New York Times, Jan. 21, 2000: Weekend Cover Story
Classical Soloists, Daring to Be New
By ALLAN KOZINN. . .
Ensembles that play only new music are plentiful these days, but soloists who play recitals devoted entirely to newly commissioned works are scarce enough to seem heroic or eccentric, or perhaps a bit of both.
For a soloist, after all, a specialty in new music is a double-edged sword. It is a time-honored way for players to distinguish themselves from colleagues who play only more familiar fare; yet it has its limitations as a career-building strategy, not the least of which is the disinclination of many listeners to take chances on new works and composers. There is also the danger of becoming typecast as a new-music player, a problem for musicians who also want to play recitals of standard repertory.
Still, the conservative, eclectic and openly populist trends in contemporary composition over the last couple of decades have started to erode listeners' resistance. As audiences lose their terror of new music, and the boundaries between the standard and the modern become more porous, typecasting is likely to evaporate as an issue.
Livingston, a 32-year-old American pianist who lives in Paris, has assembled
a program of recent works that may be quirky enough to appeal to listeners
who have doubts about modern musical language.
In 1995 he set out to commission 60 composers to write him works lasting a minute or less for a program that he calls "60 Seconds for Piano." He ended up with about 150 newly composed miniatures, written for him by composers in Europe, Asia and North and South America, and he tends to reshuffle them -- retaining a core of about 20 works -- whenever he plays one of his "60 Seconds" concerts. So far, Mr. Livingston has played the program in South Africa, the Netherlands, Italy, France and Germany, and he is to play it tonight at the Miller Theater at Columbia University. The pianist argues that among its virtues is variety: a range of styles from the crashingly dissonant to the gently Minimalist are included, and a listener who doesn't like a particular work will not have to endure it for long.
Mr. Livingston is the first to say that the idea behind his "60 Seconds" program is not entirely original. He said that he was inspired in part by the composers Anton Webern, whose works tended toward the aphoristic, and John Zorn, who sometimes works in short forms. He also cited MTV as an influence, not so much because he is a fan of its programming, but because he admires what he calls "the compression of material into a short space, visual as well as musical, in their case." But his most direct model was the Ensemble Aleph, a Parisian chamber group.
"They have been a big inspiration for me," Mr. Livingston said, "because they do really wacky programs. In 1992 or 1993 they commissioned a program of short works. They didn't impose a time limit, they just said, 'Let it be like something Webern might have written.' A lot of my composer friends wrote pieces for them, and when they gave a concert of the new works, I was blown away, really taken aback. It was such an amazing use of time, and I began thinking about doing something like that for the solo piano.
"Their show was in a certain way more fluid because the works had considerable variation in length, and some composers wrote for solo instruments within the group and some wrote for the full ensemble. I spoke to them before I started, and they said, 'It's crazy, don't do it.' But I didn't listen to them. I was so excited by the idea. What I did, though, was give the composers a specific time limit. And the work had to be for solo piano."
Mr. Livingston set out to commission his 60 works, but he only knew about 20 composers. Some were former classmates from Yale University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in music and architecture in 1988, or the New England Conservatory, where he earned his master's in 1991. Others were young European musicians whose work straddles jazz, rock and classical composition. Several were Americans living in France and the Netherlands.
Mr. Livingston's commissioning budget was virtually nil: he promised that the piece would be performed and possibly recorded (a CD version of the "60 Seconds" program is to be released by Wergo, a German label, in the spring), and he sent each composer a bottle of Jack Daniels. Still, most of the composers he invited came through with a piece.
Several took a broad view of Mr. Livingston's requirement that the work be for solo piano: a few combine the piano with electronic sound, texts that Mr. Livingston is asked to recite while playing, or theatrical elements. At the Miller Theater concert, an actress, Ann Elizabeth Lyon, is to make several appearances, including one in which she is to skate across the stage on Rollerblades. And although one might expect composers to be put off by the time limitation (how much can be said in a minute?), several said that they relished the challenge.
"I had no reservations whatsoever about the length of the piece," said Isak Goldschneider, an American composer who lives in Amsterdam and contributed "42-Second Piano," a work that combines the live piano sound with taped sounds recorded inside the case of the piano and manipulated electronically.
