groups, but had never written for period instruments. I jumped at the opportunity, and found that writing for gamba and theorbo was a challenge….I had to have charts by my side the entire time. I wrote them a dance suite, called Haute Dance – five short, up-tempo movements, and then a long slow movement, a basse danse, based on La Folia. It went really well –they were great to work with.

Next month I have another world premiere of a chamber work, Specific Gravity: 2.72, commissioned by the newEar Ensemble in Kansas City for their 20th Anniversary Season.

I’m also wrapping up a monograph CD of my chamber music for Albany Records, due out in 2013, and a CD release of my recent concerto for brass quintet and wind ensemble, What We Do Is Secret. So I’m very busy…but that’s a good problem to have.

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