Things She Carried (first movement) Paul Lansky

You’re standing in front of Vermeer’s painting, The Letter. Looking through a doorway, you see a woman holding a lute. She has just been handed a letter by another woman. Viewing the scene this way gives you the feeling of eavesdropping as you wrap your mind around the painting, building a story in which you contemplate the contents of the letter, the circumstances of the women, their expressions, surroundings, concerns. All you have to go on is a rich list of details provided by the painting. Ultimately, however, what resonates is not the story you build, but rather your engagement with the painting as you do so. You could invent a different story each time, and it wouldn’t matter. What does matter is the way the painting creates a vibrating moment--the consequence of some things that might have happened--and the way you, the viewer, experience the painting through that imagined moment.

Taking a similar position, Things She Carried is a musical portrait of a woman, drawn in a series of eight movements. We learn a lot about her: what she carried in her purse, what she noticed, remembered, read, knew, felt, and liked. A large number of facts and ideas are provided with which to thread together an image of this woman, but little is explicitly stated. While in The Letter, line, color, light and shadow are used to guide our imagined journey, in Things She Carried, timbre, pitch, harmony and rhythm help shape our perceptions. (And, just as there are some for whom Vermeer’s painting is primarily a study in color and shape, perhaps these eight movements will provide some similar substance to those for whom words are mere pretexts for song and sound.)

Five of the eight movements have texts, two are songs without words, and the fifth movement is an interlude. We learn about the contents of her pocket book in the first movement, Things She Carried. A purse is personal and private, and we are, in a sense, eavesdropping as we browse through its contents. The second movement, Things She Noticed, presents a series of pairs--associations between things that she made in various circumstances. The oppositions themselves tell us a lot about her world, her experiences, and the way she felt about things. Wish in the Dark, the third movement is a fake pop song that she probably liked. The fourth movement, Things She Remembered, enumerates a number of things that stuck in her mind over the years. Some of the memories are trivial while others are connected with important events. Things She Read, the sixth movement, has the resonance of a detective story: tension, drama, anxiety, mystery, but no plot. We inevitably color our perceptions of the woman with the implied experiences of the heroine of this fractured story. The seventh movement, Everybody Heard, another wordless song, has a feeling of supplication that may reflect something about her state of mind. Finally, Things She Knew, the eighth movement, concerns itself with her accumulated knowledge and experience: the way she knew things, from the trivial to the profound. It tells us a lot about how she threaded her way through the world.

Hannah MacKay (Lansky) was trained as an actress and studied with Lee Strasberg. She has worked in film, television and radio, and is the voice in a number of Paul Lansky’s pieces. In recent years she has been studying and teaching classical languages.

Paul Lansky, composer, is also Professor of Music at Princeton University. His main concern for the past twenty-five years has been to find ways to get computers to help tell us musically interesting things about the world around us.

Listening Suggestions

The text is provided here for reference only. It is best not to follow it when listening, Some of the text settings are intentionally unintelligible and it really doesn’t matter that you understand all the words.

Technical Notes

The piece was created during 1995-96, using NeXT and Silicon Graphics computers. The voice in all the text movements is that of Hannah MacKay, and in the two songs, the composer. Apologies and acknowledgements are due: Laurie Anderson, Louis Andriessen, Harold Arlen, Raymond Chandler, Vladimir Nabokov, Steve Mackey, Tim O’Brian.

  • Year of composition: 1996
  • Duration of the submitted work: 7:05
  • Production: Home

Linked project

Also part of Bridge (Bridge Records, 1997 [CD 9076]).