My fascination with contemporary piano music has always been about the discovery and exploration of new concepts and ideas—musical, emotional, intellectual and technical—ideas that are far removed from those encountered in the performance of the standard keyboard repertoire. While I on occasion still perform the music of Brahms or Beethoven, I have over the past ten years performed almost exclusively the music of American experimental composers—primarily music that I have commissioned. As diverse as it is challenging, this music has led me to the unusual and the unexpected—to “other places.”
The three works on this compact disc do not share a common musical style. They do not derive from a single musical heritage. They will probably be listed in different sections in the next century’s music history books. They are together on this compact disc, however, because they all share the ability to expand the performer’s and the listener’s musical parameters in unique ways.
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Much of the music that I have performed in recent years contains some element of improvisation—cells of material used as a basis for improvisation, larger sections improvised according to given parameters, or an entire work that is composed in the style of an improvisation. Elodie Lauten’s Variations on the Orange Cycle takes this idea one step further. Lauten composed the Variations in 1991 and performed the work herself as an improvisation. She notated and revised the piece for me for the New York premiere at Merkin Hall in 1995. In order to score the piece, she recorded her improvisation on computer via MIDI for automatic transcription. The first draft was incredibly complicated—forcing her to experiment with various computer editing techniques to bring the score to a point of readability without straying too far from not only the transcription but also the ideas in the original composition. The piece is a reflected combination of transcribed improvisation and intentional notation. According to Lauten “the starting point for the Variations was the determination of a correspondence with the ‘Earth Tone’ in its 24-hour cycle frequency, represented by the vibration of the color orange or the fraction F/G, which is the basic theme to the Variations. The piece is an example of what I call Universal Mode Improvisation. The four phases are different treatments of the G fundamental: modal (phases 1 and 4), chromatic (phase 2) and polytonal (phase 3).” Lauten writes that “the piece is about the experience of time. It translates brain activity into music in ‘real time.’” After performing the Variations numerous times over a period of two years, I have come to believe that the work is also about the suspension of time. Many composers in the past fifty years have attempted to suspend the listener’s sense of time—to involve the listener so completely in the sound texture of the work, in subtle changes of material, or in non-metrical rhythms, that one is unaware of the passing of clock or metrical time. Works as diverse as Stockhausen’s Klavierstück X, Reich’s Piano Phase and Messiaen’s Quatuor pour le fin du temps play with the listener’s sense of time—as does Lauten in her richly-textured Variations. One is not aware of the passing of time but only of rich, ever-changing tapestries of sound, exploding textures, and always the hypnotic fundamental G.
Jerry Hunt’s best-known music consists of solo performances that featured his own theatrics and live electronic music, performances in which the visual and aural were inseparable and in which Hunt’s manic energy dominated. Trapani (stream) «a» shows a different side of Jerry Hunt, quieter, more contemplative, and concerned with harmonic structure, texture, and ambiance. Originally written as a solo vehicle for himself (in memory of Houston and Jill Higgins), Hunt wrote a concert version of this work for me to premiere at Merkin Hall in New York in 1991. Trapani consists of a progression of chords—each played with various kinds and degrees of tremolo, voicings, dynamics, and pedallings. The performer wears wrist bells, whose soft jingle fades in and out depending on the rate of speed of the tremolos and the hand configuration of the chord. Much of my initial work with the piece concentrated of necessity on building up the endurance to play wide-spread chords, tremolo, for more than thirteen minutes. But as I came to know the work, I became fascinated by the inevitability and absolute “rightness” of the chord changes, by the extraordinary build-up and release of tension using chords that bear no relationship to functional harmony, and by the different quality of each performance—depending on the resonance of the particular instrument and performance space. Trapani’sslowly-changing harmonies are serene in their simplicity and mesmerizing in their unfolding.
