Tag: piano

Black Mystery School Pianists

A close up of a piano keyboard with broken/warped keys going in various directions.

In viewing the history of jazz piano as it has influenced me, I find various tributaries and streams and ways of being that have contributed to my understanding of the jazz piano language and to finding my way through all of this. I have come to see a subgroup of jazz pianism that has influenced me as something I call the Black Mystery School of Pianists. Like all categories, there is an illusionary aspect of it and phenomena go in and out of each other, but the category does denote something. It’s a way I have viewed the work of certain practitioners of the art of jazz piano and I have followed offshoots of this branch. There are many pianists that might fall in and out of this category that are not mentioned here. The list is an outline that defines aspects of a certain attitude and is not meant as any type of dogmatic statement.

So what do I mean by a Black Mystery School pianist? Well, obviously the word “Black” is in here, so for the purposes of looking at this tree, all of the practitioners I will mention except for one will be Black. That is not to imply a non-black person cannot enter this realm. I am just outlining a code—that there is a definitive tree-like formation that has seemed more often than not to go down a certain path. The word “mystery” is here also which implies a secret code, passed through an underground way of passage, a language outside the mainstream and, yes, outside the mainstream of jazz, even though the father of this school Thelonious Monk’s image has been subsumed into the mainstream of jazz after a long period of incubation.

Mystery School posits an alternative touch—something that does not directly fall within the mainstream’s easily digestible paradigm of being able to play the instrument, even though the practitioners of the Mystery School are obviously highly skilled virtuosos whose touch, language, and articulation are extremely hard to copy. In some ways, in the subconscious of the jazz idiom, the Mystery School is a counter strike to the psychological space of any variant of an Art Tatum approach of playing, filtered down to Oscar Peterson, and then watered down to something like André Previn as a prevailing way of viewing piano playing. And I say that despite Monk’s roots in stride piano. Mystery School pianists have developed profound ways of generating sound out of the instrument grounded in a technique they invented and one that cannot be taught in school. It is a code that somehow gets passed down.

The Mystery School seems to have a subconscious urge to resist academic codification of any sort. Despite however great artists and jazz musicians they are, and this is not meant as a pejorative, jazz students can go to jazz schools and learn to play like Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and Herbie Hancock, but there is something completely elusive in the sound world of Randy Weston, Mal Waldron, and the legendary Hasaan Ibn Ali that defies the jazz academy.

The other major aspect of the Mystery School is the iconoclastic nature of it. As in the ultimate example of Monk, the artist carves out a niche for themselves within the world of the jazz universe. That niche is a worldview or a planet. The artist in utmost stubbornness will stick to that vision with a fuck the world attitude—that the world will have to come to this vision of the piano and, if it doesn’t, then so be it. This vision is extreme in its iconoclastic nature, although some mystery school pianists, like Mal Waldron, have done gigs like backing singers (e.g. Billie Holiday, etc.). The phrasing and rhythm employed in the code that these players utilize is of such nature as to not be able to fall under the hands of a jazz student who is studying, say, Brad Mehldau.

Another aspect of the Mystery School is despite Monk being the spiritual father, the descendants tend not to play Monk tunes. They develop their own body of work. And I say this despite some great interpretations of Monk music by Mal Waldron through the years.

Next, let’s look at who is not in the Mystery School according to this very particular way of looking at things. This is important because this is such a specific delineation of a slice of something that it is not a platform to just throw a bunch of great jazz pianists in. It is very specific. So first, Ellington is not in, although he is a big influence on the pianism of Monk, Randy Weston, and Cecil Taylor. Also Ellington’s piano work on the album Money Jungle is on the level of the greatest piano playing ever. It is playing that could never be reached by someone with the mindset of a post-Tatum pianism, and no one who comes out of a bebop or post bebop mindset could ever get to the language there. Hank Jones, Wynton Kelly, or Tommy Flanagan—as great as they all are—could never generate the energy/sound fields that the piano work on Money Jungle does. So that is to say Ellington had a unique homemade style that is as idiosyncratic as any. But Ellington doesn’t fall into this school because there is a posture and an attitude inherent in the code that he does not quite embody and his relationship to the mainstream of his day does not exactly delve into the stance and attitude of the Mystery School.

Bud Powell does not make it in the school because he is too tied to the classic idea of the development of bebop. That might seem a paradox being that Monk is also considered a founding father of bebop—but isn’t that one of the main things that gives juice to Monk’s legacy, that he is a founding father of bebop but at the same time set up a parallel universe of his own music that in some ways seems like it is counter to some of the assumptions of bebop? There is that aspect of the Mystery School that sets itself up as counter to bebop. Of course, Bud Powell is one of the greatest pianists ever to sit at the keys. But that does not put him in this particular school, although Bud is transcendental.

I also do not include Mary Lou Williams. Bud and Monk used to go over her place–she helped them both with touch on the piano. She usually did not go for the oblique, though.  But she is a tremendous jazz pianist.

  • Mystery School posits an alternative touch.

    Matthew Shipp, composer and pianist
  • Ellington is not in, although he is a big influence on the pianism of Monk, Randy Weston, and Cecil Taylor.

    Matthew Shipp, composer and pianist
  • I also do not include Mary Lou Williams... but she is a tremendous jazz pianist.

    Matthew Shipp, composer and pianist
  • Being a Black Mystery School pianist does not necessary equal avant-garde.

    Matthew Shipp, composer and pianist
  • Classificatory schemes are illusionary and don’t always comport to reality.

    Matthew Shipp, composer and pianist

If you use the word “mystery,” and the math of the pyramids come to mind, then you could not think of a more profound player than Horace Silver, because his playing is undergirded by a code of this sort. But he does not make the school because he is in a different head-space. I look at him as a super gifted post-Bud Powell player who developed his own unique style and attack within those parameters and then went on to help invent hard bop. But his stance doesn’t have the punk attitude that the Mystery School can have, and I don’t think he would have ever been comfortable with the idea of being an underground language.

Erroll Garner could never be in this school, though strangely enough his playing could be very idiosyncratic at times, and is obviously homemade. But the areas of American culture that he was an actor in does not allow entry into this club. (I have an aunt who thought Erroll was the greatest pianist ever, but she went to her grave saying Monk could not play the piano.)

I have wrestled with whether Elmo Hope belongs in the group. I am not sure. I go back and forth for different reasons. If he is, a lot of it would be because of his influence on Hasaan Ibn Ali, who is another extreme of an ultimate example of this.

Most free jazz pianists do not make the list because the Mystery School is not about free jazz per se. And I say this despite the fact that most free jazz pianists feel a relationship with Monk, despite Monk’s problematic relationship with free jazz. But Cecil Taylor makes the list because he is a contemporary of Randy Weston and Mal Waldron and it is fascinating to see those three artists as branches off the Ellington/Monk piano branch. You could not find three artists as different as these three masters, yet they get their nourishment from some of the same sources.

McCoy Tyner does not make the school, because the Coltrane universe is a cosmology in and of itself and must be dealt with that way apart from everything else. I say that despite the fact that McCoy was influenced by Hasaan Ibn Ali and use to go over to his house in Philadelphia and soak in things.

So who is in the Black Mystery School of Piano?

Monk

Herbie Nichols

Mal Waldron / Randy Weston / Cecil Taylor / Andrew Hill

The legendary Hasaan Ibn Ali

Sun Ra / Horace Tapscott


A Spotify playlist of devoted to the 9 pianists cited above.
Some further words about a few of these artists and their praxis…

Herbie Nichols was a contemporary of Monk who also was a writer and one of the first people to write about Monk’s music. Nichols was tremendous, but his music never received the fame that Monk’s did. Nichols is every bit as much of a father of this school as Monk. There have been several revivals of Nichols’s music in recent years. Perhaps, when the history of this school is written, he will take his proper place.

Andrew Hill is as iconoclast as iconoclast can iconoclast. He seems to directly be in the Monk line of the pianist/improviser as composer and, in his way, has as unique and powerful an application of that archetype as Monk. He has some of the stance of Monk in attitude and was obviously liberated by Monk’s use of space, but Hill has his own language and way of doing it on the piano. His universe is his own planet—completely. Hill is in line with Waldron and Weston as far as taking up some aspect of a post-Monk mantle –but what makes Hill so interesting is he is a parallel universe to Cecil Taylor.

Of course being a Black Mystery School pianist does not necessary equal avant-garde. But Hill fits in both in the sense that his posture can be seen as a post-Monk conceptualist/iconoclast – but he also mollifies the Cecil Taylor monopoly on the perception of free-jazz piano in that if a free jazz pianist gets tired of getting compared to Cecil they can get inspiration from Hill and claim him as more of a direct influence. Andrew Hill’s elliptical phrasing seems like a direct extension of his elliptical mind. Hill is someone who managed to slip through all the cracks and defy any category though it is obvious what he comes out of. In some ways his playing is the ultimate fuck you to everything and everyone.

Hasaan Ibn Ali might be the most isolated of any one here. A Philadelphia-based pianist who never could get gigs even in his home town and who recorded only one album, which Max Roach brought him in the studio for. The album is this category in its purist form.

I include two big band leaders in this list: Sun Ra and Horace Tapscott. One is East Coast; the other West Coast. As far as their piano playing, both of their playing contains the geometry and the architecture that goes with this category. That is what puts them here, and that is something that is there or not; it cannot be faked.

As an aside, I also include Ran Blake in this school even though I use the word Black and Ran is a Caucasian. Ran is an offshoot of someone who is influenced by Monk and Ran is a spiritual brother to Mal Waldron. In another way, Dave Burrell can dip in and out of this school. I have heard Burrell approach one of the most organic synthesis of Monk tunes done in a free jazz way, not that that is what the Mystery School is about, because it is not about playing Monk tunes, but Burrell understands all of this.

The late Geri Allen also had a complete understanding of all of this and she was so gifted that she could embody aspects of this. Her relationship to the mainstream jazz audience of her time was a relationship that did not allow her to fully inhabit this space. But she was an offspring of the language and had a beautiful relationship with Mal Waldron. She once took me aside at a festival in France and told me I was one of the only pianists she had ever heard who could channel Mal Waldron. Even though I like to think of myself as a complete original, I took that as the highest compliment.

The pianist Rodney Kendrick had a close and direct relationship with Randy Weston and has spent time with Monk. His sound completely embodies this school. Rodney, who is a friend, completely disagrees with my way of looking at this in this piece. Maybe it takes someone who is contextualized within the avant-garde world like myself to see things this way. Maybe Rodney’s relationship with Barry Harris, who is the antithesis of this approach, taints his view. However Rodney comes out of this and no one like him exists at this time on the planet.

To end this, classificatory schemes are illusionary and don’t always comport to reality. But I have talked about this school before in interviews and people always get something out of it and ask me to go deeper. I am not trying to lay out any dogma, just talking about a way I saw some things that contributed to abstractions I made that enhanced my creative life. Even if you don’t buy into the complete format as presented, you should check out the work of all the artists discussed here.


A Spotify playlist of most of the other pianists cited in this article. Should they be included in the Black Mystery School of Pianists or not? You decide.
[Ed. note: We also invite you to further explore the extraordinary music of Matthew Shipp who turned 60 earlier this month and marked this milestone by remaining extraordinarily prolific despite the difficulties we have all faced in this pandemic year. Shipp’s discography is a treasure trove and this playlist only scratches the surface. We also encourage you to read and watch this 2005 conversation with him on NewMusicBox. – FJO]


A Spotify playlist highlighting some of the gems in Matthew Shipp’s extensive discography.

My Journey With Bird Songs

A car approaching a wooden cabin

For the past 11 years, I have been working on incorporating bird songs into my music. When I say “my music”, I am talking about my improvisations, because all of the music I compose starts with improvisation, which I then sculpt into compositions. To me, this is a more “natural“ way to go, but then again, that’s been my approach my entire life. When the composition is set, I leave space for improvisations based on the bird songs, as well as motifs created from the surrounding soundscape. Six of my bird song compositions that are currently in my repertoire were originally created back in 2008 during a 5-week residency at The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

I was completely seduced by the bird songs around my studio and decided to play around with them for just one afternoon.

The proposal I submitted for that residency had been to create a series of compositions for an improvisational duo with bassist Mark Dresser, for a recording session scheduled for late July. I also planned to work on a side project, which was a large work for my big band based on Pythagoras’s and Johannes Kepler’s “Music of the Spheres” concept. I brought two suitcases full of books for research to the colony. But when I opened one of my suitcases, a book I had recently bought, David Rothenberg’s Why Birds Sing, fell out of the suitcase. I didn’t remember packing that book! I also brought a book of Amy Beach’s piano music. That I did remember packing because she was an integral part of the success of the MacDowell Colony. I also had a small manuscript book in that suitcase, and for another unknown reason, out fell the letter I had received 11 years earlier, from Adrienne Fried Block, who at that time was writing Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian: The Life and Work of an American Composer, 1867-1944. You would think I would have paid attention to all of these signs from the universe, but no, I initially decided to stay the course with the Spheres side project. That only lasted a day. I was completely seduced by the bird songs around my studio and decided to play around with them for just one afternoon, then get back to work. One afternoon turned into the entire residency; I just had to play with those birds! When would I ever get another chance like this, to have a piano in the middle of the woods, and to play freely? Instead of reading about Kepler, I read David Rothenberg’s book every day, and went to the local bookstore to find Donald Kroodsma’s book with recorded bird songs, The Backyard Birdsong Guide and an illustrated copy of The Music of Wild Birds adapted from The Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music by F. Schuyler Matthews, who wrote that book in 1904, in Campton, New Hampshire, less than 2 hours from the MacDowell Colony.

My designated studio was Delta Omicron, and inside was a beautiful Mason and Hamlin grand piano. I had a digital recorder and was able to put the microphone in a small window, covering it with a curtain to have a little separation from the piano, which enabled me to hear the birds clearly through my headphones. In this way I was able to adjust the volume I played on the piano so that the birds and I were balanced. I never saw them, so I was never sure who was singing what.

I improvised with songbirds … My goal was to become a member of their band, so to speak.

Every day for five weeks, I improvised with songbirds and any other creatures that made their voices heard, and recorded each session. My goal was to become a member of their band, so to speak. I listened deeply to their singing, and carefully infiltrated their ensemble. They, in turn, sang to me and with me and seemed to be okay that I was not only privy to their conversations, but would take part in them as well. We had a standing jam session time at around 10 a.m. each morning until lunch. Then they would retreat, and I would do some reading and listen to our recordings. They would come back out to sing with me around 4 p.m. until I left them for a swim in the local pond. There was also the after-dinner bird ensemble, and we would make music together, but not for long, as they had other business to attend to. In the evenings, I would listen to our recordings of the day, and make notes on the improvisations that would become compositions that I could play again and also perform with other musicians. 
As I listened, I made marks in the editing track and would decide on what to keep, sometimes switching sections around, but for the most part only editing what I considered “meandering” type improvisations as opposed to fully formed compositions through improvisation.

