Neal Kosaly-Meyer: Playing the Piano One Note at a Time

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Neal Kosaly-Meyer performing Gradus at NUMUS Northwest. Photo by James Holt.

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 silencewhich really means all unintended ambient soundsas 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.

Remembering Cecil Taylor (1929–2018)

by Michael Schell

The passing of Cecil Taylor on April 5 gives cause to reflect on the long life and career of one of America’s most innovative musicians. An enterprising bandleader and a pianist of prodigious technique and stamina, Taylor was one of the key figures in the development of free jazz.

In this respect he is often mentioned alongside his contemporary Ornette Coleman (1930–2015). But whereas Coleman learned to play saxophone in blues bands, and usually worked squarely within African-American musical traditions (jazz and later funk), Taylor was classically trained in composition and piano (including three years at New England Conservatory), and readily combined the rhythms and instrumentation of jazz with the forms and atonal harmonies of modernism. His synthesis of musical influences launched a movement in the late 1950s that was subsequently embraced by Eric Dolphy, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Anthony Braxton before eventually merging with European and rock-influenced styles to form the broad multi-ethnic genre of free improvisation that has been prominent since the 1980s.

Taylor’s approach is well documented by a pair of classic Blue Note releases from 1966 that remain his most frequently cited albums. Taylor begins the title track of Conquistador! with a piano intro that sounds like Stockhausen. But after a few seconds, his side musicians enter with a flourish-filled theme whose vestigial swing feel and instrumentation (two horns, drummer Andrew Cyrille, and two bass players) reveal the music’s jazz roots. We hear an alto sax solo from Jimmy Lyons, then a trumpet solo from Bill Dixon, and then at 7:21 comes a new theme in E♭ minor, the sort of tune that ordinarily comes at the beginning of a jazz track. But then it’s back to improv with an extended clattering solo from Taylor. The E♭ minor melody is reprised by the horns at 13:26, whereupon we get another Taylor solo, this time with Alan Silva adding prominent counterpoint on a bowed bass. The final section features two entrances from the horns bracketing a duo for Silva and the other bassist, Henry Grimes.

The title track from the Unit Structures album employs a similar ensemble (including the same drum and bass players), but the music is more extensively composed, featuring the unpredictable block form used in such landmark 20th century compositions as Debussy’s Jeux or Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments. The first five minutes is a chain of contrasting ensemble sections, after which an animated jam finally gets going, led by a Ken McIntyre bass clarinet solo. An alto sax solo from Jimmy Lyons follows, then at 10:30 we get another chain of structured ensemble sections. At 12:25 the tempo picks up once again for Eddie Gale’s trumpet solo, followed by a Taylor piano solo filled with glissandos and tone clusters. One last tutti section closes the track.

After recording these Blue Note albums, Taylor started to focus on solo piano work. His closest predecessor among jazz pianists was Thelonious Monk, but in the Indent album from 1973, it’s clear that Monk’s melodic eccentricities and love of dissonance have been jacked up several notches. It was about this time that Taylor’s high-energy atonality, which owed so much to European modernism, began to influence younger composers of piano music, as evinced by Frederic Rzewski’s Squall from 1979 (compare it to the first track of Indent at around 4:40).

Taylor continued to perform as a soloist and a bandleader well into his 80s. He also partnered with artists from different backgrounds, such as the dancer Min Tanaka and the British electric guitarist Derek Bailey. One of his more unusual collaborations was this 2008 duet with composer/accordionist Pauline Oliveros:

The two musicians had never performed together before, and the beginning of the duo is a bit tentative, with Oliveros often echoing Taylor’s licks. But starting at 3:09 the pair establish a more complementary footing. Often Oliveros plays sustained notes and chords as counterpoint to Taylor’s trills and flourishes. In the quiet passage starting at 15:28 you can hear Oliveros exploiting the tuning clashes between her just-intoned Titano accordion and Taylor’s equal-tempered piano.

Though Taylor is usually the one doing the leading, he is conscious of the delicacy of his partner’s instrument, and his playing is notably softer and sparser than usual. The result is a surprisingly compelling musical experience from two unique American masters.

At the same time, though, this coupling highlights a prejudice that continues to haunt conventional narratives of Western art music. Of these two musicians—both of similar age and similar stature among musicians, and both clearly capable of articulating a shared musical language in a public space—only Oliveros is consistently mentioned in textbooks and retrospectives on contemporary classical music (see, for example, the otherwise admirable surveys by Paul Griffiths, Jennie Gottschalk, and Tim Rutherford-Johnson). The oversight comes from the notion that art music requires a score, that it must be “fixed in some sort of notation for a performer or creator to interpret or execute” (Rutherford-Johnson) to be authentic. This was a legitimate premise prior to the 20th century, but it has become obsolete in the age of audio recording, radio, and digital media. Nowadays the record, not the score, is the real “text”, and the persistent conception of classical music as an exclusively literate tradition has pushed the music of Taylor, and his fellow improvising avant-gardists (many of them from backgrounds that effectively barred them from the academy), to the margins of the canon.

Ironically, Oliveros also emphasized improvisation in her work, and almost all of her published scores use verbal instructions rather than musical notation. But she was still invariably described as a “composer”, and was able to achieve success in the milieu of universities, concert venues and foundations, whereas Taylor was always a “jazz musician” who mainly performed at night clubs and festivals. And so his eminence languishes in the domain of jazz history, jazz radio, and jazz CD bins. Despite today’s well-publicized efforts to improve diversity in musical opportunity and programming, it seems that the segregation borne of professional biases can be just as intractable as the cruder chauvinism of social bigotry. Taylor’s music, so powerful and innovative, deserves recognition that transcends these boundaries.