Upon walking up the steps to the celebrated and oh-so-intimidating Memorial Chapel, I was greeted with its usual historic furnishings and grandeur, the only divergence an ebony grand piano spotlit on the stage. Adjacent to the piano was a typical Apple laptop, which seemed almost anachronistic given its surroundings but proved to be indicative of the coming performance: an exciting and innovative musical hybrid that, though rooted in classical piano, seductively mingled with technology.
On Thursday, Sept. 4, the Center for the Arts (CFA) welcomed internationally acclaimed pianist Reinier van Houdt. Trained in Budapest and the Netherlands and currently based in Amsterdam, van Houdt traveled to Connecticut as part of a year-long United States tour. Although he was initially trained as a classical pianist, van Houdt’s practice also includes elements of collaboration and multimedia work.
A heterogeneous audience of students and Connecticut residents formed in the chapel. Within minutes, van Houdt himself entered, made a beeline for the piano, and placed his hands on the keyboard, in a way that was somewhat awkward but eager enough to showcase his passion for the instrument. After just a minute, it was clear this was not a classical performance, as van Houdt donned bells on his wrists, repeatedly kicked a drum, and clashed a few cymbals, all while pushing the piano keys.
Pola Fialkoff, a Cromwell resident, noted and appreciated the dialogue between different musical instruments.
“The first piece reminded me very much that the piano is a percussive instrument,” Fialkoff said. “I enjoyed the interplay between the percussion and the piano.”
Van Houdt recognizes his divergence from classical music and defines his own style as rather alternative.
“I think that what I’m doing isn’t classical at all,” van Houdt said. “It is related to alternative pop music or electronic, improvised music. It’s not necessarily related to classical music just because I’m a pianist. People seem to think in those terms. For me it’s about free research in things, whether as a pianist or magician. It doesn’t matter what I play, whether a piano or a tree.”
The concert comprised six pieces, all of which experimented with innovative, and sometimes uncomfortable, sound combinations. In the first piece, “Chimanzii [Latticce]; Double” (1988) by composer Jerry Hunt, a diverse set of sounds mingled with volume shifts to create a rich sound and drama. Despite these multiple compositional components, van Houdt brought rawness and authenticity to the performance, experimenting with the identity of various objects without manipulating their identity. Rather, he isolated and highlighted one variable: their sound.
Van Houdt disassociates his music from the instrument or object he plays and instead has a more conceptual approach to musical tools.
“Most of the music I do is not about the instruments,” van Houdt said. “It’s about the concepts and always about the sound.”
Van Houdt’s performance embraced the abstract and conceptual even further in subsequent pieces. In Michael Pisaro’s “Fields Have Ears #1” (2008), a quadrophonic piece, four stereo speakers were arranged in each corner of the cathedral, broadcasting nature recordings. Each recording began at a different time, creating a layered, though not muddled, audio backdrop.
The placement of the stereos, van Houdt said, worked as a tool to provide an interactive experience for the seated audience.
“The idea of Michael Pisaro’s piece is that everyone has an individual experience depending on where he is in the space,” van Houdt said. “Though seated, it is as though the audience is walking around.”
While the nature recordings rolled, Pisaro’s piece required playing sound bites from the computer and contributing very sporadic piano lines. This process was somewhat improvisational, as van Houdt had to listen and pick up on different audio signals.
“I scan the frequencies of the field recording to determine what notes I play,” van Houdt said. “Sometimes the audience will hear a piano tone going near the tone suggested in the field recording. In this piece, that is my role.”
Caroline Moyer Laurin ’17, who attended the concert for her class MUSC 109: Introduction to Experimental Music, was interested in the piano’s contribution to the piece and the role that chance played in the composition.
“I was trying to figure out if [the piano notes] were about chance,” Laurin said. “That’s one thing we’ve been studying in my class: what musical sounds are determined by chance and what aren’t.”
Today’s music industry is in a constant state of transition, and the once-obvious stratifications between musical styles have become delineated. In collaboration with composers, van Houdt pushes the boundaries of music with obscure noises and uncommon instruments. He also encourages the listener to think beyond the preconceived notion of a beautiful and refined melody.
“People might not enjoy all of the sounds,” van Houdt said. “The sounds are also about some ugly stuff. So it might be hard to listen to. But life is not always pleasurable and neither is music.”
Raw, confusing, and at points undeniably beautiful, this performance activated our imaginations and, using music as a didactic tool, forced meditation on life’s undesirable grit and quiet beauty.