88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music

The various methods of composition invented by the New York School were often as complex and exacting as those of their mostly European contemporaries who composed using serialist methods, and whose musical interests were by contrast more architectural, intentional and expressive of more traditional views of life.

Stefan Wolpe‘s take on serialist methods is very personal, and is well suited to his lyrical, energetic and enjoyable music: listen to his the Quartet (Piece), 1954-1955, and Cantata, 1963 which concerns the ultimate spiritual quality of life, the fears and motives that drive our daily existence. His Four Studies on Basic Rows for piano (1935 – 1936) are fascinating etudes which contain textures and densities that lie somewhere between Schoenberg (who at this time was living in Los Angeles having escaped from the Nazis) and the postwar European serialists. Study I is on tritones, Study II on 3rds, Study III is called “Presto Furioso: Study on a Set of Expanding and Contracting Intervals”, and Study IV is a Passacaglia: Study on an All-Interval Row in Conjunction with 11 Basic Rows.

The early 1960s saw the premieres of two extremely complex American piano concertos. The Piano Concerto (1961) by Ben Weber, commissioned by the Ford Foundation, presents the composer’s expressionist style at its finest, alternating between dense harmonic and sparser, more contrapuntal textures. Elliott Carter‘s Piano Concerto (1964-1965) uses the traditional form of confrontation between the soloist and the orchestra. The piano begins with lyrical statements accompanied mostly by a concertino of seven solo winds and strings. In Part II, the orchestral strings sustain gradually more dense chords covering a wide range while the other instruments emit punctuations that are at first feel quasi-random, but eventually become more synchronized and aggressive. (Feldman once remarked that the orchestra lacked a sustaining pedal and this seems to be the effect that Carter is aiming at here; Feldman’s solution in his Coptic Light, 1985, was to allow tones to continue resonating, blend together and overlap). The piano continues in its lyrical fashion, but in gradually more extreme pitch and dynamic ranges, and in complex gestures described by the composer as “irrelevant suggestions”. After the ultimate orchestral assault, the piano is left to quietly continue alone.

By the late 1950s, pianist-composer Cecil Taylor had begun combining contemporary serialist European and Afro-American influences into a dynamic improvising style built on atonal textures, percussive gestures, tone clusters and classical forms (“Bulbs,” 1961 on Impulse records, “Cell Walk” for Celeste, O.P., etc., 1961). He developed ways of imparting his solo style to ensembles, for example, in Enter Evening (1966 on the Blue Note label) for piano, bells, trumpet, 2 alto saxophones, oboe, bass clarinet, 2 basses, and drums; and in Alms/Tiergarten (Spree) in the record set Cecil Taylor in Berlin ’88 (1989, Free Music Production) with an ensemble of European musicians interpreting Taylor’s kinesthetic directing and maintaining an intense density of “free playing” that follows Taylor’s general instructions and images.

In the 1950s, three distinct pathways had developed in new jazz music:

(1) “Third Stream style sought to combine Western concert music forms with improvisation and jazz tonalities – these included Robert Graettinger‘s City of Glass recorded by the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Milton Babbitt‘s “All Set,” Teo Macero‘s “Sounds of May” (1955, with its startling electronic effects), Gunther Schuller‘s “Transformation,” Charlie Mingus‘s “Minor Intrusion” (1954), Lee Konitz‘s “Precognition” and “Extrasensory Perception” (both 1952), George Russell‘s “All About Rosie,” Rolf Liebermann‘s Concerto for Jazz Band and Orchestra (recorded with the Sauter-Finnegan group and Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony), Leonard Bernstein‘s “Cool” fugue in West Side Story, Miles Davis‘s Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess (1957-1958) and Kind of Blue (1959) albums, Stan Getz‘s Focus on Verve, Modern Jazz Quartet‘s Third Stream Music album on Atlantic, etc.

(2) East Coast Jazz was a gospel-inflected, hard-driving Soul Funk style (Art Blakey‘s Jazz Messengers, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderley, and many others). Ray Charles is a remarkable musician who has created a style from rhythm and blues, gospel, funk jazz, and, according to the artist himself, he was deeply influenced by Nat King Cole‘s piano and vocal mannerisms which “put together so much of what I loved: jazz improvisation, pretty melodies, hot rhythms, and an occasional taste of the blues” (interview in Contemporary Keyboard, July 1980). Charles’ natural synthesis of these varied styles can be heard in Genius + Soul = Jazz (1960), Soul Brothers/Soul Meeting (1957-1958, Atlantic records), his uncredited piano playing on Percy Mayfield‘s My Jug and I (Tangerine), My Kind of Jazz (1970, Tangerine), Ray Charles Vol. II (his 1949 Los Angeles trio with guitar and bass, Everest), his several recordings with The Raelettes, and The Ray Charles Story (esp. his improvisation “Sweet Sixteen Bars,” 1956, Atlantic).

