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Touring the World of Piano

Three solo piano concerts came fast and furiously one week after the other in February to the Northampton, MA, Center for the Arts. Three distinct approaches to the piano made the series both educational and memorable, but also pointed out a characteristic which revealed clarity to the distinction among the three.

Uri Caine was the first of the three soloists. Here is a pianist who goes explosively and voraciously for the piano. The marriage between Caine and the piano is noticeably mechanical. No matter which way you look at it, Caine has incredible keyboard technique. However, the pianist borrows from so many sources that the nature of his playing comes across as un-original. Caine maintains a distance from the audience that renders his performance calculated and cold. When he interprets the music of other composers, either from the classical or popular repertoire, it is as if he is psychoanalyzing the music without talking to the composer. Caine’s purpose seems to be to compact as much music into as little time as possible. The nature of the composite structure of the music detracts from any kind of inventiveness on Caine’s part. His improvisation ethic is slight to say the least. Caine has a hard time finding the expressive extremes on the keyboard. His predilection for laying out dense, quick non-swinging sets of chordal progressions presents a flatness of travel similar to a train ride that has no destination. Strikingly, Caine plays so many notes that their potential character seems to vanish.

Contrasting Caine, Craig Taborn, the second soloist in the series, brought to the piano innocence and warmth that spited the electronics he interjected into his sets of music. It seems obvious that sound digitalization has impacted his methods of playing. Taborn loves to repeat a certain group of often extreme sonic structures before switching any kind of note or rhythmic pattern. Listening to these repetitions is satisfying. They become a hinge for how the music can disintegrate. Taborn’s improvisation can be brief; but it is also direct and loaded with a vivid personality. Sometimes, he plays fluid melodies and relegates himself to a center of the sound and other times, he imitates the abstractions emanating from the small electronic device that accompanies him with telegraphic bleeps and high pitch squeals. His determined pianistic voice can work an artful resonant filigree of notes into a soundscape that has only a binary set of possible outcomes. Taborn opens himself up to experimentation and leaves himself vulnerable to the uncertainty that comes with the territory. In fact, he invites that uncertainty, which brands his music eventful and without artifice.

To hear Vijay Iyer in the last slot for the series was a gratifying conclusion. Iyer is a formalist and has a classical orientation. The uniqueness surrounding his compositions originates in an extraordinarily deep awareness of processes of musical perception. The structure of his music is overtly logical. The bass line is important to him. He moves his left hand infrequently out of this rhythm-keeping chord zone. An amazingly consistent flow of sensitive rippling lines introduces the body of any one piece. Any recognizable tunes are buried in strata of note progressions and sturdy chord repetitions that parse the keyboard. When those recognizable tunes come out of the ivories, they evolve sporadically and emphatically. Iyer can use electronics in a pleasing non-intrusive fashion where the sound produced can be drone-like and become a pulse through which he can play the acoustic keyboard to provide another rhythmic layer to the musical whole. Iyer also can alter the roles of electronics and the acoustic piano where the electronics become the subject and the piano gracefully lifts the importance of the electronics to the forefront. Iyer’s temperament is calm and his performance straightforward. His human nature comes out in the small unknowable details that arise through the accents in his phrasing or in the shifting of keys and rhythm. His music exhales a beauty that is sculpted and exceedingly well-crafted.

Midway though Iyer’s performance, a picture of his newborn daughter flashed up on the screen of his laptop, replacing the moving bar graphs that had beforehand charted decibels of digital sound. Iyer continued to grace the keyboard with embracing rolling chords as if he were conversing with the photograph. The poignancy of that moment, apparently unplanned, sealed the message of the entire concert series. The differences among the three pianists were so significant that their performances managed to constitute the fulfillment of an entire set of complementary undertakings. But, of singular importance, was the way in which the energy of each pianist interlocked with the energy of the audience. How that happened was unpredictable, yet, within that one condition, was measured the humanity of each performer.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Uri Caine, Craig Taborn, Vijay Iyer
  • Concert Date: February 3, 10, and 17
  • Subtitle: Three Concerts in February
  • Venue: Northampton Center for the Arts
  • City State Country: Northampton, MA
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