Few pianists have proven themselves to be more programmatically inventive and musically provocative than our June 2011 pianist-in-residence Bruce Brubaker. Tune in Monday through Thursday for a look back into the illuminating, idiosyncratic and altogether fascinating curatorial mind of this New England Conservatory faculty member and new-music Jedi.
See below for Brubaker's original notes on each week's theme, now aired this week on consecutive weekdays, or watch a video (complete with old school Q2 logo!) of him performing Philip Glass's Mad Rush, live in the music studio at WQXR/Q2 Music.
Week One: "Something Borrowed"
In music today there’s so much borrowing, appropriation, even theft! Maybe we need different ideas about stealing, or artistic property? (We won’t even talk about copyright.) Post-production art is the making of pathways, more than creating—the MC doing a remix, more than the “capital-c” Composer handing down a masterpiece from the mountain top.
What’s left to say or make, if everything’s already been said and made? And besides, the whole idea of “creating” music is recent. Mr. Bach would certainly say (in English!), “I’m just a musician. It’s God who creates things.”
So this week on Hammered!, “Something Borrowed.” Sartorial advice for the bride, and now a major motion picture. It’s not surprising composers borrow or steal so much—if you consider that we’re all just adding to a big collective artwork.
We hear piano music with literal borrowings: George Crumb taking Frederic Chopin, George Rochberg framing Johann Sebastian Bach, Hans Werner Henze rifling Johannes Brahms. And there will be more subtle allusions, hints, shared lexia, intertexts ...
Week Two: "Drone"
A drone could be a bee in a hive, or a missile! Or drones can be long held tones in music, giving it grounding—giving it a steady context against which change occurs. Part of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony has a drone in it, and so does the long beginning of Richard Wagner’s epic Das Rheingold.
There are drones in folk music, in a lot of folk music, and in Sonic Youth. There’s dronescape and dronology. Instruments like the bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, or sitar are built to produce drones all the time they’re being played.
So what’s so appealing about drones? Composer Nico Muhly says that when he was a kid and heard the steady hum of the vacuum cleaner he liked to sing along!
On Hammered! this week, we “Drone.” We hear real drones in piano music by William Duckworth and Nico Muhly, and more figurative drones too. There’s a new recording of Tom Johnson’s An Hour for Piano, and iconic intonations from La Monte Young—from his Well-Tuned Piano, once but no longer deemed by the Guinness Book of World Records to be the longest piece of piano music.
Week Three: "Portal"
This week the piano is a “Portal.” Not the video game, but this “Portal” does include teleporting of a sort. Music lets us travel through time and space in many ways, by allowing us to hear in many different ways.
Composer Karlheinz Stockhausen said that some music allows us to “empathize with the temporal and spatial experiences of other living beings which live faster or slower, narrower or wider than the human being [insects, fish, birds, plants, trees, clouds] …”
The piano always has been a virtual instrument, able to mimic other instruments and even assume multiple musical personalities. The piano and pianists are always morphing into something else. For a moment the pianist’s a rock drummer, then an Italian coloratura soprano, country dancer, violin virtuoso, banjo picker, or a whole band, or gospel quartet.
Early keyboard music was all based on specific vocal pieces. But, this week, we’re not really talking about imitating voices or violins. Some keyboard music is a window, an opening through which the listener passes to distant realms, other ways of being, or altered states of consciousness …
Are we also considering program music, wordless music that tells stories? Maybe.
We hear part of Terry Riley’s The Harp of New Albion, Richard Beaudoin’s Black Wires, Alvin Curran’s piano-marathon Hope Street Tunnel Blues III, and James MacMillan’s piano concerto “The Berserking,” initially inspired by group hysteria MacMillan witnessed at a soccer game.
Week Four: "The Raw And The Cooked"
With apologies to Claude Lévi-Stauss, this week on Hammered!, “The Raw and the Cooked.” How do materials get made into art? How do scales, chords, and tremolos turn into compelling music? What happens when delicious ingredients are baked, stirred, or julienned?
And when we’re cooking up some art, how do we know when it’s done? Sometimes achieving art requires high-level technique. And sometimes too much obvious refinement seems to get in the way of something more real.
Those mysterious foams and sous-vide dishes from the molecular gastronomy chefs can be wondrous, or just too precious. What’s the exact transition point between raw and ready?
We use many forms of technology to do our work. The piano’s a remarkable machine, an artifact of Industrial Revolution high technology. Sometimes we try to adapt our bodies or minds to what machines can do. But at least so far, machines are made by humans, and our artistic interactions with machines often end up disclosing what humanity really is.
On Hammered!, in our tasting of “The Raw and the Cooked,” there will be music by Sylvano Bussotti that’s written graphically, with pictures rather than notes, and played inside the piano, and all over the outside of the piano too. We hear György Ligeti’s testing of the human player’s limits, and Alvin Curran deconstructing and reconstructing something very familiar.