The view of the trees and foliage from the window of the cabin at The MacDowell Colony

The view from the window.

The first bird I began improvising with was the American Robin. In fact, the most well known song, Cheerily, Cheerily, seemed to creep into all of my improvisations. I slowed down the song just a bit, and lengthened the motif, and played around with it in garage band.

A page from an old book featuring music notation for a song based on the tune that the American Robin sings. The following text appears at the top of the page: Taking the Robin according to his average conduct, he is a noisy fellow! But there is a host of good cheer in his music which the discriminating writer in A Masque of Poets early discovered: In the sunshine and the rain I hear the robin in the lane Singing Cheerily, Cheer up, cheer up; Cheerily, cheerily, cheer up! These words fit the following music pretty well.

A page from The Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music by F. Schuyler Mathews featuring Mathews transcription of the robin’s song set to music.

Over time, my improvisations on this theme became a singular line composition, much like the style of early Ornette Coleman, that I freely improvised. I gave it the title “If You Call Me, Then I’ll Call You” and dedicated it to Mark Dresser. The title rhythmically matches the first two measures, and it also represents what the robins use their songs for, calling each other, and what Mark and I have been doing for over forty years, calling each other.

Mark Dresser playing double bass and Diane Moser playing piano

Mark Dresser (bass) and Diane Moser (piano) at Klavierhaus (Photo by Dennis Connors).

Just before sunrise, the first bird I heard singing was the Hermit Thrush. The landscapers at MacDowell referred to the hermit thrush as a deep woods singer, and told me it was the first one singing at the break of day, and first one back into the woods just before sunset. Commonly known as the Nightingale of the Americas, this bird has an amazing set of songs and calls. It’s no wonder that Amy Beach composed two piano pieces based on these songs, one for the morning and one for the evening. She also had perfect pitch and could sit in the woods for hours transcribing bird songs. I have been playing her composition A Hermit Thrush at Eve for years, adding improvisation over her harmonic progression and using hermit thrush songs as a point of departure for improvisation. I have added my version below. Before you listen to the recording, check out the songs of the hermit thrush, and you’ll understand the brilliance of Amy Beach.

After hearing the hermit thrush and the american robin, the next two birds I would hear in the morning were the Black-Capped Chickadee, and the Chipping Sparrow. The Black-Capped Chickadee has a two note song and several calls, but it was the two note song that I was responding to, and the bird responded back with the same two notes. The chipping sparrow has two songs and several calls. The songs are long dry trills, one being faster than the other. I was hearing the faster one and he alternated his song with the black-capped chickadee. I began imitating both of them, improvising in between their songs and my imitations.

Here’s a recording of one of our sessions, right at the very beginning.

As I continued improvising, I integrated both of their songs into a bass line, and then began developing a melody with the two note song from the black-capped chickadee.

All of these improvisations went on for many hours, and other birds would join us for a moment or two.

Originally I had titled the improvisations “Me and the Chickadees”, but I changed it to “Hello” after reading about how bird songs have been set to mnemonics, using a syllabic rhythmic phrase. I decided that the two note song of the black-capped chickadee, a bird song I heard every morning, should quite obviously be called “Hello”.

The bird I had the most fun with was the chipping sparrow.

The bird I had the most fun with was the chipping sparrow. His dry trill and constant singing at regular intervals of time provided tempo and an ostinato for my improvisations. I used the age old technique of a repetitive note as an imitation of the chipping sparrows dry trill, and that became a “thread” for the composition, tying it together. Everything else evolved through improvisation. Think Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, or any number of compositions. “One Note Samba” by Antonio Carlos Jobim is another good example. As you listen to the recording below, you’ll hear the chipping sparrow, and a dark-eyed junco in the background who wanted to join in with us.

After editing the recordings, I began the tedious process of transcribing. For some pieces I transcribed note for note exactly what I had played. For others, I kept melodies, harmonies, bass lines, and motifs, using them as a jumping-off point for improvisation. I was able to transcribe two of my bird song compositions “Hello” and “If You’ll Call Me, Then I’ll Call You” before I left the MacDowell Colony. We recorded them on my return to New Jersey,  during that aforementioned recording session with bassist Mark Dresser and a few days later we performed them live in New York City at The Stone. (Our recording, Duetto, was released in 2012.)

I was staying true to what the birds and I had created.

One of the benefits of being a performer-composer are the ensembles that I lead, and other people’s ensembles that I perform with, where I can arrange the music I compose for any combination of instruments. Throughout these performances, I constantly referred back to my original recordings, making sure I was staying true to what the birds and I had created, and especially to the surrounding soundscape which was the palette for the compositions. I also created more space in the notated score for improvisation, but with the caveat that the improvisations needed to reflect the bird songs and the motifs. Thankfully, the musicians I performed with had a wide range of musical experiences and could untether themselves from the standard go-to licks, as we say in the jazz world.

I took a different approach for my next bird song composition, Birdsongs for Eric, a 20-minute suite for septet, based on the flute improvisations of the iconic jazz musician and composer, Eric Dolphy, commissioned for the “Eric Dolphy: Freedom of Sound Celebration Series”.

I discovered that in virtually every solo Dolphy took there were bird songs.

In 1962, Eric Dolphy told Downbeat magazine interviewer Don DeMichael, “At home [in California] I used to play, and the birds always used to whistle with me. I would stop what I was working on and play with the birds.” I can totally relate to that quote! Happens to me all of the time. 
The quote and Dolphy’s music inspired me to try a different type of process. With the help of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird site and their online Macaulay Library, I was able to study the birds in the area of Los Angeles where Dolphy grew up. I compared those bird songs with as many recordings of Dolphy that I could find and discovered that in virtually every solo he took, not to mention melodies he wrote, there were bird songs or motifs that clearly represented bird songs. I improvised with those bird songs for a bit, then chose the songs I wanted to incorporate into the composition and gave instructions to the musicians to base their improvisations on those motifs.

After all of this experimenting, I formed what I now call the Birdsong Trio, piano, bass and flute. We worked on the music for several years, performing here and there, and in 2016 I decided it was time to do a recording. I commissioned a graduate student that I was mentoring at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Kyle Pederson, a very talented composer, to compose a piece for this new recording. Kyle, who is from Minnesota, chose the song and calls of his state bird, the common loon, and titled his piece “The (Un)Common Loon”.

The recording session for the Diane Moser Birdsong Trio (Anton Denner, Ken Filiano, and Diane Moser) at Union Congregational Church in Montclair, New Jersey (Photo by Dennis Connors)

The recording session for the Diane Moser Birdsong Trio (Anton Denner, Ken Filiano, and Diane Moser) at Union Congregational Church in Montclair, New Jersey (Photo by Dennis Connors)

The result of these efforts was the release of Diane Moser: Birdsongs (Planet Arts Records), and little did I know the resounding effect this would have on critics, music fans, and students. We have had truly wonderful reviews from jazz, contemporary fusion, classical and rock music publications, and even a heavy metal blog! Evidence of the universality of not only music, but of bird song.

At the end of our concerts audience members tell me about their bird hikes, show me photos…

What has intrigued me about the reviews, is that not only are the reviewers understanding the music, but they are also talking about their own memories of listening to birds, the joyfulness of the music, and how it makes them feel relaxed. When we play our concerts, I begin with a short Deep Listening session with the audience, settling in, closing their eyes, thinking about their favorite birds, thinking about their favorite bird songs, and then I invite them to vocalize their favorite bird songs. I also tell them that they can continue the vocalization for as long as they want. As the audience is vocalizing, our trio improvises with them, and at some point we segue into Birdsongs for Eric.  At the end of our concerts audience members have told me they felt transformed, that they were listening differently, that they heard the music in a way they never heard before, and that they felt completely at peace. They often tell me about their bird hikes, show me photos, discuss articles they have recently read and so forth.
 To this day, I receive emails, postcards, photos, text messages, Facebook posts, and messages from my audience base about their experiences with birds and walking in the woods.

A landscape view of Cape May Point State Park showing a placard with a description of the area, an open field, and the sky.

Cape May Point State Park in Cape May,NJ

Recently I received a Faculty Research Grant from The New School for my new project called “Waterbirds: Environmental Dialogues Through Music”, which will include the creation of a 50-minute music composition for my Birdsong Trio, incorporating field recordings that focus on coastal and wetlands birds and their disappearing habitats in and around New Jersey and New York. This is a different approach for me towards creating music, but I am thoroughly enjoying it! Thus far, this project has me traveling the coast of New Jersey, making field recordings and going on bird hikes with the Bergen County Audubon Society, the Cape May Bird Observatory, and New Jersey Audubon. I was granted a research permit from the United States Department of the Interior to work with the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area in Highlands, N.J., where I spend lots of time. I’m amazed by the work that the Audubon groups, NPS, and US Fish and Wildlife Service are achieving on environmental clean-up, bird and bat habitats, education, land management, and so much more. I love the field-recording process and have already worked on one soundscape composition with my Birdsong Trio, which also includes a film. In part two of this series, I’ll share the film and other journeys I have made with bird songs.


Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
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In Search of Robert Palmer

A black and white photo of a Caucasian man with his left arm bent beside his head

It was after midnight, the recording session was in two days, and the AirBnB I had booked wasn’t nearly as close to downtown as it had promised. The last time I came to Ithaca, New York, to look through Robert Palmer’s archive—months ago, just before my first Palmer recording session—I stayed in a nondescript house just next to the Cornell campus, its walls breathing generations of college students. I had easily grabbed my key out of an unlocked mailbox in the entryway.

AirBnB KEY

This place, however, was somewhere in the fields surrounding Ithaca, farm country that betrays nothing of the fabled town just a few miles down the road. I stumbled in the dark trying to find the host’s key using my iPhone flashlight. It wasn’t the first time I wondered what the hell I was doing out here, hours from New York City, upsetting my schedule, eating Burger King and keeping the receipts—for what? To see if such-and-such note had a sharp next to it? Well, yes. And to snoop through his letters.

By 1 a.m. I was in bed, absorbing the soft intrusiveness I always feel when staying in an AirBnB, when I heard a pounding at the door. I thought it might be my imagination until it came again. Pounding. This is how I die, I thought. For Robert Palmer. The pounding came again. I crept to the door. “Yes?” Am I ready to die in Ithaca? A man’s voice answered, saying I had left my rental car’s lights on. I went outside to meet him. He held a can of Bud Light Lime-A-Rita. The car was dark. “I guess they go off automatic,” he said.

Perpetually an underdog, most biographical summaries written during his lifetime acknowledge how seldom Palmer’s music ever saw performance even then, and yet I’m one of a motley crew of artists who have been drawn to his work.

Robert Palmer lived between 1915-2010, mostly in upstate New York. He produced more than 90 works, was a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fulbright Scholar, a National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient, and the first American composer published by Edition Peters, the publisher later associated with John Cage and the most experimental of modernists. His star rose in the 1940s and ’50s after a string of energetic, introspective, “metaphysical” works, as Aaron Copland called them, driven by a strong emotional current and built with complex counterpoint and layers of tight rhythmic structures. Hindemith meets Bartók meets Brahms meets Lou Harrison meets…

The relative obscurity that followed his promising debut is as puzzling as one wishes to make it. It could be as simple as his reputation soaring just as the focus of contemporary music shifted toward the seductions of serialism, chance, and minimalism, with Palmer eclipsed and his listeners fractured amidst a world of new curiosities. He might never have been as famous as mid-century tonalists such as William Schuman, David Diamond, or Roy Harris (a brief teacher of his), but they all suffered relatively the same fate.

Perpetually an underdog, most biographical summaries written during his lifetime acknowledge how seldom Palmer’s music ever saw performance even then, and yet I’m one of a motley crew of artists who, since the late 1930s, have been drawn to his work. Pianist John Kirkpatrick, himself skyrocketing to fame after premiering Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata, became a kind of pen pal, coach, and the first real ambassador of Palmer’s music, to whom the earliest scores are all dedicated. Palmer, at the time, was an Eastman School of Music graduate and grocery store clerk.  Copland included him on his famed 1948 list of seven composers who were “the best we have to offer,” which also included Cage, Lukas Foss, and Leonard Bernstein. Elliott Carter called Palmer’s music “firm and definite; its dissonance resembles that of younger Europeans whom we never hear in this country,” while describing its “impressive seriousness and great musicality.” Yvar Mikhashoff, a pianist equally at home with the pioneers of American music as he was with David Lang, recorded and commissioned Palmer, while Palmer’s piano music was also performed by classically-bent virtuosos like William Kapell and Claudio Arrau. Julius Eastman played Palmer’s Three Epigrams on his Town Hall debut (the piece was mentioned in the resulting New York Times review) and later approached pianist Joseph Kubera to play his Sonata for Two Pianos. “Robert Palmer’s the man,” Joe remembers him saying. Kyle Gann blogged about him in 2014, and one year later Steven Stucky wrote a memorial in his honor on this very website.

I first heard Robert Palmer’s music as a teenager on a scratchy live recording … I would dance to this piece in front of the mirror as if singing into a hairbrush.

I first heard Robert Palmer’s music as a teenager on a scratchy live recording by the aforementioned William Kapell, the first pianist I ever fell in love with, playing the Toccata Ostinato (1945). I would dance to this piece in front of the mirror as if singing into a hairbrush. Despite the poor sound quality, the subdued applause, and an electrifying but imperfect performance that ended with an exasperated cluster across the keys—and how I hoped that the score called for such an ending (it doesn’t)—I was hooked. Long before finding a score required but a few clicks, I hunted for months, and when the music finally appeared in the mail, I already felt like a detective discovering clues. It turns out that Palmer had dedicated the piece to Kapell before the pianist’s tragic death in a plane crash. I later discovered that he played it perhaps only twice, including that recorded performance. It looked fiendish to play. I didn’t touch it for years.

When I decided to finally hunker down and learn the Toccata, it was to serve as an encore for an otherwise meditative recital program. People would approach me after the concert wanting to know nothing about the proper program, but only about Palmer, my encore. Realizing I had nothing to tell them, I started to scratch around for even the most basic information. So began the trip down the rabbit hole that found me, years later, in a bed somewhere outside Ithaca as a stranger pounded on the front door with a Lime-a-Rita.

I scoured the internet for Palmer paraphernalia. He wasn’t unpublished, after all, and several scores remain in print by Presser, Peer, and Peters. But many scores—including some of the most interesting—are out of print or were never published at all. I later discovered in his letters that Palmer attempted to publish his sublime Second Piano Sonata, composed in the mid-1940s, as late as the 1980s, with no luck. It’s a masterpiece, and as of this writing remains in his own hand in the Cornell manuscripts archive.

