Michelle Schumann and Graham Reynolds' Joyful Noise
For their new Austin Chamber Music Center collaboration, the pianist and composer crank up the reverb but good
Michelle Schumann is at the piano, and anyone fortunate enough to have seen the Austin Chamber Music Center artistic director play at one of the organization's concerts or with Ballet Austin or Conspirare will recognize the way her hands glide over the keys, as close to them as swans to a river's surface. So it's surprising when one hand floats up to the piano lid, to a laptop-sized panel festooned with knobs, lights, and wires. The hand turns the knob above a scrap of tape with the letters "CHO" on it, and when it rejoins its partner in its dance on the ivories, every note that's struck is echoed by what sounds like an angelic choir. And as Schumann continues to play, she's no longer performing solo but with this chorus that both follows her and fills out the sounds she makes. When she stops, Schumann turns my way with a wide grin and gleaming eyes that send the message: "Wasn't that cool?"
Indeed it was. And just beyond the piano, framed by familiar cascades of long, brown hair is another grin, this more Cheshire Cat-like, that signals satisfaction with both the music and its performer's response. That would belong to Graham Reynolds, one of the live music capital's busiest musicmakers (Golden Hornet Project co-founder; frequent composer of scores for Richard Linklater films, plays for the Rude Mechs, and dances for Forklift Danceworks and Ballet Austin; and, as of this week, recipient of $95,000 in support from Creative Capital [$50,000 to develop his chamber opera Pancho Villa From a Safe Distance and $45,000 for career development]). Ordinarily, you might expect Reynolds to be working the keyboards himself, but here he's serving strictly in a compositional capacity. Schumann commissioned a piece from him, which will receive its premiere at this weekend's ACMC concert, The Late Show, on a bill with Beethoven's Sonata for Piano in E Major. And she specifically asked for a work that would incorporate electronics and the kind of reverb that lets her call up a celestial chorus – or cathedral echoes or percussion beats – at the touch of a finger (well, and turn of a knob).
If that sounds out of character for a pianist prized for her playing of Beethoven and Bach, then remember that Schumann also made a local tradition of throwing a birthday party for avant-garde composer John Cage, at which she liked to play works for prepared piano, i.e., one that's had objects you don't normally associate with a piano (screws, coins, a salad fork) placed between the strings to create odd sounds. "I loved that you could look at one instrument and out would come this completely different sound," Schumann says. "And you could find the beauty or the ugly or whatever you wanted to find in it. To explore that in the electronic realm is great. Lots of other instrumentalists do that, but not many pianists. So I wanted to see what the piano could do, and, you know, chamber music is my thing, so [it's great] to be able to play chamber music with myself – especially with this idea of creating sounds and looping sounds and piling sounds on top of that. Playing with these effects – that's the most fun for me, making something that you know you might not be able to make again."
Schumann first approached Reynolds after working with him on some Ballet Austin projects (literally: The Bach Project and The Mozart Project), but put off the commission when she had a baby. They came back to it this season, which ACMC has dedicated to Beethoven and during which Schumann has revisited a work important to her arrival in Austin 20 years ago, the Sonata for Piano in E Major. She auditioned for the UT School of Music (now the Butler School) with it, and because it got her in and that was where she met her husband and now they have a daughter, she feels like "Opus 109 brought me my kid. Knowing what Graham had done using Mozart and Bach as starting points, I thought, 'What could he do with this sonata?'"
What Reynolds did with it in "In the Face of Trouble" doesn't sound much like Beethoven – which is fine with Schumann, as she didn't want it to be a caricature – but it channels the original's spirit. "Beethoven – you think of all this aggression, and this is not turning up the aggression at all," he says.
"It's one of the sweetest of the sonatas," adds Schumann.
Which, in turn, echoes the pianist's experience with Reynolds on this project. "Graham is a really generous composer," she says, then turning directly to him, adds, "because you're interested in what I want to play. And not many composers are that way. They're interested in realizing what they wanted to realize anyway. But we started from scratch."
So all the improvisation you'll hear and the distortions and the reverb really reflect Schumann, who's aware that some of her chamber music loyalists may hear just noise. But as Reynolds sagely notes, what sounded dissonant and noisy in Beethoven's day does not now, because we've had 200 years of exposure to more dissonance and distortion in increments. "If you haven't gone down that path and listened to the layers of distortion or dissonance, it is noise, and it sounds like noise in a way that you have no context to appreciate. Noise is a great word if you like noise music and a terrible word if you don't."
Well, however you interpret that word, you'll find that this noise has been made – and will be made – with a lot of joy.
The Late Show will be performed Sat., Jan. 16, 7:30pm, at First Unitarian Universalist Church, 4700 Grover. For more information, visit www.austinchambermusic.org.