‘She trusted me’: When a decades-long secret is shared between two friends
April 28, 2023
This story is part of the April 29 Edition of Good Weekend.
A passionate love of music and shared secrets has cultivated a rich friendship of more than 40 years between New York-based concert pianist Lisa Moore, 62, and Sydney composer Elena Kats-Chernin, 65.
Lisa: Elena and I were students at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music when we met in 1978. Sydney was like a sleepy country town back then. I was struck by Elena because she was just so alive. She’d arrived from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, with her family when she was 19; she had all this hair, wore capes and had an intensely European air about her. We’d drink espressos and smoke cigarettes in Piccolo Bar at Kings Cross, talking incessantly about great composers. Neither of us was interested in teaching beginners in the suburbs.
Elena’s talent and modesty irritated me a bit. But she had been supporting her family by playing the piano for dance classes from age 12. She already had this incredible work ethic.
In 1980, after our degrees, we went our separate ways. I went to New York and she went to Germany and had three children. Phone calls were expensive back then and neither of us had time to write letters, but we heard about each other’s work. She was making a name for herself as one of Australia’s most successful composers. [Kats-Chernin has written several operas, two piano concertos and compositions for many performers and ensembles, including the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.]
We reconnected, as colleagues and friends, 14 years later [in 1994] back in Australia. The old chemistry was still there. She confided that her 14-year-old son, Sanya, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. This was devastating for Elena, but she just kept going. I’d go over to her place in Coogee and in between composing on the piano she’d be making lamb cutlets for the kids. There was no ivory tower.
Elena has this enormous heart with room for so many people. I can tell her anything because she doesn’t sit in judgment. When, in 1994, I reunited with my daughter Emma, whom I’d given up for adoption when I was a year 12 teenager in Canberra in 1977, Elena was the first person I told outside my family. It was difficult for me to even get the words out.
“It’s not possessions that are important, but what you create for others to enjoy after you’ve gone – and whether you’ve been a good friend. ”
“It’s not possessions that are important, but what you create for others to enjoy after you’ve gone – and whether you’ve been a good friend. ”
My family was upset, but Elena just got it. I told her that for the last three months of the pregnancy, I stayed in my bedroom. My parents moved in an upright piano and I practised and practised and practised. In 1977, the same year Emma was born, I auditioned at the Con and was accepted. It was a gift.
‘Our relationship is almost an intuitive one these days. We only have to say a few words to understand all the emotions involved.’
Elena just listened. Like me, she has a strong survival instinct. She understood that giving up Emma was what I’d needed to do to keep going. When I told her we’d reunited, she just said, “Oh, how wonderful for you both!” She met Emma shortly afterwards and embraced her, too. When you release a secret like that, all of you is freed.
Elena came to visit me in New York once and I’ll never forget seeing the city through her eyes. She couldn’t work out how to use the revolving doors in all the apartment buildings and kept calling them revolting doors. That childlike quality is what makes her so good at what she does and keeps our friendship fresh.
Elena: I kept bumping into Lisa when we were music students. We both had lots and lots of friends. I loved her shock of blonde hair, her huge, beautiful eyes and her energy and gusto. I found it hard to understand the Australian accent, but I liked talking to Lisa because she had this beautiful, clear voice and was so articulate and engaging. We lost touch completely after our studies; our true friendship didn’t really begin until the ’90s, when we were both back in Australia again and working together.
Like a lot of people, I was in awe of her formidable talent [Moore plays with Philip Glass, the London Sinfonietta and the New York City Ballet]. She is feisty and works like a steam train but, on stage, has this vulnerability and fragility. You need both to be a performer: you’ve got to give something of yourself to the audience, to infuse the music with something.
She’s complex, too. We’d been friends for a long time and then one day in 1994, when I was about to pick her up from her hotel for a performance, she said, “Oh, just a minute, I’ve got to call my daughter, Emma.” And I said, “Excuse me?” And she said, “It’s a long story.”
I was really touched that she trusted me enough to share this secret she’d been nursing for so long. My heart completely went out to her. The yearning to meet her daughter had been so strong. They’d both been searching for each other and were both so thrilled to have each other in their lives. The next thing I knew, I was meeting Emma, too. It was so moving to see them so engaged with each other. It was as if they’d never been apart.
Lisa was really there for me when one of my sons became sick. I was in a terrible state and couldn’t work. It felt like a betrayal to concentrate on anything other than him, but she gently encouraged me to keep composing. She knew it was my lifeblood and suggested I write a piece about him [Get Well Rag]. She helped me just put one foot in front of the other. I don’t know if I’ve ever told her that.
Our relationship is almost an intuitive one these days. We seem to have a shorthand: we only have to say a few words to understand all the emotions involved. I wrote a piano concerto for her called Force Majeure, which premiered at the Sydney Conservatorium last November. [Moore and Kats-Chernin received a standing ovation.] The longer I live, the more I realise that it’s not possessions that are important, but what you create for others to enjoy after you’ve gone – and whether you’ve been a good friend.
I wish Lisa lived in Sydney: she has this energy that always makes me feel so uplifted. She was in Rome recently and sent me a photo of her enjoying a coffee in a beautiful courtyard. That’s Lisa. She has this brilliant knack of keeping us connected no matter how far away from each other we are.
On the political front, he tended to walk the walk — whether writing a series of variations based on a Chilean workers’ anthem (in “The People United Will Never Be Defeated”), or undermining the high-toned trappings of contemporary classical culture by playing at a fish market. He also distributed his scores online, free for any player to peruse.
He could also be harsh and exacting in his artistic judgments. But one thing Rzewski wasn’t known for were capital-R Romantic gestures. So when the pianist Lisa Moore introduced one of Rzewski’s final pieces at a Bang on the Can festival at Mass MoCA last year, murmurs of surprise were audible in the crowd as she related that the work was a 60th birthday gift — one commissioned from Rzewski by Moore’s husband, the composer and educator Martin Bresnick. (Bresnick has also mentored multiple artists in the Bang on a Can universe.)
Asking this artist to write something for your wife’s birthday? Risky (if inspired). Yet as Moore proceeded to play the 15-minute “Amoramaro,” it all started to make sense. There were prickly, modernist shards familiar from other Rzewski pieces, though also darts of disarming warmth. Reviewing that premiere, I wrote that the composition deserved an official recording from Moore.
“It’s like an old man looking back over his musical life,” Moore said of “Amoramaro,” in a phone interview from her home in New Haven, Conn. That musical range of reference includes backward glances at motifs from earlier efforts, as well as what Moore calls “sort of Beethovian quotes.” Also present, to my ear, in the aesthetic mixing bowl: Rzewski’s youthful experience as an early interpreter of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s experimental piano music.
The lushness of some of its chords, though, is what strikes me most forcefully on repeat listens. And that’s thanks in part to Moore’s overall approach to Rzewski, which often allows for a greater range of emotion than other interpreters permit, including the composer.
Moore, however, said Rzewski’s instructions at the top of his handwritten score were frank about the degree of freedom others could bring to the music: “Love has no laws; therefore dynamics, rhythms, anything can be changed at will!”
