Pianist Bruce Brubaker, a man very talented and prolific through his writings online and his activities as a teacher and curator, has taken time to talk to a man that feels rather under-educated as any kind of musician or authority on music (Hint: that would be moi) and sparked up a wonderful discussion about his process in recording his 6th release as a pianist, the new Nico Muhly project Drones & Piano (The first section of a 3-section work to be continually rolled out this year) and going through the process with producer Valgeir Sigurðsson at the now famous Greenhouse Studio in Iceland.
CM: Can you please talk about Drones & Piano and where it started for you?
BB: It started as a commission. I commissioned the piece from Nico, and it was funded by the Gilmore Festival, the music festival in Michigan. I think it’s the first Drones & piece, and then it’s grown, because Nico got interested in writing more and more drones pieces. There’s the piano one, there’s the viola one, which Nadia [Sirota] and I also recorded in Iceland, and there’s another one for violin, which is being done.
But for Drones & Piano-–Nico and I had actually done another project 5 years ago, which involved me playing Haydn piano sonatas, and Nico adding electronic sounds to that, and we did that a few places, in Europe and also at the opening night of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. At that time, I asked him about writing a new piece for the piano. I think because we had just been working on the Haydn project that had acoustic piano and electronics in it, then it seemed natural that there would be a newly composed piece for acoustic piano and electronics.
Making Drones – Bruce Brubaker recording Nico Muhly’s “Drones & Piano” in Iceland
To me, it’s fascinating the way the whole thing evolved. He started sending me the piano part–just the piano part, it didn’t have the electronics yet. It was originally presented as a very open-form kind of thing: “Here’s the piano part, you can play along with these electronic sounds however they line up…”, and then, as it went along, it became more connected together.
So, now there are a lot of places where there are possible coincidences that occur, but they’re not required, so you still have this tremendous amount of freedom, but the more I played the piece (I played it a lot, for a year before the recording was done last summer), the more I noticed these coincidences that are in the electronic drone parts, and that I think can line up beneficially with the acoustic part. Nico never said that, and he never made any suggestions to me about it, so it’s really this kind of subterranean exchange that Nico likes where you’re not really talking about it out loud, but there are a lot of things going on back and forth between what’s going on live and what’s been set down before. To me, the piece has just gotten better and better as I messed with it more, because of those things.
In the recorded version, the electronics went through a whole new stage of development. So after I laid down the acoustic part, Valgeir got in there and made a more layered sound world for the electronics. It’s a very juicy and complicated world of sound, and a little bit different than the original MP3′s that the piece was played with live.
Nico Muhly: Drones & Piano (Part IV; Bruce Brubaker, piano; Nadia Sirota, viola; Nico Muhly, drones)
CM: I would imagine there was something kind of trippy about working in that environment too!
George Wallace (A fool in the forest) on twitter had just brought up the question of whether the piano on your recording was the same piano that was used for the Hilary Hahn and Hauschka Silfra CD.
BB: They were there the week before!
CM: Were there tea lights or marbles in the piano?
BB: No, but I have to say with all due respect, when I got there, at least one hammer on the piano was broken off! Valgeir has a very good piano technician, actually. He spent some serious time at the beginning of the sessions putting the piano back together!
CM: He probably sent Hauschka the bill! [laughs]
BB: Probably! But of course stuff like that happens!
The funny thing about Drones & Piano is that I never played the piece for Nico in learning it. I gave a number of public performances, and many recordings of the performances were sent to him, and he liked it, and at the time I was getting ready to go to Iceland to do the recording (He was not at the recording sessions, because it was right at the time Two Boys was being done in London), and I said to him then “Is there something you’d like to say now, this is your chance before I make the recording, is there something you’d like to say about the way it’s played?”–he said “No”.
CM: You just called him and he said “No!” [laughs]
BB: It was interesting because, as I already described, my approach to the piece was changing quite quickly and dramatically, because I was discovering things in the backing track which I hadn’t noticed before or thought about, so I was changing the way I played it a lot. In a sense, I was having a conversation with him about it, but we never spoke about it one-person-to-another-person. All my conversation was between me and the text that he had given me, which is what happens when I play a piece by Brahms. I like that a lot, and I guess the example that I brought up in my blog was the Bill Duckworth piece The Time Curve Preludes (that I recorded a few years ago), a piece which I wanted to learn, and learned without talking to Bill, and I don’t know why, I just didn’t want to ask him about it–I knew there was another recording of it many years ago when it was a new piece, and that was the only other commercial one made. I didn’t want to listen to that, I didn’t want to talk to Bill, and so I made the recording, it came out, and it was one of those weird things-–I got an email from Bill, and he said, “I understand you’ve been playing my music”! [laughs]
William Duckworth: Time Curve Prelude # 6 (Bruce Brubaker, piano)
And we’ve since become friends! He’s even writing a concerto for me. But it’s the same kind of thing. At some level, he liked hearing his piece played by somebody who hadn’t been instructed by him, because in a sense, the piece now starts to have its own identity. I think that music which doesn’t work that way, is not really yet alive. If the composer is always there saying “Oh, by the way, that bar should be a little faster, and you ought to use the pedal, and the rhythm here has to emphasize this”–in a way, the piece itself has not taken off, it has not lived on its own. I think at least for some music, it’s important for the composer to let go.
Bruce Brubaker on all things piano (his blog)