I ordered whatever works I could find online and began having others scanned from Cornell. Each one seemed like a revelation, some incredible secret that I had personally discovered (of course I hadn’t) and was eager to share. These pieces, as I saw it, should have been part of the core American piano repertory. The music was as difficult as it was exhilarating to play. I would fall back from the piano after certain pieces laughing, sweating and exhausted, like stumbling off of a roller coaster. After others I’d sit in stunned silence, my eyes welling and my heart aching. I could already tell that the payoff in learning this music would be worth the work, and started programming Palmer’s music whenever I could. Realizing that so little had been recorded, I also started thinking about making an album, though like most of my big ideas, I didn’t know how or where to start.

In 2015 I visited Yale to sift through Palmer’s materials in John Kirkpatrick’s archive. In his letters to Kirkpatrick, I met a man who, sentence to sentence, swung from insecure to confident, pious to prideful, who would confess his demons as much as guard them. He scorned allies, Copland and Carter in particular, for their so-called “decadent” tastes, all too ready to burn important bridges on artistic principle. He casually mentioned in one letter that the military had permanently disqualified him from service “for psychological reasons,” and in the same breath reported that this would free him up creatively for the coming year. That, along with his vague, coded language about intimacy and a kind of crippling shyness has led at least one researcher (in a book about Kirkpatrick, as it were) to queer Palmer. Looking through the same letters and many more, and being quite familiar with the closet myself, I’m not totally convinced. Still, it came as a relief when Palmer’s stoic facade, which seemed so unlike his heart-on-his-sleeve, red-blooded music, began to melt. Suddenly the music, and my attraction to it (and to him), made a little more sense.

But I still couldn’t figure him out nor ascertain why his work vanished from concert halls. Should Palmer have better networked his way into history? Is that a thing? Or was he just happy enough teaching at Cornell, in the country’s first PhD composition program, which he indeed had created? It’s a life that satisfied him, after all—“I liked teaching!” he said in a late interview—even if it was a life that may not have satisfied others. Copland wrote, “Too much of [Palmer’s] energy has gone into his teaching… but teaching is a familiar disease of the American composer.”

Or perhaps he was just too scattered and immature for the limelight, destined “to be permanently a child,” as he phrased it in one anguished letter. (This, too, has been read as a code for queer.) Kirkpatrick, in a conspicuously missing letter, had apparently challenged him on his decision to marry so young. Palmer wrote back, “I hope you will be more specific in exactly how… I am young for 24. It will help me to help myself, and I am the only one who can help.” For Palmer, self-betterment and musical perfection seemed to go hand in hand. He did mature and did change, at least stylistically, perhaps to the disappointment of others. Many, including myself, have sensed that the breathless momentum and passion of his music, the quality that attracted such early attention, began to cool as he, well… grew up. I read several letters in which performers pined for the old days when Palmer’s music came out as a flood of notes, impulsive and intense, with hardly a rest. Did he feel like he “overshared” in his earlier works, and thus distanced himself in later ones? Did he feel the intellectual heat from his contemporaries, a self-imposed pressure to “smarten up” music that, I assure you, was already tied in intellectual pretzels? Or did his style… simply change? We all change! And sometimes audiences drift.

Eventually I approached a record label about Robert Palmer. There was no strategy to my label choice; I simply knew the name. They said yes, and I was elated. I filled out a grant application and the label applied for it on our behalf. We got the grant, and I was elated again. The label, however, also required a “sponsorship fee”—not unusual in classical music. I’d heard about this from other artists but naively thought it couldn’t possibly apply to my Palmer project. It did, and the grant funds didn’t even cover that cost, leaving me with less-than-zero to pay for the actual recording. Whenever anyone asked, I’d say the Palmer album was stalled. In truth, I considered it dead.

A couple years went by when one Sunday evening I volunteered to turn pages for Joseph Kubera, now a friend, at a private New World Records pre-recording concert. Paul Tai, the director of the label, asked about the state of the Palmer project, which I had told him about in its earliest days. I explained the situation, knowing by now that New World would have been the perfect home for the album. “Ask them to release the project,” he suggested, regarding the original label. I laughed at the idea. They’d never go for that, I argued, and besides, the grant funds had surely expired. “Ask your granter to extend the deadline,” he suggested again. He made no promises, and it all seemed quite crazy, but also I had nothing to lose. I reached out and, to my astonishment, both the label and granter agreed to my requests. Once the coast was clear, New World took over. Legendary producer Judith Sherman signed on, and we would record at the American Academy of Arts and Letters with Steinway providing the pianos. My brilliant friend Daniel Johnson would write the liner notes, and in a perfect full-circle moment, Kubera agreed to play the Sonata for Two Pianos that Julius Eastman had once asked to play with him. He used Eastman’s score, his fingerings still penciled in. The album went from doomed to best-case scenario.

By summer 2018, I had the program learned for what would be the first of two recording sessions—the second taking place in the fall—and went to Ithaca to finally visit the Palmer archive.

Palmer materials

I hadn’t sat with Palmer’s actual papers since my visit to Yale three years earlier. It was worth the drive, the overnight stay, the upturned schedule, and the loss of practice time, because where else could I see that he wanted me to “slam [the] hell out of” that one chord in the First Piano Sonata (1939/40)?

slam the hell out of it

Where else could I see Ned Rorem’s West Village address scrawled on a program at the Tanglewood premiere of Peter Grimes?

Ned Rorem notes

Where else could I feverishly snap pictures of scores that exist, as of this writing, only in that archive, or see Palmer’s self-penned autobiography?

Palmer's self-penned autobiography

I slowly drove by what was once his humble home, where he had lived since moving to Ithaca in the early 1940s. I wondered if the people inside knew a composer once lived there, one of Copland’s “best we have to offer.”

Palmer's house

I met his old friends, folks who still called him Bob. “This guy’s recording Bob’s music!” said one of them to a co-worker. I met his daughter and son-in-law, and listened to their stories—like the time Palmer accidentally received a royalty check for the other, “Addicted to Love” Robert Palmer. He was furious, they said, but couldn’t have been surprised to see the royalties this other Palmer earned. Despite apparent urgings, the composer Robert Palmer resisted adding his middle name to separate himself from the pop star. “He hated his middle name,” his daughter told me, and I recalled seeing in the archive that Palmer had crossed a line through his middle name when editing an encyclopedia entry that included it, just as his Wikipedia entry currently does.

Palmer has remained to me throughout this process a kind of mystery, and I’ve tried to strike a balance between respectful and nosey when it comes to fleshing out the man.

A week later I was sitting at a grand piano on the darkened stage at the American Academy of Arts and Letters on the first morning of the first recording session of the first-ever album devoted solely to Palmer’s piano works. Judy’s voice came through a speaker a few feet from the piano. “Ready when you are!” It was a long way from dancing in front of the mirror to Toccata Ostinato.

RECORDING right here

Palmer has remained to me throughout this process a kind of mystery, and I’ve tried to strike a balance between respectful and nosey when it comes to fleshing out the man. When his daughter and son-in-law met me for smoothies after my first Cornell visit, I confessed that it felt funny talking to her after having spent the afternoon reading the passionate letters her father wrote her mother during their courtship, often marked by his paralyzing loneliness. When she alluded to her father being complicated, I didn’t ask for details, though I recently asked her over email about his favorite Christmas traditions, his favorite restaurant, his politics, his religious beliefs. Did he teach her piano?

But considering the many people I’ve prodded for memories, few say very much, maybe because Palmer himself didn’t say very much. “He was quiet till he got going,” clarified his son-in-law, “Then watch out.”

I regret not putting a few follow-up questions to composer Steve Stucky when we met one morning for breakfast to talk about Palmer, about a year before Stucky’s own untimely passing. I wish, just a couple of times, I’d asked, “What do you mean by that?”

I wish when I first heard Palmer’s music as a teenager that I had reached out, instead of functioning under the assumption that all composers were famous and needed no advocates, let alone fan mail. And I’d already learned Toccata Ostinato in 2010, the year Palmer passed away. He had suffered a stroke and couldn’t speak, “but he could still play the piano,” I was told. In my imagination I might have found a way to tell him, in those last years, that I loved his music and would find a way to share it. He might have liked that.

Palmer’s last big project was a Concerto for Two Pianos, Double Strings, Double Percussion and Symphonic Brass. Despite National Endowment for the Arts funding and dreams of a Pulitzer, the project was abandoned in a stack of sketches. But I remember staring at those numbered pages, black with pencil—even a stage scheme—thinking: He’s the only one who knew what this all sounded like.

Palmer Concerto

Part of my impulse to record Palmer’s work, particularly as the new music community challenges itself, rightly, to gaze beyond the white male composer archetype (of which Palmer certainly qualifies) is because the life of Palmer, and fate of Palmer, and the puzzling, inscrutable, what-happened-ness of Palmer, is something every creative person I know wrestles with every day. We rage against our work vanishing in the face of indifference, but mostly feel our way in the dark, finding our AirBnB keys with an iPhone flashlight in the middle of nowhere. Palmer’s story would be a cautionary tale if only we knew what we were cautioning against. Meanwhile, I’m hard-pressed to think of a composer who lived as strongly by his own creative convictions.

The life of Palmer, and fate of Palmer, and the puzzling, inscrutable, what-happened-ness of Palmer, is something every creative person I know wrestles with every day. We rage against our work vanishing in the face of indifference.

Whether our work is well established, gaining attention, facing oblivion, or long forgotten, we in the new music community find ourselves adrift in the same capricious tide of history. Part of our shared role in this community is to show up however we can for each other—to listen, perform, share—even as we all see and do things so differently. I look at Palmer’s life and work and am reminded that an artist’s greatest, and maybe only, power comes in giving shape to the fire inside them and tossing that work, over and over, into the void of the future. Maybe someone will someday be perfectly positioned to catch it. Or maybe not. Maybe the work will spin into the orbit of concert programming, or land on a recording for posterity, or wait for discovery in an archive. Or maybe not. People may listen to my Palmer album—perhaps some teenager will dance to it in front of their mirror like I once did to Kapell—and maybe some of the pieces, still in manuscript, will finally be published. Or maybe not. It could all—even this article—sail completely under the radar, as his work has for so long.

But just as Palmer created work nevertheless, we create work nevertheless—all of us giving shape to that fire inside us. And this act of creation, this calling, this need that exists in the present, far outweighs the promise of our work’s hypothetical future. Showing up, listening, connecting and realizing how alike and fragile we all are, is at least one way we can honor our shared humanity as artists, especially when our lives can feel so isolated, and like one unreasonable creative act after another. I spent more than a decade searching for Robert Palmer and made an album of his music when no one asked for it. But in my mind, I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t imagine being the only one who knew what this all sounded like.


Robert Palmer: Piano Music is available now on New World Records.

Beyond the 88: Playing Around Inside the Toy Piano

Hand inside toy piano

In last week’s installment of “Beyond the 88” I talked about several on-the-strings techniques, after first showing how to construct a weighted, cloth-covered mute. Here in my last beginner’s guide, I’d like to move from the piano to its playful, diminutive cousin: the toy piano.

The Toy Piano: Some Preparations and Nontraditional Techniques

Yes, I realize that the toy piano is a different beast from a modern grand piano. However, in discussions with the editorial staff for my book The Contemporary Piano I was adamant that I needed to include a chapter on the toy piano. So many pianists are including the toy piano as part of their regular gigging equipment, and, truly, the instrument is coming into its own right now. Just look at the work of Margaret Leng Tan, Phyllis Chen, David Smooke, Isabel Ettenauer, Karlheinz Essl, Amy O’Dell, Elizabeth A. Baker, Xenia Pestova, HOCKET piano duo, and many, many others who are currently showcasing the toy piano in live performances and/or composing new works for it. Beyond this widespread toy piano boom that’s happening, I’m personally very fond of it, and want to do my best to encourage more composing/performing and experimenting with this instrument!

And, here’s a great argument for experimenting with preparations on the toy piano—toy pianos are a lot cheaper than concert grands, and a lot easier to repair or replace if you damage one. I bought a lovely 37-key Schoenhut “Day-Care Durable” upright at my local flea market for $25—and it came with the original mini-bench. Tell enough of your friends that you love toy pianos, and they will start finding their way to you. One of my colleagues picked one up for me at a garage sale a few weeks ago, and just brought it to the music department. (And, the lid of this “grand” was already mostly ripped off, so the first thing I did was remove the lid entirely. Suddenly it’s the perfect instrument for tone rod preparations.)

For many of these techniques or preparations, you’ll need access to the toy piano’s tone rods. Most modern toy pianos, and certainly every chromatic instrument that I’ve run across myself, uses small-diameter metal rods for their sound. Plastic (or wood) hammers are set into motion from keys, and the hammers hit these metal rods, rather than metal strings as in a piano. Different models will offer up access to the tone rods in their own ways, requiring different levels of instrument dismantling. My “travel” instrument (purchased so I would have a toy piano that I could pack in a carry-on suitcase when I was flying to the Florida International Toy Piano Festival a couple of years ago), is a Michelsonne that has a keyboard that folds flat into the cabinet of the instrument. Fold down the keyboard, and you have instant access to the tone rods and the hammers, no disassembly required. As mentioned above, my latest Schoenhut grand had a lid attached with hinges (barely) and an articulated arm that served as the “stick” for the lid. Remove the hinge screws and the ones for the arm, and the lid is out of the way, exposing almost the full sounding length of the tone rods. Other instruments may require removing a few more bits of the casing, but usually even this will mean removing only a few screws.

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So, get yourself access to the tone rods.

Then try muting! Hand muting the rods is very easy. Sound notes with one hand on the keys, and press or pinch with the fingertips of your other hand on the tone rods. You can even vary the pressure of the muting fingers and change the amount of pitch and resonance remaining in the sound. For some really delicate sounds, you can also try plucking the low-register (longer) rods, or running the flats of your fingernails across the full range of tone rods.

Underpressure techniques on the toy piano are great! Play as usual on the keys, but don’t press hard enough for the hammers to strike the tone rods, or run your fingernails across the front edge or the tops of the keys, and you get the clack of your fingernail skipping across the gaps between keys, and the rattling of the plastic keys and the action.   You can also make a rattling sound on the keys by shaking a finger laterally between two of the sharps (works particularly well between E-flat and G-flat, or B-flat and D-flat, as there you have a gap of two white keys giving you a little more space to move). All of these techniques produce even more sound on a toy piano than on a piano, because the toy’s actions are more primitive and have few or no soft surfaces to deaden the sound. There’s none of the refinement of a modern piano here, so the action and the keys themselves are noisy!

