Pioneering Pianist Nancy Garniez Explains Her Commonsensical, Paradigm-Shifting Discoveries in Tonal Refraction
Nancy Garniez’s latest achievement is a groundbreaking discovery in the field of sonics as they relate to memory and performance, which she calls Tonal Refraction. The iconoclastic, individualistic pianist has built an unselfconsciously brilliant career spanning both the worlds of classical and the avant garde. She’s commissioned new works from notable composers like Ursula Mamlok and several others. She continues to coach both professionals and casual players. Her blog is infused with a crushingly sardonic wit, and her commentary on the state of classical music is spot-on. She also happens to be mom to Rachelle Garniez, the multi-instrumentalist chanteuse and Jack White collaborator who might just be the most consistently brilliant songwriter working in any genre today. But ultimately, Tonal Refraction may be Nancy Garniez’s most lasting legacy. In anticipation of presenting her findings at the International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in Seoul, Korea this summer, she graciously took some time away from her teaching and research to answer a few questions.
Nancy Garniez: If I have learned anything from Tonal Refraction it is that the race to produce quantities of notes with minimal attentiveness, risks distancing players from any sense of real satisfaction in their music making, whether amateur or professional. I am now teaching players of all instruments, all levels, how to adjust their attention to include the elements that trigger the strongest, most reliable responses: I call it Music Inside and Out.
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: My rudimentary understanding of Tonal Refraction, as you describe it, is that in this new system pitches are associated with color rather than musical notation in order to better enable performers to hear what they’re playing or are about to play. What’s wrong with standard notation? Is color really more memorable than, say, that leger line above B that says “middle C?” Could it simply be that some people respond to color better than notation – or vice versa?
NG: It is perhaps better to think of Tonal Refraction as a process rather than as an alternative to standard notation. The process begins with the individual matching her feeling about a specific pitch to a color, tuning it, as it were, in this visual medium. Sometimes it is a favorite note, sometimes a problematic tone in a specific composition. Usually -but not always – the people involved have no previous association of color with sound. So it is important that the color is generated by the maker of the Refraction, not given as part of a method. In this sense it is a reverse notation since the color corresponds to a level of emotional response based entirely on experience of actual sound rather than being an equivalent to standard notation.
LCC: How about people like me who come from the world of improvised music where the cues are typically audio rather than visual?
NG: I have not worked with people like you, probably because the audio/visual coordination in your case – and Rachelle’s! – is so entirely different from that of a person who is reading music.
LCC: Throughout history, there have been umpteen methods for notating sound, although I’m not aware of color being one of them. One method that comes to mind is the shape-note system popular in the US in the late 1700s and early 1800s. What do you think of that?
NG: These are all evidence of the complexity of rendering the auditory in some other means to facilitate memory or execution…there will always be experimentation along these lines.
LCC: Why Tonal Refraction and not Tonal Reflection? Or is that just a matter of semantics?
NG: The word “refraction” is taken from Proust, who uses it to describe what happens to sensory memory when it is altered by layers of subconscious emotion, association, etcetera. I find it extraordinary that, upon Googling Tonal Refraction, I discovered “refraction” on page 38 of a theory treatise, Tonality and Transformation, by Steven Rings, University of Chicago. He uses the word in ways quite parallel to mine, though not with the literary association, rather with the prismatic image of the coloring of tone by experience. His work is based on the same thinker who inspired and informed my entire life as a teacher, Viktor Zuckerkandl, a psychologist, philologist, musician, who was at the Institute for Advanced Studies back in the 50’s, and whose book Sound and Symbol goes into these intricacies thoroughly, brilliantly, and hopefully, from the standpoint of how to make a meaningful life teaching music.
Incidentally, he met Robert Hutchins on a trans-Atlantic sailing and taught music at St. John’s College in Annapolis – thus he was passionate about music and the human race, not the conservatory subspecies. The second volume of his work is called Man, the Musician.
LCC: One thing that struck me immediately about Tonal Refraction is that it emphasizes the individual. After all, we all perceive sensory input differently, whether that’s audio or visual or tactile or any other kind of stimulus. How specifically is Tonal Refraction tailored to individuals?
NG: Here you are right on the money. The idea of my putting forth my own Tonal Refraction of a composition is not to stimulate your disinclination to go along with it, but rather to come up with your own images in both sound and sight.
