Interview with R. Andrew Lee, Minimalist Pianist

I first discovered the recordings of R. Andrew Lee when I heard his five-hour November, released on the Irritable Hedgehog record label. After that, I purchased many of his other recordings, including music by Tom Johnson, Jürg Frey, Eva-Maria Houben, Anne Southam and others.

I’m particularly enamored of the kind of slow, gradual minimalist music that is November, and the other recordings that R. Andrew Lee has made cover other facets of what may be called minimalist music.

But I was especially interested when Mr. Lee announced a crowdfunded project for new recordings of “considerable duration.” I contacted Mr. Lee, and we conducted an email interview over several weeks.

Q: You seem to have staked out a space where you play very long works of “minimalist” piano music. You’ve recently crowdfunded new recordings of what you call Music of Considerable Duration.

And you also premiered a 3-hour work by Randy Gibson, last month, called The Four Pillars Appearing from The Equal D under Resonating Apparitions of the Eternal Process in The Midwinter Starfield.

What attracted you to this idea of playing and recording very long works?

R. Andrew Lee: My interest in longer piano works was sparked by Tom Johnson’s An Hour for Piano. When I was in the early stages of my dissertation research, I came across a post by Kyle Gann called Sixty Minutes to Change Your Life. He wrote that, “By the time I played the final measures an hour later I was in a healthier and completely altered state of mind.” I was intrigued, so I decided to pull out the score (which I had thanks to my research) and give it a go.

DroppedImageAs Gann writes, the piece isn’t technically demanding in any traditional sense, but I did find it difficult to maintain focus for so long. I don’t think I made it more than about forty minutes before my mind gave out and the notes stopped making sense. Still, I found the experience fascinating, and before long I gave a performance of the work for a small but appreciative audience. After that, I found myself increasingly drawn to works of longer duration. When looking at the website of a new (to me) composer, the first piece I’d listen to would be the longest they had available. It was a while before I jumped off the deep end on something like November, but I was finding enormous pleasure in the challenge of interpreting a continuous musical idea over a long time.Q: You mention November, by Dennis Johnson, which may be the longest piano piece of any importance ever written (with the exception, of course, of Satie’s Vexations, which calls for 840 repetitions of a short “motif” of about a minute and a half).

This was the first recording of yours I heard, and I was carried away by its Feldmanesque simplicity, though it was written decades before Morton Feldman started composing his long works. In my review of it, I wrote that the piece “is as much like looking at a painting as it is like listening to a work for piano. It’s beautiful music that moves in slow motion.” Is playing this piece like running a marathon? How many times have you performed it? And how do you cope with such a long performance?


R. Andrew Lee: I’d first add among long, important piano works La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano. It is significant not only as one of Young’s greatest and most well-known works, but it was also inspired by November.

I’ve done some long distance running (though not much beyond a half marathon), and I do think there are similarities between that and performing November. With distance running, pacing is extremely important, and it can be difficult judging whether one’s pace is too fast or slow for a given distance. With November, I try to be ever conscious of the work as a whole and how any given figure or section fits into the overall experience of the piece. Obviously, that is an important consideration when performing a work of any duration, but over the course of nearly five hours it can be quite a challenge. There are also many factors that influence that pacing. For a runner, it may be food, weather, surface, clothing, and any of various joints, for example. For me, I’m reacting to the space, the resonance and tone of the piano, the audience, as well as my own mood in the moment. Every performance is different.

On the other hand, while the mental endurance is not easy, I wouldn’t compare the sense of physical endurance. At the end of the day, I’m mostly just sitting still for five hours. I have to be conscious not to consume too many liquids ahead of time, and I try to eat something that will be sustaining but not make me want to take a nap, but the physical challenges really do pale in comparison to the musical.

