On this page is an archive of my past “What’s New” entries. If you haven’t read my current What’s New, click here which will bring you to the right spot on my home page.
musings on playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 in A, K. 488, understanding two pieces by Olivier Messiaen through listening to the song of the wood-thrush here where I live in Vermont and considering how things grow in Nature, the premiere of a new collaboration improvising on the piano simultaneous with the creation live on stage of visual art, and some thoughts about the similarities between painting and music, and why perfect fifths have become my favorite interval these days
a chronicle of a tour I made to Europe with a jazz quartet, a story from a past tour of Russia, a little bit about getting to play with Pete Seeger, and some thoughts on my experience being the subject of a documentary film
My fall began in a very pleasant way as I had the good fortune of having some performances of one of the very best piano concertos ever written, Mozart’s no. 23 in A major, K. 488. I had a great time practicing this concerto over the summer, refamiliarizing myself with this extraordinary music that I hadn’t played since my teenage student days. In particular, I discovered so many sensitive touches in the orchestration, surely the most underappreciated aspect of Mozart’s genius. Of course, every set of liner notes about the piano concertos of Mozart will mention his talents in handling the woodwind instruments, but as they say, “God is in the details.” For example, Mozart will sometimes present a 4-part choir hymn sound with 2 clarinets and 2 bassoons in perfect close harmony and counterpoint, but elsewhere he will carefully omit certain winds, so he might drop out the clarinets and you will hear a more open sound with the flute and two bassoons alone (the space in the middle either left empty for the bassoons to resonate up into, or occupied by melody notes in the piano or violins) – at other moments, Mozart subtly brings in the French horns to play an extremely soft, sustained octave behind the piano as a supporting sound-bed. So simple, yet it has an amazing effect to provide a warmth and a radiance to the total sound, similar to a master painter casting a reflective, diffuse light to one portion of a canvas.
As I studied the music more, I realized Mozart takes the same care with the string instruments’ orchestration as he does with the handling of the woodwinds. While sometimes the strings play as a block, at other points only the two or three upper-most or lower-most string sections will play, and sometimes a portion, but not all, of the strings will join a predominantly woodwind texture to create new color combinations. In many ways, this chamber music-like approach to orchestration foreshadowed the exquisite sounds Mahler created in his pieces for voice and orchestra the Kindertotenlieder and Das Lied von der Erde over a hundred years later.
As I have done with other Mozart concertos in the past, I decided to perform the solo piano cadenza at the end of the first movement (where the orchestra is completely silent) as an improvisation. I tried to do this improv as much as I possibly could in the exact style of Mozart (as he would have done himself at a performance in his own time, as all classical musicians were able to improvise back then). Many pianists perform souped-up big Romantic cadenzas, and it has always seemed to me to be disruptive at best, and egotistical at worst, to suddenly change gears to Liszt or Tchaikovsky-land in the middle of Mozart’s unique sound-world. So as best I could, I tried to improvise something Mozartean. Perhaps one advantage to improvising cadenzas, particularly in classical-period concertos, is that it gives the performance a moment of freshness and spontaneity, a little extra life that might stimulate the listener not only during the cadenza itself but for the rest of the piece. The concerts went over very well and I received a lot of positive comments about my improvised cadenzas from both members of the orchestra and people in the audience.
After the Mozart concerto, my next major performances were of two pieces by Olivier Messiaen. The first piece, “The Robin,” is from a set of six “Little Bird Sketches” he composed in 1985 near the end of his life. The robin is in the thrush family and many of the musical phrases Messiaen wrote reminded me of the enormously varied song of the wood-thrush I hear where I live in Vermont. The challenge of performing this piece is how to group and pace all the mostly short bird-song fragments into larger structures. Fortunately, I had done a fair amount of listening to birds earlier in the year and had some sense for their style of rhythm, dynamics, and articulation. I noticed there was a short two-note motif that would repeat at different places in the piece, and I decided to consider these to be section-ending “amen”-like cadences. I was able to memorize some of the harmonies by thinking of them as jazz chords with an added minor ninth dissonance or two, or as a poly-chord where two chords from different tonalities are juxtaposed on top of one another.
