All posts by Kent Karnofski

From Bohemia to Benaroya in Six Generations: A World Premiere

Sammamish Symphony Orchestra: Requiem Æternam
Saturday, October 14, 2017 at 2:00 pm
Benaroya Hall, Seattle

“Imagine being on a roller coaster. You know how it gets scary, and then more scary, and then even more scary, until finally you’re screaming downhill in terror? That’s how this part goes – give me a little emotion, then a little more; let the crescendo build up and build up before you go off the cliff.”

That was Adam Stern, conductor and music director for the Sammamish Symphony Orchestra, addressing the chorus during a Saturday morning rehearsal. At times, Adam would halt play and walk to the back of the auditorium to talk to the chorus, giving them little visual cues about what he wanted.

After rehearsal, Adam and I found a place to sit down. He was electric!

“I don’t get the opportunity to work with a chorus very often,” Adam says. “Many orchestra players just want to be told to play a part long/short or loud/soft. When you’re working with a chorus and working with texts, using imagery to get musical results out of them is absolutely the way to go!”

Adam Stern conducts the Sammamish Symphony Orchestra.
Adam Stern conducts the Sammamish Symphony Orchestra. (Photo: Brent Ethington)

When the Sammamish Symphony Orchestra joins the Cantaré Vocal Ensemble and The Liberty Singers at Benaroya Hall this weekend, the program will consist of three works:

Alois Bohuslav Storch – Requiem in D major
Gabriel Fauré – Requiem in D minor, Op. 48
Handel – Viola Concerto in B minor, featuring Aloysia Friedmann on viola

This is the world premiere of Alois Bohuslav Storch’s Requiem, a show nearly two hundred years in the making. An 1820s Bohemian pharmacist, Storch composed music in obscurity, writing in the Classical era with hints of the Romantic era to come; his work provides the centerpiece for the evening.

The great-great granddaughter of Alois Storch, Laila Storch, faculty emeritus at the University of Washington, had possession of Storch’s original, hand-written music for years. Eventually, Adam was enlisted to re-copy the material into contemporary notation and format. The addition of violist Aloysia Friedmann, daughter of Laila Storch, as the soloist for the Handel viola concerto makes this concert a 6-generation story. (More about the Requiem’s fascinating history can be found at The Seattle Times and the UW School of Music.)

The two Requiem pieces played next to each other give the audience a chance to observe the completely different scorings of the ancient text. Storch is angry. His musical interpretations of death are intense and powerful, with big, building crescendos. This music is full of life, fighting for, demanding, those last, precious breaths. His work reminded me of the Dylan Thomas poem, Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night (Old age should burn and rave at close of day / Rage, rage, at the dying of the light). The Fauré piece is beautiful and somber, but he’s at the acceptance stage. His interpretation of the Requiem is comparatively relaxed. (Recall the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.)

Adam programs from the heart, but not without the audience in mind. He is very curious about the audience’s take, and makes a point of going out into the hall to greet people as they are leaving. They sometimes have words of wisdom, or share what they liked – or didn’t like.

“I hope the audience will revel in the familiar – I’m sure many of the audience will know the Fauré piece – and then be excited enough by what is unfamiliar to them to pursue it a little bit,” Adam told me. “I always hope that the unfamiliar will not be a flash in the pan, that something will take root in enough of the audience to justify my faith in the material.”

Sammamish Symphony Orchestra will perform Requiem Æternam on Saturday, October 14, 2017 at 2:00 pm at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. They will be joined by Cantaré Vocal Ensemble and Liberty Singers. Details here.

 

GreatWall_GreatKent_BWxKent Karnofski has been a Seattleite most of his adult life. By day he is a research engineer at a local manufacturing firm, by night he is an extraordinary audiophile. In addition to his work with the Live Music Project, he is the curator and primary contributor at CommunityNoise.blog.

Curiosity Visits the Pacific Northwest Conducting Institute

“I am a mathematician and an engineer,” I explain. “I don’t know anything about conducting an orchestra. Uhm, so, what does a conductor do?”

