Mark Gresham | 1 NOV 2019
It was a wet and traffic-daunting Wednesday evening, the night before Halloween, when pianist Robert Henry performed a recital at the Bailey performance center’s Morgan Hall, on the Kennesaw State University campus in Kennesaw Georgia, where he is assistant professor and coordinator of Piano studies at the KSU School of Music.
The concert hall is about 25 miles from midtown Atlanta, a drive that usually take between 45 minutes and an hour, depending on traffic. But circumstances prevented EarRelevant from getting to the concert location on rhis particular occasion. So we took advantage of the fact that KSU offers live internet streaming of many of its concerts — this was one of them. We watched and listened to Henry’s recital remotely, which, in addition to not missing the concert entirely, offered opportunity to see just how well the video streaming presented the performance. What we saw and heard, while not a substitute for presence at a live concert, was not only quite credible and enjoyable but also had a few advantages that could only be had by canny use of video media.
Henry opened the program with substantive piano repertoire: seven of Rachmaninoff’s Études-Tableaux, three drawn from the composers Op. 33 (nos. 6, 5 and 2) and four from Op 39 (nos. 5, 2, 8 & 9). Through texture and sonority, these darkly colorful pieces explore [the transformation of emotional expression, more advanced in compositional technique and less “predictable” than his Preludes. The Op. 39 selections seemed even more detailed in texture and at times broader than those of Op. 33.
This brings us to the matter of how they sounded over streaming. Mr. Henry plays such music deeply and with excellent voicing when heard live, experience has shown from past listening experience. With streaming, you have the context of the sound being picked up by microphones placed close to the piano, with the stands placed the crook of the instruments case. This replaces the natural sonic geography of the concert hall with a “presence” as if one were sitting next to the piano, with one’s head at the opening created by the lifted lid. This is like when close mics are use in recording. It’s a very different sound from being “out in the hall.” The presence in this case comes with a very rich sonic spectrum.
The sound is picked up well by the mics and the signal delivered in a high quality transmissionj. The weak link is the quality of headphones. I tried two: a cheap set that are only marked “EAR POLLUTION” on the side (one might assume a “brand” rather than an artistic statement, though hard to be sure) which emphasized the low end of the spectrum and which caused the moments when the instrument’s felt hammer hit the strings to break up a little. the other was a older, but moderately-priced set from Grado Labs, the SR-60 model, which offered a much flatter spectrum and a more natural-feeling sound with less false presence. I listened for only a few minutes with the former; the balance with the Grado headset.
The video aspect also has its own presence, plus the opportunity to view the concert from different visual perspectives: a long short from the center rear of the hall is the main view, with a medium shot of Mr. Henry from an angle, and a closeup of his hands as seen at an angle from the back of the stage. (All three perspectives can be seen in images presented in this article.) That is something to which we have become accustomed in out film and video ag, and, like Leonard Bernstein’s broadcast concerts of a half century ago, argues for using video media, including live streaming, as a means of reaching a much larger and more distant audience.
Current, commonly available levels of “home entertainment” technology found in high-definition, wide screen television and their attendant sound systems can bring this kind of live concert streaming into homes in an amazingly impactful way. Imagine of Leonard Bernstein had available our 21st-century technology for his broadcasts — though nothing beats the reality of being present at a live concert. Sometimes the second-best option is quite effective.
After intermission cane a performance piece composed by Mr. Henry himself, Cymbally Eyemazing for “eyeballs and percussion” — originally created in 2014, but newly revised expanded this year. The inspiration, Henry says, comes from a performance by Eighth Blackbird, which a pile of pots and pans were from from the rear of all and dropped onstage, with lots of loud clanging, and that was the performance. Henry’s reaction was, “I can do that.” (The venerable avant-garde composer John Cage would have grinned at him and said, “Yes, you, can!”)
Cymbally Eyemazing is reminiscent the Fluxus movement of the 1950s and 60s, who were intent about having everyday people taking responsibility for creating arts themselves. The genre includes works like LaMonte Young’s Composition 1960 No. 10, a performance score consisting only of the instruction “Draw a straight line and follow it” — resulting in a wide variety of possible ways of realizing a performance. (Avant-gardist Nam June Paik infamously performed Young’s piece by dipping his head in a bowl of ink and rubbing his hair, like a paint brush, along a long, blank paper scroll — like a stroke of Zen calligraphy.
Although a spoof (in the best sense if the word) of the “performance art” genre,Henry’s Cymbally Eyemazing is actually a lot more structured, though it still demands “disciplined acts of the principal performer with his eyes. In its 2019 incarnation, it also demanded the same of at least one member of the audience, randomly chosen by Henry during the third movement.
Ah, yes, “movements”: that aforementioned greater “structure” It has four movements, essentially organized in the manner of a piano sonata: an opening “Eyellegro e seriouso” in which Henry had to hold his eyes open without blinking as long as possible, with the movement ending when he blinked; a slow second movement marked “Eyedagio visino” which is similar but allows one single pit stop during which Lawless administered a few drops of Visine into each of Henry’s eyes, so the movement can be extended in length; the newly added “Scherzo binocularo” in which Henry uses a pair of binoculars to locate a random person in the audience who is then signaled to hold their eyes open as long as possible; and in the final “Presto asseye” a small table fan is turned on, aimed directly at Henry’s face, assuring that his eyes will dry out faster — the opposite principal of the second movement — to assure the finale will end quickly. The percussion part is mostly consists of sounds that serve as signals or “markers” for beginnings and endings of events, the final sound being a loud cymbal (or small tam-tam) stroke to indicate the performance is over.
Although some in the audience may have been baffled by the entire, this seriously fun, wryly humorous work is part of a long American avant-garde tradition, and would be welcomed in a concert of similar fare in the manner of Fluxus and its 31-century descendants.
After the percussion was cleared from the stage, came the third and final part of the concert, returning again to solo piano music. In many ways this was the most enlightening part of the program, in which Mr. Henry played a sequence of works by J.S. Bach (Prelude in C minor, BWV 847 and Prelude in G minor, BWV 861) with The Inescapable Light (2013) by millennial composer Kris Lennox (b. 1983) and A Model of the Universe (2014) by the half-generation-older Jóhann Jóhannsson (19969 -2018). What was striking about the Bach-Lennox-Bach-Jóhannsson interweaving was the affinity each of these works have for each other, especially given Henry’s refreshing, gracefully articulate approach to the voicing and expression in the two Bach preludes.
Henry finished off the concert with a spirited, rhythmic and at times somewhat jazzy Toccata in E-flat minor (1932) by Soviet Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian, a lively work which surely had the audience going home with a smile. ■