From the archives: Pianism

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Home rows, tone rows, and the lost Dvorak études

Saturday, 23 July 2011 — 10:12am | Classical, Computing, Music, Pianism

I’ve been aware of the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard for a long time, but only in the past few days have I decided to try the layout for myself. Like any cognitive realignment pushing against the momentum of a lifelong habit, the initial adjustment process has been slow and occasionally punishing. When you are acccustomed to the fluidity of the keyboard as an invisible extension of the mind, it’s terrifying to find it amputated and clumsily reattached. I expect this overwhelming self-consciousness to be the norm someday when future generations willingly trade in their limbs for more dynamic cyborg substitutes.

Up to now, the closest I’ve come to this awkward stumbling was when I attempted to train my left-hand dexterity on Charlie Parker melodies I would normally play with my right. A kind of impotence, really: I was willing myself to do things that I was used to executing at dizzying velocities with ease, but my body just wouldn’t respond. The trick, I discovered, is to force yourself to slow down, clean up the suddenly naked particulars, and not rely so much on your established ‘chunks’ of muscle memory. My left hand is still a shambles, mind you, but as the lesser automaton it invents the more colourful passages.

That’s why I’m still plugging away in Dvorak. It may be slow-going at first—this post you are reading now is taking an eternity to punch in—but within minutes of playing with it, you begin to perceive all sorts of qualitative pleasures that simply don’t exist in QWERTY-land. It’s like switching to an Apple Macintosh, complete with the moment of epiphany where the cultishness of the already indoctrinated looks reasonable all of a sudden. (Or so I’ve heard. Having been a Mac user on and off since the age of five, I can’t really say.)

Continued »

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Suggested reading, immemorial edition

Thursday, 24 June 2010 — 3:30am | Animation, Assorted links, Computing, Film, Game music, Jazz, Journalism, Mathematics, Music, Pianism, Video games

I’ve been neglecting this space for over two months. Unfortunately for my capacity to keep up with the world in written words, they have been two very interesting months. Had I posted a bag of links on a weekly basis—and this is already the laziest of projects, the most modest of ambitions I have ever had for this journal—the entries for the latter half of April and the first half of May could have been expended entirely on the British general election (with an inset for Thailand’s redshirt revolt) and still failed to capture the play-by-play thrills on the ground.

Somewhere along the way, I penned a dissertation of sorts, but let’s not talk about that. Here is the crust of readings that has built up in the meantime. There are more, but the list below was becoming rather overgrown and at some point I had to stop.

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Suggested reading, recollected edition

Monday, 8 March 2010 — 12:01pm | Assorted links, Classical, Computing, Harry Potter, Hockey, Literature, Music, Pianism, Science, Video games

Fall away from the Internet for a week or two and the Internet falls on you. Here’s some of what I saw when I succumbed to its gelatinous reach:

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You’ll know the real thing when you hear it

Monday, 6 July 2009 — 9:16pm | Jazz, Music, Pianism

Kenny Werner performed in Edmonton on Thursday with his touring quintet (Randy Brecker (trumpet), David Sanchez (tenor sax), Scott Colley (bass), Antonio Sanchez (drums)). I am pleased to say it was one of the most complete jazz concerts I’ve seen, full of vitality and character at every turn.

Let me put it this way. After Werner whistled along to his own piano outro at the tail end of his lovely, lovely composition, “Uncovered Heart”—which he introduced as the song he wrote on the day his daughter was born—my classical composer companion leaned over to me and whispered, “So I’ve decided on his behalf that he is going to have more children.”

In retrospect, were we unable to plead ignorance it would have been a callous remark. What Mr Werner did not tell us was that his beloved daughter had perished in a car accident two years earlier. I suppose he trusted the music to speak for itself—and it did.

The band played a set consisting mostly of originals from his 2007 album Lawn Chair Society (“New Amsterdam”, “Uncovered Heart”, “The 13th Day”), but in a wholly acoustic setting, plus an unrecorded tune (“Balloons”, a lilting piece that bobbed up and down in thirds) and John Williams’ signature melody for the Harry Potter films (“Hedwig’s Theme”).

