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.

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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.

Three on One piano duet by Anne Ku

Anne Ku’s multi-hand piano duet “Three on One” receives a third performance, this time on the island of Maui when she was still in the Netherlands on 16th July 2011.

It’s a delight to hear the live recording of my multi-hand piano duet “Three on One” performed on 16th July 2011 in the Battle of the Pianists at the Maui Music Conservatory in Hawaii. I was in Utrecht, Netherlands on that date.

The CD arrived in the post along with the programme notes. It’s nice to see my name after Darius Milhaud’s Scaramouche, a 4-hand, 2-piano 3-movement piece that I’ve heard played in Munster, Germany.

The Battle of the Pianists was one of several events in “A Little More Summer Music, Please” organised by Ebb & Flow Arts, the same nonprofit foundation that produced our piano guitar duo concert in Makawao in December 2007. When I first heard of the duet concert, I wanted so much to participate, especially to play the Canto Ostinato which is a rare gem.

Ironically it was Dutch composer Simeon Ten Holt’s famous Canto Ostinato which inspired me to write my minimalist duet for 6 hands on one piano when I was still studying at Utrecht Conservatory. This multi-hand duet was first sightread by 5 composers (including myself) at the Cortona Contemporary Music Festival in Italy in July 2007. I called it “Five on One” then. When Thomas Rosenkranz asked me for the score to premiere at the University of Hawaii in Manoa a year later, I changed the music slightly and renamed it “Three on One.” [Download the score in PDF]

Three on One piano duet by Anne Ku
Three on One piano duet by Anne Ku

After sightreading various new piano duets this year through my Call for Scores project, I am inclined to rewrite this piece. For one, the notes should be bigger. Two, it would be easier to lay it out in parts not in parallel as I have done. Readability is extremely important. A minimalist piece needs to be longer. At 2 minutes 26 seconds, it’s ridiculously too short. Listen to the performance by Karyn Sarring, Robert Pollock, and Lotus Dancer.

Three on One duet by Anne Ku (mp3) – click to listen.

Fellow collaborator of my Call for Scores project Karyn Sarring played the bass. Lotus Dancer played the middle part and Beatrice Scorby the top (highest, primo).

Composer’s biography in programme notes (tailored to the Maui audience):

Born in Brunei of Chinese parents, Anne Ku grew up on Okinawa, Japan where she learned English from age 7 and the piano from age 8. After graduating valedictorian from Kubasaki High School, she won a full scholarship to Duke University where she double-majored in Electrical Engineering and Mathematics. She actively participated in chamber music performance while studying the piano under Randall Love. Fast forward ten years later, she was interviewed by the weekly newspaper of the largest university in the Netherlands for her second chamber opera Culture Shock! which premiered in Utrecht on 2 June 2008. Since then she has focussed on chamber music performance with guitar, French horn, and cello and active as producer of Monument House Concert Series and traveling the world with her piano guitar duo and sharing her adventures through her blogs.