Issue 2: Plugged / Unplugged
By Daniel Emmerson
As we stepped out of the sunshine and into Kings Place on that fateful afternoon back in May, it almost seemed as though we were missing out on something special. Bruce Brubaker's Plugged/Unplugged concert happened on what could well have been the warmest day of the year so far in England, and as we made our way down onto the lower ground floor of the venue, it nearly felt a shame to be retreating into a dark, windowless room populated with several rows of chairs. It wasn't until we had a quick flick through of the program that our concerns began to disappear, despite any temptation to spend the afternoon sitting out on the veranda of the bar upstairs. The name of Brubaker's performance denoted his intentions, not in physically moving between electronic and acoustic platforms, but in weaving across compositions that relied on his instrument of choice as the primary outlet, within the midst of a backing track selection. In his description, he outlined the role of the piano as an essential component in the music of the age as an entity with stature, influence and prestige that maintains a degree of importance within virtual landscapes, which he capped off with a catalog of collaborators, colleagues and associated performers: Missy Mazzoli, Anthony and the Johnsons, Francesco Tristano, Hayden, Björk and Mark-Anthony Turnage, to name check a meager few.
Brubaker's resume is as varied as the artists listed above. Not only is he renowned for his remarkable Philip Glass recitals, which have been experienced all around the world, but he is also reputable as an artist keen on experimenting within unorthodox domains. Indeed, his first effort with the young, Rhode Island composer Nico Muhly, was commissioned by the Juilliard School, and was titled Music in Transition. A notable success, the piece launched a sturdy relationship between both composers, which lay at the forefront of this London spectacle. Brubaker's involvement in that initial project with Muhly saw the former as an acoustic pianist working alongside the digital realm; it showed he was diverse and willing to approach the classical music that had influenced him in the past, from an entirely new angle. In a later work, Brubaker employed the use of Muhly's "graffiti," over a selection of Hayden, John Adams and Janacek, and from that point, the interaction that forged the canonized and the experimental, remained at the core of the electronic elements presented within Plugged/Unplugged. The UK premiere of Brubaker and Muhly's latest collaboration, Drones & Piano, came in the middle of two breathtaking renditions of two very different compositions by Philip Glass; it was a particularly curious set up, but allowed for breathing space betwixt both Mad Rush and Etudes 4 & 5, which were both flawlessly executed.
After Mad Rush, Brubaker introduced the Drones & Piano by describing some of the sounds that Muhly had crafted alongside his work. The idea was that two components, the acoustic and the electronic, would interact in a way that was spontaneous and free, while conforming to a set of ideas regarding the shape of the composition. Brubaker's influences felt exposed behind the layers of crashing, crunching and snapping that had been laced through the backing track - not only was the pianist brave enough to play music that he loved in an improvised setting, but he was also willing to share the music he cares most about in sonic cahoots with an ambient force. As the piece went on though, the power relationship between the acoustic and the electronic began to shift: Muhly's score took on the role of something fragile and delicate. Despite the poignant and fractured nature of the music that drifted throughout, it was often the piano that swung in and out of the drones, bolstering fragments of the electronic accompaniment as though it were ushering the music through its own intricately designed and wonderfully pronounced course. It was an exciting listen, and because of the certain level of predictability within the pieces that Brubaker replayed, there remained a sense of unknowing as to how these sounds were responded to, or perhaps even vandalized—for an accepted interpretation of graffiti is of course vandalism—by Muhly's shattered particles.
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