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A guiding hand in the darkness: Timo Andres discusses his ‘The Blind Banister’ and his performance this weekend with Oregon Symphony

The Brooklyn composer will perform his Puliter-nominated concerto Feb. 9-12 alongside Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” and Carlos Simon’s “Fate Now Conquers.”

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Composer Timo Andres. Photo courtesy of Oregon Symphony.
Composer Timo Andres. Photo courtesy of Oregon Symphony.

This upcoming weekend in Salem and Portland, the Oregon Symphony will play The Blind Banister, a piano concerto by Timo Andres. Born in Palo Alto, California in 1985, Andres grew up in Connecticut and studied composition at Yale. Ever since the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed his Nightjar in 2009, Andres has been in demand as a composer and pianist. He is based in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, where he has created many works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, keyboard only, and vocal ensembles.

The Blind Banister, which Andres wrote for pianist Jonathan Biss, was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize Finalist. For the Oregon Symphony concerts, Andres will be the soloist. I talked with him via Zoom to find out more about this piece, which will be released by Nonesuch next month.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Oregon ArtsWatch: Where does the title of the piece come from?

Timo Andres: The Blind Banister comes from a line from a poem, Schubertiana, by Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2011. The poem ruminates on Schubert’s music and the meaning that it has in his own life, and it imagines Schubert’s music in different contexts to affecting people simultaneously around the world. 

Tranströmer was a pianist and wrote a great deal about music. In one line of the poem, he describes Schubert’s music as “the blind banister, which guides his hand in the darkness.” Blind as in a blind alley or a bird blind – something that is obscured, sightless. 

OAW: How long did it take you to write the piece?

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TA: This piece took form very gradually. It involved a certain amount of rethinking of the way that I had been working. Part of that was due to the challenge of the commission, which came from the pianist Jonathan Biss. He asked me for a piece that he could program alongside Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto. So I thought about the different ways that my music could relate to Beethoven. I have a long history with Beethoven’s music. 

I came to the conclusion that I did not want the piece to be some sort of pastiche or palimpsest or quotation from Beethoven. I really wanted my concerto to stand alone. The listener doesn’t have to know that it was connected in any way to an historical work. 

In a way, all of my music is connected to the canon and to other music and whatever is around me. So what I ended up doing was abstracting the relationship between my piece and Beethoven to such an extent that it becomes almost a ghost or a kind of spirit relationship rather than anything concrete. 

By associating it with Schubert through this poem’s title – that made a lot of sense to me because one could easily say the same thing about Beethoven. The music has been such a constant in my life and will continue to be. You can return to his music, and It will reveal or show things to you.

OAW: Your concerto has three movements: “Sliding Scale,” “Ringing Weights,” and “Coda, Teneramente.” Tell us more about them.

TA: “Sliding Scale” is describing what is happening musically in that movement and the whole piece actually. The entire piece is based on two downward scales set one note apart from each other. Each time one takes a step down it, it sort so rubs up against the other one, and creates a little suspension. And that’s the gesture that the entire piece is derived from.

“Ringing Weights” is taken from another line from Tranströmer’s poem. He is describing two pianists paying Schubert’s Fantasia in f minor for two pianists. He describes the piece for four hands as passing ringing weights back and forth. In this movement, the motion is abstracted outward. Each time there’s a big harmony change, there are big, accented chords. 

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So the piece is more a way of holding a long structure together. The piece lasts around 20 minutes. That’s a good length of time to hold the listener’s attention in an abstract musical journey. 

OAW: In some newer pieces that I’ve heard, the piece just suddenly stops at the end. The Blind Banister finishes with more of a strong statement. 

TA: Yes, it ends with an em-dash with an exclamation point. The music flairs outward. 

It is one of the few pieces that I’ve written that ends loudly. My usual impulse is to end pieces in a more ruminative way – to have a moment to ponder what has happened in the piece. But The Blind Banister ends running off in a direction. In the score you’ll see the piano playing these insane chromatic arpeggios – just running off the end of the keyboard – so you have to stop. You can’t go any further. 

OAW: Have you worked with David Danzmayr and the Oregon Symphony before?

TA: This will be my first time to work with David Danzmayr and with the full orchestra. A couple of years ago one of my pieces was played at a show at The Reser in Beaverton. It was a chamber work with the symphony musicians. That was really satisfying. They were wonderful to work with.

My appearance with the orchestra might be the only case in which someone who was first employed as a graphic designer later became a concerto soloist with the orchestra. I did the graphic design a few years ago for Gabe Kahane’s emergency shelter intake form. So my first employment with Oregon Symphony is as a graphic designer. 

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OAW: Do you think of music in a graphic design way? 

TA: Yes, I do tend to think of form in terms of graphic shapes or even architectural shapes. Visual forms interacting in space, being next to each other, or moving through a building or a landscape – different visual forms, rhythms, and colors playing off of each other. 

I have a preoccupation with formal clarity. It really matters to me that listeners can more or less find their way through the structure of the piece. That they are with me. I am not interested in making the music easy – or giving listeners the expected turns. But I do believe that an artist’s job is to communicate one’s ideas and concepts as clearly as possible. That is the use of technique. The music can be esoteric and strange, but it can be clear with its ideas and pack an emotional punch. It’s an important way to engage with the world – richness, depth, and complexity pushes back against the way that our culture wants everything streamlined and digestible. Then you can come back to a piece of music and find more and more meaning in it.

OAW: We have had several composers like Gabriel Kahane and Andy Akiho move from Brooklyn to Portland. It’s a great thing!

TA: I know. No one lives in Brooklyn any more. I’m the last one!

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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One Response

  1. I heard Timo perform The Blind Banister last night. That man must have a very talented agent. It was pretty awful. I feel bad for the symphony members who had to perform this piece. The audience plant to start the applause at its conclusion was a good move by whomever.
    The references to Beethoven’s work were obvious, the title’s theme left no mystery as to what was going on. It was just ugly.

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