Primary tabs

Speaking in Tongues

November 20, 2007

A piano exhibits grand qualities: a sizable range, effortless intonation, and an immense harmonic palette. Yet the instrument has always been impaired by a tragic flaw — for all the discrete steps of its glorious black and white facade, it cannot produce sounds that glide smoothly and sweetly between any two of its 88 tempered tones. The cracks between the keys belie this solitary character, and for every key struck, whether by virtuoso fingertips or your cat's paw, the sounding note hopelessly decays toward infinity without ever truly connecting with another.
Composers like Chopin and Debussy made an art out of circumnavigating this dilemma. At Luciano Chessa's recital Sunday, presented by Old First Concerts, the most striking moments in his music arose as he sought to do the same, using techniques and tools both old and new to imbue the instrument with a warm, cantabile voice.

In Louganis, Chessa, who serves on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, turned on some 10 to 15 electric toothbrushes, strategically dropped them on the piano strings, and eventually dove down toward the pedals. The drama of his movements at that point diverted attention from the reverberation that built as he slowly depressed the damper. This listener's ears adjusted without knowing it, and when the pedal finally lifted the volume level dropped unexpectedly. As the toothbrushes flittered over the strings, Chessa explored subtle pedal variations, creating a shimmering wash of timbres that slowly saturated the hall.

Later in the same piece, these pedaling effects were complemented by sleigh bells worn around the performer's wrists. The timbre closely resembled that of the quivering piano strings and created the illusion that by shaking the bells he could extract resonance from the piano. At the same time, he played crisp staccato gestures on the keyboard that mimicked the initial toothbrush dives. It was as if the cracks between the keys were now fluid, much like the cool reflections flowing from Terry Berlier's video that accompanied all this on the unbelievably tiny screen of an onstage TV/VCR combo.
Kittenish on the Keys
Some of the most memorable moments of the afternoon concert occurred when Chessa blurred the distinction between theater and music. In Variazioni su un ogetto di scena (Variations on a prop), stuffed animals performed folk melodies at the keyboard, guided by human hands firmly gripping their little furry limbs. Each movement had its own animal, and each animal its own mitt size and, consequently, key cluster size.

A stuffed doll, for example, was an iconoclastic character with relatively small hands, playing at first as if in a lesson with Chessa, but eventually straying quite far from his pedagogy. The performer's sense of timing and articulation were filtered through each prop, retaining the clear shape of each musical idea while casting aside the precision of his individual digits.

The last piece, Quadri da una città fantasma (Pictures from a ghost town), featured the addition of a blackboard and turntables to the piano. This work continued and expanded the theme of enriching the piano's voice, culminating (for me, at least) in the fourth movement where lyricism, glimmering moans, virtuosity, and ambient noise all collided to produce a bizarre yet breathtaking texture.

Shane Anderson, the turntablist, used cracks and pops from old records to create yet another extension of the musical space that blended and cross-faded splendidly with the piano. At the blackboard, Chessa wrote in chalk, starting with concrete letters and numbers that quickly turned to violent abstract curves and lines, mimicking visually the sonic continuity he had been after in the previous pieces.

Some audience members thought the concert had ended in the second movement of Quadri when the two performers exited the stage, leaving noise looping on the turntable for a few minutes before they returned. Given that the first piece, Lavoro (Work), was already in progress when the concert began, the premature finale must have undoubtedly formed a nice symmetry in these audience members' minds, though unfortunately for them they missed some of the most radiant moments of the concert. And that's too bad, because it's not every day you get to hear a piano speak — much less in so many different tongues.

Jonathan Wilkes is a graduate student in theory and composition at UC Davis. He earned a B.A. in music from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Piano Performance.