Preview: Kathleen Supové Explodes the Piano Recital

Portland native brings Brooklyn's volatile contemporary classical music back home.

by JANA HANCHETT

Hungry for wickedly virtuosic pianism and the limitless sounds of electro-acoustic transformations? Gazing enviously at New York City’s contemporary music scene? Well, Oregon, take a look out your front door! fEARnoMUSIC, directed by Portland-native Kenji Bunch and his Seattle-born wife Monica Ohuchi, is launching its 2014-2015 season with the explosive force of Portland émigré Kathleen Supové, Oregon’s own dynamite pianist who has become a catalyzing curator of New York City’s contemporary music scene.

Through her Exploding Piano series, also the name of her 2010 album, and her music festival Music with a View at lower Manhattan’s The Flea Theater, Supové commissions and performs new piano works spawned from the vast, creative minds of contemporary composers like Mohammad Fairouz, Annie Gosfield, Matt Marks, Missy Mazzoli, Jacob TV, Carolyn Yarnell, and Randall Woolf. She’s bringing a taste of this ear-rocking scene to Portland for a one night performance.

Kathleen Supové performs Saturday at Brunish Theatre in downtown Portland.

Kathleen Supové performs Saturday at Brunish Theatre in downtown Portland.

Strangely, Supové has never performed in her home state of Oregon, unless you count high school studio recitals forty years ago. “It’s not for lack of trying; it just hasn’t happened logistically,” Supové explained in an interview with Oregon ArtsWatch. “I am so delighted with fEARnoMUSIC and Kenji and Monica. It’s really a dream come true to come here and play what I think of as my favorite signature repertoire.”

Supové grew up in NE Portland on 70th between Halsey and Glisan; her father Lawrence Supové, an engineer activist, ran for mayor in 1964 and advocated for air rights in downtown Portland before such a concept even existed. He enlisted piano teacher Elesa Scott Keeney to teach his daughter, and she gave Supové the freedom to explore piano music outside the standard repertoire. A year into her schooling at Southern California’s Pomona College, Supové began to more seriously study contemporary music. “When I arrived at Pomona College, I didn’t even know who Charles Ives or John Cage were,” Supové recalled. “But there was a big interest in contemporary music there. When I first heard Schoenberg Op. 25, I flipped. What a concept!! Modern sounds in old dance forms!”

Deciding to continue her music education at New York’s Juilliard school, Supové primarily studied traditional repertoire and developed her piano chops. “Before going to Juilliard, I had never heard people play like that, and I had to fight to get better,” Supové said. “I had to fight to get good at contemporary music.”

After winning top prizes in the 1984 Gaudeamus International Competition for Interpretation of Contemporary Music, she became guest artist at the Darmstadt Festival in Germany. “Meeting composers, being friends with them, and eventually meeting my husband, who is a composer, was certainly a major influence [in my career],” she said. “What really cemented it for me is the ‘dharma’ aspect of [contemporary music]: that you could help create the performance tradition for each piece; that you weren’t the three-millionth person playing that Beethoven sonata, oppressed by years of other people’s traditions. That each piece was a stepping stone to further excellence and expertise, that you could learn directly from the composer how it was supposed to go, and if you did your job right, surpass even his/her expectations.”

Supové’s efforts to rise above the oppressiveness of tradition comes across in her performance of Missy Mazzoli’s 2007 piece Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos. Written for piano and soundtrack, Mazzoli sonically explores Eberhardt’s bold escape from her Swiss bourgeois society. A revolutionary woman in the early 20th century, Eberhardt dressed like a man, converted to Islam, and lived the last five years of her short 27 year-existence in the North African desert before dying in a flash flood.

