New Composed Music: February 2017 Seattle * Eastside * Tacoma

SI_button2Second Inversion and the Live Music Project create a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between! 

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Keep an eye out for our this flyer in concert programs and coffee shops around town. Feel free to download, print, and distribute it yourself! If you’d like to be included on this list, submit your event to the Live Music Project at least 6 weeks prior to the event and be sure to tag it with “new music.”


 

Racer Sessions
A weekly showcase of original music with a jam session based on the concepts in the opening presentation.
Every Sunday, 8-10pm, Cafe Racer | FREE

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electronic/electroacoustic music, & more.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15
waywardmusic.org (check website for complete listings)

4
Ancora presents Wild! With Skyros Quartet
Aimee Mell leads a program of works by Randall Thompson, Ola Gjeilo, Sarah Quartel, Joan Szymko, Dan Forrest, and Jackson Berkey.
Sat, 2/4, 7:30pm, Trinity Lutheran Church | $11-$16

4
Seattle Music Exchange
Pianist Angelo Rondello will perform works by Seattle composers Samuel Jones, Peter V. Stevens, Angelique Poteat, Adam Haws, & Benjamin Salman.
Sat, 2/4, 8pm, Nordstrom Recital Hall | $20-$42

4
Seattle Rock Orchestra performs The Police
SRO shakes out hits like ‘Roxanne,’ ‘Message In A Bottle,’ ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me,’ and ‘Every Breath You Take.’
Sat, 2/4, 8pm, Kirkland Performance Center | $40

10
Solaris Vocal Ensemble with Seattle Modern Orchestra
SMO collaborates with UW’s Solaris Vocal Ensemble in a unique performance of Julia Wolfe’s Thirst and works by Dempster and Erickson.
Fri, 2/10, 7:30pm, Meany Studio Theater | $10-$20

12
Andrew Joslyn & the Passenger String Quartet
Violinist, composer, and arranger Andrew Joslyn presents an afternoon of music with The Passenger String Quartet.
Sun, 2/12, 4pm, Bainbridge Waterfront Community Center | $5-$20

12
Adagio: The Music of Arvo Pärt
An evening of music from Estonian composer Arvo Pärt where the spirit of early music meets ultra-spare modern minimalism in a meditative, intimate setting.
Sun, 2/12, 7pm, On the Boards | $20

17
Cornish Presents: Jesse Myers
Pianist Jesse Myers brings John Cage’s prepared piano music to the stage on which the instrument was born.
Fri, 2/17, 8pm, PONCHO Concert Hall | $10-$20

17
Inverted Space: Composers Concert
Inverted Space presents a concert of new works featuring the music of Adrian Swan, Charles Corey, Anna Stachurska, & Jacob Sundstrom.
Fri, 2/17, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

18
Lake Union Civic Orchestra: Temptation
Baritone Charles Robert Stephens performs music by Seattle composer and pianist Jeffrey Moidel. Works by Milhaud and Shostakovich round out the program.
Sat, 2/18, 7:30pm, Center for Spiritual Living | $15-$20

18
Wayward Music Series: Melanie Voytovich
Percussionist Melanie Voytovich and friends bring you a night of new work featuring Storm Benjamin, Scott Langdon, Maggie Brown, Brad Hawkins, and Ella Maher (dance).
Sat, 2/18, 7:30pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

18-19
NOCCO: Resonance: Celebrating Black American Composers
Hear a newly commissioned work by Hanna Benn & performance artist Davida Ingram and works by Scott Joplin & George Walker.
Sat, 2/18, 2pm, New Holly Gathering Hall | $15-$30 (under 18 FREE)
Sun, 2/19, 7:30pm, Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute | $15-$30 (under 18 FREE)

24
Melia Watras: 26 Album Release
UW faculty violist Melia Watras performs selections from 26, her newly released CD on Sono Luminus, with a video presentation and commentary.
Fri, 2/24, 7:30pm, Brechemin Auditorium | FREE

25-26
Seattle Pro Musica: Chichester Psalms
Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms is paired with James MacMillan’s Cantos sagrados, both exploring the desire of humankind to seek social justice and peace.
Sat, 2/25, 8pm, St. James Cathedral | $12-$38

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!

