In the parlance of mechanical player-pianos, "hand-played" described a piano roll that was directly derived from a realtime human performance. After the initial punching of a roll, it could be retouched. Alternatively, a roll could be prepared entirely by a technician punching holes in a paper roll, measuring physical distances on paper to make the rhythm -- no piano playing required. Conlon Nancarrow carried that practice to considerable … [Read more...]



I learned Brahms's Opus 114 quickly -- about ten days from my first encounter with the music to the performance. As a fellow at Tanglewood, I was working on several chamber and ensemble pieces. There were coachings. (Joel Krosnick worked with me and my Brahms colleagues.) The performance went well. There was one place in the last movement when I didn't come in properly -- I played a conspicuously wrong harmony. For years, I avoided listening to … [Read more...]

How to cook a fish


The first time I ate skate, I'm sure it was a fillet that was sautéed and crispy. A piscatorial classic of the bistro, it was made with lots of butter, and probably capers. It's a classic that requires an act of virtuosity, the cutting of the fillet. Fancy fish sellers and well-trained chefs turned a rather ordinary ingredient into something most cooks couldn't really do. About ten years ago or more, skate started showing up unfilleted on … [Read more...]



Last summer, I went to Iceland to record Nico Muhly's Drones & Piano. I planned to spend two days in the studio, walk around Rejkavik, go to the Blue Lagoon, and fly back to New York. When I arrived at Greenhouse Studios, the door was opened by Nadia Sirota. I had no idea she was going to be there. According to Nadia, she "kind of Jedi Mind Tricked" me into recording another of Nico's drone pieces with her, Drones & Viola -- after I … [Read more...]

What’s in a name?


"Richard told me." Or, "Martha thinks so." The inspeak of the classical music anointed? A mark of self-importance, of access, or just an acknowledgement of exactly how the celebrated wish to be addressed? Unusual names can serve more easily. "Just ask La Monte." And beyond, "Milton thought so," there are histories and associations. Alexis Weissenberg would be "Siggy” Weissenberg. For some, Susan Wadsworth remained "Susan Popkin." And … [Read more...]



All the piano pieces I didn't play. All the pieces I didn't cover, didn't learn... didn't perform... didn't record... All those pieces I never heard (of). It's my Anti-Repertory. Some of the old pianists covered more. (They had to, there was no recording -- ) Antimatter, Antichrist. (to be able to hear anything, it had to be played.) Doesn't matter. The molecules don't have to be made to vibrate. Music is not only … [Read more...]

Other Planets


  Recurring patterns of signification in music -- topoi. The grand unfolding of time and space represented by a steady repeated-pitch ostinato with slow-motion harmonic change around it, found at the opening of Haydn's Creation, for example. (Haydn could have had a career in sci-fi futurism...) I heard a pianist play through Debussy's prelude "...La terrasses des audiences du clair de lune." Near the end, there's an anomalous passage that … [Read more...]



It's hard to remember musical life before the Poisson Rouge. Four years ago this summer, I started playing and hearing music at the club (the former Village Gate). It's not overstatement to say that LPR has reflected, and also played a role in big changes in American musical life. The range of people who stop by is crazy. After I played in a performance of the Quartet for the End of Time, Nico Muhly's mother introduced herself. One night it … [Read more...]



During some days in late summer, I practiced Beethoven's Fourth Concerto. I'm sure the windows were open. My Juilliard piano teacher, Jacob Lateiner lived on 84th Street, just around the block. I mentioned I was learning Beethoven's Fourth Concerto. "I know," he said. Pianists are prone to be overheard. The piano can be a loud instrument. Living in close proximity to others, in a New York City apartment, or a suburban house -- practicing is … [Read more...]

Up and Down


I turn on the radio in the car (where I usually listen to hiphop music) and hear a recording of Haydn's F-Minor Variations. I don't change the station. Within seconds, I'm thinking about the bright, separate envelope of every treble note in the recording. Lovely, but not really legato. Must be a German Steinway, I think. Whatever else pianists may be doing, in order to play piano music -- piano keys move vertically, down and then up again in … [Read more...]

Can’t get a word in


There is music that suffers in performance from conventionally good music-making. Mainstream classical playing seems to rely on clichés of "musicality" -- arching every phrase, breathing between groups, tracing all those lines up and then down again. Some pieces need different treatment. The first movement of Beethoven's Opus 101 is an extended, wordless run-on sentence. Theoretically, we may understand that no satisfying cadence in A major … [Read more...]

Sonic Enharmonic


Words can be bent in pronounciation to suggest other words -- subtly shading, or adding on to signification. In B.o.B.'s "So Good," the word groups "how you feel [fe-el]," "fantasy oh," "put your feet up," and "Señorita" are made almost to rhyme, and conform to the same four-syllable emphasis-pattern. The sound is the word is the music is the sound. It's joy-inducing virtuoso display. Wordless music also offers possibilities for sonic … [Read more...]

Rhythm Puzzle


In playing piano duets or two-piano music, just being together is particularly challenging. The beginning of the sound of a note played on the piano is definite and sudden. What might pass for good ensemble playing in the performance of a piece for violin and piano (with the violin's characteristically less-instantaneous note-beginnings), will be unsatisfying in 2-piano playing. Pianists playing together become note-arrival authorities. As I … [Read more...]

Clover V


In considering the ways today's art is an art of appropriation, let's notice a basic change that's occurred in writing, composing, and design. Editing used to involve re-writing, re-typing, re-drawing -- physically copying some previously used material into each new version. Computer-enabled editing techniques now mean that the virtual copying and pasting of material from one version of a project to another is routine whether we're working with … [Read more...]

Practicing non-take-twoness


After I play through a program or a piece for someone (as a step in preparing for public performance), I don't return to the piano to practice. It can be difficult, if something went badly and I want to work on it. But the separation -- practicing for the real concert by preserving the "non-take-twoness" of the performing experience -- matters most. I've read of Busoni returning to the hall to play through an entire concert after the audience … [Read more...]