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.

Sneak Peek Audio Leak: ‘Endeavour’ by Tristan Eckerson

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Photo by Damian Lemański & Ulka Dzikiewicz.

Tristan Eckerson is a pianist, composer, and DIY musician in every sense of the term. He writes, mixes, and masters his own music, creates his own album art, and arranges his own international tours. After working with 1631 Recordings on two previous albums, Eckerson is releasing his newest work, Dream Variations, independently on July 6.

The twelve short piano solos on the album draw inspiration from music as wide-ranging as Beethoven, Sigur Rós, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Tigran Hamasyan. With a passion for film scores and soundscapes, Eckerson strives to create music that is as accessible and relaxing as it is complex.

This describes his piece “Endeavour” perfectly. Starting with a bittersweet and beautifully simple melody layered over rich, percussive chords, “Endeavour” evolves into a multi-textured piece that juxtaposes mournful moments with flashes of hope. 

We’re thrilled to premiere “Endeavor” right here on Second Inversion. Plus, learn more about the album in our interview with the composer below.

Second Inversion: What was the inspiration behind “Endeavour”?

Tristan Eckerson: It’s hard to say what the inspiration behind this particular piece was, because I really approached this entire album as a succession of pieces that were all strung together in a stream of consciousness type fashion—hence the album title.

I was really inspired by listening to some piano pieces by Ryuichi Sakamoto—how simple, elegant, but harmonically rich they were, and how they were so minimal, but not at all boring or simple musically. I also liked the idea of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, and just having a lot of shorter, succinct pieces that kind of flowed into one another and were variations of one another. And so “Endeavour” just ended up being one of those pieces.

SI: Dream Variations works to stretch the boundaries of solo piano composition. What elements have you employed to subvert listeners’ expectations?

TE: I think in the contemporary classical genre right now there seems to be an aversion to using jazz influences of any kind. And since I love a lot of jazz music and jazz harmony, but don’t really have any interest in writing straight ahead “jazz” music, I’ve been very drawn to incorporating jazz harmony and modal harmony into a contemporary classical setting. Again, going back to the influences of Ryuichi Sakamoto, and also Ravel and Debussy—I just want to give listeners something that they aren’t used to in terms of the depth of harmony I’m using and the types of moods that it’s creating.

SI: This July you are releasing Dream Variations independently. What are the challenges and rewards of working within a DIY framework?

TE: The challenges are that you’re doing everything yourself—so if you aren’t putting in 100% in a particular category, then no one else is going to pick up the slack. I’ve had to learn a lot of things that I really would have rather left to someone else—non musical things. But the reward is that because I’m doing everything independently, I retain much more control when it comes to how to do things and of course intellectual property rights, royalties, and everything concerning the business side. And also when you do everything yourself, even if you aren’t an expert in every area, it’s very rewarding when you actually start seeing results, because all those results feel like very personal achievements.


Dream Variations comes out July 6. To pre-order the album, click here.

Why Philip Glass is Not Such A Far Cry from J.S. Bach

by Dacia Clay

Photo by Richard Guérin.

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein recently teamed up with the Grammy-nominated string orchestra A Far Cry for Circles, an album of piano concertos by both J.S. Bach and Philip Glass. Dinnerstein and AFC violist Jason Fisher recently chatted with Second Inversion about the album.

In this audio piece, you’ll hear each of them talk about the album’s inception, breakfast with Philip Glass, the creative partnership between Dinnerstein and AFC, the important connections between the two composers, and the power that this music has over audiences.


Circles by Simone Dinnerstein and A Far Cry is available now on Philip Glass’ record label, Orange Mountain Music. Click here to purchase the album.

For Lenny: Lara Downes Plays Leonard Bernstein

by Dacia Clay

This year, Leonard Bernstein would have been 100 years old. To celebrate, pianist Lara Downes took on a massive project called For Lenny that involves arrangements of Bernstein’s songs, new works dedicated to him, collaborations with artists from diverse genres, and an online component that includes extensive videos, podcasts and more.

As an artist whose work also moves between genres, traditions, and other boundaries, Downes feels a kinship with Bernstein. For example, of her time in the studio with beatboxer Kevin “K.O.” Olusola of Pentatonix she said, “You know, when I was in the studio with him and we were working on this beatbox version of ‘Something’s Coming,’ I just felt this freedom to try different things—both of us working together coming from vastly different ends of the American music spectrum and just having fun with it, and I thought, you know, we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Leonard Bernstein.”

In this interview, Downes talks more about who Bernstein was, about her love of American music, and about the experience of working with artists from such different corners of the musical world on one project.

Musical Chairs: Jesse Myers on Classical KING FM

by Maggie Molloy

Photo by Jim Holt, NUMUS Northwest 2017.

