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”

Introducing new piano solos

Anne Ku catalogues new piano solo works by living composers on Concertblog

As a sightreader, I am always looking for new challenges, that is, to play new music I have not seen before.  Before I entered the world of composers, I would search for published music of dead composers.

In my musical journey, I discover that the new music (of living composers) is just as interesting if not more. These days, if I come across music of a composer I like, whether it’s ensemble music or piano guitar duo, I’d ask if he or she had written anything for piano solo or piano duet. Similarly — vice versa.

Below is a catalogue of the piano solo works I have reviewed and introduced on Concertblog. I will continue to add to this list, arranged alphabetically by the composer’s last name.


Prelude and Fuga in d minor by H. Verleur

Heleen Verleur’s Prelude and Fugue in D minor for solo piano brought back memories of Anne Ku’s first concert in Bussum, Netherlands. More than 10 years later, she records it on her Steinway in Utrecht, Netherlands while remembering it in Maui.

Before I left the Netherlands, I recorded a CD of three piano duets with Carol Ruiz Gandia for my Call for Scores project followed by several solo pieces that were easy to sightread. Three of the solos came from my collection of music by the Amsterdam-based composer Heleen Verleur.

What a joy it was to find Verleur’s Prelude and Fugue in D minor on my bookshelf! Sightreading the set brought back memories of my first concert in Bussum, Netherlands in March 2002. Back then, I was still working full-time as an energy magazine editor, shuffling between London where I was based to the New York head office and various conference locations. Music was a pastime, a favourite hobby, and an insatiable passion.

If you visit our Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo website, you’ll see that the very first concert is listed in 2002, a year after I met Dutch guitarist Robert Bekkers. That “afternoon of diversity” concert in a Lutheran church in the town of Bussum (east of Amsterdam) featured the music of Heleen Verleur for piano solo and piano and violin as well as that of Astor Piazzolla. In preparing for that concert, I wrote of my expectations of that event where the guest of honour was my childhood friend Leslie from Seattle.

More than 10 years after I met Robert Bekkers and Heleen Verleur in Amsterdam, I would like to share my interpretation of the prelude and fugue, recorded on 4th August 2011 on my 1909 New York Steinway in Utrecht, Netherlands.

Prelude in d minor by Heleen Verleur, interpreted by Anne Ku (mp3)

Prelude in d minor by Heleen Verleur
Prelude in d minor by Heleen Verleur

Fuga in d minor by Heleen Verleur, interpreted by Anne Ku (mp3)

Fuga in d minor by Heleen Verleur
Fuga in d minor by Heleen Verleur

When I searched for “Verleur” on my e-mail programme, I discovered several e-mails of mp3 and concert announcements from Heleen. Now that I have more time in Hawaii, I hope to listen to this backlog of gifts of music, including CDs I received from various composers and performers. You could say that forthcoming entries in this Concertblog will introduce the music I have been collecting during the last 10 years of concertizing and arts management in the Netherlands.

Heleen Verleur official website: http://www.heleenverleur.nl

Easy to play, nice to listen to: piano music of Heleen Verleur

Music that is easy to play and nice to listen to characterises the solo piano works of Amsterdam-based composer Heleen Verleur. Daniel’s Song is an example, played and recorded by Anne Ku in Utrecht, Netherlands.

During my 2.5 months in Utrecht, Netherlands this past summer, I took out sheet music I had collected for years to choose ones worth taking with me to Maui. Some of these pieces were so enjoyable to play that I decided to record them.

I was searching for music that’s easy to play and nice to listen to.

Contrary to what you may believe, it’s not easy to write music that is easy to play. It’s harder still to write music that’s nice to listen to but not boring after the first time. Good music, I sincerely believe, gets appreciated each time it’s played. It grows on you.

Amsterdam-based composer Heleen Verleur is a pianist and piano teacher who has the benefit of observing how her students read and study her compositions. She has written numerous solo and chamber works that involve the piano. I was fortunate to discover her music quite early in what-I-now-call my Dutch era — a decade of infatuation with the Netherlands.

I performed her Prelude in d minor and fugue at a concert in Bussum, a village east of Amsterdam, in 2002. I had also introduced her Tango for violin, cello, and piano to my house concert in London and her piano duets to the Monument House Concert Series and a sightreading workshop prior to our piano guitar duo concert in San Francisco. Heleen has also written “Fire” for our piano guitar duo, which we premiered in Spain in 2010.