There are plenty of preparations to try as well, but here are three easy ones that have a big effect on the sound:

Poster Putty

Take a small ball of poster putty, maybe about the size of a standard wooden pencil’s eraser, and press it onto the end of a tone rod. Play on the key and voilà, a muted thunk of a sound! Poster putty also lowers the pitch about a half step in addition to muting, so you can get some nice timbral contrast by alternating between an unprepared note and the very next higher note with poster putty added to it.

Mini Plastic Hair Clips

These are available from your local drug store or big box “we have everything” place, are inexpensive, and come in packs of several. Clip one of these onto a tone rod and play the key as normal. The clip takes away some of the body of the sound and narrows it to a more percussive one.

Alligator Clips

These are also easy to find, at a Radio Shack (if you can still find one of those) or from an online seller that carries electronics parts. Attach an alligator clip onto one of the tone rods and, again, play as usual. These take even more pitch and body away from the sound than the mini plastic hairclips, and the resultant sound would blend really well with a prepared piano—maybe with the strings prepared with piano tuner’s mutes? (Someone write this toy piano/prepared piano piece!)

Both the mini plastic hair clips and the alligator clips change the timbre but mostly don’t alter the pitch.

With a little work, you can also bow the tone rods. Make a bow by buying a spool of low-test monofilament fishing line. (No need for 30-lb or 50-lb test line; 12-lb or 8-lb will serve here.) Cut several strands of the line the same length (about two feet is generally comfortable to work with), and tape the bundle together at each end. You’ll also need some bow rosin. Apply bow rosin to the bundle by dragging the bundle of fishing line back and forth across the block of rosin. Then loop the bundle under one of the tone rods and, while pulling the line into contact the tone rod, also slide the line across the rod (one of your hands will get closer to you while the other moves further away, and then the reverse). You should get a delicate, sustained note from the rod. (You can even experiment with how placing the bow at different parts of the rod will bring out certain harmonics, and how bowing with the bundle arced under more than one rod can sound two notes at once.)

There are many more creative options to explore, wherever your imagination leads you from here. A few years ago, a student of mine made a robot “player” toy piano. I’ve already purchased the spare parts and bought some blank music wire stock for the tone rods in order to create a toy piano in an alternate tuning. One of my colleagues has just proposed to me a way of rebuilding a toy piano to optimize the hammer strike points, and he also has some ideas modding the instrument that may allow adjustable tuning for the tone rods. When your whole instrument cost you $25 or less, it’s easy to embark on taking the whole thing apart and to take the risk of not being able to reassemble it in anything faintly resembling its initial configuration.

So, to wrap up. It’s high time pianists got a little more comfortable with playing inside and experimenting with their instruments. Maybe you can start here at the end and get your feet wet experimenting with a toy piano, then move on to a grand piano and try some inside-the-piano techniques, some surface preparations, and some string preparations. Find a toy piano, dismantle it, and find some new sounds inside it! And, go on, pick up some plastic children’s flatware at your nearest IKEA for inserting preparations into the strings of your grand piano, and dig in!

Have fun, and find some new sounds for yourself!

Beyond the 88: A No-Fear Guide to On-the-String Piano Techniques

Hand inside the piano

The beginner’s toolbox of preparations I’ve talked about in the previous two (1, 2) articles might be, in some ways, less scary to many pianists and composers than playing inside the piano because, once the foreign objects (paper, aluminum foil, glass rods, plastic straws, etc.) have been placed on or in between the strings, the pianist plays the instrument pretty much as usual. This is part of the disconnect—or the magical nature—of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. The scores for Cage’s little pieces look so musically simple, and so easy to play. Look at the beginning of Sonata V, for instance, with its right hand melody and accompanying chromatic seesawing left hand—what could be easier?

For now, try turning your sound off and just looking at the first page of the score to Sonata V in this video.

But, what’s not clear from looking at this bit of score is that, in order to play this set of pieces, Cage asks for about 2/3 of the notes of the piano to have their strings prepared by inserting or threading materials between the strings, including various kinds of bolts, screws, bits of rubber and plastic, and an eraser. So, the piece asks for a ton of prep work, but then Cage gives the pianist a simple set of pieces to play on this modified instrument, which the pianist then approaches in much the same way as if she were playing a piece of Clementi. The result, however, is otherworldly.

Now turn your audio volume back up and play the video again.

Preparations are one thing; asking the pianist to reach into the instrument and play directly on the strings, as well as on the wood and other metal surfaces inside the instrument, may seem to be another kettle of shrimp entirely. Much as I started with minimally invasive and generally safe preparations, I’m going to suggest starting with a gentle-slope approach to playing inside the piano—minimal risk of wear and tear on the instrument, with, nevertheless, big timbral results.

First of all, before reaching into the piano, thoroughly wash and dry your hands (duh).

Rule of thumb: avoid touching the soft parts inside the piano—just don’t touch the dampers or any of the felt. The dampers are really delicate and a pain to adjust correctly. The felt is easily compressed, torn, soiled with oils from your hands, or otherwise damaged, and, again, some of the piano’s felt parts are labor-intensive to replace. (And, there’s mostly no reason why you should need to touch these parts in order to play inside the instrument.)

I’m going to stick to techniques that involve playing on the strings here. There are lots of other safe inside-the-piano techniques—ways of making sounds on the metal plate, on the soundboard, and elsewhere—but for now, I’m going to introduce a handful of techniques on the strings that will provide many new timbres to explore.

A pianist can even take advantage of further “training wheels” by wearing thin cotton gloves while experimenting with many of these techniques. When I was writing my book chapter on piano harmonics, I was exploring these on my prized home piano—which, after years of dreaming and saving for, I had just purchased a few weeks before. I admit that even though I had performed inside-the-piano techniques many, many times and had always been careful with other folks’ instruments, I found myself facing potentially harming my own new pride and joy with a conscientious newbie’s extreme temerity. Touching the strings with clean hands shouldn’t do any damage, but it doesn’t take much transfer to the copper windings of the bass strings to open the door to marking the surface of the strings with tarnish. I’ve bought several pairs of these ubiquitous, one-size-fits-all-but-not-particularly-well-for-the-long-fingered-amongst-us cotton gloves for the purpose of experimenting with my new grand, and, really, here’s an investment of $1.49 that has no downside. Wearing a single glove for performance might take a little getting used to, especially if you’ll need both hands on the keyboard for part of a piece, but it is possible to play many of these techniques gloved—protecting the string but without altering the sound.

Piano harmonics  

Lots of scores call for the pianist to sound harmonics. They are quite easy to play and can be sounded with one hand playing on the keys as usual, and a fingertip of the other hand lightly touching a harmonic node of one of the strings.

I won’t go into the physics behind harmonics, or the way that sounding many of the overtones can give the player access to just intonation notes that are pretty distant from their nearest equal tempered neighbors. I’ll leave that to further reading, or your own explorations.

So, put a glove on one hand and reach that hand into the piano. Start on the bass strings, because on these long strings there are lots of partials that will ring loudly on each string. Locate the approximate midpoint of any one of the lowest bass strings, lightly touch that point with a fingertip, and set the string into motion by playing the corresponding key with a finger of your other hand. If you’ve located the midpoint, playing the key should sound the second partial, which will be the octave above the fundamental (in other words, an octave above the string ringing as a whole, here produced by the string in halves). If you want to hear the sound of a second partial harmonic in performance, there’s a repeated 2nd partial harmonic D flat at the beginning of Annea Lockwood’s Red Mesa (1993). Note that this is a high note, not one played on a bass string. Watch a performance by pianist Andrea Lodge here. If you want to get an idea of how fast a pianist can play a single line of harmonics, check out Johan Svensson’s Study No. 2 (2015) available here in a performance by Jonas Olsson.

Depending on how large the grand is that you’re using and the length of your arms, the bass strings may be long enough to require that you stand up to touch the center node of the string. Further your experiments by then slowly moving your gloved finger along the string closer to the keyboard end of the string, while repeatedly sounding the string from the keyboard. You can try to locate the third partial, which sounds a perfect fifth above the second partial you’ve already located. Keep searching for the successive harmonic overtones; one I’m particularly fond of is the 7th partial, which sounds two octaves and a minor seventh above the string’s fundamental, and is 31 cents flatter than the nearest equal tempered note. On the lowest strings of a concert grand piano, it’s possible to sound some very high partials, so there are a lot of harmonics to explore even if you restrict yourself to a single bass string. You could then experiment with playing a simple melody in harmonics on one bass string.

Once you’ve found the first several partials on one bass string and gotten comfortable with sounding those, you can easily locate those same partials on any of the neighboring bass strings.   Play a cluster of three notes by fingering the third partial on three neighboring strings and playing all three keys simultaneously. (George Crumb uses three-note clusters like this in his trio Vox Balaenae.)

Muting with the fingertips

The weighted cloth-covered mutes described earlier are a better choice if you’d like a range of strings muted and for them to remain muted for a whole passage. However, if you’d like just a few different notes muted, and would like to alternate quickly between muted and unmuted notes on the same pitch, then muting with the fingertips might be the way to go. Touch a fingertip to the string close to the end of the string and depress the corresponding key to produce a rounder and darker sound than without the mute.

Though touching the strings with your clean hands should do no harm, it is possible to tarnish the outside of the bass strings with prolonged handling (a cosmetic effect, not an aural one). But, if you’re worried, don one member of your $1.49 pair of gloves and use your gloved fingers for muting. Either way, it’s an easy technique to learn.

Composer and pianist Henry Cowell explored a lot of on-the-strings techniques in his music, especially in the first third of the 20th century. Some of Cowell’s techniques I’d classify as advanced, but a few are easy and now widely used—and are probably familiar sounds to many of us, including glissando across a range of strings, various kinds of pizzicato on the strings, and the Aeolian harp or autoharp technique.

Glissando (on the strings)

Depress the damper pedal and run a fingertip or fingernail across a range of strings, perpendicular to the strings. Experiment with the differences in sound depending on register and range for the glissando, plectrum (flesh of fingertip, multiple fingertips, fingernail(s), guitar pick of various thicknesses), and contact point on strings (a gliss at the middle of the string sounds different from one played very close to the end of the strings).

Autoharp (or Aeolian harp) technique

Cowell introduced a specialized on-the-strings glissando in his piece Aeolian Harp: finger silently a chord with one hand, then perform a glissando across all of the strings in that register with the other. Doing this will cause the strings of the chord notes to ring freely, and will add a bit of noise from the strings of the other notes in the register (which will not ring freely, since their dampers remain at rest on them). Judicious use of the damper pedal to mask the transitions will allow the player to connect one chord to another smoothly. Since actual Aeolian harps are played by the breeze, whereas an autoharp has the player choose/finger the chord with one hand and strum across a set of strings with the other, this technique is closer to autoharp playing, and I (and several other composers) use this label for it.

Pizzicato

Plucking the piano’s strings is very easy to do! Depress the damper pedal or hold down keys to raise the dampers off of the strings you want to pluck, and pluck with your fingernail or the flesh of your fingertip. Experiment with plucking near the middle of the string for a full, round sound, or near the end of the string sul ponticello for a brighter, less-focused-on-the-fundamental sound. You can get a very harp-like sound by plucking in the middle register with the flesh of your fingertip, plucking close to the middle of the string. (Just think, harp sounds without waiting 15 minutes for your harpist friend to tune their instrument. Harpist-friends: I’m only joking…I meant 20 minutes.) Try muting and plucking together! Then, muted, plucked and sul ponticello placement!

Cowell, when he started his inside-the-piano playing, referred to his new approach to the instrument as if it were a new instrument, saying that his pieces were for the “string piano.”

If you’ve stuck with me this far, I think you can hear the big, big sound world that can open up to you if you start reaching into the piano and exploring some of its resources that aren’t available just at the keys.

Even though there are many more techniques for the piano to explore, next week I’m going to move from the piano to the toy piano and delve into some preparations, inside-the-piano techniques, and even some instrument alterations for this unique instrument.

Beyond the 88: More no-fear piano preparations

Golf tee inside the piano

In the last post I talked about some easy surface preparations for piano, but I didn’t mention that there’s a long history of these. Some early piano makers experimented with creating “stops” for their instrument that would change the timbre of the piano. Many of these were essentially mechanisms for surface preparations. The bassoon stop, for instance, lowered a parchment roll (or a parchment roll covered in silk) onto the strings, producing a gentle buzzy sound against the strings when notes were sounded by the keys, much like the surface preparation of placing paper on the strings of the piano. (No I don’t know why folks in the 18th century thought this sound = bassoon.)

Even some modern upright pianos, rather than tying a sostenuto mechanism to the middle pedal, instead install a “practice mute.” On these instruments, pressing the middle pedal lowers a curtain of wool felt between the hammers and the strings, reducing the volume of the instrument.

With a few exceptions, there aren’t a lot of current piano makers who are offering stops on their instruments such as the bassoon stop, so it is up to individual players and composers to dream up their own surface preparations and discover other timbral resources for the instrument.

Here is one more easy and safe surface preparation, which I’ve saved for last because it requires some work. This is for a weighted, cloth-covered mute. This mute has several things to recommend it: since you build it yourself, you can customize each mute to the length you need, and it will cover the number of strings you’d like; it’s cheap and easy to make; it goes on and off easily, and it is safe to use on the piano strings in any register. It’s easily my favorite mute, as it’s totally consistent: place one of these mutes on a set of strings, and it dampens the sound of every string.

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I first heard about this mute from composer Stephen Hartke, who made some of these mutes with children’s socks and ordinary filling materials and used them in his piece Meanwhile (2007) written for Eighth Blackbird. Jennifer Jolley also heard about Hartke’s mutes and has blogged about making these herself. (Note these make an excellent composer task-avoidance project! Jolley remarks that adding googly eyes is optional.)

Here’s the basic idea: fill a sock with BBs or dry rice or other weighting material. Sew the end of the sock closed. Wrap the sock in another sock and sew it closed as well. And then probably enclose all of that in one more sock and seal. Finis.

Rather than using socks, which I had trouble filling all the way to the top and, since I was sewing each layer separately, I ended up with an end of the mute that didn’t mute so well, I’ve made a very slight modification. I start with two layers of t-shirt fabric, shape this into a single thick cylinder about two inches across, and double-stitch the end of the layers together. I fill that cylinder with BBs (leaving a tiny space at the top, so the mute will bend and curve easily), then double-stitch it closed, et voila, my own custom mute. Without a specific piece in mind for these, I simply made a variety of lengths, so I have one for just about any piece.

STRING PREPARATIONS

Now for a few simple and safe string preparations. The surface preparations—resting light objects on top of the strings like the paper, aluminum, and cloth items that I’ve talked about thus far—are the safest (and probably the least “scary” to new experimenters). String preparations, which involve inserting foreign objects between the strings, may be a little more intimidating, and there is indeed more opportunity to do damage with these. But, by approaching with care, there are lots of string preparations that you can try without causing any harm at all to the instrument. And, these can open up many additional sounds from the piano.

