Wednesday
Jan302013

Pieces, Threaded (2010-2013)

SCORE: Pelé and Peleas — version q [ca. 2’00”] 2002/2012
Ben Carson, piano

The title ‘Pelé and Peleas’ refers to the incomparable Brazilian soccer star, whose role in the 1987 film Hotshot, it seemed to me, reprised the heroism of Sir Gawain in Sir Peleas’ humiliating courtship of the high-born maiden Archade. In the version of the story I knew, Peleas won Archade’s hand in a tournament, but Archade, repulsed by Peleas’ youthfulness, rejects the results. Peleas’ friend Gawain has the idea to get into Peleas’ armor and do something impressive to charm Archade on his behalf. He succeeds, but—as these stories tend to go—he forgets his mission just in time for Archade to win Gawain’s heart. Soon Peleas finds them asleep together. Instead of avenging himself, he leaves his sword between them, but even this crucifixial code, for Christ-like forgiveness, can’t repair what a more primal love has undone. Watching Hotshot in a neighbor’s basement not two weeks after VHS reached my hometown, it didn’t matter to me that Pelé played Gawain, and not Peleas, nor that Pelé’s character puts his Gawainesque ego aside in time for the underdogs to win a tri-county tournament. Contorted fragments of the Arthurian tragedy formed my language of action and identity in the world, and from within that language, Hotshot re-built from the ground up my fantastic relationship with soccer, and in particular the fullback position, which I played with pride.

As a slightly overweight soccer-coach’s son, I attributed my hard field-crossing kick to years of riding a Schwinn 10-speed exclusively in top gear. Over soft-serve ice cream one evening after a winning game, my father gently advised me my success in the position didn’t foretell a career path, but in those days, watching soccer on television aroused delusions of destiny. I saw myself like I saw great players on screen: tiny figures crossing great distances between and around each other, running into position with a mechanically effortless, and completely inaudible, 32nd-note pulse. Something about the inaudibility of soccer-players’ legs on screen matched my experience of my own movement on the field, which—approaching an oncoming striker—felt like flight; somehow my feet didn’t matter until one of them struck the ball. Watching clips of Pelé on a BBC Special one evening in 1988, I marveled at our similarities. It didn’t matter that, in contrast with my defensive role, Pelé’s contact with the ball involved extended control; I had an acute sense that in my body as in his, the rhythm of running and the rhythm of kicking were completely independent, and yet utterly inseparable. One way to listen to ‘Pelé and Peleas’ (version q) would be to hear silences, and occasional flurries of regular movement, as the movements of players in vast space, but to try to predict how, from within that texture, a simpler, more forceful motive: three marcato notes, evenly but unpredictably spaced…might emerge. Since this marginal gesture always changes its pace and metric orientation, any note could be the first of some version of the three; I hope there might some pleasure in knowing the answers, sometimes as they occur, and otherwise in retrospect.

‘Pelé and Peleas’ is a work with an unusual genealogy. I recorded an early version of the work in 2003 for UC San Diego’s “Soundcheck” series, as the beginning of a set of three works inspired by Eduardo Galeano’s histories of the Americas. However, those works (“Pieces, Threaded,” Centaur: CRC 3105), developed along a different path. I returned to this score six long years later, and discovered a unique opportunity in how the work’s basic materials—a marcato repetition of one note three times, with a variety of contrasting gestures to complete it—could be realized. I decided to compose a second “version”—not so much a different version of the original piece, but of the fundamental idea behind it. Version q and version r are therefore something between different perspectives on the same music, and different music arising from a single perspective.

SCORE: Pelé and Peleas — version r [ca. 3’00”] 2002/2012
Ben Carson, piano

Tuesday
Aug182009

Pieces, Threaded (1999-2009)

Piano Music of Ben Leeds Carson 

Centaur Records CRC 3105: disk notes

These are the booklet notes to my album “Pieces, Threaded…”, collection of 10 years of piano music on Centaur Records, released early in 2012. Live recordings or videos of a few of those works, as well as some newer ones, will also be added here periodically.

Order/Download from Centaur Records

‘Roll over’ reference numbers with your mouse to see an endnote. (Or click on them to move to the endnotes; each note there contains a link back to the in-text reference.

Pieces, Threaded, for Piano
2007
Ben Carson, piano

i. A pulse and a Perónist [1’ 11”]
ii. Sixty long years later [2’ 57”]
iii. Biene Herz [2’ 44”]

Few people knew this world…like Haroldo Conti. He knows the good fishing spots and the shortcuts and the forgotten corners…he knows the pulse of the tides and the lives of each fisherman and each boat…he knows how to travel, when he writes, through the tunnels of time. He wanders around the streams or sails for days and nights on the open river, searching for that ghost ship he sailed on once in his childhood or in his dreams. While he pursues what he lost, he listens to voices and tells stories to people like him.
     -—Eduardo Galeano, Days and Nights of Love and War1

In our experiences of time while we listen to music, it is sometimes possible to notice both a sense of expectancy and a sense of quality. Expectancy—thinking through time like a story, wondering what’s going to happen next—is the threaded part of this music, the line that you can follow all the way through it, from beginning to end.

