Pianist, composer, teacher, theorist, writer, festival organizer, man-of-many-nouns-used-as-modifiers Aron Kallay has a concert this Saturday at Beyond Baroque, and it sounds just awesome. For this closing event of Microfest, of which Aron is the assistant director, he’s commissioned a bunch of composers to reimagine what can be done with a piano. With all that this guy does, I’m lucky that he had a moment to talk about the project. See you there.
Let’s get right down to business: you commissioned works for piano using two ground rules, 1) re-tune the keyboard, pretty much in any way imaginable, and 2) re-map the keyboard. How have the composers you’ve commissioned responded to or interpreted these guidelines?
It’s been fascinating, to say the least. I deliberately chose composers for this project whose music I really liked. I wasn’t looking to commission “microtonal” composers, necessarily, but rather composers who I knew would take on the challenge of exploring alternate tunings. For many of them, like Tom Flaherty, this was their very first excursion into the microtonal world, and the results have been nothing short of stunning. Some of them divided the octave into many more than twelve steps. Kyle Gann’s Every Something is an Echo of Nothing, for example, has thirty, and they are all out of order! Other composers went back in time to find their tuning. John Schneider goes all the way back to Pythagoras, basing his tuning on a string of pure fifths. The most novel approach, however, goes to Brian Shepard. He started with the most basic of scales, the pentatonic, and created something so vertiginous that it needs to be experienced to be understood.
What sparked your interest in microtonal music? It seems like a bit of a surprise move for a pianist…but perhaps that’s why it’s working so well.
Ah… it was a surprise move for a pianist, before the advent of physical modeling software and really fast computers. The problem with microtonal music for an acoustic piano is that the number of pieces that can be performed on a given concert is directly related to the number of pianos in the hall. There are an infinite number of tunings available to composers and they rarely choose the same one for each piece. Add to that the complication that pianos don’t like to be retuned, and we have a problem. Often, it takes five tunings to get a piano to hold its pitch, even for something relatively straight forward like lowering the instrument a quartertone. The software I’ll use for this concert (pianoteq) models all of the intricacies of the piano while taking the new tuning into account (how the sound board reacts, sympathetic vibrations, key noise, etc…). The result is something not entirely unlike a retuned acoustic piano. In fact, it’s pretty darn close to the real thing.
As far as who sparked my interest in microtonal music, that’s easy… It was Professor Bob Moore at USC. He is one of the great unsung new music heros of Los Angles. I took two years of his 20th/21st century music theory class while working on my doctorate. He would often start lectures with something like: “One day, I was sitting at the bar with Takemitsu talking about X when Morton Feldmen walked in all mad about Y, and you won’t believe what Bernstein had to say on the subject.” This was a great class… When he played Ben Johnston’s Amazing Grace quartet for us, I was sold.
You’re also known for your work in combining acoustic instruments with electronics. Could you talk a bit about the challenges of both composing and performing in this medium? I ask partially out of self interest, as I’m writing a piece for guitar and field recordings and finding it extremely hard to make the two work together, as opposed to sounding merely juxtaposed on top of one another.
It’s funny to think that I’m known for anything at this point of my career, but thanks for the ego boost!
Not to avoid your question here, but I think that it really comes down to style vs. substance, to steal from Charles Ives. The great monuments of the electroacoustic literature, Stockhausen’s Kontakte, Babbitt’s Philomel, any of Davidovsky’s Synchronisms, for example, work not necessarily because the electronics are integrated with the live instrument, but because of the depth of meaning in the musical material. In other words, the electronics were never conceived of as separate from the acoustic part, they were necessary to the composer’s vision.
Of course, there are tricks that performers can use to help the composer out… Speaker placement, sound projection of the live instrument, effects, etc…
You’ve certainly covered a lot of musical bases around LA – composing, performing, teaching, running a festival, co-directing an ensemble of sorts…do you view aspects of our scene differently when you approach them from different perspectives? Or are there things that you’ve found to be true no matter what role you’re playing?
It’s interesting, and this is something that I think about all the time: the creative precess is pretty much the same for me regardless of the medium. If I’m curating a concert for MicroFest, I come up with a vision, or allow the music to dictate the vision to me, and try to shape a program that will fulfill that vision. The vision can be narrative or abstract, or a combination of the two, depending on the material. The result is like a meta composition–a symphony in several acts to hopefully be experienced as a whole by the audience. Whether or not I’m successful is actually beside the point. If the process is sound and I’ve created something that is true to the vision, people will come, and if they don’t, well, then I need to find a new profession.
The same is true when I wear my performer’s hat. I need a vision, and I need to be true to that vision, regardless of the dictates of “tradition” or “performance practice” or even what the composer is asking for in the score. If I don’t own that piece of music on the stage, then no one will be happy, not me, not the composer, and certainly not the audience!
What’s the most fun for me is something like Beyond Twelve, where I get to produce, curate, commission, promote, and perform. It’s difficult to wear so many hats at once, but talk about owning an event! And, even if it falls flat and there are ten people in the audience, at least I’ve helped to create new microtonal repertoire, which really is the point in the end.
What’s your favorite thing about new music in LA?
The abundance of amazing performers in this city. I’m not sure if it’s having the studios or institutions like USC and the LA Phil or the weather, but I’d put our musicians up against those from any city–any day of the week.
And your least favorite, or something you’d like to see change?
We need a more geographically contained city, or a transporter like they have on Star Trek! The only thing new music has going for it in places like New York is that everything there is closer together.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Nope! Time to get back to practicing!
Info about this Saturday’s show is available at beyondbaroque.org/events.html. Learn more about Aron and his projects at AronKallay.com and MicroFest.org.