LCC: What specifically does Tonal Refraction empower a musician to do that can’t be achieved through simple practice, or exercises, or ear training?
NG: I am amazed at the changes this technique has wrought in my listening, my playing, my teaching. The use of a code of related colors suggests interest in overtones as well as discrete pitches. And I haven’t even mentioned the grid: Tonal Refraction uses two potent elements: First, color for pitch relatedness: I can tell right away by the individual’s selection of colors whether or not she hears tones in relation one to another. Sometimes the power of color to show this is overwhelmingly clear in a way that has nothing to do with music theory or ear training. In one stunning instance, pointing out to a professional pianist how arbitrary his colors were for the C major scale began a conversation about how he hated overtones (they are, after all, inconsistent and therefore quite dangerous on the piano). Having never been taught to be aware of them he blanked them out with audible humming while playing. He no longer does so.
Second, the grid for tonal space decisions – that’s the vertical axis – plotted over a visualization of a time constant, which is the horizontal axis. As an example of tonal space, you might take the opening notes of Fur Elise: Beethoven alternates E and D# several times, starting with the E. These tones are so close together as almost to sound like a single tone with a wide pitch band. I would probably visualize that by changing color within one horizontal bar. But on page 2 the alternation begins with D# and the tones (D# / E) are clearly marked as separately articulated pairs, thus increasing the distance between them, as I understand that marking. I would indicate that by showing them adjacent horizontal bars. In other words, whereas they would be played on the same piano keys in both cases, the auditory distance would not be equivalent and I could emphasize that in my visualization.
;LCC: What is the physiological basis for Tonal Refraction?
NG: I am sure there is one and have perhaps found people to investigate this further. It is a matter of response in time. Musicians experience time in minuscule increments; during countless milliseconds we make more decisions than we can possibly track. Some of these decisions are based on emotional reactions to sounds themselves, as opposed to the composition as an entity. We know about this because of such responses as unbearable muscle tension, the humming I described above, focal dystonia — all of which I have “treated” using Tonal Refraction.
One of my former students, a neuroscientist, has connected me with a colleague, Daniella Schiller, who is working on the neuro-physiological fear response: animals, including humans, respond to fear physically before they are aware of the cause of their fear–it is so immediate a sensory event. Dr. Schiller, having tried Tonal Refraction, agrees that there are profound similarities between these types of event except that music unleashes a veritable torrent of response.
When I first began working with Tonal Refraction a student showed it to a colleague at Albert Einstein College of Medicine who referred me to the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function at Beth Abraham Health Services in the Bronx, a facility for treatment of long-term neurologic disease. Dr. Concetta Tomaino, the Music Therapist with whom Oliver Sacks worked for decades, set me to work with several patients. I undertook this experiment as a volunteer and, after three sessions, achieved results “unlike anything we have seen in music therapy.” in Dr. Tomaino’s words.
Preferring the artistic life I did not continue in that setting.
LCC: Was there a particular problem or issue that sent you off on the road to Tonal Refraction? What initiated this journey of discovery and where did it lead you?
NG: I fell in love with the sound of the piano at age 3 or 4; it was a neighbor’s piano across the hall from our apartment. I had never seen a piano or heard anyone play one. It invaded my imagination; I loved the sound. We moved away, the choir director made my father buy a piano, and I began lessons at 7. It was a huge disappointment – no magic! So I played incessantly but never practiced. Until Mozart. That book of sonatas contained sounds that matched my feeling for the instrument — not all the sounds, just some, here and there. Of course, the discrepancy was baffling and I could not articulate it. For complicated reasons I was unable to pursue the standard training and career of a pianist, though it is the only thing I ever really wanted to master. Then, at age 57 a new invention of physical therapy gave me, for the first time in my adult life, unfettered use of my left arm, so I programmed a solo recital to include the Mozart that had so puzzled me at age 12. In the middle of the night I awoke sure that now I could SHOW people what it was about that music that had stayed with me so clearly. And thus it happened–out of the experience of childhood. It is one of the reasons I take teaching children so seriously.
LCC: Can I play devil’s advocate again and ask if Tonal Refraction has the potential to do much good, why hasn’t it already been adopted in the music education community? Or has it? Are there other people doing what you’re doing, or on the same track at least?