“He had a very free attitude in that way,” Moore said in the interview. (She knows from experience, having played Rzewski’s music in front of him, as a member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, in the early 1990s.)
In an interview, Bresnick described an extensive and enjoyable back-and-forth with Rzewski during the drafting process, including about what kind of ending the piece should have. “I’m a composer too — and I was surprised that he wanted such a thing,” Bresnick said. “I wanted to say something but I didn’t want to overdetermine it, so I finally said to him: There are endings in Chekhov and other great writers where it’s the end of the story but we know that the story goes on.”
For Bresnick, the composer’s solution is particularly pleasing. “It is an ending, but it is not ‘the end.’”
When playing her 60th birthday present, Moore found herself luxuriating in Rzewski’s invitation to change dynamics and rhythms “at will.” “If you let things resolve, if you let the harmonies really sit, the next harmony that comes in so often is something that changes like a kaleidoscope,” she said. “It’s just shifting and changing the mode. It’s really, really clever.”
There’s something similarly clever about the balance of Moore’s new album. The title track, “No Place to Go but Around,” is an expansive, early Rzewski effort, from 1974 (right before “The People United”). The only other official recording is Rzewski’s — available on an obscure vinyl release from the late-70s.
On that LP, Rzewski’s composition shared space with his interpretations of piano works by Hanns Eisler and Anthony Braxton. While the composer’s version of “No Place to Go” offered some stark interpolations of the Italian labor movement song “Bandiera Rossa” — another political reference — Moore’s rendition truly lets that borrowed tune spill forth, toward the end of the 12th minute.
Moore said that her take was a considered attempt to underline the composition’s beauty, adding: “I also want people to be invited in and not pushed away.”
That inviting quality of Moore’s album extends to her latest performance of “Coming Together,” one of Rzewski’s most well-known contributions to the modern repertoire. Its text comes from a letter by the Attica prison uprising leader Sam Melville. But unlike some ceaselessly galvanic performances of this Minimalist-tinged composition, Moore’s solo voice-and-piano approach takes dramatic notice of references to lovers’ “emotions in times of crisis” that are present in the literary source material. (Moore is a practiced hand at Rzewski’s work for singing — or speaking — pianists, having recorded his setting of Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis.”)
Just as striking is her take on the rarely heard “To His Coy Mistress,” a setting of Andrew Marvell’s poem from the 17th century. Moore’s playing is meticulous when it comes to the compact three-act structure of the music (and its text); she hits the gas with a controlled force, just before singing the line “But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” Later on, the word “embrace” triggers a newly reflective mode.
So is this a covert “Rzewski for Lovers” album? In an email, Moore wrote: “I did, in fact, consciously think about bringing the more romantic side of Rzewski’s music out, a sort of gentler approach — because it’s there, in the material and often just beneath the surface. (Like him — he was a mensch — behind all his bluster.)”
And though the composer was famous for his political stands, Moore’s interpretations help emphasize these works’ elusiveness. “In his music he often disguises and veils the politics in a way I quite admire,” she said. “It’s not hitting you over the head with the obvious. It’s woven in to a song or a letter and it’s up to you to kind of grasp what the meaning is.”
When I read about Lisa Moore’s upcoming programs as part of her Australian National Academy of Music residency, I admittedly marvelled at the works she’s set to present – from an Andriessen Australian premiere, to a Wallace work inspired by the sentiment: “Chopin walked into a bar, ordered a whisky and headed straight for the pinball machine”.
But there’s plenty of decision-making that leads to the presentation of these works over, for instance, a familiar piece by Beethoven or Mozart.
In this interview, this Canberra-born, New York-based artist tells us exactly what to expect from her upcoming performances Workers Union (4 May), and Piano Pictures (9 May).
She also tells us how her choice of music represents her broader feelings about diversity in music programming today, and the relentless battle between old and new. After all, as Lisa asks, “why create limits?”.
Lisa captured by Yumiko Izu.
Lisa, last time we touched base you’d released a new album dedicated to new music. How has it been received in the time since, by the music community and beyond?
Thanks for checking in about this. It’s been a gradual, upward journey for the Preludes Op. 8 CD. We recently received a warm notice from WNYC New Sounds and a rave in depth review by Stephen Mould in Loudmouth.
You’ll perform some new music with ANAM soon, too. Tell us about the programs.
Designing concert programs is an art; a delicate balancing act between the audience expectations, style of works, composers, thematic choices, presenters needs and guidelines, time constraints, and repertoire. Many of my friends are composers, so sometimes the choices are painful. The piano repertoire is vast, and it’s usually not hard to find strong, unique music. It’s a question of meeting a happy medium between all the forces and having time to develop ideas.
I prefer not being told what to play. As I have entered the second half of my life I try to only play music I like and choose. Being a pianist is a labour of love, and piano playing is high maintenance. You are wedded to the bench. I’ve remained independent throughout my career partly to maintain as much control as possible over my programming.
There are two chamber concerts related to my ANAM April 30-May 9 residency, in addition to five solo concerts during my upcoming April-May tour. In the two upcoming ANAM chamber concerts, I was honoured to design inventive programs in collaboration with MRC and ANAM.
The first, Workers Union, is in Melbourne’s Metropolis Festival. This will be a dramatic ensemble concert featuring two landmark, radical works from the 1970s musical counter-culture […and] the Australian premiere of Andriessen’s Langzame Verjardaag (‘Slow Birthday’), tipping our hats to his 80th birthday.
The second concert Piano Pictures is for six grand pianos playing in a circle together. Five ANAM pianists and myself will form a “band of grands”. Heavens will be shifted to get six [grand] pianos into the South Melbourne Town Hall. (Thank you, ANAM!) Keep in mind: piano sextet repertoire is not something you just pick up at your local music store. The majority of these works have been written, or arranged, especially for my piano sextet in NYC, Grand Band.
What does it mean to you to perform new music in an educational environment?
We all learn from each other. This particular educational environment verges on the cutting edge of professionalism, given the extremely high standard of ANAM musicians. It’s always a great pleasure to meet young artists and feed off their energy, enthusiasm, and insight. It keeps me young(er), and I’m happy to pass on any tips I have learnt along the way to open- and like-minded souls. It’s so important for youthful artists to have mentors or examples of people who have survived the so-called business over time.
New music is normal practice in other genres such as pop, jazz, folk, rock, and hip-hop. I think all classical musicians should play new music. You meet new people, hear new sounds, and challenge your mind and technique. Why limit oneself?
All music was new at one time. When I play traditional music, I imagine the composer is alive in the room with me. This brings the music alive.
Your collaborator Paul Kerekes created a fresh arrangement of the Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition for Piano Pictures at ANAM – with six pianos, no less. Why did this particular piece need another arrangement, and in this form?
This is the only piano sextet arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition. A few years ago, Grand Band was seeking ‘classical’ offerings for our artist management, so it could pitch concerts to more conservative presenters. Piano sextets are a scary concept for presenters, even though six pianos are easier to acquire/borrow than one might imagine. I proposed building a program of classical arrangements, given there are not many piano sextet works in libraries. Pictures was suggested, and Paul Kerekes – a GB member and wonderful composer – ran with it.