Anne Ku with Heleen Verleur, sightreading duets in Amsterdam, 2001
Anne Ku with Heleen Verleur, sightreading duets in Amsterdam, 2001

In the “V” section of my music library, I discovered yet more short works for solo piano that she had given me.

“Daniel’s Song” met my criteria of easy to play and nice to listen to. I decided to record it on my Steinway.

Daniel’s Song for solo piano by Heleen Verleur (mp3)

Daniel's Song by Heleen Verleur
Daniel's Song by Heleen Verleur

Effusion: a cross domain exploration through video and music

A year ago I got to know a film maker who introduced a new approach to our Monument House Concert Series. We called it “cross domain exploration.” Some call it “cross over” and others “interdisciplinary collaboration.” We decided to experiment with an invitation-only free house concert in March 2009 called “Effusion.”

A year ago I got to know a film maker who introduced a new approach to our Monument House Concert Series in Utrecht, Holland. We called it “cross domain exploration.” Some call it “cross over” and others “interdisciplinary collaboration.”

We decided to experiment with an invitation-only free house concert in March 2009 called “Effusion.” The film maker took the raw video from a film about different ways to travel in Utrecht. I worked with pianists to play 4-hand duets of new works of an Amsterdam-based composer. Each work was based on a method of transport: by foot, bicycle, car, boat, etc.

I thought of all the pianists I knew, both professional and amateur, and invited those that would enjoy participating in such an evening. I practised a piece with my psychologist student. I practised another piece with a fellow Rotarian. A computer programmer practised with a conservatory student. We prepared for the evening of 21st March 2009 with great anticipation.

The film maker brought six bottles of fine red wine from his neighbour who supported such artistic collaborations. The composer and the film maker met on the evening of the house concert. Robert Bekkers and I ended the concert with a preview of the composer’s new work for us, for debut in Spain.

We had grand plans to do a podcast. In the end we released a youtube clip of one duet (below). I am finally documenting that event which marked the beginning of new collaborations. [The following video can be seen in Safari 4.0, Firefox 3.6, Google Chrome, or Opera 10 Internet browsers.]

The composer was Heleen Verleur. The film maker was Julian Scaff.

Some comments from the house concert guestbook:

It was a truly marvelous evening, in a very pleasant setting, with just the right mix of people, and great cookies. The impromptu mixing video and music made for a very interesting experience. And thank you very much for your surprise performance of Fire. I could see that Heleen was delighted! And so was I.

t was indeed an extraordinary evening. I told you I didn’t really feel like coming, I was tired after a full week of teaching the violin to lots of people and needed a break. To my great surprise and happiness the evening turned out to be just the experience I needed. It was as if I’d had a holiday in your lovely house. I was delighted by your hospitality.

Heleen’s music touches me, she reminds me – as do her twins – of the atmosphere of the 20-ties, I hear that in a lot of her music too. Most of the music was performed very well I found, especially “fire” I really enjoyed. Yes, of course, I am a violinist after all, I loved Vivaldi in this way.

Interesting to have music and film together. Sometimes it was like, because of shaky filming and the character of some of the pieces, as if we were watching something very old. A number of times I have improvised with clowns at management trainings and this reminded me of that.

I found there were a lot of very interesting people, people that can be friends. I feel we were truly sharing. That is what sets this situation apart from “normal” concerts. really enjoyed the (small) part of the concert and all of the really nice time after last Saturday.

I’d like to thank you and I think part of the enjoyment, besides the music which was very interesting was also the lovely and relaxed way in which you brought it all! For me, it would have been nice to have had a really good description of how to get there………although I guess now it’s much much clearer already!

I’d love to come again. (Also there is a selfish reason – I am especially grateful for the opportunity to experience performance nerves again and to take another step to overcoming them). I was of course lucky to find such an outstanding young pianist as Stein for my duet partner. I tried not to have any expectations, but I gathered that the audience very much enjoyed Helene’s music (though there was probably not a single piece of the duet delivered flawlessly!)

