Tag: solo

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.



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.

* * *

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.



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.

Sounds Heard: Dennis Johnson–November

I’ll admit it: I was doing other things while listening to November. This important work of early minimalism (from 1959!) by Dennis Johnson had until recently fallen into obscurity. While Johnson himself turned away from music not long after its composition, LaMonte Young–one of the fathers of minimalism–credits this piece as a direct inspiration for his influential The Well-Tuned Piano. But November was not performed for decades until, in 2009, Kyle Gann reconstructed the score using an old cassette recording and notes provided by Johnson for reference:

[T]he complete “score,” if that is the correct term [,] consists of “motifs” plus rules of which motifs can follow each given motif – at least that is what it should be, but I’m afraid that it isn’t made entirely clear. Items 1-15 were written around 1970-1971. Pages A + B are, I think, an attempt to make the transitions more explicit – or possibly to write down the transitions as they occur in the recording, but it was never finished, so the recording must stand as the primary definition example of the piece. The piece was not meant to be entirely fixed, but somewhat improvisatory, with the given transitions as the rules for the improvisation. No rules were implied about the times spent on any of the motifs, nor on the number of recurrences/recycles of any motif – they do recur in the tape.

Now, more than 50 years after its premiere, the composition has finally been recorded in its entirety by pianist R. Andrew Lee and released as a 4-CD set and digital download by Irritable Hedgehog.

At five hours, November is at the extreme outer limits of the average attention span, but its lengthy duration isn’t unique. Aside from The Well-Tuned Piano, Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 comes to mind, for example, or the 24-hour version of Erik Satie’s Vexations. The particular performance rituals that have sprung up around these pieces have created a certain accepted context and etiquette for extra-long compositions. Concertgoers are not necessarily expected to be there for the entire performance, and may come and go as they please.

But November doesn’t quite fit in with those pieces, despite its placid ambiance and patient unfolding. Five hours is a length of time that means you could, conceivably, listen to the whole thing in one sitting. So instead of falling into the existing context, the piece asks you to do something slightly more radical, especially in its recorded form: it asks you to invent your own context. Do you listen to the whole thing in one sitting, alone, in the dark? Do you listen to a disc or two at a time while you do the dishes or fold laundry? Or, as I did, do you listen to the entire piece on a long road trip, accompanied by the dull roar of the freeway, with occasional intermissions at rest stops and gas stations?

What is unusual, even startling, is how the piece both demands and defies attention in practically any listening environment. Mechanically, it’s nothing more than a series of piano chords (and occasional single notes), given ample time to resonate and decay. Nonetheless, there is an unmistakable sense of progression. The first couple hours of the work, based on a transcription of an incomplete recording from 1962, are quite linear and structured, even teleological, though the material moves forward at a very unhurried pace. Lee’s thoughtful, plangent chord voicings catch the ear here—kind of like Thelonious Monk, if you slowed him down about 800%.

Somewhere in the middle of the second disc, however, a change occurs. Here, the performer is asked to improvise around small cells of musical material. It’s a subtle transition, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happens, but the music does become noticeably more static. There are many ways this kind of improvisation could go astray, but Lee’s sense of pacing is impeccable. He might spend several minutes lingering on an idea, exploring its many permutations, or he might breeze through a passage in a fleeting and ephemeral way, but the way Lee manages to keep a sense of direction going throughout this material is truly impressive. The overall effect on the listener is something like exploring pools of liquid connected by tiny canals.

It was so absorbing, in fact, that I was about halfway through the Angeles National Forest when I realized I was almost out of gas and about 25 miles from the nearest town. Thankfully I did not become stranded in the San Gabriel Mountains, but if I had it would have been strangely fitting, being indefinitely suspended in a gorgeous landscape between a forgotten origin and a nebulous destination.

Verdict: November is captivating and highly recommended, but avoid operating heavy machinery while listening.

Sounds Heard: Mariel Roberts—Nonextraneous Sounds

If anything is clear in the first few moments of Mariel Roberts’s debut CD Nonextraneous Sounds, it’s that this will not be just a polite collection of unremarkable wallpaper works for solo cello. Actually, unless you are already prepared for what’s coming, it’s not even completely clear that a cello is what’s at the forefront of the mix.

Opening with a transfixing performance of Andy Akiho’s Three Shades, Foreshadows, Roberts touches bow to strings at various points to percussive effect (the thwack of col legno, scratching and creaking tightly across the strings, the whisper of bow drawn across bridge, etc.), but the body of the piece is filled with dense streams of pizzicato along with knocks and taps against the instrument’s body and strings. The live solo line is ensconced in three electronic parts built out of samples of acoustic cello. The resulting quartet—an effect further underlined by the way the electronic part moves around the sonic field—is as much a percussive exercise as anything. The deep, muted bell tones which open the work and obscure the source of the sound are revealed in the liner notes to be the sonic result of plucked strings with clothes pins attached to them near the base of the fingerboard. Still, for as much creativity as has been employed in conjuring the timbral world of the piece, Akiho never seems to get distracted by it or employ techniques as a mere gimmick. Only in the work’s final fading moments, with the last remaining line clicking away like a spun-out film projector, did I even remember that the palette he was drawing from was not the way one generally went about playing the cello in the first place.

Sean Friar’s Teaser plays with listener expectations along a different line. He spins the music’s emotional character on a dime, mixing charming scraps of delicate tune work with fiery bombardments of sliding double stops and lines scratched across the instrument’s strings that might send a chill through you. Daniel Wohl also makes generous use of some fairly abrasive timbres in his Saint Arc, but these sharp objects play out in the context of a great deal of “air” which he lets into the piece through the quiet brush of the moving bow and extensive harmonic usage. A pre-recorded electronic track further amplifies this scenario. Alex Mincek then keeps the brushing but drains the aggression for his Flutter. Beginning in a place that is restless rather than hostile, the work skitters lightly across quick snatches of bowed phrases and nervous col legno, slowly gaining confidence, weight, and a striking, deep-snoring calm by the piece’s final measures.

That nap is not to last, however. Particularly if the demanding techniques employed in the album’s middle works have begun to emotionally exhaust the listener, Tristan Perich’s Formulations represents as a welcome shift of gears (not that Roberts gets to take a break). That it is a Perich piece will be immediately apparent to anyone familiar with his 1-bit work. In this case, his programmed microchips emit a rapid-fire sequence of flickering notes within which Roberts matches pace. After the first ten minutes, Roberts gets a breather and when her line returns to the mix after a two-minute recovery, she enters with firm, long strokes, as if steering the flickering swirl of pitch that surrounds her, slowing its frantic pace, and guiding everyone home.