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.

ALBUM REVIEW: Los Angeles Percussion Quartet’s Beyond

by Seth Tompkins

The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet’s Beyond places intimacy front and center.  The delicate sonic encounters that permeate these two discs (or just one if you’re listening to the Blu-Ray) are not classic fodder for percussion ensembles.  While there are a smattering of grooves and some loud moments, Beyond leans much more strongly toward the ethereal and the delicate.  This forward-thinking curation, paired with LAPQ’s sensitive and thoughtful musicianship, makes this release a delight.

Daníel Bjarnason’s “Qui Tollis” is a microcosm of the whole of Beyond, with beckoning atmospheric figures framing a collection of engaging grooves that are made all the more striking by their juxtaposition with the gentle outer material.  This atmospherics-to-groove ratio and pattern runs through many of the individual pieces on this release, but also throughout the entire album as a whole.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s “Aura,” like much of her music, explores the boundaries of perception.  A collection of diverse and austere timbres unfolds throughout this piece as it plays with the edge of silence.  A deeply meditative piece, “Aura” benefits, as do many other pieces on this album, from listening in headphones or on a good surround-sound system.  Fancifully, “Aura” could be the musical version of experiencing an unfamiliar landscape: a place that, while neither particularly hostile nor favorable toward you, is captivating in its natural strangeness.

Christopher Cerrone’s transformational “Memory Palace” was the only piece on this release that was not new to my ears; Second Inversion recently released a video of Ian David Rosenbaum performing the entire work.  However, it was very interesting to experience the piece in an audio-only version.  In the video, the visual depiction of the enormous variety of instruments and performance techniques was a delight, but the audio-only performance on this recording offers a sense of intimacy and mystery that the video does not.  Ultimately, both performances are certainly worth a listen: they provide different ways of experiencing a tremendous piece that seems to have already staked out a lasting place in the percussion repertoire.

“Fear-Release” by Ellen Reid is an exercise in well-defined color palettes.  Most instruments used in this piece are metallic, although there are integral parts for marimba and bass drum.  This is perhaps a more traditional soundscape than some of the other pieces on Beyond, but it certainly matches the others in terms of its sophistication.  All five pieces on this release follow internal guiding principles—”Fear-Release” just happens to use a more traditional instrumentation within that same laudable compositional ethic.

Beyond closes with “I Hold the Lion’s Paw” by Andrew McIntosh.  This piece occupies nine tracks and comes packaged by itself in a separate disc (in the CD version).  This is a slightly puzzling setup until you take into account the listening note that accompanies this piece, which  recommends that this piece is best taken in its entirety.  This instruction makes sense, given “Lion’s Paw”‘s tendency towards percussive recitative. This is a slower burn than the other pieces on Beyond, but it is perhaps the most dramatic work on the album.

At many points during Beyond, it is easy to forget that you are listening to a percussion ensemble.  These moments, when the music itself becomes the primary focus, beyond any considerations of the instrumentation, performers, or extra-musical context, are rare—and the ability to deliver them is a triumph for any ensemble.  The fact that Beyond presents so many opportunities in which to become lost in the music is a credit to the curation of the quartet.  The construction of this collection deserves as much praise as the intelligent performances and thoughtful compositions contained therein.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Memory Palace by Christopher Cerrone

by Maggie Molloy

Still frame from Mark DeChiazza’s video for Christopher Cerrone’s Memory Palace.

The method of loci is a mnemonic strategy dating all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The idea is this: you memorize the layout of a building or geographic space, then assign memories to any number of discrete locations within itand to recall the information, you imagine yourself walking back through the space.

In composer Christopher Cerrone’s Memory Palace, he takes that method one step further: instead of imagining a geographic space, he creates a sonic one. Composed for solo percussion and electronics, the piece is performed on a collection of homemade instruments and field recordings. In Cerrone’s memory, the palace is built of crickets and cheap guitars, wind chimes and wooden planks, beer bottles and quiet breath. The result is a vivid mosaic of music and memory—an intimate retrospective of a life lived in sound.

Memory Palace is a kind of paean to places and people that have deeply affected me,” Cerrone said. “The sounds in the piece are signposts; they help me remember—and more important, understand, who I am.”

Percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum premieres Cerrone’s Memory Palace in this brand new video by Mark DeChiazza:

NUMUS Northwest: Saturday, January 28, 2017

We hope to see you at NUMUS Northwest this Saturday, January 28 at Cornish College of the Arts! We shared the full schedule last month and lately the NUMUS Northwest team has been giving you some close-ups and fun facts about the performers and presenters on social media. We’ll recap those below, but first, a few quick and friendly reminders:

When/Where: Saturday, January 28 from 9am-10pm at Cornish College of the Arts (Kerry Hall).

