Category Archives: Francesco Tristano

Two Very Different Mashups at [le] poisson rouge (Sabbatical Journal VI)

Two very different recent events at [le] poisson rouge had one thing in common: combining separate pieces. “Mashups,” to use the rock/pop vernacular. (God, that makes me sound so middle-aged.) One classical, the other, well, nearly every possible genre.

On Thursday February 3, Bruce Brubaker (chair of piano at the New England Conservatory) joined his former student Francesco Tristano (who needs to get his website back online) in  Simultaneo, parallell concerts on the same stage. The music was by Buxtehude, Gibbons, Schumann, Messiaen, Glass, Cage, Earle Brown, and Tristano himself. Using LPR’s seven-foot Yamaha (amplified) and an electronic keyboard with processing effects, they created an etheral and haunting soundscape as they combined pieces. There was a slow-motion, quasi-hypnotic feel to the evening, the music never stopping, even when the two traded positions (looping and/or delay processing comes in handy).  Brubaker wrote a blog post before the show, saying in part,

Next week, I’m playing an overlapped, simultaneous concert with Francesco Tristano, this time at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. It’s billed as “[ Simultaneo ].” In the advertising it says: “Two concerts at the same time!” A manifestation of remix culture for sure — it’s Girl Talk Classical!

So a definite reference to pop culture, and how classical musicans are being influenced by it.  (I guess I really ought to listen to Girl Talk and start paying more attention to pop culture.) Here’s video of an earlier concert:

For me the sometimes Ivesian juxtaposition of the music worked really well.  For Jake Cohen at consequenceofsound.net, it didn’t.

At one point during the double piano set by whiz kid Francesco Tristano and veteran Bruce Brubaker– two artists steeped in the 20th-century piano tradition– I jotted down in my notes: “I’m just not sure what the point is supposed to be.” Maybe that was the point. Avant-garde artists frequently set out to mystify their audiences, appealing to an elite and eccentric few, while shock and confusion were stalwart aesthetic values of the Fluxus movement and other happenings going on in this city during the 1960s and 70s. Make no mistake– Tristano and Brubaker are consummate musicians, unarguably at the top of their respective fields, and they know their stuff. They had a novel, wild idea: play two concerts with programs of both contemporary and classical piano music, from Cage to Schumann to Buxtehude, at the same time, at one of the hippest venues for classical music in the country. See what kind of freaky concurrences result, how each pianist will engage in a dialogue with both the music and with each other, and how the introduction of electronics will affect a wonderful synchronism of styles, touching on all the notable giants of piano music over the last 400 years. Unfortunately, their idea simply didn’t translate to practice.

I, on the other hand, was drawn into it. Maybe it has something to do with how my brain is wired.  When I improvise, I sometimes find myself playing two pieces at the same time, switching back and forth between them.  And this performance had that interactive quality that good improvisational music has. Brubaker and Tristano were clearly listening to and responding to each other. The music wasn’t only juxtaposed, it was often folded together.  It was, indeed, mashed up.

The audience was pin-drop silent, which meant that the sonic landscape included, even at the tables, clinking ice and cocktails being shaken, not stirred.  The music was so soft so much of the time that I found myself wishing we were in a recital hall rather than a club.

There wasn’t a lot of ice clinking last night, Sunday 2/6, at the 10:00 PM Dueling Fiddlers rock violin show, where extraneous sounds would not have disturbed the loose atmosphere or the amplified and energetic music. There was a small but enthusiastic audience. Not only was it Superbowl Sunday (it was hard to tear myself away from the Superbowl party; as a former Wisconsin resident I was riveted by the Packers), but the only genres it was tagged with on the LPR website were “rock and roll” and “rock violin.” I keep track of the events billed as “classical” and “contemporary classical,” so I hadn’t noticed the listing until that morning.  (There was enough classical music in the mix that both tags I mentioned would have been appropriate.) Glad I did, because it was really fun.

Adam DeGraff and Russell Fallstad have significant classical backgrounds (Adam, Russell told me, is the former concertmaster of the Richmond Symphony; Russell was the founding violist of the Fry Street Quartet) and top-level technique.  Playing acoustic violins (Fallstad often using a 5-string instrument including a C string) amplified with wireless mics, often processed with looping and effects pedals (one of which lowers the pitch of Degraff’s violin by a couple of octaves), they play with energy, a wide range of emotion, a sense of adventure and play, and interact with the audience with self-deprecating humor.  It’s much more than rock;  they quote a lot of classical music (Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach), and pop schmaltz (the theme from Love Story) as well country fiddling (they are based in West Virginia–or was it Virginia?) and original music.  They did a mashup of Lady Gaga and, well someone whose name I don’t remember. (OK, it was Ke$ha.) My 19-year-old daughter recognized much more than I.

One piece that struck me, and that I can remember pretty well, was the Prelude of the Bach G Major Cello Suite, played rather freely by Fallsatd, over which Degraff improvised a line, at first very conservative, reminiscent of the Bach-Gunoud Ave Maria. Then a blue note or too, and the thing morphed into a fiddling extravaganza about half way through the prelude.  Things were mixed up for a while, with all sorts of virtuoso double stopping, when Fallstad played the Bach’s descending scale passages so fast that they made a brilliant cadenza.  It built to a rousing finish, and gave me the idea that this Prelude, often played rather gently, could work as a free-tempo, very improvisatory and virtuosic showpiece.  Fallstad commented after that he had initial trepidation about “doing this to Bach,” but got over it, since “Bach is dead” and they can do whatever they want.  The comment seemed to fall flat. I’d say that Bach transformed and rewrote pieces by other composers, and what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

My daughter and I chatted briefly with Fallstad after the show.  How’d he get into this?  “I would be playing Beethoven quartets, realizing I was having a much better time than anyone in the audience,” he told us.  “I thought, we’ve got to do something about this.”  His old friend Adam called him with the idea of doing rock violin, and the duo, which has been performing together for about a year, was born.  They are getting an increasing number of gigs.  They’ve got a big future;  it will be interesting to see how their career develops.  There are things to work out.  There’s a quasi-apologetic energy to some of their comments that seems to be their classical selves making excuses for their rock selves; that they can move beyond.  Overall, there was so much great music making, interaction, and playfulness that I think I had the best time at their show of anything I’ve attended in NY so far.

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Filed under alternative classical performance, Bruce, Francesco Tristano, improvisation, Le Poisson Rouge, live performance, loop-based improv, looping