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

The Bob James Trio (Bob James on piano, Barre Phillips on bass, and Robert Pozar on percussion) combined advanced jazz and electronic music on their ESP release Explosions (1965). The trio uses taped electronic music by Gordon Mumma (Peasant Boy) and Robert Ashley (Untitled Mixes, and The Wolfman (1964) which uses electronic feedback as a positive musical element; the non-aggressive vocalist is a “sinister nightclub singer” who has lived under tremendous unspecified social pressures). The Trio also plays their own works using a variety of avant-garde techniques.

Sun Ra, born in 1914 in Chicago, but always claiming that he was born on the planet Saturn, formed his own swing band in the 1930s and toured the southern states. After arranging for many big bands in the 1940s, he formed his Arkestra in the early 1950s, an ensemble that reflected his personal philosophy (derived from his studies of the Bible, Egyptology and outer space) in their collective free improvisations, perfectly described as “roof-raising” by Cole Gagne in Interviews with American Composers, Vol. II. The band also performed classics by Jelly Roll Morton, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington, as well as Sun Ra’s hard-bop original compositions. Sun Ra was an astonishing keyboardist both on piano and synthesizers, and was one of the first performers on the Moog synthesizer. His twenty-minute synthesizer solo improvisation entitled “The Cosmic Explorer” (1970) (on the 1981 Recommended Records album Nuits de la Fondation Maeght) ranges between high-energy clusters and lyrical passages, and demonstrates his ability to create an astonishing range of sound and emotion.

The 1966 ESP album entitled Cosmic Equation (re-issued on a Magic Music CD) went light years beyond “free jazz” to create a music of deeply felt explosive and gentle gesture made from sound itself without reference to previous notions of melody or harmony. Other remarkable albums by the Arkestra include The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Vol. 1 (1965, ESP), “nothing is…” (1966, ESP, re-issued as “Dancing Shadows” 1990 Magic Music), and the Voice of the Eternal Tommorrow / The Rose Hue Mansions of the Sun (re-issued 1980, Saturn 80) which contains an end solo by Sun Ra that is so “out there” that the audience sits in stunned silence before applauding. The Rose Hue Mansions of the Sun begins with a high-energy loose-rhythm chordal hymn by the group, and segues into another incredible 20-minute synthesizer solo by Sun Ra himself, punctuated by the band, leading unceasingly into the most unpredictable zones as Sun Ra demonstrates his mastery of electronic modulation.

Sun Ra’s piano solo style, as unique as Monk’s, is best heard on Solo Piano, Vol. 1 (1977, re-issued on Improvising Artists, two CDs, 1992). Even when he recalls styles from his past, the piece will always have a noticeable edge. “Space Towers” is a fantastical, ominous hard-bop fantasy with harsh pointed attacks and poignant counter-rhythms, somewhat like the curious miniatures that Bud Powell was composing near the end of his life; “Skylight” is a 1940s-type ballad with chromatic expansions; “Blue Differentials” is a terrific short bop solo with an exciting admixture of shifting long, fast, and middle duration triplets in both solo line and brass-section-like chordal passages; in “Monorails and Satellites” we are again in “Space is the Place” territory with chromatic fugato passages and futuristic impressionism; “The Galaxy Way” opens on high crystalline, constellation-like depictions, and soon descends into planet-centered funky dissonant rhythms against a walking bass.

In 1961, the Arkestra left Chicago and settled in New York City. In 1962, The Experimental Band, headed by the widely respected pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, was meeting in a tavern on South Cottage Grove Avenue and by open invitation drawing many musicians interested in advanced music (combinations of third stream, serialist, free jazz, polytonal and complex chromatic styles) that drew nourishment from African roots. Inspired partly by the example of New York’s musician cooperative called the Jazz Composers Guild, in 1965, four musicians from the bop and free jazz traditions—Muhal Richard Abrams; drummer Steve McCall; pianist Jodie Christian trumpeter Phil Cohran—formed the AACM, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and had it chartered as a non-profit organization and school to meet the creative and artistic goals of Chicago musicians—and also to generate economic self-determination among them. “The AACM came out of the Chicago ghetto and spread around the world” (Muhal Richard Abrams). “The atmosphere in the AACM is such that there are no limitations on the things you can do” (tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman).

A gifted pianist, Muhal Richard Abrams’ composition Piano Duet #1 can be heard on The Visibility of Thought (Mutable Music). This richly chromatic work maintains a sophisticated imitation between the instruments throughout, and an exciting play of running passages, both high and fragile and balladic in their timbres. Abrams remarkable 30-minute Piano Improvisation on this same recording unfolds in long, exquisite melodies.

Meanwhile, around 1960, a few hundred miles away from Chicago in the small midwestern city of Ann Arbor, Michigan, something was brewing in the minds of several composers and visual artists, a few architects, writers and scientists, and a bunch of teenagers who hadn’t identified themselves as anything in particular yet. To make a lively but dense story lucid, out of everyday meetings and discussions, lots of parties and phone calls, the on-going manifestations called ONCE were born.

