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Dissolving Genre

Most people look at a piano keyboard as a finite set of 88 keys. Jesse Myers sees room for expansion.

This Friday at the Good Shepard Center, the Seattle-based pianist presents a program of contemporary American music that challenges the classical piano tradition in contrasting ways. One half of the program examines music that does a lot with very little, highlighting minimalist masterminds of the late 20th century like Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams. The other half explores music that expands and multiplies the piano keyboard by adding electronics, featuring 21st-century works by Missy Mazzoli, Christopher Cerrone and a new premiere by Myers himself.

Myers, a classically trained pianist, first became interested in keyboard expansion last year when he performed John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano: a piano with everyday objects such as screws, bolts and pieces of rubber placed in between the strings to alter its sound. This year’s program forgoes hardware in favor of electronics.

“It was a natural progression out of the prepared-piano music, to find a new way to understand and hear the instrument,” Myers says. “Electronics is another way for me to rediscover the piano.”

This weekend’s program evolves from acoustic to electroacoustic, beginning with the circling melodies and repetitive, pulsing patterns of the minimalists. John Adams’ rainy and ruminative China Gates begins the program, followed by Philip Glass’s half-hypnotic, half-neurotic Mad Rush and his mesmeric Etude No. 9.

Photo by Lee Goldman

“It’s a huge investment of time to get into that music and hear those repeated patterns over and over again,” Myers says. “But if you put your analytical mind to rest for a little bit and give the music a chance, it has amazing power to reset the brain and create an almost meditative environment.”

The evening's second half will shift to multilayered soundscapes scored for piano and electronics, as Myers performs Christopher Cerrone’s 21st-century urban nocturne Hoyt-Schermerhorn, Missy Mazzoli’s ethereal Orizzonte and her swirling hallucination Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos. Both composers push the boundaries of classical music in the 21st century, Cerrone through immersive explorations of timbre and resonance, and Mazzoli through kaleidoscopic storytelling that draws freely from classical, electronic and art rock idioms.

“If there’s a trend in 21st-century music, I think it would be the dissolving of genre,” Myers says. “Not pigeonholing music into a specific method or format. I find that to be fascinating and relieving—and really optimistic.”

Connecting the two musical eras is Steve Reich’s pulsing, palindromic Piano Counterpoint, in which Myers performs one piano part live against four pre-recorded piano parts. Reich, famous for his process-driven music and phasing techniques, was also one of the inspirations behind Myers’ own composition on the program, Error of My Ways.

“The idea behind this piece was to try to create something beautiful out of human error,” Myers says. “When I started getting into recording, I became frustrated by my own inconsistencies among takes. With this piece, I wanted to make something beautiful out of something that I couldn’t control.”

Error of My Ways features Myers performing live alongside six pre-recorded tracks of the same music, each with its own small idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies. Each track is distributed to a different speaker surrounding the audience. “The effect for the listener is that it turns the piece into this wall of sound,” Myers says. “And if they choose, they can specifically hear individual channels or recordings coming at them from all different sorts of angles.”

But whether drifting into a minimalist trance or swimming in a sea of piano and electronics, each piece on Myers’ program shares one common theme: total immersion in sound.

“I hope audience members will have a fresh perspective on the traditional piano recital and a deeper appreciation for new piano music,” Myers says. “Plus, it’s a piano recital with 360-degree surround-sound—that’s pretty cool."

See Jesse Myers: The Minimal Piano on Friday, Oct. 13 at the Good Shepherd Center

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