(3) The West Coast or “Cool” style was another direction in the 1950s with its rich harmonic arrangements, soft brush cymbal and stick drum technique, and players like Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Shelly Manne, the Dave Pell Octet, Shorty Rogers and his Giants, pianist-arranger-conductor André Previn, bassist Leroy Vinnegar, and clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre (esp. his experimental Tangents in Jazz, 1955).

In the late 1950s, a harmonically rich modal style developed primarily from the sound of the Miles Davis groups, used mostly by the pianist-composers Red Garland (his 1955-1956 recordings with Miles Davis, on “All Mornin’ Long,” 1957, “High Pressure,” 1957, and “Red Alone,” 1960), and Bill Evans. Evans had a unique style that was understated, subtle and delicate, but always using underlying swing. His harmonic voicings took some clues from Monk: the root would often be omitted and replaced with the higher chord tones, and Evans created an exquisite texture by building chords in fourths or sevenths in one hand and using full diatonic chords in non-root positions in the other. His right hand improvisations employed bebop runs mixed with modal arpeggios and occasional obsessive loops with offbeat accents (e.g., his “Peri’s Scope,” “Waltz for Debby,” “On Two Themes/Turn Out The Stars,” and the albums Interplay and Conversations With Myself).

Meanwhile, secluded in a quiet suburban district of Mexico City, Conlon Nancarrow spent decades composing his incomparable Studies for Player Piano (many of which have been transcribed for regular piano or orchestrated for small ensembles), punching the holes himself. These studies, of unparalleled rhythmic complexity and fascinating energy, were begun in 1949. A jazz trumpeter in the 1930s, this composer also studied world music in great detail, giving special attention to the musics of Africa and India.

One of the best known is the delightful five-movement Boogie Woogie Suite, Study Nos. 3a – 3e. No.3a ,based on traditional boogie and jazz—like Studies No. 1 – 10—but manically accelerated, eventually attains an astounding eight superimposed layers of contrapuntal activity. In the casual and polytonal 3b, the bass is a constant chromatically altered cycle, with the treble remaining in one key. Eventually the right-hand works out a more complex rhythmic relationship to the left, with several internal layers in their own individual tempi added. After the wild middle section, the boogie gently drifts off.

No. 3c has extended canonic passages that are sometimes in a steady stride-like piano style, but also with forward-lurching voices. The main melody is more of a bebop than a boogie improvisation. No. 3d is an earthy blues which becomes abstracted into chromatic gestures, recalling old-fashioned honky-tonk style. Momentarily, it breaks into a wild descending passage, but quickly resumes its leisurely “funkiness.” The last piece in the Suite, No. 3e, is even speedier than No.3a (which it vaguely recalls), has the intensity of streak lightning and roaring storms. The piece eventually thins out and becomes considerably more leisurely, trailing off during the coda.

Study No. 41 is in three parts, the last of which consists of two piano rolls played on two player pianos. Constructed in irrational tempo ratios (like Study No. 40), 41a and 41b introduce layered combinations of bebop lines at multiple tempi and pitch registers, fast glissandi, rhythmic punctuations. These develop into dense textures with the glissandi behaving like hurricanes and twisters, and the melodies becoming shattering crystalline structures. The cumulative effect is overwhelming and completely new. In Study No. 33, shifts between irrational (quarter note equaling the square root of twice 140 MM) and rational (quarter note at an irrationally fast 280 MM) tempi occur five times.

In 1974, James Tenney composed an homage to Nancarrow: a piece for piano roll entitled Spectral CANON for CONLON Nancarrow, which the dedicatee hand-punched himself from Tenney’s design. The piece is a canon in 24 parts. The point of entry for each voice, and their successive rate of acceleration and deceleration, is guided by harmonic ratios, and the just intonation tuning is based on the overtone series of the low A at 55Hz.

Player pianos and nickelodeon pianos (manufactured up through the 1920s in the U.S.) have since been replaced, or maybe updated is a better word, by the electro-mechanical MIDI-controlled piano used for recent original pieces by composer Richard Teitelbaum.

From 88 Keys to Freedom: Segues Through the History of American Piano Music
by “Blue” Gene Tyranny
© 2003 NewMusicBox