There was not only a yearly ONCE Festival presenting the newest concert music (including an early concert by John Cage and David Tudor who by then had initiated and been performing live electronic music for several years, and a concert by jazz legend Eric Dolphy with the Bob James group), dance (the Judson Dance Group), film (which eventually led to the establishment of the Ann Arbor Independent Film Festival), and avant-garde music theatre. There was also a constant flurry of advertised and non-advertised street events (Mary Ashley’s TRUCK at the beach, outside a formal concert, at the opening of a hip pop-art gallery, even at a wrestling event in Detroit), benefits for political causes, tours of the ONCE Group, interchange concerts, collaborations with visiting artists, groups, dancers and composers from many countries, ONCE Friends concerts, the twice weekly visual improvisations at Milton Cohen’s Space Theatre, re-definition of public events as artistic ones, etc. (A window on some of this mass activity can be enjoyed in the 5-CD set Music From The ONCE Festival, 1961-1966 on New World). During these festivals, many important keyboard works were presented.

Robert Ashley’s Sonata (1959; 1979, the three movements of which were later played simultaneously on my own album Just For The Record) which uses the accumulated resonance of tone rows to build changing harmonies from single events), and “Details” (1962) for two pianists, and one of his graphic works—apparently realized by the piano tuner for the Festival explaining the history and details of the instrument and, in a Marshall McLuhan-esque fashion, predicting how long the piano could be expected to exist before becoming obsolete. Ashley had previously composed the “Maneuvers for Small Hands” (1961), a kind of purposefully arcane lesson book of 110 index cards on the avant-garde, performed at one Festival more or less as a theatre piece using the piano as a central prop.

Gordon Mumma‘s Mographs (e.g., “Large Size Mograph,” 1962) were realized in different sizes for various combinations of pianos. Each Mograph was composed from seismographic recordings of P-wave and S-wave patterns of earthquakes and underground explosions, the composer being interested in the similarity of the time-travel patterns of those waves and sound-reflection characteristics of music halls. After many years of creating exclusively electro-acoustic music, Mumma has composed recently new piano pieces including a “Song Without Words” (1996) in memory of David Tudor, built of slow chromatically modulating cycles (published in the magazine 20th Century Music, Nov. 1996).

Roger Reynolds contributed the serially composed and technically complex piano work Epigram and Evolution (1959, performed by Robert Ashley at the 1962 Festival), his Fantasy for Pianist (1964), and employed the piano in several of his early ensemble works.

According to composer Donald Scavarda, his Groups for Piano (1959) examines the question “How short can a piece be and still be perceived as complete and coherent?” The work’s five groups of different lengths add up to fifty-five seconds. Scarvarda is also well known for his discovery and early compositional use of multiphonics in his “Matrix” for Clarinetist (1962).

On Feb. 16, 1963, Canadian pianist Donald Bohlen played George Cacioppo’s “Pianopieces I and II” and “Cassiopeia” at the ONCE Festival. “Pianopiece I, ” written using standard notation, creates many fascinating textures—tone clusters and harmonics—and explores complex tempo relationships. “Pianopiece II” is a mixture of graphic and standard notations in four varied sound structures. “Cassiopeia,” in visually exciting graphic notation based on the star constellation, contains single notes with dynamics indicated by their size and embedded pitch areas as well as zones of ambiguity, suggesting connection and complex wandering and discovery.

Piano concerts at ONCE were also given by Paul Jacobs, who primarily introduced new European composers, and by Ashley and Mumma, who gave a concert of works by George Brecht, Terry Jennings, Bruce Wise, Udo Kasemets, Mary Tsaltas (Mary Ashley’s maiden name), and Barney Childs. Pianist Larry Leitch participated often in the Festival, and played electric piano in the ONCE Group’s 1965 theatre event Unmarked Interchange which took place on top of a car parking structure; the set was designed like a drive-in movie (the Fred Astaire film Top Hat was projected) but one in which the screen would periodically reveal activities behind panels (like the windows of an apartment house): a man lifting weights, several people in a bed reading a play out loud, Leitch playing the piano, etc. I myself improvised on the electric piano for the interludes in Ashley’s opera That Morning Thing (1967), where the assignment was to gradually construct a song around the irrational pulse spoken by a woman vocalist (similar to the quasi-random commands of the four mysterious businessmen speaking into electronic valises and guiding the creature dancers in the section entitled “Frogs”),

The Fluxus group of the 1960s was a loose confederation of musicians, visual artists, and theatre people hailing from New York, New Jersey, and parts of Europe. They created many verbal instruction scores, strange physical objects (there was even a Fluxus store in New York for a while), and staged many happenings, events, and installations. Frequently, in a spirit of non-virtuosoism, visual artists would improvise piano works, or employ the piano as an icon. Some of these pieces can be heard on the Tellus cassette “Audio Works By Visual Artists” which contain pieces from the Futurists of the 1910s though the 1990s.

Other works of this sort can be found in Flies In The Face Of Logic (Pogus CD, 1994), which offers twenty-three tracks for, or rather, about the piano by three artists, none of whom play the piano. Five tracks by Steve MacLean include a 4-second extravaganza in which a piano is dropped from a 100-ft. crane. (Don’t try this at home: tense stretched strings with thousands of pounds per square inch when snapped fly dangerously). There are also little melodious compositions made from sampled string scratching, striking, hand mute, etc. of piano bodies and strings.

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