Most of the time – not always, but generally – I can admit that I don’t know something, and proceed to ask the most basic of questions. If you admit you don’t know, you’re allowed.

“As a conductor, basically, your hands are a metronome,” says Anna Edwards, founder and music director of the Pacific Northwest Conducting Institute, which took place last month on Whidbey Island. “The better you become at conducting, the more you emote musicality through your body. There are certain characteristics or emotions that an orchestra is trying to bring out of the music, and the conductor is the person to help with that. They convey the character of the music in a meaningful way to the musicians.”

This is the first year for the institute, which welcomed 14 students of varying experience – “fellows” and “associates” – from across the country.

I dropped by for a day of observation as the participants were preparing for a public concert, the culmination of their week-long workshop. Joining Anna on the faculty was Diane Wittry, Music Director and Conductor of the Allentown Symphony Orchestra.

A session of the Pacific Northwest Conducting Institute. (Photo: Larry Heidel)
A session of the Pacific Northwest Conducting Institute. (Photo: Larry Heidel)

The workshop is fast-paced. Within a few hours, I could perceive the challenges, learnings, and insights required to take up the baton. During a two-hour block, conductors were given 10-12 minute segments to practice.

During this time, Diane does not have a moment’s rest. She’s running back and forth behind the orchestra observing the conductor, writing notes, gesturing, shouting instructions, or halting a segment to give more personal coaching:

“You don’t need to look down at the score! If you’re looking down, you’re not engaging the orchestra.”

Or:

Diane: “That transition…”
Conductor: “That was terrible.”
Diane: “Well, no, that’s too strong a word. But we need to do it again.”

Diane: “That was better.”

Or:

“Don’t tell [the orchestra] what you’re going to do. Just do it!”

During a segment, conductors work on individual details; a 30-second slice might be used to hone a hand gesture, or a particular horn-to-string transition. The clock continues ticking throughout do-overs, spontaneous teaching moments, and random interruptions:

Diane: “How much time is left?”
Larry (time keeper): “Four ten.”
Diane: “What does that mean?”
Larry: “Four minutes, 3 seconds.”
Diane: “What?”
Larry: “Three minutes, 58 seconds. 57 seconds. 56 seconds.”

During one session, Diane stops the conductor and whispers in his ear. Whatever the gentleman did, the next attempt sounds better, richer, tighter. Diane then addresses the orchestra:

“I asked if he could change the sound of the orchestra with his hands. And he did! Did that feel different?”

(A quiet chorus of “yes” responds.)

Conducting is hungry work! (Photo: PNWCI)
Conducting is hungry work! (Photo: PNWCI)

I’m learning that conducting is about passionate gestures – strength and grace – to non-verbally emote one’s intent to the orchestra and to communicate the emotions of a piece to the audience.

“The conductor has to think about how you are going to start an ensemble, the correct character of the music, the correct tempo of the music, the correct style of the music, and then you have to think about where you want the music to go – what dynamics – if you want it louder or softer or if you want different energy coming from different parts of the ensemble,” Anna says to me later. “The conductor is the ears of the ensemble and is able to articulate, through their hands, through gestures, what has to be done [by the individual musicians].”

I conclude that conducting is akin to dancing, except backwards. When you dance to music, you are physically reacting to music that is being played – you react to what exists. When conducting music, the physical movements shape the music; a metronome, sure, but the conductor is giving the music life, emotion, and vitality, microseconds before it exists.

In addition to founding the conducting institute, Anna is Music Director of the Saratoga Orchestra, a professional orchestra on Whidbey Island that sponsors the institute. She hopes the institute will help extend the orchestra’s season into the summer, expand its audience into the tourist season, and become a summer destination in its own right.

The next session of the Pacific Northwest Conducting Institute will take place July 30 – August 4, 2018, on Whidbey Island, Washington. Visit their website for details.

GreatWall_GreatKent_BWxKent Karnofski has been a Seattleite most of his adult life. By day he is a research engineer at a local manufacturing firm, by night he is an extraordinary audiophile. In addition to his work with the Live Music Project, he is the curator and primary contributor at CommunityNoise.blog.