The second piece of Messiaen I performed was the sixth piece from his Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (20 Views on the Child-Jesus), one of the most imaginative piano compositions of the twentieth century. This is an exciting, thrilling piece on a huge scale (about 15 minutes long) on the subject of the creation of the universe. Messiaen said he was inspired here by things as diverse as the shape of spiral galaxies, thunderbolts, and stalactites, and at the final climaxes he brings in both his beloved birds, emiting a few joyful squawks in appreciation of the creation, as well as a superb evocation of a cathedral carillon, the chords resonating in the unique, slightly out-of-tune colorations of those gigantic bells.
One of the fascinating aspects of this piece is how Messiaen depicts the creation’s Big Bang through musical lines that truly undergo a growth process of organic development. For example, he will take a group of say 11 notes and repeat them a number of times: on each repetition, he keeps certain notes stationary (pitches unchanged each time) – say notes numbered 1, 4, 5, and 11 – while he moves notes 2, 3, 9, and 10 up a half-step with each repetition of the sequence, and moves notes 6, 7, and 8 down a half-step each repetition. As the section progresses, you do feel this irregular expansion of the shape, sort of the way human bodies or plants grow (or galaxies, I suppose). I’m not too confident my three live performances this fall came out too well but I do have a good recording of this piece on one of my early CD’s, “Constellation.”
In the jazz and improvised music part of my life I have had a good year. Over the summer I had my first taste of realizing an idea I have had for a long time, to improvise piano simultaneous with the creation live on stage of visual art. I connected up with some local painters to try this, my friends Maggie Neale, Janet Van Fleet, Cully Renwick, and Missy Storrow. We had some technical issues trying to figure out how best to set up the performance space so that both the audience and I could see the art as it was being created (as the painter’s own body can block line of sight to the canvas) but on the whole I feel our performance was a good first attempt at the concept.
I put some thought into what might be analogous elements in painting and music. Both types of art have line and texture, and the different micro-regions of the piano’s 88 keys, each with its distinctive sound quality, could parallel different sections of an artist’s canvas. Musical harmonies, major, minor, and otherwise, could be seen as analogous to a painter’s choice of color. I was interested to learn that many painters of the early twentieth century (my favorite period of music and art history) were really in to the connections between painting and music, even trying to create a sense of rhythm in visual art. I have been reading a book about Paul Klee by Hajo Duchting titled “Painting Music,” which is all about the artists of that period and their interest in music. Many of Klee’s paintings have intriguing titles that refer to classical or jazz music.
In jazz, I’ve been trying more and more to write my own tunes, and I had a burst of creative energy earlier this year. I’ve gotten some compliments from fellow musicians about my new songs, and I’m pretty sure I’ve made a major step forward from my earlier efforts. My largest recent composition was “Rogue Cloud,” a long multi-section piece; some of the other tunes I wrote this year that I like are “Medium Message,” “Bulgarian Hoedown,” “The Crying Candle,” and “Migratory Mood.” This past summer and fall, a jazz quintet I am in had a series of performances featuring almost exclusively my own originals. I’m definitely grateful to these musicians for all their work learning my new compositions and putting them into the air for the first time.
I also recently made a suite of jazz arrangements of music from different parts of Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” The best jazz arrangements, I think, don’t follow slavishly to the original, and since West Side Story is such familiar music, especially to people of a certain age, I definitely got a few “I don’t remember it going this way” comments from musicians. I think most of what I did in the arrangements came out well, especially “A Boy Like That,” whose raw abrupt energy made it a good vehicle for a Coltrane-like approach, and “Maria,” which I turned into a slow, bossa nova in which I lengthened the number of measures of certain harmonies to create more of a suspended feel, a floating sensation that is really at the heart of the bossa nova. (OK, I know Maria was Puerto Rican, not Brazilian...)