The tunes are so good, and the sonic resonance is extraordinary. We knew dividing and amplifying that work for six pianos would work. The chamber music skills required are challenging, but the arrangement sounds brilliant. We programmed Pictures with three movements from The Planets (Holst), and also adapted a piano duo Bernstein arrangement of West Side Story – ‘souping’ it up for six players.The program was called Sound Arrangements. People loved it. We happily received standing ovations in both Detroit DIA and Lansdale PA.
As a performer who specialises in the presentation of new music, what do you need from an arrangement of older works?
Arrangements offer audiences and players a ‘new take’ – a fresh listen to an old favourite. Many classical works can be (and have been) adapted for other instruments quite successfully. Arrangements offer players opportunities to perform works not written for their instrument, or works they might not ordinarily have time to prepare as a solo. I have performed Pictures at an Exhibition in the original solo version, but it takes extraordinary energy.
There’s a lot of discussion about the over-performance of older works on concert programs. But as an advocate for new music, how do you feel old and new music can coexist in harmony?
I often mix and match my programs with traditional and new music. I also mix in voice, and multi-media. Musicians program works they want to play. The Western musical canon is rich, and it survives because musicians want to keep playing it. Yes, it would be wonderful to hear more 20th- and 21st-Century works performed by orchestras. I was recently part of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s program with phenomenal works by Janacek, Bartok, and Reich. Unfortunately, that’s quite a rare event.
Personally, I enjoy imagining another time-world from the one we live in. I try not to take trending thinking on programming too much to heart. At my stage, I’ve heard it all. Trends come and go. The repertoire is huge and fantastic. Why create limits?
Another point I’d like to raise is that, due to the declining levels of music education in schools and universities, many young people – even musicians – have lost touch with music history, and especially the wonderful traditional piano music out there. So, it’s nice to remind them of the great timeline preceding us. Audiences are usually pleasantly surprised. I’ve never had a listener say, ‘I didn’t care for the mix of old and new’. In fact, it’s been the opposite. Audiences love variety.
What does your selection of music tell us about your identity as a performer?
If I have a mission, it is simply to move listeners, to bring music to their ears, and to move people away (for an hour or two) from daily stresses. If more people listened to music, there would be less war, and more bridges for living together on this beautiful planet.
I like my professional life to have a lot of musical variety. I strive to diversify, play all genres, explore new directions, experiment, listen, challenge, and ultimately get right inside the music. My mission is to keep practising and playing music, no matter what era it was born in. I am committed to exploring the new and the traditional – living composers’ works, as well as composers who have passed on.
I will continue to work with living composers of all genders, race, age, sexual preference, traditions, and backgrounds.
When you perform at ANAM, what are you going to explore with the emerging artists?
In preparation for the two ANAM concerts mentioned above, we will be together rehearsing, collaborating, discovering, building ensemble team work, and sharing ideas in masterclasses and individual lessons.
What’s your favourite work on the program, and why?
Hard to say. I don’t really have favourites. It’s all grand. However, if I had to choose, perhaps the Ben Wallace piano sextet Fryderyk Chopin’s Psychaecadelic Technicolor ‘Electro-Funk-Core Superstar Lit Ultra-Throwdown on Op. 28 No. 4. It makes me smile. Serious classical music doesn’t often do that – that’s not a bad thing, but it takes a special talent to make musical jokes. Ben Wallace has that. The title alone makes me happy.
Is there anything else you’d like to add for emerging pianists looking to perform new music like you do?
Go for it. Jump in. Grab a composer and ask them to write you a piece. Or write a piece yourself. There’s no time like the present. And please come hear me play and chat afterwards!
Lisa Moore will perform in Workers Union, 6pm May 4 as part of the Metropolis New Music Festival in the Melbourne Recital Centre, and in Piano Pictures at 7.30pm May 9 at ANAM, South Melbourne Town Hall.
“The final entry of pianist Lisa Moore’s three-part EP series may be its most listenable. It’s certainly its most mesmerizing. Each EP has approached the piano in a wildly different fashion, offering Moore the opportunity to display every angle of her versatile chops.
2009’s “Seven” features the jazz and gospel-tinged compositions of Bronx-based clarinetist and composer Don Byron. 2011’s “Lighting Slingers and Dead Ringers,” by composer Annie Gosfield, colors pinging prepared piano with gauzy synth distortion and digital blips.
With “Stainless Staining,” Moore takes on two works by Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy that pull the pianist into uncharted waters. Equal parts texture and pulse, and built on hypnotic rhythmic repetitions, the music pendulums between active and passive listening. The title track, written specifically for Moore, pairs solo piano with a soundtrack of recorded and (sometimes) manipulated samples taken from a piano retuned so that it produces 100 overtones based on a low G# fundamental (the struck pitch). A seamless, propulsive blend of (wo)man and machine, the piece reflects Dennehy’s newfound fascination with the rhythmic pulsing of the overtone series.
The second piece on the EP is Dennehy’s 2007 work Reservoir. In the liner notes, the composer compares the piece to a Bill Morrison video in which a naked man is gradually submerged in water. The similarity was unintentional, but it’s easy to hear in the first half of the composition, which begins with high staccato piano notes that mimic incessant droplets of water. As the music progresses, the single notes become clustered double-stops as gentle, minimalist chords pool beneath. The piece becomes even more water-like in its second half with dissonances and rhythms blurring together over a depressed sustain pedal, climbing in register over fortissimo explosions of low-end clusters.
Headiness and allegory aside, the music on “Stainless Staining” constitutes an accessible and compelling EP. Packed with subtleties that become increasingly apparent with each repeated listen, it’s a fitting and memorable close to a trilogy that illuminates the multidimensional virtuosity of Moore’s playing.”
Lisa Moore, an Australian pianist long based in and around New York, has always been a natural, compelling storyteller. Even so, it’s possible you could have missed that trait during her years as the hard-working, resourceful keyboardist of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, given the energetic, eclectic hurly-burly that usually surrounded her in that busy group.
Since leaving the All-Stars in 2008, Ms. Moore has flourished as a soloist and chamber player, in the process extending her repertory backward even as she has continued to forge ahead. Recent concerts by TwoSense, Ms. Moore’s duo with the cellist Ashley Bathgate, have included canonical works by Chopin, Prokofiev and Janacek. And in a recital at Bargemusic on Thursday evening, Ms. Moore deviated from her contemporary path for a fond glance back to Schumann.
Ms. Moore started on familiar terrain, demonstrating her confident technique in Philip Glass’s “Mad Rush.” Unsurprisingly, Mr. Glass’s tumbling arpeggios and shifting rhythmic currents posed no threat to her. But what captivated most about her approach was a thoughtfully applied rubato that lent the music variety without sapping its drive. Complemented by waves lapping against the boat, the performance had an entrancingly amniotic sway.