One can go on forever about how jazz is the quintessentially American music, and nowhere is it more American than in its ideal of individual liberty as the wellspring of greater collective achievement. This was one of those bands where every musician was consistently interesting to listen to, yet never selfish. Brecker’s dizzying bebop lines were an ample foil for David Sanchez’s wide expressive sweeps, and Antonio Sanchez was a real listener who clearly thought in ideas much bigger than patterns and strokes. Colley was a discovery for me, particularly the way he used pizzicato bass to trace smooth legato shapes and do far more than walk. And of Werner’s facility for drawing singsong melodies out of the piano, the more said the better. Elsewhere he cites Joni Mitchell as his primary musical influence, and I believe him.

Werner’s quintet was current, situated in the here and now and doing something fresh, while staying within an accessible jazz aesthetic with traditional instrumentation. The funk-and-swing pastiche of “New Amsterdam” highlighted the continued richness of acoustic instruments in predominantly electric forms, and the screaming intensity of “Hedwig’s Theme” harked back, however distantly, to what John Coltrane did to “My Favorite Things” decades ago. (I don’t hear nearly enough John Williams in jazz: up to the 1960s the adaptation of iconic themes from contemporary cinema and Broadway productions was a matter of course, and one would think that Williams, the definitive composer of film music from 1970 to present, would elicit more widespread treatment.)

There’s plenty of good jazz in the world. But great jazz? You’ll know it when you hear it—and I heard it.

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Hiromi and the hypercube

Friday, 26 June 2009 — 5:39pm | Jazz, Music, Pianism

Here is a rough approximation of what I saw at the Calgary Jazz Festival on Wednesday.

That was the ever-theatrical Hiromi Uehara playing the prototypical Gershwin bop standard, “I Got Rhythm”—and boy, does she ever—which she introduced in Calgary as a tribute to her “superhero” (and every other pianist’s), Oscar Peterson.

This is the odd thing about attending jazz concerts in the age of YouTube: you can go home and compare notes with the performer’s previous appearances. In a genre so reliant on improvisation, one of the most tantalizing mysteries in a concert setting is to sort out the spontaneous invention from the premeditated conspiracy of the arrangement. The magic of a great jazz band is that often, you can’t tell—and certainly not from one performance alone. Jazz collectors treasure alternate takes for precisely this reason. The only thing as surprising as the prevalence of well-practiced licks is the astounding synchronicity of a band’s adventures into the unplanned. So the experience of seeing a ghostly resemblance of what you just saw on stage squeezed into a browser window with lo-fi audio is, well, uncanny.

I also feel compelled to add that the performance approximated by the video above is about as representative of the rest of the concert as a musical photo negative. In other words, for the rest of their time onstage, Hiromi’s Sonicbloom (with Tony Grey on bass, Martin Valihora on drums, and David Fiuczynski on a double-necked guitar), playing selections from their 2007 album Time Control alongside standards like “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise”, “Ue wo muite arukuo” (“Sukiyaki”), and “Caravan”, sounded like anything and everything but Oscar Peterson.

Most instrumentalists can be said to trace a glutinous outline of all their forebears in varying concentrations. But Hiromi isn’t every jazz piano style rolled into one: she’s any jazz piano style at discrete pockets of time. She’ll stride into the scene like Erroll Garner, let the grand piano ring over a melodious staircase of Kenny Barron intervals, take a Chick Corea minute to sing and sob on all her pads at once, launch into a Herbie Hancock space-age funk, and top it off a dash of Ahmad Jamal’s crispy blues—sometimes all in the same suite, and with the sporadic slam of the fists or forearm on the keys to make sure you’re paying attention.

I would not call this “seamless”, a word that implies the continuity of a polynomial. The transitions are abrupt, the stylistic lineages unmistakable. Listening to Hiromi is like witnessing a cubist tour of jazz and rock piano with the edges sharpened and the innards bursting out of frame. And while I’m admittedly not too fluent with the evolutionary histories of the other instruments, I get the distinct sense that her bandmates are doing the same, pushing their axes to the limits of their prog-rock vocabulary.

As exciting as it is to listen to musicians who grew up on everything and decided to play it all, one has to wonder if there’s anywhere to go next. If the contemporary style is a collision of styles, where do we go from here? Collisions within collisions, or somewhere else? A sonic bloom, indeed.

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