First, the protocol: Again, start with clean, dry hands. Next, you have to protect the delicate felt of the dampers, so before inserting or removing anything that you’ve previously placed between strings, always first press and hold the damper pedal down, lifting the dampers off of the strings. This prevents your lateral movement of the strings from scraping or compressing the damper felt.

Don’t try to insert anything close to the dampers, or within a couple of inches of the ends of the strings. Richard Bunger in The Well-Prepared Piano warns never to insert anything that doesn’t flex within an inch of either end of the string, and this is very good advice. Let’s play it super safe and, for now, don’t insert any string preparations at all within two inches of either end of the string.

One thing this means is basically no string preparations for the very highest register where the strings are very short and stiff. Also, it’s safest when you’re getting started trying these to avoid the more delicate wound strings of the bass register. Best to try string preparations nearer to the flabby middle of the steel strings in the middle register.

Next, in order to insert most items, in addition to releasing the dampers, you should gently move the two strings apart before placing the preparation material between those two strings. There are lots of items that pianists over the years have used for this. I recommend using a (dull) plastic children’s knife. (A bamboo wedge works very well, also, but plastic children’s knives are easy and cheap to come by.) Lots of pianists use screwdriver blades for this, but plastic is much safer to use than steel. After depressing the damper pedal, place the blade between the two strings, pivot it so that the knife edges gently push the strings apart, place the preparation in between the two strings, then pivot the knife back to release the strings onto the preparation. Then you can release the damper pedal, and check the note.

For a first string preparation, try plastic straws. You can experiment with the difference in sound between preparing with a straw between strings 1 and 2 and nothing between strings 2 and 3 of a unison set, and straws both between strings 1 and 2 and also between 2 and 3. Then try this: place a straw between strings 2 and 3 only. Play the note. Then depress the una corda pedal (left pedal) and play the same note. Cool, right? Since the una corda mechanism moves the action over so that the hammers hit fewer strings in the multiple-unison sets, now you have two different prepared piano sounds available at one key, using only the pedal and a single straw!

Next, try rubber piano tuner’s mutes. These rubber wedges are very gentle on the strings and transform the piano’s ordinary notes into a lovely muted thunk. Since these are soft and wedge shaped, you don’t need to use the children’s knife to insert these—just press and hold the damper pedal before inserting or removing, to protect the damper felt from getting squeezed by the pressure of inserting/removing the mutes.

You could also try wood golf tees. (Try the trick with the una corda pedal with these too!) Rubber cap erasers are also nice—cut a slit across the bass of the eraser and snap that over the middle string of a set of triple unisons. This will modify the sound of all three strings.

Once you’re feeling brave, you could next experiment with some harder materials as string preparations: plastic screws, plastic screw anchors, wedges of bamboo, one jaw of a wooden clothespin. These all work as string preparations, can produce some very interesting sounds, and you can use these on all the strings that are sufficiently long for preparing purposes.

And once you’ve tried all of these, and a built up a familiarity and a comfort level with them, you could try some metal items. Safest to restrict these to use with the flat steel strings, and safest to use soft metal items—small copper tubing, brass bolts and screws, aluminum machine screws. Best to avoid steel, and not to use any metal (or anything with a sharp edge) between the delicate wound bass strings.

I like Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s instructions in her piano solo scape (2011): the score indicates that eight specific mid-register notes should be prepared with screws, and says that the resultant sound should have a “’gong like’ quality,” but she leaves the size, materials (Steel or, even better, brass? Could I get away with hard plastic screws?), and the size and type of screw completely up to the pianist.

Now, obviously, John Cage’s prepared piano works don’t limit themselves to what I’m calling soft metal items. And, I will freely acknowledge that there are some wonderful sounds available by inserting steel bolts of various lengths and diameters, and bolts with additional nuts, or with nuts and loose metal washers kept in place by the nuts to add a rattle to the sound. But, I would not recommend that these be used for the wound bass strings, and great care should be used when inserting steel items even on the steel strings. Save experiments with hard metal items for once you’re thoroughly comfortable with the other string preparations I’ve covered, and consult with a professional before trying these at home!

Beyond the 88: A No-Fear Beginner’s Guide to Preparing the Piano

inside of a piano

In my university music department, I run a weekly composition colloquium, bringing in guest composers and new music performers, as well as faculty speakers, with the latter often coming to talk about things like idiomatic writing and extended techniques for a particular instrument, or setting up a composer website, or digital publishing. A couple of years ago, some of my composition students asked me if I could spend one of those meetings on extended techniques for piano. I dug through my scores, found some of my own and some Crumb, Cage, and Cowell, (among other things), and began jotting down ideas. I did a little organizing and saw that it might make sense to talk about techniques on the keys, inside-the-piano ones, plus a few simple preparations. I thought, “There has to be a book out there that already does this,” but a couple days of searching didn’t turn up very much. The campus library had a copy of Richard Bunger’s The Well-Prepared Piano, and I found several dissertations that dealt with one facet or another of the topic: one on body health and piano extended techniques, another on a pedagogical plan for introducing young students to extended techniques, even a giant historical treatment of extended techniques for piano, and then several studies of particular parts of the repertoire (especially on the works of the “Three C’s” mentioned above).

But, I didn’t really find what I was looking for. And I thought this book was needed.

So, now I’ve written that book (The Contemporary Piano: A Composer and Pianist’s Guide to Techniques and Resources), it’s out in the world, but I still feel like there’s more to do to let pianists and composers know a little more about the sonic resources available within the instrument, and to encourage safe experimentation with the piano. Recently clarinetist Heather Roche conducted a study to determine a body of multiphonics that were easy for clarinetists across models of instrument and across levels of performance experience—some universally easy multiphonics. I’m thinking of these articles as something like this for the piano—some basic, easy preparations and inside-the-piano techniques for every pianist to try.

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I think lots of pianists and composers are a bit intimidated by the idea of reaching inside the piano, or of inserting foreign objects into the instrument. I totally get that, and I have experienced this trepidation myself. Pianists are often insulated from their instrument in ways foreign to most players of other instruments—clarinetists clean and adjust their instruments regularly (even assembling and disassembling them each day). Oboists fashion an essential part of theirs (and many oboists carry their toolkits around with them). Cellists change their own strings. Percussionists regularly replace instrument parts or fashion new mallets or parts themselves. Practically everyone tunes their own axes. But, not pianists. So, to a lot of pianists, suggesting that they tune, adjust, and repair their instrument (much less reach in to play inside it or prepare it with other crazy implements) may feel a little like you’re asking them to repair their own Tesla or dabble in a little light surgery on themselves rather than visit a trained mechanic or board certified surgeon.

Now, if you’ve already toured Annea Lockwood’s Ear Walking Woman or Frankensteined your Baldwin at home with nuts, bolts, and barbed wire, there may not be much here for you. But, if you’ve always been afraid of reaching into your piano, I hope something here will give you the confidence to try out some new resources. I’ve geared these toward application on grand pianos of any size, but many of these can be adapted to work on upright pianos as well.

Some quick guidelines before getting started: before reaching into a piano, always carefully wash and dry your hands to remove excess oils.   If you’ll be experimenting with a piano that’s not your own, you probably want to get permission from the owner and/or the piano technician who maintains the instrument first. (I’m happy to write you an endorsement for any of the experiments listed below, if that will help.)

Surface Preparations

Surface preparations (which involve preparing the piano by resting a foreign object or objects on top of the strings) are the least invasive preparations to try, so let’s start with those.

After cleaning your hands, a second caution: don’t use hard materials for your preparations. Cloth, paper, cardboard, rubber, plastic, wood, and thin bits of bamboo—these are the safest materials. For string preparations, the steel strings of the middle and high register are the least delicate, and the wound bass strings are the most delicate. It’s safest, if you’re unsure, to avoid using metals entirely, but there are softer metals that are mostly safe to use as surface or string preparations: many aluminum, copper, and brass materials should be fine to use on the middle and upper register strings and, with care, can mostly be used on the bass strings, too. (But, again, feel free to start with baby steps and save all metal preparations for much later.)

So, let’s get started! First, rest an ordinary piece of letter-sized paper on top of some middle register strings, away from the dampers. Then play the keys for that register.

It’s a great sound, and the preparation is both safe and easy to apply or remove—even in the middle of a piece.

You can also experiment with different weights of paper, which will change the duration and quality of the buzziness of the paper on the strings (try poster board, a small piece of cardboard, thick cardstock, tissue paper, or Japanese rice paper). You can also try paper on strings in different registers, though it’s generally most effective in the middle register where we began.

Next, take a piece of aluminum foil, maybe about half the size of the sheet of paper, and place it in the same way on the string tops in the middle register. Aluminum foil buzzes similarly to paper, but it definitely has a different sound.

For related but slightly different sounds, it’s also easy to fashion a string preparation from strips of paper or aluminum foil. Cut a foot-long (or more) strip of either material .5 to 1 inch across and thread this under one set of three unisons, over the next set, and under the next, and so forth. A pencil or a plastic children’s table knife can be used to get under the strip and push it up between unison sets, without actually touching any of the strings or putting any pressure on them at all. The strips each produce a tighter buzz than resting the sheets of aluminum or paper on the strings.

One surface preparation that I love and that George Crumb uses in a few works is placing a thin glass rod on top of the strings. This produces a metallic, jangly harpsichord-ish sound, and it also goes on and off the strings easily and is safe to use on strings in all registers of the piano. Registral placement of the glass will be limited a bit by the interruptive braces of the particular model piano you’re using.

Several composers have explored coaxing other sounds by applying glass objects to the strings. Some ask the pianist to use the base of a glass tumbler or a bottle as a slide on the strings—a sort of slide guitar technique. Sofia Gubaidulina’s Der Seiltänzer (1997) for violin and piano exploits the glass tumbler-as-slide, for instance. C. Curtis-Smith’s Rhapsodies (1972) has the pianist invert a small wine bottle, placing the neck between two sets of unisons, and then pressing and sliding. Ashley Fure’s sextet Soma (2012) has the pianist spin a 4”x4” glass tile on the strings to sound “thin wisps of high partials that blossom sporadically into rich clusters.”

Pretty much any time I enter a non-musical realm seeking something for the cause, I suddenly gain an advocate who enthusiastically tries to help.

As a grad student preparing to play Crumb’s trio Vox Balaenae, I had no idea where to find an appropriate glass rod. I asked the composer when my student trio had a coaching session with him. He suggested the chemistry department would have them. I approached someone in chemistry about glass rods, and they kindly gave me a couple of lengths. In the Google age, this has gotten exponentially easier. A quick search of online sellers shows me that 1/4” glass stirrers in one-foot lengths are easily ordered. I just picked up six one-foot rods for $7 including shipping. Longer rods prove more expensive and may ship more slowly, but are available from scientific supply places. Or find a chemistry lab, explain to someone there that you want to play a piano with glass on the strings, and see if they’ll help you out with a couple of lengths of glass!

This brings me to my experience asking for help with my experiments with pianos and toy pianos. Pretty much any time I enter a non-musical realm seeking something for the cause, and sheepishly explain what I need it for, I suddenly gain an advocate who enthusiastically tries to help. Go to the industrial supply place seeking music wire to reboot your toy piano in an alternate tuning? Suddenly there’s a clerk in steel-toe boots combing shelves for back stock and other diameters. Go to the sex shop seeking variable speed personal vibrating devices to play piano strings with? Get a careful tour of a whole case of possibilities, and next the manager is quickly unsealing boxes and loading in batteries for you to hear the range of speeds. It’s amazing how supportive people can be.

So, grab some paper, aluminum foil, glass, and cardstock, and go try some of these surface preparations!

Yarn/Wire: From The Ground Level

Once upon a time, most performances of new music came about in one of three ways. A performance could happen through the efforts of the few dedicated new music practitioners (many of whom were based at academic institutions). Another way would be by trying to convince more established groups to play a new piece (in addition to the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky pieces those ensembles might rather be playing) and sometimes that worked. Or, if a composer had the requisite performance skills and had some talented friends, she or he could form their own ensemble and hope for the best. But one of the defining phenomena of American music in the 21st century has been the staggering number of dedicated DIY new music interpreters who have established ensembles based all over the country.

Because of the existence of so many self-starting groups of myriad instrumentations, gone are the days when it was safest to write a piece for string quartet or piano trio (though it is easy to find DIY groups with those particular instrumental configurations as well). And because many of these unique groupings lack a pre-existing repertoire, their modus operandi is to commission new work.

One of the most exciting as well as one of the most articulate of these groups is the two piano/two percussion quartet Yarn/Wire, whose studio sits at the edge of Bushwick on the border between Brooklyn and Queens. Admittedly, the combined forces of two pianists and two percussionists is not a completely new idea. Next year marks the 80th anniversary of Béla Bartók’s seminal Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, a work that received its premiere the following year at the 1938 ISCM World Music Days in Basel, Switzerland. There were also important pieces written for that combination in the 1970s by Luciano Berio and George Crumb and then, in the 1990s, IRCAM commissioned a bunch of pieces informed by spectralist ideas, many of which also included elaborate electronic set-ups.

In fact, Yarn/Wire began their existence ten years ago playing such repertoire. But they soon discovered that what excited them the most was being able to work with composers from the ground level up to shape pieces that are best suited to their collective musical temperament. They started out working with composers they had befriended during their college days at Stony Brook—people like Eric Wubbels, Aaron Einbond, Mei-Fang Lin, Alex Mincek, and Sam Pluta. Mincek and Pluta have now each composed two major works for the ensemble. But, as their reputation spread, they also began working with major international figures such as Enno Poppe, Tristan Murail, and Misato Mochizuki. Their world premiere performances of the works written for them by Murail and Mochizuki were presented by the Lincoln Center Festival last year.

A few months ago they debuted what is probably the most unusual work created for them thus far: Material by Michael Gordon, an hour-long work in which the four of them surround a single open grand piano and almost ritualistically proceed to eke out a seemingly infinite variety of sounds. Gordon spent hours with the group testing all sorts of combinations of what was possible (both in terms of sound production and in terms of physical endurance), and the resulting still score-less composition—while undeniably music—could also easily be described as theater, choreography, and performance art.

Being the enablers for bringing to life such pieces makes Yarn/Wire an extremely important catalyst for music that is happening right now. Yet, at the same time, the group is devoted to performing whatever they play at the highest possible level, which means intensive rehearsing as well as constant interconnectivity between the four of them. Earlier this year, their interpretive prowess led them to be runners up for the University of Michigan’s highly coveted M-Prize, a brand new $100K cash prize for chamber ensembles that attracted 172 applicants from 13 countries. The award ultimately was given to a string quartet that is devoted to performing older canonical classics that have stood the test of time and the members of Yarn/Wire realize that the jury is still out on whether any of the works they are performing will wind up in the canon. For them the question is irrelevant. That said, they are committed to building a repertoire that they will continue to play and that will hopefully be embraced by adventurous ensembles in future generations.


