Monday, November 22, 2010

Concert Review: Keith Eisenbrey, Aaron Keyt, and Neal Meyer; Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, 11/18/2010

The concert began with a set of solo piano pieces, Aaron’s “Bagatelles”, played by Keith. Aaron introduced the pieces, saying that he’d written them as relaxation but Keith said learning to play them was like “trying to build a house of cards in a tight space”. One misplaced movement could topple the whole construction. Anyway, I heard them as relaxed, but with an undercurrent of slight nervousness. Though melodic in a standard (almost Baroque) sense, they were harmonized modally (sometimes chromatically) and with rhythmic ambiguity. More than once the tonal center was lost, though it always reappeared. There were hints of Bright Sheng’s “My Song” or Jo Kondo’s sen no ongaku style, particularly in the last piece, with its heterophonic crosscutting of fragments of the same melody in different variations.

Aaron’s “Foliage”, the next piece, was altogether different. Aaron introduced it as an electronic piece without visual elements (by which he meant there was nothing to see on stage) derived from common sources – few of the sounds were altered in any way except that he’d put them together to make the piece. However, most of the sounds were unrecognizable (at least to me). Curious whistle/creaks gave way to wooden sounds; suddenly gongs appeared, which bridged to a deep silence. Then end returned, slowly, to the beginning: the whistles reappeared, at first distant and with echoes, then moving back to the front of the sound field. As a piece of musique concrète, and as a composition, the piece worked: it had a beautiful overall shape, but the sounds were interesting enough in themselves regardless of what they did.

Then came the shocker. I’ve heard some of Keith’s music before, but still wasn’t ready for “Blood and Fire: Alleluia”. After the half-hour performance for piano (Keith) and “canned” sound, all I could say was, “One word: INTENSE.” Neal put it better: “Charles Ives meets Samuel Beckett.” The Charles Ives Americana was there in the form of the prerecorded sound: processed percussion, and Keith’s own voice singing an old hymn in a style that sounded like a fusion of shape-note singing and a Gaither revival. But despite the Gospel element, this was a musical portrayal of damnation: the piano seemed to act as a demonic force, playing a clatter of fortissimo wrong notes (or occasionally landing on a chord that fit the tune), acting on the recorded sound (!), cajoling it to reject its own message of harmony and move instead into “blood and fire” – chaos, violence, noise, and finally nothingness (the nihilism of Beckett). The hymn’s many repeats were altered only in timbre, and thus it seemed to focus only on itself – and it eventually lost its identity as it became grotesquely distorted. Several times it disappeared completely, leaving the piano hammering at the extreme registers as if in malevolent triumph. In the end, I heard it as a soundtrack to Dante’s “Inferno” by Merzbow…

The entire second half of the concert was given over to an hour-long version of Neal’s “Gradus for Fux, Tesla, and Milo the Wrestler”. I’ve reviewed performances of this piece before (see the 7/31/2010 posting) but this was a chance to hear it in an even longer version. Of course the entire piece would, as Aaron pointed out before Neal began playing, if it could truly explore all of the possible combinations of all the possible notes on a piano, be longer than the age of the universe… Though titled “Three Rungs from ‘Gradus’”, this performance was a full hour of A’s, interspersed with long silences and randomly occurring “extra” sounds from the audience or outside the performance space. In such a long, austere, version, the piece became theatrical; Neal was like an actor, the piano his speaking voice, reciting lines from an abstract play against stark lighting. There were several moments where he froze, hand in the air, endlessly ready to play the next set of A’s, but not finished with the silences created by the last set…

This was a concert that featured the extremes of avant-garde piano music, from the silence of “Gradus” and the tranquility of some of the Bagatelles, to the horror of “Blood and Fire”. An interesting program.

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