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

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

In avant-garde concert music, a generational attraction to drone-inspired, modal, repetitive (often “closed loop”) music was taking place with composer-performers like La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Terry Jennings, Dennis Johnson and Philip Krumm. The modal sense not only included the traditional seven Gregorian modes but also scales from world and pop music, as well as alternative tunings.

Terry Jennings played saxophone, clarinet, violin and piano, and was influenced in his early years not only by Cage‘s music (whose Sonatas and Interludes he played with his mom), by Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and by the modes of Indian classical music. At some point in the early 60s he met people who were considered in the avant-garde in New York, such as La Monte Young and Richard Maxfield, a composer of elegant electronic music (he made his piece Wind from the mechanical and breath sounds of Terry Jennings’ sax), and who helped to present Jennings’ music. His peaceful, meditative and entirely original Piano Piece (1958) is one of the earliest works of what is sometimes called the “music of extended duration” (La Monte Young’s Trio for Strings (1958) is considered the seminal work in this style). The piece is played at a very slow tempo; simple intervals overlap to gradually form beautiful but technically dissonant chords. Certain interval-based sonorities hold while others disappear, creating a strange, lonely effect. His subsequent Piano Piece (1960) employs similar techniques, but this time has no tempo marking, each chord held until it fades, with the sustaining pedal depressed throughout. His Song, also from 1960, has a touching melody in Lydian mode and a rhythmic drone which has a slow non-pulsed shifting quality like a tamboura accompanying the first part (alap) of a raga where no tempo has yet been established.

“Winter Trees” (1965), also scored for piano, is a set of free tempo arpeggiated modal chords and small melodic ideas. The harmonies, which are modulated enharmonically, are startlingly beautiful, much like each change (at the rate of about one per minute) of the sustained harmonies of Jennings’ ethereal String Quartet. Another piano work, “Winter Sun” (1966), was written after a long improvisation while Jennings was living with his family in a fruitarian desert community in Agua Caliente, Arizona—one he eventually left because the members of this religious cult wanted his family to “wear white robes with a yellow waist band and a red strip on it … we decided we weren’t welcome anymore and we left” (Village Voice, January 11, 1968). Like his original improvisation, this piece can be repeated “over and over” and is built from three ideas: (1) simple grace note inflections of a D major 9th chord, (2) two pedaled chords leading to a single held note, (3) two arpeggiated chords in free tempo. The effect can only be described as mesmerizing. Jennings’ music in the 1970s turned toward a kind of neo-romantic style (e.g. his song cycle The Seasons, 1975).

Terry Riley has played improvised music his whole life: in the late 50s he played in an improvising trio with Pauline Oliveros (French horn rather than accordion in those days), and Loren Rush (koto and double bass) that had a somewhat serialist sound; with La Monte Young he performed graph scores like the Concert for Two Pianists and Tape Recorders (1960, later published in Young’s An Anthology in 1963) with its mysterious symbols designed to inspire spontaneous associations, leading to musical and theatrical realizations. Influenced by gamelan and Indian classical music, Riley was soon to invent his highly individual work using from repeated patterns and modal scales. His famous composition In C (1964), scored for any ensemble of tempered instruments, is his purest example of this pattern or cyclic music style.

In his famous improvisational keyboard piece, A Rainbow in Curved Air (1968), Riley developed several techniques for varying the patterns: offsetting or displacing the pattern by several steps in reference to the pulse or another pattern; “pyramiding” by stacking the same pattern against itself on different steps; selecting fragments from a pattern and creating brief loops of that fragment/sample; playing a pattern in eighth notes against a pattern in sixteenths or quarters etc.; playing ascending or descending modal chords slowly against patterns. (Another type of pattern displacement technique also existed in 1930s arrangements by Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, and in Ellington‘s “Creole Rhapsody” (1931) with its over-the-bar cycles). Riley’s earlier experience as a jazz pianist is celebrated in his “Ragtempus Fugatis” (1994, in book 7 of The Heaven Ladder) for which his memory of playing with the legendary ragtime pianist Wally Rose in San Francisco in 1961 generated a ragtime piece in a fugal structure. Riley’s other recent piano music ranges from extensive compositions in alternate tunings, such as The Harp of New Albion, to improvisations that span across numerous musical styles.