A photo posted by NUMUS Northwest (@numusnw) on

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!

Second Inversion’s Top 5 Blog Features of 2016

2016 was a great year for new blog series and features here at Second Inversion dot org. From unusual instruments to concerts in national parks, our music journalists covered the region far and wide!

#5: New Music Concert Flyers

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Each month in 2016, Second Inversion and the Live Music Project created a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between. We gave copies to all of the listed groups to distribute to their audiences to help spread the word about similar concerts. It’s been incredibly rewarding to bring unity and support to our vibrant community!


#4: Music in the American Wild

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In August 2016, we took an in-depth look at an exciting project that came to Washington’s national parks in honor of the National Parks Service’s centennial: Music in the American Wild. The touring ensemble performed works commissioned by eleven composers, all Eastman graduates and affiliates. Second Inversion’s Seth Tompkins covered the Washington leg of the tour in three blog posts.


#3: Anatomy of a Prepared Piano for John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano

The avant-garde and always-iconoclastic composer John Cage liked to think outside the box—the toolbox, that is. In 1940, he invented the prepared piano: a piano that has had its sound altered by placing objects such as screws and bolts in between the strings. His magnum opus for the instrument was the Sonatas and Interludes, a collection of 20 pieces clocking in at over an hour in length. This spring, Seattle-based pianist Jesse Myers performed the work in its entirety and Maggie Molloy went behind the scenes to see what (literally) goes into the piano!

All photos by Maggie Molloy.


#2: Women in (New) Music 

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This year Second Inversion launched Women in (New) Musican ongoing exploration into the past, present, and future of feminism in classical music. This multimedia series will highlight feminist issues within and beyond the classical music sphere, inviting female-identifying musicians, artists, and writers from all areas of the field to share their own experiences. Our posts so far have included a timeline of female composers, Q&As with composers and performers, studies on females in the classroom, and more!


#1: Virtual Tour of the Harry Partch Instrumentarium

Harry Partch was a pioneer of new music. He was one of the first 20th century composers to work extensively with microtonal scales, creating dozens of incredible instruments specifically for the performance of his musical texts and corporeal theatre works. Over 50 of his handmade instruments are housed in The Harry Partch Instrumentarium, currently in residence at the University of Washington and we presented a virtual tour of the instruments by Second Inversion’s own Maggie Molloy!

All photos by Maggie Molloy.

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

CONCERT PREVIEW: The John Cage Musicircus

by Maggie Molloy

This Saturday, the circus is coming to town—the Musicircus, that is. Come one, come all for a most unusual evening of art, dance, music, and chaos.

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Created by the avant-garde and always-iconoclastic composer John Cage in 1967, the
Musicircus is more of a “happening” than a traditional classical music concert. The score invites any number of performers to perform any number of pieces (musical or otherwise) simultaneously in the same place.

And this Saturday, Seattle-based percussionist and Musicircus ringmaster Melanie Voytovich has planned a multimedia presentation of this innovative work at Town Hall.

The John Cage Musicircus will feature over 40 musicians, dancers, performance artists, and poets performing pieces written (or inspired) by Cage and his explorations into the avant-garde. Woven in among the chaos are live performances of many of Cage’s best-known works, including the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, In a Landscape for (unprepared) piano, Child of Tree for amplified cactus, Third Construction for unorthodox percussion instruments, Cartridge Music for amplified small sounds, 45’ For a Speaker for spoken voice, and other works of all styles and artistic disciplines.

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Performers will be stationed all over Town Hall, with audience members encouraged to explore how the sonic and visual experience shifts as they wander freely throughout the circus, gawking at the oddities within. Like much of Cage’s work, the event erases the boundary between performers and audience members, beckoning even the most ordinary among us to run away and join the circus.

