R. Andrew Lee’s mesmeric playing shows the death of C major is greatly exaggerated
When Schoenberg told his composition class at UCLA that “there is still plenty of good music to be written in C major,” he might not have imagined how right he was. His own metaphor means the entirety of minimalism (not just In C) and much post-minimalism can judged as written in C major.
That’s impressive, considering how difficult it is to write good music with major chords; they sit there, stable, pleasing, and bland. They satisfy expectations so predictably that it is a challenge to make them interesting and surprising.
That made the success of pianist R. Andrew Lee’s Wednesday night recital at Roulette all the more splendid. Lee not only played marvelously, but but brought out the profundity of music in seemingly safe and bland major keys, making this a notable new music event.
Lee played four works, two from Michael Vincent Waller and one by William Duckworth in the first half; the sole piece on the second half was Adrian Knight’s Obsessions, with a duration approaching 50 minutes. That piece, along with the world premiere of Waller’s Breathing Trajectories, came about through direct collaboration between pianist and composer.
The concert was a celebration of Lee’s tenth release on the Irritable Hedgehog label, an affecting recording of Obsessions. He has also recorded Duckworth’s music, but nothing yet from Waller, although one imagines that’s just a matter of time.
Lee opened with the limpid beauty of Waller’s Pasticcio per menu è più, now part of the pianist’s repertoire.
A short piece, it gains depths with each new hearing. The gently lapping chords in the left hand and the languid arabesques in the right show an open affinity for Satie.
Waller mines Satie for both sensuousness and compositional rigor. Duckworth and Knight have a less explicit connection, but the compositional values are the same. Each uses the hard-won craft of counterpoint and structural proportion to turn major chords and repetition into forms that keep the listener satisfied and anticipating what comes next.
Lee expressed these ideas for the whole concert through assured, graceful phrasing, absolute tempos and rhythms, and fine delineation of counterpoint and inner voices. The music was not aural wallpaper—though the mood of the concert was mesmeric and rewardingly contemplative—but art with a serious delight in its own making and the pleasures of consonance and resonance.
Duckworth wrote wonderful piano music that is maddeningly difficult to find on recordings or in concert. His Imaginary Dances is a series of short sequences that use the counterpoint, pulse, and repetition of minimalism in the song forms of post-minimalism. The music is tuneful, and there is a stimulating amount of blues scales, plus a slow rag and a slow tango. Entertaining on the surface, Lee yet exposes some mysteries deep within.
Breathing Trajectories begins with a series of slow, spare intervals, interspersed with major chords. The music is highly fragmented, like a denser composition pushed through a sieve. The outline of musical logic remained, and it built itself into something dramatic, with Lee playing an expansive right hand over rising chords in the left. The piece sets up what at first appear to be predictable resolutions, always to move in unexpected directions.
Obsessions, heard in its New York premiere, is a substantial achievement; a series of rotating chords that, under Lee’s concentrated playing, had the relaxed but firm grip of a lucid dream. In duration and sensibility, there is an obvious connection to Feldman, especially Palais de Mari, but the straightforward rhythms and tonality of the music hints more at Messiaen.
There is a persistence of three, with groups of three chords, or three note phrases. The music is not so much introverted but at one remove, like watching someone think through a problem out loud. Chord sequences move along, step by step in the middle and upper registers, eventually answered by a gorgeous cadence in the lower.
One could listen to Lee play Knight’s sequences on Roulette’s mellow Steinway for hours. More than one audience member felt the internal duration of the piece was around 20 minutes (rather than the actual 50). This major key music is rich with diatonic extensions that set the strength and beauty of the sound in greater relief—the seasoning that brings out the deepest flavors of the basic elements. Obsessions had the explicit theme of this impressive concert: that music in C major could be replete with both rich satisfactions and provocations.