In the early 1960s, many artists of all sorts created verbal pieces that were descriptions or instructions for elaborate street theatre (e.g. George Brecht‘s “Motor Vehicle Sundown Event,” Walter De Maria‘s “Beach Crawl”), for poetic inspirations (Yoko Ono‘s work), absurdist theatre (Dick Higgins‘ plays, Henry Flynt‘s “Work Such That No One Knows What Is Going On”), political satire, fantastical musings, meditative imagery, etc.

La Monte Young, like Anthony Philip Heinrich, is a log cabin-identified composer, in his case having been born in one in Idaho. He says that all he knew until high school was cowboy music, and then his high school harmony teacher introduced him to the music of Schoenberg and Bartók, and later at Los Angeles City College he was introduced to Webern‘s music. At that point, Young gave up playing jazz on his sopranino saxophone, and discovered the possibilities of improvising with the natural harmonic series and just intonation.

Young created several verbal pieces that involved the piano and pianists: the “Piano Piece for Terry Riley #1” (1960) asked the performer to push a piano against a wall (and even potentially through it) until the performer is exhausted; “Piano Piece for David Tudor #1” (1960) involves feeding the piano with a bale of hay and bucket of water; “Piano Piece for David Tudor #2” (1960) describes manipulating the keyboard cover without making any sound or providing any explanation to the audience; and “Piano Piece for David Tudor #3” (1960) simply offers the Zen-like observation “most of them were very old grasshoppers”.

Two other short verbal instruction pieces by Young fall under the category of “music of extended duration”: the “Composition 1960 #10” to Bob Morris which simply gives the profound instruction to “Draw a straight line and follow it”, and the “Composition 1960 #7” which is a musical staff upon which is written the open fifth interval of B and F-sharp with the direction “to be held a long time”. This particular tuning is close to both the first two notes of the tambura drone tuning for any of the potential ragas of Indian music, and the fundamental and first overtone of the drone heard in electrical appliances operating at 60Hz throughout North America. The aura of this mysterious drone with no beginning and no end was further celebrated in Young’s “The Second Dream of The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer” from The Four Dreams of China (harmonic version 1963, melodic version 1984) recently recorded by The Theatre of Eternal Music Brass Ensemble with eight trumpets bearing Harmon mutes who play long sustained tones. That complex of frequencies “can be isolated in the harmonic structures of the sounds of power plants and telephone poles”. Long, slowly drifting or finely tuned drones are also the basis of Young’s Dream House installations of continuous sound and light (by Marian Zazeela) that last for several weeks.

In 1964, Young began two projects which continue up to the present: The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys for voices, various instruments and sine waves (which has appeared under many titles and realizations), and The Well-Tuned Piano with its complex just intonation tunings and novel improvisation techniques.

With sections titled “The Shimmering Pool”, “Hommage á Ravel”, “Blues for Eurydice”, “Orpheus and Eurydice in the Elysian Fields”, “The Fountain”, “Homage á Debussy”, “Sunlight Filtering through Leaves”, “Homage to Brahms”, The Well-Tuned Piano is a more than 300-minute work with about 400 sections including blues breaks. The initial tuning is based on a chord in Young’s “Early Tuesday Morning Blues,” which arose in improvisations for sopranino saxophone, vocal drones, and other instruments conducted between 1962 and 1964. From that initial tuning Young worked out a set of frequency relationships, and eventually taught pianist-composer Michael Harrison (who also employs microtonal spectra in his own works) to tune the precise frequencies, allowing Young to concentrate on the inherent musical links, expansions and interrelations between the parts of a live performance. The tuning and musical patterns induce otherworldly sensations within the listener, attempting to open a spiritual window on the eternal, perhaps a sense of reality more in line with the four-dimensional space-time of physics which “makes no provisions whatever for either a ‘present moment’ or a ‘movement’ of time, ” according to P.C.W. Davies in The Physics of Time Asymmetry.

