The Other Piano

Right Now and Beyond

The Other Piano

The Other Piano was performed for the first time on May 1st, 2007 by Vicki Ray.

The Other Piano is for piano with surround sound processing.  It has 4 continuous sections: Within, Lullaby, Alone and Rocking.  Each section has its own distinct character as well as a special approach to how the piano sound is processed throughout the space of the auditorium.  For instance, Lullaby unfolds slowly with great care taken to the details of exact timing of each note as well as the subtle evolving changes of the melody.  Individual notes are captured by the computer and form lingering chords that float through the auditorium.

I hesitate to say too much about this, or any work.  Words can easily filter the meaningful quality of the musical expression.  In fact, I am convinced that the musical experience is a part of a primal quality of expression which is present at birth and, perhaps even before. It is with us before we have language.  Words allow us to limit and focus the expression of our musical and gestural intelligence. Out of this primal intelligence, we have created what we call music to give expressiveness to all aspects of our various diverse cultures – from birth celebrations to funeral rites. 

In creating The Other Piano, I tried to capture a sense of this pre-verbal embodied musical experience by staying close to basic musical qualities. The work unfolds slowly and with emphasis on the small changes in pitch, time and loudness that bring meaningfulness to our expression.  The surround quality is exactly that, surrounding us as if we are inside the sound.

The title is a tribute to the memory of Morty Feldman (I was with him at the premiere of his work, “piano”).  He told me once that when a friend called him and congratulated him on marrying Joan La Barbara, he told his friend, “thanks, but that was the other Morty”.  The work was written for Vicki Ray. 

Three excerpts from a performance of The Other Piano by Vicki Ray at Roulette, NYC.

Subotnick premiere concludes 'Piano Spheres' season
Los Angeles Times MUSIC REVIEW, May 3, 2007
By Josef Woodard, Special to The Times

AT the admired "Piano Spheres" series, the rarely exposed world of contemporary piano music, delivered by masterful players, is the raison d'être. But Vicki Ray's recital at Zipper Concert Hall on Tuesday, closing the 13th annual season, pushed the instrument toward other spheres, specifically the domain of legendary electronic / computer music composer Morton Subotnick's imagination.

The world premiere of Subotnick's "The Other Piano" was the main attraction in a generally balanced, boldly played program. Dedicated to the late, great space-and-time-loving composer Morton Feldman and written for new music champion Ray, "The Other Piano" is a disarmingly contemplative adventure on the electro-acoustic trail. Among other projects, Subotnick has been an effective peacemaker between conventional, physical instruments and digital processes.

Before the premiere, a bit of archival music was presented for historical context. Subotnick's short "Prelude," written 50 years ago, is a ripe Webernesque piece for unadulterated piano. Next came the adulteration, engineered by the composer himself at an onstage, wired-up equipment table.

In the beguiling "The Other Piano," the pianistic materials are kept minimal, the better to let the notes breathe and be spun into the three-dimensionality of "surround sound." Sometimes the piano sound is prolonged and scattered; at other times it becomes source material for more radical alterations of timbre and pitch. But always, the piano — and this pianist — is the expressive constant at the core.

Away from Subotnick's work, James Tenney's "Essay (after a sonata)," with material and inspiration from Ives' "Concord Sonata," provided the most happily haunting moments of the evening, with its slow accumulation of notes, hung in space for us to savor and question.

A lot of Night Music: American Idolatry
L.A. Weekly, May 16, 2007
By Alan Rich

Mort on Mort

I’ve known Morton Subotnick longer than any star in the new-music galaxy. In the 1950s, he was a freelance clarinetist in San Francisco, studying with Darius Milhaud at Mills and feeding me precious backstage gossip from the San Francisco Symphony during its bad old days under Enrique Jordá, for my crits on KPFA. I ran into him in New York one day, when he was composing big electronic works for Nonesuch Records — symphonies, almost — with names like Silver Apples of the Moon. He told me about his new job at a school back in California with funding from, of all people, Walt Disney, and we had a good laugh over that.

I visited one of CalArts’ new-music festivals, and over coffee, Mort told me why life in California was better than anywhere else — partly because nobody took the critics seriously. He was composing what seemed to me pure magic: music for instruments and computers, with the instruments activating the technology so that music retained its relationship to a live performer and wasn’t just a matter of staring at loudspeakers. I looked in on his classes, watched some of his students’ work with mixed audio and visual media. I think it was Mort more than anyone else who convinced me that the air in California was what I, too, wanted to breathe.

More recently, Mort has produced some excellent educational CD-ROMS, in a series called “Making Music.” Kids get to construct scales, rhythms, melodies. They learn about variations, at various grades of complexities. I have to confess: I’ve spent an evening or two “making music.”

At the season’s final “Piano Spheres” concert in Zipper Hall, Vicki Ray’s program ended with Subotnick’s The Other Piano, a piece for piano with surround-sound processing. The work is “other” to Morton Feldman’s 1977 piece called, simply, Piano; both run approximately half an hour. Vicki played, while Mort, at his laptop, captured her notes and formed harmonies that floated through the hall out of surrounding speakers. The music was mostly slow and dreamlike, not at all Feldmanesque, purely the other Mort. We, sitting there, floated, surrounded, inside the sound. Talk about your magic.

The Other Piano will be released this summer on a Mode DVD in 5.1 multichannel: something to do the dishes to, or to lose yourself in.