What to expect: Complimentary bagels, coffee, speed dating, workshops, performances, community building, and more throughout the day!

Admission: Students are admitted for free and general registration is $20 in advance and at the door. Please note: CASH ONLY at the door. There is an ATM nearby, if needed.

Meet NUMUS Northwest artist Paul Taub, who will be performing Pēteris Vasks’s Sonata for Solo Flute (Night/Flight/Night) on our evening concert! — Link in bio!

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Meet NUMUS Northwest artist @legoldston who will offer an afternoon workshop titled “Defying Boundaries.” Workshop details: “A look at past and present examples of practices that aim at leveraging experimental, improvised and/or composed musics as tools for community-building, social and political subversion and awareness, and collective psychic nourishment. Source materials include live and recorded music, text, and traditional and graphic musical scores.” #seattle #seattlemusic #newmusic #cello

A photo posted by NUMUS Northwest (@numusnw) on

Meet NUMUS Northwest artist Aaron Grad, who will offer a workshop titled “What’s Your Story? Strategies for Publicizing a New Music Event” on Saturday, Jan. 28th! Workshop details: “This workshop explores how to publicize an event by emphasizing a compelling message or story. We will focus on two key skills: identifying a resonant message, and capturing it in a memorable summary. A mix of group discussion and hands-on practice will be led by Aaron Grad, a composer and consultant who writes program notes and marketing materials for the Seattle Symphony, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, New World Symphony, Town Hall Seattle, and other purveyors of new and old music.” #seattlemusic #seattle #newmusic #publicity #workshop #cornishcollege #pnw

A photo posted by NUMUS Northwest (@numusnw) on

Meet NUMUS Northwest artists Jessi Harvey & Lena Console, who will offer a noon workshop titled “9 Things to Facilitate Collaborative Composition” on this coming Sat. Jan. 28th! Workshop details: “Learn more about facilitating a collaborative composition project for groups ranging in size, age, and background using strategies and expectations developed by a duo who has experienced the gamut. Realizing a final composition that represents a collective of diverse members can be daunting; amass your skills under categories including, ‘You are not the most important voice: Letting go of the composer ego,’ ‘Do the (not so) obvious,’ and ‘Reflect, reflect, reflect.’ As a final culmination, attendees will create their own miniature group composition using their newly found tools. Tiny instruments will be provided.” 📷: Sonja Harris #seattlemusic #workshop #cornishcollege #seattle #festival #tinyinstruments #pnw #numus17

A photo posted by NUMUS Northwest (@numusnw) on

Meet NUMUS Northwest artists @jolleyjt & @rosebellini who will offer a 4pm workshop titled "Fundraising & Cultivating the Medicis of Today" on this coming Sat. Jan. 28th! Workshop details: "The relationship between musicians and patrons of the arts has always been a reality of the artist’s life, yet not included or discussed in the music schools of today. Composer and co-Artistic Director of Seattle Modern Orchestra Jeremy Jolley, and cellist and professional fundraiser Rose Bellini will try to demystify the relationship between the creation of the art and the funding of it. After the presentation, Jolley and Bellini will answer questions and guide a conversation around the topic." #fundraising #cornishcollegeofthearts #seattlemusic #seattle #pnw #fundraise #numus17

A photo posted by NUMUS Northwest (@numusnw) on

See you there!

NUMUS Northwest: 2017 Schedule Announced

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NUMUS Northwest, a day-long event dedicated to the creation, performance, and experience of new music in Seattle, has announced their full schedule of sure-to-be inspiring performances, panels, talks, and community building! 

9:00-10:00 Registration

10:00-10:15 Welcome

10:30-11:30 Speed dating

12:00-1:00 Workshops

1:00-2:30 Lunch break

2:30-3:30 Concert: Cole, Cerrone, Cage

4:00-5:00 Workshops, talks, & demos

5:00-6:00 Happy hour

6:00-7:30 Dinner break

8:00-10:00 Concert: Oliveros, Vasks, Arteaga, Nono, Bassingthwaighte, Hagen

Tickets are on sale here! $20 general admissions and students are free with ID at the door.