Russell Greenberg, Laura Barger, Ning Yu, and Ian Antonio in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
at Yarn/Wire’s Bushwick Studio in Brooklyn, New York
June 30, 2016—12:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  So where did this crazy idea come from to form a group consisting of two pianists and two percussionists?  What were you all doing before it?  Did you ever think you’d be in a group like this for ten years?

Russell Greenberg:  I don’t think any of us thought we would do this.  I know I wanted to play new music, but I didn’t know what form that would take.  Laura and I met at Stony Brook University. Then Ian came in and we played some Steve Reich together.  I think it was Sextet. The group really just formed out of us enjoying each other’s company and enjoying playing together.  It wasn’t so much of a mandate to have this two-piano, two-percussion group.  It just kind of happened. At least that’s my recollection.

Laura Barger:  We wanted to give a performance, and it was part of our doctoral recital requirements. But mostly it was about repertoire we just really wanted to play, pieces we were excited about.  That’s how things got started.  There was not much of a long-term goal beyond that at first.

RG:  Then it changed after that first recital. We started asking composer friends that we knew to write pieces—Mei-Fang Lin, Alex Mincek, Eric Wubbels, Aaron Einbond, a lot of old friends from before we had all met at Stony Brook, and new friends as well.  They started adding to the rep, and then we started playing more and more.  It kind of grew from that.

FJO:  Now Ning, you were not part of the group from the very beginning.

Ning Yu:  No, I joined in 2011; however, I knew everyone from my Stony Brook days, so I knew the start of this group and I’d heard a lot about the group before I joined.  Laura and I actually studied with the same piano professor, so we would see each other a lot.

FJO:  Now, in terms of what you were all doing musically before this.  Russell said that he always wanted to play new music.  I’d love to hear from the rest of you about that.  What you were doing musically before starting this?

Ian Antonio:  I went to Manhattan School of Music for undergrad. My memory is not super clear, but I definitely wanted to be in an orchestra. From the time I was in high school, I loved orchestral music.  I still love orchestral music.  But I found myself drawn towards the collaborative aspect of working on new pieces with living composers and have gotten more and more into it, so I eventually replaced the burning desire to be in an orchestra with the desire to play new things.

FJO:  Certainly, for the pianists in the group, there were many more options besides playing new music. There’s definitely lots of music that doesn’t involve two percussionists.

LB:  I was probably like a lot of music students, especially pianists.  I knew I wanted to be a musician, but I had only a sort of vague idea of what that entailed.  I knew it meant playing music and eventually teaching, but I didn’t really have a clear idea until maybe 2003 or 2004, when I went to Banff.  I did a long residency there and really had time to come terms with the fact that the thing that I was not only the best at, but what I most enjoyed and was most interested in, was playing new music.  So that’s what I wanted to do.

NY:  Before Stony Brook I went to the Eastman School of Music for my undergraduate and masters.  During my time there, there were a lot of groups coming out of Eastman—Alarm Will Sound, JACK Quartet, to name just a couple. There were a lot of great musicians and this really vibrant atmosphere, so I knew from my last year of undergrad that I wanted to devote most of my time to playing new music with all of my classmates.  When I got to Stony Brook, I started realizing this was not just a selective group of students at the school who were into new music.  There were a lot more actually playing at a really high level.

A Yarn/Wire concert poster is attached to a wall across from shelves containing loads of instruments, such as, on one row, a bunch of bells.

FJO:  You formed initially to do a concert, but you weren’t really thinking beyond that. There was just some repertoire you wanted to play.  But there really isn’t a whole lot of repertoire for two pianists and two percussionists.  There are pieces by Bartók and Crumb plus I know a Cage piece that can kind of work for just the four people.

RG:  When we started, there was the Bartók, and works by Berio and Crumb, then there’s like a 20- or 30-year gap, and then there are all these European pieces that were co-commissioned by IRCAM for the Ensemble Intercontemporain and other groups like that.  So there’s a Lindberg piece from the ‘90s and Philippe Leroux has a piece—there’s all this heady electronic modernist kind of stuff—

LB:  —And post-spectral or spectral-influenced music.—

RG:  –So we started playing that stuff.  But I don’t think we’d ever do that concert again.

LB:  Our first concert was the hardest concert we’ve ever played.

RG:  It all had electronics written for IRCAM, so we had to go into MAX and figure it out for ourselves.

IA:  I remember someone who played the [Michael] Jarrell piece in Europe saying that IRCAM literally showed up with an 18-wheel tractor-trailer for all of the electronics gear.  We tried to do it ourselves with a mini-van.  It was so insane, hours and hours of wrapping cables without support staff.  Then the logistics of the percussion—at that time, we didn’t have all this gear [gestures around studio]; we really just had what we had at Stony Brook, and a couple of mallet instruments.

RG:  When you see what was being done in the ‘90s and early 2000s with gear and electronics, that’s all we had to build off of.  So we tried to conquer as much of that as we could.  But it’s a much different mindset than the kind of generative stuff that we do now which, in an ideal world, is asking a composer to have a very small set up and something that’s portable and tourable—something that we can do.

IA:  Or flexible.

RG: Yeah, at least. But it has changed.  In our early days, we were getting pieces that had already been played and we were trying to do our version.  After that initial bump, we started essentially generating material for ourselves.  We’re not co-composers with a lot of the composers that we’ve worked with, but we do collaborate on creating work now.  And that’s been really exciting.

FJO:  So how do you find composers that you want to work with?  Are they recommended?  Do you hear stuff?  How do you put your feelers out?  What’s your process for discovering something new?

NY:  I think just about everything you have mentioned, and more.  I get emails from various people that say, “Have you checked out this person yet?”  And also friends and past colleagues whom we’ve worked with from way before, we’re now thinking, “Can we actually commission this person for a new piece, not for a piece that was written for someone else?”

IA:  It’s largely people we know.

LB:   The new music community is tight-knit, maybe even more so by necessity in some places.  But in New York, there’s so much happening.  Just being aware of what’s going on here, of what’s going on around the United States, and trying to be an active member of the community is a good way to know what’s happening.

Being aware of what’s going on here, of what’s going on around the United States, and trying to be an active member of the community is a good way to know what’s happening.

RG:  I agree with what you guys are saying.  If you look at our first CD, every person on it was someone we knew and had known for years.  So you start with what you know.  Then after that, we got to expand the circle a little bit.  People would suggest things, like Ning said.  For myself, going to festivals internationally was another big way.  Like what Laura said, keeping an eye on the community here, but also paying attention to what’s happening abroad and what seems interesting.  That’s how I encountered Enno Poppe’s music for the first time.  I heard—I think it was—Ensemble Modern play it, and I was like, “This is it! We’ve got to work with this guy.”  It took many years, but then we got to work with Enno.

NY:  The next layer on top of that was getting to play a new work by someone like Tristan Murail, for example. He is not our friend on a personal level. But we also get together and say, “Who are our aspirational dream composers?”

RG:  Like Beethoven.  If he was alive, we would have asked him.

LB:  Totally!

FJO:  I imagine that for a lot of composers you’d be a dream ensemble.  So let’s say that somebody wants to write for you as opposed to you wanting them to write for you.  How does that work?  If somebody contacts you and says, “Oh, I have a great idea for a piece” or “I wrote this piece,” do you deal with envelopes coming in the mail with scores? Does anything ever pass go through that process?

IA:  I don’t think that’s ever happened.  We definitely get envelopes in the mail, but I don’t know if we’ve ever played one, only because we typically like to be involved with newer pieces on the ground level, from the conceptual process to the logistical process, then I think we all like to have a back and forth with composers: This is where we would play it.  This is maybe how long the piece could be. Then they would have this idea.  The back and forth aspect is one of the main things that we enjoy.

RG: All of us have a lot of agency and a lot of desires, and none of us wants to play something we don’t like.  So the matter of taste starts coming up.  I don’t even know how to begin to answer that question.

LB:  And it’s hard for pieces that are already written.  We can’t really do that.

We typically like to be involved with newer pieces on the ground level.

RG:  We can’t just play every piece that comes to us.  We don’t have a venue.  There are so many things that go into putting on a concert and presenting a piece.  So when you get someone saying, “Hey, I got something for you,” we’re really stoked about the idea, but there are only so many notes we can learn at a given time.  When we were students, time was unlimited almost.  But now, as we’re going further and further down this project, we have less of that time so it becomes a little bit harder.

IA:  Logistically also, we’ll get pieces in the mail. I think we always check out and listen to everything.  But I know this happened with me and Russell, we’ll be looking at a piece and it’s got four timpani and chimes. We actually don’t have timpani or chimes, so we just can’t do it.  It excludes it before it begins.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you don’t have timpani.

IA:  I think we have two not-good timpani for special effects like cymbal on timpani or crotale on timpani.

shelves of drums containing a timpano (upside down), three side drums, a pair of congas, and various drum stands.

A lone timpano, upside down, is among the many drums on shelves in the Yarn/Wire studio.

FJO:  That opens up another whole area of questions about what instruments you have and why you have them. Some of what you’ve amassed here, I imagine, came from specific requests from the composers who have worked with you.  I remember coming in here last summer and there being a bunch of bottles with rods in them which you needed, I think, for a piece you were rehearsing that Raphaël Cendo wrote for you. You probably didn’t have those beforehand.

IA:  Wine bottles are not hard for us to get.

NY:  We do acquire a lot of new things.

LB:  Small things.

NY:  Like, what was that, also in Cendo’s piece?

LB:  Oh, the flasks! We had to buy the kind of flask you tuck into your vest at a football game, if you’re wearing a vest. So we acquire a lot of smaller toys and tools.

FJO:  So it’s okay to acquire those, but not four timpani and chimes.

RG:  I would like to, if I could.

IA:  It’s a money thing.

RG:  We have that huge steel sheet also from the Cendo.  We had to go to the steel sheet place and get that cut.  But a set of chimes is a couple grand.

IA:  Seven thousand dollars.

RG:  Set of timpani, same.  So, context is everything.  If we get a grant to do it, yeah.  We’ll get some chimes.  I’d love to get some chimes.

Metal shelves filled with various small instruments as well as various small bells and gongs on a table.

Some of the small instruments warehoused in Yarn/Wire’s studio.

FJO:  But then another thing is how feasible is it to take the instruments on the road. You’ve all said you want things to be practical and you guys tour all the time.  But before we get into that, I’m curious—just in terms of the time factor, because you’ve said there isn’t a lot of time—how much time do you guys actually spend together?  What’s a typical week?

LB:  It definitely depends on how busy we are and how many concerts and projects we have going.  But I would say, at least for the past couple years, we see each other at least three times a week, most weeks.  And we’re in almost constant contact through email, text, and telephone.  So I would say we spend a lot of time together.

NY:  I cannot recall a work day—that’s basically saying Monday through Friday—that we did not communicate with each other.  Whether it’s through email, phone calls, or actually being in here. And that also sometimes includes weekends.  And in a tour situation, we are of course very compact throughout the time we’re on tour.  So we spend a fair amount of time with each other.

FJO:  And the amount of time spent here in this studio?

RG:  We probably do about 12 to 15 hours a week, four-hour blocks.  Some weeks more, some weeks less.

FJO:  If a string quartet wants to tour around the country, that means five airline tickets, one for each of the four players and one for the cello. But with the four of you, I imagine getting on an airplane might be a little trickier.  Obviously, you don’t need to bring your own pianos, but everything else gets packed up.  Right?

IA:  No, we don’t bring a ton. When we have very specific instruments we need, Russell and I will bring stuff.  But it’s limited to two checked bags.  We can check big bags if we need to, but a lot of the places we play will either rent the larger percussion instruments, or it might be at a university where they can wrangle the more generic-type instruments—marimba, vibraphone, those kinds of things.

NY:  Before we go to any venue, the contractual details are a little bit more extended than with a string quartet. We have to make sure that they’re able to host us and that they have all the things that we need.  Sometimes our programming is affected by what we can do in a particular location.

A lone cymbal is suspended on a stand amidst many other instruments including a marimba

FJO:  So, the practical factors that go into choosing a composer you want to work with on a piece: What is possible?  What isn’t possible?  I’m curious about that process.  How long does it take?  How involved are you with the composers while they’re writing their piece?  How often do pieces change from the moment you get handed the score before the first rehearsal to the actual performance?  What have been the extremes?

If you look at our past performances list and see how many times a given piece is programmed, usually it has to do with how logistically possible it is to do a piece.

RG:  Every extreme, you know, because you can say as much as you want but in the end the composer’s going give you the piece that they are going to give you.  In many cases we’ll say, “We would love to play this more than the premiere.” We’re always dedicated to the premiere, and we also want to play it after that.  But if they don’t follow certain things that we say—like, for instance, if you write for three waterphones, we’re never going to get to play that piece anywhere except for this time—it’s going to be very rare.  But if the composer really wants that, it’s going to happen.  We’re going to play the premiere.  They just need to know that it probably won’t get to happen again.  It’s really important that a piece becomes a part of the rep.  And if they’ll take those things into consideration, then we get to play them many times. If you look at our past performances list and see how many times a given piece is programmed, usually it has to do with how logistically possible it is to do a piece.

IA:  And we like to play pieces we like.

RG:  Yeah, that’s a given.

IA:  It’s the meeting of our desire to play a piece again and the logistical possibility of doing it.

NY:  Depending on the composer, the process is also very different.  Because everybody commands different processes. It seems like some people write incredibly fast and some people write incredibly slow.  Certain people really literally write and tell us, “I have a couple of pages.” Then a month later, “Never mind.  Completely new idea.” Then sometimes we don’t get a piece they’re talking about for like three years.  It all varies quite a bit.  But we are enjoying these different aspects of different composers, and their different personalities, as well.  So even ones that we’ve had to wait for three years for, once we have that final piece, it’s also very exciting.  And we’ll try to find every possible venue to perform it.

FJO:  You said final piece; I’m curious about things changing during the process.

Some composers will come in and we will in some ways create the piece together with them.

LB:  Yes.  I think a lot of composers—again just like they have different speeds of writing—have different levels of interest in our involvement and how they write the piece.  Some composers will come in and we will in some ways create the piece together with them.  We have done that before. They have an idea or a form they want to see or hear, and we work together to create that with them through trial and error, or just through playing.  We have composers who’ve come in and made recordings of us trying all sorts of different techniques on percussion and piano, and then they use that to sit down and write in isolation.  Or we all have sketches that we’ll play and some of them will become the piece and some of them don’t. But, for example, I guess we can bring up Murail again, who has a very defined voice and style.  He just wrote the piece, and we got it, and we played it, and that was that.

