Concert Reaction/Review: R. Andrew Lee – New Minimalist Music for Solo Piano
15 February 2014, I traveled into Austin, TX to see a concert at the Ballet Austin Academy. One of new music for piano, I was thoroughly impressed. Pianist R. Andrew Lee put on an impressive and thought-provoking performance, and left me syphoning through my own emotions and reactions to the sounds he produced.
The point is: he rocked.
In a time where the bell curve of new music’s popularity is favorable more and more, Andrew Lee gave us all another reason to open ourselves up to good music. I am such a late-bloomer when it comes to opening my ears to the macro-genre of “new music.” In college, I could not wait to be done listening to Pärt, Cage, Schoenberg (yes, not a minimalist, but in college he fell under my “WTF” category as well) or others who seemingly “threw” notes on a page, and called it music.
That was the opinion I had then.
It was only in the past 2 years that something clicked–perhaps I re-defined “good music” or re-interpreted “expression” differently, or maybe there was something in my drinking water…
Since I have come to understand, appreciate, and love the power of organized sound in any format, I feel so much more.
My mantra/requirement, and tagline above, “music should move you intellectually and physically,” is one I stand strongly for. And Andrew Lee’s performance did just that.
Logical Harmonies (1) (2011) – Richard Glover
This was a steady-pulsed piece, where block chords moved in a pattern, with root movement by descending fifths. It was a big pattern that continued until it started over, with unison chords in each hand. There’s something in the math of music that provides the same excitement as a Sudoku puzzle or a crossword puzzle. I was instantly attached to the mathematical pattern, but as soon as I grasped that, the sound took over.
Because the tune sounded so simple, it allowed a bigger space in the mind, and room, for notes to blend and clash, painting some very pretty pictures. Lee served this piece almost as the pre-dinner salad: delicious and enjoyable, but perhaps to prepare the listener for the other pieces to come.
Old Wine New Bottle (1976) – Tom Johnson
Before sitting down to play this piece, Andrew Lee said he “wouldn’t be offended if anyone laughed” during the piece, as he found it a humorous one. Well, I did laugh.
A pseudo-theme & variations, and “an homage to Scarlatti,” all I could think immediately was “fun.” It started off soooo Baroque–a typical major-keyed melodic theme. Over the set of variations, different segments of the theme repeated over and over, Lee giving them a bouncy, quaint life, and eventually had me laughing.
Of course, I didn’t want to be the only audible one laughing, so I muffled the noise. Lee pushed and pulled the entertaining tension with dancing fingers, perhaps “joking” instead, with the material’s repetition. I never really knew when one segment would end and begin, and that is what kept me laughing–it only puts a smile on your face.
Pharmacy (2014) – Brent Fariss
Oh boy. This piece did a number on me.
I should say, first, that it is one admirable thing for a composer to put their emotions out in the public, and it is another for a performer to provoke their own emotions, and the listeners, sitting right in front of them. That’s what we’re all after, right? Sharing emotions with each other?
So this piece was as much about the silence as it was the notes and sounds that arose. With deliberate lengths of silence, or quiet sustain in between notes, and varying slow-motion speeds, Lee provided me an opportunity to dive into my past, dive into my own thoughts and concerns.
I, almost immediately, found my self back in my early 20s when new emotions and experience were cognitively fresh. I recalled my doubts, my love, my broken love, my faults, my triumphs, and all the experiences that made me who I am today. The power behind Lee’s hands, striking notes violently, summoning memories that make me cringe, and gently setting down chords so quietly, reestablishing calm in my heart, threw me for an emotional roller coaster I had not anticipated.
What the composer, Fariss, I assume, had to have been aware of was the strains of silence or disappearing notes would leave room for external sounds to make their way in. I fully appreciated this. In between Lee’s breaking into the psyche, jumbling up my memories and ethos, you could hear car horns blare, folks outside audibly pointing out, “Hey, there’s a guy playing piano,” or the bass sub-woofers of a car creeping by.
For me, all the times I’ve had panic-attacks-to-myself or sat in careful, deep thought, there was always external noise. I do my best thinking when I’m driving–and my car is by no means soundproof. I expect, in those times, to be comforted by my radio turned off, and a soundtrack of sounds outside my car.
A dark and sad fog about it, Lee provided me an opportunity with this piece to do some of my best thinking and reflecting, and I wasn’t even in my car this time. Thank you Andrew Lee & Brent Fariss.
Logical Harmonies (2) (2011) – Richard Glover
This was almost identical to the first one, except that the movement this time was in the other hand. Again, Lee cleared the palette, recalibrated the mind, and prepared us for more music to come. This piece, and its prior counterpoint, are quite relaxing.
The Book of Sounds, X (1979-1982) – Hans Otte
Lee’s execution of this piece had me dancing, literally. I found myself rotating and moving my head, somewhat circularly, in orbit as I pictured the music doing. Fearing I was no fun for the person sitting right behind me, I had to actively shift my energy to my legs.
Perhaps it was because I had listened to Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians TWICE that day (you can’t just listen to it once, really…) but I immediately caught a Reichian or student-of vibe.
Lee jumped write in, so expressively playing this close-chorded repeating figure. Slowly, he would add other elements (dynamics, other ostinati, etc.) while varying the figure. At a very quick pace, Lee pretty much mirrored quick-thinking, thinking in-the-moment. Unlike Pharmacy, which allowed time for reflection, this piece reminded me of what fluid, articulate speech can be experienced as. Without pause, without hiccup, a main theme is clearly provided to you. Lee was a talented orator here, with each repeating variation a different paragraph, or a different point to be made.
Pianist, Alone no. 2 (2012) – Jürg Frey
At first, I had a bit of trouble getting into this piece. Moving along, at a conservative tempo, Lee sounded as though he were timidly improvising to start off. Prior to the piece he described the composer as saying it was “reminding [him] of forgotten memories.” I think that got planted into my head because that is what I did–thought of things I never had a reason to think of.
But for the first few minutes I still was not concrete on this tune–I was a bit agitated. Perhaps Lee planned this. I declare he knew the order in which he would offer up the listeners’ emotions to be shaken/jumbled.
Then, finally, minutes in Lee hit two notes slowly, over and over. I think it was either a Gb & Ab or an Ab & Bb right next to each other. Either way, it was a major second. The space in between the repetition, Lee insisting the point, created this harmonic tone, perhaps an octave + a fifth above the higher of the two notes. It completely reeled me back in.
It took me 4-5 minutes of feeling confused–not by what was going on musically, but what I felt inside. Once Lee hit that two-note repetition, I was cured, and the rest of the tune provided a clear cavern of relaxation for me. I was “reminded of forgotten memories” but there was nothing melancholy about it. Lee’s delicate execution and interpretation allowed me, again, an opportunity to question and answer to myself.
Thank you, Andrew Lee, for providing another musically enjoyable experience, demonstrating with your technical and expressive talent, that music can be therapeutic, relaxing, and advocative of happiness.
Thank you, New Music Co-op, for providing a wonderful experience.