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Review: A Mozart-less Evening Turns to ICE with ‘Grand Pianola Music’

ICE; photo: Armen Elliott.

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, August 6, 2018

The Mostly Mozart Festival’s recent presentation of the International Contemporary Ensemble at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College was a welcome respite from the summer’s punishing mugginess. Entitled “Grand Pianola Music,” after the John Adams piece that anchored the program, the evening was a refreshing ride in a crisply air conditioned vehicle, more about the journey than a destination.

The Pianola was a defining brand of player piano, one of the first collisions between acoustic music and mechanical technology. This intriguing concert explored that connection and some of its implications. Opening the evening, New Orleans native, pianist, and composer Courtney Bryan performed a work from 2012 called Songs of Laughing, Smiling, and Crying. The work features a pre-recorded collage of found sound, weaving antique recordings of popular song and other effects, with Bryan improvising at the piano.

Bryan begins her dialogue between piano and sound collage with a Debussy-like introductory flourish.  Then she presses ‘play’ on the laptop perched nearby, ushering in a vintage recording of Louis Armstrong’s classic “When You’re Smiling (the Whole World Smiles With You).” She gradually begins to improvise, solo first, then joining the pre-record for a duet. Tommy Dorsey’s “I’ll Never Smile Again” briefly passes by, before the piano solo begins rhapsodizing in a more acerbic, playful mode, changing the character and tempo (sounding like Debussy again). Now the recording begins to incorporate non-musical effects. The sounds of distress, even screams of horror.

Bryan’s pianistic commentary grows darker, rumbling in the extreme ends of the piano, trailing off as the recording becomes a psychedelic tapestry — wails of despair rising from a wash of instability. Bryan eventually segues into a mournful bit of opera, Pagiacci‘s “Vesti la giubba” (about smiling on the outside, but crying on the inside), and the laptop juts from a moment of this to a bit of that, like a block quilt of TV clips being sent into outer space to be discovered by an alien race.

The piece concludes with Bryan easing into a warm, expansive rendition of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.” Indeed, the most impressive aspect of Bryan’s creation is her fiery, forceful playing. She’s a terrific jazz pianist, with a dancing left-hand stride, a richly singing right hand, and tasteful improvisations, astute and heartfelt.

George Lewis’s Voyager premiered in 1987, adventurously employing computer software that interacts with live improvising musicians. Lewis, a professor at Columbia University, describes the piece in various erudite terms like nonhierarchical, multi-dominance, and trans-African formalism. Suffice it to say, the computer takes input from the live musicians, and churns out some sort of unexpected manipulation of it, and the end product is the summation of this happening at once. The element of chance is integral to the outcome, each performance different.

Peter Evans; photo: Peter Gannushkin.

In this audacious performance, four musicians lay bare their guts, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes profane. They each have exceptional technique, too. On the trumpet, Peter Evans let loose in an athletic, angular explosion of energy. Joshua Rubin’s bass clarinet whispered, wailed, and noodled into the extremes of his instrument. Ryan Muncy explored the alto saxophone’s severities, using daring tonguing effects and the percussive sound of his fingers on the keys. Pianist Cory Smythe brought similar fearlessness, dashing about the keyboard part’s complicated, dissonant clusters, even manipulating the strings inside the piano.

Cory Smythe

Cory Smythe; photo: Dylan Chandler.

The computer’s contribution, in this edition, the Yamaha Disklavier, is subtle; occasionally, the sound of the piano is heard in the background doing humanly impossible things, and the overall impact sounds bigger than the forces onstage. The pyrotechnics on display are impressive, and the composition, a meeting of musical academia, technology, and modern jazz, must have been exciting in the 1987. But I’m not sure what, if anything, Voyager has to say to the audience.

John Adams’s Grand Pianola Music, composed around 1982, is scored for two pianos, three amplified female vocalists, and an ensemble of woodwinds, brass, and percussion. The piece is very characteristic of Adams, but lacking some the honed vision of his later pieces. It’s a dreamscape, an evocation of the subconscious, and distinctly kaleidoscopic. There are also witty musical references; the third movement, “On the Dominant Divide,” quotes Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. The anachronism seems impish.

The title’s reference to the pianola is poetic, perhaps, evoking the patterns in mechanism, like the rows of perforations on a piano roll. The piece’s strong suit is its orchestration, which marries the three voices (performed flawlessly, with clear, pure tone by the Quince Ensemble) with varying families of winds, played with virtuosity and personality by the musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble. On the podium, Christian Reif, a protege of Michael Tilson Thomas, brought clarity and shape to the work.


Grand Pianola Music presented as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, John Jay College, 524 West 59th Street on August 2, 2018. Featured artists: International Contemporary Ensemble, Christian Reif, conductor; Courtney Bryan, Cory Smythe, Jacob Greenberg, piano; Peter Evans, trumpet; Joshua Rubin, clarinet; Ryan Muncy, saxophone; Quince Ensemble, voices.

COURTNEY BRYAN: Songs of Laughing, Smiling, and Crying (2012)

GEORGE LEWIS: Voyager (1987/2018)

JOHN ADAMS: Grand Pianola Music (1982)


Cover: ICE; photo: Armen Elliott.


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