IA:  Fully engraved.

NY:  Beautiful, and ready to go.

FJO:  And you never met him.

LB:  Well, not at that stage.

RG:  But also then there are other pieces where you get the finished score, and the composer comes in and you’re like, “This doesn’t quite work” and they’re like “Alright, cool, I’ll change it.”  So then the final piece, as you’re calling it, is actually different than what we were sent.

LB:  Or there’s a notation of some technique that has never really been done before, so it’s not perfectly right.  So you and the composer have to find what that sound is.  What do you want?  How does this work?  And that might influence a later edition of that piece as well.

RG:  We even have pieces where we don’t have an official score. That has happened with a very recent one, and we can still play it.  Then we’ll see how the final score ended up—great—and it is the piece, but we actually just have this other thing that we worked on with the composer.

IA:  Reich’s Drumming didn’t have a score for many years.  It was just kind of an oral tradition.

FJO:  I remember that Misato Mochizuki purposefully didn’t give you the last page of her piece until the day before you were premiering it.  Part of her reason for doing that was about ensuring that there was an element of surprise for everybody, including the four of you.  But that’s obviously something you can only pull off at a premiere.  Once it becomes part of your repertoire, the surprise factor is gone unless there are indeterminate elements.  So how do you keep the surprise and the inquisitiveness going once something goes from being brand new to being repertoire?

RG:  We’ve continued to rehearse that piece, and we’ve played it a number of times.

IA:  The end of that piece that you’re talking about is a structure that she came up with in which the content is always filled a little bit differently.  We’re playing it again and she will be here, so I’m curious to see if it’s finished—or not finished, but now fully notated.  I don’t know what that will be like.

LB:  I would also add the performance aspect: any time you do something for the audience it’s new, and so you draw energy and inspiration from that.

Any time you do something for the audience it’s new, and so you draw energy and inspiration from that.

RG:  When we have been rehearsing that piece—we’ve played it like two or three times now since the premiere—every time when we come to it, what we rehearse is actually the pacing, the drama of that thing.  That’s actually a lot of work, because you have to step outside yourself and watch what’s happening with it.  That piece opened up a lot of questions about performance.

FJO:  Getting back to choices of composers.  You’ve now worked with a few very established composers: Tristan Murail, Michael Gordon, and Enno Poppe—you didn’t premiere his piece but you got to work with him on it.  You’ve also done a lot with younger composers and you talked about paying attention to the whole world, the whole U.S.A., and New York City, and you definitely maintain a balance of local and international composers. Additionally, I’m curious, your group is an even 50-50 split: it’s two men and two women.  You’ve worked with several female composers, but our field doesn’t exactly have the kind of gender parity that we might want for composers. So how do these issues factor into your choices of who to work with—gender, generation, geography?

LB:  I think we’re aware of all those things.  We don’t want to be tokenistic, but we also absolutely want to make sure that we are representing the number of really amazing women who are writing music.  So we are aware of that, and I think at the same time we want to work with people that we have access to.  It sounds a little pat to say, but I do think the most important thing, or the thing we want to hold onto, is we want to find good music and interesting music, and that really comes from so many different places.

IA:  Actually, the geography question is maybe the first one that comes up when we’re working on a new piece.  Who do we have access to? Who will we have the chance to be collaborative with?  That’s been maybe the primary driver.

RG:  There’s no prerequisite to who can write good music, so we’re just trying to find what fits that paradigm.  And again, we can’t really answer that.

A bunch of mallets next to a page from a score.

FJO:  One of my favorite pieces that you’ve done is a four-movement work by Andrew Nathaniel McIntosh, who is based in California.  I find his music utterly fascinating, but I first became aware of him in a somewhat random way. He’s not yet on a lot of people’s radar outside of the L.A. new music scene. A piece of his was chosen to be performed on the Gaudeamus Festival a few years back which is how I first learned about him.  Then a few years later, I noticed that you were performing a piece of his which at first I found somewhat baffling since I associate his music mostly with strings. He’s a string player himself and he creates very idiosyncratic microtonal music. It’s not the kind of thing that seems easily adaptable to your instrumentation since, I imagine, you tend to keep your pianos in 12-tone equal temperament.

RG:  I have this friend Corey Fogel; he’s a performance artist and a really great drummer.  He lives in L.A.  I also happen to be from L.A., so I see him every year around his birthday. We were talking about music and he sent a list of people to check out, and I checked out Andrew McIntosh. Andrew’s part of this publishing thing called Plainsound, so you can go on PlainSound.org and he’s listed.  Thomas Meadowcroft is there and Chiyoko [Szlavnics] is there. Quite a number of very experimental composers who are kind of on the—I hesitate to say it—outside; they’re outsider composers.  So the next time I came to L.A. I looked up Andrew and we just started talking.  That’s how that came about.  It was a personal connection.

FJO:  And the piece is microtonal, but not in the kind of systemic ways that a lot of his other stuff is.  So how did that work out?

IA:  He designed a set of pipes for us that are tuned in a very specific way. So that’s a microtonal aspect.

NY:  And also we play wine glasses and bowls filled with water.

LB:  Pitches change as you slowly add or take away water.

NY:  And even though we’re playing the same piano, somehow with the pedal and through the different partials of the harmonics, us playing a seventh or ninth, it creates an illusion of a certain kind of microtonality.  At least that’s how it sounded to me.

FJO:  We talked about working with a composer more than once.  Sam Pluta has written two really interesting and very different pieces for you.  This is a luxury.  We referenced string quartets before; composers tend to write a whole bunch of string quartets, but other ensembles rarely inspire such output. When we did a talk with the Imani Winds for NewMusicBox, they all opined about how most composers will probably write just one wind quintet so they rarely have the same level of familiarity, which comes from experience, of a composer who is in complete control of the ensemble’s resources.  You basically only get their first attempt.  I imagine the same is true for two pianos and percussion.  There certainly isn’t a tradition of writing for this ensemble.

One of the grand pianos in Yarn/Wire's studio.

NY:  I feel that this formation is not easy at all to write for; I can imagine the pain of writing for not just one piano, but two pianos. But the second time around, or the third or fourth time, there is a craft that’s being practiced, so I personally would be really interested in the number threes and number fours.  For example, like Alex Mincek’s new piece for us.  He totally delved into a different type of sound, and we’re just loving playing it.

RG:  That’s his second piece for us.

IA:  I think it is something that we’ve been purposefully doing.  It is actually the exact same thing you mentioned with Imani Winds—the idea of taking the model of writing multiple string quartets and getting multiple pieces.  I know we asked George Crumb a number of years ago if he would consider writing a second piece for our configuration.  He said he wasn’t really in the mood to do it, but he thought it was a great idea.

RG:  A good idea.

IA:  Yeah.  Maybe in a couple years he will want to do it.  He knows our desire is there.

RG:  It would be cool to see, like we have with Alex and Sam, another side of people.  How they develop too, because what’s the space between the two Mincek and Pluta pieces?  Like four or five years.

IA:  Six years.

RG:  That’s a lot of time to develop not only as a composer, but as a person.  Your interests change.

LB:  We’ve changed, too.

RG:  We can play differently, and it’s cool to work with people you know very well as you get older.  And then a new generation can do a whole concert of Pluta or a whole concert of Mincek!

IA:  Yeah.

NY:  The complete Mincek piano/percussion quartets.

FJO:  Then there’s the other extreme, which transcends considerations of whether something is a first piece or a fourth piece—something like what Michael Gordon wrote for you, which totally redefines what this ensemble could be and what you all can do as musicians. You all were all doing things I imagine you’ve never done before.  I’m curious about what the experience of working with him was like and how that piece evolved.

LB:  Well, for a long time Michael definitely was one of those aspirational composers with whom it would be really great to work someday.  He’s so busy, so it was not going to be easy.  But I think once we found the right way and the time, it was a really great process.

IA:  It was really collaborative. It was the most a composer has come to work with us just on pure sound ideas, because it was so specifically exploring what one grand piano can do.  And he probably has six hours of us on video.

RG: Most of that should just get tossed.

NY: There’s a lot of “what if you did that?” 

LB: And “how long could you do that one thing?”

NY:  Then we said, “Have you thought of that turned into this?  We could start at point A, and then go to point B.”  He’s like, “Oh, let me think about that.  And I’ll see you in two weeks.”  Then he comes back, “You know that point B was really interesting.  Can you do a reverse from point B, back to point A?”  So we didn’t know how this piece was going to pull together until pretty late.

IA:  It was really fluid.

RG:  Figuring out the connections.  This is one that we don’t use a score for.  We just have the material we created with him, pardon the pun—this is what the piece is called [Material]. But even the last day, we were changing things. We changed and eliminated.  It was awesome.

IA:  I think there are going to be maybe more tweaks.

RG:  Yup.

LB: And maybe more material. 

IA: Yeah, there could be. 

FJO:  One thing we haven’t talked about yet is the choreographic elements that are often a necessary ingredient to effectively perform your repertoire. It’s obviously very important to Michael Gordon’s piece.  This is the thing that I think people who haven’t written for this ensemble might not understand.  With a string quartet or a wind quintet, typically all the players have music stands and are playing in front of them.  But you move around, all of you.

LB:  Absolutely, yeah.

FJO:  So if a composer is creating a score in his or her studio and not working directly with you, the resulting piece might not be something that is always doable within the originally conceptualized time limits.

LB:  It’s very difficult to get that right.

NY:  With each piece, we talk about that aspect a lot—sometimes the logistics, but a lot of time about drama and about timing. It’s about suspense; it’s about just pure musicality, making something much more beautiful.

FJO:  So things you can do versus things you can’t do.  Things you feel uncomfortable doing.  Is there anything you wouldn’t do in a piece?

RG: Get bloody.

LB:  We would never want to injure ourselves.

NY:  Or the piano.

LB:  There is a limit. Many people would say that we’ve crossed that limit before. But a piano is actually a very strong instrument. The beating that the strings take from the hammers in a Beethoven sonata causes more wear to the instrument than a lot of the extended techniques we do.  However, that being said, there are things that do cross that line. We can’t unfortunately do a piece that asks us to snip the wires of the piano, unless it’s a site-specific piece that happens one time with an old piano.  Then we might do it.  But really, in all seriousness, we have to respect our own physicality and the instrument’s.

We have to respect our own physicality and the instrument’s.

RG:  If someone doesn’t want us doing things on a piano, that’s understandable.  We respect that and we’ll just change the rep.

FJO:  You’re all comfortable with improvisation, since obviously there are improvisatory elements as well as indeterminate elements in a lot of this music.

IA:  And there are two audience participation pieces that we’ve done, but they’re not very fleshed out.

FJO:  So do any of you write your own pieces?

RG:  I think we’ve all written stuff.

LB:  When I was younger I wrote some solo piano pieces for myself that probably should never see the light of day.  My own personal feeling is that composition is a practice and a craft. I would love to have the time to devote to developing that in a way that respects the notion of being a composer.  In some ways, I feel like I don’t have time to do that, so I don’t want to ever call myself a composer because I haven’t put in that time.

I don’t want to ever call myself a composer because I haven’t put in that time.

IA:  I’ve written a lot of youth percussion ensemble music, but that doesn’t take the same time as writing a piece for us to play.

NY:  So the short answer is we don’t play each other’s music.  Not really.

FJO:  I know that this might be difficult to talk about, but I have to bring up the M-Prize and the really profound article Mark Stryker wrote about it—“In first year, M-Prize chooses the past over the future.”  He deeply believed—as did I and a lot of other people—that you should have won the award rather than a quartet that’s devoted to standard repertoire, as fine as they are.  And I think that he really made a very persuasive case.  And yet, mea culpa, even he in that brilliant article wrote, and I quote, “To be clear: I’m not saying that Yarn/Wire’s music, as compelling as it was, is as great as the best of Debussy, Haydn, etc. No repertoire in classical music is more profound than the string quartet monuments that have stood the test of time.”  Is that true?

IA:  Well, they certainly stood the test of time.  You can’t argue with that point.

FJO:  So could a piece written for two pianos and two percussionists ever be as profound as one of the great string quartets?  Could it stand the test of time?  Will it stand the test of time?  Are there pieces that you’re playing that you feel are as great?

RG:  Can we even answer that? I don’t know.  I’ll be dead.

IA:  If someone else is going to play it and decide, maybe. Who knows what the politics will be like in the world?  Who knows anything?  There are pieces that feel good to me.  But I don’t know if they feel as good as—what were you playing yesterday? “Doin’ it Right”? Maybe Daft Punk will stand the test of time for that.

LB:  I think maybe what he’s trying to say is there is a historical tradition. It’s like saying music for flute is not as good as music for piano, because there’s a huge wealth and multi-century tradition of writing for keyboard instruments as a solo instrument.  So, I understand what he’s saying, but I think at the same time, in a way, it doesn’t matter.

A page from one of the drum parts for one of the pieces in Yarn/Wire's repertoire.

RG:  There are a lot of political things behind that question.  What kind of music are we talking about?  What’s the history of that music?  Where are we now?  Who gets to hear that music?  It doesn’t really matter without defining your audience first.  Without defining all those things, it’s a hard question to ask.  What about jazz? Go and listen to Ascension or Giant Steps.  To me, that’s just as strong as that other music.

LB:  Why do we have to limit our discussion to the classical canon?  Music is not necessarily bound anymore, so when we talk about music, it doesn’t feel relevant anymore to only talk about the “Western art tradition” as the only evolved or valuable tradition.  If people feel that way, that’s fine.  I don’t personally happen to feel that way, and I don’t think any of us really do.

RG:  Where does Michael Gordon fit in comparison with any of those other pieces?  How were those other pieces developed?  Were they just developed by themselves?  We don’t actually know one hundred percent.  So maybe we are following in that tradition.  But to compare the Gordon with a string quartet or a symphony or whatever, I don’t even know how that practice of composition is even relatable.

Layers of understanding and meaning accrue over time.

IA:  One thing I would add, though, is that string quartet played some Mendelssohn, or maybe Beethoven, and some Haydn. If you’re comparing that to some repertoire that we play currently—we’ve been rehearsing George Crumb’s piece for the past couple of days.  That piece is from the early ‘70s.  Something that we’ve referenced in our rehearsals is the tradition of playing that piece—like listening to the recording that our teachers made.  Talking about the string quartet repertoire, people have built on many interpretations. There’s now a performance practice that’s been enriched over generations.  I think that’s something that we can see happening with some pieces that maybe are older in our repertoire. Layers of understanding and meaning accrue over time.  There’s also that which you can’t really compare.

NY:  It’s not a value thing.  It’s simply a performance practice question.

RG:  It’s also partly an audience familiarity thing.  To be honest, if you’re familiar with a piece already, like maybe if someone hears composer X’s new piece five or six times over the course of their life, that becomes as important.

