The piano: Where to begin? Piano? Piano?
My mother’s side of my family comes from Warsaw, although that’s going back almost two centuries. There’s no one in my family who recalls anything about life there. Actually, it took a lot of digging to learn about that side of my family—where they came from, where they went.
I’ve since learned a large branch of my family emigrated to South America. But that’s another story, I’m still learning about those details. And the piano isn’t yet part of that story.
In any case, my mother was my first piano teacher. So that’s where I begin with the piano.
What she knew about pianos came from her mother, my grandmother, who was an accomplished pianist. She took classes at the New England Conservatory long before I received my undergraduate degree in jazz piano performance there.
Chickering and Piano Lore
And it was my grandmother and grandfather who gave us the piano on which I learned to play. It was a 1932 Chickering, built in Boston, which is where they lived. Actually, they were in Saugus, a suburb on legendary Route 1.
The Chickering factory in Boston, which at one time was the largest building in the US, is in downtown Boston, the South End to be specific. When I went to New England Conservatory, the Chickering building had by then been long-since converted to subsidised artist’ housing.
One more thing about Chickering: When Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg moved to the US in the 19th century, some say among the first things he did was to learn about innovations by Chickering as regards to piano design and manufacture. Now, Steinweg certainly did well enough on his own, he is, after all, the found of Steinway and Sons. Still, that’s an interesting niche story about Chickering that awaits further research or confirmation. Until it’s known to be true, it’s ONLY a story,
Anyway, I loved that Chickering and took it with me across the United States and then eventually here to the UK where I reside now. That piano’s since moved on to a neighbour’s house where someone special is learning to play it. I’m assisting, naturally, as the piano teacher. Should I mention that Glenn Gould had a beloved Chickering?
Steingraeber Piano Lore
My piano is now a Steingraeber 205. It’s a magnificent instrument I acquired from Hurstwood Farms in Seven Oaks. In previous blog posts I wrote about how I found that piano—the link here goes to the fifth post in a series about that adventure. There was a lot to say, or so it seemed, when I was looking for that piano. I mean, ANY piano that follows in the path of a beloved Chickering has a lot to overcome. Right?
Anyway, the first 205 was made for Frank Liszt. That particular line has since been discontinued for another model known as the 212.
While mine isn’t the last 205 made it’s probably in the last cycle or series or few.
Piano adventures: visiting Poland
Meanwhile, Poland: I’ve visited there many times, mostly to Krakow, mostly to present concerts with piano and electronics or to present master classes at the Academy of Music.
Among highlights from visits there are my first one in 1994. My wife and I stayed with a family in Nowa Huta, a district in Krakow where demonstrations in the 80s against the communist government led to democracy. Of course, Poland has long since moved on and forward from that past—that’s now ancient history
In any case, it was fascinating tos stay with a family who actually participated in the demonstrations. They had stories to tell. And stories.
I somehow felt during my piano concerts: I had to honour those stories.
It’s hard to explain how and why. Maybe it was just because what we were told of the demonstrations was so personal.
My way of honouring that was to think about their protests, the difficulties, they encountered—and the excellent outcome which came for my host family after those events. For me, that all translated into pianism.
Larger issues and the piano
I’ve since found that thinking in general about larger issues—issues that go past music—is something I find inspiring. It’s a process that may not be for everyone. I mean, it’s hard enough to think about music! But for me, the extra-musical approach, it works.
Looking back from the time of now, an extra-musical approach was a practice I began in Poland. More recently in Hong Kong, I used the i-Ching to suggest ways to structure a concert. So the general practice continues to give results. But, again, that’s what I find. It’s not for everyone and there are plenty of ways to prepare for performances.
But, returning to being in Poland In 1994—maybe what it really came to was I had never seen my music making as political or as having a political dimension. But what I learned from many whom whom I met in Poland—and what I experienced—was jazz and improvisation somehow represented freedom.
What kind of freedom, I can’t say. I do know it had to do with protest and with speaking as an individual. Or that’s how it seemed to me.
Having said that, that’s definitely an abstract impression. I don’t think I’m explaining it well. I’m not sure I can do any better than that.
Or, maybe the freedom I perceived there came from looking and and hearing the piano in and through the eyes and ears of a culture other my home country. Is it possible? Perspective leads to freedom? I’d have to say yes to that.
Meanwhile, during that first trip to Poland, I was performing mostly with a trio—with bass and drums. We played in Krakow, Warsaw, and Lotz. Most of our venues were clubs, concert halls, and there were a few music schools.
Something amazing: EVERY venue had a wonderful tuned piano—they were all concert-grade instruments. But maybe that’s not unusual? Poland is the country were Chopin was born?
