88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

In 1976, Robert Ashley asked me to compose harmonies that would support his improvisations as “Buddy, the World’s Greatest Piano Player,” one of the characters in Perfect Lives (1980), an opera-for London’s Channel Four in seven 30-minute episodes. In this epic work, set in the American Midwest, the musical rhythms, the geometry of the shots,… Read more »

Written By

Blue Gene Tyranny

In 1976, Robert Ashley asked me to compose harmonies that would support his improvisations as “Buddy, the World’s Greatest Piano Player,” one of the characters in Perfect Lives (1980), an opera-for London’s Channel Four in seven 30-minute episodes.

In this epic work, set in the American Midwest, the musical rhythms, the geometry of the shots, and the relations of the characters are structurally interrelated. An off-screen voice (the martyred first natural-scientist Giordano Bruno, a “background” character who never appears) delivers a text filled with images of daily life, subtle humor, philosophical and historical commentary, and cosmic associations.

The first episode “The Park (Privacy Rules)” and the last episode “The Backyard (T’Be Continued)” were recorded in 1976 as a kind of tryout to see if the basic approach would work (released 1977, Lovely Music as Private Parts (The Record)). Because the parts of the narrator, the piano player, and the chorus responses were supposed to be independent, I made harmonies in cycles different from those of Ashley’s text: “The Bar” is a boogie-woogie in 7/4 which uses a serial technique for distributing the “right-handed” and “left-handed” accompaniment; “The Supermarket” uses a slowly expanding “two-steps forward one-step-back-type” chord progression, and so on. The 8+5 cycle of harmonies that I chose for the last episode was later sub-divided by Ashley to create cycles for the interior episodes. The entire work with new rhythm tracks, synthesizers, the fabulous Gulbranson organ, and vocal parts was mixed and then played back as the video camera recorded my live improvisations from various geometric angles and tracking movements associated with the seven episodes. The rhythm tracks from “The Bar” were later looped to make a sort of art rock set of variations (Buddy’s piano course) with prepared piano improvisations entitled Music Word Fire And I Would Do It Again: The Lessons.

For Celestial Excursions (2003), unlike other Ashley works in which I improvised at keyboards, the composer gave me the assignment of playing the piano as if I had never seen one before and, playing only the white keys to “just make sounds”; no melodies, no patterns, no chord changes. I thought way back to before I had any lessons or particular concepts about the piano and decided on what I called (the names change from time to time) the mash (non-aggressive tone cluster), the obsessive click (a minor 2nd, 9th, or larger inversion, in which the speed of a grace note is investigated), the velvet cloud (a beautifully touched aggregate of any sort), the wake-up call (a loud mid-to-lower pitch articulation that is like an accented staccato with pedal, not held by the fingers and not aggressive), telegraphing (quasi-random colliding impulse streams perhaps with a hidden message), etc. These sounds were varied by tessitura, touch, and unhurried pacing. (I did not hear the pulse material and Ashley’s beautiful modal harmonies, which the singers did on headphones.)

In the National Geographic magazine for November 1989, Ashley saw a picture of Van Cao, the composer of North Vietnam’s national anthem, sitting at one of his country’s two grand pianos. Ashley tried to see Van Cao but was unsuccessful. Instead, he wrote Van Cao’s Meditation (1991) having imagined the composer improvising in his studio and humming to himself. A tritone-wide pattern of five notes (B-flat, C, D-flat, E-flat and F-flat) played in octaves is endlessly varied in sequence, and punctuated occasionally by an A-flat octave. Certain notes in the bass are silently depressed in order to create sympathetic resonance. The piece has the feeling of a constant search, unresolvable and mysterious. Ashley seems taken with the reality of the human spirit enduring even in the bleakest situations, perhaps his personal search for what are shared truths about society, life, and individuals.

My piece The Intermediary (1981) is self-modifying work in which a live “shadowing” electronic network records, processes, and returns the sounds of a spontaneously playing performer. The returned sounds are both “messages” to act upon and reflective “shadows” of what the performer has already played. Thus, the performer, both sender and receiver, obsessed but learning, is continually in an intermediate state or situation, spontaneously playing, listening, and following kinetic impulses (lightning-fast biological “calculations”) at the same time. The live electronic setup amplifies this intimate music-making process for the listeners. I began to concentrate on developing several kinds of piano gestures previously only used while improvising alone: an “outside” pulse tempo style that I call “prose playing,” at times combined with a complex but in time left-hand pulse; “telegraphing”; and other sound events. (The first realization of the tracking electronics was made by composer Joel Ryan as a series of oscillators that created delicate shimmering and dramatic bass tones.)

That same year, I wrote the CBCD Variations for piano and orchestra (1981) based on (sub rosa) rhythms derived from electronically processed environmental sounds (How To Discover Music in the Sounds of Your Daily Life, 1967). The musicians are like a small society that moves from strict, almost mechanical behavior toward a sensuous music of free patterns and quasi-random “telegraphing” material (in small Vedic-singing-like intervals) for improvisation.