When it comes to the piano, Jesse Myers likes to think beyond the standard keyboard.

Last year, he created a percussion orchestra inside his piano for his performances of John Cage’s prepared piano masterpiece, the Sonatas and Interludes. Earlier this year, he performed a program that paired minimalist masterworks of the 20th century with brand new works for piano and electronics. And in January of next year, he’s presenting a program of meditative solo piano works by the likes of Arvo Pärt, Morton Feldman, and more—with audience members invited to listen from the comfort of pillows instead of chairs.

This Friday, Dec. 1 at 7pm PST, Myers joins us on Classical KING FM’s Musical Chairs to share some of his favorite recordings and talk about his upcoming projects. Tune in tonight at 7pm on 98.1, or click here to tune in online from anywhere in the world!

The Best of Thelonious Monk: The Blue Note Years

by Michael Schell

This month seems like an opportune time for a salute in Thelonious Monk’s direction, honoring both his 100th birthday and the 70th anniversary of the first of the Blue Note recording sessions that Monk aficionados generally consider his most important work. Highlights from these 1947–52 sessions have been gathered into a handy single-CD reissue that showcases the things that make Monk’s music so compelling: his catchy and highly chromatic jazz compositions, and his unique and piquant improv style that combines bebop and stride piano techniques with harmonic innovations from modern composed music.

Included are the first recordings of such Monk standards as Epistrophy, Straight No Chaser, Well You Needn’t, and ‘Round Midnight (the bane of many a piano student overwhelmed by its complicated chord changes). And then there’s Misterioso, a mini-compendium of Monkish eccentricities. It’s ostensibly a 12-bar blues in B♭, but its melody consists of non-swinging broken sixths that sound more like Scarlatti than bebop.

After Monk and vibraphonist Milt Jackson play through the tune, Jackson offers a fairly conventional solo lasting one chorus. Then Monk begins his solo, and things start getting weird. He spends one chorus toying around with the dissonant clash between D♭ and D♮, and a second chorus combining blues licks with whole-tone scales and long rests. When Jackson starts reprising the theme, Monk spends several bars plunking out harsh isolated notes in counterpoint before finally joining Jackson on the melody. The track ends with one last whole-tone flurry from Monk. Throw in the crude 78 Era sound quality, and the whole thing has a kind of primitive mystique to it, teetering more and more on the edge of crazy as it goes on—kind of a metaphor for Monk’s own life and mental health struggles. Have a listen, and (re)acquaint yourself with this unorthodox American musical genius.

ALBUM REVIEW: Gaslight by James Maloney

by Maggie Molloy

There’s a striking intimacy to solo piano music—a uniquely calm, quiet sense of introspection that only comes from sitting alone at the keyboard for hours on end.

Composer James Maloney takes you right up to the piano bench in his debut solo album Gaslight, out now on Moderna Records. Conceived as a reaction to the fast pace and noisy streets of city life, the album takes an introspective look inward to the music that emerges on the quietest of nights, alone at the keyboard and surrounded by glowing twilight.

Composed late at night on an old piano with microphones placed impossibly close to the hammers, the effect is that of being right there in the room on a rainy evening, surrounded not just by the quiet melodies but also the creaking wood and antique inner-workings of an old piano. The resulting album is a collection of ten ambient and introspective works for solo piano woven together with delicate details of trumpet, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and electronics.

Gaslight opens with a quiet wash of sound: “Seascape” is a short piano prelude that alternates layers of sparkling melodies with long stretches of serene silence, setting the scene for the minimamlist musings to come. “Blink” takes this image one step further, filling the silent spaces with softly circling piano melodies that flicker and flutter like fireflies above a solemn stepwise bass line.

The album’s title track illuminates more gradually, the melodies unfolding at such a slow pace that they almost seem to halt time itself, each note lingering in the air amid the crackling white noise of the surrounding room. The pace picks up only slightly for pieces like “Intertwine” and “Afterglow,” both fleeting piano nocturnes filled with melodies that sparkle sweetly, climbing ever-upward toward the stars above. The music drifts solemnly back to earth in “Lament,” its harmonies strung together through block chords that echo softly above a twinkling glockenspiel backdrop.

The instrumentation shifts for “Gambetta,” a shimmering metallic soundscape comprised almost entirely of glockenspiel and vibraphone melodies that swirl and twirl around long-breathed trumpet lines. Layers of electronic clicks and clatters are interwoven into delicate piano tremors for “Full Colour,” while “Rise Slowly” explores the soft dissonances and atmospheric silences that echo between pensive chords.

The album closes with “Angel Wings,” its sleepy and slowly meandering melodies drawing the midnight concert to a close, bidding the piano goodnight, and ascending into a beautiful dream.