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Interview: Andrew Lee's minimalist outook

Dazzle Jazz Club's new classical series continues Feb. 4 with a evening of evocative piano music by Erik Satie played by local soloist R. Andrew Lee. Lee has garnered national recognition for his recent recordings of minimalist piano works (by composers Eva-Maria Houben and Dennis Johnson), and has become something of an ambassador for this style. We talked about this role, how he finds new music and practices it, and what he sees in the future for Denver's new music scene.

Ruth Carver: You've become known as the "minimalist pianist." What other pianists did you look to for inspiration, or was it more the music that urged you on?

R. Andrew Lee: It really was the music that caught my attention first. When I was in graduate school, I became good friends with David McIntire, who at the time was working toward his doctorate in composition. I’d head over to his house on many occasions, and after dinner and drinks we’d listen to whatever music he had recently acquired. It was the sort of thing I imagine took place much more often a few decades ago, before the ubiquity of on-demand music streaming, and those listening sessions were an important part of my education. It was at least a year or so into these little listening parties that he played for me William Duckworth’s The Time Curve Preludes. That really was one of those light bulb moments, and over the next several years I began to explore minimal music in-depth.

RC: Your upcoming recital is programmed with entirely Erik Satie pieces, including the famous Gnossiennes (composed 1889-1897). Why do you think these pieces resonate so much with today's audiences?

RAL: I’m probably not the person to ask about such things, because I’m usually surprised that the music I perform is as widely enjoyed as it is. If I had to guess, I’d say that the simple melodies and textures offer listeners something immediately accessible, while his more ‘exotic’ scales and atypical harmonic motion provides a depth to his music. I also think that there is something in the zeitgeist, particularly in film music, that helps this music resonate, but even that feels like wild speculation on my part.

RC: Does your technical approach to learning and playing music change for your newer repertoire as versus Satie, Rachmaninoff, etc.? Minimalist versus Romantic/Classical/12 Tone?

RAL: I’d say that my approach to learning any music is always adjusting to individual pieces; there are always things that my ears and fingers will get immediately and those aspects that are challenging. So yes, my approach to Satie has been a bit different from my usual practice routines with minimal music, but at the same time the challenges within minimal music can vary so widely that I’m not sure how typical any practice approach is.

RC: In the digital age (when everything is seemingly available instantaneously), how do you maintain the excitement of discovering a work or composer that is new to you?

RAL: The joy of discovering new music and composers always seems to breathe life into my artistic pursuits, and that never gets old. I’ve made many wonderful connections and found an amazing amount of fantastic music through social media that I might never have come across otherwise. And the best part is that there is always more. There are always more composers writing wonderful music that are flying under the radar, and I’m finding that our digital connectivity facilitates those discoveries quite well.

RC: Denver is not exactly a hub for new music. Do you see this changing any time soon?

RAL: It may be that Denver isn't a hub for new music, but at the same time there have been some amazing new music concerts in the brief 2.5 years that I've been here. Just off the top of my head, I know that the JACK Quartet, ICE Ensemble, Bruce Brubaker, yMusic, and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble have or are scheduled to play in the area. I think what is lacking is a consistent new music audience that exists outside of these university-sponsored events. I know that the Denver Eclectic Concerts have been active for a while, but I’m hopeful that this new series at Dazzle will help bring a wider audience to new music. Looking ahead, I’m optimistic. The amount of new music triumphed in the press and at awards ceremonies such as the Grammys seems to only be on the rise. My perspective is admittedly myopic, but I have a gut feeling that we’ll be hearing much more new music in Denver in the coming years.

[The Dazzle Classical Series for March showcases one of the most famous pieces of the 20th century, Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, played by the Playground Ensemble]

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