But readers of Galeano know that pieces of time also have a sense of quality to them. The qualities of time-relationships, like a lilt, a swing, an anticipation, or a hesitation, can be both immediate and enduring. These three works are, for similar reasons, in “pieces.” Falling to pieces, or falling into wholes. (Regarding wholes, we can think of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in which “the Whole itself is a product, produced as nothing more than a part alongside other parts.”)2

Pieces, Threaded is music about the way “expectancy” (through time) and “quality” (from time) coalesce, and pull apart, and coalesce again. The collection of three pay respect to Milton Babbitt’s “Three Pieces” (1947), in which the confluence of mostly unpulsed vertical and horizontal wholes accomplish (for me) a meditation on something entirely different: a mixture of the cyclical with the discrete, the porous with the plastic.

1947 was also the first year of Argentine president General Perón’s campaign to “recover the firm pulse of a healthy and clean living youth … the young blood of the working class.”3 In that year, Argentina’s citizens learned the first history lessons of Castro’s left, the left whose version of the “progressive” was a narrative echo, at best, of Marxism: patient expectancy for a great society was an end in itself. And so they learned how to break their history into contradictions: state-elitism masqueraded as socialism, nationalism became despotism…Perón’s exile became his infallibility. The next generation of Perónists seized the power of the left, and, in the wake of the CIA’s terrorismo, they learned to exploit it. This is part of why Eduardo Galeano’s telling of Haroldo Conti’s world weaves such an infinity of threads and tunnels between the “lost” and the “forgotten.” From a gripping and relentless pulse of fascism and its false teleologies of progress, Galeano recovers Conti’s sense of the ahistorical, the floating…a recovery of qualities of time and space.

The German words “Biene Herz” are an odd, or old-fashioned, way of saying das Herz der Biene—“the bee’s heart.” Although my music has nothing to do with the poem itself, I extract these two words from the difficult final couplet in Richard Dehmel’s (1896) Ghasel (or Ghazal, after the Persian poetic form; Schoenberg set this text in his Op. 6 songs). My translation of the last two lines [below] fails to obtain their best quality, being, in one reader’s words, “…how to connect the heat and energy of the four objects: two lovers, rose, and bee. To connect them assuredly, to let us see their connection as a flash or realization, something unavoidable and quick and exciting.”4 The two words Biene Herz economize in the same way that the whole couplet economizes, collapsing a “thread of life” and language into something that we can only experience out of time. If I am a little better as a composer than as a translator, Biene Herz will cut loose these piece-beads in a new space of ‘synchronic’ abandon: something hopefully both immediate and enduring, both pressed against and laid apart from the thread that carries it into being.

 

SCORE: Coda: ‘You Are Not I’ [3’24”] 1999
Jacob Rhodebeck, piano

I often feel that something is about to happen, and when I do, I stay perfectly still and let it go ahead.
     —Paul Bowles’ character Miss Ethel, in the story You Are Not I5

 

Paul Bowles died on the morning of November 19, 1999; National Public Radio told the news of his passing. After the obituary, an archived radio interview with Terri Gross was re-broadcast. She asked Bowles if he believed in an afterlife. “Why?” he replied, plainly, and would not elaborate when pressed. I wrote Coda: “You Are Not I” that night, beginning just after sundown and finishing early in the following afternoon. Paul Bowles’ story You Are Not I is a short meditation on identity, told from the perspective of an institutionalized woman who, in a crisis, slowly and cautiously develops a plan to trade lives with her sister.

The music was also made alongside my other experiences of November 19. I paid attention to unrelated happenings, and remembered them: it was the day the Venezuelan baseball team, on a goodwill mission led by their prime minister/pitcher Hugo Chavez6, played the national team in Cuba, managed actively by Fidel Castro. Earlier in that same afternoon, a French breach of sanctions against Iraq was frowned upon by leaders of other NATO nations. 11/19/1999 was also the last date, between then and the first day of the year 3111, that could be spelled completely without any even digits.