Learn to play the piano one note at a time

Neal Kosaly-Meyer: Gradus for Fux, Tesla and Milo the Wrestler
Saturday, August 19, 2017 at 8pm
Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center, Wallingford, Seattle

I heard ducks during Neal Kosaly-Meyer’s practice session for his upcoming show, Gradus for Fux, Tesla and Milo the Wrestler. His practice space doubles as the Maple Leaf home of Keith (Neal’s college buddy) and Karen (Neal’s sister). The residential neighborhood provides ambient noises of traffic, rustling of note paper (mine), airplanes above, voices in the next room, and – I’m pretty sure – ducks.

Neal has created a framework to play improvised piano pieces with a lot of silence, sparse notes, quick groupings and permutations of notes, and random ambient noises.

The enjoyment comes from the anticipation derived from silence, and then a sudden soft note or a single note played loudly. What’s next? Be patient. There could be one note, BAM, or 5 quick notes, BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM. It might be a mix BAM PING BAM BAM PING. There could be sustain, BAAAAAMMMMM. Somewhere in there, ambient noises might appear; fowl quacking out the window.

This forces me to listen to these notes in a new way. Be patient; wait for it. I hear notes for themselves, pure and clean, unencumbered by chords or progressions.

(Neal Kosaly-Meyer. Photo by Joe Mabel)
(Neal Kosaly-Meyer. Photo by Joe Mabel)

Neal mildly bristles at this notion of “unencumbered.” There is sometimes conflict between what the artist wants to convey, and what a particular audience member receives: that’s part of the magic. People create their own interpretations. That’s a beautiful aspect of art.

“My experience with it…” he drops off, thoughtfully… “I have to find my own way into this every time I play this,” Neal explains. “There’s a trust that there’s enough sound, enough song going on inside a note, to sustain, to make something that’s got as much feeling and as much mystery as what a ‘normal composer’ would get by taking a bunch of notes and stringing them together.”

The song comes as the piece progresses, but early on, that isn’t clear. This is the emotional part of experiencing Neal’s work, and it’s wonderful.

Neal relates that he often thinks of a scene in the Woody Allen movie Take the Money and Run, where he plays the cello in a marching band. Eventually Woody just sits down and plays, and lets the band keep marching on. And that’s Neal: he’s just playing as others do other things.

Neal explains that the project first presented itself to him as a sentence that popped into his head when he was a graduate student at UW around 1985: “Learn to play the piano one note at a time.”

Based on that sentence, Neal laid out the project: the first session, he studied the lowest A; then two sessions for the second A up plus one with both of the lowest As; then four sessions for the third A plus the combinations with the lower two; then eight sessions for the fourth A plus combinations with the lower three. And so on. It took about 13 years and, if you’re counting at home, 255 sessions to move through all the combinations of the A pitches.


Silence and patience
A gift opportunity
Listen: Notes and noise


This was taking too long. Neal modified his approach, sticking with the idea of slowly incorporating one new note and one new pitch. Neal has now worked through A, E, C#, and G. He’ll be moving on to B after the upcoming performance is complete.

This has been an idea, slow developing, for Neal to grab onto.

There are four types of music, Neal explains. “There’s the music where you listen to silence; there’s the music where you have one note that you bring into that silence; the third kind is when you bring two notes into the silence; the fourth is when you bring three or more notes into the silence.” In Neal’s mind, once you have more than two notes, it’s the same mental game, whether you’re playing with three notes or eight.

“For me, these performances are acts of dedication to a principle that there is enough music in a few pitches, or a pair of pitches, in a single pitch, or even in silence – that there is enough music to be heard, enough to sustain us and delight us and transport us. This is an act of faith, and that faith is tested each time, but it is a faith which has been strengthened each time [I perform Gradus] as well.”

Neal arranges a public performance of two hours divided into three “rungs” of 20, 40, and 60 minutes. One of the movements will be dedicated to a single pitch, a second to two pitches, and a third to three or more pitches. Tossing coins – a devotion to John Cage – determines the arrangement of those rungs and the notes and pitches to be utilized in each rung.

