Robert Morris: Nine Piano Pieces; Tête-À-Tête; Wabi


O P E N S P A C E 1 4

Robert Morris
Nine Piano Pieces
Margaret Kampmeier, piano
William Anderson and Oren Fader, guitars
Margaret Kampmeier, piano
Nine Piano Pieces (1999): Between / Kids / Had / To Wit / Loose Canon /
Rising Early / Figurine / Fever / Glimpse

I didn’t intend to write nine piano pieces. First came Rising Early, in five parts. I removed the middle part, recomposed it, and called it Between. This was in the summer of 1999. But in the autumn I became interested in exploring the material further. So I kept composing a piece a week until I had nine—actually ten, since I composed another related but independent piece called Still in the summer of 2000.  All nine, while contrasting in mood and technical difficulty, are based on related 35-note strings, four of which are presented at once. The titles were added after composition, but each seems to fit its piece well. For instance, Kids is playful, Had suggests loss, Loose Canon is canonic, Rising Early slowly goes up.
Nine Piano Pieces was written for and dedicated to Margaret Kampmeier.
Tête-à-Tête for guitar duet (1998).

As the title implies, Tête-à-Tête is an intense, if often quiet, musical conversation between two guitars, each of which responds to the other and to the ways in which the conversation progresses.
The piece is based on transformations of the pitch materials of my composition of 1996, Abuh Abuh Tenun for flute and marimba, but structured on different rhythmic principles. In the guitar duet, streams of pulsations progress at different tempi. The resulting temporal flow is meant to suggest the subtle and complex corporeal rhythms that underlie conversation and other forms of human intimacy.

Wabi for piano solo (1996).
“Wabi,” is a Japanese aesthetic term for “poverty,” one of three characteristics of Haiku poetry (along with “sabi” (loneliness) and “yügen” (mystery)). Leonard Koren has written, wabi and sabi together “is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble; it is a beauty of things unconventional.” Somewhat like the nine piano pieces, Wabi is based on eight simultaneously unfolding, 55-note strings of pitches, quickly saturating the 88 notes of the piano. (These strings completely exhaust all the basic 6-note harmonies of the twelve chromatic notes.) The unfolding happens four times, the middle two involving direct (if camouflaged) octaves. From time to time, the music relaxes as if to contemplate its progress or reflect on the moment.

A few reflections and speculations.
In the past few years I’ve been thinking about how the concept of “not-self ” (anatman) in Buddhist philosophy might have an application to the appreciation of music. In early Buddhist thought, not-self meant that the objects of experience were simply collections of particulars and concepts called dharmas, and at each moment of attention the content of the collection would change by the addition or subtraction of dharmas. If I think of a piece of music as a collection of musical dharmas that changes over time, it suggests that pieces are processes and that the essence of music is flow and transience, as opposed to identity and stability. Musical continuities then are simply specifications of which dharmas are allowed to constitute music and how. Moreover, listening to music as flow involves a type of attention that takes one out of oneself, so to speak, and away from notions of self, identity, and difference. This helps explain why there’s something deep about attending carefully to music yet letting it go by, not trying to grab it and cling.
But later developments in Buddhism associated with the rise of the Mahayana problematized not-self by completing the concept, suggesting that the dharmas themselves have no selfhood. There’s no there there—or here either. This led to the Madhyamaka doctrine of two truths: ultimate truth taught not-self, which was distinct from provisional truth where ordinary conventions were accepted as valid. The point was that only via provisional truth could ultimate truth be known or expressed. This recontexturalization of not-self confounds the idea that one can specify the natureof music in any meaningful way outside of a community of like-minded musical persons. This means that the idea of absolute music, “the music itself,” is empty; but it also means that a particular music considered as a social and cultural activity will be almost powerless to shed light on what other musics might be, precisely because the nature of music—its suchness—is simply inconceivable.
A famous verse in the Diamond Sutra offers a balance between ultimacy and theconditioned—a middle way:

As stars, a fault of vision, as a lamp,
A mock show, dew drops, or a bubble,
A dream, a lightning flash, or cloud,
So should one view what is conditioned.

Taking the verse literally, one can listen to—and therefore compose— music as vivid,
yet impermanent and ultimately intangible. But there is a deeper meaning, that
music,like anything else, is defined by, but free of, its various contexts.

—Robert Morris

(Thanks to James Undercofler and the Institute for American Music)

[1-9] Nine Piano Pieces (1999)*
Margaret Kampmeier, piano
[10] Tête-à-Tête for guitar duet (1998)**
William Anderson, Oren Fader, guitars
[11] Wabi for piano solo (1996)*
Margaret Kampmeier, piano

*recorded by John Truebger
**recorded by Mary Lee Roberts
Edited and Mastered for CD by Mary Lee Roberts
Produced by Mary Lee Roberts
29 sycamore drive
red hook, ny 12571