Ask any musician who makes a habit of playing so-called minimalist music, in any of the various shades and permutations of that term, about the secrets to success; the answer likely would involve qualities like patience, stamina, perseverance, and faith in the value of the undertaking. Look at the burgeoning career of R. Andrew Lee, a pianist and pedagogue whose sterling reputation largely resides in his exemplary performances and recordings of minimal music, and you see precisely the same qualities in play. Presently based in Denver, CO, where he teaches at Regis University, Lee has earned international acclaim for recordings of works by forgotten or overlooked American composers, as well as members of the globally dispersed collective known as the Wandelweiser Group, issued on Irritable Hedgehog, the record label he established with composer David D. McIntire in 2010.
Having commenced his new-music journey of discovery after becoming acquainted with The Time Curve Preludes (1977-78), an ingenious and appealing post-minimalist work composed by William Duckworth, Lee will revisit that piece during his upcoming recital on April 2 at Spectrum in New York City. Reached by telephone in his office one recent afternoon, he spoke about that concert, new and upcoming Irritable Hedgehog projects ranging in scale from modest to extravagant, and why he’s taken lately to presenting free virtual recitals via Facebook Live.
LOG: You’ve earned a formidable reputation as an advocate for minimalism of a certain strain, by which I mean music by composers other than the famous trifecta of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams. What led you toward this path, initially?
R. ANDREW LEE: Originally it was The Time Curve Preludes. Dave McIntire, who runs Irritable Hedgehog with me, introduced that to me years ago. That was my epiphany moment, and I’ve been diving down the rabbit hole since. Another sort of big one for me was Tom Johnson’s An Hour for Piano – that was sort of my introduction to longer-form pieces, and that started me along that way.
Had your repertoire been more conventional prior to that?
Yeah, and in fact, some of this exploration was to the chagrin of my primary piano teacher while in grad school. Prokofiev was real big for a while, and then I was getting more into Schubert and Brahms, and then I started moving down this road. But even moving into minimal music, I just instinctively shy away from things that everyone seems to be doing. There are enough people playing Philip Glass – and Morton Feldman, for that matter, who often gets suggested to me. There’s plenty more to explore.
Obviously the thrill of virtuoso fireworks is off the table in this musical territory. As a performer and an interpreter, what it is that you find satisfying about the path that you’ve pursued?
One of the most interesting things I’ve discovered was when I first started performing Jürg Frey’s music. Because it’s so incredibly exposed, I found myself having to make musical decisions that I’d never fully contemplated before – like exactly how long after I strike a note do I put the pedal down? Or, you know, voicing issues. Not to say that this stuff isn’t in standard repertoire, of course, but it was just sort of on a whole new level, a new plane. To really shape and sculpt sound in that way, and just to really hone my focus on such minute details, has been incredibly satisfying.
It sounds as if despite the general sense of placid surface sheen, there is in fact a kind of visceral physicality to these pieces, but it’s intrinsically wedded to mental rigor as well.
Yes, I would agree with that. And I’ve never been, I would say, fully comfortable in the more virtuosic Liszt and Prokofiev. Even in my standard repertoire, I was gravitating toward the long Schubert. So this was a departure, but not an unexpected one.
Irritable Hedgehog is associated closely with the trail that you’ve blazed now. What led you and David D. McIntire to form the label initially?
It was a performance of An Hour for Piano that I did. I was intrigued by it, so I did a little performance for friends. David said to his wife, Michelle, that he thought I’d played it about as well as anyone, and at the time only the [Frederic] Rzewski recording existed. She said, “Why don’t you record it?”
That’s where we started, just the idea of recording An Hour for Piano, as well as The Time Curve Preludes – we loved Neely Bruce’s recording, but we felt, just from a technical recording standpoint, that a lot of the effects Bill Duckworth gets from the piano were a little bit lost. So we thought that at least from a producing standpoint, there was something to be improved. And it’s just been sort of one step at a time, whatever sort of weird thing comes our way that’s interesting to both of us. We’re hoping to expand it gradually beyond our own little projects. We’ve done a few things here and there, but we hope to make more of that in the future.
