“What I care about is telling a story,” said pianist Jennifer Wright after last week’s Piano Bizarro concert. “I was getting bored of becoming a technical machine. How interesting is that to me or anyone else? In my concerts I want to present the story of the music in some sort of context that makes it meaningful so that people learn something, have fun, and go home wanting to share how the experience changed them. These little ripples make a huge difference cumulatively.”
Presented by Cascadia Composers at Portland’s Michelle’s Piano Company as part of March Music Moderne, Piano Bizarro was a tidal wave of, yes, bizarre sounds created by toy pianos, amplified harpsichord, prepared piano, percussion, music boxes, electronic delay effects, four people on one piano, and four pianos played all at once.
Wright and company succeeded in engaging the audience for two hours(!) of wild music by immersing the listeners in a story. The term “piano bizarro” plays off Planet Bizarro from Superman. “Everything that exists on Earth also exists on Bizarro in opposite form,” says Wright’s brightly colored comic-style program. “Pianos exist there, but as anti-pianos…. Piano Bizarro is about redefining what a keyboard instrument is and what the proper way to play it might be. It celebrates the elements of choice and chance, and questions what sounds are acceptable.”
Wright and her composer/pianist colleagues Art Resnick, Ted Clifford, and Paul Safar also acted out brief theatrical vignettes for each piece. For example, in Wright’s performance of Stephen Montague’s Dark Train Comin’, Clifford acted as a mail man delivering a package to Wright. Wright excitedly opened this present only to reveal the ominous portent of a skull. With a fearful “Oh no!” and a quivering clutch at her throat, Wright sat down at her harpsichord to perform Montague’s piece, which calls for tone-bending moaning, plucking of strings, and playing the harpsichord body like a percussion instrument.
Wright’s focus on narrative as a means to engage the audience came directly from her dissatisfaction with the culture experienced while pursuing degrees in classical piano performance. “I had been led to believe that classical music is more serious and thus more legitimate,” said Wright about finding her way to nontraditional music, “and I had a hard time relating the strict classical music tradition to anything else.”
Wright’s mission of liberating the keyboard from these strict classical traditions led her to the world of composition. As she began performing works by living composers, she was invited by Cascadia Composers to try her own hand at composing. “Instead of suffering over ‘How do I interpret this piece?’ or ‘How do I get that right?’ I ask, ‘How do I create that emotion?’” she explained. “My compositions always lead me in directions that I never would have gone if I had just been performing or just listening or just researching. Every aspect of composing is a journey where I learn more about what kind of musician I am and what I listen for; I bump into these barriers or preconceived notions that I didn’t even know I had.”
Wright overcame a few of these barriers with her “skeleton piano,” an old upright with a cracked soundboard that Wright acquired for free from Craigslist. The mystery and intrigue surrounding this piano was one of the main draws for listeners, particularly for the younger listeners who took advantage of the free admission for those under 12. Wright had stripped away most of the frame from the piano, exposing the strings. She began the piece by removing two of the keys from the upper register and using them like mallets on the strings.
“I thought I was being new and exciting by stripping down the piano, but as my piano students kept guessing what I meant by ‘skeleton piano,’ one asked, ‘Are you gonna take parts of the piano and throw them at each other during the performance?’ I never would have thought of that! Here was a barrier I didn’t even know was there. Piano parts belong on the piano don’t they? Why?” This piece was the most successful composition on the program for its presentation and performance.
The other main draw to this presentation of bizarre piano works was Evil Nigger, written by the gay New York African American composer Julius Eastman in 1979. Minimalist and raw, with Wright shouting, “One, two, three, four!” at transitional points, it featured four pianists playing two motives over and over again for about 15 minutes.
The concert also included Art Resnick’s Arrivals, valuable for its exploration of tuning and score-writing, and his Spaghetti Western: Showdown at Low Noon, which featured great programmatic flair. If this concert had been half as long my ears would have been more grateful, but visiting a new planet is always going to present a bit of discomfort.
