Art and music improvisation: an observation and reflection

Watching an art and music improvisation session reminded me of the various collaborations I’ve had with artists in London, Utrecht, Crete, and Brugges. It’s about the process.

As a finishing touch to my recent application for an innovation grant, I asked the Maui-based artist Mike Takemoto if he would consider having his students collaborate with mine. I was thinking along the lines of an exhibit of paintings of musicians, music instruments, or music notes. It would be an extension of the piano ensemble poster exhibit that I “curated” and organized with the photography teacher Harvey Reed and his photo and design students last spring. Such interdisciplinary collaboration raised awareness of the activities we wanted to promote.

Continue reading “Art and music improvisation: an observation and reflection”

Reflection of string quartet concert of Sarn Oliver et al

A post-concert reception is just as important as a pre-concert talk. The first and last piece of the concert cannot be exchanged with the same effect of the performance.

After attending an Ebb & Flow Arts concert, more and more I find myself unable to write a review about the entire performance.

From a pragmatic point of view, the concert is very unlikely to be repeated at the same venue, in the same format, or by the same performers. Each program is unique. What purpose does a review of a one-off concert serve? A validation for the performers, composers, and the producer? A reminder for those who attended? A snapshot for those who missed the concert? A video recording would perhaps do a better job.

To put it mildly, a review will not do justice to the live performance of Saturday 10 August 2013 on Maui. Neither would a video recording. But I shall “reflect” so that I can remember and share.

A concert of what I call “music of our time” is oddly also music that is unfamiliar to the general public who are accustomed to hearing amplified familiar sounding music. On Maui, occasions to hear unfamiliar music are not only few and far between but also extremely rare, such that every concert fetches a full house. Sadly one would have to repeat the experience several times to fully appreciate the music and the nuances.

Last evening’s string quartet concert at the new creative arts center of Seabury Hall, a high school at nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, is no exception. The concert goer’s journey begins with the drive uphill, a steep and curvaceous ascent towards the famous Haleakala. Despite it being my second visit to this private institution, I was still awed by the fairytale, fortress-like environment — the manicured lawn and gardens, architecturally designed buildings and interiors, all along the path from the parking lot to the A’ali’ikuhunoa Creative Arts Center. The hall, which opened in September 2012, is very modern and open, reminding me of the newer concert venues in the Netherlands where the inside and outside are almost seamlessly interfaced.

I highly recommend getting there an hour early for the pre-concert talk. Although the half-hour talk by Ebb & Flow Art’s founder and artistic director, Robert Pollock, and one or two members of the performing musicians is optional, it generally helps to prepare yourself for what to listen for and understand the choice of music and its programming. Selecting music and putting the pieces in an optimal order is an art. Before seeing the program notes, I could only guess at the possible ways to arrange the order of the compositions: chronological order, reverse chronological order, or alternating tempos (fast, slow, fast, etc). The art of programming for a concert surely deserves a blog post or an update to an earlier research on a related topic.

As a member of the privileged audience, I am reminded that a free concert like this is not to be taken for granted. Someone has to come up with the concept, get the funding to bring the musicians here and publicize the concert. The choice of music is not a coincidence but a deliberate undertaking.

The concert of August 10, 2013 featured two world premieres, compositions by the first violinist Sarn Oliver, and one Hawaii premiere, the rich romantic String Quartet #1 (1946) of George Walker, the honorary president of Ebb and Flow Arts. The string quartet opened with Igor Stravinsky’s Three Pieces from 1914, a work I consider a warm-up, for it was dominated by other more powerful and memorable pieces as time wore on. It’s not uncommon to begin a concert with a warm up or a short overture to introduce what is to come. To swap Stravinsky with the last piece in the program, Shostakovich’s String Quartet #8, would be obviously wrong. But I could imagine Sarn Oliver’s UnderTow for electric string quartet as the last piece, for it made me want to dance. Nonetheless, ending the concert with Shostakovich’s most famous string quartet brings a finality to the evening. String Quartet number 8 is hailed as autobiographical with the initials of the composer, translated into the German letters D,Es,C,H and retranslated into the notes D, E-flat, C and B, a melancholic motif which is repeated throughout the five movement work.