In a later issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, the “What They Were Thinking” section comprises the center of an otherwise unadorned page, for a photo taken at some distance from the subject. With round glasses, thinning grey wispy hair, and nondescript clothing, the woman has a large-ish body and an androgynous face. Some of her features are in shadow, and most of her torso and legs are out of focus and overexposed in the strong sunlight of a nearby window. The caption reads, in part:

Karen Edna Wallstein, Camphill Village [a managed care facility], Copake, N.Y. November 1999
I came to Camphill Village when I was 20. Now I’m 58 … Usually I smile, but in that photograph I was just waking up from my rest hour. I read, and I listen to my radio, and I sleep, sleep, sleep, sleep … Some people can go and live in the city on their own and nothing happens to them. I’m pretty weak to live on my own and get around on my own because I don’t know what will happen. I just don’t know why some people can do better than other people. Why is that?
     (Emphasis mine, interview by Catherine Saint Louis.)7

In Bowles’ story, the main character is unable to cope with a new and unprecedented myriad of possibilities of “what will happen”. Bowles similarly showed his indignance about the afterlife, or at least his indifference to speculation. In the same vein of skepticism about the reliability of the past as a model for security in everyday life, Wallstein reveals a uniquely self-aware bewilderment about the competency and comfort of unsheltered outsiders.

Thus, a primary musical goal in writing Coda: “You Are Not I” was the articulation of subtle regions of emotional difference within an imagined human experience of everyday time. I have tried to make small melodic ideas seem unbounded—perhaps suggesting larger spans of time than they actually occupy. Sudden small shifts of texture, I hope, indicate the potential for more radical change. After such unprepared shifts, the destinations return, approached from a new direction.

Yet I was also concerned with how to make a musical space seem expansive in a relatively short period of time, within a narrow and restrained range of expression. My solutions to that self-imposed problem include some “contrary” aspects of the piece—including the prolonged and steady repetition of very high notes against slow counterpoint, and a counter-intuitively quick and fleeting approach to the very low range.

SCORE: “Fors seulement…”, fors seulement condition [3:20] 2001/4
Jacob Rhodebeck, piano

The term symbiosis…is a metaphor…it does not describe what actually happens between two separate individuals of distinct species. It describes that state of undifferentiation…in which inside and outside are only gradually coming to be sensed as different.
     –Margaret S. Mahler8

 

The chanson “Fors seulement l’attente que je meure…” (“If not for thoughts of death…”) originates in a musical tradition that can be credited with the invention of Romantic love—a kind of love which resembles the erotic but which is supposed to be entirely different. Courtly love—as the troubadours portray it, drawing upon Christian notions of selflessness and sacrifice—often meant devout faith in the ultimate importance of something unknowable and intangible. Likewise, then and now, truly ‘romantic’ lovers are supposed to dismiss as insignificant all that is sensual and corporeal. The result in these stories, we are so often shown, is that the body becomes the lesser province of women, who in contrast to men, usually must choose between embodying love’s downfall or forsaking it entirely.

The element of devotion, the refutation of world, self, and body, and the narrator’s acutely passionate sorrow about the loss of his beloved, are demonstrations of the kind of love Christians are supposed to share with God and Christ. My translation of the Middle French (below) is not what you would call scholarly.

In the era of Ockeghem (1410-1497) and Josquin (1440-1521), imbedding secular music in sacred compositions was an uncontroversial and standard activity, but there has rarely been a more layered and fecund textual practice. Although the profane words (for example “a beautiful and merciless woman has defeated the body of Lancelot…”) are not actually pronounced with the tongue, they attach themselves to sacred pronunciations, in the fragmented but recognizable vehicle of profane sounds (e.g. the melody about the (sexual) defeat of Lancelot). In this way they might reinforce the ‘passion’ of sacred texts while complicating their religious emphasis on disembodiment. These semantics might move in the opposite direction as well, because poems of courtly affection were inclined to a Christian metaphysics, aspiring in the first place to the same devotional and transcendent state. Western heartache is distinctly ‘Christian’…profane and sacred are not, as we might assume, exactly opposites. Could chanson melodies become icons of spirit that compete with the liturgy for cultural attention? Or is each a condition for the other’s ecstasy? (As in: “If not for”/”apart from” the one, “there would be no hope left…” for the other. )

SCORE: Plain-clothes cop [1’54”] 2000


John Mark Harris, piano
     for Chris Tucker (1972- ) and Charlie Sheen (1965- )

 

One could be forgiven for believing that in order to make it big in the movies, black men today are obliged to portray undercover agents (think of Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes, Will Smith, Chris Tucker, Cuba Gooding Jr. …). To get a better sense of this obligation, we should consider what’s important about the characters that they play.

Since U.S. police policy, historically, has perpetuated and amplified race and class inequity, the idea of equal protection under the law is sometimes only imaginable through civil disobedience. If moviegoers know this intuitively, then the representation of racial identity and justice in entertainment might be complicated by that tension: the presence of black characters in cop films would have to resolve, in some way, the imaginable dissent and unrest, in order to be successful.

By giving black men a fictional responsibility—to enforce the law in secret—fears of black ‘insubordination’ and violence can be inverted. The attractive inversion would function on two dimensions: instead of publicly declaring dissent, African-American action stars must become private instruments of conformity (see figure).

