Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hymns and Dervishes I

After 11 years of imagining this project, I’m finally in the home-stretch!

The music of Gurdjieff/de Hartmann is fascinating, a unique case in history of collaboration. Gurdjieff played and de Hartmann notated and developed. Multiple iterations of this process created a large and diverse body of work that has recently been published by Schott.

I found my scores at the Library of Congress, before they were republished, along with other scores of de Hartmann’s independent work. They are very interesting, as befits a classmate of Prokofiev who studied with the same storied teachers in Petersburg: Rimsky-Korsakov, Tanaiev, etc.


The program of the recording came to me almost completely formed. The main idea of alternating Dervish Dances and Western Hymns seemed a wonderful way to emphasize the qualities of both sets of pieces, through comparison and contrast. The further idea of using traditional Middle Eastern tunings to play the Dervish Dances seemed to be a natural development from that idea.

Through the help of qanun virtuoso and scholar Julien Weiss, of the group Al-Kindi, I was introduced to the concepts of Middle Eastern scales. He helped me flesh out a number of tunings, and encouraged me in my pursuit of this project.

Another helpful friend was Jim Wooten, then director of Yamaha’s Artists Services in NY. A piano technician himself, he had developed a piano keyboard with micro-tuned intervals. The exposure to this piano was an ear-opener!


In my imagination, the project was always on a recording. I’m very fond of the recording process, and, like one of my idols, Glenn Gould, I feel the CD is an artistic object separate from the live performance. Unlike some artists who become stiff or stymied in front of a microphone, I feel it is a real invitation to open up and experiment. The license to throw away a take is liberating!

Nevertheless, the challenge with making recordings today is that very few recordings are sold if there is no live concert to back it up and create publicity. Therefore, the concert yesterday at the Rubin Museum was a watershed moment - the combination of technology and setting made it possible to imagine performing this music live. Unfortunately, I don’t see many opportunities like the Rubin, which provides a perfect framework for this kind of meditative, atmospheric music. I’m on the lookout for more of these places!

The technology involved a Yamaha Disklavier C7 and a PSR-OR700 keyboard. The latter is very popular with Middle Eastern musicians because each note’s tuning is individually adjustable. The Disklavier on stage was hooked up to the OR700 through MIDI cables, and with the flip of a switch could switch from a beautiful acoustic piano to a sensitive MIDI keyboard controller.

The OR700 backstage was attended to by an assistant (Adam Tendler, a wonderful pianist in his own right - check out his own concert at the Rubin Museum on March 11, 2012) who selected among the pre-set tunings and keys, as well as turning the volume on and off.

As the program alternates between Dervish Dances and Hymns, the sound also alternates between traditional tunings and well-tempered tuning. In concert, it also alternated between acoustic piano and electronic sound coming out of speakers. So the performance was less than ideal, although it came pretty close


The recording is really where the true effect of this program can come alive. Only on a recording can an acoustic piano change tunings from piece to piece, and even with a piece. The piano is retuned between takes, and the sections are edited together to form a seamless whole.

I’ve launched a Kickstarter project to raise funds to produce the recording. I’m very excited at the prospect of involving many people at the ground level in this new project. Besides the usual CD reward, there are also a number of online exclusives, including an interview with people from the Gurdjieff Foundation and composers working with micro-tunings, talking about details of this program. Also online will be a concert broadcast from my home, as well behind-the-scenes access to the actual recording session itself.

For other sponsors, there is an opportunity to attend another live performance, as well as one offer to give a live performance in the sponsor’s home. I’m curious to see who ends up getting that reward!

I hope you will join me in the final leg of this project!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Teachers Conferences

This month, it has been my great joy to be the conference artist at two State Music Teachers conferences - Iowa and Pennsylvania.
Even though I do not have a studio, do not have regular students, I must have a deep-seated desire to be a teacher because I truly enjoy being part of these conferences.
In both places, I had the opportunity to cover the entire spectrum of audience interaction - recital, masterclass, lecture. The experience is invaluable for me as an artist; there is so much information about a performance that I have a hard time holding back during a recital - biographical information about the composers, historical context, my own personal struggles to prepare a program, my reasoning behind a particular programmatic structure and repertoire - I really spend a lot of time EDITING what I end up talking about during the performance so that I don't turn it into a didactic, boring lecture.
On the other hand, to be invited to actually lecture about a particular subject, like Emotional Practicing or Stage Fright, is a license for me to really develop that kind of material in a deep way that I could never do in during a performance. Or even a masterclass.
The masterclass fills in the gap between the two, allowing me to demonstrate in real-time the applications of some of the abstract philosophy behind my approach to playing and working.

Seeing the dedication of the piano teachers who are providing the network of music appreciation and application around the country is inspiring. These are the people who are creating the audiences of tomorrow. My thanks goes out to them, sincerely, for the important work that they are doing.

NOTE: The Pennsylvania MTA received an unexpected and important legacy donation which will keep them afloat for decades! I hope the erasure of financial concerns for their group inspires them to do the kind of advocacy work that we really need today - music education, music appreciation, live performance. There really is nothing that can take the place of making music.