From there, improv and random ambient noises steal the show – like the ducks I heard. Geese? The fan belt on the neighbor’s car? Our ears improvise sometimes; here’s a chance to listen and enjoy the unexpected.

Neal Kosaly-Meyer will perform ‘Gradus’ on Saturday, August 19, 2017 at 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space in Wallingford, Seattle. Details here.

GreatWall_GreatKent_BWxKent Karnofski has been a Seattleite most of his adult life. By day he is a research engineer at a local manufacturing firm, by night he is an extraordinary audiophile. In addition to his work with the Live Music Project, he is the curator and primary contributor at CommunityNoise.blog.

Alt-Jazz Poetry for a Casual Night Out

(The Daphnes. Photo by Stephen Schildbach)
(The Daphnes. Photo by Stephen Schildbach)

 

There’s a sense of wandering in Monica’s voice, as she describes The Daphnes’ style as a mix of music and poetry and singing.

“I studied poetry, that’s what my degree actually is in, and harp was my minor when I went to college… After I graduated, I was hanging out with all these jazz musicians; being a poet, I was really drawn to the Beats and the merging with jazz and improvisational playing and that seemed like something that I wanted do.”

Monica Schley, harpist, poet, and vocalist, writes and composes the material for The Daphnes. Julie Baldridge (violin) and Nate Omdal (bass) complete the trio for this unconventional group. For a Seattle-neighborhood dinner sort of evening, this is a talented trio with plenty to share over a glass of wine.

The Daphnes perform next on Friday, June 23, 2017 @ 7:00 pm at the Stone Way Cafe, Seattle. Details here.

From the Remnants of Horror

Music of Remembrance: Ceija
Sunday, May 21, 2017 @ 5:00 pm
Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, Seattle

Traveling through Zion National Park, I found myself strolling through a slot canyon. I was noticing the smoothly carved rock, cut and shaped by eons of rushing, flowing water. Climbing out of the slots, back up to the road, I noticed a very different rock formation: turbulent, violent waters had crushed against this wall. Continuously.

(Zion National Park. Photo by Kent Karnofski)
(Zion National Park. Photo by Kent Karnofski)

It occurred to me that water has this duplicity – smooth or turbulent, flowing or crushing, friend or foe. We, too, have this parallel with our fellow humans, our neighbors, our friends. Each of us wants to think that we can love and respect each other, live and flow together. But sometimes that doesn’t happen. The human turbulence becomes inhuman and horrific.

The water we can understand, watch, and marvel. The humans? Painful and not understandable. We fail to confront.

Seattle’s Music of Remembrance gives us a way to begin the confrontation, in a space where music, art, and community come together to address conflict and horror.

MOR has commissioned Mary Kouyoumdjian to compose an original piece. Mary has found meaning in meeting and studying people who have lived through genocides; it provides an understanding of her own family. Her grandparents, both maternal and paternal, lived through the Armenian genocide, eventually being displaced to Lebanon, where much of her family still lives.

Mary’s new piece, to open myself, to scream, celebrates the life of Austrian-Romani Ceija Stojka, born in 1933, who survived the Holocaust and internment at Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and Bergen-Belsen. Ceija was a painter, artist, writer, and musician; she passed away in 2013.

I spoke with Mary about her work, about Ceija, and about being a first-generation Armenian-American.

Mary got to know Ceija through her artwork, books, and, later, documentaries that featured her.

“She was an incredibly joyous person, but then you see the burden of her experience weigh her down from time to time. Understandably. Getting to know people on that level where you start to understand how these events, which happened so long ago, still eat away at them every day… That’s how I connect to these people,” Mary tells me.

