Plays Well With Others

Piano-plus: Week Two of Sleeping Giant's December residency on Hammered!

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Monday, December 12, 2011

Piano and electronics (Hokuto Suisse/flickr)

Hammered! welcomes the New York-based composer collective Sleeping Giant for a month-long December residency. Composer-pianist Timothy Andres hosts and curates each Monday episode while the rest of the week is filled in with specially curated episodes by the five other Sleepy Gs: Christopher Cerrone, Jacob Cooper, Ted Hearne, Robert Honstein and Andrew Norman.

Monday | Episode 6: Piano and Orchestra
by Timothy Andres

This week we take on the piano outside of its typical solo context. Each segment typifies an interest of its composer-host. We'll begin with a program I devised of pieces for piano and orchestra, some of which are concertos, some of which are decidedly not, including works by Hans Abrahamsen, Morton Feldman, Olivier Messiaen and me. Ted, a composer inclined towards the percussive, explores the piano's role as a member of that family. Rob programs an hour of idiosyncratic chamber combinations involving the piano, while Chris tours some of its extended timbres and techniques. Chris also closes out the week with a post-modern extravaganza of contemporary composers' reinterpretations of older music, using the piano.

Tuesday | Episode 7: Piano(s) + Percussion(s)
by Ted Hearne

I'm pleased to play three tracks off the newest CD ("Tone Builders") from the excellent New York-based 2p2p quartet Yarn/Wire. These include enigmatic works from two members of the Wet Ink composer collective (Alex Mincek and Sam Pluta), as well as California-based Mei-Fang Lin's Yarny/Wiry. This music demonstrates the versatility and virtuosity of Yarn/Wire ... and also their willingness to slam their instruments with real force. 

NO on To kNOW one is a new mixed chamber work by the virtuoso steel pan player Andy Akiho, and One Of Us, One Of Them is a piano/percussion duet I wrote in 2005, performed here by two members of the Transit Ensemble, David Friend and Joe Bergen. Rounding out this mix are two classic piano/percussion quartets from the other side of the pond: a movement from Bela Bartok's Sonata For Two Pianos and Percussion, and Philippe Leroux's M. 

Wednesday | Episode 8: Piano and More
by Robert Honstein

As much as the piano is a platform for show-stopping solos it is also a team player. In the spirit of teamwork, today's show features works for piano and something else. The first work, my own On the Softer Side for Baritone Saxophone and Piano comes from a long tradition of works for Piano and one other instrument. On this recording you'll hear me playing alongside champion Saxophonist and good friend, Erik Steighner. Next up, Ryan Brown's delicate and haunting Under Sleep begins with the piano amidst a haze of sustained string harmonics and long clarinet tones. As the work develops, the piano's upper register provides a pearly, translucent backdrop to the ensemble's gentle rhythmic punctuations and long, sinuous lines.

The next set of works, Alvo Noto and Ryuichi Sakemoto's three song EP, Revep, is a seamless mixing of glitch-based electronics and gentle, sustained piano textures. Following Revep, Adrian Knight's intimate and tender arrangement of Abide with Me is at first glance a gorgeous solo piano piece; however, within seconds it becomes clear that the creaking piano bench and ambient room noises are as much a part of the work's introspective affect as Adrian's delicate, sensitively voiced harmonies. It is music to be alone with late at night, the lights down low. Sam Pluta's Noise + Mobile, is also a melding of electronics and piano. Beginning with aggressive, manic bursts of energy in the piano and electronics, the music eventually arrives in an ethereal world of shimmering, electronic harmonies. A fleeting piano chorale appears before giving way to a slowly unfolding chromatic smear. The final work brings us full circle with another piece for saxophone and piano. In 312 pianist Andreas Utnem and saxophonist Trygve Seim offer a deceptively simple rendition of a traditional Hymn tune. Here the piano and saxophone weave between each other, offering a sparse, yet eloquent lyricism.

Thursday | Episode 9: Extended Piano
by Christopher Cerrone 

Extended Piano is a program about composers who looked at the piano and said, “That’s not enough!” Each composer on this program explored, pulled and stretched the instrument beyond its makers’ original intention. That’s one way of looking at it. Another is that 20th- and 21st-century composers have consistently found brilliant ways to adapt an 150-year-old instrument to their age.

John Cage is the godfather, so to speak, of the extended piano. The possibly apocryphal story: Cage wanted to write a percussion piece for a dance troupe, but didn’t have enough room on the stage for anything besides one piano. So instead he decided to place different elements on the piano strings, creating  percussive timbres when the pianist struck the keys. Over the next eight years, he continued to develop this technique, finding different objects to place inside the piano. The pursuit culminated in his Sonatas and Interludes, an evening length work. The four movements I include here feature pieces of metal—screws and bolts—placed between the strings. The resultant sounds are a harmonious and complex palette of bell-like timbres.

