R. Andrew Lee
An Hour for Piano by Tom Johnson is written to be played for 60 minutes, but until now, the only available recording, by Frederic Rzewski, lasted for only 54:36.
If you’ve been brooding about the missing 5:24, I have good news. Pianist R. Andrew Lee has a new recording for the new Irritable Hedgehog label, and it clocks in at exactly 60 minutes.
If that was the recording’s only distinction, it would be no more than an interesting curiosity, but in fact it’s a beautiful piece of music. (I’m sorry to say I was not familiar with To m Johnson’s music before.)
Mr. Lee obliged when I asked him to explain how he managed to produce a recording exactly an hour long.
My initial work on getting the performance to be right around an hour started with a metronome. According to the score, the tempo is to be strict throughout with the quarter note at 59.225 beats per minute. To get a metronome to be so precise I had to record a click track with computer software. What is interesting, and something I hadn’t considered until recently, is that I don’t know how one would have gotten such a precise metronome back in the ’70s. It’s almost as if he didn’t even want pianists to be able to practice with one, but rather wanted them to intuitively discover this tempo.
That, of course, is what I eventually had to do. Once I got myself to within 20-30 seconds without the metronome (which thankfully didn’t take long), I rarely went back to using it. Tom has timings in the score once every four pages, so it is possible to track how you are doing as you practice/perform, which I do with my iPod. In gearing up for this recording project, I also recorded my practice sessions, taking many notes about when my tempo fluctuated, and I gradually refined my timing to where I can now get within a few seconds of an hour almost every time. In getting to this point I think I have achieved what Tom wanted, which is an intuitive, physical connection to the tempo rather than a mechanistic one. (A subtle, but important difference, I think.)
I was pushed to get so close by my producer, David McIntire, who really felt like it was important to record the piece without a metronome in my ears. I agreed mostly on musical grounds because it really changed the way I played the piece. Still, I was worried about being able to perform it so accurately for the recording session. Thankfully, Dave’s faith was not misplaced and I was able to record the CD in two takes. We used the first complete take as the basis for the recording and then spliced in from the second take to cover anything that may have gone less than perfectly in the first. The end result is one that I am proud of and still enjoy listening to.
There were several factors that motivated our decision to record this piece. The first was that we really saw a need for this recording to exist.
An Hour for Piano is a significant part of the minimalist repertoire, but the only recording for a long time was Rzewski’s, which clocks in at 54:36. I get the impression from the liner notes for that CD that there were limitations with the original LP recording that necessitated that timing, but it still hurts the effect I think Tom was going for. When I listen to it today, it seems far too fast.
Another reason we wanted to start the Irritable Hedgehog label with this piece is because it had been in my repertoire for quite a while. I first began working with the piece in Oct of 2008 and had given a few performances along the way. (As a side note, I first read through the piece thanks to a post by Kyle Gann, “Sixty Minutes to Change Your Life“. Turns out he was right.)
There were other CD ideas we floated at the beginning, which I’m practicing for now, but we felt most comfortable starting with An Hour for Piano.
Finally, I suppose I shouldn’t leave out the fact that I simply love the piece. I am consistently impressed by it, and I enjoy playing it even more now than I did when I was first discovering it. (I even devoted a chapter of my dissertation to analyzing it.) Tom’s intuitive compositional approach in this piece allows it to stay consistently fresh. Despite the strict tempo requirement, there are many beautiful musical moments that have challenged my sensitivity as a performer. I haven’t yet tired of playing or practicing it. In fact, I wish I had more opportunity to do so.