Invited to introduce “Fur Elisa,” a brief work newly written for Ms. Moore, the composer Tamar Muskal described a somewhat tentative rapprochement with tonality. Accordingly, the music bubbled in tranquil lines and spurted in brash gestures, slipping fitfully among harmonic centers like a bar of soap sliding through wet fingers. Ms. Moore’s steely virtuosity and bold imagination showed equally during commanding accounts of three movements from Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata,” followed by three selections from his first book of Études.
Dispensing with fireworks in five selections from Schumann’s “Waldszenen,” Ms. Moore phrased with a breathlike lyricism in the introduction and finale; between those points she showed her capacity for illuminating character, most vividly in a haughty, preening “Vogel als Prophet.”
In John Adams’s “China Gates,” Ms. Moore’s keenly judged gradations of touch brought clarity and nuance to a barrage of coruscating patterns. The program ended with another piece created expressly for Ms. Moore, “The Dream of the Lost Traveler,” an imaginative evocation of Blake’s wild poetry composed by Martin Bresnick, Ms. Moore’s husband.
Before the performance, Mr. Bresnick recited a passage of Blake’s verse; midway through the piece, after brassy perambulation and dreamy reverie, Ms. Moore sang the verse as she played.
Wish as you might that Mr. Bresnick’s wistful closing bars could fade at length into silence, you couldn’t begrudge an audience its boisterous approval. For an encore Ms. Moore played from memory Frederic Rzewski’s Piano Piece No. 4, which opened with cascading thunder and closed with piercing repeated B flats, each jab awash in a metallic corona.
Lately they have joined forces as TwoSense, a duo devoted to performing the latest works (and commission as many as possible), with occasional oldies, by which they mean mostly 20th-century scores, as ballast.
Ms. Moore and Ms. Bathgate, along with a few friends, showed the first fruits of their collaboration at Le Poisson Rouge on Tuesday evening, and if they have not reformatted the cello recital as thoroughly as, say, Maya Beiser — another Bang on a Can alumna, who plays multimedia recitals these days — they certainly have a fresh approach and a taste for variety.
Curiously, the most mold-breaking works were pieces that moved beyond the boundaries of the duo. In Andy Akiho’s “21” (2008), for cello and percussion, Mr. Akiho played steel pans, and Ms. Bathgate oversaw both a graceful, bright-hued cello line and a vigorous kick-drum part. Ms. Moore, on her own, played Jerome Kitzke’s “Bringing Roses With Her Words” (2009), a theatrical piece that required her to walk onstage clapping and vocalizing, and to play a vigorous, if episodic, piano line embellished with a bit of percussion, as well as shouts, whoops, purring, babbling and laughter, before leaving the stage, still singing.
Ms. Moore and Ms. Bathgate were joined by Kelli Kathman, a flutist, for Paul Kerekes’s “Hail” (2010), a work that uses sharp, irregular, bouncy rhythms and tightly entwined textures to create an almost tactile picture of a storm. And in an extended trio set with the violinist, singer and composer Iva Bittova, Ms. Moore and Ms. Bathgate wove supple lines around Mr. Bittova’s earthy vocal lines and sang harmonies on a few pieces, most notably Martin Bresnick’s lovely arrangement of a Brahms song, “Nein Geliebter.”
That is not to say that the straightforward duets were either unappealing or commonplace. Ms. Bathgate’s rich tone, fluid dynamics and imaginative phrasing captured the magic of Janacek’s “Pohadka” (“Fairy Tale,” 1923), the opening work.
Stephen Feigenbaum — at 21, the youngest composer here — inventively avoided one trap of writing for a stringed instrument and the piano: Instead of allowing the cello to sound like the principal instrument, with the piano as its accompaniment, he built his “Suspended Animation” (2010) on the tension between a lyrical cello line and aggressive piano writing. Kate Moore (no relation) explored a similar disparity in “Velvet” (2010), its title referring to one quality of the cello’s tone, with the piano alternately matching and countering it.
However TwoSense proceeds — whether purely as a duo, or as an open-ended chamber project — its adventures should be worth following.
Lisa Moore performs tonight and Thursday New Music has been good to Lisa Moore.
Not that she always appreciated it. As a young pianist she was exposed to work intended for young pianists by composers in her native Australia. She found them “too dissonant and slow.” Then when she started her studies at the Sydney Conservatorium her first music history class was in 20th century music, taught by Richard Toop who had worked with Karlheinz Stockhausen, the groundbreaking German composer. That master’s work as well as that by Gyorgy Ligeti and John Cage caught her ear.
“I also befriended the composers in the class,” she said. That led to them asking her to play their compositions. She found “I was good at it and was getting more performances.”
That served her well as she moved on through her studies, and when she moved to New York City in 1985 and started working as a freelance musician. Those skills at new music “helped me break in.”
She ended up helping to found and touring with the Bang On A Can All Stars, a pre-eminent contemporary music ensemble. And she collaborated with musicians who helped transform music in the late 20th century – Ornette Coleman, Philip Glass, Elliott Carter, Brian Eno and Meredith Monk as well as other younger exponents of music that spans the classical, avant garde and jazz idioms.
That range of experience will be on display when she performs two concerts in Bowling Green, the first tonight at 10:15 at the Clazel Theatre in downtown and Thursday at 8 p.m. in Bryan Recital Hall.
Tonight’s performance will feature works by Brian Eno, Rufus Wainwright and Randy Newman as well as by the noted jazz clarinetist Don Byron from Moore’s most recent album “Seven.” These pieces will draw on Moore’s improvisational skills.
The impetus to ad lib goes back to her earliest days at the keyboard, before she took lessons, when she played, like so many before and after her, “Chopsticks” and a little boogie woogie. Then she started taking lessons. No one ever took those earliest forays into playing seriously. “It took me years to realize it’s good to take ‘Chopsticks’ and boogie woogie seriously.”
When she was 18, she purchased a fakebook, a collection of jazz and popular standard tunes reduced to the minimum notation. “I was always a private improvisor.”
In playing the music of Frederic Rzewski, whose music often include improvisation, Moore said, “there’s a change of pace in the music, there’s a change in the atmosphere” when it moves from what’s written to what’s extemporized.
For someone trained in classical music, jumping into improvisation “can be intimidating” because it requires learning a new musical language.
“Improvisation makes you feel exposed,” she said. “I like that now, but it used to make me uncomfortable.”
Moore maintains anyone can learn to improvise. “If you practice you can do it.”
Improvising helps her take a looser, though not in regards to her faithfulness to the score, attitude toward the compositions she plays. Playing composed music though also informs her improvisations. “There’s physical gestures that can be taken and used in improvisation, and this feeling of structure that can shape an improvisation.”
Thursday’s concert will feature two compositions based on literary texts: Rzewski’s “De Profundis” based on the letters of Oscar Wilde, and Martin Bresnick’s “For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise,” inspired by the works of William Blake and includes projected images of Blake’s art. On the Bresnick, as on some of the pieces by Byron, Moore sings along with her playing. On the Rzewski, she recites.
She’s comfortable with this dramatic element, Moore said. “As a kid I wanted to be an actor”.
