Expanding the Piano Keyboard: Jesse Myers on Experimenting with Electronics

by Maggie Molloy

Pianist Jesse Myers. Photo by Lee Goldman.

When it comes to the piano, Jesse Myers likes to think outside the standard keyboard.

Last year, he created an entire percussion orchestra inside his piano for his performances of John Cage’s prepared piano masterpiece, the Sonatas and Interludes. This year, he’s forgoing the screws and bolts in favor of something a little more electric.

On Wednesday, July 12 at the Royal Room, Myers presents Living in America: a concert of solo piano works by living American composers. Urban, adventurous, and uniquely American, the program highlights the groundbreaking work of iconic minimalist composers, as well as brand new 21st century works for acoustic piano and electronics.

The first half of the program features John Adams’ misty and modal China Gates alongside Philip Glass’ half-hypnotic, half-neurotic Mad Rush and a selection of his virtuosic Piano Etudes. The second half showcases music for piano and electronics, including Christopher Cerrone’s 21st century urban nocturne Hoyt-Schermerhorn, Missy Mazzoli’s ethereal Orizzonte, and her swirling fantasia Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos. Steve Reich’s pulsing, palindromic Piano Counterpoint finishes the program.

The evening also features a set of rarely-performed music for solo voice with electronics and piano, performed by soprano Stacey Mastrian. She lends her voice to two generations of American composers, ranging from Earle Brown and Morton Feldman to Kristian Twombly and Steve Wanna.

In anticipation of the concert, we sat down with Myers to talk about urban sounds, electronics, and expanding the sonic possibilities of the piano:

Second Inversion: What inspires you most about exploring the expanded possibilities of the piano?

Jesse Myers: Discovery. It’s not that I’m tired of the piano in the traditional sense—it’s really about the two words you just used: exploring and expanding. The Steinway grand is the benchmark of great American craftsmanship, and it has stopped evolving.

While new music is, of course, still being written for the piano, new music that involves electronics is a way for composers to personally contribute to a new sort of evolution of the piano.  I am not sure composers are thinking of their work in that way, but as a pianist and a curator of the repertoire, I can’t help but see their work in that light. 

The great thing about electronics, prepared piano, and extended piano techniques, is that at the end of the day, the good old acoustic grand piano is still there. Akin to the way Cage first prepared the piano with bolts and weather-stripping, the electronics drastically change the sound and our impression of the piano—but in the end it is easily returned to its original form.  

SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of performing music that uses electronics?

JM: It used to be that I could show up and play a concert without any paraphernalia, and that’s nice and all, but I love my ever-expanding bag of tricks. The tinkering that is necessary in the practice of this repertoire, and the ability to perform a wider range of timbres in a solo performance while making use of the venue’s sound system are big payoffs to me. But, yeah, part of the reason I became a musician was so I didn’t have to get a haircut and wake up early—so if I can plug into a sound system and feel like a rock musician for a brief moment, I can feel closer to achieving my lifestyle.

There are certainly a great deal of challenges, and I’m sure that turns some musicians off to exploring music like this for themselves. Technical setups are unique to each piece, with varying arrays of requirements. This means that creating a program takes even more planning and practice to get it right. On top of that, these technical requirements can also make two pieces completely incompatible with each other in a single program.  Electroacoustic music often requires a couple different software applications, an ear piece for click tracks on some fixed electronics, foot pedals for cueing live electronics on more flexible ones, different settings on both hardware and software depending on the piece or venue, etc. 

SI: This program features all American composers—what are some of the overarching themes that connect the music of these composers?

JM: Urban sound.  All of these composers, with the exception of Adams, are living and working in New York right now.  To me, this imprints an unmistakable urban character into their music. There is a relentless activeness in this urban sound which is illustrated most clearly by the minimalist music of Glass and Reich.  The electroacoustic soundscapes of Mazzoli’s music have this wonderful sort of raw grittiness about them, and Cerrone’s work, Hoyt-Schermerhorn, is named after a New York subway station. Cerrone says “…the piece explores the myriad and contradictory feelings that often come to me late at night in my city of choice—nostalgia, anxiety, joy, panic.” There is a beautiful peacefulness among the urban activity in these works.