The function of a post-concert gathering is quite different from that of a pre-concert talk: to meet and get to know the musicians. It is perfectly acceptable to stay after the performance, walk back stage to greet and meet the musicians, thank and congratulate them, and even provide some feedback. As a concert producer and performer, I would insist that the audience stay and mingle, for they bring the perspective I long to hear in my preparation for the next concert.

How would I summarize this concert? The highlights for me were the spectacular, modern venue; George Walker’s String Quartet #1, Sarn Oliver’s electric quartet piece, and Shostakovich’s String Quartet #8. In fact, these are the three works I’d like to hear again.

Ebb & Flow Arts present North South East West Festival 2013

Seabury Hall, Makawao
August 10 @ 7:30 pm

Chamber Music from San Francisco

Sarn Oliver, violin
Mariko Smiley, violin
David Kim, viola
Sebastien Gingras, cello

Tree Pieces (1914) – Igor Stravinsky

Transparence and Transcendance ** (2013) – Sarn Oliver

String Quartet #1* (1946) – George Walker

UnderTow** for electric string quartet (2013) – Sarn Oliver

String Quartet #8 (1960) – Dmitri Shostakovich

Pre-concert talk Pollock and Corigliano in Ebb and Flow Arts concert by Duo Diorama

Pre-concert talk of unfamiliar music, particularly of premieres, is an essential part of the concert-going experience.

During the July 13th, 2013 pre-concert talk led by composer Robert Pollock and pianist Winston Choi, the old church at the south-south-western most beach of Maui filled up quickly. It was interesting to observe some early birds to the 7:30 pm concert arriving late to the 6:30 pm talk but searching anxiously for a seat in the wooden pews. I found a nice spot near the west window through which I’d hoped to see the setting sun, but my view of the musicians was soon blocked by the latecomers.

In describing his inspiration for writing his Duo No. 6, a violin piano piece dedicated to his wife of 44 years, Robert Pollock demonstrated Wagner’s famous Tristan chord on the piano. This chord is the subject of many discussions in music analysis and composition. Pollock, who founded the Ebb & Flow Arts organization that introduces, commissions, promotes, and produces live concerts featuring music of living composers, then added a bottom note and a top note to the chord. Surprisingly, the new chord no longer sounded atonal. Even untrained ears can tolerate the resulting chord. He then showed how Scriabin used the expanded chord that gave to jazz harmony.

While the Tristan chord may have sounded dissonant when it was first introduced in Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde, our modern ears have gotten used to it. Perhaps this is one reason to challenge our ears to unfamiliar sounds, for it expands our listening.

Choi described Pollock’s new work “organic to play physically, everything was tied to one another, a natural progression like a living being.” All the discussion around this piece made me very curious — what does the score look like? Could it be shown on screen during the pre-concert talk?

Later during the concert, I listened for derivatives of the Tristan chord, the tension and the resolution, and the occasional moments of tenderness, that sweet longing expressed by violinist Ming Huan Xu’s sensitive playing. This was a modern love song, of “emotions not yet felt” and harmonies that need to be heard again and again. The world premiere of Robert Pollock’s Duo No. 6 (2013) by Duo Diorama preceded the final piece in a well-put-together program of modern works by Zupko, Stravinsky, Ruo, Pollock, and Corigliano.

The other very interesting, perhaps still unknown, story told during the pre-concert talk concerned John Corigliano’s Violin Sonata. I had not come across the story in my pre-concert research, only appearing briefly in the description of the score: “This work, although dedicated to his parents, was much despised by Corigliano’s father. In fact his father discouraged any attempts at composition. This work, composed in 1963, augurs much to come in the development of his compositional style. The piece won first prize in the 1964 Spoleto Festival Competition for Creative Arts (Walter Piston and Samuel Barber were on the panel).” The work was the turning point not only for Corigliano as a composer but his relationship with his father, who played it as often as he could for the rest of his life.

For me, the pre-concert talk is an essential part of the concert-going experience. Despite the very comprehensive and well-written program notes given before the concert, my earlier research, and my meeting the performers the evening before, I did not know what to listen for. Now that I’ve heard Mischa Zupko’s Trigger (2005), Huang Ruo’s The Invisible Compass (2012), and Pollock’s new work, I lament that there will be a time lag before I can hear them online. As for Stravinsky’s Duo Concertante (1931) and Corigliano’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (1963), just google to get youtube recordings.

