Neal Kosaly-Meyer plays the piano one note at a time. Or at least, that’s the idea behind his ongoing performance series Gradus: For Fux, Tesla and Milo the Wrestler. He devotes an extended improvisation (20 minutes or longer) to each individual note on the piano, and to as many combinations of notes as possible.
This Saturday at the Chapel Performance Space he will perform one installment of the series: 40 minutes on one note (C sharp to be specific), 20 minutes on five notes in multiple octaves, and 60 minutes on two notes. Extended periods of silence are incorporated into all three sections. Kosaly-Meyer flips a coin to determine the number of notes per movement, how long the movements will be, and how much silence will be interspersed in each movement.
The idea for Gradus presented itself to Kosaly-Meyer over 30 years ago while he was a graduate student in the School of Music at the University of Washington. He had been thinking a lot about John Cage and how composers could follow in his footsteps by challenging preconceived notions of what music could be.
“It’s hard to find the frontier after a composer like Cage, who went right out to the edge of so many frontiers,” Kosaly-Meyer said. “This thought, learn to play the piano one note at a time, was kind of a thread to be able to push to do music that felt like it was on an edge, that felt like there was a risk being taken.”
Still, it wasn’t until he moved to San Diego with his wife and was able to play on a grand piano at a church he attended that he began to really explore the idea. Kosaly-Meyer believes performing on a grand piano is pivotal to Gradus.
“It’s not something you could do on an electronic keyboard or even an upright piano,” Kosaly-Meyer said. “I think to do something where you actually have enough sound, enough reverberation for a project like this to be interesting requires a grand piano.”
He began with 40 minutes improvising on the lowest A on the piano, and then began using combinations of As. Implicit in the idea of learning to play the piano one note at a time was the idea of learning to play differently by finding artistry in each sound. With attack, duration, dynamics, and intricate pedaling techniques, Kosaly-Meyer developed the ability to make a wide assortment of sounds using just one A.
His work temporarily came to a halt when he moved again and no longer had access to a grand piano. But years later, in 2001, his friend Keith Eisenbrey helped solve that problem.
Kosaly-Meyer met Eisenbrey while taking composition courses at the UW. They had done a lot of improvisation work together, and Kosaly-Meyer was able to develop the Gradus project and other works by bouncing ideas off of Eisenbrey. They became family when Eisenbrey married Kosaly-Meyer’s sister Karen, and in 2001 Kosaly-Meyer was able to continue with Gradus by rehearsing on Eisenbrey’s grand piano.
When he began sharing Gradus, it was positive feedback from Eisenbrey and other composers that emboldened Kosaly-Meyer to move forward with this musical venture. He began his annual performance series in 2002 in Seattle.
Kosaly-Meyer determined that Gradus works best with a two-hour, three-part structure that allows him to separate what he sees as three distinct ways of making music.
“I had come to a conclusion after working on this a little bit that playing with one note is a particular kind of making music, playing with two notes is another kind of making music that’s very different than just playing with one, and that playing with 3 or more notes is very different than playing with two,” he said.
Drawing inspiration from Cage, Kosaly-Meyer chose to incorporate silence—which really means all unintended ambient sounds—as an equal partner in the performance. If weather permits, Kosaly-Meyer leaves the windows open at the Chapel, allowing highway noise, barking dogs, and audiences’ creaking benches and coughs to form a chorus that supports his playing.
“I always found in improvising that music happened much more organically with an ensemble. Even if it was just an ensemble of two, it was so much easier for something musical to happen,” Kosaly-Meyer said. “Gradus is really the first kind of solo improvisation project I find that can stay musical and I think the trick is that it’s not really a solo project.”
This particular performance is dedicated to the late jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, who displayed incredible control over each and every note he played, no matter how intricate the performance. Kosaly-Meyer was also interested in exploring the interplay between the ideas of Taylor and Cage, who were at odds during their lifetimes because of Cage’s aversion to jazz and improvisation. Gradus combines Taylor’s spontaneity with Cage’s interest in silence as an equal partner.
“One thing that’s going on in Gradus is an attempt to harmonize a Cage way of thinking with a Cecil Taylor way of thinking,” Kosaly-Meyer said.
Neal Kosaly-Meyer presents Gradus: For Fux, Tesla and Milo the Wrestler this Saturday, July 14 at 8pm at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center. For more information, click here.