Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Kathleen Supové talks about her upcoming Exploding Piano concert

Photo credit: Robin Holland
Pianist Kathleen Supové, one of the nation's leading proponents of contemporary piano music, will be giving a performance of new music at the Brunish Theatre this Saturday, September 6th, at 8 pm. The concert, which is presented by the fEARnoMUSIC ensemble, will reflect New York City’s “Downtown School” of music with works by Missy Mazzoli, Randall Woolf (Supové’s husband), Matt Marks, Annie Gosfield, Mohammed Fairouz and Carolyn Yarnell. Some pieces are for the piano only while others will feature piano with soundtrack. By pushing the boundaries, Supové's recitals have inspired many concertgoers, including critic Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times, who wrote “What Ms. Supové is really exploding is the piano recital as we have known it, a mission more radical and arguably more needed.”

Besides the unusual music, this concert is of special note because Supové is a native of Portland. She earned her bachelor’s in music from California’s Pomona College and a master’s from The Juilliard School, Supové went on to win the top prize in the Gaudeamus International Competition for Interpretation of Contemporary Music and began her career as a guest artist at the prestigious Darmstadt Festival in Germany. She has championed works by so many contemporary composers (Frederic Rzewski, Louis Andriessen, Terry Riley, Chinary Ung, Giacinto Scelsi, Iannis Xenakis, Aaron Jay Kernis, Michael Daugherty, and John Adams are just a few to mention) that her name is synonymous with new music.

I talked with Supové over the phone about her upcoming concert. Here is part of our conversion:

What part of Portland was your neighborhood?

Supové: I was born at Emanuel Hospital and grew up around Northeast 70th between Halsey and Glisan and went to Madison High School. I went away to college but usually returned over the summer.

Who was your most influential piano teacher when you were growing up?

Supové: It was Elesa Scott Kenney. She was from a well-heeled historical family in Portland. Her grandfather was Harvey Scott, who was editor-in-chief of “The Oregonian” and has a grade school and a mountain named after him. She was kind of the renegade of the family, which had a Scottish heritage and was fairly regal in style. It was horror of horrors that she became a pianist. She did a lot of radio recording and hung out at the symphony when she was a kid. She knew the orchestra’s director Willem van Hoogstraten and got to meet Rachmaninoff when he came to Portland for a concert. Elesa’s teacher was composer and pianist Dent Mowrey. She was very big on teaching his music; so I grew up with it. That helped to develop my taste for contemporary music, and she instilled in me a love for the piano – enough to become a professional pianist.

To become a professional pianist with an emphasis on new music, you’ve taken a unique journey.

Supové: Sometimes I think that it would be great to be in such-and-such chamber ensemble or group, because you can draw on the group’s identity. But my career has allowed me to focus on new solo piano works, and I’ve been able to play them multiple times. It’s not like a person who tours with Beethoven, but it’s close! This has been terrific especially for the pieces that I’ve commissioned. They have their own identity, and I see my identity through them. It’s been real lucky, and I’ve been able to survive financially.

An article about you in the Wall Street Journal article stated that you’ve commissioned over 75 new piano pieces, but that was a few years ago. How many pieces have you commissioned now?

Supové: I think that it’s around 95 to 100.


Supové: Sometimes there is no money for these commissions, and when that happens, I try to make sure that the piece is performed a lot. So the piece gets some mileage, and the composer can at least get royalties from people who heard the piece and want to play it.

The husband and wife team of Kenji Bunch and Monica Ohuchi are the new artistic and executive directors of Portland’s fEARnoMUSIC ensemble, and they are taking the lead in presenting you in this concert. I assume that you met them in New York City? Did you meet Kenji first or Monica?

Supové: I met Kenji first. I think that it was here when he was playing with a quartet. I remember really liking his music and probably just introduced myself or met him through mutual friends. It was great to get to know him and his music. Later I curated a concert series at a theater in TriBeCa called the Flea Theater. I presented Monica, who played his piano etudes. That’s how I got to know her. Before they moved to Portland, they lived fairly near to where I live now.

So this is your professional debut in here?

Supové: Yes. I had tried to make it happen but there was always scheduling conflicts. So for this concert, Kenji wanted me to play a few things that are representative of life here: New York composers and pieces that I consider signature pieces of mine.

It would be great if you could talk about the pieces on the program.

Supové: The pieces on the program are very narrative. They tell stories about contemporary life. It’s related to today. Rather than feeling like it is music in a salon, a lot of the pieces have soundtracks with it. So the piano might be, for example, in the middle of a storm. One of the pieces has sound samples from Hurricane Sandy, which happened just a couple of years ago.

The first piece on the program is “The Body of Your Dreams” by Jacob ter Veldhuis. He is a Dutch composer and is also an honorary American because he has spent a lot of time here. Some of his music is based on American pop culture. This piece has sound samples from an infomercial for an Abtronic, which is an electrified belt that you wear around your stomach. It is supposed to crunch your abs when you are not even trying. Of course, it’s completely fraudulent. I actually own one, but I’m too scared to use it. The piece is sort of like Steve Reich with a speech sample and the rhythm of the music matching the speech. It’s a really hysterical piece, and I thought it would be a good way to start off the program, because it not only connects to contemporary life, but it has a humorous and hyperness that appeals to me. It has an autobiographical, confessional component for me, because my weight has always been topic on my mind. I was overweight as a kid. Weight is something I’m always fighting, a never ending struggle.

