Jaron Lanier’s Symphonic, Spiritual Genealogy

By Alexander C. Kafka

It’s hard to pin down Jaron Lanier—intellectually, professionally, even geographically.

Last week we caught up by phone with the 50-year-old computer scientist, entrepreneur, composer, multi-instrumentalist, author (You Are Not a Gadget, Knopf, 2010), and artist. He was in Berkeley, where he does research for the University of California and for Microsoft. You might also find him in Los Angeles, where he’s innovator in residence at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School. He’s also been affiliated with New York University and Columbia University, in Manhattan, and with the International Institute for Evolution and the Brain, in Boston and Paris. And—well, you get the idea. It’s tough to know where Lanier’s head is at, both figuratively and literally.

But if you really have to get hold of him this week, try Winter Park, Fla. That’s where a symphony that he wrote for the Rollins College Winter Park Institute, in conjunction with the Bach Festival Society (which includes Rollins students in its orchestra and choir), will have its premiere, on October 23.

“Symphony for Amelia” incorporates a text by the 17th-century English poet Amelia Lanier, who was the first published female poet in the English language, Jaron Lanier says—and, evidence suggests, a friend of both Shakespeare and the composer (one of Lanier’s favorites) William Byrd. “It just isn’t fair,” Lanier writes in the program notes, “that we have no record of contact between Shakespeare and Byrd. But it seems Amelia knew them both. What went on? The imagination burns.”

It was some 20 years ago, at a faculty retreat at Dartmouth to discuss surgical simulations, that he happened upon a book of poems by Amelia Lanier, he recounts by phone. Since then she’s made her way into women’s-studies courses, he says, but back then she was a relative unknown. “I just became utterly fascinated with her.”

There is, of course, also the name thing. Jaron Lanier’s father chose Lanier as a pen name, partly because he feared anti-Semitism and partly because he admired the 19th-century American poet and flautist Sidney Lanier, whom Jaron Lanier says is a descendant of Amelia. Jaron Lanier’s mother was a piano prodigy in Vienna before being sent at 13 to a concentration camp, and she taught Jaron piano in New Mexico before she died in a car accident when he was 9.

Amelia Lanier, it turns out, may herself have been a convert from a Jewish Moroccan minstrel family, says Lanier. Her descendants boasted a number of musicians and poets, he notes, including the composer, producer, and trumpeter Quincy Jones.

“Could I possibly be a real Lanier?” Jaron Lanier asks in the program notes. “A picture of Amelia survives, and we see that she had hair like mine, that just wants to dread. A woodcut of her brothers shows them in a room strewn with instruments, including cornettos and lutes, and I know I would have felt at home with them. It’s possible.”

Amelia was no Shakespeare, Lanier says, but was “somebody who in her age was extraordinarily unusual and adventurous.” There was “no precedent for writing like hers.” The poem incorporated into the symphony “is essentially an expression of Christian faith,” he explains, but a lot of her work is also proto-Oprah-ish, “exhorting women to take themselves more seriously.”

Asked how music relates to his work with computers, his writing, his art, and the other facets of his career, Lanier says: “The only unifying theme I can see is I’m interested in seeing what it means to bridge the interpersonal gap. … I kind of reject attempts to connect them more than that, because I don’t think it works.”

He jokes that the variety of his pursuits allows him to use what he calls “cross-procrastination,” enabling him to maintain “a persona of lazy bohemian while actually being quite productive.”

Lanier’s musicianship, like his interests and talents overall, is deep and wide. From those early years playing Beethoven sonatas (“in this way that was exaggeratedly syrupy, as I recall it”) under his mother’s tutelage, he developed as a pianist. But he is also known for his performances on rare Asian wind and string instruments with Yoko Ono, Philip Glass, Ornette Coleman, George Clinton, and others. “A lot of people know me as an unusual-instrument guy,” he says. “I think people have a hard time categorizing me, and I can’t worry about that.”

Lanier had a famously odd and self-assembled education generally—helping build a “strange house” to replace the tents his family had lived in, and then dropping out of college and art school. His musical education wasn’t exactly standard either.

“I was a composition major a couple times in school,” Lanier says, but his chief influences were composers elsewhere whom he sought out. When he was 14, he says, he hitchhiked to Mexico to learn from Conlon Nancarrow, an American-born composer best known for his compositions for player piano that allowed for mechanically aided musical feats that performers alone couldn’t accomplish.