And so without further ado, allow me to introduce you to just a few of this weekend’s circus performers:


melanie-voytovichName: Melanie Voytovich

Performing: John Cage’s Third Construction and Composed Improvisation for snare drum

Describe your pieces in one word:
Third Construction: Historic
Composed Improvisation: Exploration

What makes your pieces unique? Cage composed Third Construction in 1941 during his time at Cornish. Through this work (and others in his Construction series), he sought to recreate the effects of tonality and harmonic progression upon traditional aspects of musical form—but using only non-pitched percussion instruments. The result was what Cage called a “micro/macrocosmic structure”: a musical form in which the grouping of units of time was the same on the small and the large scale.

Third Construction calls for four performers and a large assortment of exotic and unorthodox instruments, including a teponaxtle (Aztec log drum), quijadas (jawbone rattle), lion’s roar (a washtub with a small hole through which a rope is noisily pulled), and an assortment of cymbals, shakers, claves, tom-toms, and tin cans. By exploring these otherwise unconventional percussive colors and timbres within a controlled musical structure, Cage creates a work that is endlessly inventive—yet surprisingly unified.

Composed Improvisation for snare drum alone is similarly oxymoronic. Composed in 1987, the piece was composed using chance procedures derived from the I Ching: an ancient Chinese classic text that is commonly used as a divination system. The “score” for Composed Improvisation is literally just two pages of instructions which build the structure to the improvisation (number and duration of sections, use of implements, preparations, etc).


ania-ptasznikName: Ania Ptasznik

Performing: John Cage and Lejaren Hiller’s HPSCHD, live coded

Describe your piece in one word: Transparent

What makes your piece unique? In the year when HPSCHD first debuted, computers were in their infancy.

What was extremely complicated to do then is surprisingly simple now. This performance, among other things, is a reflection on the evolution of technology and the changes that have taken place since the work was first created.

Live coding is the act of composing music with computer code. Unlike Ed Kobrin, the original computer programmer behind HPSCHD, one can now create music in real time, on the fly. As I execute functions based the patterns of I Ching hexagrams, the code will be available for everyone to see. I intend to bring the audience into the bare, yet elegant language of the computer while providing a subdued backdrop to a room of human performers. What makes this piece unique, I think, is in the dualities that take place: between head and heart, “high art” and debauchery, visibility and invisibility, and human and machine.


kerry-obrienName: Kerry O’Brien

Performing: Alvin Lucier’s Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra and John Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)

Describe your pieces in one word: Shimmering

What Makes Your Pieces Unique? Alvin Lucier’s Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra (1988) is a solo for amplified triangle. Typically heard as part of an orchestra, the triangle is lucky to be struck once or twice each performance. There’s value in this: triangles can teach patience. But the triangle has other lessons to teach. In Silver Streetcar, Lucier instructs a percussionist to examine this instrument thoroughly, discovering the peculiar ways it can clang and quiver, reverberate and sing. With one hand, I’ll strike the triangle, varying the speed, intensity, and location of my striking, while with my other hand, I’ll dampen, mute, and manipulate the triangle to create further variations. As it turns out, there’s a world of complexity inside the shimmer of a triangle. 

Every so often, I’ll take a break from triangle playing to read the first few installments from John Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)a mashup of musings that may shimmer with relevance (or shimmer with contradiction) given America’s recent politics. If you listen closely, you might hear some of these musings amidst the Musicircus chaos.


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Name: ilvs strauss

Performing: John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing

Describe Your Piece in One Word: Wordy

What Makes Your Piece Unique? I’ll be using Cage’s text as a starting point for discourse, both literal and physical.

