(Lower case specified by Mr. lee)
Mr. lee played three pieces, in ascending length, for a total time of just under two hours. The first was the shortest – but in some ways also the longest (that is a positive comment). Craig Shepard’s “December” was a meditation on three chords in the lower end of the piano; not three chords repeated as in a simple pop number, but three chords, period, played as trills over the (middle) pedal, and each lasting for several minutes. Or perhaps “chords” is a misnomer, since each only had two pitches and was more correctly just an interval. There was a major sixth, then a major second, then something that was at first unidentifiable due to heavy resonant overtones but eventually revealed itself to be a minor second. (The “closing” of intervals and increasing dissonance seemed to be a metaphor for the dwindling sunlight in December.) As the pianist commented after playing, “I play this piece at the beginning of a concert because it forces the listeners to listen in a different way…”
That “different way” is a meditation on continuous sound, essentially the same as listening to a drone piece. Another aspect of drone music also manifested: microtonality. I mentioned the heavy resonant overtones. There is a plethora of these on the lowest strings of a concert grand piano; revealed by continuing trills, they seem to hover over the bass notes, constantly changing, often creating just-intoned microtonal chords. The effect was very beautiful.
The last piece, “Obsessions” by Adrian Knight, was a minimalist theme and variations with a lot of surprises. The volume was constant (slightly louder than Nat’s piece) and the tempo was constant (neither slow nor particularly fast). The surprises – and these were relentless – came in the harmonies. Pungent post-Debussy dissonance (think Messiaen) led to jazz progressions (think Bill Evans) led to wide-open “Americana” harmonies on fourths and fifths (think Copland) which in turn led to thick polytonal clusters (think Stravinsky) and mysterious whole-tone resonances (think George Crumb). The whole piece was a kaleidoscope of sound-worlds. This is not to say that it sounded patched together in any way; it did not. The harmonies continuously mutated, but the “theme” was a constant force in the upper half of the piano, each iteration ending with a shadowy tracery of bass notes of ambiguous tonality. There was a slight crescendo near the end (the Obsessions seemed to grow more demanding) and then, abruptly, it was over. The piano merely stopped playing, without a resolve or final cadence. There was a second of silence (the rest of the audience was as startled by the ending as I was) and then wild applause. The piece is, however, probably continuing out there somewhere in another world.
This kind of playing represents, of course, a rejection of both mainstream “loudness” and avant-garde formalism. It is thus a continuation of the aesthetic theorizing of John Cage. I hear it as a beautiful extension of that tradition into conventional “tonal” music, but of course only time will tell if this is actually the case.