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

Like John Cage‘s magnificent Atlas Eclipticalis (1961) for one to eighty-six players, Cage’s Etudes Australes (1974-1975) for piano are composed of notes derived from star maps. The wedding of the cosmic and the products of conceptual invention (graphic notation, the principle of indeterminacy) makes this piece a brainchild of the mid-60s-mid-70s generation.

These 32 études, divided into four books, may be performed at tempi and dynamics chosen by the performer, and therefore a performance may be virtuosic or less so; Cage invites the performer to feel free to “shift gears” as may sometimes become necessary “when traveling through space“. Diamond-shaped notes or a single note at the beginning indicate keys that are to be pressed down silently for the entire étude; this is usually accomplished by placing rubber wedges to keep the key or keys depressed. The resulting un-dampened string is affected by the notes played around it, and will produce corresponding harmonic resonances.

Cage heard a tape of pianist Joseph Kubera performing the …tudes Australes and he was thrilled. He explained that Kubera played the piece without any sense of forward motion and just made sounds, something he had not yet heard any other pianist achieve with the …tudes.

Similarly universal and human-centered musical goals can be found in George Crumb‘s Makrokosmos, Vol. I, Twelve Fantasy-Pieces after the Zodiac for Amplified Piano (1972) and Vol II (1973). Crumb is a decidedly more romantic composer than Cage and derived the title from two composers of piano music he admired: Béla Bartók (his Mikrokosmos) and Claude Debussy (his Préludes for piano in 2 books of 12 works apiece).

The score is written in combinations of standard and graphic notation. Movements include “Pastorale (from the kingdom of Atlantis, ca. 10,000 B.C.) / Taurus”, “Crucifixus / Capricorn” written in the form of a cross, “Spiral Galaxy / Aquarius” notated as a spiral graphic. The second volume includes the use of a strip of paper over the piano strings to produce a buzzing sound, glass tumblers, sung and shouted passages as well as unvoiced singing, whistling, and dramatic whispering by the pianist. Some of its movements are “Ghost-Nocturne for the Druids of Stonehenge (Night-Spell II) / Virgo” which uses the chilling effect of glass tumblers to bend pitches during trills, “Agnus Dei / Capricorn” with its graphic in the form of a peace symbol with an outward circle depicting a prayer-wheel; this movement is played “very slow, like a vision; as if suspended in endless time.”

One outstanding work that has since become a very approachable classic is William Duckworth‘s Time Curve Preludes (1977-1978) for piano solo, which, in the time-honored tradition of Bach, Debussy, Crumb et al, comes in two books of twelve preludes. Similar to the effect in Cage’s …tudes Australes and Robert Ashley‘s Van Cao’s Meditation, bass keys are depressed silently and held, in this case with weights, allowing certain strings to vibrate sympathetically. Often working with alternating major and minor seconds, the modes of the Preludes are evocative of major and minor “blues” scales the composer no-doubt heard in growing up in North Carolina, as well as the folk music scales of Middle East. The rhythms vary between the lively, the lyrical, and the mysteriously contemplative.

On the West Coast in the early 70s, the Center for Contemporary Music, a non-profit public-access facility with synthesizer, film editing, and recording studios, was established at Mills College in Oakland, California. There was a program to invite one composer a month from all over the world to realize and record a piece; public studio users recorded everything from their first band record to one pianist’s dream of overtracking the Rhapsody in Blue with 16 pianos. The two beautiful grand pianos in the concert hall were rolled out for innumerable concerts: historically important was the concert given by English avant-garde pianist John Tilbury, who played many works by Cornelius Cardew and held discussions afterwards about music and politics. Composer and pianist Beth Anderson gave her graduate concert there (playing Cage, Wolff, Satie, John Dinwiddie and her own music) after having staged her opera Queen Christina (about the 16th-century lesbian Swedish royal) a year previously. Anderson’s current music evokes folk melodies of the many cultures that make up the United States, especially in her modal Piano Concerto (1997) for piano, string orchestra and marimba/drumset/percussion that beautifully evokes gospel music and early American tunefulness.

David Rosenboom, whose lively mind has created compositions using brainwave amplification and created a hierarchical music software language for the Center, is also an impressive pianist and violinist who became head of the Mills music department from 1987 to 1990. Rosenboom’s later acoustic and computer music works involve complex conceptuality such as his piano work Bell Solaris (1997-1998), which depicts the idea that the Sun rings like a bell, its waves shaping space-time. The various movements interrelate Greek myths and philosophical writings with data from GONG (the Global Oscillation Network Group).

