From Cantaloupe Music and the New Yorker: “A Physically Punishing Solo-Piano Masterpiece”

Cantaloupe Music is the recording arm of Bang On a Can, the original New Music DIY organization.

The New Yorker

3.8.18
Ethan Iverson [The strongest left hand in Jazz]

Ethan Iverson, Pianist

Vicky Chow, Pianist

The pianist Vicky Chow says that playing “Sonatra” is a “traumatic physical experience.” Composed by Michael Gordon, in 2004, and released on Cantaloupe Music, in two versions, one in normal tuning and one in unsettling just intonation, “Sonatra” is a spectacular addition to the piano repertoire. In 1987, Gordon helped found Bang on a Can, a celebrated New York ensemble that has produced a long list of valuable premières from artists working in the terrain of post-minimalist and experimental sounds. Yet, few of the composers associated with that milieu have been noted for their solo-piano music. Indeed, Gordon says, “When I started writing ‘Sonatra,’ I decided . . . I would probably only ever write one piano piece in my entire life.”

“Sonatra” is a fifteen-minute perpetual-motion study that may be the culmination of a tradition of pieces that place inhuman demands on concert pianists. It’s been exactly a century since Béla Bartók composed his fearsome Op. 18 Études, the second of which is in chain thirds, just like “Sonatra.” The composer Conlon Nancarrow created maniacal keyboard music in the forties and fifties, although most people didn’t hear his piano rolls until the Nancarrow recordings became available, in the sixties and seventies. György Ligeti was inspired by both Bartók and Nancarrow in a series of famous études that began with “Désordre,” in 1985.

“Sonatra” is a milestone of composition, but the recording is also a milestone of pianism. With a score this difficult, the performer becomes an essential collaborator. The arpeggios begin in extremis and only get harder. Tossing off one glissando is easy, but, near the end of “Sonatra,” the hundreds of glissandos in a row must nearly rub the pianist raw. One might wonder how much studio magic is present in this recording. I can verify that Chow can play it live. At a terrific recital in October, 2016, at Roulette, in Brooklyn, Chow closed with “Sonatra.” It was my first exposure to the piece and I felt it land like an unfriendly tap on the shoulder from a heavyweight boxer.

The athletic aspects of “Sonatra” are leavened by a breezy kind of American aesthetic. The title references the famous saloon singer. (When you google “Sonatra,” the search engine asks, “Did you mean Sinatra?”) The ear can follow the charming form on first listen. There’s a cheerfully experimental approach to tuning. (Perhaps we should now listen Bartok’s Op. 18 and the Ligeti études in just intonation.) Chow’s cover photo is like that of a sardonic action hero who doesn’t take herself too seriously.

The looping streams in “Sonatra” suggest the endless flow of binary information, music for the computer age, but the limited edition offers heavy vinyl at 45 r.p.m. with normal and skewed versions, a copy of the score, and a large cover worthy of framing. Filing the LP on my shelf gave me a rare sense of satisfaction, especially when so much of my contemporary collection is stored in the cloud. At times, it feels like the era of undisputed masterpieces is over, but it turns out that there’s still work that deserves the old-fashioned phrase from the glory days of vinyl: “An essential library item.”

Ethan Iverson is a pianist and composer based in Brooklyn, NY, USA.


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