What am I working on now? In classical music, I’m learning for the first time Bach’s Partita no. 4 in D major. The six partitas of Bach are some of his best pieces, and so far in my life I have performed no. 1, 2, 3, and 5. I hope in the not too distant future to have all six learned, as I think a performance of the complete partitas would make a great program. Another piece I am learning from scratch is György Ligeti’s Étude no. 8 from Book 2, Fém (Metal), a bright piece based on perfect fifths, which have sort of become my favorite interval recently: I think it is interesting that they are tonal without being major or minor. I’m also re-learning Beethoven’s Sonata no. 27 in E minor, op. 90 for some upcoming performances and am beginning to face the reality that I have to perform Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata starting later in 2010. Well, it took Beethoven about a year to compose it, and it might take me almost that long to learn it, so I better get cracking.
On the jazz front, I am hoping to finish a song I started a while back called “Zombie Banks Breakdown.” It’s about Wall Street and the financial crisis, which hasn’t exactly proved to be the easiest subject matter for a jazz tune. I tried to combine some bebop strains with more free-jazz oriented depictions of big, teetering skyscrapers and Morse-code like rhythms and other strange sounds to evoke computers gone haywire. So far, the elements aren’t gelling, so it’s still unfinished, and once in a while I fear if I don’t get it done soon the financial companies might actually get their act together, end their corruption and greed, become solid citizens and thereby make my new song less topical. But ... so far, little chance of that. I am also hoping in the not too distant future to release a commercial recording entirely of my own jazz compositions, but have been a little undecided on personnel and where to do it (the lack of a good piano rules out a lot of studios).
One of the things I’ve been doing recently that I’m very excited about is a new lecture-demonstration called “The Music of Poetry.” This is a talk about the musical aspects – sound and time – in poetry, song lyrics, and other literature. I think I’ve come up with a great set of examples from all sorts of different literary sources and I am currently searching about for places such as libraries, colleges, or writers’ workshops that might be interested in sponsoring me to give the talk. I’ve written a short description of the presentation which you can read by clicking here.
Also this year, I’ve been trying to start my own blog. It’s called “Sweet Spontaneous” and I am still figuring out some of the technical aspects of how blog sites work. So far I do have up a few short fun lists such as my ten best classical pieces of the past millennium, my ten favorite jazz recordings of all time, and similar confections to tide you over until the blog is in full swing (hopefully by early December).
I recently went on a very enjoyable concert tour of Europe during the month of February, giving a dozen performances in four different countries. Most of the concerts were with a jazz quartet (the other three musicians from elsewhere in New England), but I also gave three classical solo piano concerts along the way. The best part of the tour was undoubtedly the extremely friendly people we met at the different concerts, especially in our stops in Hungary and France.
We started the tour in Prague and after two engagements there we took a train out to Teplice, a smaller city in the Czech Republic near the German border. Our quartet played at a jazz club there and produced what I would consider to be our best concert of the tour, in large measure thanks to the audience, who seemed genuinely excited by our music. I was impressed that their roars of approval frequently came in response to our original compositions, which showed that they were truly focused and open to the musical experience of the moment, not simply thrilled by the pleasure of hearing a familiar tune.
We then spent four days in Hungary, mostly in the fantastic city of Budapest, whose active cultural life, organized equally by all generations young and old, I have always appreciated. The Hungarian people seem to have the most sincere love of music. In addition to our time in Budapest (where we played in two cafés and a concert hall), we also made a side trip to the town of Eger where we performed at a magical auditorium, the Ceremonial hall of Eszterhazy College. To say the hall had “powerful” acoustics would be an understatement, as even a fairly modest drumstroke sounded like a cannon-blast! Normally this is the sort of over-resonant space jazz musicians tend to dislike, so I was really proud of our group’s rising to the occasion and figuring out ways to turn the resonance of the hall to our advantage.
