(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!