Monday, April 20, 2015

Ambient Piano Minimalism: r. andrew lee at the Chapel Performance Space, 4/17/2015

(Lower case specified by Mr. lee)

I’d heard Mr. lee’s rendition of Dennis Johnson’s four-hour “November” in 2013 (in November), and this concert featured the premier of a work from the beautiful Pacific Crest Trail series by Nat Evans, so I thought I’d check this out.

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 piece ended with a couple of deep “gong strikes” on the last chord, leading into: “Desert Ornamentation” by Nat Evans (written for r. andrew lee). The piano part was the ornamentation, over field recordings made in the desert of the southern part of the Pacific Crest Trail. Both parts of the music were quiet. The piano played fragments of (modal) melodies, too far apart to coalesce into a single recognizable “tune” but too close together to be separate thoughts. This ambiguity created an interesting spatial tension. The field recordings went at their own, much slower, pace. Power lines crackled, airplanes roared quietly overhead, and dogs barked – all sounding in the distance of infinite space. As always with music of this quietude, sounds from outside of the performance space filtered in and mixed into an aleatory soundscape – one of the most engaging moments was a microtonal drone that interacted with the piano tones to produce binaural beats; it was created by a motor running somewhere in the building and wasn’t actually in Mr. Evans’ recordings. As often when “randomness” is embraced in art, the result is not “random” at all.

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.

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