Still from an animation by Kevork Mourad.
Still from an animation by Kevork Mourad. (Photo courtesy of MOR)

Mary’s new work is a multimedia piece in 4 movements, each movement inspired by selected paintings of Ceija’s. Each movement features a pre-recorded audio track as a backdrop, on top of which a 5-person ensemble (clarinet, trumpet, violin, cello, and double bass) will play live. The audio playbacks are influenced by Mary’s observation that past events continue to impart sorrowful backdrops to survivors’ lives; they live in the present, but they are also always living in the past. In addition, a hand-painted, 25-minute, animated film by projection artist Kevork Mourad will be synced to the pre-recorded audio, adding a visual experience for the audience.

This is a heavy, emotional space to work in. I asked Mary: Does the work become a burden?

“It can be totally burdensome, and these are not easy topics to confront, but I think it’s good to confront them,” she says. “Given my own family’s history, I’m drawn to these topics, and every time I re-approach them, it gives me a bit more understanding about my own family history and what my family members have gone through… and why my community is where it is in our present day. Selfishly, I’m getting something from it, too.”

Emotionally and intellectually, the enormity of genocide triggers overwhelm. As we’re stymied on how to proceed, this phenomenon continues to occur throughout the world. Music of Remembrance, Ceija’s art, and Mary’s new work give us a way to begin to understand – and discuss – the horrors of genocide. Perhaps, by learning the stories of individual lives and sorrows, some humanity can be regained while opening the door to progress.

Music of Remembrance’s Ceija will take place on Sunday, May 21, 2017 @ 5:00 pm in the Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, Seattle. With Laura DeLuca (clarinet), Alexander White (trumpet), Mikhail Shmidt (violin), Walter Gray (cello), and Jonathan Green (double bass). Full details are here.

GreatWall_GreatKent_BWxKent Karnofski has been a Seattleite most of his adult life. By day he is a research engineer at a local manufacturing firm, by night he is an extraordinary audiophile. In addition to his work with the Live Music Project, he is the curator and primary contributor at CommunityNoise.blog.

Set Free: Compositions for Guitar

The Guitar In My Life
Friday, April 21, 2017 @ 8:00 pm
The Chapel at the Good Shepherd Center, Seattle

In recent months, I’ve been consciously interested in finding the opposite of what I’m currently listening to – adamant to reach out, find something new. New-to-me. As I settle in to write this piece, I’m randomly listening to an album of Jack Kerouac reading his poems, with Steve Allen playing piano accompaniment.

It’s not about music; it’s about the jazzy aura of the Beat Generation: energy, sorrow, exuberance. Wonderment! It’s lyrical. Air and wind.

Kerouac becomes the perfect backdrop as I think about meeting guitarist, composer, and educator Tom Baker to chat about his upcoming show with the Wayward Music Series. “The Guitar In My Life” will feature highlights of Tom’s 25-year career playing guitar and composing new music. The show will include solo classical guitar, electric guitar, and works for guitar and soprano. I asked him what he thought the show was about.

“It’s a celebration of the guitar as an instrument,” he says, without hesitation.

There are certain expectations – rules and norms – that composers may feel compelled to follow when writing for a more traditional ensemble; for example, a string quartet. The guitar? There is no tradition to follow; there are no rules to follow or rules to break.

Tom muses, “It’s only been a concert instrument for about 100 years.” Without a legacy to draw from, a composer is free to innovate, experiment, find the new sound. What can a composer do with that space? “I think of non-traditional sounds and find a way to create those sounds with a guitar.”

Tom Baker with his fretless guitar. (Photo by Tim Summers)
Tom Baker with his fretless guitar. (Photo by Tim Summers)

I frequently wonder if instrumental music is meant to have themes. Would a person image spring or autumn whilst listening to Vivaldi, if they’d not been told, beforehand, the name of the concerti was The Four Seasons? Should the audience think of stories that a piece is about, or is a piece about sounds?

Tom is quick to tell me that for his music, “it’s about sounds.” He uses stories, poems, pieces of literature as motivation; he strives to create sounds that work with the imagery in his head, but the final piece has to stand alone.

Green Guitar, for example, is about a dream he had after buying a new guitar. In the dream, his favorite old guitar, and this new guitar, have a battle for supremacy. Great story! Close your eyes and imagine two guitars duking it out, showing off, playing secret chords and magic riffs; now imagine a composer writing that down. Very cool! However, “I always tell my students that it’s risky to expect an audience to have a certain reaction,” Tom instructs.