Lisa Moore is bringing home musicians with tastes as diverse and questing as hers, writes Jessica Nicholas:
The restless spirit that has fuelled much of Lisa Moore’s career was born long before she became a professional pianist. She inherited it from her parents, who spent several years travelling around the world with their three young children in tow. By the time she was 13, Moore had visited over a dozen countries.
The daughter of an art historian and a high-profile economist in Canberra, Moore remembers the family home being filled with “strange and interesting people”. Among the artists to frequent the house were Charles and Barbara Blackman, who later rescued Moore from educational conformity with their unconventional School Without Walls.
Other artists and encounters presented challenges and inspiration in equal measure. There was Albert Landa, a remarkable piano teacher who persuaded the rebellious Moore to take her talent seriously. There was an unplanned pregnancy leading to several months of confinement, during which the 17-year-old Moore had little to do but play piano (she gave her baby up for adoption, but has since been happily reunited with her daughter). And there was the Sydney Conservatorium, where Moore was surrounded by young composers who helped set her on a career path in new music.
And what an astonishingly diverse career it has turned out to be. Moore broadly defines her field as “music by living composers”. But she finds it hard to sum up her own performance practice it one neat phrase, even though she has been asked to do so for over two decades. “I usually tell people I play some popular music; some semi-popular music; and some unpopular music’,” she says with a laugh.
Moore, who has been based in New York since the mid-1980s, was a founding member of the influential Bang on a Can collective. As a soloist she has performed over 100 commissioned works for piano, stretching across classical, theatrical and contemporary music domains.
Her creative approach, she says, is as borderless as possible. “During my 15 years with the Bang on a Can All-Stars, I had to improvise in a jazz style, use my voice, work with electronics… And we worked with so many composers – from Meredith Monk and Philip Glass to people who do really experimental music – that for me, now, there are no boundaries.”
Moore’s latest project is a directorial as well as musical one. She is the guest curator of ‘Sounds Alive’, a new music concert series within this year’s Canberra International Music Festival (concluding this weekend). Two of the acts featured in the series will come to Melbourne before returning to New York, and Moore is thrilled to introduce Australian audiences to such unique creative artists.
Don Byron is a superb jazz clarinettist whose music – like Moore’s – embraces a wide array of styles and genres (in his case, klezmer, hip hop, Afro-Caribbean and avant-garde chamber music). Byron and his New York-based Ivey-Divey Trio will perform their idiosyncratic tribute to saxophonist Lester Young.
And the astonishing Czech-born vocalist and violinist Iva Bittova will perform as a duo with Moore on piano. Bittova dissects Czech folk and classical music as imaginatively as she explores the full range of her voice. “She can sing like a bird, very high and chirpy, or with a low, guttural, gypsy sound. It’s incredibly earthy, and… really, you’ve never heard a voice like it in your life,” enthuses Moore.
“And Don (Byron) is incredibly virtuosic. Both these artists play music at the highest level – music that’s challenging, but also very accessible. We may never have them in Australia again, and I’m excited to see how audiences react to them. I just can’t wait for the concerts, really.”
Keys to the Future, Greenwich Music House, NYC April ‘08
With the changing of the pianist, came a changing of the mood altogether. Lisa Moore walked onstage to play three pieces from three composers, the first being Ingram Marshall’s Authentic Presence, written in 2001 for pianist Sarah Cahill. The music, lasting about 12 minutes, is described as “a continuous state of mind.” If that is indeed so, it must be a restless mind—for the piece is periodically interrupted by forte passages and pauses, acting to reverse the underlying forward motion. Authentic Presence is demanding: hands are frequently crossed to deliver the main theme that resurfaces in different keys and dynamics throughout. The middle section, a meditative segment based on the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” is the only time the mind is at rest. The music returns to its agitated mood soon afterwards and Ms. Moore managed to join the seemingly disconnected parts to sound like a whole.
China Gates, dating from 1977, also composed for Ms. Cahill by John Adams, is a complementary piece to the composer’s Phrygian Gates. The music can best be described as “an etude for composers.” A root note in the lower register sets the tone for the patterns of eighth notes immediately following in the high register, alternating between figurations and modes. The overall effect is that of a rock falling in churning waters and creating seemingly irregular, infinite ripples. This playful music benefited immensely from Lisa Moore’s intricate finger work.
Ms. Moore continued with the first movement from Kevin Puts’ Alternating Current (1997), its baroque character helped by toccata-like fast monophonic runs and Bach-ian bridge passages in thirds. Puts uses modal and metric changes as well as constant key shifts. However, Ms. Moore was brilliant once again in providing all that the score asks for, and as the highlight of the evening, it was a shame that the whole piece was not performed. But Mr. Puts was in the hall, and received a warm ovation from the audience.
Last night my friend Len, who always knows he can call me at the last moment, invited me to join him for a free percussion concert in the Winter Garden. By percussion I do not mean the construction going on at night in the pit of the World Trade Center… this was the uber talented and hip group So Percussion performing three pieces of new music. They played beads, coils of metal, flower pots, xylophones, and a variety of drums. The music was melodic, varied, enticing, and recorded live for the New Sounds Live radio program at WNYC 93.9. I loved it all, but by the last piece I was ready for it to end, percussion is not soothing, like mime or opera in subtitles, it takes extra concentration to enter their world. Funny how less makes more in art…by ignoring perspective or light source in painting or writing haiku, people take some choices away and what is left evokes all.
The talented Ms. Lisa Moore played a variety of percussive instruments and mostly the Steinway grand in the Martin Bresnick piece as images by Goya filled the stage. I did this sketch of her. But Arvo Part’s Fratres for Percussion Quartet and Paul Lansky’s Threads were just as wonderful, even without the pianist.
My first crush was on a pianist. Mildred Adams was a walking china doll whose pigtail braids draped her shoulders like a shawl. At various elementary school assemblies, sporting her delicate demeanor and rhinestone-studded princess glasses, her piano skills inspired jealousy and awe in her peers. Later in life, I realized that my “crush” was really envy – I desired not only her talent, but the accompanying life of privilege (I assumed) made such a talent possible. Grades later, another paradigm appeared in the person of the coltish Miss Barbara Doyle, she of the Joan-of-Arc haircut and knee-highs. She took great pleasure in wielding the large wooden paddle that hung next to the blackboard, and in a barrelhouse style of piano playing that suited her musical forte: show tunes.
I thought of them both as I watched Lisa Moore take the stage at Joe’s Pub. This engagement accompanied the release of Moore’s CD of music by Frederic Rzewski, titled Which Side Are You On? The first half of the program was a suite of pieces called North American Ballads. This is music to recall an idyllic summer’s day, or re-experience same as a modern elegy; listening to Rzewski’s rhapsodic, rapturous melodies might call Stephen Foster to mind, yet the composer upends that déjà vu with the use of jazz figures, unexpected repetitions and progressions.
Expectation was also challenged by what you saw. Moore is an Aussie lilt wrapped in a petite package of curly blondeness. But we are far from Weill Recital Hall; her dress communicated that she was here to work. Dressed in a white shirt and black slacks, a zebra-striped scarf of gossamer banded one of her arms, perhaps a tip off that this would not be your grandmother’s recital.