Aligned with the larger cold-war tradition of films about various kinds of public servants, the black plain-clothes cop wants not to be bothered by institutional or civil order (or even the civil rights of suspects). But unlike his white predecessors, the mainstream young black action hero does not come with inner turmoil or a distant burdensome past. For that, a jaded white mentor appears (think of Nick Nolte, Tommy Lee Jones, Charlie Sheen), to manipulate, react, and to look on in calm and/or mildly irritated dismay. In the end, the white collaborator often makes a leap of faith which enables the black hero’s antics—angry, snappy, clumsy, ingenious—to prevail.

The plain-clothes cop is a morally uncomplicated character. He comforts us simple, clear, and unilateral solutions. He is a picture of loose indifference, but when a higher purpose is at hand, somewhere beneath his enemies’ consciousness, he is coiled spring-tight.

Plain-clothes cop, for piano, presents an outwardly simple narrative. Small, complex changes in attitude and posture ornament a larger, more basic (yet entirely unromantic) progression from one emotion to the next. The larger formal world of the two phrases accomplishes freedom, and then retreat, in a somewhat symmetrical set of “linear” developments. But the internal world of each half—the first tonally incomplete and the second fraught with temporally collapsed repetition—suggests, I hope, a quantity of time much larger and less well defined than that occupied by the sound itself. As with our real-life experiences of triumphant wit, “the right time” just never seems to arrive.

The Persistent Names of Lost Spaces [38’ 32”] 2000
John Mark Harris, piano

Available on Centaur Records CRC 3105 “Pieces, Threaded 1999-2009: Piano Music of Ben Leeds Carson”

Persistent Names…draws many of its most important textures, attitudes, rhythms, and “subjects” from shorter piano works on this disk, and it provides what the others can’t: a sensitivity to a musical ‘subjectivity’—by which I mean any aspect of music in which, or through which, we identify ourselves, our consciousness, in the listening process. Traditionally associated with soggetto (the ‘suggestion’ that begins a fugue), this false etymology is not to be brushed aside: it clarifies our common-practice tendency to hear the character—perhaps the “self”—of a piece, in its tune. But the preservation of identity from a symphonic performance to a piano reduction, to a whistler on the sidewalk, is an exercise in lost spaces, forgotten pleasures in which music is postured, positioned, and pointed, toward the stuff of the human self. I have often thought that music is a way of naming spaces that language cannot, spaces in which identity is in an uncertain process, a negotiation.

I want this music to represent, and to assist in calling to mind, certain pleasures. I have tried to make it extravagant and luxurious, without irony. This is because I want it to be effortlessly enjoyable. The music is tonal—not just in some obscure pre-compositional sense—but in that it has recognizable major-and-minor keys. If anything seems unresolved in this piece, then I want it to be heard as a problem, and not (as high modernists have taught us to imagine) as part of a ‘personal harmonic language.’ B major is one thing, and F major is quite another—they are not parts of expressionistic chromatic sentences.

Although it has these Romantic characteristics, the music is also relatively un-reverberant (for a piano piece, anyway), because I want listeners to be mindful of those pleasures that (unlike the resounding depths and landscapes that we expect and project into 19th century composers’ voices) live in the ambivalent echoes of a countersubject, the syncopation of a fading dyad, or the space between sotto voce (half-voice) chant tenors that a piano can only reduce to the quality of a drumbeat.

 

***

 

On Writing at the Piano

Most of the time when we sit down at the piano we are not so much playing an instrument, in the usual sense, as interacting with a visual and tactile model of a musical world view. The piano aspires to representations of unbounded musical possibility, in ways that are both distinctive to the instrument, and indifferent to it. Ten years ago, as I set out to compose new music for the piano, the tensions between the piano’s uniqueness, and its pretenses to a kind of universality, concerned me.

The piano is at first a keyboard, and displays the keyboard’s attractive logic of tonal movement. In C major or A minor, a hierarchy of white and black separates the notes of a scale from their chromatic inflections. Moving through other keys, the shape of the hand is molded by a tonal topography, privileging simple tonal modulations over complex ones.9 A responsive machinery connects the keyboard—an orderly digital interface—to a resonating body. Inside, the strings are parallel, then skewed, replicating without repeating; metal and wood fill a cavern of asymmetry and orthogonality. Piano, soft: a half-hearted finger’s sotto voce might sink toward the very bottom of musical awareness, but still fill an 18th-century concert stage like the smallest organ pipe fills a cathedral. Forte: in the 19th century, the revolutions of the late 1700s slipping into the past, and the revolution of clocks and steam engines under way, the pianist’s full hands and taut hammers somehow remain at the center of a Romantic world. The piano’s path was a secret metaphor for ascendancy, from a soft-touched toy of middle-class family parlors, to a hero’s throne before the orchestra. Later, a medium of French symbolism, glowing and weightless.10 Heavy and arrogant enough to survive any future: tonality’s disintegration, the drum-driven back beats of swing, and the global electricity of Chicago.