Here’s my recommendation: Just listen and enjoy. If the listener has guitar compositions in their repertory already, this should be a great show; Tom has been doing this for a long time, and has a well-respected catalogue, and a catalogue that he is notably excited about. And for the listener without guitar composition as part of their normal? It’s time to come out and give it a try; let it be your opposite experience.

Tom Baker & friends will perform on Friday, April 21, 2017 @ 8:00 pm at The Chapel at the Good Shepherd Center in Seattle. Full details are here.

GreatWall_GreatKent_BWxKent Karnofski has been a Seattleite most of his adult life. By day he is a research engineer at a local manufacturing firm, by night he is an extraordinary audiophile. In addition to his work with the Live Music Project, he is the curator and primary contributor at CommunityNoise.blog.

2000 Moving Parts: Crafting Sounds

Sound of Late: 2000 Moving Parts
Saturday, March 11, 2017 @ 8:00 pm
Flutter Studios, Seattle

Somewhere in my home, amongst the heaps of scrap paper I have around, there is a To Do list, now several years old, scrawled upon a notepad; a bunch of checked off items, except one: “Buy a Harp.”

I don’t play, but as objets d’art, harps are remarkable pillars of craftsmanship: the wood, the strings and hardware, the assemblage. The visual anticipation of soothing sounds draws me to their constructed beauty. After the frame warps from strings’ tensions, as certainly a harp frame will do, people sell them off. I want one.

As I prepared for this interview, I kept saying to myself, “Each of us must have our own harp story.” So, I asked harpist Jennifer Ellis, “What drew you to the harp?”

(Photo credit: Jason Paige and Bonnie Lyn Paige)

The Secret Garden was one of my favorite books as a kid, and when the movie came out, my mom took me. There is this beautiful little harp solo in the score, and so I started poking my mom, ‘What instrument makes that sound? I want to play the instrument that makes that sound.'”

Years later, Jennifer joins us in Seattle. On Saturday, March 11, 2017 – together with Sarah Pyle on the flute and Andrew Stiefel playing viola – we’ll be listening to the collaborative trio Sound of Late.

The harp has some 2000 moving parts, inspiring the name of the show. I asked Jennifer to help me count to 2000. “A lot of where the moving parts come in is through the system we have to get flats and sharps.” There are 7 foot pedals; one pedal connects all of the “C” strings, one connects all of the “D” strings, one all of the “E” strings, etc.

When you move a foot pedal, it triggers a spring, which triggers a rod, which triggers the linkage, which triggers the discs, and the discs (2 per string) engage the string, fretting it like a guitar string. One disc raises the note a half step from flat to natural, and the second disc raises the note another half step to sharp. Jennifer manipulates these discs to develop sounds that most harpists try to mute.


That impetus to take things apart to understand them and put them back together is a wonderful one in our world.


I listened to some preview materials prior to the interview. There’s the identifiable harp strings providing sounds, but there’s other stuff; blurts and bits and twongs (I literally heard a “twong”); extra reverberations that help to fill spaces. John Cale would be proud.

I suggested to Jennifer: “The way you’re manipulating the harp, it adds texture and sounds, and it sounds like you’re accompanying yourself.”

I wasn’t far off. “Yeah! Yeah, that’s a fair thing to say!”

Many orchestral instruments play only one note at a time. The harp is played with both hands, 4 fingers each (the pinky finger is too short), so you can play eight notes at once. It’s a very rich instrument to play solo, but, says Jennifer, “it’s really fun to get the opportunity to expand and collaborate with others and play chamber music. Sound of Late is the best of both worlds, because you get to hear the harp solo and then you get to hear the harp with other instruments.”

In her work with the harp, Jennifer enjoys a sense of discovery; take something apart and you feel more connected with it, like something has been revealed to you. “That impetus to take things apart to understand them and put them back together is a wonderful one in our world. I hope people leave with a little glimmer of that feeling and are interested in applying it elsewhere in their lives.”