NG: Parental pressure for short-term achievement is calling the shots with increasing authority these days. Competition is all. The commitment to it is deeply entrenched.
LCC: Can I play devil’s advocate again and ask why, when we have Youtube and Soundcloud and a gazillion other places where we can learn stuff by ear, and if we get lost we can rewind, do we even need written notation? After all, an awful lot of people who play music, some of them very well, can’t read it…
NG: I refer back to my story of discovering those particular sounds in Mozart. I had no clue who he was or what it was but I knew I was not alone in the world. Had the music not been printed for me to stumble across all by myself on my piano none of the above could have happened, though I deplore the reliance of the classical music community on visual analysis rather than on auditory vitality – the recording industory has also been subservient to that order of priorities.
LCC: As you know, in Hindu mythology, certain pitches as well as certain colors are associated with the various chakras in the human body. I’m not aware of what if any mathematical correlation there might be between sonic and spectral frequencies in that system. Is there one in yours? In other words, does the correspondence between pitches have a mathematically corresponding color shift?
NG: These are issues that Zuckerkandl treats very beautifully. My work relies on the variability of acoustical events and the perception of them. In this respect it is not attractive to most theorists seeking mathematical formulas, though I feel the work is inherently mathematical. My brother, a mathematician, saw that right away, though he knows nothing about music.
LCC: I should say “congratulations” for being selected to present your findings at the upcoming International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in Seoul this coming August. What specifics are you going to unveil there?
NG: Thanks!! No one is more surprised than I at the proposal having been selected. The proposal seems to address many of your questions quite directly: “The study aimed to determine whether individuals could be made aware of their involuntary experience of tone relatedness, demonstrated by Viktor Zuckerkandl (Sound and Symbol) to be integral to the musical life of persons with or without training; and, if so, whether it would make any difference.
Seventy-two individuals, including professional musicians, amateurs, listeners, and children, were seen for three weekly sessions of 1 ¼ hours. Session I: Each was asked to identify a tone that had particular meaning for them, then to choose out of hundreds of colored pencils a color to match that tone. Proceeding then to relate that tone/color either to a scale, or directly to the tones in a specific composition of their own choosing, the individual drew the tones on a grid, as if depicting vibrations. With the horizontal axis of the grid corresponding to time measured objectively, the vertical axis registered degrees of rise and fall as perceived by the inner ear, i.e., subjectively, often deviating significantly from standard notation. Continuing to depict the composition the individual worked in silence, relating to the score without relating physically to an instrument or actual sound. Session II: A continuation of the work. By Session III 67% of individuals already registered a clear response, generally manifested in improved reading; and better, more confident coordination in instrumental or compositional performance. Of this group 13% presented acute physical or psychiatric symptoms; with the exception of only one individual in this sub-group, the results were dramatically restorative.
For 30% of participants the process seemed to have no evident relevance while, for 3%, the first two sessions evoked such psychological pain as to preclude completing the study. Representative samples of work from all three groups will be shown. This research has direct implications about relating visual to auditory experience. Whereas failing to account for the difference between fully resonating sound and the discrete symbols of standard notation risks alienating the reader from innate musical sense, a system that translates auditory experience into visual terms may restore the connection.”
LCC: Being familiar with your blog, I’ve noticed that you have a prophetic streak. You’ve been a champion of live performance and live recording versus studio recordings, and you’ve also gone to bat for community-based performances and ensembles, both ideas which have validated themselves in recent years. To what degree, do you think, or would you venture to say, is Tonal Refraction an “I told you so” moment?
NG: It’s good of you to say that and thanks for reading the blog. After a while I got used to being a bit ahead of the pack, having noticed already in the 50’s that recordings and television were going to pose problems in terms of attentiveness and sound quality, which influenced my approach to programming. My teaching has always been experimental, including some far-out work in ensemble and in piano at Mannes Preparatory Division until the influx of Eastern Europeans in the 80’s wiped away all trace of what was creatively American in approaches to music education. I had to stop even pretending to accomplish anything against the Sovietization of classical music. Alas. But I still have acive contact with some extraordinary young musical minds. Most of my support has come from your generation and younger with the exception of a few highly perceptive artist teachers here and there.
