Mp3 Blog #2: The Magical Resonance of the Piano


Charlemagne Palestine:
Strumming Music (recorded 1974)
Improvised composition for piano

La Monte Young:
The Well-Tuned Piano (1964-73-81-present) (excerpt from NYC 1987)
Improvised composition for piano

I began my musical life at the piano. When I was really young, I typically improvised compositions more than I practiced music for lessons. I would depress the sustain pedal and repetitively play a few notes, chords, and melodic fragments while swimming in the resonance and thoughts about musical unfolding.

In the last few years, I’ve heard many composers describe the piano as a boring monochromatic and timbrally blank instrument. This opinion greatly offends me. Few instruments have a greater spectral complexity in each note than the piano. Furthermore, almost nothing in the acoustic world compares to the sound of piano strings sympathetically resonating. I chose this week’s mp3 selections to demonstrate this latter property – the magical resonance of the piano.

Charlemagne Palestine’s improvised work Strumming exemplifies the intense ritualistic musical experience at the center of early minimalist music. In the 1970’s, Charlemagne Palestine was infamous for performances similar to this one where he rapidly repeats a few notes with a depressed damper pedal to cajole rarely heard piano resonance. Often these performances would last for many hours and would end after his hands were bleeding.

The Well-Tuned Piano is considered by many to be La Monte Young’s masterpiece. This extended work (which in recent performances extends beyond six hours) features an ingenious tuning system which Kyle Gann cracked in 1991. One of my favorite features in this excerpt is how the repetitive clouds transform from percussive motivic centers to sound masses inhabited by fleeting phantasmagoric just-intoned intervallic melodies. The effect is breathtaking – one that I never imagined before and forever changed my way of hearing.

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