interview: vicki ray

Vicki Ray shares additional thoughts and insights about her program in this interview.

Q. What was your overall concept for choosing these works for your program?

A. I started thinking about this recital at the same time our country was about to invade Iraq. I felt frustrated, ineffectual, unable to make a difference. I heard from many fellow musicians that they felt, for the first time, that it was useless to be a musician. I decided that in some way this recital had to be a response to all of this. I began gathering pieces that were about war. I found many interesting and powerful works and set about trying to fashion a program from them. But try as I might it just wouldn’t take shape musically. And I believe that no matter how compelling a theme, if it doesn’t hang together as a musical idea then it has to be re-evaluated. But rather than abandon the idea altogether I realized that I had a strong group of pieces that, while not overtly being about war (except for one piece) still resonated with the original idea. So the first half of this program is about peril, alienation, remembrance and well, war. The pieces on the second half offer something else: the possiblity of interconnectedness, hope for some kind of future based on compassion, stillness and meditation.

Q. How do each of these works take us beyond the popular boundaries (limits) of our listening experience? How should we prepare ourselves for this new listening experience?

A. Each of these pieces challenges the listener in a different way. Cage’s Perilous Night transforms the timbral world of the piano into another dimension, a world of percussion and bells, wood blocks and plucked bass. I find myself asking how these six movements paint the Irish myth about a bed on a floor of polished jasper. Cage wrote this work at a particularly difficult time in his personal life too. Some people think it’s one of his most emotional pieces. But that emotion is conveyed through the conduit of the prepared piano. Not your typical venue! Sciarrino’s Perduto in una citta d’acque is very still, very quiet, very suspended. Nothing happens except occasional shivers of color rippling the water. It’s the kind of piece that turns you back in on yourself. Makes you confront certain things. Then in Jack Body’s piece Sarajevo we explore the idea of memory – it’s ephemeral nature. Ideas start and then trail off, other memories burble up then disappear. In the second movement – Totentanz (death dance) the relentless nature of the piece conveys a certain terror, but the ever changing meter keeps you off balance the whole time, like a dance that won’t get comfortable, which indeed it shouldn’t. The last movement is a Lachrymae, a lamentation for those who have died. After that, the main challenge to the listener will be the last piece on the program – Satoh’s Incarnation II in which waves of beautiful harmony cascade and build in a long slow, meditative curve. As to how one should prepare for any of these experiences? Well, our audiences have always had such open minds! I hope they bring them, and their open ears to this concert too!

Q. Do these works reflect the styles of the native countries of the composers or do they go beyond to a more universal form of expression? (I really like the idea of your program offering an international cast of composers).

A. Hmm. Good question. Well, the Cage is so…Cage. Is that American? It’s hard for me to say. In some ways, what could be more American? The whole idea of the prepared piano is so kooky, so creatively unexpected. The Sciarrino has a certain austerity – but not one that I would call particularly Italian, and the Body seems more universal to me, but maybe that’s just because I haven’t heard much new music from New Zealand!? Simurg by Mario Lavista definitely has a certain kind of latin flavor – but it also transcends the same. And lastly, Satoh’s work seems influenced by a kind of Zen simplicity. But in all cases the music is so much more – so ungraspable and haunting. I’m looking forward to sharing it next week.

Interviewed by Mary A. Hannon

Vicki Ray will perform three World Premieres in a program of widely ranging styles. A delicious menu of sound that explores the gamut of the classical avant-garde is certain to satisfy every musical taste. We talked with Vicki about her program in this interview.

Q. You will open your program with Etude and Prelude by Mel Powell. What attracted you to these pieces?

A. Last year I recorded Prelude for a new Powell CD that is coming out soon. The piece is very kaleidoscopic, changing mood, color and character every few seconds. I knew I wanted to begin my ‘Spheres recital with this piece. But then a few months ago I ran across this Etude of Mel’s that dates back to the mid 40’s when he was first exploring classical composition. Etude has obvious germs of what was to become Mel’s later style but it is more focused around specific tonal centers than his later works. In fact, Etude moves from D to E flat, and Prelude starts on E flat – so despite my resolve to open the program with Prelude I’m going to play Etude first, as a sort of prelude to the Prelude. Mel’s career started as a jazz pianist and he played with Benny Goodman and other jazz notables before transitioning to classical avant-garde music. Even though you do not hear obvious references to jazz in these pieces, you might find gestures speeding by that bring different styles to mind.