Before coming to the event, I already knew that I would find the same friendly atmosphere of the previous concerts, where the cosiness of the environment erases the (physical and metaphorical) distance between artist and audience without being detrimental to the quality of the artistic performances. However, this particular event differs from the previous concerts in that the attention to novelty is not confined to the premiére of musical compositions, but it involves the construction of a bridge between music, visual arts and architecture. Both the original pieces of music played and the video clips projected during the performance are indeed complementary in describing the different movements in urban space that are associated to different means of transport.

I liked the experiment, and I would like to attend similar events in the future. It’s possible that some friends of mine will join me; on the other hand, it’s unlikely that I might get in contact, at least in the short term, with businesses that can support the event.

Effusion: a cross domain exploration house concert
Effusion: a cross domain exploration through video and music, Monument House Concert Series, Utrecht, Netherlands, 21 March 2009

Wanted: venues with grand piano and great acoustics in Leiden, Amsterdam, around Utrecht, Crete, and Taiwan

I am floating between the past and future (concerts) this June, a month for practising new repertoire, forever working on our first CD, getting coaching from great masters, and doing market research. That is, I’m waiting for video and audio clips of our concerts in Spain and simultaneously looking for venues with (grand) piano and (great) acoustics for future concerts.

alternative title: Planning for the future

I am floating between the past and future (concerts) this June, a month for practising new repertoire, forever working on our first CD, getting coaching from great masters, and doing market research. That is, I’m waiting for video and audio clips of our concerts in Spain (to load onto our website) and simultaneously looking for venues with (grand) piano and (great) acoustics for future concerts. Rather than waiting for someone to “discover” us, we are deciding where we want to go and actively looking for venues and sponsors.

Dutch composer Gijs van Dijk, Spanish biography May 2009
Dutch composer Gijs van Dijk, Spanish biography May 2009

We are giving our contemporary programme of music of (mainly) Dutch composers in Amsterdam on Sunday 12th July. I’m looking for other venues around that time, as the composers will be present — and only max 50 will be admitted in Funen Park 125, Amsterdam. How about Saturday 11th July in Utrecht and Monday 13th July in Leiden, for example? Where can I find concert producers and venues with piano?

Dutch composer Heleen Verleur, Spanish biography May 2009
Dutch composer Heleen Verleur, Spanish biography May 2009

We presented the same 21st century programme of piano guitar duo music on 3rd May 2009 in La Coruña, Spain, in the beautiful Museum of Contemporary Arts. Three of the Dutch composers were featured, with their biographies translated into Spanish, printed on nice glossy paper, inserted into the ongoing “El Oido Contemporaneo” hard-bound binder initiated and researched by Spanish composer Ruben Someso. This impressive collection of biographies of composers, 20th and 21st century composition techniques, musical instruments, and related musical vocabulary will surely become a book one day.

Dutch composer Henk Alkema, biography in Spanish, May 2009
Dutch composer Henk Alkema, biography in Spanish, May 2009

In the last week of July, the celebrated violin guitar duo of Matt and Beth Gould, also known as Duo46, will stopover in Amsterdam on their way back from the Contemporary Music Festival (founded by pianist Nathanael May in 2005 and continued annually in Cortona and Pavia, Italy). We’re actively looking for a suitable venue in Utrecht or Amsterdam, or surrounding cities/villages, for a double duo concert, tentatively called 2 + 2 = 6, on Monday afternoon 27th July 2009. How many combinations can we make out of 2 guitars, a violin, and a piano?

The million dollar view in Cortona, Italy July 2007
The million dollar view in Cortona, Italy July 2007

Ideally we’d like to give a concert everywhere we go. But I honestly think we will have no time the first week of August 2009 when we’re in London. That is, no time to organise a concert, I should say. We will never say NO to someone else organising the publicity, concert venue, ticket reservations, etc, especially if the concert is for Sunday 2nd August. Maybe I should just throw my wish to the wind? A concert in Ealing? Or a solo guitar concert or a guitar/flute concert as part of the analyticalQ home concert series?

Embracing uncertainty and opportunity, we’ve booked our flights to Chania, Crete for the 14th Levka Ori project in the ancient village of Paleohora. We’ve put a deposit on our accommodations for 21st to 28th August, and look forward to working with other artists with open minds. It’s our first trip to Crete, and Robert Bekkers’ first to Greece. So far, I have NOT found a piano in Paleohora (also spelled Paleochora). Between now and then, if we’re lucky and find a piano, then I’ll be able to schedule a live concert there. And whatever we plan or produce will get presented and exhibited in a museum in Belgium the following January.

