Drury at NEC

Went to NEC last night to hear Stephen Drury give a free recital. I heard him last year for the first time as part of his SICPP contemporary piano festival doing the Concord Sonata, and while last night’s program wasn’t quite as cutting edge, there was still a lot of non-standard recital fare. Putting aside the Schumann Papillons and Ravel Valses Nobles et Sentimentale, both of which were played with a wide variety of expression and touch and took enough chances that it produced a few refreshing wrong notes, let’s focus instead on the “contemporary” stuff which is Drury’s bread and butter. In lieu of any program notes whatsoever in the program, I’ll construct my own.

Guero (1970, rev. 1988) Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1935)

“Guero” is the title of an album by Beck, which apparently translates as a Spanish slang term for “White boy”. Since Lachenmann is German through and through, this would seem an odd derivation of the title, I thought maybe it was derived from the same root as “guerra”, Italian for “war”, but altavista says no. Anyway, Lachenmann is a new name to me, but he was the most avant garde composer on the program (which is saying a lot), and with hands down the most avant garde piece, 5 minutes or so of music without any key ever being struck. Drury was called upon to run his fingernails up and down both the tops and edges of the keys, flipping the edges of the keys up, plinking the ends of the strings, depressing the pedal, anything but actually playing a note. The effect is to make electronic-like sounds through a non-electronic instrument.

Extensions 3 (1952) Morton Feldman (1926-1987)

Feldman was probably the most prominent member of the Cage circle other than the master himself, and while I can’t say I’ve heard much of his music in my life, this is about what I would expect it would sound like. He supposedly said of the title, “By extensions I do not mean continuities. I had the feeling of a bridge where you don’t see the beginning or the end, where what you see seems transfixed in space.” This is a short, very pointillist work that at least in this performance never picked up much speed or got very loud. What’s interesting about this kind of music is that each note or chord must be taken for its own sake, because you have no idea what is coming next or whether the note you just heard is the last one in the piece. Drury as always played this with total conviction and kept the audience (which consisted mostly of Drury fans) in rapt attention.

Etudes Australes III, VI (1976) John Cage (1912-1992)

The complete Etudes Australes consists of 32 pieces that if played consecutively would take about 3 hours. The title refers not to Australia specifically, but to the star charts of the Atlas Australis, covering the southern hemisphere, which forms the basis of the work’s notes and chords. As a set these are known to be notoriously difficult, although these two selections didn’t seem to be on the whole. Combined they were less than 10 minutes, and made a nice development from the Feldman in that it was just like the Extensions 3 only moreso, more notes, more contrast of dynamics. Much of this is Drury’s doing, since while the notes are all notated in the score, there are no durations, dynamics or tempo given. He also made subtle use of something slipped under a few of the lower strings, making for some interesting overtones coming out of some of the notes that gave a distinct sense of the suspension of time.

Etude X: Der Zauberlehring Gyorgy Ligeti (b. 1923)
Etude XIII: L’escalier du diable (1988-1994)

By way of contrast, these etudes looked and sounded very difficult, constant chromatic clusters of notes played at a breakneck tempo. Ligeti is Hungary’s greatest modern composer, best known here for his choral works of tone clusters that were used to represent the Monolith in Kubrick’s movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”. The title of the Etude X refers to a poem by Goethe and translates as “The Magician’s Apprentice”, the same source as Dukas’ “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” of Disney fame. The second etude here translates as “The Devil’s Staircase”, programmatically indicated by the gradual ascent up the keyboard of a continuous series of scales. Etudes in the truest sense of the word, these have been recorded with player piano in order to have them go as fast as Ligeti intended, but Drury did just fine by himself, and seems to revel in this type of fiendishly difficult work. Unlike the other pieces mentioned above, the Ligeti was played from memory. All four parts of this half of the program were performed without a break, segueing from one piece directly into the next.

After the Schumann, intermission and the Ravel came the last item on the program:

Carny (1992) John Zorn (b. 1953)

Zorn seems to have his own cult following as a jazz musician, saxophonist and composer, but has also written classical works, and this piece was written for Drury. In fact, you’re best left to read about it from the pianist’s own web site. This piece was probably around 15 minutes and appeared to be extremely difficult, not only technically but conceptually as it consists of a rapid fire juxtaposition of snippets of music in all different styles, sometimes contiguous, sometimes on top of each other (even played backwards in some cases). Drury says he devoted a year of his life to learning this piece because it’s the type of work that, like the Concord Sonata, is a constant process of discovery the more times you play it. The audience was enthusiastic in its response to this piece, but one hearing could hardly do it justice. This is one I would really like to have a recording of.