Kyle Gann’s rhythmic language is unique—developed from the multi-tempo structures of Conlon Nancarrow and Charles Ives and the dances of the Hopi, Zuni, and other Pueblo Indians. Fascinated by this unusual combination of rhythmic sources, I asked Gann to write a piano piece for me early in 1994, and premiered his Desert Sonata a year later on The Lane Series at the University of Vermont. It is the most traditional of the three works on this disc in terms of form and structure, Gann’s two-movement idea of form stemming from Beethoven’s monumental Op. 111. But it is far from traditional in terms of rhythmic and melodic materials. The first movement, “Wind,” borrows several isorhythmic techniques from Conlon Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano, and the movement ends with a brilliant, virtuosic, isorhythmic passacaglia in 41/16 meter. Gann uses the haunting melody from the “Going Home” section of the Hopi Elk Dance, quoting it almost in full (though harmonically disguised) in the latter half of the “Night” movement. On an apparent level, this work concerns the intellectual and technical challenges of conquering isorhythmic complexities. But on a deeper level, it is about the barren spaciousness of the American Southwest and about the mystical world of Hopi ceremonial music, a world that I became deeply involved in as a result of studying this work and the Elk Dance on which it is based. Gann’s juxtaposition of widely divergent musical ideas creates an atmosphere that is both compelling and mysteriously enchanting.
If certain works from the nineteenth century, such as the Liszt Sonata or the Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata, are the Mt. Everests of the piano repertoire to conquer, then these three special works from our own time are the new worlds to discover—uncharted, unexplored places.
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Lois Svard has received critical acclaim for her performances of contemporary piano music. Her affinity for American experimental music has led her to commission and premiere works by many experimental composers including Robert Ashley, Alvin Lucier, William Duckworth, Annea Lockwood, “Blue” Gene Tyranny and David First. She is currently on the faculty at Bucknell University where she teaches piano and a seminar on creativity. Her performances can be heard on Lovely Music, Ltd., and Composers Recordings, Inc.
Well-known as a composer, artist and producer, Elodie Lauten’s multimedia operas, performance pieces, installations, electronic music, chamber music and soundtracks have earned her a reputation as “one of the leading postminimal composers” (The Village Voice). She has received support from Meet the Composer, ASCAP, the National Endowment for the Arts, and commissions from Lincoln Center, the Elinor Coleman Dance Company and David Hockney. She studied composition with LaMonte Young and electronic music at New York University. Her music can be heard on O.O. Discs, Nonsequitur, Tellus, Silenzio, Polygram/Point, Capitol and New Tone.
Jerry Hunt (1943–1993) was not known to the musical mainstream, but he had a devoted following. An accomplished pianist, he began to experiment with extended playing techniques after meeting John Cage in the 1960s. He was also knowledgeable about electrical engineering and computer programming, and he designed, built, and programmed much of his own equipment and worked as a technical consultant to the audio and video industry. He was best known for a series of solo performances that featured theatrics and live electronic music based on “interrelated electronic, mechanic and social sound-sight interactive transactional systems.” His music can be heard on O. O. Discs and Video OO.
Kyle Gann has been the new-music critic for the Village Voice since 1986. His books include The Music of Conlon Nancarrow (Cambridge University Press, 1995) and American Music in the Twentieth Century (Schirmer Books, 1997). He received a 1994 commission from Music in Motion for his Astrological Studies, and a 1996–97 National Endowment for the Arts Individual Artists’ Fellowship. He is currently music historian at Bard College and has also taught at Columbia Unversity and Brooklyn College. His music can be heard on the Monroe Street and New Tone labels.
Producer: Lois Svard
Co-producer: Kyle Gann (for “Desert Sonata”)
Editing and mastering: Tom MacCluskey
Engineer: Rusty Richards
Cover painting: Rosalyn Richards (“Mountain Region”)
Photo: Melissa Richard
This recording was made possible in part by a grant from Bucknell University.
Recorded October 11, 12, 13, 1996, and January 12 & 13, 1997 on Steinway piano no. 134676 in The Weis Center for the Performing Arts at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
Recording equipment included: Audio Technica ATM 10a omni microphones to an Audio Media Research VMP-2 microphone pre-amp to an Apogee 500 to a Sony PCM 2500 DAT recorder. Edited and mastered with Sonic Solutions’ SonicStudio™ (Version 5.1) at the BMG Studios in New York City by Tom MacCluskey.
Art Direction and Design: By Design
Copyright © 1995 Elodie Lauten (ASCAP)
Copyright © 1989 Jerry Hunt
Copyright © 1995 Kyle Gann/Monroe Street Music (ASCAP)
© P 1997 Lovely Music, Ltd.
LCD 3052 [D] [D] [D]