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Conductor Christian Reif
Conductor Christian Reif. Photo credit: Stefan Cohen

Mostly Mozart Festival Review: International Contemporary Ensemble – ‘Grand Pianola Music’

The Mostly Mozart Festival‘s Grand Pianola Music concert on 2 August presented three pieces exploring the interaction between man and machine, in three very different ways. And there wasn’t a pianola (player piano) in sight.

Performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), John Adams‘s minimalist-romantic opus Grand Pianola Music capped the concert, ironically the only piece scored purely for acoustic instruments.

But New Orleans composer-pianist Courtney Bryan started things off with the program’s freshest and most intimate work. In Songs of Laughing, Smiling, and Crying Bryan improvises on the piano, interacting with an electronically processed selection of clips of vintage song recordings and other audio files.

She began this amalgam of “found art” and jazz with a few assertively modernist piano runs, but then launched into standard blues-jazz riffage over a recording of “When You’re Smiling (The Whole World Smiles With You).” Well, this is nothing special, I thought.

Composer-pianist Courtney Bryan
Composer-pianist Courtney Bryan. Photo credit: Elizabeth Leitzell

And then. A lily-white choral snatch of “I’ll Never Smile Again” paved the way for a dissonant piano solo and the introduction of the “Laughing” element of the title – recordings of (male) laughs that got creepier, even diabolical-sounding, as they repeated and recurred with variations. Upon this Bryan built a crazy-quilt of stormy sound full of non-traditional and very non-jazzy harmonies.

And then. A funerary nocturne. A snatch of Pagliacci. Lisztian pianistic drama. Some of Bryan’s playing made me wonder how much of it was indeed improvised, it rocked and rolled so well on its own. Regardless, the piece was a big crowd-pleaser.

Listening to ICE’s version of George Lewis‘s Voyager was a much more sobering experience, interesting and difficult. A computer-triggered player piano responded, often aggressively but always with seemingly sentient sensitivity, to wails, sputters, and shrieks from live musicians playing trumpet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, and a piano operated in the standard (manual) way.

Watching that Yamaha play itself, I felt like there was a ghost on the stage.

The pace varied – manic, brittle, with brief moments of quiet and calm – but a strange momentum built as each instrument took a turn inter-blasting with the computer.

Composer George Lewis
Composer George Lewis. Photo credit: Eileen Barroso

A feeling of temporal displacement added to the weirdness: the early-20th-century vintage of the pianola (though this was a modern recreation); the knowledge that Lewis developed the computer program and created the piece back in the 1980s – eons ago in computer time; and the savagely timeless non-musicality of much of what issued from the horns. More a blood-freezer than an ear-pleaser, this Voyager nonetheless struck a raw nerve.

Scored for winds, percussion, two pianos, and three female voices, John Adams’s Grand Pianola Music plays with time in a different way. This purely acoustic 30-minute opus has no pianola, no automation. In three parts, it moves through a kind of expansive minimalism, fluid and skittering, into a romantic finale so lush it feels tongue-in-cheek. Christian Rief of the San Francisco Symphony conducted with brilliant energy in his New York conducting debut, eliciting one of the fiercest performances of ostensibly minimalist music I’ve ever witnessed.

Three superb vocalists from the Quince Ensemble fit snugly into the prismatic sound of the orchestra at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater. In fact, everything from voices to drums benefited greatly from the hall’s excellent acoustics, elevated by top-notch sound design and lighting. The rich brassy climax of the piece’s first section led to an extended tapestry of quiet staccato tension before the gaudy romanticism of the finale stirred the enthusiastic audience’s blood.

So: Instead of an actual pianola, Grand Pianola Music offers minimalism, which by its nature suggests automation. Yet in this dynamic performance the music gushed with waves of emotion. Time has proven to be on Adams’s side.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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