Is it technically a commercial venture, or is it a non-profit, where you have to raise funding for your projects?
It is technically a commercial venture… though it is non-profit. [laughs]
You’ve been among the first American artists to advocate consistently for works by composers of the Wandelweiser Group. Up until a recent column by Alex Ross in The New Yorker, in which you were featured, they hadn’t received a great deal of exposure here. How did you become aware of them?
It was really a bit of crowd-sourcing that brought Jürg Frey to my attention. As I was finishing up my doctorate and basically was preparing to really explore a lot of new repertoire, I just asked a bunch of friends, what should I be looking at? And it was Scott Unrein, who himself is a composer, but he also does the artwork for Irritable Hedgehog, who suggested Frey’s Sam Lazaro Bros. So I emailed “info@wandelweiser” – which ended up being [composer and Wandelweiser founder] Antoine [Beuger], of course – and started getting PDFs.
I was looking through [Frey’s] scores, and I liked what Scott had suggested. But then I came across his Klavierstück II, in which there are the 468 fourths in the middle – which is one thing, but that he had written them all out caught my attention. And I thought, for whatever reason, I have to try this. I had some time on a nice piano and gave it a try, and, I told Dave later, it was the closest to an out-of-body experience that I’ve ever had. I lost track of actually playing the fourths, and the piano became this organ of drones and overtones. And I was just sort of overwhelmed by what he was able to achieve with that. So between that and the fact that his music is so, I would say, maddeningly intuitive – I tend to be quite analytical when looking at music, and for the life of me I can’t figure out how he does what he does.
Frey’s music has a magical quality of seeming inevitability.
Yeah, it’s astounding.
You have another major Frey project on your agenda, and it’s a pretty unorthodox undertaking. Can you describe it?
Yeah, his Buch der Räume und Zeiten, the “Book of Space and Time.” Erik Carlson, the violinist, actually introduced me to this piece; we were putting together a duo program. We didn’t end up doing it, but I came back to it later. There are 21 instrumental parts; it’s for a duo, and so you choose two. Each part is 55 minutes long, and there are also two tape parts, which is why we were able to look at it. And for whatever reason – and for the life of me I can’t remember why – in just looking over the score, I thought, well, gosh, since the scores are timed, it wouldn’t be too difficult to put together. What if we tried to record all of the parts, and then you could hear every single possible combination.
I emailed Jürg a few months ago, and he got back to me a couple of months later and was like, “Yeah, I like the idea.” So we’ve really started moving forward with this. I’m almost to the point of finalizing the complete artists list… it’ll be a lot of known Wandelweiser interpreters, some other well-known new-music folks. I was very pleasantly surprised that at least so far, everyone I’ve contacted has just been absolutely on board with this crazy project.
What is the form in which this project will manifest itself?
There will only ever be two [players] put together, and so, with the 23 different parts, it yields 253 different possible combinations. And what we will do – in fact, I’ve got the website pretty close to being ready to go, it’ll be hosted at BDRUZ.com – what you will do is just select Part 1, select Part 2, and then it’ll jump you over to Bandcamp for that specific track. We’ll have one album with all nine days plus of music, eventually. I double-checked: Bandcamp said they have a limit on track size, but no limit on albums, so we’ll test that.
We’ll do sort of a rolling release, so it’s not just an insane amount of music all at once. Once we get maybe three or four parts ready to go, we’ll put them up there, so it can be sort of gradually explored. I anticipate it’ll probably take at least a year and probably two before we get everything in place. But everyone will record their individual parts, and then we’ll stitch all the combinations together.
So this is conceived, then, as a project that’s basically going to live on the Internet, as opposed to some physical form?
Yeah, primarily digital, although we’ve talked about it. I think what we’ll do, and nothing’s set yet, but make an option that if you want a physical copy of one particular combination, we would have an ordering option for that. But it wouldn’t be our nice digipaks or anything like that; it would just be sort of hand-burned sort of options.
