BLOG – A Review of Paul A. Epstein: Piano Music – R. Andrew Lee, piano

Paul A. Epstein: Piano Music

R. Andrew Lee, piano
Will Robin, program note
Irritable Hedgehog Records

1) Drawing No. 5 (Triangles)
2) Drawing No. 3 (Slow Title)
3) Drawing No. 4 (Triangle, Broken Horizontal and Vertical Lines, Rectangles, and Parallelograms)
4) Changes 6
5) 72: 7/11/13
6) Changes 3: Palindromes
7) Landscape with Triads
8) Drawing No. 6 (Horizontal and Vertical Broken Lines)

Pianist R. Andrew Lee champions new music for the piano, continually performing and recording important if under-heard contemporary piano works. He is an unabashed proponent of minimal music, having recorded William Duckworth’s The Time Curve Preludes and Tom Johnson’s An Hour for Piano to name but two. Lee has also realized and recorded Kyle Gann’s reconstruction of Dennis Johnson’s proto-minimalist marathon, November, a project for which he has garnered well-deserved acclaim. Lee’s newest record, Paul A. Epstein: Piano Music is a welcome addition to the pianist’s already-impressive discography.

Paul A. Epstein (b. 1938), Professor Emeritus of Music Theory at Temple University, has been described as “‘the postminimalist Babbitt’ because of the ingenuity he expends twisting…logical constructs into an obvious-sounding but elusive series of processes.”[1] The piano music recorded here provides excellent proof of Gann’s assertion. Take, for example, the composer’s Drawing series, reflections on the work of Sol LeWitt, four of which are heard on the record. Each “drawing” (according to Lee’s program note to his 2013 Café Oto performance) is composed of motives that Epstein rotates “such that pitches become rhythm and vice versa,” presenting all possible combinations thereof. The result is a pointillist, often linear, contrapuntal music ever on the cusp of revealing itself.

Changes 3: Palindromes provides, by contrast, this album’s most audible process. The piece is composed in an unwavering, even joyous, D Major. Its melodic cells (as the title might suggest) retrace their own steps through pitch-additive machinery. The key is cycled through during the first half of the piece, each addition providing structural demarcation, with one note conspicuously missing. The final note of D major—the remaining C sharp—is added to the texture well beyond the halfway mark. The listening experience is one of built-in, audible expectation and satisfaction whether or not we are aware of the piece’s deeper palindromic operations.

Similarly, 72: 7/11/13 is built on a 72-16th-note, chiastic figure that slowly disintegrates and simultaneously highlights itself through new melodic orderings every 7, 11, and 13 notes. The structure’s arithmetic hides in the shadows of the musical surface, but the feeling of its presence is undeniable. This phenomenon is perhaps the hallmark of the record (and a testament to Lee’s performance): we are subconsciously aware of music’s processes even when they are not overtly audible.

If Epstein’s structures and processes are an ever-present, subliminal feature of his music, Lee accentuates them through his ordering of the works on the album. Of the four Drawings that appear, Nos. 5, 3, and 4 respectively, open the record; No. 6 closes it. 72: 7/11/13, the record’s centerpiece, is flanked on either side by Changes 6 and Changes 3: Palindromes. The commonality among all these works is the musical linearity their processes yield. It is contrapuntal interaction that creates much of the record’s harmony and verticality.

Landscape with Triads, the album’s penultimate work, is entirely different and creates an almost Joycean epiphany of listening. It cycles through major and minor chords, serializing dynamics and randomizing articulation and duration. Will Robin’s liner notes describe it as “the album’s most unsentimental system.” Up to this point, the music has been so linear—and Lee’s playing so suggestively lyrical during even the most jagged textures—that to hear simple chords of specific duration punctuated by abrupt releases and pointed silence is a revelation. The return to Epstein’s Drawing paradigm following Landscape with Triads causes the record to recycle itself as Finnegans Wake does, or perhaps more aptly here, as Epstein’s processes often do. Lee’s programming incites us to rehear the record and continually rewards us as we do.

Post-Landscape, Lee’s playing takes on a sheen that was surely always present but disguised in Epstein’s counterpoint. Poignancy of tone, revelatory articulation, and textures now snarled, now transparent, are the sublime outcomes of Lee’s renderings of Epstein’s musical strictures. In the composer’s own words, we are ushered into “a rich array of possibilities out of which [we] may construct an experience of the piece.”[2] Lee’s ordering manages to confront certain possibilities on first hearing and opens the floodgates thereafter, holding Landscape With Triads as the parallax. The record commends his estimable technique, his knowledge and love of new music, and his creativity deploying them together.

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Paul A. Epstein: Piano Music is available from Irritable Hedgehog Records, along with the rest of R. Andrew Lee’s recordings. All are available as CDs or as digital downloads, both of which include insightful and often extensive program notes.

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[1] Kyle Gann, “Metametrics, Postminimalist Version,” PostClassic: Kyle Gann on Music After the Fact, February 19, 2006

[2] Paul A. Epstein, “Pattern Structure and Process in Steve Reich’s ‘Piano Phase,’” The Musical Quarterly 72, (1986): 497.

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