Like any other instrument, what the piano means to us will always be conditioned by history and culture; that historical weight is a challenge to any musician aspiring to innovation. But one of the piano’s most important features is its apparent featurelessness—we are often urged to forget the piano, and leave its instrumentality unnamed, in the presence of something somehow ‘purely’ musical. Too often universalized and exnominated, the activities of hands on the instrument and the sounds coming from its interior, can inexplicably cease to be of the piano. For me, this disappearance of voice and name makes the piano all the more compelling when regarded as potentially distinctive and historically bounded. So I have tried to rethink its presence in the world around us, hear and feel the instrument as a body, among other bodies, and situate its expressions in our everyday lives.

***

We have a tendency to apprehend the whole world of the piano as a musical ideal. As a demonstrator of chords and voices, a “neutral” accompanist, or a simulator of bands and orchestras, piano-playing often stands (in) for other ways of making music, rather than standing by itself. We are tempted to treat piano music as an unadorned poetry of pitch, with a negligible range of articulations and timbres, and even a compromised sense of time. (Piano music is rhythmic, of course, but tonality loses some of its rhythmic potential—its breathing momentum, its metric forces of dissonance and consonance—when played on strings that decay so infinitely, seeming despite all their depth only to call attention back to the beginnings of notes.)11

The piano’s detachment from distinctive sound-worlds gives us a space in which complicated memories of musical experience can be distilled into mere combinations of pitches. We sometimes find that chamber or choral music, for example, is ‘orated’ from a classroom piano, and ‘discovered’ or illuminated in those sounds. The pianist seems to remove a blanket of technical variety and material prettiness; music becomes, more basically, a matter of what’s going on in the notes. As young pianists play minuets or allegros borrowed from orchestra music, the social world of the original music is transformed into a something steady and rhetorical. The grinding interactions of bow-strokes, idiomatic contrasts, and remote countermelodies, the dancers and ceremonial audiences, all collapse, becoming part of a uniform progression of ideas and tonalities. Of course the piano is not the only instrument on which we accomplish this kind of laboratory reduction. But it is the only instrument on which we regularly pretend that some kind of neutrality has been found; the piano becomes the site of a pseudo-empirical musical quest.

This reductive phenomenon is not limited to our use of the instrument in orchestral and ensemble reductions. Even in its exalted solo literature, the piano becomes somehow more mentalistic, appearing further from the body, but oddly closer to a performer’s inner world, than other instruments. Pianists’ movements seem less mediated by clenching, tugging, and sliding, than those of other musicians. Even when pianists linger in the physicality of the piano’s archetypal textures, in the end it is the ‘notes’, and not the means of their production, that usually define the musical experience. Too easily, we disavow our sense of the pianist’s body, and the piano itself, as corporeal things; this is of course only a pretense, but we are swept up in it as pianists convert the sound and image of the instrument into a diorama of musical pasts, resisting the connection of their practices with the techniques and technologies that gave us the name pianoforte.

***

Toward the end of Haydn’s life, Parisians and Londoners began buying spinnet and piano music in much the same way that consumers first bought wax cylinders and phonograph records 100 years later. This market brought about the piano’s first widespread popularity, and with it, a kind of listening and a kind of literacy that might be called bourgeois: the piano symbolized refinement, and a child’s access to high society. At the same time, listeners displaced music out from the lungs and spines of social bodies, to the ends of the pianist’s arms. Where before there had been communal part-singing and coordinated dancing, now was a technology of individual dexterity that was literally to be held at arm’s length. That sea-change—manifest as much in the music of Milton Babbitt or Cecil Taylor as in Elton John or Tori Amos—sets today’s piano quite apart from the cultural practice of Cristofori’s fortepiano and the instruments that Nanette Stein built for the world of Beethoven. In a subtle reversal of priority, what began as an Age-of-Reason celebration of the maestro musica pura: the ideas in the notes, unencumbered by the world around them. And it seems important to affirm that this transformation is not accidental.  Part of what high-Romantic piano works contributed to the notion of “common practice,” was their cerebral transcendence of sound-as-medium. Liszt and the Schumanns might be called transcendental practitioners12—their music seems to hope for an escape from material conditions. Again, the escape is an illusion: at the keyboard, a musician must breathe, and exist in a world of careful touches and corporeal movements. But the post-romantic piano gives composers license to submerge those realities.