A Storm of Svoboda
“Tomas Svoboda’s sound is like no other sound you’ll hear in classical music,” proclaimed Maria Choban from the stage of Portland’s Community Music Center last Saturday, her face glowing with electric energy. “It’s trashy and thrashing and so fuckin’ loud! Tomas Svoboda understands everyday life. He’s not esoteric. He’s not academic. He’s really rock and roll!” The full-house audience, over 150 people, whooped approvingly after every piece and gave Choban’s piano transcription of Storm Session, originally meant for electric guitar and electric bass, a full minute’s worth of applause.
Here’s what made the evening of March 15 absolutely the best classical music concert of the season so far:
- Accessible repertoire
Maria Choban and her classical music warriors presented an all-Svoboda concert: Storm Session, Fugue Op. 87, Scherzo Op. 186, the second movement from the Piano Sonata no. 2 op 121, and the four-hand Suite op. 124. Get up to speed on Tomas Svoboda here. Living, teaching, and composing in Portland, Oregon since 1969, Svoboda attended Choban’s concert, his first venture in public since his severe December 2012 stroke. Svoboda’s compositions avoid sunset-sweeping melodies and lush harmonies of romantic visions. Instead, as in the Fugue for violin, cello, and piano op. 87, short melodic units burst into the air like many stars and are herded into formation via stomping rhythmic patterns. Svoboda’s visceral rhythms are the listeners’ primary means to digest the compositions which feature folk-like melodies, sparse improvisatory gestures, and brawling lines which, in the Fugue, culminate in an orchestrally crashing finish.
- Accessible performance
If his rhythmic body movement was any indicator, Svoboda seemed particularly overcome by the performance of his four-hand Suite op. 124. The calculated energy with which Choban and her young colleague Mitchell Falconer attacked it
cleared away the musty cobwebs of dispassionately sophisticated classical performances. Rhythmic grooves crashed into each other like many unsettled atomic particles and Falconer and Choban played it tight. In the Scherzo op. 186 for clarinet, flute, and piano, the “lightest” piece on the program, Choban’s fingers skipped with present playfulness, capitalizing on this piece’s childhood innocence sans nostalgic mushiness.
- Short explanations before each piece.
Rather than bore the audience with academic jabber, Choban’s comments celebrated the compositions, performers, and composer, motivating the audience to explore with their ears. To explain the complex articulation markings in the second movement of Svoboda’s Piano Sonata no. 2 op. 121 Choban stated, “Not even god can memorize this!” In this second movement, which is an aural representation of suicide, it wasn’t the articulations that impressed me, but more Choban’s drunken manner of plodding through the steady staccato quarter notes. Lost in the cycle of depression, the descending melody tries to push against the same immovable wall, but finding no solutions simply stops existing, no quieter and no louder than it began. More people than just Choban felt painful tears in this one.
- Length: one hour.
Choban capitalizes on Portland’s voracious appetite for fresh classical music in small doses. This concert clocked in just under an hour and people were on their feet wanting more. The longest piece was about twenty minutes, and the variety of repertoire kept everyone’s ears on the ready.
- Cost: FREE
Free is tough to do, but Choban takes this challenge as a means to find solutions that work best for both audience and music. Using her connections as a native Portlander and through Classical Revolution PDX, she finds competent musicians who share her passion for community outreach, passionate playing, and fresh classical sounds. Violin, cello, flute, and clarinet were all played with intelligence by Mike Hsu, Betsy Goy, Janet Bebb, Chris Cox.
- Excellent promotion of the event by Choban herself to reach classical music virgins.
Choban took an informal poll at the concert to see how people found out about it, and the majority seemed to show up because of the bombardment of delightful emails and Facebook postings that offered short, enticing statements like “This is the sound I love so much: exuberance, counterpoint, metal-madness, modal, mixed-metered earthy dance…in short, intelligent rock and roll!” If you were at these concerts concert, what did you think? What are some other recipes for success for reaching classical music virgins? What does it mean for repertoire to be “accessible”?
Jana Hanchett is a teacher, writer, and pianist living in Portland.
Want to read more about Oregon classical music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.