LCC: Thanks for the enlightening chat! I’d like to remind those of you in New York that Nancy Garniez also puts on a very enlightening piano salon in a welcoming, intimate Upper West Side space: the current focus of these early evening house concerts is Beethoven sonatas and the fine points of the composer’s rhythms. Details may be found here.
There are plenty of joyous, exciting orchestras in town, without even mentioning the kind of electricity that the New York Philharmonic can generate. Recent concerts here by the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, East Coast Chamber Orchestra and Spectrum Symphony have all been high-voltage, and the Chelsea Symphony across town can always be counted on for an entertaining performance. But the Greenwich Village Orchestra seems to have a little more fun than anybody else.
Their concert this past Sunday on Irving Place didn’t start out that way. Conductor Barbara Yahr led them gracefully through Samuel Barber’s Adagio, to open on a somber note. There’s only one way to play that piece – it’s funeral music, and you either do it that way, or you do it wrong. Yahr and orchestra took care to take no chances and the music was better off for it.
They brought the volume up, slowly and methodically, with Barber’s Violin Concerto, from 1939, the year after the Adagio was written. And the first two movements made a fantastic segue because they sound like a continuation of it. Guest violinist Hye-Jin Kim met the lush sonics with a judiciously silken tone, handing off to the ensemble on more than one occasion with a perfectly measured dignity and grace, the results were so seamless. But the third movement was as electric as anyone could have hoped for and Kim dug into it with relish. When she wasn’t sprinting through rapidfire volleys of chromatics, she had a grin on her face, tapping out the rhythm on her hip, lost in the sway of the music. Kim has gone on record as dedicating herself to illuminating the emotion in what she plays, and she nailed the triumph and surprise in this one, over the lively, balletesque pulse that seemingly appears out of nowhere. Behind her, bassist Jeff Rozany and oboeist Shannon Bryant contributed lushly fluid intros that stood out in contrast.
Here are two theories about Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, both of which could be wrong. For starters, the symphony is such a hodgepodge – if a brilliant one – that it seems that the composer was emptying the tank, fleshing out every idea that might have been kicking around his songbook. Was there a doubt that he’d survive World War II – or survive Stalin? That’s hardly implausible. Another theory relates to subtext, that what Prokofiev is saying, other than rejoicing in telling the Nazis to take a hike, is that now that we’ve sent one bunch of fascists packing, it’s high time we got our own house in order. Whatever the case, what’s inarguable about this work is that its multi-facetedness makes it very difficult to play. Yahr’s approach was to raise the bar and the volume as high as it would go, right out of the gate, setting up all kinds of suspense for when the triumph dies down and the distantly ominous foreshadowing begins. Yahr remarked beforehand that there are passages of “pure evil” in this, and she’s right – the caricatures of mechanistic Nazis and various fascist buffoons, staggering with the weight of the low brass and the timpani, are brutal. That surrealism left a vivid mark, through the stormy conclusion, which was almost too giddy to be true – yet unshakably true to the composer’s vision
The GVO’s next concert, on May 18 at 3 PM, is an especially high-voltage one, with an eclectic Spanish-tinged program that spans the emotional spectrum: Copland’s El Salón México; Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol; Ginastera’s Estancia suite, and largescale arrangements of Piazzolla tangos.
[republished from Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily]
More musicians should do what Haskell Small does: he plays what he likes, and brings it to life, sometimes quietly, sometimes somewhat more boisterously, putting his heart and soul into it. He gravitates toward music that’s on the quiet and rapturous side: his performance of Federico Mompou’s Musica Callada here last year was absolutely riveting. Friday night on the Upper West Side, Small revisited that theme, bookending an absolutely shattering performance of his own suite The Rothko Room with music of Satie and Alan Hovhaness.
Kicking off the evening with Satie’s first suite for piano, Four Ogives, set the stage perfectly. The title refers to church windows; with a delivery that managed to simultaneously embody stateliness, a warm gospel tone and an understated tension, Small left no doubt that by 1886, when Satie wrote this, he’d already found plenty to be vexated about. The evening’s piece de resistance was Small’s original work, an uninterrupted theme and variations based onboth the life of Mark Rothko as well as an immersion in the Rothko paintings in the Phillips Collection’s Rothko Room in Washington, DC. Centered around a mournful bell-like theme that immediately brought to mind Mompou, Small worked dynamics that ranged from minute to occasionally jarring, through an unexpected boogie-woogie flavored passage and another, longer, bitingly animatedly interlude that strongly evoked Small’s early mentor Vincent Persichetti. The depiction of a late-career resurgence for Rothko brought back a hopeful, once again gospel-tinted ambience, but that quickly dissolved into an increasingly spacious, imploring and then utterly defeated series of motives. Small quoted Rothko beforehand as declaring that the only emotions worth depicting are doom and suffering, then made good on that statement.