I once had the pleasure of performing in two pieces where the improvised keyboard part interactively triggers electronic systems of different makeup: The Bifurcators (Philip Perkins and Scott Fraser) composition Like A Bird in the Wilderness (1997, released Artifact Recordings, 2002) in which the computer system both stored the piano improvi
sations at moment and re-inserted them at later points and subsequently reacted to specific pitches of five-note-rows and produced pre-determined notes and chords; and David Behrman‘s Unforeseen Events (1991) in which nine primary pitches the computer system is “waiting to hear” from the piano trigger intriguing and beautiful sound events.

For one month during the summer of 1996, Brenda Hutchinson drove her piano from New York City to San Francisco in the back of a U-Haul Truck. During the course of over 6300 miles, she asked people along the way to play her piano and to tell her a piano story. Both the tape and the score for the live pianist in Hutchinson’s How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall? (1998) are derived from these over 200 recordings. Hutchinson explains, “Many people have played the piano at some time in their lives, and some of them have gone on to professional music careers as performers, educators, composers, etc. Most people, however, have either continued to play solely for their own enjoyment, or they ‘haven’t touched the instrument in years’. I wanted to explore the relationship that many people have with the piano and the role this instrument has played in their lives so when asked to write a piano piece, I went out to find piano players.”

At the start of one section, after a rather odd rendition of Beethoven‘s Für Elise with newly invented harmonies by one of the participants, the overlapping voices begin: “I thought the piano was a torture device invented by my mother … I have no story but it’s a great place to put the mail … it’s hard to go wrong, if you just play all the white notes then it’s gonna sound good … you can just play all the black keys and it sounds good … my mother tried to teach me to play the piano but I could never tolerate it, she had really bad halitosis … the piano teacher would sit next to me, look out the window, and cry… she started to play this tune and all of a sudden she hit this really high key and this cockroach jumped out I don’t know from somewhere in the piano; we were like totally freaked, she jumped and knocked me back like that and we both fell flat on our backs in total fear.” This section is accompanied live by fragments of Für Elise, some gospel licks from a previous story, and the old cycling 50s rock ‘n’ roll progression I-VI-IV-V. Any pianist can assemble a performance from a wide-variety of sections which correlate the voices (now on CDs) with suggestions for the live piano playing and improvisation.

Paul Paccione‘s Stations – To Morton Feldman (1987) for solo piano was composed as memorial to Feldman, Paccione’s teacher. The title refers to “points of arrival and departure … in Stations, repetition … serves simply as a reminiscence or reflection … (in the piano) the sound is always in the process of leaving the listener.” The broadly spread two-note intervals with occasional widely voices chords form repeated patterns of indescribable beauty; harmonies tend to cancel each other out adding to the feel of sonic decay, and the pacing is slow and evocative of infinite stillness. His Planxty Cage (1993) unfolds its patterns in a gentle cyclic manner with contrasting levels of sustained notes and short releases (grace notes, staccati). The first two pages are filled with white note modes that to which accidentals are eventually added. The music then gradually cycles through modes until returning to the chords of the opening, which are now denser, sustained and heavenly. A Page for Will (2002) for piano is a simple, touching minature study in tonal context: two notes rotate steadily throughout the entire work as widely spaced sustained tones re-define the “meaning” of the two note ostinato figure. (One is reminded somewhat of the chords that surround the continuously pulsing tone in Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude).

Tom Johnson‘s Music for 88 (1990) has the delicacy of a transparent, extended composition while delivering a “clear … simple … didactic” talk about the relationship of music and mathematics. In this charming, fascinating and at times droll piece, the pianist explains out front about the math being used, and how musicians and mathematicians differ in their views. The six parts are “Eighty-Eights”, “Mersenne Numbers”, “Multiplication Table“, “Pascal‘s Triangle”, “Euler‘s Harmonies” and “Abundant Numbers”. A listener can experience sheer delight as the systems unfold, like fast motion photography of slow natural phenomena, into sonic beauties.

Carson Kievman‘s Harpo (1986), although filled with dry humor, is written in a wistful style with plenty of silences that “define the unusual syncopations,” according to pianist Joseph Kubera. Deliberate awkward hesitations, and stark contrasts (the innocent F-minor music-box theme interrupted by frantic, dissonant outbursts) all of which heighten the sense of spontaneity and the transparency of the momentary actions. The writing style lies between modal pattern music and the rhythmic angularity of some serial music.

The vocabulary of James Tenney‘s Bridge (1984) for four pianos in alternate tuning, arises from the complex pointillistic, gestural world of serial music, but gradually evolves into more sustained, resonant overlaps. Tuning and timbre are shared concepts here: octaves between the pianos become shocking timbres (cathedral bells, gamelans) and normal consonances are rather touching. This composer’s Flocking (1993) is a graph score for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart. A delightful variation of timbre occurs as the pianists hand mute the strings—occasionally allowing normally struck tones to emerge—and pluck or striking the strings with the fingers. The massed effect is indeed like the flocking of birds or scurrying of animals with its rapid, quasi-random flow and accumulation and de-accumulation of events.