LB:  I can definitely attest to the fact that if you’ve never heard Beethoven before, and you hear a Beethoven string quartet, and all you grew up listening to is, say, salsa music, you have a very different reaction to hearing it for the very first time.  And it’s not the same as someone who grew up listening to classical music and going to concerts, or even just being steeped in a certain cultural tradition.  You know, growing up hearing film scores primes your brain to hear instrumental music in a way that if you come from a culture where that’s maybe not as important or as accessible, you’re not going to have that foundation.

FJO:  It’s interesting to hear you talk about listening to recordings of the Crumb, because one of the things that you’ve done in terms of legacy is that you’ve documented your performances and have made them available through recordings.  You have a disc on Wergo, you recorded a few discs for various independent labels, and you’ve also self-released three recordings—all three last year, in fact!  In an era where—for better or worse—recordings are far less remunerative, this is quite an investment. Do you feel that this is an effective way to get that music out beyond live performance?

IA:  It definitely reaches more people than it would if we didn’t do it.

NY:  I think this very last one, Yarn/Wire/Currents Vol. 3, sold really well. But it’s not about selling, it’s really about people hearing it and saying wow.  And then writing to us.  They’re not just complete strangers, but also colleagues who are being moved and are saying how much they enjoyed the music, how much they love certain pieces.  So I don’t think recordings are over because we cannot play Sam’s piece in every single city.

It’s not about selling, it’s really about people hearing it and saying wow.

RG:  When I was in college, I would buy all those Donaueschingen [Musiktage festival] records, those two to four CD sets.  I had no access to any of that music except through those CDs.  So as we’re generating this music, I was like this could be a really cool thing to be able to do something like what they did.  I mean, it’s nothing compared to Donaueschingen—but to have the music out there, so people could check it out if they don’t see the one concert of that stuff that we’re going to do in New York and maybe never again.  It is a way for people to have access to that music.  It’s really expensive to go into a studio, so what we do is we document the shows and we put it out.  You can donate for the CDs, and for the stream if you want.  But it doesn’t even matter.  Hopefully it’s a way for students and people who just like new music to get to the stuff.  And like Ning said, there’s been a really good response from that. The internet lets you see how many people are listening to stuff, and that’s cool.  But that’s beside the point.  The point is that more people have access to it.  And then you’ve developed this history—a performance practice, like Ian’s talking about.  All these things are part of creating that culture, that community behind the music, so it’s not just this one-off thing.  We spent so much time on it; the more people that get to hear it, the better.

FJO:  Another thing you’re doing to give something back to the community is you’re now off to do a ten-day workshop back at Stony Brook, of all places.  You’ve come full circle.

IA:  We’re going to play ten brand-new pieces by institute participants.

LB:  We and our instrumental participants—all of us together. We’re also going to play a few other—sort of “standard”—pieces. It’s weird to call them standard.

IA:  They’re non-premieres.

Russell Greenberg, Laura Barger, Ning Yu, and Ian Antonio holding hand instruments.

Yarn/Wire (from left to right): Russell Greenberg, Laura Barger, Ning Yu, and Ian Antonio.

Gelsey Bell: Get a Little Closer

There is a captivating mix of singer-songwriter intimacy, fourth wall-crushing theatricality, and curious experimental exploration in the work of composer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Gelsey Bell.

Performances of her 2011 song cycle SCALING, for example, have her crawling over and around the piano to play from positions that would likely make Tori Amos’s head spin. For “Cradle,” an intimate meditation for voice and metallophone from her 2013 cycle Our Defensive Measurements, she spends some time coaxing the audience to within arm’s reach before she begins to sing.

Bell's Casio keyboard

Bell’s Casio keyboard (down a few keys) has seen her through the creation of a lot of music.

With a background that spans music theater, woman-at-the-piano club shows, and the presentation of experimental work—both of her own design and of composers such as Robert Ashley—the cross-pollination of influences is perhaps to be expected. But the breakdown of walls—both between genres and between performer and audience—remains a tightrope to walk.

It’s also a place of risk and vulnerability that Bell welcomes. “I love an aesthetic of mistakes. I want things to get a little messy. I’m not interested in the sounds of perfection.”

“And I guess getting the audience involved is a great way to do that!” she concedes, laughing.

Music and risk

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Even when she isn’t inviting the audience into, say, the bathroom with her for a little acoustic exploration, her preferred ways of working leave her open to the artistic ideas of collaborators both in creation and interpretation, especially through her regular work with collectives such as thingNY and Varispeed. Experimental music has allowed her to take “very seriously the idea of making work with your friends”—collaborations she finds to be fun and efficient because everyone brings a deeper level of appreciation and understanding to the table.

Further explaining her interest in such work and the opportunities it brings, Bell says, “I have full control over my performance and my body, and I’m not interested in having full control over any other performer’s body. I work with a lot of people who are composers in their own right and they have their own musical intelligences, and so I’m much more interested in creating a musical situation where we can all embody that.”

Bell's score for rolodex

Bell’s score designed for delivery via Rolodex currently in development.

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This openness to exploring ideas is one of the things Bell finds attractive about both the experimental music scene and academic environments—two places where she finds she can be playful and curious in different yet complimentary ways.

She earned her Ph.D. in performance studies from New York University in January 2015 and is currently at work on a host of new pieces for upcoming performances this spring. On reflection, Bell says she feels somewhat like she’s at the cusp of more fully blending her various pots of experience—pockets that she previously kept somewhat isolated from one another.

I feel like I’m at this place of total exploration and I’m just having faith that I’m going to come out with something. I feel like I’m really in that mode where you’re just like, okay, I’m an artist. I have to let myself fail. I have to try a million things. I have to hate stuff, I have to love stuff, and I have to trust that if I put something on that’s really horrible it won’t be that no one wants to see anything that I do ever again. And just have faith that this kind of dream of some sort of sound that I have in my head that doesn’t have these intense boundaries can happen.

Digital to Analog: Poems and Histories

[Richard Monckton] Milnes brought [Thomas] Carlyle to the railway, and showed him the departing train. Carlyle looked at it and then said, “These are our poems, Milnes.” Milnes ought to have answered, “Aye, and our histories, Carlyle.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals

At the height of the Iraq War, the United States Department of Defense spent over three billion dollars a year to neutralize technology I carry in my pocket. That was, at one time, the annual budget for the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), formed in 2006 as a clearinghouse for Pentagon and private contractor efforts to jam the electronic signals that were being used to trigger the IEDs that were causing the majority of U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. (And JIEDDO represented only a portion of the expense.) One of the more common sources of such signals were, and remain, cell phones. A couple of wires, some explosive material, some screws or other bits of metal, and my phone—or yours—can be made into a shrapnel-filled bomb.

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Piano

I’m going to guess that improvised explosive devices were not on Andrew Pekler’s mind when he conceived his 2013 installation The Prepaid Piano. Pekler—a USSR-born, California-raised, Berlin-residing electronic-music polymath—put five mobile phones, each set to vibrate, directly on the strings of a grand piano, in five different places. Audience members were then free to call any of the phones, either from their own phones or from phones provided in the hall; contact microphones on the piano’s soundboard then passed the vibrations over to a modular synthesizer, which looped and altered the sounds, the loops changing with the proliferation of incoming calls, while more direct interventions—knocking the case, plucking the strings—provided their own cycles of punctuation.

As documented on the 2014 LP The Prepaid Piano & Replayed (co-released by the UK-based Entr’acte and the Italy-based Senufo Editions), the result is more extremely sophisticated lark (in the John-Cage-as-trickster-sensei spirit of the punning title) than ripped-from-the-headlines commentary. The amplified sounds crackle, pop, and metallically purr; the synthesis ropes it all into a loping grind. It’s engagingly textured, fun, maybe a little melancholy in its slow-rolling machinery, but still a long way from any evocation of the more violent technologies that rend the world on a daily basis. But consider the elements of The Prepaid Piano: cell phones, wires, screws, electricity.

The trope of regarding technological advances—particularly those that enable or shape connections among people—as inherently insidious is so ingrained that it’s almost reflexive at this point. But all technology is both useful and dangerous, with human behavior tipping that balance to one side or another. Usefulness usually wins out: the more convenient a technology is, the more risk we’re liable to accept in adopting it. Cell phones embody that—they’re so useful that it’s hard to remember (or imagine) what life was like before they were prevalent; but, then again, they’re damaging enough that people inevitably wonder whether that previous life wasn’t, in fact, better.

Cell phone technology is particularly notable because the most crucial part of it—the cellular network itself—is completely unseen. You’d be hard-pressed to design a better allegory for the good/bad potential of technological advance than the cellular network. It is ubiquitous and invisible. It holds the potential for a connection to the world and a harsh, bloody severance from it. And it is everywhere, all around us, all the time.

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On January 17, pianist Vicky Chow gave a recital at Northeastern University’s Fenway Center. Chow is best known as the pianist for the Bang on a Can All-Stars and is a standing member of other new music groups as well. For this concert, though, most of the collaborators were virtual. Christopher Cerrone’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn, for instance, a 2010 meditation sparked by a long wait for a subway train, layered in a third rail of digital processing, the upper end of the keyboard triggering glitchy, distorted echoes over a gentle, subterranean meandering of parallel tenths. Hoyt-Shermerhorn was a Boston premiere, as was Steve Reich’s Piano Counterpoint, the 1973 ensemble piece Six Pianos re-arranged (by Vincent Corver) for a solo pianist playing along to four pre-recorded tracks; Chow’s snap-tight rhythm and technique, along with the timbre—brighter than the original—re-emphasized the music’s mechanical churn (as well as its sense of a very 1970s-NYC prescribed commotion, echoing of Stephen Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People” from Company as testament to the strength of that zeitgeist).

Ronald Bruce Smith’s Piano Book was a world premiere. Smith (a Northeastern professor) pulled out most of the traditional recipes for disguising the piano’s decay—trills, scales, Debussy-like flourishes, an entire section riffing on Baroque-style ornaments—and étude-like tricks for keeping more than two registers in play with only two hands. (Chow juggled it all with flair.) But amplification and processing were present here, too, electronically stretching the piano’s resonance and pedaled sustain into thick, soft clouds of sound. It struck me that all the technology was serving a purpose similar to that of the cellular network: it was making the piano more musically convenient, expanding its palette, increasing its capability, not just disguising its quirks but electronically eliminating them.

The finale, John Zorn’s 2014 Trilogy (another Boston premiere) seemed, at first, to cast all that aside. The collaborators here were human—bassist Trevor Roy Dunn and drummer Ian Ding—and the electronic mediation was limited to the sort of basic amplification one would use for the ensemble being evoked, a standard jazz trio. But Trilogy is trickier than it seems: Chow was playing from a fully through-composed part while Dunn and Ding improvised around her, an illusion of jazz, punctiliousness and freedom blurred together, almost imperceptibly. Zorn, it turns out, was playing with technologies, too, just much older ones: musical notation and improvisation, using the one to expand the other just as the other three works on the program were used processing and playback to expand on the piano’s possibilities.

One effect of it all was to render another, rather sophisticated piece of technology largely invisible—that is, the piano itself. Pianos are complex, ingenious, immensely satisfying pieces of engineering. So are all acoustic instruments, in their own ways—decades or, in some cases, centuries of incremental improvements yielding machines of remarkable and efficient expressivity. And yet, for the better part of a century, that development has largely been frozen. The piano Chow was playing was not appreciably different from one Rachmaninoff would have played. The persistent presence of old repertoire in classical music has enshrined acoustic instruments’ virtues and limitations as equally sacred.

I can appreciate the expressive potential of preserving an instrument’s seeming imperfections—the piano’s inability to sustain a tone much past a few seconds, for example, has probably fueled as much compositional creativity over the past two hundred years as any aesthetic revolution. But, then again, that preservation has been going on for the entirety of my musical life and much longer, so of course I would find a way to get used to it. Good and/or bad, it is one of the defining characteristics of classical music now. Part of that is classical music’s great boon and burden, the weight of history: to know that the great virtuosi of the past played essentially the same instruments that we do is a powerful connection. And I would guess that’s why the dominant use of electronics in more-or-less-classical new music in the 21st century is still in tandem with the old acoustic instruments. One technology is layered over with another: strata of innovations.

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The flip side of The Prepaid Piano & Replayed turns those layers into a palimpsest, effacing its acoustic, site-specific nature by way of Ableton Live’s audio-to-MIDI converter; the original recording, thus transformed, becomes a stream of instructions to a synthesizer. The virtual transfers enable Pekler to treat digital technology in the same, expressively-mine-the-imperfections way that generations of classical composers and performers have treated acoustic technology: the complex, noisy nature of The Prepaid Piano is, as Pekler admits, ideally designed to bring out the limitations of audio-to-MIDI. In a way, it highlights how much of the piece exists at the edge of so many less obvious musical technologies, especially those surrounding communication: composer to performer, performer to audience, audience to performer, and so forth. The Prepaid Piano & Replayed was issued as a limited edition of 300 vinyl copies—music designed around infinitely distributable wireless and digital means packaged into a rare and resolutely physical object.

For me, what Pekler’s project and Chow’s recital had in common was that they both prompted consideration of a particular feature of technology, musical technology in this case, but applicable to all technologies: the technology you notice is almost always, at the same time, pushing another technology into the unnoticed background. In that regard, technology isn’t entirely neutral, at least at first glance: the interface is always compressing the data, some information in sharper focus than other information. And I’ve found that one really fascinating question to ask myself while listening to music that utilizes technology—old technology, new technology, high technology, low technology—is this: what’s being hidden? What’s being effaced? What’s being pushed to the foreground, and what’s being pushed to the background?

In the coming months I want to explore some byways of how technology—cutting-edge or not—is being used in new music. Part of that story is already history; part of it is still, and always, being written. The quote at the top of this article, about poet Richard Monckton Milnes and historian Thomas Carlyle observing the trains, can be a bit of a guiding light. Emerson (who knew both Milnes and Carlyle) recorded it in his journals in 1842, when steam-powered rail travel was less than twenty years old. What was then Carlyle (and, in Emerson’s imagination, Milnes) offering a friendly reproach to get with the times now reads as an image of how technologies, as they become obsolete, can move entire systems of thought into a kind of limbo, passed by but still there. Humphrey Jennings, documentary filmmaker and general Renaissance man, included Emerson’s story in his extraordinary, unfinished, posthumously published anthology Pandæmonium 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers. Jennings commented on the passage:

It was in this year 1842 that J. C. Doppler noticed the differing pitch of train whistles—advancing and retiring—and proposed, by analogy, the Doppler effect in the spectra of certain stars.

Sounds—and music, and technologies—come and go, but even their coming and going is its own kind of testimony.