“Living Letters” Intimate Performance Debuts at the Dorsky

On Friday, April 20, SUNY New Paltz music professor and musician Robert Lukomski debuted his composition, “Living Letters,” at the Dorsky Museum. The performance was a personal one for Lukomski, as the concept for the piece revolved around his father, Joseph R. Lukomski, and the relationship he had with his family while stationed in Korea. The piece itself was composed of audio letters that his father recorded and sent home between 1966 and 1967.

Lukomski found these tapes and other belongings in a foot locker in his mother’s basement after her passing. Although they sat in the locker for nearly forty years unnoticed, Lukomski saw an opportunity to create art when they were rediscovered. 

Compared with Lukomski’s previous works, “Living Letters” is vastly different. Rather than being composed in the style of conventional rock and electronic music, the pieces that Lukomski presented fell under the genre of “Musique Concréte.” This is an experimental style in which music is created by using any type of sound the artist desires, ranging from the sound of people talking, the sound of nature, already existing songs; the possibilities are endless. For this piece in particular, Lukomski pointed to Musique Concrete artists Noah Creshevsky and Steve Reich as major influences.

The piece was presented in the West Gallery of the Dorsky.

“They’ve allowed me to use the space here in between shows,” Lukomski said. 

In preparation for this piece, all of the art was removed, leaving the walls of the gallery white and bare. The rest of the set-up was just as sparce. Two rows of chairs were surrounded by two pairs of speakers, a projector was set up in front of the aisle, and to the right of that was Lukomski’s workstation. The station was composed of a MacBook, a tape player, and enough wires to keep everything running smoothly.

The first piece presented was one of Lukomski’s older works, which was composed in the 1980’s. The program mentions that it was made as “a response to hearing tape works compositions by [Pierre] Schaeffer, [Edgard] Varese, and [John] Cage,” all of whom are important figures in the genre of Musique Concréte. The piece was a mish-mash of pop, rock and audio samples, while a projector was displaying close-ups of various collage pieces. These include iconic landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty and the Statue of Christ the Redeemer.

The next piece of “Living Letters” opened with Lukomski’s father saying that he hopes his message find his “dearest darling Trudy [Gertrude Lukomski]” well. 

This opening line highlights just how much Joseph Lukomski missed his wife and family, and one can hear it in his voice that he is distressed because of how far apart they are. 

 Throughout the piece, Joseph has multiple one-sided conversations with his wife. He tells stories ranging from arduous flights back to the base, gift exchanges during anniversaries, and what life was like on the base; routine during this period was a major theme that Lukomski wanted to explore.  Joseph’s voice is also manipulated at multiple points throughout the song. At times his voice becomes a massive, cavernous roar, or turns into a bassy, head bobbing beat. 

Next was an interlude called “The Story of Rufus and Ruffles,” is a piece that Lukomski and his sister, Julie, made when Lukomski was about 5. Julie wrote the story while Lukomski plays the role of Rufus, “a little caveman with a big heart,” while the dinosaur “Ruffles” is played by the family dog, Gretchen. Gretchen’s barks were recorded and slowed down to the point where they sound like dinosaur roars. It is not only a breather from the emotionally dense “Living Letters,” but also provides a window into what life was like in the Lukomski home.

 Next comes the second half of “Living Letters,” and Lukomski delves further into the anxieties that being so far away from one’s family causes. At the time of recording the letters, Joseph’s son and Lukomski’s brother, Raymond, was sent to the “Paul A. Denver State School for the Mentally Retarded,” which placed stress on the family. 

Near the end of the piece, we hear the howls of wolves as Joseph talks about how much he misses his family. Lukomski’s favorite part of this piece occurs at this moment, in which Joseph is aware of his own voice and how awkward it sounds to have this one-sided conversation. 

“The ending part,” Lukomski said, “came purely by happenstance.”

The final tape, “What Do You Like to Do After School” acts as a postlude, and it details an interaction that Joseph and Julie had. As the title suggests, this piece consists of Joseph playfully asking Julie what she likes about school and what she does there; the piece itself has become an “ongoing family joke.” When Joseph drops the name of the tape, the piece abruptly ends, and “Living Letters” concludes.

“Living Letters” is a touching emotional journey that details the difficulties of routine, communication and physical separation during this period in the Lukomski family. However, for Robert Lukomski, “Living Letters” is still a work in progress.

“I hope to release it by the end of the year,” Lukomski said.