It was quite a sight: two or three hundred people waiting in line outside a New York art museum to hear a Spring evening's concert of new music. I might have thought myself in the wrong place, had I not known that this particular museum gets funding from a giant tobacco company. If Philip Morris can make lung disease (the planets leading cause of death) fashionable, then it can certainly do the same for something as relatively benign as free improvisation.
The Duo Piano Mini Festival was an evening of piano duos presented by The Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris. This is one of its Second Sight series of contemporary performance held in the museums Park Avenue sculpture garden. 80 Fingers was hosted by pianist/composer Anthony Davis and co-curated by improvisor/composer Toby Kasavan and Whitney performance manager/producer Jeanette Vuocolo. 80 Fingers brought together the disparate worlds of the notated music and free improvisation in an extraordinary evening that demonstrated just how much (and how little) the forms have in common.
The concept matched two sets of improvising pianists with two sets that played the music of various contemporary composers. This concept brought partisans of the two different types of music together, concentrating on the forces that they share in common. After all, the end result of both composition and improvisation can often be quite similar. After all, what is an improvisor but an instrumentalist that composes on the fly?
Leading off was the duo of Anthony de Mare and Kathleen Supové, playing works by Terry Winter Owens, Eva Wiener, and Lois V. Vierk. Owens Pianophoria No.3 was a gently and attractively composed exchange of widely spaced melody suspended over a quiet base. The lines were slight, elaborated and juxtaposed by one pianist against the other, sometimes syncopated, unfolding gradually and logically. Prism, by Eva Weiner, was sharp-edged, non-tonal and highly rhythmic, suggesting more metrically than meets the ear. This was a highly dissonant and repetitive piece.
Prism was minimalist in its structural approach, but harmonically free to a large (and welcome) extent. Vierk's Spin 2 was a crowd favorite -- the twin pianos became a pair of antiphonal percussion ensembles, the pianists (rather theatrically) banging and strumming the insides, the pitches low and mostly non-specific. As the piece wore on and its momentum built, the players moved up the keyboard and sounded what I assume were notated pitches. Industrial in spirit, Spin 2 played like a soundtrack to Fritz Lang's silent film, Metropolis. Its rhythmic vitality seemed to grab the majority of listeners. Yet as imaginative and well crafted as it was, its somewhat compromised manner of improvisation did not stand up particularly well with what was to come. The performances were fine; both pianists are highly competent interpreters. Supové in particular displayed a lyrical bent that served her well on the Winters piece.
To my ears, the work of Toby Kasavan and Mark Hennen seemed to possess the more effective qualities of improvisation that struck falsely in the Vierk piece. Interestingly, Hennen/Kasavan seemed to take up the challenge presented by Spin 2. Kasavan began exactly where the previous composition started; on the instrument's insides, the pianist plucking, striking, and banging. Hennen splayed arhythmic waves of kinetic melody across Kasavan's bed of indistinct tonality. The spontaneous expression of the previously unknown and unthought of is a particular delight of the best free improv, and such was eminently apparent here.
Hennen and Kasavan play a music of irregular form. This is not very logical in its development, but their utter virtuosity and musicality allow them the means of infinite surprise. Improvisation sometimes gives way to what guitarist Derek Bailey calls the instrumental impulse. Feel free to interpret this as an excessive display of virtuosity. There was a bit of that here, but regardless of the flaws in the approach, the virtues of free playing are real, and Hennen/Kasavan embodied them all.
Kitty Brazelton is a downtown-based singer/composer/bandIeader of much ability and refreshing guilelessness. When the well-meaning if stumbling host, Anthony Davis (whose comments to and about the artists consistently implied an unfamiliarity with their work) asked Brazelton just what compelled her to write a piece for two pianos, she said (provoking laughter) "I wanted to be on this festival." This seemed as good a reason as any. Brazelton's work Yalum To Vinahel: Roots of the Sky was a world apart from the rest of the written pieces. The composer drew on pop devices, specifically a funkified ostinato base. The elements of improvisation were difficult to discern from the written passages. The piece had a rhythmic snap that carried it a long way, and Brazelton's sing-song motives in the treble engaged my interest from a melodic prospective. I don't mean to oversimplify what was quite formally a sophisticated piece; there was much more going on, of course, than I was able to follow on one listening. A fun piece, though unfortunately not done justice to by the duo, Double Edge (Nurit Tilles and Edmund Niemann), whose technical imprecision I found perplexing. Double Edge did much better on a less interesting composition, David Lang's minimalist Orpheus Over And Under. While somewhat appealing for the first five minutes, this piece lost interest after a good quarter-hour. I would never question the validity of music so carefully crafted and intelligently presented. But I am not a big fan of music so harmonically and rhythmically static as this.
The evening ended with a singular roar, produced by the avant-jazz energy music of John Blum and Cooper-Moore. On a program stocked with piano virtuosi, Blum and Cooper-Moore stood out as the most outrageously accomplished technicians. Which is not to slight their creativity, because none of the groups that preceded them set a higher standard of artistry. Blum/Cooper-Moore packed their set with more sheer ideas per moment than I would have thought possible, and they did it with a strength and passion that was at times not easy to bear. The two pianists have much in common, most notably power and speed of execution. Their phrasing was impossibly fast, and remarkably well integrated. One will establish a line that is picked up and elaborated upon by the other in the space of a second. As the final performance of the evening, the two used everything that had come before as grist for their collective imagination -- the atonal minimalism of Weiner, the vaguely specific percussionisms of Vierk. The musicians played as if they were out to prove something. I am sure that they were, given the predominance of notated music lovers in the audience (many of whom left before the Blum/Cooper-Moore juggernaut took the stage). As with Hennen/Kasavan, the extreme density mitigates the music's effectiveness at times, but that's the nature of the beast; take it or leave it. I'll take it.