The electronics are also a theme that connects most of the works. The first half of the program (the Adams and Glass pieces) will have no amplification or use of electronics, while the last half will use an increasing amount of electronics. But there is an electronic connection between the two halves. The program starts with an acoustic piece that references electronic music.  The gates in the title, China Gates, refer to the gating of electronic music.  Adams uses sudden changing modes to mimic gating effects in electronic music. 

Conversely, the end of the program, Reich’s Piano Counterpoint, is an electronic work that references an acoustic one. Reich originally wrote the music for this as a work called Six Pianos in 1973.  In 2011, pianist Vincent Corver adapted the work for one piano and a pre-recorded soundtrack.  Four of the six piano parts are pre-recorded and the last two are combined into a more virtuosic single part, which I’ll play live and amplified.  In 2014, the Bang On a Can All Stars pianist Vicky Chow worked with the composer to further edit the piece and create a new flexible pre-recorded soundtrack that allows the performer to use a foot pedal to trigger the phasing of the other parts. Reich’s original version of Six Pianos asked for each measure to be repeated within a range of times—not a fixed amount of time. Since Corver’s version was backed by a fixed-length soundtrack, the most recent version is a truer realization of the original work’s flexibility. My performance will be the most recent, flexible version of the work. 

SI: How do the minimalist composers’ works differ from the 21st century works on the program?

JM: These 20th century minimalist works lack an extramusical association.  They are really about rhythmic structures and form. China Gates (which isn’t really about China or gates), for instance, is a famous, short minimalist work that uses recurring patterns that slowly change and shift apart over time, while making up a nearly perfect palindrome in its structure.

The music of Cerrone and Mazzoli in this program, which are 21st century works, tell a story or capture a vivid scene. So, the audience should be listening for entirely different things in the two styles. In the first half of the program, listen for minimalist patterns and structures (like palindromes), that ultimately lead the way for the second half to transport you into another scene altogether.

What is interesting, though, is despite the lack of an extramusical association, the works of Glass and Reich often capture the busy energy of a dense urban environment, which somehow creates a beautiful, weightless sense of calm.  In this sense then, the minimalist works do have the ability to move beyond the academic, form, and rhythmic structure that are the hallmarks of its style.

SI: What are you most looking forward to with this performance and what do you hope audience members gain from it?

JM: Playing in a relaxed bar setting should really gel with this music. I’ve always wanted to take music like this out of the standard classical concert venue. As someone who can’t take their instrument with them when they gig, bars and many other non-classical venues are off-limits.  But The Royal Room has a Steinway B, a great sound system, and a reputation for taking good care of local musicians—so I’m really excited to play in that environment.

I hope the audience gains an appreciation for the things I’ve come to realize as a musician. There is amazing music being created by composers who are alive and working in this country right now—it’s innovative, part of us, and who we are. Embrace technology. Accept that electronics and a reverence to the classical music tradition can coexist.


Living in America is Wednesday, July 12 at 7:30pm at the Royal Room in Columbia City. For details and additional information, click here.

Seattle Symphony’s Tuning Up! Festival

by Maggie Molloy

The Fourth of July is almost upon us, and you know what that means: parades, picnics, and barbeques abound! And while hot dogs, fireworks, and flag-covered clothing are a (somewhat) relevant expression of American independence, our county has a whole lot more than just cured meats and corny t-shirts to be proud of.

Tuning Up!Which is why this summer, the Seattle Symphony is turning off the barbeque and turning up the music with Tuning Up!: a two-week festival celebrating American musical creativity in the 20th and 21st century. This star-spangled celebration features nine concerts which traverse America’s vast musical landscape, from jazz to Broadway, avant-garde to minimalism, classics to Hollywood, and much more.

