Dennis JohnsonCD cover

November

performed by R. Andrew Lee

Irritable Hedgehog

Getting a copy of this recording for review reminded me of my all-time favorite CD review, Chuck Klosterman’s review of Chinese Democracy by Guns n’ Roses. I find it especially relevant when Klosterman states that reviewing the disc “…is not like reviewing music. It’s more like reviewing a unicorn. Should I primarily be blown away that it exists at all? Am I supposed to compare it to conventional horses? To a rhinoceros? Does its pre-existing mythology impact its actual value, or must it be examined inside a cultural vacuum, as if this creature is no more (or less) special than the remainder of the animal kingdom?”

Dennis Johnson’s November is the minimalist example of Klosterman’s situation. Spoken about in hushed, revered tones, November seemed to be a work on par with any other lost/imaginary work of art you’d care to name. Hearing this piece is, to my brain at least, similar to hearing the supposedly lost “first” symphony of Mahler and finding it to be as sophisticated as his ninth. Or seeing what could have happened if David Lynch had actually directed Return of the Jedi as Lucas originally had in mind. November is a piece of epic epicness; the minimalist unicorn circa 1959.

There is little about the construction of the piece that I can say which would add much to Kyle Gann’s stellar research and reconstruction efforts. At almost 5 hours exactly in duration, Lee’s performance shows us a world where minimalism was driven forward by time instead of pulse. The busy nattering process of old-school minimalism is not in play; events merely unfold at a slow and spacious rate. November is surprisingly easy to listen to for its full duration. The opening minor third returns at appropriate but not predictable times. The dissonance and consonance interplay is captivating and clear. Full chords are surprising rare; single tones and intervals dominate the glacial unfurling of events. When larger harmonies finally do coalesce, they are striking and new but they are right. November is a work about harmony as much as it is about time and Lee’s performance elucidates the harmonic drama and narrative throughout the entire duration.

This recording is also a testament to humanity. Most big-time works of minimalism, especially early works, seem to treat the performers as machines dutifully assembling the music as it comes by on a conveyor belt. Expression and interpretation are eschewed for rhythmic precision and crisp bright timbres. Early minimalism is many things but I doubt many would use the term “lush.” November comes alive under the fingers and musical abilities of R. Andrew Lee. Every note, every chord, every ninth that still doesn’t resolve even after 4 hours, every moment is in its perfect place. November is not something like “Clapping Music” where as long as you put the right notes in the right order the piece takes care of itself. November needs a deft mind and Lee delivers. The piece is not a technical challenge of the fingers but rather a challenge of the performer’s interpretation and mental endurance. Given such few musical materials and so much time, there are rather few pianists who I think could pull this off. Some could work with these materials for 30 minutes, maybe an hour, but the ability to bring forth five hours of music in such a compelling-yet-accessible way is nothing short of a miracle. An earlier draft of this review included a “loaves and fishes” reference at this point but I think it best if I leave it out.

So the piece that should have never existed finally does and it exists in as definitive of a performance as possible. What more could we ask for except R. Andrew Lee’s next release?

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