Showing posts with label Writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Writing. Show all posts

Ban the Piano!

a 21st-century composition manifesto

As a composer, I know that I must abolish the central love of my youth -- the piano -- and find other tools to survive in a new music world where noise and silence excite me as much as melody and rhythm.

The piano was my first love. I would play for hours, alternating between the black and white keys. Swaying on the bench, I found myself in 17th century Leipzig with Bach, 18th century Salzburg with Mozart, and 19th century Warsaw with Chopin. With these masters I traveled through time to exotic European cities, but I was really alone and alone I was controlled.

My first love led to my disintegration. I played and played visiting homes where the piano had become a table for overgrown plants. I played and played and found myself a bit too intimate with a parlor instrument at three o'clock in the morning. I played and played until certain keys stuck and the notes stopped sounding. I had fallen in love with an antiquated machine; an old-fashioned coffin that I desperately tried to warm with the soft fur of music. I was no longer integral to society. I had become engaged in necrophilia to an inanimate relic.

Mistaken as a democratic instrument for its ease of playing, the piano has established a mode of experiencing sound that has led to the downfall of western music. Fast fingers, such as Liberace's with added diamonds for emphasis, delight the eyes and ears. Children and adults plunk keys to receive instant aural gratification. Something so beguiling and easy must have a price.

The fixed tuning of the piano has bound western musicians to a limited set of pitches. Instruments that are closer to the body, such as the flute or violin, must conform to these pitches. An orchestra tunes to the oboe, but if a piano is involved then the instruments tune to the piano. Western-trained singers learn melodies from a keyboard rather than from other singers. Vertical harmony developed because the piano tuned with equal temperament facilitated the promulgation of a tonic-dominant hierarchy that controls the function of western music and directs the commercial ears of the masses.

Moreover, the piano and its offspring, the electronic keyboard, have become icons of affluence around the world. When I was teaching a music workshop in Malaysia, the participants, seasoned drummers, felt that I was a true musician because I played the piano. They denigrated themselves because they were too poor to own a piano. Only the wealthy can afford pianos. This is especially true in formerly colonized ports around the world. Those with money send their children to study piano as a way to discipline the body and buy into the bourgeoisie.

As an instrument of class, the piano signifies dominance. This is symbolized on the keyboard by ebony-black keys that are separate and hover tentatively behind ivory-white keys, which side by side form a phalanx. When the piano was in it's infancy, the keys were various color combinations, but now the black keys are always a pentatonic scale. "I'm playing Chinese!" I used to exclaim as an eight-year-old running my fingers along the black keys. The momentary look of horror on my mom's face receded when the potential benefit of having a classical musician for a son outweighed the cartoonish distillation of Chinese music into five pitches. For hours, I commanded the interaction of those keys, as other boys command toy soldiers. In the process, I became a brainwashed despot sitting by myself in a practice room in a hall filled with practice rooms of other musicians sitting by themselves.

Glenn Gould tried to escape by humming beyond the regulated pitches. Stockhausen held the damper pedal down until the overtone-clouded harmonies provided a momentary release. John Cage threw screws and bolts into the guts of the beast. George Maciunas had Nam June Paik hammer nails into every key of the piano until the instrument was destroyed. Sonic Youth revived the Maciunas Piano Piece #13, in 1999, to no avail. The shiny-black-trophy-hearst piano lives on in the concert hall heart of every music school.

For composers, the piano is deadly. Music is about voices within bodies that sing about the human condition. The piano has taken vocalists away from learning how to sing within an oral tradition. The piano has taken bodies and forced them to sit. The piano has taken its role as a tool of music and become a tool for dictators. For music to regain its agency and creativity, composers must unchain themselves from the piano and reintegrate the two primary building blocks of composing music: drum and voice.

Drumming energizes the body from the outside with hands or feet that produce percussive beats that propel dramatic action. Singing arises from the inside of the body and soars towards the heavens. Together, drumming and vocalizing contain seeds that when thrown into cultural cracks grow into the intertwining narratives of music.

While the piano can play a melody over a rhythmic pattern, the results fall into gestures that are constrained by tuning and history. The initial impulse to compose must come from the infinite complexities of drumming and vocalizing rather than from the limited mechanics of the piano. Later, piano may be added as an instrument of the music, but never before otherwise music becomes an instrument of the piano.

It is easy to begin a new work by sitting at a keyboard and playing and playing and playing. While this machine easily produces sound, beware; once it dictates the works being created, then the essence and potential of musical storytelling is lost. I will always reify the piano, but as a composer I realize that drumming and vocalizing are the essential tools of my craft.
Byron Au Yong / 歐陽良仁

Toru Takemitsu

The joy of music, ultimately, seems connected to sadness. The sadness is that of existence. The more you are filled with the pure happiness of music making, the deeper the sadness. Toru Takemitsu
Japan's foremost composer, Toru Takemitsu, will be in Seattle from April 9-18, as the Seattle Spring Festival of Contemporary Music's composer-in-residence. Takemitsu is best known as the composer for the Akira Kurasawa film "Ran," which won him the 1987 Los Angeles Film Critics Award for best music score.

Born in Tokyo in 1930, Takemitsu experienced early adulthood in post World War II Japan. Having grown up with his aunt who was a koto player, traditional Japanese music brought Takemitsu bitter memories of the war years. Understandably, Takemitsu initially turned towards an international avant-garde style. His "Requiem" for string orchestra (1957) is an example of this musical idiom. Igor Stravinsky praised the work after hearing it, by chance, during a visit to a Japanese radio station.