The next piece is by Missy Mazzoli, who is one of the rising stars in the composing world in New York. She writes very beautiful, melodic music that has a special appeal to young people – much in the same way of indie songwriters. She has a band called Victoire, and they really get around. “Isabelle Eberhardt Dreams of Pianos” is a piece that she wrote for me back in 2007, and it became the basis for an opera that she wrote about Isabelle Eberhardt. Eberhardt was an explorer and writer who, at the beginning of the 20th century, abandoned a comfortable aristocratic life for a nomadic existence in North Africa. Mazzoli’s music is kind of looking back on her life, when she played piano. There’s a quote from Schubert in the piece. There’s also a soundtrack. We recorded some piano sounds in a gloomy practice room, and Mazzoli processed them. The soundtrack plays along with me and at some point sweeps over what I’m playing. It’s a beautiful piece.

I'll play two pieces from a collection of piano miniatures by Mohammed Fairouz, a young – still in his 20s – New York composer. They are acoustic pieces. I’ll play “Lullaby for a Chelsea Boy,” which was written for me. I’m the Chelsea Boy (laughs). It’s a very simple lullaby, a sweet folk song that has a shimmering right hand. The shimmering represents the memory of what happened the night before – the gay scene, staying out at night, going to a rave. “For Syria” is a more political piece. It is dedicated to innocent victims of the crisis there. A lot of Mohammed’s work is very political, and some of it is very crazy. Some of the miniatures are of The Rouges Gallery – the superhero cartoon characters. So it goes from the sublime to the ridiculous. There are 17 in all, and I've just recorded them. That recording should be released later this year.

“What Remains of a Rembrandt” is a piece for piano and soundtrack by Randall Woolf, who is my husband. He will be here for the performance. He’s a mid-stage New York composer, older than the other composers on the program. This piece is inspired by a short, essay by Jean Genet. It talks about what remains of a Rembrandt after all of the trappings are taken away and you are left with the raw emotion. This is a piece for my Digital Debussy project. What would happen if you took away all of the Romantic trappings of Debussy and were left with just the emotion. He took some material from “Pelléas and Mélisande” and processed it beyond recognition. He also has some Vietnamese gongs in there, and a kind of drumbeat that is actually the loading of a rife. And he has a cadenza that is layers of fragments from my favorite Debussy piano piece, which is “Hommage à Rameau.”

Annie Gosfield is, like Randy, a mid-career composer from New York. Her “Apparitions of the Western Wind,” which is for my Digital Debussy project, is based on the Debussy prelude “What the West Wind Saw.” The piece has samples of different kinds of keyboards and sample of Hurricane Sandy. It’s a very wild, Romantic piece in the middle of a hurricane. There’s a kind of sadness about it, too.

“Disney Remixes” is by Matt Marks. Marks is doing a lot of weird, wild operas, but before that he did these remixes of Disney things like “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin.” This remix, “Ever Just as Sure,” is based on “Beauty and the Beast.” It adds a little bit of levity to the program, which is otherwise quite heavy. It’s a clever work. It’s as if Bach were on speed and living in the 21st Century and wrote a two-part invention. The title “Ever Just as Sure” is supposed to be as vacuous as it sounds. He told me that it is meaningless.

Carolyn Yarnell is a Los Angeles-based composer, and I’ve known her for quite a while. I commission her piece “The Same Sky,” and it is really wild. She is a free-spirited composer, and you could never imagine that she would write such heavy-emotional music. When she first presented me with this piece, I said that it would need about ten pianists to play it. It was so incredibly difficult. I told her that one person could not play it. She said okay and came back to me later with a version that one person could play. It’s still pretty impossible, but one person could attempt it (laughs). It’s a little like Ravel, but very much in the 21st Century. It comes with a soundtrack in which she over-dubbed all the other piano parts for it on a Yamaha synthesizer. It’s an orgy of piano sounds – a tremendously virtuosic vehicle for the piano. It also has a video that comes with it. The way that she conceived it is that the video is shown on the inside of the piano lid. It’s shows clouds passing by in the sky. As the music gets more furious, the clouds get redder. That’s just an example. What I like about the piece is that the video accompanies the piano. But the piece can stand on its own without the video.

There will be a special surprise at the end of the program, but I won’t say anything more about it.

Your father, Lawrence Supové, was an interesting fellow. He lost Portland’s mayoral primary to Terry Schrunk in 1964.

Supové: Yes and a little known thing about him was that he was obsessed with celebrities. When they came to Portland, he got their pictures: Elvis Presley , the Beatles, Jimmy Durante. He had a fake press pass and security was light in those days. Sometimes he posed me with them.

Would you mind if I posted a couple of them?

Supové: Sure, that would be just fine.

Jimmy Durante and Kathleen Supové
Kathleen Supové and Claude Frank
Lawrence Supové and Johnny Carson

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