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.