Takemitsu first heard Western music while working as a busboy in an American Officer's mess hall. Later, he would listen to the American Armed Forces Radio and go to American films. Takemitsu is still an ardent film goer and has also composed over 90 film scores.

Having organized and worked in the ''Experimental Workshop" in the early 1950's, Takemitsu did not begin to appreciate Japanese music until he happened upon a bunraku puppet theater. The lone quality and timbre of the futazao shamisen moved him. After this fortuitous discovery of his own culture, Takemitsu began to experiment with pieces for traditional Japanese instruments. Most notably the biwa and shakuhachi. Seiji Ozawa, after hearing a tape of this music, brought it to Leonard Bernstein. From this came the commissioned work "November Steps" (1967) to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic.

"November Steps" scored for biwa, shakuhachi and orchestra confronts the differences in Western and Eastern conceptions of sound with uneven success. Half of the piece is a biwa/shakuhachi cadenza which is a strain on the structure as well as lhe listener. Takemitsu realized this after the New York premiere. "If I reconstruct the language of our traditional art. I will always remain alien to the hislorical cause. Conversely, if I westernize the original sound incantation, I would divest it of all emotional power."

Since "November Steps," Takemitsu has further refined the distinguishing sounds of his inherited musical cultures. "My music is very influenced by the Japanese tradition, especially the Japanese garden in color, spacing, form. At the same time, it is very influenced by Messiaen, Debussy and Schoenberg."

Takemitsu has furthered this Western/Eastern music meld to something very personal. His music compels the listener to submit to a rich, dignified passion of sound. His new and unique form of expressive and intellectual communication is a positive product of our modern world.

"As our 'machine civilization' develops, especially through advances in communication technology, diverse cultures are increasingly drawn together in a most intimate exchange. I believe that, in time, cultures born of diverse peoples will be merged into a synthesis, that human beings will come to have one culture, immense and on a global scale."

Originally published in the International Examiner (PDFpage 11.

Brenda Wong Aoki

Brenda Wong Aoki is a natural story-teller. She is as energetic and insightful in person as she is on stage. Her concern for humanity, which once showed itself in her activism and teaching, emerges now in her performance art. For Wong Aoki, the Northwest Asian American Theatre's recent production of "The Queen's Garden" was a story that "begged to come out."
"It's easy to keep telling folk tales. I wanted to start telling issues that created the morass we're in now," she said.

Her solo performances in NWAAT's Jan.17-19 production, exposed the reality of gang violence, misunderstood youth and racism. In "The Queen's Garden," Wong Aoki confronts experiences from her early life in the poorer west side of LA County. This sophisticated, politically progressive piece is a departure from her previous family-oriented, mainstream pieces like "Dreams and Illusions: Tales of the Pacific Rim" and "Obake!"

Brenda Wong Aoki
Wong Aoki's personal form of storytelling is potent because she doesn't believe in lecturing or torturing her audience: "Performances which do that are well-intended, but they offend or leave one feeling guilty," she warned. "They are not empowering. They presuppose a savior out there, rather than one that's from within."

In the 1960s, Wong Aoki started doing piano/voice/dance performances. "When I was dancing, I would want to make music and when I was making music, I would want to talk. People told me to focus, but in all ancient art forms everybody did it together. Look at the ancient Japanese, Chinese and Greeks," she laughed. Trying to suppress her artistic talents, Wong Aoki worked in social service. She spent 15 years as a teacher and community organizer in the poorer areas of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Later, realizing that she was an artist, Wong Aoki returned to performance art.

With the recent rise in anti-Asian sentiment, Wong Aoki has been sent three times as an emissary of peace to Michigan where Asian children are being beaten up by their classmates and hospitalized. On a return flight from a performance in Cleveland, Ohio, the airplane steward kicked her baggage under the seat without speaking to her. When she addressed him directly about the problem, he apologized, telling her "'I'm sorry. I didn't realize that you spoke such good English.'" Because of this incident, Wong Aoki said that she feels compassion for newly-arrived Asian immigrants in the United States.

In retrospect, Wong Aoki sees her open-hearted Chinese father with his "that could be you there" philosophy as her biggest influence. As a child, Wong Aoki scorned her father's kindness because he was accommodating to the homeless people that came into his pharmacy. But after the pharmacy closed down, she saw two homeless people who use to frequent her father's business on the streets and realized why he was so compelled to help them.

Coming from a Japanese, Chinese, Spanish and Scottish background, Wong Aoki believes that people who are of mixed heritage sometimes feel that they don't fit in, so they overcompensate. "It's easiest to find a niche and hide," she said. Understanding the nuances of her varied backgrounds wasn't easy for Wong Aoki, so she decided to embrace them all. By accepting herself, as an artist and as a person, Wong Aoki is able to look on life with humor and humanity.

Originally published in the International Examiner (PDFpage 7.

Dedicated to intercultural collaboration, Byron Au Yong composes songs of dislocation, music for a changing world. He teaches in Performing Arts & Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.

Byron Au Yong & Christopher Yohmei Blasdel: BreathPlay

Byron Au Yong: Kidnapping Water: Bottled Operas
Kidnapping Water:
Bottled Operas
Byron Au Yong: Yiju