Denver-based pianist R. Andrew Lee is on the rise with a healthy advocacy for the minimalism and post-minimalism repertoires. With quite a few great recordings already released from Irritable Hedgehog (Among them his perfectly-timed recording of Tom Johnson’s An Hour for Piano), he is still at work on even more releases, and plays extensively around the world. You can even check out his YouTube channel to see him perform some of these pieces, along with his submission for David Lang’s Piano Competition (Sadly, he lost out to Peter Poston, but congrats to Mr. Poston, and to Andy as well for his efforts). I spoke with Dr. Lee recently (He also teaches at Regis University) via Skype.
CM: Great efforts here, Andrew! And these are mostly living composers. Did you contact the composers, or did they contact you about playing these pieces?
RAL: A lot of this music I first came across as a doctoral student. It was actually William Duckworth‘s Time Curve Preludes that really…I guess you could call it my “gateway drug”. A composer friend of mine introduced me to them. I went over to his house one night, and we were listening to them, and I just wanted to know more. Thankfully, we had a musicology guy, Andrew Granade, on staff–I went to him and said “I want to do a research project”. He said “Great! Contact all these composers and see what music you can get!”. I was really surprised how many composers would send in scores, and how many were excited that I was looking into their music. So, that’s kind of how it all began.
I started with the Duckworth, which is sort of the post-minimalist stuff, that became the gateway to more intense minimalism.
CM: I read in the Wikipedia listing that you were the first person to perform the Tom Johnson Hour for Piano at exactly one hour!
RAL: Frederic Rzewski did the premiere recording of An Hour for Piano. It was produced by Lovely Music, and at the time, it was on an LP, so he was working with some specific limitations. So, mine is the first recording that’s exactly an hour. The metronome marking is 59.225 BPM, which is kind of fun to work with! I had to kind of get to that intuitive place. I couldn’t even get a metronome marking or a click sound that was that accurate, so, eventually it just became intuitive. When I perform it, and when I recorded it as well, I just have a little stopwatch with me, and there are markers in the score, every 3-5 minutes or so, so I can keep pace–see how I’m doing pace-wise.
CM: So you were able to do that while you’re playing this thing?
RAL: Yes, it took a while! [both laugh] There was practicing! Once I got to within about 30-45 seconds, I kind of put the metronome away, and really started working on being able to adjust, and in the beginning, I was kind of like a new driver–If I noticed I was too fast, I would way over-correct, and the tempo would see-saw a little bit, but over time, now that I’ve performed it enough, if I notice I’m ten or fifteen seconds ahead of where I need to be, I can take 5 or 10 minutes and gradually sort of get myself back to where I need to go, which is sort of a great feeling.
CM: What’s interesting about minimalist music is that you notice where composers wanted to get away from more complex styles of music, bringing it back to simplistic sound. Where there previously was a cacophony of noise, then it became a thinner line of noise or sound
RAL: When I first heard the Time Curve Preludes, my impression of modern music was Stockhausen, Boulez–all this really intense, very academic and difficult music, and then when I heard the preludes, I was like “Wow! This is new, and it’s gorgeous!”. It doesn’t lack for interest. People are writing beautiful music, I didn’t know that! [laughs] It opened up a new world.
CM: Hour for Piano reminds me a little bit of that piece used for Nadia Comaneci and “The Young and The Restless”, it sort of has some of that quality.
RAL: Any time I introduce minimalism to my students, they’re like “Oh, it sounds like movie scores!”, and it’s like “Yes, it does! I promise you this came first”! [laughs]
CM: It was great to see that you had entered the David Lang Piano Competition with your interpretation of Wed! Can you talk about that for a second?
RAL: Sure! I had about 4 or 5 people email me about that competition and said “You should definitely do this”! That was exciting! The score–If you look through all of the entries, you’ll notice mine is much slower and longer!
CM: Yes, you did do it slower! Everyone else’s is a shorter clip!
RAL: Which obviously suits my aesthetic! The tempo indication is “quarter note no faster than 68” or something to that effect, so immediately to my mind, I thought “well, that’s my upper limit, let’s explore below that”! That was the first thing that came to my mind! I didn’t fiddle with the metronome or anything. I tried to experiment with the tempo where I thought gave it a lot of space and really let it breathe, but at the same time, there are some nice lines that emerge from what is a very simple process that he’s using with these four voices. I think in some ways it’s a little easier when it’s faster to summon some of these musical lines, but when I listen to even the professional recordings, I miss the space that I found at this lower tempo, so, that’s just my personality and a lot of minimalism background. If you say “this is as fast as you can go”, my first thought is “well, how slow can I go?” [laughs]
CM: Every musician now likes to explore it their own way. It’s great that there’s no real specific lines for interpretation, because interpretation is what it is. It’s going to come out the way it’s going to come out at that specific moment. It’s not even going to be the same every time it comes from the same player.