"The concept of scale always interested me," Mr. Goldschneider said, "and I find microforms a very viable path. I was also very curious to see how the individuality of these pieces -- or perhaps "components" is a better term -- would come across in the performance. I thought a lot about cultural models like cartoons or graffiti -- forms that scrawl across a limited space and a limited time. Apart from this, the fight was to constantly scale down and to keep paring phrases away. I ended up building Lilliputian phrases from tiny themes less than a second long."
Some composers compensated for the brevity of the works by demanding virtuosity and concentration. Dan Warburton, for example, responded to Mr. Livingston's commission with "Speed Study 1," a densely scored piece that requires what Mr. Warburton describes as "ultraviolence" (or at least, an energetic, hard-edged playing style) and is meant to use all 88 notes on the piano keyboard. Vanessa Lann, an American who lives in The Hague, wrote a work in which technical toughness is combined with subtle visual imagery.
"Structure is the element I work with most in my music, and I try to limit the amount of material I use in each of my pieces," said Ms. Lann, whose "DD (Double D)" combines motoric Minimalist repetition with a Bartokian rhythmic sense and harmonic edge. "In this case I treated the very extreme limitation of time as a goal, and I approached my piece as if it were a clock. Each hand is playing in a different rhythmic pattern, so that one sounds as though it's ticking away the seconds, while the other is crossing under and over it. A pianist has to be limber and agile to play it."
works are similarly picturesque. Annie Gosfield, in "Brooklyn, Oct. 5, 1941,"
laments the Brooklyn Dodgers' World Series loss that year in a thundering
work that is played, in part, with a baseball. Richard Brooks, in "Conflict
of Interest" alternates a sweet chorale melody with a freewheeling boogie
figure. And a few composers quoted their predecessors: Ketty Nez's "Moondrunk"
draws on Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata, and Newt Hinton's "Nakano-ku (à
S.D.)" is a few bars of Chopin's "Harp" Étude overlaid with a spoken
passage in French.
"Newt Hinton was another of the people who inspired the show," Mr. Livingston said. "He wrote a piece in 1993 that used another Chopin étude. That one begins with an actress holding a sparkler, and the pianist plays as long as the sparkler is lit. When it goes out, you stop playing. I played that at a competition once. It was a defining moment for me, in terms of what you can do in a short time."
Once Mr. Livingston ran out of composing friends, he wrote to a few established composers. William Bolcom and Louis Andriessen wrote him short works; Pierre Boulez and Luc Ferrari declined. Still, when it was clear that soliciting works directly would not yield the necessary 60 scores, Mr. Livingston organized a competition through the Paris New Music Review, which he edits (it is now an online magazine, called Paris Transatlantic; the Web site is www.paristransatlantic.com). Several hundred composers responded, and in 1998, Mr. Livingston's jury -- the staff of his magazine -- gathered to sort through the works.
"Basically," Mr. Livingston said, "I sat down and played them, and the jurors voted. We went through an enormous stack of material. It took us two or three days."
Once Mr. Livingston began playing his "60 Seconds" concerts, more minutelong works began pouring in, and he keeps his program fresh by substituting the best of these new additions for works he has been playing from the start.
"This is definitely a program of the end of the 20th century," Mr. Livingston said. "Very few of these pieces could have been written in the 1960's. And yet I don't know if I would call the music avant-garde. My composer friends wrote some exciting, wild pieces, but the music doesn't necessarily have the daring and hardness -- almost hard-core edge -- that a lot of music did in the 50's and 60's. One of the things I find fascinating about the turn of the century is that that's no longer the aesthetic. Contemporary music is no longer as scary as it used to be. I find that appealing, but also somewhat surprising."
. . .
Mr. Livingston is also thinking about composers of past (if somewhat more recent) times. With another pianist, Ivo Kaltchev, he is giving the premiere of two long-lost works by George Antheil -- the First Piano Concerto and the Suite for Piano, Four Hands -- as well as works by Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Debussy and Poulenc, in a recital sponsored by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Cooper Union on Jan. 31.
"And in my spare time," he said, "coming out of this idea of working in short forms, with virtuosity and quick mood changes, I'm working on a recital of the complete Chopin Études. But that won't be until 2002 or so."
Photo by Jack Vartoogian for The New York Times
Caption: Guy Livingston practicing "Brooklyn, Oct. 5, 1941," which calls for a baseball.