After the show, Jennifer will invite guests onto the stage to see the harp up close and ask questions.

“I hope this concert helps lift the veil and make the harp feel accessible and dynamic, interesting, and intriguing,” Jennifer added.

It’s your chance to see this beautiful object up close, and understand how it makes beautiful sounds, and develop a harp obsession of your own…

Sound of Late will perform on Saturday, March 11, 2017 @ 8:00 pm at Flutter Studios in Seattle. Full details are here.

GreatWall_GreatKent_BWxKent Karnofski has been a Seattleite most of his adult life. By day he is a research engineer at a local manufacturing firm, by night he is an extraordinary audiophile. In addition to his work with the Live Music Project, he is the curator and primary contributor at CommunityNoise.blog.

Steinways & Screws: Myers plays Cage

Cornish Presents: Jesse Myers
Friday, February 17, 2017 @ 8pm
PONCHO Concert Hall, Seattle

“It transforms the piano into something not recognizable as a piano,” says pianist Jesse Myers, as we peer into his Steinway.

In 1940, while a faculty member at The Cornish School, John Cage devised methods of converting the piano into, as he described, “a percussion ensemble under the control of a single player.”

Originally aimed at a dance accompaniment, his innovation was to insert objects – screws, nuts and bolts, pieces of rubber – between certain piano strings, in specific locations. The foreign objects create unfamiliar timbres that result in sounds more like a wood block than a piano.

Jesse Myers uses screws to modify the sound of the piano. (Photo by Kent Karnofski)
Jesse Myers uses screws to modify the sound of the piano. (Photo by Kent Karnofski)

On Friday, 17 February, at the same Cornish where it all began, Jesse will be performing Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano. Jesse played some for me.

It sounds like a small ensemble of instruments, mostly percussion, with one piano, playing a song together. Instead of each instrument playing its own track, one instrument plays a note, then another instrument plays a note, and then another instrument plays a note, and so on. Sometimes one instrument plays a bar or two. Thus, there is a disruptive continuity, as so many small parts are rhythmically tied together.

I find the result to be pleasing and coherent, yet challenging. (I’ve been trying to count how many instruments I’m listening to, and understand what all of them are.) The piece will arrive at a nice spree of notes, then something fittingly discordant, followed by a short melody, then a clock striking 1 o’clock. Begin again.

“Do you think Cage was a genius?” I assured Jesse that I do not frequently use this term. (People are generally familiar with others tagged with the “genius” label – Beethoven, Einstein – but Cage is out there in the cold obscurity.)


Cage claimed that music consisted of combinations of different sounds, and therefore if you were making noises, you were making music.


Jesse pondered, “You can’t talk about music over the past 50 years without talking about John Cage. He completely changed how we think about contemporary music. So, yes, I would have to say he was a genius.”

I keep wondering, if Cage was a genius, why is he not more prominent in today’s performance spaces? Cage claimed that music consisted of combinations of different sounds, and therefore if you were making noises, you were making music. This assertion gave him space to innovate without rules or interference, and his fertile mind deserved the space.

Cage can be challenging, and sometimes (in my experience) unlistenable. I think this is a show where people not familiar with Cage’s work could invite him in from the cold. Jesse and I agreed that an audience should find this evening, these works, to be quite enjoyable.

“I just want the audience to relax,” Jesse tells me. “This is beautiful music, and people should be able to sit back and enjoy the sounds. If we could throw a couple of bean bags on the floor for people, I’d be all for that.”

The reader can get a preview from Jesse’s SoundCloud; here is Sonata V.

Jesse Myers will perform on Friday, February 17, 2017 @ 8:00 pm at PONCHO Concert Hall at Cornish College of the arts. Full details are here.

GreatWall_GreatKent_BWxKent Karnofski has been a Seattleite most of his adult life. By day he is a research engineer at a local manufacturing firm, by night he is an extraordinary audiophile. In addition to his work with the Live Music Project, he is the curator and primary contributor at CommunityNoise.blog.