Posts Tagged “Rice University”

Pianist and composer Kris Becker (photo by Bhavin)

Pianist and composer Kris Becker (photo by Bhavin)

(Houston, TX) “Ah! Expression!” That’s the first thing that came out of my mouth when I cued up and heard “Elegy,” the poignant, yet unsentimental first track on Houston-based pianist and composer Kris Becker’s new recording Expansions. Becker is a classically trained pianist and composer with a passion for both 19th century and prog-rock piano and a compositional vision well served by his formidable technique. Like the song says, “Oh, yeah! The boy can play!” But it’s the range of expression in Becker’s playing and writing that ultimately resonates with me.

Real quick, let me explain the name thing. Kris and I are not related, although we are definitely brothers in spirit. We’ve even performed on the same bill, albeit separately, me on laptop cuing and mixing electronic and sample-based sounds to accompany avant-garde films, and Kris on Nord playing both what he calls his “nu-classical” repertoire and rock influenced songs. When I first relocated the Houston, the local press managed to mix the two of us up at least once (my photo appeared above Kris’ name in an ad for a gig with his rock band Frozen Heat). So just to clarify, it’s Kris with a “K,” okay?

Okay. Now back to the music. Expansions features 13 tracks, 11 of them compositions for solo piano. “Covenant” is a feisty dialogue for clarinet (played by Sarunas Jankauskas) and piano, and the title track is a seven and a half minute theme and variations for solo flute beautifully performed by Victoria Hauk.

There’s no question Becker’s formidable (that word again) piano skills have everything to do with generating the compositional material he has shaped into an award-winning, body of work. But there’s heart and soul in the man’s music, not just technical fireworks. His compositions, especially the compositions on Expansions, are intensely programmatic and poetic, a fact one can gather not only from Becker’s liner notes but the expressive and dynamic directions you see in his scores (a couple of my favorites include “scintillating and terrifying” and “twisted”).

Expansions closes with a four-movement monster of a of a piece “Piano Sonata No. 1,” which is dedicated to Becker’s Rice-era piano instructor Robert Roux. Becker appreciated my description of this piece as a “monster,” and told me that in fact that’s how the piece struck him after he first heard it back in its entirety. Several tempo and meter changes, as well as the breadth of expressive demands on the player, sets the piece firmly outside of the camp of this generation’s latest batch of post-minimialists. It’s a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. At times, especially in the first movement, I’m reminded of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, though Becker is quick to name check Keith Emerson as he is Chopin and of the usual 19th century long hairs. “Piano Sonata No. 1″ deservedly won the 2012 National Federation of Music Clubs Emil and Ruth Beyer Composition Award.

Like any good romantic, Becker is determined to realize his music, his way, maintaining what a friend of mine calls “aesthetic ownership” of a very personal musical vision. Sure, Becker can tear up Mozart and Beethoven, but why play it safe? His drive compels him to a road a little less traveled. It’s a hard road, but many classically trained musicians these days are similarly deciding to forgo the traditional and instead cut their own artistic path. So Kris with a “K” is in good company!

Becker’s Expansions is available now on CD Baby and iTunes.

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(Visual Abstract, First Movement, Music by Pierre Jalbert, Film by Jean Detheux)

On January 8th, 2011, at 7:30 p.m. in Zilkha Hall of The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, the Houston TX new music group Musiqa presents Real and Imagined – a concert collaboration with Aurora Picture Show featuring Theo Loevendie’s Six Turkish Folk Songs as well as music by Eve Beglarian, Paul Frehner, and Evan Chambers. Houston-based composer Pierre Jalbert’s Visual Abstract for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion will be performed live to a film created by Jean Detheux. The concert will be conducted by Houston Symphony Assistant Conductor Brett Mitchell.

Led by five composers (including founding member Pierre Jalbert) Musiqa is receiving a great deal of notice for its innovative multi-disciplinary concert events (dance, visual art, and theater are always integrated into Musiqa performances) as well as its educational programming that annually reaches thousands of Houston area students. Next season, Musiqa will celebrate its ten-year anniversary.

Pierre Jalbert graciously responded to a few questions about Visual Abstract:

Chris Becker: Did Jean Detheux create his film before, after, or during the composition of Visual Abstract?

Pierre Jalbert: He created the film after the piece was written. The music was commissioned and premiered by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble a few years back. Jean and I worked on a project last year in which he created a film first and I wrote the music to the film. That work was entitled L’œil écoute (The Eye Listens), and was also premiered by PNME. This time around, we decided that we would reverse the process, and he would do his film to the already existing music.

Chris Becker: In performance with the film, is the conductor watching the film for the timing of some of your musical events? I’m thinking of the third movement where rhythmic hits coincide with abrupt changes in the film.

Pierre Jalbert: Yes, the conductor is looking at the film for cues from time to time, and we rehearse many times through to get the timing down. As you can imagine, it’s very difficult as each performance is slightly different. But Jean made the film to not have too many abrupt changes. But still, there are a a few that make it challenging.

Chris Becker: The layers of images in Detheux’s film are very rich and tactile. They remind me of natural phenomena, weather, or even what we “see” when we close our eyes and listen to the sounds around us. Speaking as a composer, what do you think makes an “abstract” work of visual art successful?

Pierre Jalbert: I think when one looks at the film and hears the music as a single entity, and one does not dominate over the other, but each enhances the other, then we have something interesting.

Chris Becker: Next season, Musiqa will celebrate its ten-year anniversary. As one of the people who founded the organization, how does it feel to look back on all Musiqa has accomplished?

Pierre Jalbert: It’s amazing to look back and see how the organization has grown. I remember a few of us meeting at Tony Brandt’s house 10 years ago and brain-storming about what the organization could be. We wanted to get new music out into the community and into downtown and offer up repertoire that wasn’t being heard in Houston. All of the composers on the Artistic Board work really well together (Anthony Brandt, Karim Al-Zand, Rob Smith, Marcus Maroney, and myself), and that has been crucial in keeping things going through the years.

Tickets for Real and Imagined – including discounted tickets for seniors and students – are available for purchase on the Musiqa website.

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