Keyboard works by former students include Phil Harmonic‘s Timing (1979) based on one performer’s internal sense of timing: he or she calls out “change now!” when they feel the spirit move them (i.e., a certain sound texture or chord has gone on for what they feel is appropriate) and the keyboardist changes to a new (improvised) sustained sound. This piece anticipated Cage’s number pieces by almost a decade. His sense of humor is expressed in such works as B.M.O.C. (Big Man On Campus) (1972) which is a graphic score with the image of a keyboard and a huge arrow parallel to it with the indication “glissando” from bass to treble.

Paul DeMarinis, now known for his many insightful electronic and installation pieces mostly based on unusual physical phenomena, created the “Great Masters of Melody” circuit in 1979 that generated quasi-random note sequences with which a keyboardist might attempt to stay in unison using some form of musical E. S. P.—remarkably, it sometimes happens!

John Bischoff, who was one of the founders of the first interactive band for live computer music known as The Hub (Artifact recordings), and who has since been recognized for his extraordinary electronic music (e.g., The Glass Hand, 1996 on Artifact), composed his Rendezvous (1973, Lovely Music vinyl Blue Gene Tyranny, Just For The Record) for piano solo in jazzy phrases that can be freely chosen and combined. Bischoff’s live computer piece Piano 7hz (2003, on “Aperture” on 23five Inc.) builds a kind of reflective memory space in time. Two primary sound sources—a piano cluster of all 88 keys and a low organ tone—recur in their original form once every minute or so. In between, short filtered portions of those sources are reflected back in randomly timed patterns. The live electronics performer listens to these patterns and acts to bridge events by triggering additional sources and/or filling the space between events with sustained industrial ambience.

Meanwhile in the East, The New Percussion Quartet, formed in 1966 in Buffalo, New York, created yet another new angle on the prepared piano with their group composition Be Prepared (mid-70s). A pianist plays the first movement of Mozart‘s Piano Sonata in F, K. 332 (or any other Allegro movements by that composer), while preparers slowly appear onstage and begin inserting bolts, wood screws, pennies, rubber washers, etc. between the strings, transforming the Mozart sonata into a gamelan-like percussion piece.

“Lattice” (1979) was one of pianist/composer Jerry Hunt‘s root scores (another is his alchemy-inspired Sur (Doctor) John Dee, published in the 1970s avant-garde music magazine Source, No. 2) used to realize many of the composer’s performances. Each realization formed a “stream” (the dynamic pathway of an idea or impulse that leads to further action and modification). This “lattice system” enables the use of “invariant intonation-timbre features into the melody-rhythm requirements of a variable intonation-timbre structure,” a kind of spontaneous transformation accomplished by predicated gestures (listen to Lattice (stream): ordinal played by the composer on O.O.Discs “Ground/Five Mechanic Convention Streams”, Lattice on CRI, and Song Drapes on Tzadik). Much of Hunt’s music is built from the gradual transformation of repeated periodic and non-periodic sounds (“invariant gestures”), a kind of real-time signal analysis (“time-variant spectra”) accomplished through “goal sequences” that in concert took on the appearance of mysterious ceremonies of evocation and conjuring. In the piano realizations of Lattice, the goal was reinforcement and accumulation of the non-harmonic resonances of the piano resulting in variable drones, while the pianist plays “patterned deviations” (massive tone clusters, gentle chromatic notes, non-periodic telegraphing rhythms, large interval skips). Small percussion devices are often added into the mix: for his hypnotic Trapani (stream) ‘a’ (1991, recorded by Lois Svard on her Lovely Music CD With and Without Memory), the pianist wears wrist bells that shake differently with the varying speeds of tremolo rotation needed to play a progression of widespread chords.

The piano works of composer-pianist Frederic Rzewski dynamically reflect the emotions surrounding political and social struggles for freedom and basic existence. Rzewski’s “Coming Together-Attica,” for Narrator and Instruments (1972) was one of his first well-known works of this type. His piano piece The People United Will Never Be Defeated is a thrilling, virtuosic modern day classic built on 36 variations of “El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido!“. His Piano Piece No. 4 (1977) exhibits deliberate extremes of aggression and peacefulness, consonance and chromaticism, repetition and angular rhythms, high and low keyboard ranges. The “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues” (1980, played with a lot of heart by the Double Edge piano duo on CRI’s U.S. Choice) imitates the whirring and clanging of the factory mixed with the rhythmic blues of the workers. Rzewski’s De Profundis (1992) based on Oscar Wilde‘s famous and moving poem written while he was incarcerated has become another classic of protest music. The composer’s latest musical statement is the fiery “Stop the War!” (2003), from his eight-hour solo work entitled The Road.

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

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