Like Isabelle Eberhardt, Supové’s vision for freedom enabled her to break from the traditional piano culture and flourish in a musical world of her own design. “At this point I feel inspired by the classical world, but it’s only because I’m not in an environment where it’s oppressive to me,” she said. “I’m really so much on the fringe that I don’t encounter [that world].” Her classical training fused with her compelling dialogue and experimentation between sound, composer, and listener recently inspired the Digital Debussy Project, a commissioning opportunity / stage production in which Supové asked contemporary composers to respond to Debussy’s revolutionary harmonies and form using 21st century musical idioms.

For example, composer Annie Gosfield took field recordings of Hurricane Sandy and interwove them with fragments of Debussy’s What the West Wind Saw. The resulting storm of piano and wind, called Shattered Apparitions of the Western Mind, shimmers with thoughtful electronic sampling, hovering in the presence of Debussy’s ghost before whipping up into an overwhelming sonic hurricane. Supové, who will be performing the piece in Portland, seems acutely aware of the struggle required to be an authentic contemporary musician. “Annie could give you a whole speech of how she felt like she had to wrestle Debussy to the ground. She said it really messed her up,” said Supové. “I mean, she’s OK now.”  

Seeding New Music

Commissioning composers like Annie Gosfield is a driving force for Supové’s own piano career. “For me the heart of [contemporary music] is bringing to life new things. I’ve migrated in my career toward people who are, for lack of a better word, ‘emerging.’ I like to be on the wings of the people who are flying higher and higher as creative artists because I expand myself to meet what they present and in doing so give them more ideas. My hope is always that I’m commissioning pieces that the composers will consider one of their best in their output — something that would surprise even them with what they’re doing.”

One such emerging artist is Matt Marks, whose 2008 piece Ever Just as Sure from his Disney Remixes is on also Supové’s Portland program. “I’m really proud that I’ve gotten him to write more for the piano; he has a really outrageous theatrical sense, and the whole idea of making this whirling two-part invention out of the theme from Beauty and the Beast is very funny to me,” she said. “Keep your eye on him; he is going to be an extremely interesting composer. I hope one of the [Portland] groups has the good sense to bring him out one day.”

Supové acknowledges that the pull towards contemporary music isn’t just “good sense” but also comes from an adventurous spirit, for which Portland is already known. “I’ve seen things in Portland that I’ve thought, ‘Oh, Wow! This would only happen in New York!’” she said. “I’m thinking about a recent Portland blues performance by Norman Sylvester. Women with their dates were throwing themselves at the blues band, and this 80-year old guy off the street started dancing with people. Portland’s spirit of wanting to go out and live will continue to help its new music scene snowball.”

Whether performing For Syria by composer Mohammed Fairouz (“very lyrical music that could be by Schumann with a couple of kinks,” said Supové) in response to Bashar Al Assad’s Syrian regime or Under the Same Sky by Carolyn Yarnell, which unites listeners under a projection of clouds inside the piano lid, Supové’s sonic explorations of the world will certainly be an adventure worth having.

As you would for any adventure, come prepared with a few listening tools: “Listen to whatever is in front of you and just take it in,” advised Supové. “Don’t be judgmental about it or worried about where the music is going. Don’t worry if your attention wanders for a second or if it doesn’t meet your expectations. All the better! Know that you may not understand all of it right away. So much of old music has already been judged, obviously, because it wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t certified in some way. But this is music hot off the press! We don’t know where it’s going to go. I hear stuff all the time that I don’t understand. When non-musician friends say, ‘I wasn’t into that; I’m sure it’s just because I’m an idiot.’ I say, ‘No! it means you didn’t like it.’ But sometimes not liking something can be interesting and you end up liking it by not liking it. You just don’t know what your relationship with a piece is going to end up being.”

The Triumph of Innocence, a collaborative piece composed by Nick Didkovsky for Supové’s Digital Debussy Project in 2013.

Kathleen Supové performs Saturday, September 6 at 8pm at Brunish Theatre, Portland5 Centers for the Arts, 1111 SW Broadway Portland. $25 in advance; $30 day-of; $20 for senior-citizens; $15 with valid student ID. Order tickets online.

Jana Hanchett is a piano teacher living in Portland.

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