Oerknal is gearing up for our next project, Red Arc | Blue Veil, a program of 21st-century works for piano and percussion featuring Christian Smith (perc) and Daniel Walden (pno). You can catch performances of this varied and timbrally rich program on 19 January at Splendor, Amsterdam and 20 January at Korzo Theater, The Hague - music by John Luther Adams, Klaus Lang, Nicole Lizée, and David Bird.
In anticipation of these concerts, our artistic director Greg Charette caught up with Christian and Danny to talk about Alaskan wilderness, Steve Gadd, Casio keyboards, and robot populism.
GC: Before we get into the specific pieces you’ll be performing in this program, can you talk a bit about piano/percussion repertoire in general?
DW: I love the piano/percussion combination. Every composer treats it quite differently - the range of approaches is far greater than it is for more conventional duos, like piano/violin or piano/cello. This is true partly because "percussion" encompasses so many possibilities, so many different instruments and playing techniques.
CS: Absolutely. What's so exciting from my point of view is exactly this potential for really unique and varied timbral combinations.
DW: A lot of composers actually go a long way in transforming the piano itself into the primary percussion instrument. I recently had the pleasure of recording a piece for piano and three assistants, Chris Mercer’s Octoid, where everyone is frenetically busy banging, scraping, and dropping various items onto the strings, frame, and soundboard. It’s basically a piano technician’s worst nightmare.
GC: I’d like to make it known to the good people at Korzo and Splendor that we will NOT be using saws and nails in their grand pianos.
DW: Not this time at least.
GC: Let’s talk about the program. John Luther Adams is a composer whose music is inspired in large part by the geography and nature of Alaska. Klaus Lang’s music shares a similar aesthetic, one concerned with expansive spaces. Nicole Lizée and David Bird, at least insofar as they draw inspiration from and enter into dialogue with various elements of pop music, seem decidedly more urban in bent.
CS: Hmmm. I see it a bit differently. John Luther Adams represents a kind of romanticized way of thinking about nature. Klaus Lang is more nihilistic, or at least emptier - his music exists in nature, yes, but it's less reverent and more meditative. I've known David [Bird] for a long time, and his piece EIGHTOH8, along with a lot of his recent work, is about technology and its relationship to human beings. The Lizée is in praise of all things Steve Gadd and rock drumming, the joy of pop music and funky beats. So the program is something like...romantic nature > meditative nature > robot populism > human populism.
GC: Robot populism?
CS: They’re comin’ for us, man.
GC: Do the pieces in this program find common ground?
DW: They find common ground through juxtaposition. I would say the biggest distinction I recognize in these works is how they deal with scale. I’m a fan of Christian’s romantic nature via robot populism trajectory, but I also see a movement from outer to inner – from listening to the outdoors, to the room, to earbuds. John Luther Adams moves across massive expanses; I listen to his music and hear a sort of musical Planet Earth. When I hear Klaus Lang I feel very much attuned to whatever space I occupy at the moment of listening – it’s empty, sure, but that emptiness focuses me on the the four walls surrounding me. David Bird and Nicole Lizée bring me into my own head along with all the three-minute pop songs I’ve fed into it from my iPod over the course of my life.
GC: Earlier you brought up how "percussion" can signify so many things, how percussion set ups vary in such extreme ways from piece to piece. Can you talk about that in relation to this program?
CS: Ringer by Nicole Lizée is all about interfacing with rock and funk music, so it's scored for a drum set that functions for the most part in the same way it would in those situations, except that where you’d normally find the snare drum there’s a glockenspiel – the "ringer" of Ringer. There is actually a snare drum, but it doesn’t function in the same way, except for one key section of the piece, where the Gadd beat comes in.
GC: That Lizée is such a phenomenal piece.
CS: Absolutely. It’s also deceptively difficult. My friend Ben Reimer, who commissioned it along with many of Lizée’s recent pieces for drum set , does such an amazing job. His reading of the piece is so good it’s almost silly for me to be playing it. I’m not a hardened drum set player, though I know my way around one well enough…
GC: EIGHTOH8 also utilizes a drum set.
CS: Yes, but in a totally different way. In David’s piece the drum set writing is like a kid at a really trashy Roland TR-808 or Casio keyboard playing around with the drum sample bank. David and I think of this piece as midi music for acoustic instruments, so both Danny and I have to roll or clump an impossible amount of notes into single impulses. The piece is structured as a gradual build up and cool down, so around the middle when we reach maximum saturation of stylistic material it becomes a real cluster****!
GC: Let’s get personal. How long have you two actually been playing together? It goes back a while, doesn’t it? Any funny anecdotes along the way?
CS: We started playing together in 2010, so eight years ago. Our first project was Stockhausen's duo Nasenflügeltanz for singing drum set player, synthesizer keyboards, and samples. It was a super ambitious project and we had to build everything from scratch - David Bird actually helped with sample patch building, and was changing the orchestration for Danny's synths during the concert. I had no idea what I was doing, but Danny showed up to a few rehearsals and just nailed it. I think the funniest experience we ever had, though, was a project where we travelled with 6 or 7 other musicians to Detroit, MI and played a concert in an extremely expensive and large Persian Rug outlet. We were playing very heavy mid 20th-century atonal music, and we were preceded by a wonderfully upbeat children's chorus from the inner city, and nobody understood what was happening or why.
DW: I still don’t understand what was happening or why. Looking back, Nasenflügeltanz was a great way to start our musical relationship, and it would be a great way to go out when we’re older - a fiery blaze of synthesized glory. That was when I first had the pleasure of hearing Christian’s singing voice. NA-SEN-FLÜ-GEL-TANZ! HOO! HOO! HOO! HOO! Unfortunately there’s no singing on this program, but maybe we can arrange for a surprise encore.
No encore necessary. To get you in the mood for our upcoming concerts we've unearthed a video of that 2010 performance, an absolute must see rendition of Nasenflügeltanz (things get particularly crazy around the 6'30" mark). One can only hope these two musicians keep on collaborating for many years to come.