R. Andrew Lee's minimal, gorgeous piano music is the perfect winter soundtrack

Dec 31, 2014 at 1:00 am

I'm reviewing all three of these releases of desolate and gorgeous piano music, despite only the double disc being brand-new, because you have until the end of December to get them at a reduced price, what contemporary classical label Irritable Hedgehog cheekily calls a Wandelweiser Bündel. The Wandelweiser Group is an international group of composers and performers interested in "the evaluation and integration of silence(s) rather than an ongoing carpet of never-ending sounds." I had to buy them myself just now, as they're each performed by Denver-based pianist R. Andrew Lee. Lee's stunning four and a half hour recording from 2013 — performed largely in one take — of Dennis Johnson's November effectively rewrote the history of minimalism in one swoop, by revealing that many of its core conceits had been laid out as far back as 1959.

The music in November's four discs is remarkably beautiful and sparse, an ideal soundtrack to cold and dark winter months. The same can be said for these four discs, here, of stark music by the German composer Eva-Maria Houben and Swiss Jürg Frey. Playing the piano this way — this slowly, and with so much empty space — is actually very difficult to do well. No matter how much work by slow-burners like Morton Feldman, Giacinto Scelsi or LaMonte Young you've listened to, you will have to retrain yourself for years, and while performing this music to enter some kind of fugue state. Performers like R. Andrew Lee are like competitive long distance runners in this respect. Beyond the performative aspect, this music itself might produce trance effects more associated with drone music. Jürg Frey's "Klavierstück 2" (Piano Music) wanders from clustered notes into a lovely and unexpected section in the middle with rhythmic, repeated notes — like driving on the highway at night when you wander off to the side of the road and the sound of pavement grooves startles you back from your waking dream. —Mike McGonigal