The pianist picked up the pace after that with a series of ruggedly pastoral solo works by Hovhaness, illustrative of that composer’s fixation with mountains (he saw them as transitional from material to the spiritual, halfway between earth and sky). The Lullaby from the piano sonata Mt. Katahdin (a peak in Maine which barely qualifies as a mountain) took shape as a steady, morose dirge, contrasting with the tricky tempo and cruelly challenging staccato octaves of the Macedonian Mountain Dance, a Balkan boogie of sorts. Small made a different kind of challenge, the contrast between low-register, resonant malletwork inside the piano and the steady righthand melody, seem easy.
“Now for some rock n roll!“ Small grinned, winding up the program on a defiantly celebratory note with the Hymn to Mt. Chocorua., from Hovhaness’ 1982 sonata portraying the New Hampshire hill where the Indian warrior it’s named for reputedly lept to his death rather than surrendering to the bounty hunters who’d chased him to the summit. With its blend of traditional Armenian kef music and savage, Lisztian block chords, it was quite a change from the mystical, somber mood Small had brought to life so vividly earlier, an atmosphere he returned to with the encore, a tender, lushly spacious version of Arvo Part’s minimalist classic Fur Elina. Small’s spring tour featuring these works continues on April 11 at the Rothko Chapel in Houston.
Multi-keyboardist Brad Whiteley got his start as a classical organist while still in his teens. Since his precocious years in that demimonde in upstate New York, he’s branched out about as far as a musician can go. He still keeps a foot in the door with a regular position as a church organist, all the while immersing himself in jazz and doing some rock sideman gigs as well. His debut album Pathless Land is out and streaming at Destiny Records’ Bandcamp page.
It opens with a jaunty, anthemic organ shuffle, Winsome Excursion, a swinging, terse, soul-infused number that’s one of ten originals. This one, as well as the nimbly bouncy, lushly crescendoing, Jimmy Smith-influenced stroll Bass Instincts, and the album’s lone cover, a joyously uninhibited roller-rink take of Come Rain or Come Shine, feature the trio of Whiteley alongside guitarist Andrew Lim and drummer Kenneth Salters.
The first of the piano numbers, Erika’s Song (a warmly cantabile, resonant yet rhythmic ballad, dedicated to Whiteley’s wife and bandmate Erika Lloyd) also features Salters in the drum chair along with bassist Daniel Foose. Whiteley puts his knack for emotionally vivid third-stream piano on display with Suite: Contemplation, anchoring Lloyd’s crystalline, deep-sky vocalese with brooding block chords and steady, eerily Satie-esque figures over Salters’ misterioso mallet and cymbal work. Likewise, Suite: Resolve mingles darkly latin-tinged phrases and uneasy chromatics over a restless drive punctuated by an elegantly insistent Foose solo and a relentless, shamanic, otherworldly spirit duel between the piano and the drums.
The purposeful yet enigmatic, modally-tinged No Regrets throws a nod in the direction of Thelonious Monk over a spring-loaded rhythm that the band eventually takes triumphantly swinging up to a lively Foose bass solo, then back into moody terrain as Salters rumbles around the perimeter. Whiteley returns to the organ for Nostalgiastic, a slinky, clave-driven homage to the soul sounds of the sixties, with a judiciously sunny Lim guitar solo at the center.
The album’s title track, a swinging song without words, sets Whiteley’s precise upper-midrange melodies and lefthand/righthand exchanges over a brisk, skintight rhythm, Foose again contributing a dancing, kinetic bass solo. The album concludes with the organ tune Brooklyn Hustle, building suspense until the band finally breaks free with a lickety-split swing and purposefully bluesy solos by Lim and Whiteley, each player choosing his spots. The eclecticism of these compositions testifies to Whiteley’s long view of music from Bach to the B3. Yet in the end, Whiteley’s translucent, melodic sound is uniquely his own. He’s got plenty of gigs coming up: a couple that look especially choice are on April 21 at 9 in a duo with Michael Eaton at Something Jazz Club, then the next night, April 22 at 9 he’s at Tomi Jazz with excellent, hard-hitting Texas saxophonist Stan Killian.