In music and in science, “when I was young I had this ability to connect with older men as kind of an apprentice,” Lanier says. John Cage was another musical influence, as were, in Lanier’s 20s, Glass, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich.

If he had to make a living solely from music, Lanier says, he’d work harder at branding himself as primarily this or that kind of composer or player. He has the luxury, he says, of not doing so and doesn’t worry about making much sense of his musical interests. Still, he says, “I’m concerned that some young person would try to emulate me, and that would be playing against the odds pretty badly.”

Lanier’s compositions include movie scores, works for opera and ballet, and a triple concerto. The commission for Rollins, from John V. Sinclair, artistic director of the Bach Festival and chair of Rollins’s music department, is Lanier’s fifth symphony (at least Lanier thinks it is, puzzling for a moment). Sinclair met Lanier at a star-studded colloquy of big thinkers (E.O. Wilson, Maya Angelou …) that Rollins held three years ago. Although the festival included new music, Sinclair says, this was its first commission. “I knew that Jaron’s piece was going to be revolutionary, and indeed it is.”

The contract specified that the orchestration be the same as that for Beethoven’s Ninth, also on next week’s program, including a chorus and contrabassoon. The upside, says Lanier, is that that’s a pretty amazing orchestration. The potential downside, he concedes, is the likelihood that the piece will be played along with the Ninth, and that’s “a bit intimidating.”

Aside from the orchestration, Lanier says, the “Symphony for Amelia” is really not like the Ninth at all. It has sections but not movements, and it uses the chorus “in a highly experimental way … a lot of cases where chorus is percussion and instruments are more lyrical.” It is, he says, “definitely a piece of contemporary music,” with echoes of, among other things, Scriabin, Gershwin, and the American minimalists. But it also includes a canon that, he writes in the program notes, “reflects some ideas from Byrd’s motets.” Lanier says he hopes the work is “not dry or academic.”

“He’s using techniques that were prominent in the time of Amelia,” says Sinclair. “But its harmonic structure is very fresh, very contemporary, and some of the rhythms are jazz-influenced.”

At an initial Winter Park rehearsal in May (see the video below), working from a rough draft of the score, the musicians were, “to say the least, perplexed,” says Ted Henderson, a 22-year-old music major from Orlando studying composition and jazz guitar. Some of that was intended dissonance, but some was unintended—for instance, from some horn parts that had been incorrectly transposed.

The work also has lyrical stretches, says Henderson, including an opening solo for soprano. Henderson helped Lanier prepare the scores for the musicians. That entailed a lot of long-distance correspondence, he says, and one intense summer week in Berkeley with Lanier engaging in heady conversations but also doing a lot of grunt work side by side at their separate computers.

When he composed the symphony, Lanier writes, “I was thinking of the mercurial trajectory linking Amelia to me, with its ambiguities of descent, unpredictable musical diversions, great migrations, and unwitting reunions across centuries.”

But although interpretive leaps are foolhardy, could it be that the sweet eloquence of a woman poet half a millennium ago embodies that of a more recent presence, and that the symphony is not for Amelia alone?

Amelia wrote of the celestial being:

Giue true attendance on this louely guest, While he doth to that blessed bowre impart Flowres of fresh comforts, decke that bed of rest, With such rich beauties as may make it blest:
And you in whom all raritie is found,
May be with his eternall glory crownd.

Reading that text of Amelia’s, another quote came to mind—Lanier on the subject of his mother:

“Music is my connection with her—it’s really that simple.”

Symphony for Amelia will be performed October 23 at 7:30 p.m. and October 24 at 3 p.m. at Rollins College, in the Knowles Memorial Chapel, 1000 Holt Ave., Winter Park, Fla. Tickets range from $20 to $50 and can be purchased by calling (407) 646-2182 or by visiting www.bachfestivalflorida.org. Immediately following the concert, there will be a discussion with Jaron Lanier,  free and open to concertgoers and the public.

(Arts & Academe illustration incorporating images from Flickr Creative Commons users shehal and stockerre; photo of Jaron Lanier from jaronlanier.com; and portrait by Nicholas Hilliard, possibly of Amelia Lanier, from Wikipedia)


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