 

 


michaud-savage-2Name: Michaud Savage

Performing: John Cage’s Eight Whiskus, Aria, and 8 Mesostics Re: Merce Cunningham

Describe your pieces in one word: Someantics

What makes your pieces unique? These pieces speak to Cage’s interest in disparity and cohesion, seen realized in three inventive approaches: sketch, collage, and notation.


tom-bakerName: Tom Baker

Performing: The Cage Elegies (original work inspired by Cage)

Describe your piece in one word: Elegiac

What makes your piece unique? The Cage Elegies is a “conversation” between myself and John Cage. The piece uses Cage’s recorded voice as its main material, around which the electric guitar circles and interacts.

It is in three movements, entitled: 1) Nowhere 2) Middle 3) Questions, with improvisations as prelude, interludes, and postlude. Many aleatoric procedures were brought to bear on the composing of this work, including the spoken text and length of all sections. 


jesse-myersName: Jesse Myers

Performing: John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes (for prepared piano)

Describe your piece in one word: Ever-changing

What makes your piece unique? The piano preparation process and sounds in this music are always changing. The music is a process in itself which transports the listener through a series of moods based on Indian aesthetics called ‘rasas.’ This music is alive as the sounds, preparations, music, and process is ever-changing.


bonnie-whitingName: Bonnie Whiting

Performing: John Cage’s Third Construction and 51’15.657″ for a Speaking Percussionist (an original, solo-simultaneous realization of Cage’s 45′ for a Speaker and 27’10.554″ for a Percussionist)

Describe your pieces in one word: Third Construction: Joyous; 51’15.657″ for a Speaking Percussionist: Multiplicity

What makes your pieces unique? Cage’s 45′ for a Speaker and his 27’10.554″ for a Percussionist are vintage pieces: music from the mid-50’s and part of a series of timed works that he enjoyed mixing together and referred to in notes and letters as “the ten thousand things.” A culmination of 14 months of work and study, this version is the first to feature one performer executing both pieces in their entirety.

Cage subjected several of his lectures to chance procedures, and the result is his quirky and imaginative 45′ for a Speaker. Additionally, this particular version of Cage’s 27’10.554″ score is a very faithful realization, focusing on a performer-determined search for most uniquely beautiful and interesting sounds: a fusion of traditional percussion instruments as well as an array of found-objects, non-percussive sounds, and electronic sounds.

This idea of simultaneity: of layering rather than true interpolation is one of the most fascinating branches of Cage’s output. He stumbled upon it in his work with collaborative (and life) partner dancer Merce Cunningham. In some ways, this realization of these pieces is a microcosm of the (later) Musicircus idea, making it a great fit for this event.


stacey-mastrianName: Stacey Mastrian

Performing: John Cage’s Experiences No. 2 for voice, The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs for voice and closed piano, A Chant with Claps for voice and hand claps, and selections from Song Books for voice with or without theatre and electronics

Describe your pieces in one word:  Eclectic

What makes your pieces unique? The first three pieces I will perform come from the 1940s—early in Cage’s output—when the voice appears in a simple and unaltered manner but is paired in unusual ways, whereas the last grouping of pieces spans the artistic and stylistic gamut, employing speaking, singing in various modalities, other noises, and electronics.

Experiences No. 2 (1948), for solo voice to text by e. e. cummings, was originally written for a dance by Merce Cunningham. Cage writes a straightforwardly beautiful melody that is interspersed with measured silences, and the singer can choose a comfortably low key in which to perform the work. This performance will feature nine dancers from Souterre, with world premiere choreography by Eva Stone.

A Chant With Claps (194?) exists only in manuscript form, and C.F. Peters and the John Cage Trust have graciously granted me permission to perform this rarity. This very brief, unpublished work bears the dedication “For Sidney,” which likely refers to ethnomusicologist Sidney Cowell, the wife of Cage’s former teacher, Henry Cowell.

Guitarist Mark Hilliard-Wilson and I will perform a version of The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942), with alliterative, imagery-rich text fragments from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake that describe the infant Isobel; Joyce himself said this passage was inspired by a piece of music. Cage’s piece has a rather conventionally notated melodic line, but it is composed of only three pitches, which gives it a chant-like quality.

