Adventures in minimalism with pianist R. Andrew Lee
As a piano performance student, first as an undergraduate at Truman State University and then as a grad student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, R. Andrew Lee made an important discovery about modern and contemporary music: It was more fun to learn about it by hanging out with composers than in the classroom. The latter, he said during a recent interview, suggested “being told to eat your vegetables,” while the former offered a sense that these techniques actually had expressive potential.
One day, he and David McIntire, a composer friend with adventurous tastes, put on a recording of William Duckworth’s “The Time Curve Preludes,” a 1979 cycle of meditative tonal piano pieces that was both largely obscure and crucial to the history of minimalism. It was “as close to an epiphany as I’d ever had,” said Lee by phone from his home in Denver. “And that was maybe the first time that I knew that 20th-century music could be really beautiful.”
“That,” he said, “was my gateway drug.”
The drug has never worn off. Lee has now firmly established a bailiwick in minimalist and postminimalist works, especially those of unusual duration and spaciousness. Among the fruits of his vocation are no fewer than 10 recordings on Irritable Hedgehog, the recording label that he and McIntire cofounded, and a steadily growing series of concerts, including a Non-Event at the Goethe-Institut Boston on Friday that is his local recital debut.
The program is a good representation of the extent of Lee’s interests. He’ll play “Go and Stop” by Eva-Maria Houben, one of the “Wandelweiser” group of composers whose music is shot through with silence and stillness. How does he describe them? “Composers who have really fallen in love with sound, in a really profound way,” he says. “They can just fall in love with one chord and then let it pause, and sit there and reflect on it.”
Also on the program is a new work, “Obsessions,” by Swedish composer Adrian Knight, testament to Lee’s desire to grow the piano repertoire (his recording of it will be released on the same day) and music by American composer Paul A. Epstein, whose works sit at the intersection of minimalism and serialism.
“The only thing that’s been consistent,” Lee said of his repertoire, “is that I’ve had that little gut reaction like, oh wow, this is really interesting. I need to explore this further. It’s just whatever’s interested me at a particular moment.”
One of the most important projects he’s undertaken is the first recording of “November,” a mammoth early minimalist work by the now-forgotten American composer Dennis Johnson, a colleague of La Monte Young. That the piece even exists today is because of the efforts of musicologist Kyle Gann, who reconstructed the work from a fragmentary score and a decades-old, incomplete recording. A performance, split between the written score reconstructed by Gann and a lengthy improvisation on its themes, usually takes around 5½ hours. Lee has played it publicly five times, and to judge from his 2013 recording, it is a spellbinding, otherworldly experience.
Surprisingly, he said, performing it isn’t quite as difficult or taxing as you might think, though he does have to take some care with eating and drinking in advance. “The first hour always flies by, the second drags a little bit. Then there’s usually a point at which I say I don’t know how I can do this for another two hours. And then you get over the hump and keep moving along.
“I joke with my English friends: I’m an American, I know how to sit on my butt for five hours, that isn’t hard,” he added with a laugh.
He also tells the audience members that it’s OK to move through the space or leave for a little while if they want to. “This should not be like some endurance event, and you get a T-shirt and a medal for sitting through it. This truly is something to be enjoyed. Don’t make it into a challenge.”
Last year Lee added the first movement of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in G (D. 894) to one of his programs. The hypnotic rhythm of Schubert’s chords made sense in context, but it was still a surprise to see him playing something from the 19th century. It prompted an interviewer to ask whether he ever pines for the opportunity to ditch all this strange stuff and just play a concert of standard repertoire. His answer was an unequivocal no.
“I feel so at home with this repertoire. I feel I’m at my best as a pianist when I’m doing this. I really have something to bring to this repertoire, and I love being able to be a part of the conversation about what the canon will look like 100 years from now. If I get bored I’ll move on to something else. There’s nothing keeping me here except the fact that I love it.”
R. Andrew Lee, piano
Music of Houben, Knight, and Epstein. Presented by Non-Event. At Goethe-Institut Boston, Friday at 8 p.m. Tickets: $10-15. www.nonevent.org