DroppedImage 1Still, coping with the duration was something that took some adjusting to. My experience has been that there are about five different stages to the performance, though they are by no means discrete. First, “this is easy!” I have a stopwatch I use for performances, and it is usually the case that the first 30-90 minutes cruise by without effort. Second, “it’s going to be a long time before I get to the improvisation.” (The first 112 minutes are a transcription of the original performance followed by improvising on the score for another 2.5 – 3 hours.) At some point, relatively early in the piece, I will hit a place of fatigue where I feel like I’m just holding on until the end of the transcribed section. Third, “this is going to be my longest performance yet!” Once I get into the improvisation, it is a totally different experience. There is a great sense of freedom and joy in exploring Johnson’s ideas on my own. Fourth, “there is no way I’m even making it to 4.5 hours.” Fatigue strikes again, and I start to worry that I am moving through ideas too quickly. Fifth, “I don’t want it to end.” Toward the end of the piece, there is almost a sense of loss as I move through ideas for the last time. I become hesitant to let them go, but most difficult of all is to stop playing. After such a long time, it is difficult to decide that a note will be the last note of the piece.

By quick count, I’ve given five public performances of the piece.

Q: You’ve outlined the physical issues of playing such a piece – I admit, I was a bit curious about how you manage the lack of bathroom breaks for five hours. But what about the audience? I recall that, when I saw Einstein on the Beach at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1984, there was a note in the program saying that the audience was free to come and go during the work. What about when you’re performing a long piece? It’s clear that a 90-minute piece isn’t difficult to sit through, but what about a three-hour piece, such as the one by Randy Gibson you premiered last month, or a piece like November? How do you expect the audience to act? Also, have you ever attended a performance of a very long work, such as, say, Feldman’s second string quartet?

R. Andrew Lee: Audience expectations vary given the piece. For something like November, it is important to be there for the start of the work to understand the evolving structure as well as get an ear for some of the more prominent “motives.” People are certainly encouraged to come and go after that, and moving around the space is also fine; I just discourage people from arriving late to the performance.

The three hour piece I’m premiering this weekend [this question was answered in October, just before the premiere] is a bit of a different beast. Where November maintains a fairly similar aesthetic throughout, there is some significant variety in Gibson’s work. Obviously we won’t lock the doors, but I think this is definitely a situation where it’s more to be present for the duration. Generally, the biggest thing for me is that the audience is respectful of one another, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how attentive an audience can be.

The longest performance I’ve attended was at the re-premiere of November in 2009. Outside of that, I attended a marvelous performance of Charlemagne Palestine’s Schlingen-Blangen, which felt short at just a bit under 2 hours. Otherwise, I suppose my experience is much more on the performance side of the equation.

Q: A final question about listening to minimalist recordings; yours and others. I was recently listening to a new recording of Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No 1, but the Flux Quartet. As I listened, I started wondering about how loud it should be played. The only information I could find said that the score was marked ppp and ppppp. How can a listener of such a recording – or of yours, some of which may me intended to be played at a similarly quiet level – know what volume at which to play them? Do you think that recordings should give the listener some indication of how loud they are intended to be played?

R. Andrew Lee: I purchased a 3-disc set of music by Jakob Ullmann, fremde zeit addendum, which instructed the listener to adjust the volume so that the recording was just on the threshold of audibility. Still, I found myself tempted on more than one occasion to turn it up a little louder. I think that demonstrates some of the limits/benefits of recorded music quite well. Were I at a concert, I would experience the piece as the composer intended, but with the recording I have the option of exploring the work in a different way.

It isn’t quite the same situation in my recordings, but many of them do call for softer dynamics. With the recording, that can be altered, and you could virtually stick your head inside the piano and hear all the details that the piece offers that an audience would miss. Is this the proper way to hear the piece? Perhaps not, or at least not as the composer intended, but I think the chance for exploration is worthwhile. Still, regardless of how I or others feel, it is an element of the medium that is beyond our control; suggestions for volume may be helpful at times, but ultimately the listener is in charge.

Discover R. Andrew Lee’s recordings on Irritable Hedgehog records, and check out his crowdfunded Music of Considerable Duration.