Hailed in New York as “brilliant and searching… beautiful and impassioned… lustrous at the keyboard” (New York Times) pianist Lisa Moore’s performances combine music and theatre with expressive and emotional power whether in the delivery of the simplest song, a solo recital or a fiendish chamber score. In August Lisa will visit ANAM for a two-week residency culminating in two concerts celebrating old and new American repertoire. The concerts will challenge the traditions of classical performance presentation and production featuring works such as Copland’s Sextet, Cages’ Living Room Music and Reich’s Six Pianos. Lisa talked to ANAM about the challenges and rewards of presenting repertoire for the unusual ensemble of six pianos:
In the summer of 2010 I recorded my lips from speaking for six pianos. It’s a funky blues piece based on the Aretha Franklin hit song Think. It was composed by Julia Wolfe, (co-director of Bang On A Can), in 1993 for the UK-based piano sextet Piano Circus. Rather than hire six pianos and six pianists, Julia hired me, solo, to record all six parts at the Looking Glass studios on lower Broadway in Manhattan. She also hired the brilliant Michael Reisman as producer and engineer. Reisman is the pianist, producer and recording engineer for Philip Glass’ ensemble and record label. At this recording session I first experienced ‘editing as you go’ – Reisman’s renowned recording technique (that’s especially effective for editing Glass’ music). You ‘do a take’, play the music as far as you can without an error and then back up slightly and edit right there, immediately. There are no long full takes and no coming back months later to tediously select and paste edits together. I recorded each part separately and Reisman mixed them together to make the sextet complete. It took about six hours from start to finish and I left with the completed recording in hand – all done, like magic.
A year later, in 2011, my lips from speaking finally came out on a Cantaloupe Music CD called Dark Full Ride (www.cantaloupemusic.com). Julia wanted to celebrate the CD release so she asked me to form a piano sextet for a disc launch party at Faust Harrison Pianos on W58th St (aka as ‘Piano Row’) in New York City. The shop floor displayed dozens of pianos so it was the perfect venue to present a piano sextet – no piano renting and no piano moving. I called five of my favourite freelance pianist friends and we threw a piece together in one rehearsal, conducted by the young composer Samuel Carl Adams (composer John Adams’ son). The piece begins with small fragments of musical licks and extended anticipatory rests, slowly building and eventually exploding into a rock ‘n’ roll finale (we’ve since eliminated the need for a conductor, replacing him/her with a click track). The group had a ball at the launch, playing together, drinking wine with the audience, and yet at the end of the day we thought “well, that was fun, see you later, gotta run to my next thing”.
It was not long after that some of us chatted about doing another concert. We proposed playing in the 2012 Bang on a Can Marathon (an annual summer 12-hour free music event in NYC) at the World Financial Centre (WFC) Winter Garden, steps from Ground Zero. Bang on a Can said “yes” and wanted my lips from speaking plus Steve Reich’s Six Pianos, a classic early Minimalist work (first performed by Reich’s group at another NYC piano shop back in the 1970’s). We decided to change three of the players for logistical and geographical reasons. I then instantly created our name Grand Band.
With the Sunday afternoon sun streaming through the WFC Winter Garden skylight my lips from speaking rocked the Bang on a Can Marathon with a full house. Later that night we closed the 12-hour show with Six Pianos. We were a hit. After 20 minutes of pulsing piano sextet trance-bliss swirling around that cavernous acoustic, thousands of people rose to a standing ovation. It was thrilling! From that moment on Grand Band (www.grandbandnyc.com) was officially launched.
Backstage that night we decided to do another summer show, this time on keyboards, at (Le) Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village. The next day The New York Times wrote: “I had never before contemplated New York culture’s decided lack of supergroups, but Grand Band is verily — and I don’t say this lightly — the Traveling Wilburys of the city’s new-music piano scene”.
Since then we have been lucky to find sympathetic presenters and gigs at the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, the Rite of Summer NY Festival and the Detroit Institute of the Arts. This November we’re even touring to the UK. However impractical and uneconomical this sextet is, we overlook obstacles and add Grand Band to our list of endeavours – tying yet another string to our freelance bows.
We grew into a group. Since that 2012 Marathon we’ve kept the group’s membership stable. Rhythmically we’re all on the same page. There’s rarely a doubt as to where ‘the pocket’ is. This rhythmic element alone eases rehearsals and creates a dynamic band force. Yet piano sextets present certain logistical challenges. Like, where does one rehearse? Piano stores have customers dropping in to browse and play but sales people are not thrilled to have sextets rehearse after hours. We have been lucky enough to have Steinway and Sons help us by providing instruments and space. Up until this month we rehearsed in the famous ‘basement’ of Steinway on West 57th St where portraits of Horowitz, Arrau, Billy Joel, Liszt and Chopin adorn the upstairs walls of the rotunda showroom. It was a building filled with the legendary ghosts of pianists.