Song Books (1970) embrace far more than singing. In this iteration I will be performing Solos for Voice No. 7 (which involves me building an object resembling a wigwam out of toothpicks and tissues), No. 43 (I utilize electronics and improvise a duet with myself), No. 53 (I vocalize in ten different styles and five languages), No. 57 (I must achieve immobility), No. 71 (I write a card with note or sketch in ink), and No. 78 (I take off my shoes and put them back on).


Name: Michael Schell

Performing: John Cage’s Cartridge Music

Describe your piece in one word: Noisy

What makes your piece unique? A milestone of live electronic music and a classic of indeterminate notation, this uncompromising work from 1960 directs the performer(s) to use ceramic phonograph cartridges with various objects other than a conventional stylus. These objects are then “played” by the performers, along with auxiliary sounds created by attaching contact microphones to various objects, the resulting mix being amplified and projected through loudspeakers.

Performers build their score independently using Cage’s graphic pages and transparencies. The result is a sound world built from typically “undesirable” sonorities (hum, white noise, mechanical shuffling), small sounds (sounds of soft amplitude that take on very different characteristics when greatly amplified), and sounds that partake of more conventional meaning (such as toys or standard musical instruments played unconventionally and amplified using contact microphones). What gives the work coherence is the common electromechanical origin of its sound sources, and the consistent, largely non-metric, rhythmic milieu enforced by its unconventional notation and performance directions.

In other words: this is a rare example of an indeterminately-notated, non-improvisational composition that has a recognizable character and always comes out sounding good.


maggie-molloy-headshotName: Maggie Molloy

Performing: John Cage’s Dream and In a Landscape for solo piano, and an original zine titled Diary: How to Read John Cage

Describe your pieces in one word: Translucent

What makes your pieces unique? Dream and In a Landscape are both pretty tame by Cage standards: there are no chance operations, no graphic notations, no amplified cacti, no screws or bolts inside the piano. In fact, each of these pieces is comprised of just a handful of notes and a whole lot of sustain pedal. The melodies drift slowly and freely from one hazy note to the next, with the pedal blurring all of it into a beautifully simple and ethereal dreamscape. And although these pieces are certainly a far cry from most of Cage’s more daring compositions, they are still unmistakably Cagean: the gently meandering melodies evoke his quiet nature, his slow, thoughtful manner of speaking—his utter willingness to lose himself entirely in sound.

If Dream and In a Landscape are explorations of Cage’s character, then my next piece is an exploration of his mind. Diary: How to Read John Cage is a zine I created in response to Cage’s monstrous five-hour art piece, Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse). Written and recorded in the years leading up to Cage’s death, the Diary’s contents range from the trivial details of everyday life all the way to the vast expanse of history, philosophy, and global politics—and all with an idiosyncratic dose of humor and wit. Over the course of eight weeks, I read and listened through Cage’s entire Diary and created my own personal diary tracking the experience. Copies of my John Cage Diary zine will be available free of charge at the Musicircus.


The John Cage Musicircus is Saturday, Nov. 19 from 7-10 p.m. at Town Hall Seattle. Second Inversion’s Maggie Molloy will present a pre-concert lecture at 6:30 p.m. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

CONCERT PREVIEW: John Cage Sonatas and Interludes: Q&A with Jesse Myers

by Maggie Molloy

The avant-garde and always-iconoclastic composer John Cage threw a wrench in the Western music tradition when he invented the prepared piano in 1940. Well, maybe not a wrench per se—but an eclectic assortment of hardware supplies, nonetheless.
Prepared Piano - Photo by Maggie MolloyAll Photos and Video by Maggie Molloy

Presented with the challenge of writing dance music for a small stage with no room for a percussion group, Cage discovered it was possible to create an entire percussion orchestra with just a single instrument—a grand piano. His creation was the prepared piano: a grand piano that has had its sound altered by placing everyday objects such as screws, bolts, and pieces of rubber on or between the strings.