More about NUMUS Northwest

Where: Cornish College of the Arts, Kerry Hall

When: Saturday, January 28, 2017 from 9am-10pm

Who: You! Students. Friends. Colleagues. Musicians. Artists. Creators. People who don’t know they like this kind of music (yet!)

Leadership:

  • Kerry O’Brien (Nief-Norf)
  • Jim Holt (Seattle Symphony)
  • Kevin Clark (New Music USA)
  • Shaya Lyon (Live Music Project)
  • James Falzone (Cornish College of the Arts)
  • Maggie Stapleton (Second Inversion/Classical KING FM)

Why: Inspired by the New Music Gathering, the leadership team (many of whom have attended at least one NMG) has a strong desire to recreate the community-building, collaborative-natured, and artistically-stunning event with a focus on musicians and artists in the Northwest.

Want to receive updates about NUMUS Northwest? Subscribe here

ALBUM REVIEW: A O R T A from Vicky Chow

by Seth Tompkins

Pianist Vicky Chow’s recent release A O R T A is above all else a triumph of curation. Chow’s performance, the editing, and the mixing are all laudable as well, but the real story of this album is the strength of the playlist and its presentation. A O R T A is a rare instance of an album in which the delivery of the audio itself contributes to the artistic goals of the project in a meaningful way.

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Even before the music begins, curatorial strength shapes the album. A O R T A is packaged with only minimal notes and there is no explanation of the project’s genesis nor discussion of the artists involved or their biographies. While this may initially appear to be a simple stylistic choice in favor of minimalist packaging, after listening it is apparent that this lack of detail is, in actual fact, a bold statement about how well the music on this release hangs together. The lack of notes seen on A O R T A would diminish other albums, but in this instance, the dearth of information makes this release stronger. It is a symbol of how well-designed the album is as a whole, letting the music and its curation stand on their own.

However, if you are curious, a more detailed explanation of the release is available here.

 

Musically, the supreme design of A O R T A takes the shape of remarkable continuity between the first three tracks. These tracks, which encompass Christopher Cerrone’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn, Jacob Coopers Clifton Gates, and the first movement of Jakub Ciupinski’s Morning Tale, all for piano and electronics, flow seamlessly from each into the next. That is not to say that these pieces are continuous or homogenous; upon closer listening these tracks each yield interesting features deserving of investigation and fascination.

These first three pieces make up the programmatic section of the release. All three, while they do have their own individual characters, are touching meditations on real-world human experiences ranging from the concrete to the notional.

The smoothness with which the initial three tracks flow from one to the next is a perfect aperitif for the rest of A O R T A. Only when the second movement of Morning Tale arrives does this CD begin to deliver sequential sounds juxtaposed in a manner that obviously marks the beginning of a new track. This slight shift marks a turning point in this release; this is the point after which more surprising and disparate sounds can be expected.

 

Those disparate sounds take the shape of Molly Joyce’s Rave, and Daniel Wohl’s Limbs and Bones, all three of which explore different facets of the interaction of live piano with electronic sound. While these heady tracks are distinctly different from the first three pieces, they somehow fit together into the larger arc of this album. This continuity of artistic trajectory is further evidence of expert curation. These pieces, in this order, tell a story that is in and of itself a work of art.

Finally, A O R T A ends with Vick(i/y), by Andy Akiho. While the preceding six pieces lean toward the atmospheric, Vick(i/y) has a completely different character that trends toward immediacy. This piece was written for Vicky Chow (as well as for Vicki Ray – hence the title) and is the only piece on this release that is NOT for piano and electronics. Vick(i/y) is for prepared piano. Additionally, while the preceding pieces on A O R T A tend to individually remain within one or two sound areas, Vick(i/y) is a veritable symphony within a prepared piano. The extended range of sounds, combined with Chow’s presumed heightened intimacy with this music (which was written with her in mind), result in a piece that acts an exclamation mark. Vick(i/y) is Chow’s indelible signature at the end of an already markedly individualistic album.

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Even though A O R T A cycles through an expansive of range sounds and expressive modes, this disc never loses sight of the instrument at its center. Every bit of this music is completely focused on the piano, with all sounds either produced by or strongly referring to the instrument. Also always in sight here are the composers who inspired much of this music. Pieces on this album explicitly reference John Adams and John Cage while slightly more covertly recalling the music of Steve Reich, Erik Satie, and Thom Yorke.

A O R T A is packed with smart, fully-conscious music that is quite aware of the giants upon whose shoulders it stands. This awareness of the past, combined with bold steps toward the future and omnipresent consummate curation, results in a well-balanced and highly interesting release that is at once calming, stimulating, and invigorating.