So whether you crave the jazzy grooves of George Gershwin or the swinging blues of Duke Ellington, you can hear it all during the Tuning Up! Festival. Maybe you prefer the massive soundscapes of John Luther Adams, the hypnotic minimalism of Philip Glass, or the movie magic of John Williams—the festival has all that too!

Suffice it to say, Second Inversion is all over this festival. Come visit us at the KING FM table in the lobby at the following events for music, magnets, and other free swag!


Stage & Screen: From Appalachian Spring to the Red Violin
Thursday, June 23 at 7:30 p.m.

From stage to screen to concert hall, these giants of American music transcended borders and paved the way for generations to come. Among them is Florence Beatrice Price: the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer. The Seattle Symphony pays tribute with a rousing orchestral rendition of her ragtime classic, Dances in the Canebrakes. Plus, dancers take to the stage alongside the Symphony for a performance of Aaron Copland’s famous folk-inspired and Pulitzer Prize-winning Appalachian Spring.

The program also features Leonard Bernstein’s elegant Divertimento for Orchestra, poignant movie music from Schindler’s List and The Red Violin, and a heartwarming tribute to the late Marvin Hamlisch who, among his many accomplishments in music, served as the Principal Pops Conductor at the Seattle Symphony from 2008 until his death in 2012.


The Light that Fills the World: A Meditation in Sound & Light
Thursday, June 30 at 7:30 p.m.

In the face of trauma and political turmoil around the world, Seattle Symphony offers an intimate meditation in sound and silence, light and dark. Julia Wolfe’s My Beautiful Scream, written after the events of 9/11, opens the program with a slow-building and softly illuminating agony. What follows is utter silence: John Cage’s famous 4’33”.

The program also features Pulitzer Prize-winner John Luther Adams’ immersive, Arctic-inspired soundscape The Light That Fills the World, the delicate breath of Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra, and Philip Glass’ scientific salute, The Light.

Plus, the Symphony invites you to submit your own Glass-inspired photographs to be featured during the performance. Deadline for submissions is this Friday, June 24.


In the White Silence: John Luther Adams’ Alaskan Landscapes
Friday, July 1 at 10 p.m.

To say that composer and environmentalist John Luther Adams is inspired by nature would be a bit of an understatement. He spent much of his life composing from a 16×20 ft. one-room cabin in the Alaskan woods, creating large-scale soundscapes which blur the line between nature and man-made instruments.

In 2013, the Seattle Symphony commissioned and premiered John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, a 42-minute meditation for large orchestra which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award.John Luther Adams

And now, during this special late-night concert, the Symphony revisits one of Adams’ earlier explorations into sonic geography: the 75-minute soundscape In the White Silence. The piece unfolds slowly and patiently, translating the vast horizons of the frozen far north into a musical landscape of clean, radiant harmony and subtle transformation.


Looking for more in American music? Check out the Seattle Symphony’s Tuning Up! Festival Map below:

Tuning Up! Visual Guide

NEW VIDEO: Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint

by Maggie Stapleton

New York Counterpoint for amplified clarinet and prerecorded clarinets is one of many pieces in Steve Reich’s “counterpoint” series, in which one live performer typically plays against up to a dozen recordings of the same instrument. Reich aims to capture “the throbbing vibrancy of Manhattan” in this work, performed here by Rachel Yoder, who also recorded the backing tracks.

This is our first of three Steve Reich videos in collaboration with On the Boards Ambassador James Holt, who is presenting a concert dedicated to the music of Steve Reich on Tuesday, February 2 at 8pm:

Counterpoint | Phase – A hypnotic evening of music in a non-traditional setting from the American master of minimalism. 