And that small, humble stage on which he first invented it? That was actually right here in Seattle, at Cornish College of the Arts. At the time, Cage was working there as composer and accompanist for the dance department.

Cage’s prepared piano works have since been studied and performed all over the world—and now, Seattle-based pianist Jesse Myers is bringing them back to the Northwest for two very special lecture-recitals on Cage’s famous Sonatas and Interludes. Performances are Saturday, May 14 at Stage 7 Pianos and Friday, May 20 at the Good Shepherd Chapel Performance Space.
John Cage Sonatas and Interludes - Photo by Maggie Molloy

Though the Sonatas and Interludes are among Cage’s most famous recordings, live performances of the work are relatively few and far between. That’s because most artists and venues shudder at the thought of placing sharp metal objects inside something as sacred and pure as a piano—plus set-up, take-down, and tuning a prepared piano takes hours.

Suffice it to say, it’s not so easy to get your hands on a prepared piano. And so, me being the unabashedly nerdy Cage fan that I am, I jumped at the opportunity to drop by to Myer’s piano studio and experience Cage’s prepared piano live, in-person. Myers was kind enough to let me try my hand at the prepared piano, and to answer some of my burning questions about his upcoming performances.

Jesse Myers - Photo by Maggie Molloy

Second Inversion: What do you personally find most unique or inspiring about Cage’s music and artistic philosophy? What drew you to his prepared piano works specifically?

Jesse Myers: As a teacher, I tend to be a pretty analytical musician. Form, structure, and harmonic analysis of the great masterpieces of classical literature are some of the most exciting things for me to explore. It is perhaps the biggest motivation for me to continue to explore new and challenging music. But this has been quite different compared to, say, Rachmaninoff or Beethoven.

On the surface, the most unique aspect of this music is obviously the preparations to the piano, something that John Cage invented. Beyond the preparations and from a compositional perspective, the pieces are exceptional in regard to their lack of harmonic structure and their reliance on a rhythmic form.

The vast majority of music that exists, across all styles from rock and roll to classical, is built on a design of tension and release (dissonance to consonance)—and this is done so by harmony. Once Cage prepared the piano, it destroyed the possibility of harmony functioning as the glue that holds the music together. Instead, Cage developed a form solely on rhythm.
Table of Preparations - Photo by Maggie MolloyRemarkably, he did so in a way that short phrases relate to that of the whole of the piece, a form he called “micro-macrocosmic structure.” Like a fractal, its structure, one could say, is more natural (as in life and nature) than harmony. Harmonic rules are man-made and academic. Fractals are found everywhere in nature. Nature in art is an important aesthetic perspective when playing and listening to his music.

I’ve always been intrigued by this music but received some squeamishness from people in charge of performance spaces. That’s unfortunate and discouraging. If you don’t know any better, it sounds like it could be damaging to the piano, but a properly prepared piano is totally benign. My technician, Kenn Wildes, is the owner of Stage 7 Pianos, one of the venues for these recitals, and he was really open-minded to the idea. His initial agreement to have me perform these was basically the start of this project. Kenn is such a strong advocate for classical piano in our community and an invaluable resource for me as a pianist.

SI: How do you go about practicing Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes? Do you practice with or without preparations, or some combination thereof?

Jesse Myers Practicing - Photo by Maggie MolloyJM: I practice the music both prepared and unprepared. It’s like knowing two different pieces of music. The unprepared version actually works musically which I find fascinating—they are modal or diatonic at times. When I prepare the piano for these pieces it is as if I am witnessing a cast of performers getting ready for an elaborate theatrical production where all the characters put on their makeup and costumes to become completely different and unrecognizable. Playing it unprepared, though musically still rewarding, feels a bit like the actors are just practicing their lines in their jeans and t-shirts without any staging. I never expected that sensation to occur when I started this project.