Post-concert recordings

Nearly a month after the concert, people are still raving about it. The CD recording brought back fond memories of that evening of standing room only on Maui.

A CD arrived in the post about 4 weeks after the concert. Listening to it brought back memories of that action-packed, full-house evening. The guests started arriving more than an hour before the concert. Half-an hour before it began, the hall was full. Minutes before the concert, I saw the “reserved for pianists only” seats taken by two ladies who read the cards but ignored the request.

It was every concert producer’s dream: standing room only.

Perhaps it was the rigor of concert promotion effort or the success of previous year’s piano concert or both, the outcome was impressive. Nearly a month later, my hairdresser mentioned that she heard about this concert though she was not able to attend herself. One of her customers raved about it.

I was warned that seats would be taken early for the 7:30 pm concert at Maui Music Conservatory, on the second floor of the Queen Ka’ahumanu Mall in Kahului, the capital of Maui County. “Piano Synergy” was the name of this concert, which, for us 6 pianists, actually began 4 months earlier with Sunday afternoon group rehearsals.

On Saturday 14th July at 7:30 pm, Ebb & Flow Arts, the non-profit arts organization on Maui, presented that one-hour concert (without intermission) of original works for many pianos, including the premiere of a new piece it commissioned for this occasion.

The composer Thomas Osborne was not only present for this premiere but also played one of the parts: Piano 1. Aptly titled “Canyons,” it began with Piano 4, nearly always in forte or fortissimo and definitely always the loudest of all 4 pianos. Piano 3 echoed Piano 4 but slightly softer. I played Piano 2, even softer. Piano 1 was nearly always pianissimo. This method of imitation in terraced dynamics continues until an augmentation, a spacing out of the repeated passages. Listen below.

Canyons as performed by Beatrice Scorby, Robert Pollock, Anne Ku, and Thomas Osborne (mp3)

The last work to be performed that evening of the celebration of French independence on Bastille Day was none other than Darius Milhaud’s 4-piano work “Paris.” Wearing my dry-cleaned black silk dress purchased in Paris in summer of 2009, I stood up to introduce this 6-movement work. It was, without doubt, one that required the most study of all works selected for this concert.

“And now, for the piece d’ resistance, Paris, which is the raison d’etre for tonight!” There were French-speakers in the audience who were glad to help my pronunciation. Before each movement, I introduced that part of Paris and what to listen for. After Montmartre came L’isle St Louis. On a foggy day, you can hear the church bells of Notre Dame and nearby churches. Sometimes you can hear they are out of tune!

L’isle St Louis from Paris by Darius Milhaud (mp3)

Longchamp refers to the race courses. The composer chose a fugue to represent that. A fugue literally means a chase. You can hear it getting faster and more intense.

Longchamp from Paris by Darius Milhaud (mp3)

The recordings were made by John Messersmith for Ebb & Flow Arts.

Canyons by Thomas Osborne

Tonight we 4 pianists premiere a new 4 piano work by Thomas Osborne, assistant professor of composition and theory at University of Hawaii Manoa. It will be the highlight of a program of works for 2 and 4 pianos by 6 pianists in celebration of French Independence Day and John Cage’s 100th birthday on Maui.

We six pianists first met on Sunday 4th March 2012 in Ruth Murata’s Maui Music Conservatory. Ebb & Flow Arts had commissioned a new piece for 4 pianos. As time marched on, we got anxious if we’d get the score in time to study individually and then rehearse as a group.

As with all new music, the approach is to first scan it, assess the difficulty and amount of time required to study it. We’d identify the challenging areas and spend more time studying them than the rest. We’d use a metronome to ensure we keep to a steady beat.

When we got together to rehearse on subsequent Sunday afternoons, we’d notice that the music for 4 pianos was quite different from the single score we were given to study. After studying Milhaud’s Paris, Busby’s Four!, Depue’s 16 Pawns, and two piano works, we learned towards the end of May, that Honolulu-based composer Thomas Osborne’s new work was ready.

When I first looked at “Canyons” I didn’t know what to make of it. The mp3 recording sounded extremely exciting though. I was willing to give it a chance. I became one of the pianists committed to studying it for premiere on 14th July. Robert Pollock, the founder and director of Ebb & Flow Arts, planned for us three pianists to rehearse and the last 3 rehearsals with the composer as the 4th pianist.