In the rise of our own pop culture era in the 1890s, the piano joins a growing collection of late-industrial reproduction devices: pianos, radios, televisions, and other appliances converge into a class of musical encasement: brown furniture, usually, with buttons…hiding wiry innards. Like the radio, the piano is a tool of the everyday world, subordinate to the music that it brings us. How we operate the piano, really, is on the margins: a listener’s gaze from across the room sees elbows dangling, as a family member turns away from siblings or husbands and face the wall. In so many aspects of modern life, we sit at a remote terminal, accessing a centralized source of information, a receiver or a point-of-sale, awaiting instructions from a broadcaster or a publisher. The piano is such a terminal, its sheet music a monitor connecting us to a music ‘out there.’ While popular sheet music for guitars aids in the replication of a popular guitarist’s work, piano music is, and has been (ever since the first French “pirated” reductions of Haydn symphonies), just an efficient characterization of music that is known to be more complex. In the everyday life of the piano, we do not recreate, but merely access, music’s far-away perfection.

***

One common way of carving out a new future for the piano has involved a sort of sophrosyneic13 selectivity, a mastery-via-abstention: avoiding (as one avoids temptation) reference to tonality, reference to romantic forms. But I think we are beginning to learn that such mastery, in spite of itself, keeps a vanquished apparition circulating in the walls. So it does not matter that the artwork seems free of its own past. Vague tonal gravities, if not harmonic functions, govern our hearing of the piano’s equal-tempered ‘atonality’. Good historicized modernists keep a romantic gestural memory in mind, just as we keep the ghost stories of patriarchal elitism and imperial Eurocentrism in mind, in order consciously not to replicate them…and that is a kind of reproduced domination.

A consequence of this abstention, for twentieth century art music, has been that the piano is not just the ubiquitous piano, but a known artefact of European grandeur, carrying that meaning with it in much of its unconscious life. With its dominant meanings David Tudor and John Cage asserted a more conscious set of meanings for it, especially by calling attention to a more material piano14, projecting its interior outward to us by putting objects into the body, so that now we are listening to the instrument again as something at least technically renewed. Györgi Ligeti, Conlon Nancarrow, Thelonious Monk, and Morton Feldman, have stretched the formal and textural boundaries of the repertoire; all of them in some way tried to shed the piano’s historical weight, to find something unburdened and new. The only possible caveat in that great renaissance of sound and possibility, is that the renaissance was present from the beginning: opposite the piano’s historical weight, is its lightness of being, its transcendentalism — a ubiquity that may have been what the piano was always intended to claim.

The cultural and historical portability of the piano has emerged from all of this fairly unscathed. For those who don’t dare touch, the piano is still the first and last musical instrument. We hear the piano on television and radio when we need to flash back to childhood, or flash forward to old age. In the editing rooms of Curtiz15,Spielberg16, Campion17, and Cameron18, the sound and the sight of the piano stands not for music but for collective Romantic memory, tethering us to civilization itself from exotic cafés, on colonized ‘frontiers’, and at the bottoms of oceans.

***

In most of the pieces on “Pieces, Threaded: 1999-2009,” I have tried to address the possibility of a meaningful, present tense, pianistic action: not at all separate from its historical meaning, or from what the piano has already become, but no more separate from its slightly embarrassed being as a body. Instead, the piano works for me as a set of possibilities, which, although coexistent with the narratives and definitions that history has so thickly constructed around it, are still marginalized.

Thus, there is no name or idea, among those glanced at here, whose influence could not somehow be found in the following compositions and improvisations. The music hasn’t been purged of traditional harmonic or contrapuntal relations. But the problem remains that acts of stylistic selection in this music (say, a paraphrase of characteristics usually found in Ockeghem or in Wagner) are articulations on the boundary between present and past. In what the historian Michel DeCerteau describes as “split construction”19—an author disappearing and reappearing at will through the strategic selection of other authors—a composer might commit a form of pretence more dangerous than censorship. Quotes are objects pressed up, from within, against this music’s otherwise transparent “semantic outer surface”20, obscuring a more consistent thrust of ideology: a listener’s critical agency in the whole experience is suspended and replaced with a kind of opulence.

However, the present workings of voice and gesture—at times quite familiar—are to me a game in the discovery of what new can be found in the old. What is important, I could propose, is that music played on the piano right now—whether its language is inherited or not—should happen as an utterance of its own specific possibility, and not because that new music is the present survivor of its eliminated alternatives.

On some scores represented in this recording, titles are qualified: “to be played on the piano.” As opposed to the more conventional “for piano,” the stranger clause has the effect, I think, of putting the physical and technical aspects of the instrument into a middle-ground—neither the ignored background and nor the overtly-described foreground. The words “on the piano” call to mind the contact between fingers and keys, and maybe even the role of the piano as technology, contemplated above. But these pieces are not meant as explorations or descriptions of the instrument and its capacities. The passive voice “to be played” should remind performers of piano-culture and piano-history as an inherited set of limiting practices. However the verb itself—normally absent—emphasizes connections within the musician: between actions and interpretations, ears and hands.