Q. How did you discover Morton Feldman’s Nature Pieces?

A. I unearthed them a couple of years ago in the David Tudor archives at the Getty Museum. David Rosenboom, (a wonderful pianist and Dean of the School of Music at Cal Arts) and I were invited to look through the archives and extract interesting pieces from the collection for a performance at the Getty. The premiere was done in 1952 at Hunter College with choreography by Jean Erdman called Changing Woman. The work is early Feldman, so even though the pieces contain many of his later signatures, they’re also quite surprising in a variety of ways.

Q. You will perform the World Premiere of Shaun Naidoo’s no man’s land, a piece written for you. Tell us about this piece.

A. This is a darkly ironic piece written in four movements but played as a continuous whole. The movements are titled Goodbye, A Bullet for Breakfast, no man’s land and Torched (again). The piece is driving, rhythmic, virtuosic and has elements of cabaret and rock sensibilities interwoven in a subtle and unique way. Shaun’s music is deeply serious and tongue-in-cheek at the same time. You’re never quite sure which way to take it.

Q. Tell us about the two bird pieces you have paired together.

A. The Golden Bird (after Brancusi) by George Antheil and Le Loriot (The Golden Oriole) by Olivier Messiaen were written 37 years apart yet they share some intriguing commonalities. The Golden Bird, written in 1921, glitters with beautiful colors and adventuresome harmonies that travel over the entire keyboard. Messiaen’s Le Loriot is from his Catalogue d’Oiseaux and besides featuring the birdcalls of the golden oriole (and many other birds!), is a subtle pun on the name of his wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod.

Q. You are giving the World Premiere of Due (Cinta)mani, a piece written by Eric Chasalow. Tell us about this composer and the piece he has written for you.

A. Eric teaches at Brandis University and specializes in electroaccoustic work. I fell in love with his music last year when I was conducting a piece of his for ensemble and tape that the E.A.R. Unit played. Due (Cinta)mani means “two hands” in Italian. It is also a Buddhist word that symbolizes three flaming pearls rising out of the waves. The piece is for piano and tape and is in two movements: Three Symbolic Gestures and Cloudbands. The tape is sparse, subtle, funny and wickedly elegant with all kinds of gestures mixed together. The second movement is more atmospheric with washes of sound coming from the piano. I love playing piano with tape – it’s like playing chamber music by yourself!

Q. Your World Premiere of Jay Cloidt’s Span will end the evening on a high note. Tell us about this imaginative new piece he wrote for you.

A. I talked with Jay a few years ago about composing a piece using rock ‘n roll techniques and Span was his reply. In this piece he uses boogie, blues, stride, rock ‘n roll and gospel feels. Span is often structured with the left hand playing in one tonal and time center and the right hand in another – but when they are played together, the piece grooves. If you listen carefully you’ll hear quotations from other works woven into the piece…not all of which are rock related. Span is named after blues pianist Otis Span and also alludes to the span of the hand.

Q. How does this program differ from your previous programs?

A. In the past I built many of my programs around a common theme. That can be interesting but sometimes it means you have to leave an alluring piece out of the concert because it doesn’t “fit” the theme. This year I wanted to play pieces that I loved, that challenged me musically, technically and spiritually. That’s the theme. And even though I didn’t consciously look for unifying elements, they’re still present; from Mel’s beginnings as a jazz pianist and Shaun’s and Jay’s infusion of pop sensibilities in their pieces to the “bad boy” label that Antheil shares somewhat with Feldman (and Naidoo and Cloidt!) and the ephemeral quality of the Chasalow, Powell and Feldman.