You have a few other projects in motion, an EP that’s due out any minute now, and a bigger release in preparation involving New York composer Randy Gibson.
Yes, and in fact, I’ve pushed the team a little bit since we were going to be talking. The EP is going to be by a Kansas City composer, Ryan Oldham. He works with Dave McIntire in their Ensemble of Irreproducible Outcomes; he’s a trumpeter in the ensemble. It’ll be back to some sparse, almost Wandelweiser-esque kind of recording. We’ll have that up pretty soon, at least for presale and download. [Editor’s note: The EP was released March 29.]
The Randy Gibson project is The Four Pillars Appearing from the Equal D Under Resonating Apparitions of the Eternal Process in the Midwinter Starfield. I approached Randy a while ago about working on something: What could we possibly do for a not-justly tuned piano? He developed this piece where I just play the Ds of the piano, and we’ve got five microphones in the piano, we have a lot of live electronics, so he extracts from those Ds the overtones of his “pillars,” the justly intuned overtones, along with a lot of electronics processing, and we’ve got video stuff. It’s quite a piece; I’ve gotten to perform it a couple of times. It runs about three and a half hours.
O.K., so this is the piece you crowdfunded a few years ago, along with the Adrian Knight piece.
Correct, yeah, Adrian’s Obsessions was the other one. So we recorded last summer, and we’ll have it ready to go this June, when I’ll be performing it again for the Minimalism Conference at the University of Tennessee.
You’re performing in New York on April 2 at Spectrum, and your program includes a bit of something old, The Time Curve Preludes, and something new, at least in the sense that you’ve not yet documented Alvin Curran’s Inner Cities. What prompted you to choose those works?
Well, when I learned that Spectrum could be relocating and changing, I wanted to go back to the Duckworth. It seemed fitting to go back to what got me interested in all of this to begin with. And the Curran I have performed twice before; I actually performed it at [London’s] Café Oto, that would have been back in ’13, and then at the University of Montana. It’s a fascinating piece. I wanted to do what I’m known for: something a bit austere, but something that wasn’t necessarily Wandelweiser. And I just adore so many of the pieces in that Inner Cities set, and Glenn [Cornett], when we were chatting about the performance, graciously gave me a little leeway to go longer than the normal set length – I was very intrigued by the possibility of this pairing, and I’d been looking for another opportunity to bring Inner Cities 8 back out.
Finally, I’d like to ask you about your Invisible Rail Series, the online recitals you’ve presented free of charge though Facebook Live. What inspired that undertaking? And what kind of response has it generated?
Credit for inspiration goes to [musicologist, journalist, and Irritable Hedgehog liner note writer] Will Robin, actually. As we were moving up on Election Day, I think it was on Twitter that Will suggested I put together a concert just to sort of take our minds off things. So I did, and I was actually really surprised by how many people logged on and seemed to appreciate it.
I recall trying to get onto that first concert and having technical problems that probably resulted from a firewall on the system I was using. Since then I’ve had no problems, and it’s been a pleasure to watch.
It’s been a bit of trial and error exactly how the set-up’s going to work, audio and video and all that stuff. But that first one was sort of successful, so I thought, well, this would be nice… Mostly I just wanted an opportunity to perform more, frankly. With a full-time gig and three kids, traveling is difficult, so this seemed like a really nice way just to workshop new repertoire. So far I’ve done a lot of stuff that I hadn’t performed before. And what I would like to see in the future is the possibility of bringing other people along with this, so that maybe it becomes a couple times a month or even a weekly thing next year, that we can have enough interest from other performers. It’s just a new venue.
It seems to me to be a very timely way to address several problems that we hear are at the root of a decline in the classical-music audience. We’ve heard for years now that a lack of musical education is one issue, and increasingly we’re seeing a serious decline in media coverage of culture and the arts, classical music and new music in particular. Here, you’re kind of addressing both problems neatly, exposing new audiences to unusual music efficiently through a free and popular medium, and in the process generating wider attention and appreciation for yourself and the composers. It really does seem to address several problems at once.
Well, great! I really just wanted to play more often. [laughs]