Composer Profile–Anthony Joseph Lanman

Composer Profile

Anthony Joseph Lanman

The sweeping, overwhelming line. The opening of the second movement of Brahms’ 2nd Piano Concerto has it; as well as the opening of Anthony Joseph Lanman’s Synaesthesiac for orchestra.  Recurrent waves of sound break relentlessly on the listener in this introduction, continually building to an ultimate climax.  Unlike much contemporary music  Synaesthesiac isgenuinely grounded in the underlying harmony, as generating force; thus it is the harmony one feels first, like a solid foundation, and only as the waves of sound break in different patterns does one become aware of the importance of the linear motion. This stunning opening frames the beginning of Lanman’s recurrent podcast  All The Cool Parts (available on iTunes), and introduces us to the work and personality of this unique composer.  His genuine affability frames a musical mind of rare sensibility.

Tony Lanman is the product of an era of deep uncertainly in classical music, but this fact has not hindered his creativity in the least.  In a time when coherent musical grammar—rules of writing governed as much by the logic of the ear as by theory—is still optional, where outright experiment in composition is still dominant in the minds of many composers, and where what is commonly discussed at concerts is compositional techniques not expression, Tony has succeeded in keeping disciplined expression foremost in his music.  So what is it that fuels Lanman’s music, in my opinion?  That often-overlooked yet critical parameter: harmony.

Harmony is indeed the basis of much of his music, and I have an immediate connection with it as a composer for whom harmony is essentially the core element.  Although devising melodic/motivic material was a large part of J.S. Bach’s art, I tend to feel that he was primarily a harmonic composer, as it was likely working the vertical disposition of those motives which took a greater amount of his time. It is the carefully crafted harmonic frameworks of his pieces which strike this listener first; awareness of the linear craft coming only after the initial impression, as counter-intuitive as that may seem.  Harmony and melody ultimately work together on an equal basis to create music as interesting vertically as it is horizontally.  This balance of elements is also apparent in Tony’s music.

Listen to il dolce stile nuovo, the winner of the 2002 ASCAP/Morton Gould Young Composer Award.  This piece exists  in a realm somewhere between the exquisiteness of Ravel, the ecstasies of Scriabin, and the elemental power of rock ‘n’ roll. It is the sheer sonic beauty of the particular harmonic voicings he uses that strike the listener right from the beginning, and as the main theme enters one becomes aware that the piece is not only grounded harmonically, but melodically; and equally so.  Or Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens from Three Lamentations on the Death of John Dowland.  One hears echoes of Penderecki’s Threnody in the long string cascades; but Tony’s language never puts theory before the aural experience, and the harmony is always firmly grounded in the overtone series.

Lanman’s contrapuntal sensibilities, especially with regard to harmonic and rhythmic textures, show a sophistication which allows each line to be clearly heard, yet form a whole where each segment of the harmony is entirely natural to the piece and not an artificial result of combined counterpoint.  Rhythms, while often quite complex are never deliberately so, and only add to the dramatic tension.  This is a composer who not only thoroughly understands the musical language he has chosen for the piece, but he also feels that language in a fundamental way that makes this music an intellectual, yet above all thoroughly visceral, experience.

Contemporary art music has experienced decreasing relevance to the life of the culture at large for at least fifty years now.  It is a movement without much focus: techniques, styles, come and go as fashionable, and the listener is often forgotten in the fray.  Without the kind of widespread cultural support that art music had in the past, composers and listeners both suffer, and grow increasingly apart.  Without a larger sense of direction, how can this music ever gain widespread appeal again?

Lanman’s music, however, is all about focus; from the searing yet beautiful main motive/melody of il dolce stile nuovo to the aforementioned opening of Synaesthesiac, Tony reminds the listener that the emotion of listening is paramount, no matter what the musical language.  He also proves that the more comfortable a composer is using his musical language—in my opinion this should be a language developed primarily by ear—the closer the emotion will be to the surface.  I have experienced first-hand audience reaction to his works, and I heard and felt an audience involved not in the theory of the music but in the expression, much as art music was experienced in past centuries.

Tony’s music also displays one of the most natural combinations I have heard of two musical forms: rock and classical.  One never feels “this part is classical, this part is rock”, for he lives so naturally in both realms that the ebb and flow of both musics come naturally.  It is this effortless synthesis of elements which contemporary art music needs to survive, and become relevant on a widespread basis—the integration of more modern musics as an organic part of the whole, not merely an addition or an overlay as with so much minimalist and classical-pop music.

Gregory Hall

Reprinted by permission of CRS Inc.  (  Inquiries about recordings/concerts/master classes may be directed to the CRS web page.

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