Joanna MacGregor

We enjoyed a suberb concert last night in The Great Hall at Hope University’s Everton campus – part of this year’s Cornerstone Festival.  Joanna MacGregor presented a varied and exciting programme of American piano music, ranging from spirituals to challenging pieces by Samuel Barber and John Cage. I was pleased to have been introduced to composers like Conlon Nancarrow and Mary Lou Harrison.

Joanna MacGregor is thought of as one of the world’s most wide-ranging and innovative musicians and has pursued a life connecting many genres of music defying categorizations.

Joanna MacGregor is one of contemporary music’s great individualists, a uniquely enlivening presence who slices her way through all the barriers she sees as false and limiting.
– George Hall, The Independent

Even a member of that mythical species, the completely tone deaf, could not fail to be stirred by a Joanna MacGregor performance. Simply to see her zipping around a keyboard grabbing fistfuls of notes at the behest of some unfeasible contemporary score is to watch a pianist pushing the human frame to its limits.
– Peter Kingston, The Guardian

She has performed in over sixty countries, often appearing as a solo artist with many of the world’s leading orchestras. This year she opened the London Jazz Festival with oud virtuoso and vocalist Dhafer Youssef, whose extraordinary music blends Sufi traditions, world and jazz influences, with Arabic lyricism and mysticism. As a recording artist Joanna MacGregor has made over 30 solo recordings , ranging from Bach, Scarlatti, Ravel and Debussy, to jazz and contemporary music. Her own record label SoundCircus was founded in 1998 and has released many highly successful recordings including the Mercury prize-nominated Play (including music by Bach, Ligeti and Piazzolla) and Neural Circuits, with music by Messiaen, Arvo Part and Nitin Sawhney. Current releases include Sidewalk Dances – the Moondog/Bach Art of Fugue project with Britten Sinfonia – and Deep River, music inspired by the Deep South, with saxophonist Andy Sheppard.

This was Joanna’s programme, with her own notes (the fact that she writes her own notes, to me, reflects her tremendous communicativeness about the music she is performing – something that comes across in her introductions when playing live:

Lost Highway
Traditional: Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child
Johnny Cash/Haden: Spiritual
Traditional: Deep River
Traditional: Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down

When I was a young child, I loved to play (and sing) gospel hymns and spirituals. My father was a lay preacher, and I often travelled with him. I guess my involvement with the direct musical messages of the American landscape began back then; and I love driving across the States, particularly the mid-West and the South, with music for company while I travel along enormous plains and mountains. The first half of this American concert treads a path round all the songs and styles I grew up with, starting with the great anonymous composers of spirituals and a beautifully simple song written by the great Johnny Cash (1932-2003)·

Thelonious Monk (1917-82)
Round Midnight
Monk’s Point

I was given a cassette (remember those?) of Thelonious Sphere Monk playing solo when I was 14. It was all very difficult for me, but to try and get to grips with someone I knew intuitively would be an anchor (those harmonies!. that great way of poking and coaxing the piano!), I lovingly transcribed the iconic Round Midnight, and a much lesser known, quirkily humorous Monk’s Point, with a great stride left hand. Don’t believe people who tell you Monk had a bad piano technique: he knew exactly what he was doing. Not only one of jazz’s greatest innovators, thinkers and composers, but a great player too.

Charles Ives (1874-1954): The Anti-Abolitionist Riots
Conlon Nancarrow (1912-97): Prelude and Blues
Lou Harrison (1917-2003):  Slow Movement, Piano Concerto

A trio of short pieces bringing together the American ‘pioneer’ composers, whose music is both rugged and poetic.  Connecticut-born Ive’s short Anti-Abolitionist Riots (1908) is a dramatic, hard-hitting work, depicting the social unrest around the abolition of slavery riots of the 183os. The piano style is gruff and clangorous, pre-dating Bartok’s piano writing of the 194os. The wonderfully witty Nancarrow (born in Arkansas, like Johnny Cash) wrote the quasi-Bach Prelude and Blues (the prelude is in the style of a fugue) in 1936, before he went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

Lou Harrison was born in Portland, Oregon but lived most of his life in the San Franciso area, eventually buying land just outside the city and spending time on his farm. An early friend and collaborator of John Cage’s, Lou’s music was heavily influenced by Indonesian Gamelan, Cantonese Opera, Native American music, jazz and medieval music. I had the great fortune to meet him at Dartington in 1999, when I performed his wonderful piano concerto, which had been written originally for Keith Jarrett but terribly overlooked. The concerto encompasses all of the above references, but the slow movement is particularly gorgeous, capturing the stillness of the starry night and the sweep and romance of the American West.

Mary Lou Harrison (1910-81): Old Time Spiritual
Professor Longhair (1918-80): Big Chief
Dr John (1940-): Big Mac
Dameron/Count Basie: Nina Simone’s Good Bait

The brilliant blues pianist Mary Lou Williams was friend and mentor to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and wrote hundreds ofcompositions and arrangements; Old Time Spiritual is a simple blues hymn. Two giants of New Orleans are represented here by their most famous tunes: Mac Rebennack (aka Dr John) and the inestimable Professor Longhair, whose seminal Big Chief – particularly its left hand riff- single-handedly invented funk: as Dr John says, ”Professor Longhair put ‘funk’ into music; he’s the father of the stuff.”

