I’m “playing” a concert today, though it’s more accurate to say I’m “releasing” it, on YouTube. One of the strange things about this concert, which I was supposed to play tonight downstairs at Carnegie Hall—my first solo recital there—was that it began with the idea of a living room, and it’s ended up in one. The original impetus behind it was a set of piano pieces collectively called I Still Play, which were written for former Nonesuch Records president Bob Hurwitz as a retirement gift from 11 Nonesuch artists. Though the pieces were written with the idea that Bob might enjoy practicing them at home, we ended up premiering them at the big BAM opera house, and they’ve gone on to lead active public lives since; they’ll be released on record May 22.
But of course, for the past six weeks, they’ve returned home, where they’re likely to remain for the time being. When I got word that Carnegie Hall would be closed through at least mid-May, I was disappointed but hardly surprised—I’d been dreading the email as I watched cancellations pile up. What do you do when a day you’ve been anticipating, with an odd mixture of fear and joy, nervous excitement, and, I’ll admit, pride, for years—suddenly becomes a regular day? I mean, what do you literally do, in that moment? I can tell you that after sending the news to a few iMessage threads (fishing for sympathy, I suppose) I spent the rest of the evening drinking very good whiskey, and a few days later deleted the event from my calendar and my website. The initial need for sympathy faded quickly, I’m relieved to say. But the disappointment persists.
What I most missed was the chance to share the work I’d already done. I’d devised a varied and interesting program, focusing on some of the American piano literature I love the most. I’d been practicing in earnest since November, had put my writing schedule on hold, had convinced Carnegie to commission a new piece, from the wonderful composer Gabriella Smith (her first for solo piano). I’d gotten my friends at Yamaha to send over my favorite Bösendorfer piano for the night. I’d even gotten a very sharp new suit made, which now feels like an absolutely insane thing to have done. But most of all, it was the practicing that I worried would vanish in a small puff of wasted effort.
Inspired by similar efforts by musician friends like Nadia Sirota, who very quickly developed and produced a thriving streaming show called Living Music, and Cécile McLorin Salvant, whose live-streamed living room shows feel like real occasions, I threw myself into documenting my Carnegie program before it inevitably fell victim to the entropy of No Deadline. If nothing else, it provided a project, something to structure my days around, and a way to follow through on the months of work. My methods were extremely DIY—I was suddenly my own piano tuner, recording engineer, videographer, editor, promoter. I’m not equally good at these things, and some I’m distinctly bad at. You can hear the recording quality get better over the course of the project, as I learned how to better capture my piano’s strengths. The equipment I used was just what I had on hand—my iPhone, a couple of mediocre mics I’ve owned since grad school, some old de-noising software from a long-disbanded torrent site.
I wanted to make it in this slow, methodical way, rather than as a livestream, because it seemed like a chance for the documentation to become part of the process—not only the preparation for a kind of high-wire act that the public never gets to see, but a record of what life has been in confinement. It also afforded me a chance to shift perspectives. Now that audiences are virtual, I could be my own test audience. I was in two places at once, literally—at the piano, but also behind the camera and microphones (I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time watching and listening to myself as I have in the past six weeks).
The music has taken on new depth during that process—I suppose I’ll always think of this as my “quarantine program,” for better or worse. I love it all even more now. Each of the I Still Play pieces is a little conversational gem, distilling an aspect of its author’s voice into a concentrated nugget. Gabriella’s Imaginary Pancake is a knockout, not only a blisteringly virtuosic showpiece but a beautiful, grand, sculptural form—I’m glad for it not to sit indefinitely in un-premiered limbo, and can’t wait to hear other pianists tackle it. Robin Holcomb’s Wherein Lies The Good has quickly become one of my favorite pieces to perform—it encapsulates so many particularly American musical moods, at once familiar and difficult to place. There’s a piece of my own on the program that’s new, at least to my fingers—Old Ground, which has to do with an idea of a specifically American original sin. Recording it has allowed me to get that needed distance away from having written it, so I can begin to see what works and what doesn’t. The two pieces I’ve known the longest are Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues and Copland’s Piano Sonata. Both pieces represent, to me, the best qualities in American music—a directness, almost bluntness, that manages to be at once vernacular and avant-garde. I also find both pieces deeply tragic—the Copland in a rhetorical, elegiac mode, a stark contrast to Rzewski’s angry polemic.
I don’t know yet if a concert works as a YouTube playlist—this is all an experiment. I look forward to being able to share it with you in person. But I’ve loved making these videos for you in the meantime. Making things feels especially satisfying just now, whether it’s a recording or the pork shoulder I’ve got in the oven this afternoon. Between those two things I feel we’ll pull through this.
A quick thanks to Carnegie Hall and Nonesuch Records, for giving me permission and encouragement to do this, to Yamaha Artist Services, and to Gabriella Smith for writing Imaginary Pancake, and to Chris Cerrone for his invaluable recording advice. And as always, to you, for listening.