It goes without saying that holding an audience with this kind of music requires an artist possessing not only sensitivity, but also a crackerjack technique. My seat afforded a rare view of the physical nature of such an undertaking. Again and again I was struck by how aural lyricism could be contradicted by the visual explosiveness of the playing, notably during a repeated ascending passage that progressed with subtle variations, from sotto voce to pounding pianissimo. An intricate section presented an astounding visual of the pianist’s hands. As one crouched over the other with the fingers of both extended, the conjoining of Rzewski’s composition and Moore’s pianism made me think of diaphanous jellyfish. The suite’s most remarkable physical moment occurred in Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, during a run of bass chords that begin with standard fingering. As the chords broaden, so too does the use of appendages. I had to reassure myself that what I was witnessing was true: elbows out, body hugging the piano, Moore banged out the climatic chords with her forearms.
After a break, Moore re-emerges bedecked in a Pradaesque morning coat; the armband was now an ascot. The piece was De Profundis, based on excerpts from Oscar Wilde’s journal of his arrest and subsequent imprisonment for “gross indecency.” Rzewski hasn’t created a mere piano accompaniment: in addition to speaking and playing simultaneously, the musician taking on this work must master various eccentric vocal affects, singing, whistling, drumming and the playing of a car horn!
Lest you think these elements serve as gimmickry, quickly it’s revealed that their usage provides apt aural metaphors for the parlor of Wilde’s mind in this world of an artist brought low. The gift comes in the juxtaposition of the elements as abstractions play against the formal, as antiquity gets amplified by the now. The piece swings between musical pastiche particular to the era and sequences of vocal/piano or vocal/percussive syncopations.
The music works as subtext – those chaotic passages communicate the difficult moments when those “bats in the belfry” threaten to overcome Wildean rationality, making the textual account all the more moving. Rzewski sets the intelligence and the finesse of the writer like a jewel, lifting the words out of the period and hurling them into the here and now. Wilde’s observations about imprisonment, solitude and their effects on the mind takes on universality – through the symmetry of text and sound, we journey into the minds of every man and woman who ever served time.
In this piece (originally written for a man) Moore communicates a Brechtian air. Certainly no similarity exists between her and Wilde, or any man. Yet, this journey on the wheels of Wilde’s words provide as much excitement and drama as any play you’ll see this season thanks to her dulcet cadences. Again, the physicality on view enhances – towards the end of this twenty eight minute piece, Moore will slam down the lid of the piano, creating a symphony composed of finger pops, hand drumming, whispered words and chants, to recount the intricate process by which Wilde struggles to maintain his sanity, yet observe and chronicle his current reality.
Bookending the work is a line that goes something like this: “This is where the artistic life leads a man.” That statement provides a multifaceted resonance. Recounting the persecution of a writer who rejected the prudery of Victorian society echoes the recent blacklisting of the Dixie Chicks and Sean Penn, artists who refused to succumb to pro-forma patriotism. A civilized world that would condemn Wilde, yet less than one hundred years later play host to the unmistakable vision of Rzewski and the artistry of Moore, left this listener/viewer pondering the myriad fates in store when the worlds of art, inspiration and morality collide.
by Corinna da Fonseca Wollheim,
March 30, 2016
Vanishing Languages, Reincarnated as
By CORINNA da FONSECA-WOLLHEIM MARCH 30, 2016
The Unesco Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger is a melancholy
document, charting the 3,000 or so languages that experts predict will vanish
by the end of this century. For the most part, ethnographers and linguists are
helpless in the face of the gradual erasure of collective memory that goes along
with this loss of linguistic diversity.
Time to call in the composers?
A growing number of them are turning their attention to languages that
are extinct, endangered or particular to tiny groups of speakers in farflung
places with the aim of weaving these enigmatic utterances into musical works
that celebrate, memorialize or mourn the languages and the cultures that gave
birth to them. On Saturday, April 9, at the Cologne Opera in Germany, the
Australian composer Liza Lim unveils her opera “Tree of Codes,” which
includes snippets of a Turkish whistling language from a small mountain
village. On her most recent album, “The Stone People,” the pianist Lisa Moore
sings and plays Martin Bresnick’s hypnotic “Ishi’s Song,” a setting of a chant
by the last member of the Yahi, who died in 1916.
In February the New York Philharmonic performed Tan Dun’s
multimedia symphony “Nu Shu,” the result of the composer’s research into a
language and writing system that was passed down among the female
inhabitants of a small village in Hunan Province in China for 700 years. Other
composers who have done their own fieldwork include Vivian Fung, who
investigated minority cultures in the Chinese province of Yunnan, and Kevin
James, who sought out some of the last native speakers of minority languages
in the Pacific Northwest, Australia and Japan.
The aesthetic uses to which the composers put these rare languages vary.
Still, Mr. James, the founder of the Vanishing Languages Project, seemed to
speak for most when, in a recent interview, he said that the goal was “not to
set them to music, but set them as music.”
It’s an important distinction. Classical music has proved adept at
preserving a language like Latin through liturgical settings that expose
listeners to a language they no longer encounter in spoken form. But works
like Mozart’s Requiem or Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” with its sections in Middle
High German, sprang from the same cultural soil that gave birth to their texts.
By contrast, when composers reach for words that are unintelligible to all but
a handful of speakers on the planet, the very notion of music as a vessel for
semantic content is upended. Removed from all context and understanding,
speech — a constellation of rhythm and melody, resonant vowels and
percussive consonants — begins to resemble music.
In a phone interview, Ms. Lim said that what drew her to outoftheway
languages in her coming opera and in her dazzlingly polyglot “Mother Tongue”
(2005) for soprano and ensemble was “not so much ‘Oh, here’s a cool
Rather, she said, different languages open up new ways of thinking about
the human body as a “total mechanism” for vocal expression, “running the
whole range from really guttural sounds and breaths through resonant tones,
all as a really powerful communicative vehicle that allows us to travel through
emotional and psychological states.”
A whistling language like that quoted in “Tree of Codes,” she said, speaks
to “how we humans adapt to and interact with our environment, not being
separate, but really being in a merged relationship with everything around us.”
That positive attitude sets Ms. Lim apart from some of the other musicallinguistic
ventures. Most are marked by a sense of loss and melancholy. A
work like Mr. James’s “Counting in Quileute,” which blends his own field
recordings of the last native speakers of an American Indian language from
western Washington State is like a time capsule shot into space — except the
meaning was already opaque at the time of its sealing.
At a performance of “Counting in Quileute” in 2013 at Roulette in
Downtown Brooklyn, a set of speakers encircling the audience created an
immersive and disorienting experience as torrents of foreign words washed
over listeners and merged with breathy and brittle sounds created live by an
The millennial gloom hovering over such a project is surely no accident.
This fascination with the death throes of minority languages in remote regions
seems linked to a wider contemporary anxiety over the degradation of the
environment. The wane of linguistic diversity is the cultural equivalent of the
loss of ecological diversity and, as such, a natural source of inspiration.
