Sixty Minutes to Change Your Life

My Steinway baby grand is at a piano hospital for repairs to minor damage incurred in moving. A couple of weeks ago I got sick of not having a piano, and set up my 88-key MIDI controller with a sampler that has a pretty good piano sound, but I never have time to play anyway. I’d been feeling drained lately from being wrapped up in school committee work and running the music department. I was weary of sitting on committees, of arguing with the administration, handling student crises, doing departmental paperwork, and answering carping e-mails complaining about my politics or my blog.

Then Tuesday afternoon my 4:30 student cancelled, and by some miracle I didn’t have a school concert or event to attend that night. I came home and found a package in the mail from Tom Johnson, composer and one of my predecessors (before Greg Sandow) as new-music critic at the Village Voice. It contained, among other things, a score to An Hour for Piano, which has long been my favorite Tom Johnson piece. This is a very flat, 60-minute piece, quarter-note equals 59 all the way through, highly repetitive but in an irregular way, so that you never get to trust the sparkling 16-note grooves you settle into. It never deviates from the key of G, though some dissonant motives wash through from time to time. The pedal is held constantly, and 99 percent of the notes are in or just above the treble clef.

As best I could without a page turner, I played through the entire thing on my electric piano, nonstop. It was like meditating. It absolutely focused me, and school seemed a zillion miles away. By the time I played the final measures an hour later I was in a healthier and completely altered state of mind. Much piano music could have the same effect on the pianist, but if you’re playing a Beethoven sonata there are difficult parts and easier parts, and a continual change of scenery, so to speak. You have to go through a practice routine, isolate the tricky passages, and there’s a lot you memorize in the process. If you want to practice most modern music like Webern or Stefan Wolpe, there’s a different kind of mental work involved. But in An Hour for Piano there’s really nothing you can memorize because the returns of former figures are too unpredictable, and there’s almost no measure more or less difficult than another. The piece requires constant attention to the page, but requires little of your fingers aside from that they keep moving. It’s an amazing piece, and I don’t know of anything else like it. I made a copy to keep at school, and whenever I have 15 minutes to spare, I start playing it. Afterwards, I’m always refreshed, and the noise in my mind has been turned off for awhile.

Perhaps An Hour for Piano is the perfect paradigm for the postclassical instrumental piece. Much of the 18th-century music we cherish and put up with today was written for home performance, but our home life has changed. This piece fits into and enhances my daily life. It’s also masterfully written in an understated way, with ideas, motives, and note complexes that keep coming back again and again when you least expect them, like a symphony or novel delivered in a quiet deadpan voice, or an expert comic monologue. You could base a whole new school of composition on this 1973 piece, a new kind of meditation music quite different from Pauline Oliveros’s, and no one’s done it yet. Tom also sent me a compact disc of his Bonhoeffer-Oratorium, his two-hour oratorio on texts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Deutsche Bank Bauspar AG label. If An Hour for Piano is the Waldstein Sonata of the postclassical era, the Bonhoeffer-Oratorium is its Carmina Burana: the rhetorical cliches of choral music embraced and repeated until a kind of innocent and infectious joy accumulates. Tom proves, as others have, that it’s not so difficult to write great music: just set something beautiful in motion and then get out of the damn way.

You can order the score to An Hour for Piano from Tom’s publisher at the Editions 75 web page. And, if you play the piano, I recommend it. There’s also a Lovely Music recording of it by Frederic Rzewski, who does a wonderful job. I must say, though, that I’ve heard Tom play the piece himself, and while Rzewski plays with a subdued but taut intensity, I slightly preferred Tom’s own Cheshire Cat innocence.