[reposted from Lucid Culture’s sister blog New York Music Daily]
Torchy chanteuse Tara O’Grady leads one of the most badass oldtime swing bands you’ll ever hear. One thing that distinguishes her from the legions of come-hither, moldy fig frontwomen is that O’Grady writes her own songs – when she’s at the top of her game, which she generally seems to be, they sound like classics from the 1930s. Which is especially cool since she originally hails not from, say, New Orleans or Kansas City but from Ireland. As you would expect, she occasionally takes a detour into lively Celtic sounds. Her latest album is A Celt in the Cotton Club, streaming at Spotify. She’s fronting a killer quartet with guitar genius Pete Kennedy (one half of the Kennedys) at the third stage at the Rockwood (enter around the corner on Orchard Street) at 7:30 PM on March 28; cover is $15 plus a $10 drink minimum.
O’Grady’s nuanced alto voice strikes a balance between goodnatured sass and serious trouble on the album’s opening track, On Feeling Blue – she leaves you woundering which you’re going to get from her, maybe both. This one is a duet with a hungover-sounding guy – she wants to get up and go with a macchiato, he wants chocolate and resists pulling himself of bed before noon. They sing it as a waltz and then hit a swing shuffle groove with a smoky, incisive tenor sax solo from Michael Hashim
The second track, You Won’t Get Me There Tonight is a kiss-off shuffle fueled by banjo and smoky tenor, Hashin doing triple duty on clarinet and bass clarinet as well – her guy can’t activate al her charms so she’s happy with a bottle of gin instead. A terse bossa-flavored cover of the old folk song Black Is the Color sets a melismatic, noirish tenor sol0 from Hashim – this band’s not-so-secret weapon – over the this-close-to-explosive shuffle groove of bassist Kelly Friesen and drummer Andrew Burns.
O’Grady casually celebrates raging against the dying of the light on the waltzing lullaby In Belfast Tonight, then picks up the pace with Go Lassie Go, which is the folk standard Wild Mountain Thyme done as lickety-split swing with another sizzling Hashim tenor solo. The oldschool soul/blues ballad To be Missing the Sun features a spot-on B.B. King-inspired guitar solo from Justin Poindexter.
O’Grady follows the carefree shuffle Love Me Madly Lashes with the creepy and historically rich That’s What the Miners Would Say, a noir blues that traces the trail of Irish immigrants who followed the seam of coal under the Atlantic all the way to these shores. She brings Bessie Smith into this century on the slow blues Where’s My Valentine: she sees a guy on a Vespa with a bottle of Chablis on Waverly Place and wonders, “Where is my box of truffles, still in Belgium I suppose…I just want someone to text me a love note on my goddamn Blackberry.”
The band goes back to a vintage 60s soul ballad groove on La Dee Da, then O’Grady goes more Celtic as the album winds up. The sultry Gardenia Girl namechecks a box set worth of Lady Day songs, imagining her as an Irish lass named Nora Fagan; O’Grady and the band close by transforming the folk song Too Ra Loo Ra into a warmly swaying vintage 60s soul ballad.
Makiko Hirata charged through the raging, ominously cascading torrents of the first movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, conductor David Grunberg animatedly leading the Spectrum Symphony through the stormy gusts in tandem with her, through the series of menacing, twistedly marionettish passages. At the end, Hirata’s face lit up in an unselfconsciously triumphant grin as the crowd burst into spontaneous applause. It was the high point of the pianist and orchestra’s concert a couple of days ago in the West Village, yet another indication of how some big city orchestras may be in trouble, but there are many young, hungry ensembles who are clearly on their way up and the Spectrum Symphony are paradigmatic of that shift. As one member of the crowd enthused afterward, “They just get better and better with every show.”