I teach at home Monday through Friday. On the weekends I prepare the piano for the Cage and unprepare it for Monday’s lessons—my students probably wouldn’t want to hear bongos and rattles instead of their Chopin. The first time I did it, it took four hours. Now it takes about an hour just to get the material in the piano and maybe another 30 minutes of tuning.

SI: As a classically trained pianist, can you tell me a bit about what it was like for you to sit down and play a prepared piano for the first time? What are some of the major unexpected differences or similarities between playing a standard grand piano and a prepared one? 

Jesse Myers Piano - Photo by Maggie MolloyJM: At first it was very disorienting. Playing something like a simple ascending scale causes the pitches to zigzag up and down. When you expect the sequence of pitches to get higher, they may sound lower or sound like a bongo or a rattle. I have to say though, it didn’t take long to acclimate to Cage’s prepared piano.

The biggest difficulty after learning the notes has been dynamic relationships (volume) among the changing timbres of the different notes. For instance, if Cage asks for the notes to steadily get softer, I have to be mindful of the preparations within that phrase because some notes may be muted with rubber, or have a bolt with a nut that rattles on it. So the same pressure applied to each key results in a varying array of volumes.

One of the questions I get a lot is whether or not the notes feel different when you strike the key. Basically, can I feel a note rattle or clang? There is no tactile difference among the notes of a prepared piano and a regular one. So I have to know what sound the note will make before I strike it. So if I practice the piece without the preparations, I’m actively “translating” the sounds in my head.  Not so easy, but I’m getting better at it.

SI: What are some of the unique challenges and rewards of performing this music?

Sonatas and Interludes Sheet Music - Photo by Maggie MolloyJM: I think every serious pianist should try this music at some point in their career. I’ve become a better musician and that’s the biggest reward. Though I don’t think I’ve necessarily become a better pianist from it, as the pianistic skills developed are probably isolated and catered to these pieces alone.

Musically, however, it has matured me in that I have found a brand new way of emoting. I cannot rely on melodic and harmonic expression or pianistic tone. Since working on this music, my job has been to create an emotionally captivating performance in the absence of the only tool I’ve ever performed with—the unprepared piano. Try asking a chef to make world-class dish but take away her knives and whisks, but instead give her a rubber mallet, a garden spade, and a wheel—now there’s a cooking show.

SI: Have you tried playing other music or writing your own music on Cage’s prepared piano?

JM:
I have a lot of fun improvising music on his prepared piano. Most of my improvisations end up sounding like Mickey Hart in a tripped-out part of a Grateful Dead show. I’ve never tried to structure a piece though. Some of the sounds are so unique that I can’t help but hear the Sonatas and Interludes when I play them. I think if I were to compose something for the prepared piano I would have to change up the preparations and start fresh. Cage’s presence is inescapable in these preparations.Prepared Piano - Photo by Maggie Molloy

SI: What are you most looking forward to with these two upcoming performances, and what do you hope audience members will gain from them?

JM: I think this is some of Cage’s most accessible music. In the very least, I would like to open the audience’s mind to exploring more of his music and more of his ideas in general. Even outside of his compositions he is an incredibly interesting figure who seems to be incapable of uttering anything except the profound.

For the more-seasoned Cage listeners, should they come, would be to show a fresh take on these pieces. This music is electric with rhythm and I want these pieces to get into your bones, not just your mind. Beyond that, these performances will sound remarkably different than anything you’ve ever heard before, even if you are familiar with the music. No two pianos will ever really sound the same once they are prepared. This is ever-changing, living music.  

Prepared Piano - Photo by Maggie Molloy

Jesse Myers will present two prepared piano lecture-recitals on Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. The first is this Saturday, May 14 at 7:30 p.m. at Stage 7 Pianos in Kirkland. The second is next Friday, May 20 at 8 p.m. at the Good Shepherd Chapel Performance Space in Wallingford.