Down in the basement hundreds of instruments lay waiting to be prepped for concerts or sale. Traditionally, after 6pm each day, Steinway concert artists booked the basement for solo practice. Yet tragically the entire building was recently sold to become another hotel. (The new Steinway showroom will eventually open on 6th Ave and 42nd St). So, this week Grand Band will move and rehearse (for the 2015 Bang on a Can Marathon) at the historic Steinway factory in Queens. Not too shabby! We’ll ride out on the Q subway to the last stop “One Steinway Place” – where a gigantic classic 19th Century factory covers a full city block, producing the world’s greatest pianos.
Piano sextet repertoire is not something you just pick up at your local music store. Even though we’re constantly on the hunt for works to adapt or borrow (something other than the William Tell Overture) this group of multiples cries out for something new and experimental. So Grand Band has shared works from Piano Circus’ repertoire and also commissioned new works by living, breathing, established and emerging composers. New commissioned works include Michael Gordon’s remarkably titled Ode to la Bruja, Hanon, Czerny, Van Cliburn and the little gold stars…(or To Everyone Who Made My Life Miserable, Thank You), Paul Kerekes’ wither-bloom and Ben Wallace’s A Road You Can Go On. Other works we perform are by Simeon ten Holt, Philip Glass, David Lang, John Metcalf, Kate Moore, Kevin Volans and of course, Julia Wolfe.
In terms of instruments obviously pianists prefer playing on the real deal – grand pianos – but to maintain flexibility and survive we’re prepared to perform on keyboards (although some composers say flat-out “no” to the keyboard option) and we’ve even considered uprights (but have yet to figure out good sightlines). So, thinking outside the box we also asked ourselves “what if we can’t get six pianos at a gig? Let’s devise a program of pieces for Grand Band but on smaller keyboard instruments”. Ben Wallace’s piece A Road You Can Go On is an experiment in this deliberate downsizing from multiple grands. It is scored for two toy pianos, three melodicas, keytar, one keyboard and small percussion (triangle, woodblock, maracas). It’s a brilliant, frighteningly fast frolic based on Mario Kart’s video game music.
It’s been odd, amusing and affirming working with five other pianists in a chamber music setting – a rarity given pianists play 99% solo or with different instruments. Piano sextets allow pianists to share specific piano problems and sometimes to have a laugh discovering similar neurotic keyboard OCD behaviours. Mostly ensemble conflict lies within questions of seeing and hearing each other. It’s hard to distinguish who’s mucking up in this often-monochrome texture! We discuss whether we need click tracks, fold-back monitors and amplification, or whether we can work acoustically and as traditional musicians – listening and cueing. The latter method saves money, tech and delicate eardrums. Sometimes we discuss whether we should sit in a circle, semi-circle, tucked into each other’s piano bellies or explore other creative stage plots. These details usually work themselves out… or not – but at the end of the day we make a large, robust sound… warm and full like a fine, rounded Barolo. We fill any acoustic situation with natural six-plus-channel stereo waves.
I’m dying to return to Australia this August – especially with two weeks in residence at ANAM! They have moved hell and high water to get six pianos into the South Melbourne Town Hall so that we, a new band of grands, can form. In addition to multiple pianos, percussionists and instrumentalists will also join forces for two roof-raising shows of American music composed by Adams, Bresnick, Cage, Copland, Gordon, Lang, Reich and Rzewski.
Tuesday 18 August, 11am
CAGE Living Room Music for Percussion and Speech Quartet
LANG Face So Pale for 6 pianos
RZEWSKI Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues (North American Ballads no. 4)
REICH 6 Pianos
Lisa Moore, piano
Timothy Young, piano
Saturday 22 August, 7pm
COPLAND Sextet for Clarinet, String Quartet and Piano
BRESNICK My Twentieth Century
ADAMS Hallelujah Junction for 2 pianos, 4 hands
GORDON Ode to La Bruja etc.
Lisa Moore, piano
Timothy Young, piano
ANAM, South Melbourne Town Hall
210 Bank Street, South Melbourne
Lisa Moore’s 2015 ANAM residency is generously supported by Arnold and Mary Bram
For more information please see anam.com.au