These pieces also support a circumspection of the polemics of representation. Contemporary music often seems to dance skilfully on the boundary between absolutism and programmaticism—by connecting difficult idiomatic instrumental phrases to experience-based titles. But to work on both sides of a boundary is not the same thing as to escape a polemic.

The contested issue of programmatic music has often been discussed as a conflict between those who put music to the service of descriptions of the ‘outer world’ and those who consider it a form of introspection, representing only pure thought, and intention. But that frame of reference in the debate relies upon a Cartesian notion of thought and reality. We neglect, for example, the potential of music to represent not only “reality” and “emotion”, but simple and complex cognitive acts: processes of identity formation, discrimination, theorization, meaning-making, and even reason. Of these objects, all can be observed, perceived, affirmed, and denied, just like other “real” things. None fits neatly in the external or internal category of human experience.

I am not proposing anything so arcane as the deliberate representation of mental states defined by modern psychological terms—that would only be another way of dancing on, and perhaps emphasizing the existence of, the internal/external boundary. Persistent Names of Lost Spaces, and the shorter piano pieces included on this recording, are not, as might be expected, “highly psychological program music.” They are programmatic pieces whose topics are non-fiction, and whose formation does not quite rise to the extraordinary coherence of novels, short stories, and ballads. I propose that the problem of program music is not that music is beyond or above the task of representation, nor that we are in danger of trivializing what music can signify but that we musicians don’t take enough liberty to represent as ordinary and inchoate a set of experiences as we please. Music has a subject: it has a process by which we identify it, identify in it, and through it. Representation and “programme” in music has at least a chance of building that kind of identity transparently and productively. So it is precisely the ambivalent and interior life of the “self”—illusory or incoherent as it may be—that I have tried to signify with these works.

***

ENDNOTES

Click on a note number to return to its point of reference in the text.

1. Eduardo Galeano, Days and Nights of Love and War. Translated by Judith Brister. London: Pluto Press, 2000: 117. [OriginallyDías y noches de amor y de guerra. Havana: Casa de las Américas, 1982.] 
2. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1983: 43. 
3. General Perón, quoted in Daniel James, “Perón and the People,” in The Argentina Reader: History, Culture, Politics, edited by Gabriela Nouzeilles and Graciela Montaldo. Durham: Duke, 2002: 286. 
4. Brigitta Carson, personal correspondence with the composer, February 29, 2008. 
5. Paul Bowles, “You Are Not I,” in Collected Stories and Later Writings. New York: Library of America, 2002. 151-159. [Originally published in Mademoiselle January 1948.] 
6. Years later, it is impossible to disassociate my memory of Chavez ousted by his military for a day in the spring of 2002. The Bush administration applauded, but he was returned to power immediately in a popular uprising. It was not widely reported that, in advance of the coup, the CIA gave $350,000 in aid to the revolutionary forces’ publicity campaign. Chavez’s crimes then were redistributionism and pro-socialist speech. Now, emboldened by his public opinion victories, he embraces despotism, resists democracy, and keeps political prisoners indefinitely. 
7. “What They Were Thinking,” in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Interview by Catherine Saint Louis. September 10, 2000. 
8. Suzanne Kirschner, Religious and Romantic Origins of Psychoanalysis: Individuation and Integration in Post-Freudian Theory(Cambridge: University Press, 1996): 177.

9. So, for example, chord functions in E major and A major are distributed similarly under a pianist’s hands; those functions will rarely share physical shapes with their counterparts in more remote keys, like F or G.
10. Just as gravity attracts a tonal melody to its tonic, whole-tone scales and other symmetrical note-collections served Debussy and Ravel in descriptions of weightless clouds and soft-edged visions of tombs, cathedrals, and moonlight.
11. One of the distinctive technologies of the instrument is the hammer’s variable speed and force of contact with, and release from, the string, which makes a note’s onset sound extraordinarily responsive to subtleties of hands’ actions on the keys. Meanwhile, the end of the note, and the phenomenon of duration, is left to the damper pads, remarkable in themselves, but controlled only indirectly, and with less precision.
12. Adding to the obvious sense that “Romantics” aim for transcendental expressions, historians in the mid-1940s argued, in full force, that Romantic piano music in particular amounts to a transcendental exercise. See for example Arthur Shepherd, “Papa Goetschius” in retrospect, in the Musical Quarterly, 1944 vol. XXX(3): 307-318; and Robert L. Jacobs. Schumann and John Paul. Music and Letters 1949, vol. XXX: 250-258.
13. From Foucault’s reading of sòphrosynè, as freedom through self-mastery; freedom of spirit by escape from ‘slavery to bodily impulses’ (Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random House, 1985. New York: Vintage, 1990. 79-80).
14. And for Cage, even a material pianist—respectfully remarking, in a discussion of Tudor’s admirers, that he was sometimes considered “not so much a musical mind as a musical…instrument.” Interview [1968] with Larry Austin, in Richard Kostelanitz, ed. Conversing with Cage (New York: Routledge, 2003); 213.
15. Casablanca. Dir. Michael Curtiz. [Based on “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.] Warner Bros. 1942.
16. Empire of the Sun. Dir. Stephen Spielberg. Eff. Industrial Light and Magic and Technicolor. Warner Bros. / Amblin Entertainment, 1987. A piano is figured initially as a symbol of cumbersome European technology, and later developed as war-shattered flotsam, under the gaze of displaced British colonists.
17. The Piano. Dir. Jane Campion. Set decoration by Meryl Cronin. Cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh. Australian Film Commission, 1993.
18. The Titanic. Dir. James Cameron. Art.dir. Bill Rea and Martin Liang. Twentieth Century Fox / Lightstorm / Paramount, 1997.
19. Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History. 1975. Trans. Tom Conley. New York: Columbia, 1988. 92-99.
20. Ibid., 95.