“Canyons” plays on the term canons. It uses imitation and terraced dynamics to produce the kind of echo effect you can hear in a canyon. The first pianist to play is Piano 4 — loud. The next pianist — Piano 3 — is slightly less loud. These dynamic levels are to be kept throughout the piece.

Canyons by Thomas Osborne, page 1
Canyons by Thomas Osborne, page 1

Robert Pollock and I discussed this and other works on Kaoi Radio recently.

Here’s the 25 minute audio clip.

Tonight’s concert is FREE — and expected to draw a standing-room only audience. My only regret is that we get to perform each piece just once — tonight.

Piano Synergy! Concert, 14th July 2012 at 7:30 pm at the Maui Music Conservatory, 2nd floor of the very centrally located Queen Ka’ahumanu Shopping Mall in Kahului, on Maui, Hawaii. We begin with a work of John Cage and end with Darius Milhaud’s Paris.

The highlight of the evening will surely be Thomas Osborne’s “Canyons.”

Canyons by Thomas Osborne bars 84 to 87
Canyons by Thomas Osborne bars 84 to 87

Improvisation workshop

Miss Lee Pui Ming is an exceptional improvisation pianist who began her classical music training from the age of 3. Her approach to improvisation is very unique. After giving an improvisation workshop in Kahului, she will give a solo concert in Makena the next evening.

The workshop was in full swing when I arrived — 5 minutes late. The pianist, Lee Pui Ming, looked up and acknowledged me. She said that they were just going around introducing each other. She’d let me catch my breath and get to me last. I didn’t have to feel guilty. I already felt like I was part of the workshop.

Only glass doors and an entire glass wall separated the inside of the Maui Music Conservatory from the rest of the mall. It was a Friday night. Teenagers were out and about. Where else do you hang out on Maui, as a pre-drinking aged teenager? At night?

Yet inside the spacious reception of the conservatory where 4 grand pianos stood in a fan shape, lids wide open, ivories fully exposed, waiting to be consumed, was a different kind of space. No teenagers sat here — only individuals my age and older. The Friday night here was filled with purpose.

Every person there was interested in improvisation.

“Can you practice improvisation?”

“Do you know what you will play before you play it?”

“Can you repeat yourself if you like it?”

“Is there any structure to it? Where does your inspiration come from?”

At some point, I wished the questions would stop. I wanted badly to hear the pianist play.

Nearly 45 minutes into the workshop, after several hints, someone finally asked her to play. She stood up and said, “I feel like a teenager again.” She gestured, “My mother is telling me: go, go play for these people.” In other words, she was not ready to perform for us.

Instead, she asked three volunteers to sit at the pianos. She asked one to start, and the second to join in whenever he felt like it. When the first one takes a break, the third pianist should then enter. It was like a relay duo.

Robert Pollock, the founder of Ebb & Flow Arts, the nonprofit organization which introduces such variety of interesting contemporary and avant garde music to Hawaii, began his improv on the black grand piano. Although the trio had never played together before, they sounded like they knew just what to do. The transitions to different genres were organic and unpretentious. They listened to each other. Each got to lead with their forte. I could almost sense what they were feeling and thinking as they improvised. I felt no anticipation or worry about how long they would play or get out of sync. Amazingly they ended their performance at the same time.

We discussed the improvisation performance. I had forgotten that it was possible to enjoy watching others improvise together.

Years ago, I was invited to an improvisation concert in River Oaks in Houston. I had brought half-the audience. When it was my turn to improvise, I played just the white keys on the Steinway Grand. I didn’t know what to think or say about improvisation then. But tonight, there was much observation and articulation.

It was nearly 9 pm. Lee Pui Ming wanted to stop, but we didn’t. Upon urging of the conservatory’s owner, Ruth Murata, I went to a piano. Lee Pui Ming started tapping an ostinato on the wood of the piano. I barely sat down before I copied her on the piano bench. Then I moved to the keys. She was behind me, so I could only hear her. Another person joined me on the other piano. I crescendo’d and added more fingers, then the palms of my hands, my fists, my elbows. I did clusters all over the keys to a fortissimo. I could sense the audience’s reaction behind me. I was pounding on the piano, like the young boy whom I taught in Utrecht. He had pounded on my piano to vent his frustrations. So did I. The piano suffered. The pianist next to me changed his tune. He wanted to move into a soft, melodic soundscape. I resisted joining him until another pianist went to the 4th piano. I was overpowered. And the world ended in a whisper.