The concluding movements of the Prokofiev are both more subtle and dynamic, not to mention less charged with angry subtext, and the pianist and orchestra focused in on the methodically rising and falling glimmer of the second movement and the richly intricate, often biting interweave between piano and orchestra on the concluding one. This performance was a prime illustration of how composers by Prokofiev’s time had transformed the concerto form from what had been basically a showcase for piano against a wash of orchestration, into a fully cohesive creation where piano and orchestra join forces in developing the architecture.
The orchestra had opened with the New York premiere of an even more explosive if considerably shorter piece, Philip Wharton‘s There Was a Star Danced, which followed the initial big bang resonance of Matthew Beaumont’s huge gong through rapifire showers of sparks from the violins and then what became wryly jaunty, rhythmic jousting. The composer, who was in the audience, explained that the piece had originally been conceived as a work for students to get them to let off some steam. So the ensemble played it again!
The program’s concluding work was an only slightly less kinetic interpretation of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. From the perspective of having seen three different performances of this piece this year, this was the most exciting. Grunberg conducted from memory, the orchestra taking this old warhorse to war with an aptly heroic, no-holds barred intensity. The balance between Brahms’ lavishly highlighted, individual voices was clear and distinct throughout the sonic spectrum, through a rewardingly boisterous first movement, a lustrous second, and a final fourth that emphasized more of the high drama in the composer’s Beethovenesque series of false endings than its inherent humor.
Detroit-born pianist Johnny O’Neal has a background to rival anybody from the oldschool camp, having spent five years in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers as well as serving as a sideman with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Nancy Wilson, Joe Pass and Kenny Burrell during a regular gig at the Blue Note back in the 80s. A big break came when O’Neal got to play Art Tatum in the 2004 film Ray. Mulgrew Miller was a big fan of O’Neal’s “million dollar touch,” and over the past few years O’Neal has made Smalls his home. Like many others among that venue’s regular rotation, O’Neal has a new live album, Live at Smalls – his first release in ten years – to show for it, recorded there last year. He’s playing the album release show there this coming April 6 at 10 PM with Paul Sikivie on bass and Charles Goold on drums.
The album is an interesting mix of standards and unexpected gems like Walter Davis Jr.’s Uranus and Billy Pierce’s Sudan Blue, plus a reworking of the traditional Blues for Sale and a purist reinvention of the Roberta Flack/Stevie Wonder hit Where Is the Love. Cover is twenty bucks, and that includes a drink. Because this is the cd release show, you might want to get there early.
[republished from New York Music Daily]
In her Blue Note debut yesterday, Yoko Miwa showed off a comfortable but hard-charging command of several jazz vernaculars. She made elegant ragtime out of Monk, worked a playful carnaval pulse back and forth on one number, and managed to make a jauntily entertaining trip to New Orleans out of what was essentially a one-chord vamp. But the vernacular that she excelled the most with was her own. That style favors lots of big block chords stretched mostly across the piano’s midrange, which she builds expansively but purposefully to big, glittering, anthemic crescendos. Think of a more carefree Brad Mehldau (that shouldn’t be hard!) and you’re on the right track.
When she wasn’t doing that, the Boston-based pianist pulled plenty of other tricks out of the bag: pensively spacious minor-key blues, a scampering righthand against a stern left, tension and release around a central tone, intricately conversational interplay with the guys in her fantastic trio (Will Slater on bass and Scott Goulding on drums), and the occasional unrestrained glissando to take a phrase or a chorus all the way over the top. She’s fun to watch and just as tuneful.
She opened with a confident, spaciously swinging take of A Beautiful Friendship, Slater’s solo matching her steady, methodical upward trajectory. Pathways, an original, was one of the high points of her first set, rising from an anthemically circular solo piano groove to an animated samba beat; Miwa had just as much fun sending the rhythm section away and swinging by herself as she did engaging in a tightly spiraling, interlocking web of melody with Slater’s edgy upper-register lines. Goulding worked terse, subtly ornamented shuffles for most of the set, concluding Miwa’s cinematic, darkly majestic, enigmatically blues-infused 2013 indie film theme Sunshine Before the Rain with a deliciously torrential cymbal cadenza. Miwa made similarly moody blues out of Patsy Cline’s So Wrong and wound up the set on a high note with another original, In My Dreams, all three musicians choosing their spots, Miwa using it as a launching pad for some unexpectedly rapidfire righthand runs down out of the tinkliest high registers.