LINEUP:
Nagoya Marimbas: Erin Jorgensen & Memmi Ochi
Cello Counterpoint: Rose Bellini
New York Counterpoint: Rachel Yoder
Violin Phase: Luke Fitzpatrick/Marcin Pączkowski

Pre-sales for this event are sold out. A limited number of tickets will be available at the door.

Stay tuned for our of video Violin Phase! Cello Counterpoint is now up and running

RY-2015

Rachel Yoder is a versatile clarinetist and teacher based in the Seattle area, currently performing with the Seattle Modern Orchestra, Madera Wind Quintet and the Odd Partials clarinet/electronics duo. Rachel is editor of The Clarinet, journal of the International Clarinet Association, and works as adjunct professor of music at the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, WA. She has performed and presented throughout the United States, including appearances at conferences of the International Clarinet Association, International Computer Music Conference (ICMC), and Society for Electroacoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS). She holds a doctorate in clarinet from the University of North Texas, and also holds degrees from Michigan State University and Ball State University.

RAMBUNCTIOUS! SPECTRUM DANCE THEATRE AND SIMPLE MEASURES

by Maggie Stapleton

Spectrum Dance Theatre & Simple Measures

Image by Nate Waters.

 

Spectrum Dance Theatre and Simple Measures are two envelope-pushing arts organizations in Seattle – Spectrum strives to “bring dance of the highest merit to a diverse audience composed of people from different social, cultural, ethnic and economic backgrounds,” with a principal objective “to make the art form of dance accessible through contemporary dance performances and high-quality training in a variety of dance styles,” while Simple Measures aims to bring chamber music into unusual venues, 98% hoity-toity free, and encouraging people to “Come, and Have Fun. That’s what we’re about. You can even clap between movements if you feel like it. Tap your foot. Bob your head. Heck, even dance in the aisles! We. Don’t. Care.”

May 15-17 and May 22-42, you can catch these two organizations in tandem for Rambunctious: A Festival of American Composers and Dance.  Some of the performers previewed the show on KING-TV’s New Day Northwest.

The word choice of “Rambunctious” is a particular effort to reach a broader audience, with implications of energy, youthfulness, and exuberance. With live music by all 20th century American composers and world premiere choreography by Donald Byrd, you can be sure the shows will live up to that!

Thanks to a designated fund for live music, Spectrum turns the stereo off and brings live musicians in for a couple of shows per year.  When asked why this is valuable, Donald Byrd says they’re attempting to bring new audiences to dance by reaching the classical music crowd.  Additionally, the intimacy of chamber music (vs. full orchestral forces) adds an appropriate element to the world of dance, keying in on solo instrumentalists and small groups.  Donald finds it rewarding to be in Seattle where there are so many top notch quality chamber musicians and utilizing them ensures the “best of the best” in presentation.  It’s also a challenging stretch for the dancers, causing them to think and react much differently and on a deeper level – and most so with music that is NOT straightforward (Wuorinen’s String Quartet No.2, for example!)

The two weekends actually have different programs, offering TWO exciting shows at two great venues.  The composers are presented chronologically, but each show opens with the Ives Scherzo serves as a fanfare opening for both concert cycles.

May 15-17 at Fremont Abbey

  • Charles Ives: Scherzo
  • Aaron Copland: Two Pieces for String Quartet
  • George Gershwin: Lullaby for String Quartet
  • Vincent Persichetti: String Quartet #2

May 22-24 at Washington Hall

  • Charles Ives: Scherzo
  • Don Krishnaswami: Trumpet Quintet (world premiere by Rajan’s brother!)
  • J. Zorn: Kol Nidrei for string quartet
  • C. Wuorinen: String Quartet #2

Musicians:

Michael Jinsoo Lim, violin
Liza Zurlinden, violin
Laura Renz, viola
Rajan Krishnaswami, cello
Brian Chin, trumpet

With combined forces, from these two organizations, the potential innovation and fusion between live chamber music and dance has boundless limitations.  Don’t miss these shows!