All of Alvin Lucier‘s compositions exhibit a graceful formality of a “pure” or transparent natu
re that touches the listener’s most subtle perceptual levels. His works are based on physically real but unusual and captivating phenomena that seem to “clear the air” with their elegant directness and immediacy. Still Lives for Piano with Slow Sweep Pure Wave Oscillators (1995) is such a composition: one of a series for other instruments and vocalists, a sweeping oscillator moves up and down in precise computer-controlled pitches drawing pictures in sound, similar to visual line drawings of physical objects. The pianist plays sustained tones, at or very near fixed points along these sweeps, that create audible beats (interference patterns) when combined in live concert with the electronic sweep; the sound seems to momentarily move around (phase modulation), shake and beat, while the piano seems temporarily “out-of-tune” like a barroom upright but then slowly returns to unison like a well-tuned grand.

Lucier looked around his house for simple things (sunlight diamond, hammock, barbeque grill, lamp shade, three floor tiles, ferns, bread knife, chopsticks) that he then drew on paper, assigned pitch and timing information to these graphs, and then sent the notations to a computer programmer who transferred the calculations and generated the moving pitches which were recorded.

Other recent piano works are also based on natural phenomena and natural landscapes:

Elodie Lauten‘s radiant Variations on the Orange Cycle (1991) is based on a tuning derived from the earth’s daily cycle and its analogous frequency of the color orange, the various movements or phases are respectively modal, chromatic. and polytonal treatments of the alternate intonation. The first movement of Kyle Gann‘s evocative Desert Sonata (1994) describes the wind, in a complex of fiery isorhythms, lush Beethoven-esque harmonies and emotion-filled melodies. In the tradition established by Arthur Farwell a century previous, the second movement is entitled “Night,” and is based on the Going Home section of the traditional Hopi Elk Dance. Annea Lockwood‘s Red Mesa (1989) vividly evokes the arid beauties and small life of the vast tablelands through an original composition technique—emerging patterns are expanded vertically and horizontally—and the use of unusual percussive materials that upon striking various internal piano parts make creature-like sounds.

The compositional technique used in my own We All Watch the Sun and the Moon (And The Song Appears) (1992), which is scored for piano and two string orchestras, is based on the interference of cycles of the sun, anomalistic moon, and the growth proportions of the saguaro cactus. This rhythmic schedule camouflages or reveals notes, giving the impression that a song is either being newly created, or that a forgotten song is gradually being remembered—or discovered like in a detective story.

According to latest observations, the ultimate natural phenomena musical piece seems to be played by a super-massive black hole in the Perseus galaxy which emits sound waves 57 octaves below B-flat in the piano’s mid-range, a wave 30,000 light years across with an oscillation period of 10 million years! (I suspect that the actual pitch may turn out to be somewhere between B and C, an imperceptibly low fundamental that we can only and may hear as a considerably higher harmonic in, for example, the basic “sa” root of the drone in Indian classical music or in the hum of our electrical devices; a relationship on the scale of an ant perceiving the roar of a hurricane.)

So, what is the Future of the keyboard? Some possibilities include electronically sampling the piano’s complex and rich sound vocabulary, processing the sound live, and otherwise using the piano as a sound-source, moving the solo piano into an interactive situation or an indeterminate situation (e.g., Ben Manley‘s event in NYC, April 11, 1999, with eighteen freely improvising pianists on three floors of the Greenwich House Music School), inventing new methods of getting sound from the piano (preparations, transduction methods, i.e. the piano modulates the flames or the lights and vice versa), and using the piano as an icon in a theatrical or installation set.

Concerning the piano as an icon, perhaps the most vivid expression of that idea was Annea Lockwood‘s series of Piano Transplants (1969-1972). Inspired by Christian Barnard‘s first heart transplants, Lockwood re-contextualized the piano by relocating various of the instruments which had seen better days in such new environments as a shallow pond in Amarillo, Texas, and the deep sod of an English garden. In her most remembered performances, pianos were burned and thus returned to the dust from whence they came.

Of course there’s the tried and true possibility of writing some interesting music for the instrument.

I’m interested in new musical inventions and discoveries but I also treasure the way that musicians, who often hold quite definite and differing opinions about their art, generally like to collaborate with each other in a spirit of mutual respect. This was the case with Mary Lou Williams and Cecil Taylor appearing together playing in their differing personal styles and aesthetic approaches at Carnegie Hall on April 17, 1977, and with John Cage performing solo pieces with Sun Ra on June 8, 1986 at the “Sideshows by the Seashore” on Coney Island (John Cage Meets Sun Ra, Meltdown Records).

The normal American record collection contains a fairly democratic spread—the ubiquitous Dylan or Beatles or Zappa or Barry White record, a couple of R&B divas, a collection of oldies but goodies ordered from a TV ad, a bit of world music, a birthday gift of a CD that was listened to one time only, maybe a film soundtrack, some Sarah Vaughan, a classical piece or two, and so on. Mutual respect, fairness, equality, compassion, and a mixed record collection – that’s the real America.

From 88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music
by “Blue” Gene Tyranny
© 2003 NewMusicBox