Ben Johnston studied with John Cage, Darius Milhaud, and Harry Partch, the legendary instrument builder-composer who, in his seminal book Genesis of a Music, produced an intensive re-consideration of and practical thought about tuning. Johnston based his “extended just intonation” tuning on Partch’s concepts, although their music is quite different. His Sonata for Microtonal Piano/Grindlemusic (1965) tunes the piano to eighty-one different pitches with only seven consonant octaves (for comparison, Johnston’s String Quartet employs a 53-tone just intonation scale). This piece has two “versions” that follow each other: Sonata (which follows the traditional form: sonata-allegro, scherzo, slow movement, finale with each movement in the unusual ballad form AABA) and “Grindlemusic” (which conforms to a re-shuffled sonata order: finale/Premises, sonata-allegro/Questions, slow movement/Soul Music, and scherzo/Mood Music). The tuning is the same for the two versions, but the two different musical approaches make one version sound acceptable and the other grotesque. In Sonata, the music and tuning generate a spectrum of timbral edges from relatively smooth 3rds and 5ths, to sharper harmonically compound chords, and finally explores chromatic and enharmonic intervals that sound disturbingly out-of-tune. The other side of this “Janus-faced piece” is Grindlemusic which serves as the Sonata’s nemesis or alter-ego: here the pitches are chosen by a 12-tone system which ignores the tuning thereby creating a strangely grotesque sound and rhythms are transformed through complex metrical modulations. Fascinating and complex rhythmic proportions are also explored in Johnston’s Knocking Piece for Grand Piano Interior (1962), in which the players are free to choose the different surfaces, and the sustaining pedal is used for additional timbral color. Johnston has also composed a Suite for Microtonal Piano (1978) and Twelve Partials (1980) for flute and microtonal piano, as well as several impressive vocal works (Calamity Jane To Her Daughter, the opera Gertrude or Would She Be Pleased To Receive It?), as well as the early pieces for jazz band entitled “Ivesberg Revisited” (1960) and “Newcastle Troppo” (1960).

Philip Krumm was an early pioneer in modal, repetitive pattern music with such innovative compositions as Music for Clocks (1962) for multiple clocks/metronomes and orchestra (recorded in the newly released Music From the Once Festival 1961-1966, New World Records, 2003), and his “Sound Machine” (1966, formerly on Irida), a mysterious and charming electronic composition that suggests a living being with a gently insistent pulse, more like a purr, who sometimes emits quasi-random tiny beeps and sighs.

Krumm’s remarkable Piano Variations (1962) are all performed using only one mid-range root position C major chord. The “variations” are in the complex fingering changes that affect the pressure—and consequently the timbre—of the chord. The score of Krumm’s Formations for piano (1961-1962, recorded on IDEA Records, 2003), based on star maps, is unfolded like a long Japanese scroll book and is covered with lattices which connect pitches; the notation looks like some celestial pathway. Movement occurs from note to note following straight lines in any direction; the notes are written modally on the white keys without accidentals, which may be added by the performer (similar to the medieval musica ficta practice of keeping melodies in the same shape but changing their modes by the addition or subtraction of flats and sharps, used then to generate final sounding cadences).

Krumm’s “Banshee Fantasy” for piano solo (1996) pays homage to Henry Cowell‘s “The Banshee.” Krumm employs several techniques used by Cowell (forearm tone clusters, scrapping across the strings, glissandi along a string, silently depressed chords) and adds others (patting hands randomly or using guitar slides on the strings, fast keyboard gestures held with the sustaining pedal resonate beneath subsequent playing on the inside strings, etc.). Recently, Krumm has created over eighty electronic pattern music miniatures under the title Secret Pleasures, and has composed a Concerto for Bassoon (recorded on Opus One).

Steve Reich‘s pattern works for the keyboard include the Piano Phase (1967) for two pianos or two marimbas, and Four Organs (1970) for four electric organs and maracas. Jazz was important in Reich’s early life, and from experience and others he derived the unchanging pulse in most of his instrumental works. His writing has a more propulsive and percussive edge than works by Riley or Philip Glass. Perhaps the culmination of his use of the piano as percussion is Six Pianos, a work inspired by Reich’s desire to create a work for all the pianos in a piano store.

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

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