Tomorrow evening, Lee Pui Ming gives a solo performance in a stone church at the very southern beach of Maui. It’s a church I’ve seen from the waters. She wanted to hear the ocean as she plays, so she said.

I want to walk the beach, watch the Summer Solstice sunset, and listen to her improvisations.

Piano synergy: music for many hands on many pianos

As preparation for her next concert of many hands on many pianos on 14th July 2012 in Maui, Anne Ku discovers other interpretations on the Internet.

In preparation for my next concert in mid-July on Maui, I decided to check out performances of the selected works on the Internet. The interpretations are much faster, crisper, and cleaner. It’s really hard to play fast, crisp, and clean —– that is, with many pianists on many different pianos.

Darius Milhaud’s Paris: Suite for 4 pianos spans different arrondissemont of Paris. I try to remember the Paris I know but I only remember Montmartre, L’ile Saint-Louis, and the Eiffel Tower from the 6 movements. I could not find a video clip of this fantastic work against the different scenes of Paris though the 2 on Youtube are sufficiently interesting. This piece is by far the most demanding of our entire 1.5 hour program.

Next, I looked for Gerald Busby’s Four! a statement for 4 pianos. Instead, I found Plucked — 15 hands on one piano. It’s a most remarkable and funny piece. If you have time to watch it, do enjoy the performance art.

Another 4 piano 8 hand piece is Wallace DePue’s 16 Pawns. It’s a short and fast one page work. No videos on the Internet. No background description. Perhaps we can get our own recording at the concert.

We will be playing two multi-hand pieces by Robert Pollock, founder and artistic director of Ebb & Flow Arts, the non-profit organization that is putting together this concert of Sunday 14th July 2012. The titles reveal just how many pianists and pianos. Five for Four. Three for Six. Answer: Five pianists on 4 pianos. Three pianos for Six hands.

I finally get to play a work of Morton Feldman, a composer I have heard much about but never studied. His “Piece for 4 Pianos” is interesting in that all pianists have the same score. It’s up to each pianist to decide when to play each note. Everything is soft. The result? a kind of rippling, echoey effect. Watch the meditative result below.

John Cage’s “Music for Piano” is another aleatory piece (one which the composer instructs the performer to decide on duration or other aspects of the composition). We each chose two consecutive pages from the album. It’s prepared piano at its best, though it would take about 30 minutes to prepare. We each have a bag of black rubber and white felt objects to insert between the strings of the piano for those notes we need to mute. The result? Texture that we’d otherwise not hear. Again, we decide when and how long to play each note. Last time we had agreed on the piece to last 7 minutes, but some of us were too fast and others too slow. It does take some practice to get 4 pianists to end at the same time.

Below is one interpretation of John Cage’s “Music for Piano”

Sadly there is not enough music for many pianos. Ebb & Flow Arts commissioned composer Thomas Osborne to write one for us. The mp3 version of his “Canyons” for four pianos is very powerful. I will try playing it today.

Luckily there is plenty of fun pieces for two pianos and even two pianists on one piano. As 14th July is Bastille Day, we decided to choose works of French composers. Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite; Faure’s Dolly Suite; and Debussy’s Petite Suite.

I am so glad to be able to participate this time. Last year my multi-hands on one piano work “Three on One” was performed in the Battle of the Pianists concert in Maui while I was in Utrecht. Ironically, rehearsing these multi-hand, multi-piano works with other pianists just makes me miss sightreading chamber music with string and wind players even more!

Free concert – no reservation required. Get there early — last year was standing room only!

PIANO SYNERGY FREE CONCERT

Sunday 14 July 2012

7:30 pm

Maui Music Conservatory
Queen Ka’ahumanu Mall (upstairs) 
Kahului, Maui, Hawaii

Pianists (alphabetical order): Lotus Dancer, Anne Ku, Peiling Lin, Ruth Murata, Robert Pollock, Beatrice Scorby

Ebb and Flow Arts North South East West Festival of New Music
Ebb and Flow Arts North South East West Festival of New Music