The Nina Simone (1933-2003) reworking of Good Bait is the exact same story as my Monk transcriptions, though written down a little later (I think I was 20). I still have this tattered yellowing manuscript, but it’s unreadable (obviously written down in a hurry, and now play my own reworking: such is the story of improvised music). Good Bait comes from her marvellous debut album, made when she was 21; she lost all the royalty rights to that one and was at the start of what was to be a hard, bitter and complex life, fraught with hellish addictions and dramatically varying career fortunes as well as great political courage (she was at the forefront of the 60s Civil Rights campaign, and her music was used once again in Obama’s long campaign trail). She’s never stopped being a powerful figure for me.

Samuel Barber (1910-81): Excursions, Op. 20

Samuel Barber was the great Romantic ofAmerican 20th century composers; his orchestral music was lushly rich, ofien magical, and his vocal music (most famously the cycle for soprano and orchestra, Knoxville: Summer 0f 1915) captured memory and dreamy yearning.  Excursions (1944) is a popular work amongst young American pianists, thanks to Horowitz’s performances (he also championed Barber’s mighty, virtuoso Sonata), and poses pianistic challenges. Each of the four short movements encapsulates a slice of Americana, in a subtle, fine-boned way. The first depicts city life with catchy, tricky rhytms, jazzy playfulness, and a terrific passacaglia bass. In Slow Blues Tempo portrays rocking-chair-on-the-porch-Mississippi blues, asymmetric and reflective, compared to the later, heavier Chicago blues of the 40s and 5os. The third Excursion, a lyrical set of variations on the cowboy song T’he Streets of Laredo, explores calypso by having each hand play in cross rhythms throughout , and the final movement is a barn dance, similar in spirit to Copland’s Rodeo, but jazzier, lighter and more wittily mischievous.

Frederic Rzewski (b.1938): Winnsboro’ Cottonmill Blues

Like Barber, Rzewski’s brilliant piano music often uses folk material, most famously in his 90 minute The People United Will Never Be Defeated, a set of36 variations based on a Chilean anthem. Winnsbor’o Cottonmill Blues (1975) was inspired by the film Norma Rae, about a strike in a small industrial town. Rzewsld treats the piano as a huge, rumbling factory machine, and carries on the great tradition of tone clusters invented by Henry Cowell, asking the pianist to play with her palms and forearms to generate a terrific amount of noise. The humanity of the 16-bar blues is made explicit in a gorgeous, all-too-brief middle section, before the ferocious machines return.

John Cage (1912-1992): 4’33”

Possibly the most subversive piece ever written, it’s commonly assumed Cage’s 4’33” of silence is for piano solo, but it’s a piece that can be performed by any group of instrumentalists (visit YouTube for an entertaining array of performances). The BBC Symphony Orchestra played it to a packed Festival Hall during their Cage weekend in 2004 (and the alarm back-up system on BBC Radio 3, which kicks in whenever ‘dead air’ is detected, had to be switched off for the duration). Cage cited it as his most important piece; it was certainly his most controversial. In 1951 he visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University, a completely sound-proofed room. He described hearing one high sound and one low sound, which the engineer at the time told him was his nervous system in operation, and his blood in circulation. (There’s since been some skepticism about these explanations, but the experience for Cage was significant, nonetheless). Another influence came from Cage’s friend, the artist Robert Rauschenberg, who had produced, also in 1951, a series of white paintings, seemingly ‘blank’ canvases (”Actually what pushed me into it was not guts but the example of Robert Rauschenberg. His white paintings… when I saw those, I said, ‘Oh yes, I must. Otherwise I’m lagging, otherwise music is lagging’.”) Cage’s musical equivalent to the Rauschenberg paintings uses the silence of the piece as an aural ‘blank canvas’ to reflect the dynamic flux of ambient sounds surrounding each performance; the music of the piece is natural sounds of the players, the audience, the building, and the outside environment.

4’33” falls into three movements; each movement is signified by re-setting the stopwatch and opening and closing the keyboard. I like to perform the timings David Tudor first did in 1952 (though these timings are always at the digression ofthe performers): 30″, 2’23”, and 1’20”.

George Gershwin (1898-1937): The Gershwin Songbook

The Man I Love; S’Wonderful: My One and Only; Clap Yo’ Hands; Do ItAgain; SomebodyLoves Me; Sweet and Lowdown; Fascinating Rhythm; Strike Up The Band; Who Cares; Oh, Lady Be Good; Stairway to Paradise; Do Do Do; That Certain Feeling; Liza; I Got Rhythm.

George Gershwin was one of the most gifted and mercurial composers of the 20th century, a musician who single-handedly invented ‘crossover’ music, and straddled two musical worlds: improvised (jazz) and notated (classical). From the storming success of Rhapsody in Blue to the brilliant examination of gospel and blues in Porgy and Bess, Gershwin effortlessly, and lightly, used his fabulous talent to convey a certain kind ofwit and immediacy and still delights and surprises. The Gershwin Songbook contains (very short, very demanding) arrangements of 16 of his most famous songs with his brother Ira. All draw on the styles of jazz and Tin Pan Alley, but make references to classical composers too, most noticeably Rachmaninov, Debussy, Stravinsky and even Schumann. His exquisite virtuosity is always at the service of a sophisticated and worldly self-deprecation; if Gershwin had been a dancer, not a composer, he’d surely have been Fred Astaire.

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