After a solo piano concert in Ghent, Belgium at one of my favorite music centers, the Rode Pomp, our travels took us next to France, both to Paris and to the southern and south-western parts of the country. Everything they say about southern France seems to be true. It has a most relaxing atmosphere with small towns and an amiable climate. One of the high points of the tour for me, being a “foodie,” was a great luncheon served to us in the southern town of Congénies of soup, vegetables, and all sorts of amazing French cheeses. All told, the concert tour was a nice experience, and three of the places said our concert was the best music they had ever had, which is always a nice compliment. Before going back to the USA, I treated myself to a few days in Barcelona, where I attended an interesting concert by an older Catalanian singer. The crowd was obviously deeply enthusiastic about the music, but I didn't find out why until a few days later when a cabbie driving me to the airport told me that the singer, in his younger days, had taken some positions against the Franco dictatorship which resulted in the government imposing travel restrictions on him and even imprisoning him for a time. This certainly cast a new light on the music I heard at that concert.
I kept a diary during my tour, chronicling many fascinating people I met - some real characters - while travelling through all these different countries. I hope, with the permission of the people I encounter, to turn journal writings from my various tours of Europe into something readable. This travelogue should offer a bit of a glimpse into the world of the touring artist, plus provide me with a vehicle to write some personal observations and cultural commentaries.
Once, when I was in Russia, I was interviewed on Russian television, and the reporter asked me if it felt different to give a performance to a Russian audience compared to an American one. What a great question! I have to admit I was expecting a string of “fluffy” questions, especially from a television journalist, and this one really made me have to think quick on my toes, partly to keep the conversation flowing, and partly as this interview was taking place right before I was to go on stage. My response was to say that people are people the whole world around. After the audience is seated and the hall becomes completely quiet before the first note of the concert, I can’t see how it should really make too much difference what country you’re in at that moment: in our cores, we all have a lot in common.
If you have any ideas for places I might be able to perform classical music or jazz in Europe, or know of people who might be interested in lodging touring musicians, please contact me at the telephone number listed in the contact information section directly above. I am also contemplating organizing a future tour in the Orient, where I have a special interest as my mother grew up in Korea.
The documentary film about my life and music, “Beyond 88 Keys,” was premiered at a film festival in March, 2004. The film, by Susan Bettmann, was two years in the making and contains footage from live concerts both in the United States and in Europe, along with excerpts from talks I have given about music at colleges and interview segments with myself, musical colleagues, and audience members.
The film has been screened at various film festivals and other venues such as arts centers, museums, and libraries. “Beyond 88 Keys” has been broadcast twice on public television, and received its European premiere in October 2005. The film was recently released in VHS and DVD formats for home use. For further information about the film or to purchase a copy, please click here.
I went through quite a complex of emotions during the course of the making of this film. When I was first approached by the production company with their request for me to be the subject of this documentary, I was quite surprised. A little while later, I began to feel flattered by it all. Finally, both of these emotions passed and were replaced with occasional feelings of embarrassment. It’s hard to be natural and relaxed when one’s every slight move is the focus of the constant attention of lurking camerapeople, eager to capture a candid moment. The exploration of certain episodes of one’s past one regards as best forgotten can lead to more than a bit of blushing when seen on the big screen, and when the film was completed I was quite relieved when the line between one’s public and private lives was re-established. Most people who have seen the film really like the way it came out, and I feel sincerely fortunate the documentary was under the control of such a sensitive filmmaker as Susan Bettmann.
“Beyond 88 Keys” was shown in September at The Anthology, a nice theater in New York City on 2nd Street in the East Village. A week and a half after the film was shown, I performed two live concerts in New York City at Hunter College on the Upper East Side. I gave one concert of solo classical piano music entitled “Reflections on Time’ and one of improvisation with the jazz tenor saxophonist John McKenna. Both concerts went really well musically, and I also enjoyed re-connecting with many old friends I hadn’t seen in years.
I have revised and greatly expanded the written material on this site about my jazz performance programs. If you’re interested in what I’ve been up to in the realm of improvisational music, I encourage you to click here to read descriptions of my latest jazz program ideas. I am seriously considering making a recording of my original jazz tunes; I recently wrote up little descriptions of my originals, which you can read on this site by clicking here.