Gerard Grisey’s Vortex Temporum, a work for seven players heavily featuring the piano, actually requires a piano technician to detune several strings of the piano. Grisey’s music often derives its material from detailed computer analyses of sounds, and he often calls for instruments to play quarter-tones—notes “between the keys” on the piano. In the case of Vortex, he stole a snippet from the opening of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe and re-orchestrated it. The result is a completely new and brilliantly original work. Listen for the epic piano cadenza at the end of the movement.

Alex Mincek takes a more subtle approach in his re-imagining of the piano. In Stems, the pianist silently depresses the keys to the lowest notes on the piano and holds down throughout using the sostenuto pedal. This causes the sharp and sudden chords struck throughout the work to resonant in an unearthly way, coating the whole work with a dew-like haze.

My piece Hoyt-Schermerhorn—named after the subway station in Brooklyn—is about waiting. (Anyone who has ever waited for the G train knows what I’m talking about). The piece seeks to gently extend what the piano can do by amplifying and compressing the sound of resonating strings—creating another kind of otherworldly resonance. As the work proceeds, divergent musical layers—a quiet ostinato, a gentle lullaby, and ringing bells overlap creating a sense of repose. The end of the work shatters that sensation with high sharp attacks in the piano which are looped and fragmented with live-processed electronics. 

The Tears by Adrian Knight does away with the piano altogether. Instead, a MIDI keyboard triggers the sounds of sine waves (pure, timbre-less electronic pulses) doubled by a harp.

Scott Wollschleger’s Blue Inscription doesn’t exactly extend the piano. Rather, this short and luscious work expands how the piano is used: he treats the piano as a bell keyboard that rings freely. This use of the sustaining pedal goes far beyond its usual role as a tool to keep each individual harmony ringing. Here, the pedal allows big, beautiful, dense chords with far more than 10 notes to ring throughout the work. Listen closely for the repeated “blue(s)” moment.

Finally, we have Aphex Twin’s “Kladfvgbung Micshk,” a track from his album drukqs. Unlike the artist’s prior albums, which mixed ambient sounds and breakbeats, drukqs features a number of tracks performed on a disklavier, the modern grandchild of the player piano. Some of the tracks feature a prepared piano. Others, as in the case of “Kladfvgbung Micshk” feature incredibly fast attacks that are only possible using an automated keyboard.

Friday Episode 10 | Transcriptions and Beyond
by Christopher Cerrone 

Transcription and beyond steals its subtitle from Faulkner’s novel Requiem for a Nun, in which he wrote “The past is never dead. It's not even past." Certainly a forerunner to postmodernism, I always interpreted Faulkner’s words to mean: now that we have easy access to historical documents, they need no longer be thought of as antiquated, but rather as any other object for inspiration, alongside brand-new works. Suddenly the criteria of “new” becomes meaningless. Instead, I prefer that nebulous but somehow specific term, “good.”

Salvatore Sciarrino is known for his radically unique-sounding music, which requires musicians to perform new techniques that re-imagine what acoustic instruments can sound like. Knowing that, I was completely puzzled when I first heard his arrangements of Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas for saxophone quartet.

First of all: What? Keyboard sonatas for saxophone quartet? That sounds like a terrible idea. Second of all, they sound relatively normal (at least compared to Sciarrino’s other music). However, as I listened again to the work, I found them to be both clever and ingenious. What Sciarrino does is allow the transcription process to speak for itself. Much of the elegance and beauty of Scarlatti’s music comes from his musical use of ornamentation. When those same  ornaments, devised and intended for a harpsichord, are heard on saxophones, they become completely strange sounds invading the otherwise orderly world of Scarlatti’s music.

The second piece on the program is a re-imagining of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concert no.9, performed and composed by the group that I co-direct, Red Light New Music. Each of the three composers involved, Vincent Raikhel, Scott Wollschleger and I, originally intended to simply re-score the work, leaving the piano part intact while adding some interesting new orchestrations. However, as work on the new piece proceeded, each of us wound up having to radically re-conceive each movement to make our new pieces work. Scott “erased” much of the first movement, using chance operations to create stark silences in the first movement by removing parts of Mozart’s original concerto. I added a new layer of electronics that imitated the original piano part, based on recordings by fellow Giant Timo Andres; the piano, electronics and ensemble all work together to create the final product. Vince made a mashup: halfway through his finale, something goes awry, and winds up in a completely different work: Mozart’s 22nd concerto, also, conveniently, in E-flat major.

Thomas Ades’s Three Studies After Couperin also re-imagines older music in a unique way. His transcription of Couperin’s already quite subtle and gentle music is in many ways the opposite of Sciarrino’s arrangement: from the distinct timbres of the saxophones, Ades’s arrangement for orchestra is gentle and smooth: the melody is passed from instrument to instrument with subtle shifts of orchestration that almost go unnoticed without a close listening. Much like Anton Webern’s arrangement of the Johann Sebastian Bach "Ricercar" from A Musical Offering, this older work is heard in a totally new light.

Hosted by:

Timothy Andres

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