Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Beats the hell out of the MIDI

Vermonters. We're stoic.

"Stoic". I don't get to use that many words where the "oi" is pronounced like that, and two syllables. Why, bejeezum crow, it's like the "oe" in "poet". But surely digressing is being done, and by me.

Vermonters. Stoic.

I haven't officially been a Vermonter since 1976, but even though it's easy to get rid of the accent (loike, droi, kay-e-ah-ooh) the stoicity within remains.

An oft-told joke in these parts has to do with Mark Twain giving a humorous lecture in a Vermont town to a sea of stone-cold frowns. Getting nowhere, he cut the lecture short, changed clothes, and slipped into the crowd afterwards, incognito. Where he heard one of the audience say, "Wa'n't he funny. Wa'n't he funny! I had ever'thin' I could do t' keep fr'm laughin'!"

I'm typing this in Vermont, where Beff 'n' I have been for a few weeks. Yesterday I got to experience hundreds of miles of non-interstate roads in Vermont, and for a good cause.

But first let me backtrack. Backtracking will be done by me. Vermonters love the passive voice. "Time f' th' milkin' 'f th' kay-e-ah-ohhs t' be done by me."

Well, maybe not.

Backtracking, though. I'm all over it like a cheap suit.

So last fall I got an e-mail from I-Chen Yeh, a graduate student in the contemporary performance DMA at Bowling Green State University. She said she was writing her dissertation on my piano études, and would it be okay to do an interview. Yes, I replied. I was stoic.

Wait. A dissertation. On me? Jeezum crow. Am I the kind of guy about whom dissertations are written? Well, I know I-Chen's answer.

I-Chen suggested an in person interview, and in early March she flew in from Ohio, and we met at my place of employment. Last minute, she also revealed that she had learned five toods and wanted me to coach her. Cool. Wow.

Wait. I'm the kind of guy about whom dissertations are written? Wow.

I-Chen said she was coming with "my boyfriend Karl", also in the contemporary performance program. And also a pianist. We met up in Slosberg Hall, and Karl's function was exclusively the media guy. He pointed a video camera for the coaching, recorded the interview, and when I-Chen played the toods, he turned pages.

I thought her playing was marvelous, even transcendent. I kept inviting our senior administrator Mark in to watch her play. And with her permission, I Flip-videoed and YouTubed her. Here she is in my C minor prelude ripoff, with Karl turning pages.

Since our interview, lunch, and tourlet of the Maynard area, I've been in touch with various notes about the ideas behind the études that she may find interesting. And meanwhile, I liked her playing so much that I suggested she suggest (to suggest one suggest is not in the passive voice, but it will do) — that is, suggesting was done by me that suggesting could be done by her for a custom-made étude. Doing that was done by her, and writing her a tood on her premise was done by me.

I-Chen also had with her all nine existing Peters étude books. Which impressed the heck out of me, since I hadn't even gotten a copy of Book IX from the publisher yet.

I-Chen is special.

I'm not.

Being impressed soon melted into being hurt. As I autographed all nine books, with lengthy tributes, frequently stopping to shake my hand and say, in as subtle way as possible, "Ow".

Offhandedly, I-Chen told me last month that Karl — the point-the-microphone guy — was going to be a Fellow at the Bang on a Can Summer Institute at the Mass MOCA, and he was learning two as-yet-unperformed toods. Nice. I invited both of them to visit in Vermont, should the timing work.

Last week Karl e-mailed that he was going to perform the two toods on an afternoon concert at the Institute. I said we had company and I probably couldn't make it. But étude premieres! Movies for YouTube! Cheap suit. Oh — I didn't bring the Flip Video to Vermont. Oh! But the iPod nano takes video. Ooh! Ooh!

Scheming was done by me.

Google Maps calculated my drive to North Adams — being that it was non-interstate and secondary roads — at 3 hours 37 minutes. So I followed Route 7 through its winding trajectory and its many towns with town greens and gazebos (gazebi?), and experienced a lovely 20 minute construction delay — some of which could be observed by those so delayed, as five or six people held traffic still in both directions while the placement of a single construction barrel was debated. During this time, stoicity was not much in evidence from those whose vehicles were not moving.

Anyway. I made it to the Mass MOCA in time to meet Karl and hear the two toods, both of them slightly more than two years old, and which so far had only existed on my computer in MIDI realizations. While the concert was being set up, I took out the nano and filmed away. Filming away was being done by me. The piano was in one of many large wood-floored galleries, with a large sculpture at one end, and a set of paintings framing the other.

Of course, there wasn't time to do a lot of commentary or coaching. We only had ten or fifteen minutes, as a large ensemble piece was also being set up. And when he played, here's what happened.

Understand that in both of these cases, while I held the iPod nano as still as I could, that I was hearing a physical manifestation of 2-year-old pieces for the first time. Karl's playing was, of course (hence these videos) fantastic. And my pieces sounded amazing. They were interpreted, they had flawless technique, and they were so much better than the MIDI.

What would I have said about these pieces before I heard them performed? Ah, well, What's Hairpinning I wrote when it was warm in April, and Verizon FIOS people came to my house to get me to switch. I did. And, uh, Diminishing Return was the first thing I wrote at my residency at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation (uh, I had a residency at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation), when I had to write a big piece "responding to jazz" and I didn't have any ideas yet. No ideas were yet had, by me.

And now? These two toods are kickass. Karl is The Man.

Karl asked me for suggestions. I said, "They sound great. Exactly what I was thinking". The part I left out was, "You, sir, seem to be a God of the piano." That was me being stoic.

And meanwhile, an onlooker/onlistener came up to me after the runthrough of Hairpinning to comment on the D's, and the "Scriabin chord."

So the concert actually happened in two locations of the museum. A solo cello piece and a solo glockenspiel piece were performed, contextualized in a very large gallery displaying a sculpture made of long nylon strings arc'ed and specially lit. Then the concert moved to the smaller gallery, where Karl introduced my pieces, introduced me (I had to make note that this was a world premiere), and the concert ended with three iterations of a very short John Zorn piece for large ensemble.

All in all a great concert, great performances.

Followed by the drive back, using a different route — not involving construction delays — which took 3 hours 37 minutes. And, of course, the immediate YouTubing of the two new toods.

They seem not to suck.

Wait. People are writing dissertations on me?