In a phone interview, Mr. Bresnick said it was a television documentary
about Ishi, the last member of the Yahi tribe, that inspired his work for piano
and voice. He said he related the story to his mother, a fluent Yiddish speaker,
who was then 94 years old. “I told her, ‘You’re my Ishi, you’re the last to speak
this language,’” he said. “She pointedly looked at me and said: ‘No, you are.
Because you still care to know.’”
His setting begins with the pianist’s simultaneously singing and playing
the song, which starts out sounding sunny, and naïve. As the voice drops away
and the piano continues to reiterate the melody, it takes on an increasingly
forlorn and alien feel, the husk of a tune that has long since lost its meaning.
When Mr. James flew to Washington to conduct field research on the
Quileute language, he was immediately confronted with its extreme fragility.
“The day I arrived, the best speaker was airlifted and taken to hospital,” he
recalled. “And the population of native speakers went four to three. The nextbest
speaker had dementia. And the remaining two were old women who had
grown up at a time when they were punished for speaking the language.”
Mr. Tan similarly found himself working against the clock when he set out
to investigate Nu Shu culture at the prodding of his father who, as a native of
Hunan had heard about this centuriesold women’s language. Some of the
remaining speakers were over 100 but in no hurry to let a New Yorkbased
composer in on their secret.
When Ms. Fung, a Canadian, traveled through rural southwestern China
in 2012 to study the music and language of several mountain tribes, she
enlisted the help of a guide who helped her gain access to the homes of
villagers where she might be regaled with drinking songs and other
impromptu performances after dinner. “A lot of them were shy,” she recalled
in a phone interview, “and you’d have to have a meal with them, and drink
That sort of handson field work makes Mr. Tan, Ms. Fung and Mr. James
the heirs to Bela Bartok, who traveled the countryside of his native Hungary
with an unwieldy Edison phonograph to record and transcribe regional folk
songs: the beginning of ethnomusicology. Ethnolinguistics can seem like a
natural extension: The last vestiges of some minority languages are preserved
as song, and a musical ear can be an advantage in studying the kind of tonal
languages prevalent in parts of Asia.
But some professional linguists are watching with unease as artists,
journalists and other amateur researchers enter their field. “A lot of people
think they can do linguistics,” said Gregory D. S. Anderson, the director of the
Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Salem, Ore. “A lot of
goodintentioned people can wreak a lot of havoc when you work with these
communities that are doubly marginalized and disenfranchised.”
Among his concerns are ethical questions of outsiders’ drawing financial
benefit or prestige from such expeditions, or using the recorded voices of the
dead in cultures where that is taboo. Mr. James said he explained his
intentions in conversations with members of the Quileute tribal council,
making sure to “convince them that this use was a meaningful use of the
voices of their ancestors.”
Ms. Fung described the process by which the material she gathered on her
travels was translated into music as one of filtering and sublimation. She said
she was particularly interested in the wide melodic leaps and in a certain shrill
and nasal vocal tone she encountered in the speech and songs she studied.
Now she’s looking for ways to translate some of these qualities into
instrumental chamber music.
“I don’t want to just state a song,” she said. “It’s about finding the parts of
the research that speak to me — for example those wide leaps — and filtering it
so it becomes mine.”
Mr. Tan, meanwhile, embedded his films of Nu Shu singing into a
shimmering orchestral score that features an unusually muscular and
assertive solo harp part. “I believe that if a tradition is vanishing something
else has to take its place,” he said. “If something is dying there must be a way
to incarnate it into something new.”
A version of this article appears in print on April 3, 2016, on page AR12 of the New York edition
with the headline: Fading Tongues, Morphing Into Melody.
Pianist Lisa Moore has been teaching and performing at Norfolk’s New Music Workshop for over a decade. She shares why focusing on new music was the right career choice and how other musicians can make the musical leap.
Some musicians rely on the past to create their musical futures. Pianist Lisa Moore, faculty with the Festival’s New Music Workshop, focuses on the here and now, with maybe a bit of the future thrown in for good measure.
A new music specialist, Moore makes her musical living jumping into sounds and musical spaces that many other musicians avoid like the key of F Major. That interest began when she was still a undergraduate student. “I was drawn to the scene,” she says, “and the idea of laying down a tradition yourself, of having pieces written for you.”
Focusing on new music opportunities was also touched with a bit of realism, Moore says. “I would love to play Schumann every other week in the Concertegebouwbut I could bang on a million doors [and not get results],” she says, adding wryly, “After all I didn’t come first in Tchaikovsky competition.”
In contrast, new music has opened lots of doors, she says. Moore spent 16 years with Bang on a Can and regularly garners reviews like this one from Pitchfork: “She’s the best kind of contemporary classical musician, one so fearsomely game that she inspires composers to offer her their most wildly unplayable ideas”.
Playing new music has also meant thinking outside the concert hall box. Moore has played in an airport in Holland, in lobbies and on a boat in Germany. “You never know where it’s going to lead when you’re in contemporary field,” she says.
This is not to say Moore, who is part of the New Music Workshop at Norfolk, avoids anything before the 21st century. “I do a mix of old and new,” she says, noting this coming year’s performance schedule, for instance, includes playing a rendition of the Bach Goldberg Variations arranged for two pianos. “There isn’t that much difference between playing old and new music,” she says. “Most classical musicians are too frightened to try playing contemporary music. They want to remain with the familiar. Management wants them to remain with the familiar. It’s a safe place.
“But the playing still has the keys and you’re trying to make beautiful sounds, sometimes ferocious sounds,” Moore continues. “You have to count. In older traditional music you don’t need to as much. It’s all very symmetrical. You don’t have to learn complex rhythms or work with negotiating with composers on editing and figuring out the boundaries.”
Working with evolving music is one reason Moore loves returning to Norfolk (this is her 13th summer). “It’s a wonderful opportunity to have a real workshop,” she says. “The composers write pieces for us and we pull them to bits. It’s really part of everything I’ve been doing for years.”
Moore grew up in Australia where playing an instrument was a given in her family. She started on violin and piano when she was six, playing in youth orchestras. It wasn’t until she was 12, however, that, encouraged by a teacher, she began thinking about music as a focus her attention. (She had been thinking of becoming an actress.) “Of all the things I do, I probably play piano better than those other things,” she says. “So I decided to audition for conservatories. That’s how it started.”
For musicians considering making the leap to new music, Moore offers this advice: “You just have to dive in. Write to a composer friend and ask him or her to write you a piece. Put yourself forward. There’s always a new music ensemble at most institutions.”
Finally, don’t be afraid of the counting, she says. “Counting was always the thing that put me off when I was a kid. When I was at the Sydney Conservatorium, I was flattered to be asked to play but scared of counting,” she recalls. “People think musicians good at math but we’re not. We only count to four, maybe five.”
When you work with more than 200 composers – living composers – you’re bound to have a thing or two to say about contemporary music.
That’s why we decided to ask Lisa Moore all about her new album dedicated to 21st Century minimalist composition – De La Chica: Preludes Op. 8.
In the past, the Canberra-born, New York-based pianist has collaborated with composers such as Iannis Xenakis, Elliot Carter, Philip Glass, Ornette Coleman, Meredith Monk…the list goes on. Now, she’s chosen to work with NY-based Colombian composer Julian de la Chica on this newly recorded work for piano and synthesizer.