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ALBUM REVIEW: Eighth Blackbird’s Hand Eye

by Maggie Molloy

Six composers. Six instrumentalists. Six works of art. Six brand new musical compositions. One evening-length adventure into the exquisite power of art and music.

Eighth Blackbird - Hand Eye

Hand Eye is a collection inspired by a collection. Recorded by the four-time Grammy Award-winning sextet Eighth Blackbird, the album is comprised of six new pieces, each composed by a member of the Sleeping Giant musical collective—and each based on a work of visual art featured in the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for Art.

In fact, listening through the album is a lot like walking through a museum: each piece its own extraordinary work of art, each with its own distinct colors, creative spark, and inspiration. Perhaps one work’s use of texture catches your eye—or another work’s subject matter, size, shape, or color palette.

Likewise, for Hand Eye some of the composers chose to recreate their chosen artwork aurally, while others responded more broadly to the work’s subject matter, character, themes, or artistic process. And to help bring to life this incredible variance of color, content, and artistic media, each piece on the album highlights the unique talents and timbre of a single instrument from the ensemble.

 

The album begins with a work by Timo Andres titled “Checkered Shade.” Based on the patterned pen-and-ink abstractions of artist Astrid Bowlby, the piece is a labyrinth of tangled strings and circling woodwinds. Gradually the persistent rhythms and aggressive bowings zoom outward until the lines begin to blur, and the black and white turn to softer, slower, and ever-varied shades of grey.

“9.8.08 (Varigated Spirals)” © Astrid Bowlby

“9.8.08 (Varigated Spirals)” by Astrid Bowlby

Andrew Norman’s “Mine, Mime, Meme” explores a different type of musical maze. It was inspired by rAndom International’s installation piece Audience, a modern-day fun house of sorts in which a field of mirrors rotate to follow the movements of any viewer who walks in their midst. In Norman’s musical interpretation, the cellist becomes the equivalent of that viewer. The other five instruments mimic the cello’s musical gestures, innocently enough at first—but as the music progresses, the followers get better and better at predicting the cellist’s next move, eventually consuming him altogether.

“Audience” by rAndom International

“Audience” by rAndom International

Man and machine is the main theme of the next piece, Robert Honstein’s “Conduit.” The piece takes its cue from an interactive sculpture by digital artists Zigelbaum and Coelho titled Six-Forty by Four-Eighty, in which the human body merges with computational process. Honstein recreates this synthesis sonically through bold waves of sounds and electric bursts of color that transport you straight into the computer itself.

“Six-Forty by Four-Eighty” by Zigelbaum + Coelho

“Six-Forty by Four-Eighty” by Zigelbaum + Coelho

Another interactive light sculpture provides the basis for the next piece on the album: Christopher Cerrone’s “South Catalina.” Inspired by rAndom International’s Swarm, an art installation which responds to sounds with a blast of delicately asynchronous lights, Cerrone’s composition features gentle illuminations of sound which twinkle like wind chimes in response to the piano’s heavy steps.

“Swarm Light” by rAndom International

“Swarm Light” by rAndom International

Ted Hearne’s contribution to the album, “By-By Huey,” takes as its basis Robert Arneson’s chilling painting of the same name. It’s a portrait of Tyrone “Double R” Robinson, a member of the Black Guerilla Family who murdered Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, in 1989. Like Arneson’s painting, Hearne’s piece is meant to memorialize the self-destructive: jazzy piano motives snarl and growl restlessly forward as the rest of the instruments are forced to follow or be left behind.

By-by Huey © Estate of Robert Arneson/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

“By-By Huey”  by Robert Arneson

A frenzied interlude transitions into the final piece of the album, Jacob Cooper’s “Cast.” Drawing inspiration from Leonardo Drew’s paper casts of everyday objects, Cooper’s composition creates “sonic casts” of individual instrumental gestures—gradually removing the melodic gestures themselves to leave only the empty casts that surrounded them.

“Number 94” by Leonardo Drew

“Number 94” by Leonardo Drew

True, paper casts are a pretty far way from the pen-and-ink abstractions that began the album (though perhaps even farther from the interactive light installations at the center of it), and yet the album feels wholly unified by the precision, momentum, and bold musicality of Eighth Blackbird. Stylistically, each piece stands confidently on its own—but together as an album, the pieces illuminate the endless possibilities when art and music collide.

And as you exit the gallery in stillness and silence, you begin to listen to art in quite a different way than you ever have before.