Friday, October 4, 2013

Libby Larsen brings the 'Ghosts of Old Pianos' to Nebraska

Thanks to the Nebraska Music Teachers’ Association and a grant from the Nebraska Arts Council, composer Libby Larsen has written a piece to be premiered in Lincoln on October 18. The world premier of Ghosts of Old Pianos will be given during the Nebraska Music Teachers’ Association Conference. The performance will be free and open to the public at 9:00am on October 18, the second day of the conference, at Wesleyan’s O’Donnell Auditorium.
Composer Libby Larsen
Photo credit: Ann Marsden

In an interview with LincolnCMN this week, Larsen explained a little about the creation of the piece, Ghosts of Old Pianos. “Valerie Cisler and Nathan Buckner,” the pianists who will perform the commissioned work, “were very trusting,” Larsen smiled. The pianists told her: “Just let your imagination take you where you need to go.” That, Larsen explained, “is a wonderful thing for a creative artist to hear.”

The idea was already in her mind from her many travels through cities and towns throughout the United States. While waiting to go on stage, Larsen has found herself spending a lot of time in “church basements and backstages of concert halls.” Over time, Larsen said, “I collected in my mind, and took photos, of abandoned pianos. Once those pianos had been put to really good use, now in a dark corner, a basement—they are still beautiful, sometimes with decayed keys, and often deeply dust-covered.”

Larsen found herself “very moved” by the old pianos:
“They’re like old servants. I spend time with a piano like this and get a very special feeling—as if tiny little fragments of music from the piano are still there, echoing in the walls or in the wood of the piano.”
Larsen has coined a new term to explain the musical motives in this work, and that is “ghosting.” In the first movement:
“You may know the tune, the piece will suggest it to you, and as you listen, you will finally piece it together. The pianists just play fragments of the melody, until you finally get a hazy image of the whole aria—as it would have been played on the Steinway Grand in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.”
A ghostly, dust covered piano
Photo credit: Steve A Johnson
She chose the 1897 Steinway Grand from the Bethlehem Hotel in Bethlehem, PA because it is claimed to be haunted. It will be heard playing by itself and sometimes the figure of the beautiful but scandalous May Yohe will be seen at it. 

Another movement is entitled “Whole World,” and it presents a “ghosting” of the traditional tune, “He’s Got the Whole World, In His Hands;” that movement is inspired by a 1907 upright in a church basement in Chicago, Illinois. “Whole World” is reworked from one of Larsen’s earlier four hand pieces, and has become the center point for Ghosts of Old Pianos.

Another piano that will be represented in the piece is the square piano from the Jinny Lind Theater, which burned down. Larsen loved this project so much that she hopes to make a series of “ghost piano” works that will include a Hammond B organ from Maine, an upright found in a dumpster in Tennessee, and a spinet discarded in the north woods of Minnesota.
“The poetry of what is in the air around a decaying instrument is quite beautiful.”
One parting word, Larsen shared her advice for young musicians, and indeed, all musicians:
“I would encourage them to think of music as their life-long journey. Encourage them to trust their own ideas when they’re studying music. Learn the technical tools they need, but then use those tools as they to trust their musical instincts when preparing, performing, or talking about a piece of music. 
Music is a life-long companion. You can bring out your emotions on it, or it may bring them out for you. Music challenges you to become better. 
Young musicians: this is not something you conquer and then put in a drawer, it’s a journey. The reward comes from staying with it and staying focused.”

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