In September/October 2009, we plan to give a concert in beautiful Leiden or its surroundings, so as to work with some 14 videographers, to communicate the real-time live performance to an audience who cannot be present physically. In other words, it will be podcasted — captured on video, for the rest of the world to see, whenever and wherever they want. It’s going to be a very interesting experience. But we still need to find a venue and set a date.

As the saying goes, “if Mohammed can’t come to the mountains, the mountains will come to Mohammed.” We took our music to Maui to share with my mother and sister, who had never seen us perform until then. Next winter, we’re looking for venues in Taiwan. Any ideas?

Competing against the weather in La Coruña, Spain

The Museum of Contemporary Arts in La Coruña (MACUF) is a spacious place housed within the compound of the electricity company Union Fenosa. Our new programme of 21st century music for piano guitar duo contains two world premieres, Gijs van Dijk’s Abstract and Dance and Heleen Verleur’s Fire from the Five Elements.

The weather in La Coruña, our host and pianist friend David Lopez, is typically windy, cold, wet, and grey — the kind that makes you want to stay indoors instead of braving the elements. Much to our surprise, it was sunny when we landed on 2nd May 2009, a public holiday weekend in Spain.

Our first view of La Coruna, from the taxi ride from the airport
Our first view of La Coruna, from the taxi ride from the airport

These two factors alone, sunny weather and public holiday, would prove risky, if not deadly, for audience development. In other words, don’t count on getting as many people as you’d normally expect to come to a live classical concert.

The third factor, I learned later, is that contemporary music, i.e. works of live composers, are not readily received in this part of Spain. For that reason, Ruben Somesa, the Spanish composer who proposed this series (in its 3rd year) deliberately made it a didactic one — i.e. to educate the public.

Our new programme of 21st century music for piano guitar duo contains two world premieres, Gijs van Dijk’s Abstract and Dance and Heleen Verleur’s Fire from the Five Elements. Both composers had come to our “Duo for Export” benefit concert in Utrecht to support our first trip to the USA in 2007. While it’s always exciting to have the composers at our premieres, it wasn’t possible on this occasion. We have thus planned on a repeat of this programme in Amsterdam, on Sunday 12 July 2009 (4-page PDF). Hopefully all the composers will be there.

The Museum of Contemporary Arts in La Coruña (MACUF) is a spacious place housed within the compound of the electricity company Union Fenosa. I would have liked to have met the employees, if not to reminisce those good ol’ days in the dawn of electricity deregulation when I was frantically completing my thesis and later interviewing energy executives about competition. Piano was a companion but not the focus in those days. Now, it’s the reverse with energy just a distant memory.

As with all concerts, we needed to test the acoustics beforehand. The modern building of MACUF has high ceilings and a lot more echo than we’re used to. I tried to warm up with a relatively unknown piece that sounds like Chopin (in the video below).

To prepare for Lan Chee Lam‘s “Drizzle” I labelled a few notes on scrap pieces of paper to put on the strings inside the piano so that I could easily find them the next day. Without the usual plastic guitar picks, I would have to pluck the high C, E, A, B, D, and highest E strings with my short fingernails.

Preparing the grand piano for Lan Chee Lams Drizzle
Preparing the grand piano for Lan Chee Lam's "Drizzle

After our rehearsal, I asked Robert Bekkers to play a solo piece while I experimented with the video function of my mobile telephone. The rainbow colours of the setting sun danced upon the white walls through the suspended crystal ball, creating a magical effect on this mystical work of Barrios.

By the time we finished rehearsing, it was well past 8 pm. Time to leave, return to the hotel, and rest for the big day. We were not hungry after a late lunch of authentic mouth-watering Galician octopus, prawns, and clams. Instead, we looked forward to an early night, in spite of the big game of Madrid vs Barcelona.

Encore: I just wanted to hear one of my favourite pieces, or rather, the tremolos in Tarrega’s Requerdos de Alhambra.

Note: coincidentally my article (5 page pdf) “Betting on the Weather” had nothing to do with risk management of weather and concerts. Perhaps there ought to be some way to hedge the effect of good weather on audience development! Nearly five years ago, I wrote an article of the same title, “Competing against the weather,” but in Den Haag!