MUSICIANS:

The music of composer-theorist Benjamin Carson has been performed in Australia, Europe, and throughout North America, including the Aspen music festival and the 25th Anniversary of the “June in Buffalo” Festival of New Music at the State University of New York (2000), the New England Conservatory’s Summer Institute for Contemporary Piano (2004), Sydney Conservatory’s Music and Social Justice conference (2005), and the Gerngesehen Festival in Cologne, Germany (2009); the Music Performance Program at Columbia University hosted a full concert of Carson’s music in March of 2009. His work has also taken the first prize in chamber music (2001) for the London-based International Bass Society.

Carson supports his work as a composer with a variety of research and critical inquiry, including empirical work in perception and cognition, as well as historical gender studies. Both in scholarship and in practice, Carson is primarily concerned with the sometimes-unpredictable locations of musical “subjects,” which he defines broadly as any identity-bearing aspects of musical experience. His writing is published in the Journal of New Music Research, the OPEN SPACE Magazine, the American Journal of Psychology, and in Shock and Awe: War on Words, the first publication of the Institute for Advanced Feminist Research. Dr. Carson is currently Assistant Professor of music, American Studies, and New Media Studies, at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Jacob Rhodebeck is a pianist known for his facile technique and his enthusiasm for performing new and unknown music. He was born in Mansfield, OH in 1982 and grew up in central Ohio. Prior to attending college, he studied piano with Christopher Durrenberger, at Wittenberg University. Jacob attended the University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music and studied with Elizabeth Pridonoff. It was during this time that his interest in performing new music came about. During that time, he performed five solo recital programs featuring many contemporary works, including works by Frederic Rzewski and Per Norgard, as well as a recital comprised entirely of works commissioned from student composers. After receiving his Bachelor’s degree from CCM, Jacob went on to Stony Brook University to continue his study with Gilbert Kalish. At Stony Brook, he completed his Master’s degree in 2006 and continued there in the Doctoral program.

Jacob has performed in many masterclasses with artists such as: Garrick Ohlsson, Ursula Oppens, Frederic Rzewski, and Emanuel Ax. In April 2008, he was invited to perform and record Morton Gould’s Chorale and Fugue in Jazz for two pianos and orchestra with Blair Macmillen and the Albany Symphony Orchestra. He has also recorded Christopher Bailey’s Piano Sonata and Ilari Kaila’s piano quartet, Kellojen Kumarus with the Escher Qååuartet. He was a Fellow at the Tanglewood Summer Music Festival as a in 2007 and 2008.

John Mark Harris has performed as a soloist and chamber musician throughout the United States as well as abroad. He has given recitals of American music, at the Palace of Culture in Poznan, Poland, has made two recital appearances at the University of Edinburgh, a solo recital at Greenwich House, New York. Other solo appearances include concerto performances and solo recitals in venues as diverse as New England Conservatory’s Enchanted Circle and San Diego’s New Music Society, for which Harris is the current executive director.

Dr. Harris was an Epstein Fellow at the University of California at San Diego, where he studied with Aleck Karis as a candidate for the D.M.A. in Piano Performance. He has also studied extensively with Stephen Drury at the New England Conservatory and Robert Helps at the University of South Florida. He has participated in master classes in Europe with Steggan Letwin, Massimiliano Damerini, Bernhard Wambach and Steffen Schleiemacher.

His solo recitals have been hailed as “stunning”, “astonishing”, and by the Boston Globe as “forceful, yet finely shaded”. Dr. Harris has received grants from the Yvar Mikhashoff Trust for New Music, the Lord Mayor of Darmstadt, the Poznan Supercomputing Center, the Foundazione Giorgio Cini, and from many other sources.

 

 

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