And the day got off to a good start before the concert with a guy who’d managed to wheel a baby grand into Washington Square Park, where he furiously rubbed his hands together between numbers in order to keep the circulation going on such an unexpectedly chilly morning. That he was able to turn in an absolutely exquisite, thoughtfully dynamic take of Rachmaninoff”s G sharp minor prelude under those conditions portends good things for the guy’s career, whoever he is.
Sunday afternoon’s concert at Lincoln Center was as much about the organ as it was about the organist. It’s likely that the current generation remembers Les Paul as a paradigm-shifting pioneer of electric guitar (and stereo) technology far better than as a brilliant jazz guitarist, so maybe someday the organ demimonde will refer to the Marshall & Ogletree International Touring Organ as the Cameron Carpenter. It’s essentially a digital mellotron. Where the mellotron plays analog samples of notes recorded by various configurations of an orchestra, this new organ plays digital samples taken from some of Carpenter’s favorite organs around the world. It’s an architecturally imposing instrument with a huge cockpit of a console, five manuals of stops played through eight large banks of twin speakers plus two banks of four trumpets each, and four more with large bass woofers. All this likely requires a couple of tractor-trailers and heavy-duty concert hall electrical power. Carpenter, with his rare blend of judicious dynamic choices and astonishing, whirlwind technique, reaffirmed that he is the obvious choice to play it (and to be involved in crafting its design and function). He was a force of nature nine years ago when he performed a dramatic weekend stand downtown at Marble Church; that he has grown even further as a musician since then is mind-boggling.
This was apparent from watching him leap from rank to rank with millisecond-precise athleticism, airing out every inch of sonic capability from the mighty beast, which he played with his back to the audience so everyone could see how much agility is required by so much of the organ repertoire. The program seemed designed to showcase that, not to mention Carpenter’s omnivorous and adventurous taste in works from throughout the centuries and the various schools of organ composition, all of which are influenced greatly by national and regional traditions of organ-building. Carpenter’s attempt to transcend all of those boundaries resulted in three massive standing ovations and calls for more than the two encores that the organist delivered. Bells and whistles – monsoon soundscapes, mighty thunderclaps and timpani, glockenspiel, celeste and other more whimsical effects – featured in the sturm und drang of the world premiere of Carpenter’s own Music for an Imaginary Film. They took centerstage even more prominently in the encores: Eric Coates’ The Dambusters, a jaunty, triumphantly Gershwinesque mini-epic, and a boisterously playful reworking of the Gordon Lightfoot folk-pop hit If You Could Read My Mind.
Carpenter’s virtuosity was most evident in Rachmaninoff’s almost sadistically difficult, waterfalling keyboard arrangement of Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3, as well as Nicolai Medtner’s Messiaenic partita Faity Tale in E Minor, rising from raptly atmospheric wonder to furious, blunderbuss volleys and cascades. Carpenter made also made the relentless staccato of another cruelly challenging piece, Jeanne Demessieux’s Etude VI, look easy. His take of Cesar Franck’s Chorale No. 1 in E Major, a familiar and unselfconsciously gorgeous piece in the standard repertoire, was rather brisk and as a result somewhat brusque. But Carpenter nailed the sense of wonder and rapture in his own transcription of Albeniz’s Evocation (from the Iberia suite), and then the climactic ninth movement from Messiaen’s La Nativite. The organist averred to being “About as interested in Lent as your average telemarketer,” but nonetheless explained how the mighty payoff in the French composer’s evocation of God finally making an earthly appearance struck a nerve that transcended any liturgical meaning.
What was missing in all this was reverb, the swirling vortex and lusciously lingering decay of the organ stops you find in the world’s great cathedrals – and no doubt this can be adjusted mechanically to accommodate divergent acoustical spaces. Part of that issue stemmed from the sonics of Alice Tully Hall, which are world-class, but the space is not a “live room” – it was designed for singers and orchestras, and it serves those needs exceptionally well. So the notes faded away here much in the same way they would have if Carpenter was playing in a rock concert space. But that’s being picky. What Carpenter left unsaid was that this organ frees him to play music from pretty much any period in history, written for widely differing instruments, pretty much anywhere that will accomodate his new organ and to take that crusade global. Here’s to that adventure.