So why has Lisa decided to dedicate much of her life to contemporary classical music?
From ’92-2009 she helped found the electro-acoustic sextet The Bang On A Can All-Stars (indeed, the ensemble is responsible for bringing new music to life in the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival – did you see our photoblog on the experience with young Australian composer Connor D’Netto?).
Lisa’s efforts as a collaborative musician have seen her record on more than 30 albums, and work across the world with musicians in the London Sinfonietta, New York City Ballet, Steve Reich Ensemble, Australian Chamber Orchestra, and many more.
We’re excited to learn more about Lisa’s career, and the philosophies that underpin her musical life.
Lisa, congratulations on your new album. Tell us how you came to know and work with Julian.
It has been a delight knowing and working with Julian. He approached me a couple of years ago. Little did I know that Julian had been ‘following’ my work.
Our official first meeting occurred when he finally introduced himself in New York City after the (le) Poisson Rouge CD launch for my disc Mad Rush (music by Philip Glass; Orange Mountain Music).
What do you love most about Julian’s music – what element really struck you about the work? And why are you well suited to communicate this?
Julian’s music is unique and beautiful. It is unabashedly tonal. It is open, warm, inviting, and beguiling. Julian stretches time, easing pace while using clear, simple, tender melodies that line the air and sculpt edges across open harmonic spaces. His gentle blend of piano and synthesizer makes cushioned swirling textures that seem to coax memory and imagery. The music is soothing and consoling, yet at the same time it contains a mysterious complexity.
I like to simplify things, especially as I grow older. This music struck me with a clarity and a quieter pace than most of the high energy tour de force repertoire I have come to be known for. It was a relief to hear and record.
Also, having recorded the Philip Glass album, Julian’s Preludes Op. 8 seemed a natural follow-on and continuation from that genre.
You’ve said that when you were a student yourself at the conservatorium, you liked communication with composers and performing their works. You’ve worked with more than 200 composers so far in your career. Why do you find value in the presentation of new music (in the way that some others may value performing historical works)?
I like to perform any music that speaks to me emotionally and imaginatively – whatever tradition or genre that might be. Right now, I’m playing a lot of Bach, Janacek, and late-20th and early-21st Century music by living composers.
When I was a first-year student, I was intimidated by the traditional 19th Century ‘meatballs’ in the piano repertoire that everyone was playing. So, to separate myself from the sheep, I started to play the music of my student friends and colleagues at the Sydney Conservatorium. Some of my cohorts and teachers were the Australian composers Michael Smetanin, Gerard Brophy, Martin Wesley-Smith, Elena Kats-Chernin, and Alison Bauld.
Performances I gave of their music in my first two years at the con were often world premieres in exciting alternative new music events (not at ‘Concert Practice’ assessments), and I was excited to be creating a tradition, rather than having to adhere to pre-conceived rules of how to play music that was already 200 years old (even though I love that music!).
Now I am older, I feel less intimidated and am embracing the enormous piano repertoire out there. Still, I don’t care too much for the overly flamboyant virtuoso repertoire that is flashy for its own sake. I am more attracted to a more restrained style of composition; one that speaks clearly and doesn’t show off for its own sake. I find the overtly flashy often just a wall of frilly noisy.
You are a widely successful pianist and well-established in your career. What do you feel is your responsibility to living composers? And similarly, do you feel other performers are responsible for presenting and documenting 21st Century composition as you have with this album?
I don’t feel responsible per se to composers – we work together. We are in this ‘niche’ business together. As a performer, I am intertwined with composers and their creations. I play their music. I edit their music. I adapt their music. I make it come it alive.
I should add here that I am married to the great composer Martin Bresnick, and I play all of his piano compositions. He has written works especially for me (as have others). Sometimes, I feel a little like Clara Schumann married to Robert (but without all the kids!). She always tried to program and include a work of Robert’s in concerts.
Naturally, I do wish sometimes I had more time to perform more new music and help more composers, but there are only so many hours in the day and I need to have a life too. It is tough sometimes, saying no to composers in the noble profession of writing music.
As far as other performers are concerned, that is their business. I don’t mind if they don’t play new music. What irritates me more is when mediocre musicians hide their bad technique and poor musicianship skills behind contemporary music, thinking they can ‘fake’ the notes – because the audience is not familiar with the work! In these cases, they don’t learn the right notes and rhythms and then they deliver unconvincing performances, which then reflects very poorly on the composer. I feel sorry for composers who are at times at the mercy of very bad performances, performed by musicians, even sometimes very famous players, who just haven’t put in the time, or who cannot actually count.
You’ve been described as a ‘natural, compelling storyteller’. How does your own story fit in with the narrative of these works?
When playing music, I often create images in my mind’s ear – images the music naturally conjures up or that I imagine – in order to enable me to create colours and shapes. When playing a melody, I look to express the longer line that tells a story. My life is a story, for sure, which has had its ups and downs, like everyone. I have worked really hard to achieve a life in [contemporary music]. I hope I have contributed to society by bringing to life the work of composers; by entertaining and opening up new worlds to audiences, and producing recordings that will last beyond my years.
Why should tentative listeners take a chance on contemporary composition?
It’s not a matter of ‘should’. Human beings are naturally curious and if they like what they hear, that’s a positive thing and something we should listen to as performers and composers.
To write music that no one wants is just self-indulgent and a one-way street. Not all contemporary music is great, or even good, and it’s really hard to write a brilliant piece of music. Really hard. It takes time and thought as well as a vivid imagination and big talent. Yet, new sounds are just as much a part of modern life as going to a gallery to see a new exhibition. With the prevalence of cheap online listening sources, such as Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube, new sounds are just a click away. However, hearing live music in concert is a special treat. I hope we can keep that concert-going tradition alive, and not just become isolated listeners living in home bubbles; inserting large or small headphones into our deafening ears.
What advice do you have for young or new Australian composers in their career, from your perspective as a performer of their music?
Listen voraciously to the great masterworks from past centuries. Don’t worry about being ‘trendy’. Be ambitious within and for your own music. Try to write the best music you can write. Edit your music. The first thing you put down is not necessarily the best you can produce. Really listen to the nature of the instruments you are writing for: the timbre, the variations of register. It’s hard to say things clearly. Develop your musical ideas. Complex, abstract music doesn’t mean it’s smarter, better music. Copying others is an okay learning and teaching tool, but try to find your own voice within that. It’s okay to borrow from others and blend with your own ideas.
Finally, please consider the performer – their ease of score reading – because the notational choices you make will affect the accuracy of the composition’s performance. Sometimes a ‘composer’s score’ is not the one that works for the performer. Simplify your notation so it is easy to read.
If you write well-notated, good music with interesting ideas, performers will perform it and you won’t have to worry about being ‘famous’. It will snowball. A little luck helps, too….so, good luck!
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
I was really touched when Julian asked me to record his piano music. For me, the moment seemed just right to do this album. I feel a strong visceral connection and I hope listeners do, too.