Cardinal Glemp and the piano?
In Warsaw we performed in Cardinal Glemp’s private residence, an interesting place to play indeed. To say the Cardinal lived in a magnificent, stately, hone with oil paintings covering the walls would be to understate the palatial nature of his domicile!
Audio art and jazz piano
I returned to Poland in 1996, to work on a project with a colleague who was an visual artist. Together, we made a film that traced the trajectory of his family from Poland to the United States and Israel. That project began when my colleague received a letter, literally, out of the blue. The first sentence of the letter:
You ask about the family?
I spent much of that trip with a DAT recorder in Krakow, Warsaw, and the surrounding countryside. I was captured environmental sounds, ambient audio. Later I pieced it all together into a non-narrative portrait. It became the soundtrack for the film my colleague and I made.
During that visit, I played nightly in a jazz club on Florienska street in the centre of Krakow. That venue is still there. On my most recent visit to Krakow last November, 2016, I walked by it and tried to get in. But it were shut for the day and I was playing a concert elsewhere in the evening—it wasn’t possible to return.
Krakow is gorgeous!
Meanwhile, as I speak of my trips to Krakow, I’d say to anyone: You have to visit Krakow to appreciate just how beautiful it is. There’s so much amazing medieval architecture and detail in the centre of the city, it’s just not possible to describe it. It is definitely a you-gotta-see-it kind of city.
Teaching in Poland as a Senior Fulbright Lecturer
In 1998 I spent a term in Poland as a Senior Fulbright Lecturer at the Krakow Academy of Music. My Fulbright, which supported the two courses I taught in the Electro-acoustic Music Studio at the Academy, led to an exchange program between there and Central Washington University. Students went back and forth from Poland to America and vice-versa.
The program was remarkable. Amazing students from Poland came to Washington state to study with me. And some of my amazing students from Washington state went to Poland to studio at the Academy of Music in Krakow. There were enduring friendships that grew out the exchange, some of which remain in place today.
Most interesting of all was how much the American students I had in my classes learned from the Polish students who were visiting and vice versa. The mix was wonderful.
It may be different now, but at that point, Central Washington University, where I directed the music composition and theory programs, wasn’t sending many students abroad. So that opportunity in general, as I saw it, and as I think my students did too, hit a sweet spot.
In those days I used to say my highest responsibility as a professor was to travel and to help my students to do so as well. I mean, traveling is about the only way to learn and know about anything outside of the area in which one resides.
Now, there was a night where my wife and I were detained in Belarus because the visa requirements had changed on that very day. But that was part of the adventure. We learned.
But the larger point is: the Fulbright made all of opportunities possible.
Other piano and electronic music adventures in Poland
Anyway: my recent return to Poland in November, 2016, to give a solo piano performance, all now available on YouTube which is where that link leads. All in the concert improvised, of course. Along with assistance from a video artist—you’ll see that instantly in the video.
So with this recent return I can look back and say it’s been a while—my last visit to Poland was in 2004 to display the Robots-in-Residence installation I built while I was artist-in-residence for a year in the computer science department at Aarhus University in Denmark. There was another visit in 2000 to speak at the Academy of Music about my work with computer software and to perform, once again, in the Audio Art Festival.
Marek Choloniewski and our DoubleMark collaboration
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say: All congratulations to Marek Choloniewski who has been running the Audio Art Festival for well over twenty years. What an accomplishment! He’s brought well-known international sound artists to Krakow and shows every sign of continuing to do so well into the distant future. And fortunately, he’s invited me over the years to participate in three different festivals.
Each time has been a lot of fun and a unique experience in of itself. I’ve enjoyed performing and I’ve learned a lot seeing what othere performers were presenting. I’m thinking now, in particular, of an installation in which ghosts had their own websites. Only Marek knows where to find those sorts of things. And only Marek knows how and where to present them to best effect.
Meanwhile, Marek and I have our longstanding DoubleMark duo. We organised it long ago during my Fulbright year.
It’s been a while since our last performance. Nonetheless, we’re ready to wreak, provoke, and provide sonic mayhem at a moment’s notice. If your organisation is interested, we specialise in unique concerts, sonic interventions, master classes, installations, and all things related to electro-acoustic improvisation. We’re a mix of piano, and Marek’s off-the-shelf electronics and the unique toolbox of things he’s been designing, acquiring and building over the years. Marek was circuit bending before circuit bending was circuit bending.
Send email if you’d like to discuss possibilities. We’d love to hear from you! And, please, trust me on this—if you’re looking for the unique side of audio art, Marek and I will provide it! Along with interesting and provocative master classes. So he says with a smile ….