Last night the Royce Gallery hosted the third of the four ROOM Series events arranged by Pamela Z for the summer months. The title of the concert was Upright, so named since the entire concert was structured by an old Melville Clark upright piano. The piano came to the Royce Gallery as a prop for a play being performed there and had not been intended as anything other than a visual element. The group performing the play did not want to take it at the conclusion of their run. Pamela Z, on the other hand, saw this as an opportunity (finally) to invite pianists to participate in her concert series. This required a fair amount of time and effort not only to tune the instrument but also to bring all of the internal mechanisms into playing condition. Indeed, there was a delay in getting started last night that seems to have been due, in part, to one of the keys giving up the ghost. Acknowledging John Cage’s aesthetics, Pamela referred to this as the instrument’s “silent” key.
Three performers joined Pamela Z for the concert. Two of them were also composers, Luciano Chessa and Joe Lasqo. The third was Sarah Cahill, who has committed most of her efforts to performing, commissioning, and recording contemporary music. She used last night’s appearance to continue progress on her A Sweeter Music project, the first stage of which was recorded and released by Other Minds last fall.
Of all the performers Cahill provided that most conventional recital offering. She performed Peter Garland’s A Sweeter Music contribution, After the Wars. This was a twenty-minute suite in four movements, each based on Chinese or Japanese poetry evoking one of the seasons. The ordering was the same one used by Antonio Vivaldi for his Four Seasons cycle of violin concertos; and, like Vivaldi, Garland explored how a basic foundation of style and technique could be developed to represent four different settings.
The primary element of Garland’s technique required the pianist to play relatively full chords and then lift some of the fingers, whose sounds would be damped while the others decayed over a more natural duration. It turned out that an upright piano served this logic of composition quite well, since its physical structure allows for reverberations that are both richer than the ordinary spinet and qualitatively different from those of any size of horizontally-strung grand. Thus, while Garland never achieved quite the spectrum of diversity for his “four seasons” that Vivaldi did, Cahill’s execution of his technique provided more than enough sonorities to engage the attentive listener.
Both Chessa and Lasqo offered what might be called “piano++” performances. For both of them performance involved more than just keyboard work. Chessa approached each of his pieces with an added theatrical element, while Lasqo performed with a laptop running Maxxareddu, “improvising agent” software based on artificial intelligence design techniques.
The logic behind Maxxareddu was not always easy to discern, particularly when applied to the call-and-response structure of renga, a form of improvised Japanese poetry that Cage reconceived for music in “Two2,” which he composed for two pianos. Lasqo took a similar approach to two-person improvisation in a piece called “Renga-kai;” and last night he performed the “cyber” version of this work, in which he partnered with Maxxareddu. On the listening side, however, it was difficult to discern just how the sounds synthesized by Maxxareddu could be taken as a response to the “call” passages that Lasqo played on the piano.
Chessa performed seven short pieces, each of which had its own obbligato dramatic element to supplement the score. Most of his own compositions had a quiet wit. However, one piece lent itself to laugh-out-loud comedy. This was “Variazioni su un oggetto di scena,” which may best be translated as “variations on a prop.” For each of this piece’s three short movements, much of the music was “played” by a prop that Chessa held over the keyboard. These were, in the order of the movements, a large stuffed cow, a small teddy bear, and a rather elegant doll. As might be guessed, the stuffed animals could never get beyond tone clusters, making for some very comic exchanges with Chessa’s own keyboard work. The doll, on the other hand, could strike individual keys and provided a conclusion that was comic and touching at the same time.
Far more serious was his opening selection, “Titanic Blue,” composed by Dean Santomieri in 2003. This began with an announcement made through an electronic megaphone, whose circuitry (presumably) garbled the spoken text while making it sound highly official. This was followed by a piano solo with all dampers lifted from the keys. This provided an opportunity to experience the full reverberation qualities of the piano while also making the instrument sound as if it was being played under water, yet another casualty when the Titanic sank.
One of Chessa’s compositions, “Tre danze da salotto” (three dances from the living room), was a duet (of sorts) with Cahill. Almost none of his time was spent at the keyboard; but, during the final dance, he found a variety of different ways to accompany Cahill with sounds emanating from the interior of the piano. His own final solo selection was also particularly memorable, Steven D. Geller’s 2000 arrangement of “Kumbayah.” This involved what may best be described as “lounge-lizard” style keyboard work providing an extended introduction to a rendering of the familiar folk song that was far more evocative of Peter Nero than of Peter Seeger.
As usual, the concert concluded with an “all-hands” performance. Rather than the usual free improvisation, this was an indeterminate composition by Pamela Z entitled “otto mani (e tre voci)” (eight hands and three voices). Each performer had a set of cards, each of which had a fragment. Using a technique similar to Terry Riley’s “In C,” each performer could perform the fragment as many times as (s)he wished before moving on to the next card. All the vocal work was done by Pamela Z but in three different styles which were supplemented with choreography. Pamela Z also brought her own Schyling toy piano (which she calls her “foetal grand”) onto the stage for some of the fragments. After such a full evening, this “last roundup” went on a bit too long; but it was still interesting to see how the four performers wove among each other to follow their instructions properly.