Other news: My piano playing has been recently used as music beds for two DVDs of visual art. Some of my Beethoven playing, from a recording I made of the “Pastoral” Sonata, is the soundtrack for a DVD by the veteran Vermont photographer Daniel Neary, Jr. entitled “VisioNEARY: Vermont in Black and White.” The disc’s 66 exquisite images, shot between 1994 and 2004, are grouped by the season of the year. These visual scenes marry well with the Beethoven piano music, and since I live in Vermont, I”m naturally quite partial to the landscapes of this part of the world. You can order the DVD for $23 (includes shipping and handling) directly from Daniel A. Neary, Jr., 170 Perkins Rd., Montpelier VT 05602.
The unique art of Janet Van Fleet’s recent exhibits based on buttons and other real-life circular objects is the subject of two short DVDs utilizing my piano recordings. “Quantum Entanglement,” a short art film by Gail Schwartz using photographs of Van Fleet’s exhibits as the visuals, contains my playing of the first movement of Anton Webern’s reflective “Variations for Piano,” while “Circular Statements” is a brief three-part document of the art shows, with voice-over interview segments with the artist and music by Orlando Gibbons and William Byrd. The Webern, Gibbons, and Byrd music in these DVDs are material recorded in London, Ontario that will eventually be released on a commercial 2-disc recording entitled “Homage to Glenn Gould.”
In recent years, I have begun a collaboration with the author and photographer Marjorie Ryerson. Her new book, “Water Music,” contains her photographs about water along with written thoughts about water from over sixty wonderful musicians such as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Mark O’Connor, Taj Mahal, Midori, Renée Fleming, Pete Seeger, Carol Maillard (of Sweet Honey in the Rock), Brad Mehldau, and Bobby McFerrin. The book has been receiving a lot of attention from environmental organizations, arts groups, and government officials interested in this cultural look at water, our planet’s most essential element.
Our collaboration presents a live performance where I play water-related piano music interspersed with her reading excerpts from the book, while some of the water photographs from her book are projected by a Power Point CD onto a screen as a visual backdrop to our live readings and music, making this a true multi-media performance. I play compositions of Debussy, Chopin, Ravel, Rzewski, Britten, plus some jazz improvisations. Click here for more information about this program. We most recently performed Water Music at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida, where we added Native American flutist Mary Youngblood to the program. This concert was specially broadcast simultaneously on the internet where people from many countries from around the world viewed the performance on-line.
I am on two tracks of a new compact disc entitled Garden of Delights by the Canadian percussionist Beverley Johnston. We play arrangements of compositions by Astor Piazzolla. I also play piano on the song “Checking In” as a duet with the guitarist and songwriter Jon Gailmor on his new CD of the same name.
New thoughts: I am wondering if it is possible to do a performance where I improvise piano music simultaneously with an artist painting or drawing art spontaneously, with both performers reacting to each other. A year ago, I wanted to do a related idea with music combined with poetry improvisation, but I couldn’t find any poet willing to improvise poetry live in public. I don’t know if any good artist might feel that to do art so quickly might be similarly embarrassing.
Another idea I have for a future project is to create an educational video about a piece of music with some interactive content so the viewer can control the depth and direction of exploration of each educational point presented. Possible pieces that might be good candidates for the subject of the disc are: Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, Chopin’s 24 Preludes, or Bach’s Goldberg Variations. If any of you know of someone with experience doing the computer programming for such an educational product, please contact me.
Two years ago I had the thrill of playing a tune with Pete Seeger at a memorial event for a mutual friend at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. As always, his wonderful, lively sense of rhythm and phrasing got everyone singing with true feeling.
This past summer I worked on a program of music of Beethoven and Chopin (which always brings back memories of the old student days at the music conservatory). Over the fall and winter months I will be continuing to learn the piano études of Ligeti and also some pieces by Ferruccio Busoni and Joan Tower. I am also working on a new lecture-demonstration entitled “The Music of Poetry,” about the rhythms and sound qualities of classic poems through the centuries.