RAL: Well, that was one of the things that David talked about in the video. He sort of introduced it as “I’m curious to hear different interpretations”. That was my particular take.
David Lang: Wed (from Memory Pieces; submitted for the David Lang Piano Competition; 2011)
CM: What would you say are the similarities and differences between minimalism and post-minimalism?
RAL: One of the biggest things that I see with the hardcore minimalists, the early minimalists’ stuff, Tom Johnson is probably the only composer that calls himself a minmalist–he’s still doing that stuff. But I think it’s just sort of a temporal experience you get from it. With minimalist music, it’s much more the experience of being in the moment. There’s no sense of anticipation or there’s no real sense of drama (in some regards). It’s just a state of being, which is quite lovely.
There’s another thing that gets missed with minimalism. I got to hear Charlamagne Palestine perform Schlingen Blangen on the organ, and it was sadly only a hour and a half long…
CM: Only?? [laughs]
RAL: I think at the time that was the longest piece I’d ever heard, and I thought “I could have listened to that for another hour”! It was really incredible! But there is this sort of feeling when you get into this time suspension. There can be this real feeling of ecstasy, real joy that can be very remarkable, and that’s something I don’t see talked about. I think the so-called “post-minimalism” is more just a return of melody and some harmonic motion. When you still have the same aesthetic, there’s not a lot of change–there’s a lot of repetition, but you do have the feeling that it’s kind of going somewhere. It’s sort of a reclaiming of some common practice of things. I still debate in my own mind how much I like the terms “minimalism” and “post-minimalism”. I think Kyle Gann described it as sort of “early sonata forms vs. where it went”! You do, to an extent, lose that sense of time suspension–that really meditative, trance quality, but I still love the post-minimalism stuff.
CM: Any special projects coming up?
RAL: The biggest thing is the “Minimalism In Twelve Parts” concert series I’m trying to put together. Basically just 12 recitals of all different minimalist music spread throughout the year, and it’s like about 20 hours of music. I try to keep it up-to-date on minimalism12.com, where I’m looking to get things programmed. I’ve got verbal commitments from just about every venue at this point, it’s just a matter of nailing down dates and stuff. That’s the big thing on my horizon, and I’m also looking to record 3 or 4 CDs this summer. One of them will be Dennis Johnson’s November, which was written in 1959 and was the piece that inspired LaMonte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano. Kyle Gann has only in the last couple of years sort of reconstructed this piece, because there was only a recording of the first two hours of it, and it apparently went on for six! Dennis Johnson stopped composing a long time ago, and they had to contact him, and they had to work out a score. That will be the first commercial release of that piece.
My producer David McIntire is writing a piece for me for piano and electronics that’ll be a big work that I’m excited about!
CM: Is that a first for you?
RAL: Yes, that will be a first, and I’m looking forward to it! Another pianist friend of mine does a lot of that with piano and electronics, and actually, David and I were in Belgium for the last minimalism conference, and we heard Bruce Brubaker play Drones & Piano by Nico Muhly, and a Missy Mazzoli piece. When David and I heard him perform those pieces live, we both thought we could do something with that. I have another composer friend who’s doing a piece for solo piano–I told him to keep it under 40 minutes so it can be released, and I joked with him that most composers would laugh at you if you told them that! And I’ve really gotten into Jürg Frey‘s music, there are some unrecorded piano pieces of his (I put some of them are on my YouTube page) that are really fascinating and I’d love to get recorded.
Jürg Frey: 12 Klavierstücke, No. 6
Andy’s official website
It’s been a little while since I’ve read a piece in which someone spoke so fervently about minimalism. I particularly enjoyed the way he spoke about “An Hour for Piano,” reminding us of the rigorous discipline required of the performer to play something that seems so simple to the ear.
He also states something that bears endless repeating, reminding us how much we owe to the minimalists for retrieving classical music from what Taruskin so rightly called a cul-de-sac:
When I first heard the Time Curve Preludes, my impression of modern music was Stockhausen, Boulez–all this really intense, very academic and difficult music, and then when I heard the preludes, I was like “Wow! This is new, and it’s gorgeous!”. It doesn’t lack for interest. People are writing beautiful music, I didn’t know that! [laughs] It opened up a new world.
And so it did, for so many of us.
Thanks so much, Susan!