The Rocking Chair Series: Jonathan Hannau at Narloch Piano Studio 6/23

by Tamas Vilaghy, photos by Tim Porter

Jonathan Hannau is the foremost composer of miniatures in Chicago. Maybe he's the only one, it doesn't matter. I think he's on to something. A miniature is static. There is no room for development or reversal, lest the piece outgrow the name. This does not mean a lack of contrast, but of narrative: a miniature is abstract.

The 21st century will not produce a Wagner. We have no need for bloated stories, however beautiful. Stockhausen announced the death knell of tradition, and even Feldman's delicate, interminable late pieces are miniatures. Lengthy, sure, but distillations of a single idea.

And in the procession of ideas which makes up a contemporary artist's oeuvre, every piece is a miniature. So Jonathan may smile bashfully about liking such an antiquated form, but I know the truth: Jonathan is a distinctly modern presence in the Chicago (and international) music scene.

So all this musicological bullshitting for a concert with only one of Hannau's pieces. What does modernity have to do with a piano recital?

Well, first off, the setting. An old building with hardwood floors off the Francisco Brown Line, Narloch Studios seems an unlikely location for forward thinking music. Yet Christopher Narloch's piano workshop is becoming a bastion of just that: close to thirty people patiently endured the summer evening's growing clamminess to hear 90 minutes of decidedly difficult stuff. And Narloch, along with the other art spaces leading Chicago's decentralization, is thriving because of, not in spite of, its location: the downtown scene said goodbye to all that. Good riddance. Let the creative destruction of gentrification produce more spaces like this.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly for this review: Hannau's programming is flawlessly modern in its historical awareness. He's eager to showcase the work of his talented friends, but connects their pieces to the past. Not so much explicitly (his giddy introductions in lieu of a program were more endearing than informative), but through his selection of 'established' pieces in the second half of the program: John Cage's 'In a Landscape' (1948) and Rebecca Saunders' 'Shadow' (2013).

It is difficult to overstate how perfectly these pieces fit into the program. They illuminated the works in the first half, lending them an air of artistic legitimacy. They were a form of critique in themselves, and so I'll begin by treating these pieces, out of order. This is my main point: that every showcase of new, local works should be programmed like this.

 'In a Landscape' first: "Different Cage than you're used to," Hannau warns. This is partially true: the piece is simply beautiful. Not a hint of noise, with the sustain and soft pedals depressed throughout. But it's classically Cagean in its un-melodic premonition of ambient music, and Jonathan conjures the alien landscape gracefully. I'm entranced both by the languorous music and the way his right palm turns upward at the end of long phrases. His tempo is even, thankfully with just a hint of rubato. The occasional train signal down the street phases with the music (the other Cage rears his head...) but it doesn't disturb us. The piece is more of a state than development anyway; a few themes recur, overlap, morph, converge. A miniature, remember.

Saunders' 'Shadow', a study of the sostenuto pedal, is the post-modern counterpoint to Cage's modernism. Jagged in both range and dynamics, the piece resembles a heated conversation between Feldman and Ustvolskaya. Over ten minutes of tremendous cluster stabs and the overtones they leave in the air behind them. But after just a few minutes, a weird thing happens: you start ignoring the loud bursts, and start focusing on the shadows of sounds. A bit much for 9:45pm, to be honest, but you certainly felt conscious and alive, sweating in that room.

Each of the preceding pieces is, in its own way, an attempted synthesis of Cage's static ambience and Saunders' juxtaposition of extremes. In effect, we remember the present through the past. This is the power of Hannau's programming.

The opener is Dante Thelestam's 'A Table of Chords,' written with the aid of a mathematical system of distances. The landscape here is celestial, inspired by constellations. The detached, neutral beauty of Cage appears in a sparser arrangement, reminiscent of Pärt, until a percussive note in the extreme treble breaks the stillness. From here, more complex harmonies enter, building and receding until the piece ends on an anxious note. The sublime peace that ends Cage's post-war composition is evidently unavailable to us; the composer mentioned the exceptional light pollution in Chicago.

Hannau's own 'Contrast (#6)' is a bit more opaque. Originally three groups of two contrasting miniatures, the composer-pianist reworked the piece to be played continuously. I almost wish he hadn't, but of course I would. Anyway, it begins with the slow elaboration of a cluster chord, expanding its range through short stabs on either side. Then the middle notes are held, and silence gradually enters the space between the extreme notes, until he leans on the keyboard with the middle pedal held, and lets the overtones of cluster chords ring out-- does this sound familiar? I told you, I had déjà vu during the Cage and Saunders pieces.

Shawn Lucas' 'Untitled' presents a new element. A collaboration between the composer and Hannau, the piece utilizes that enigmatic quality of performativity so popular in contemporary music, albeit sparingly: most of the piece is performed standing up, as it utilizes the piano strings, but the performer sits down at two points and covers his face with his hands. He seems to be weeping the first time, but exhales aggressively on the second. The piece's timbres --hollow, wooden, metallic-- have a sludge metal quality, and these gestures only add to the oppressive atmosphere.

But it’s Jordan Jenkins' 'Chiaroscuro,' nestled in the middle of the program, which most consciously tackles the tradition/abstraction dichotomy. Jenkins mentioned the notion of fear "undoing society" and the interplay of light and dark alluded to in the title; the piece is a response to the terrorist attacks in France. The piece's only fault could be a facile identification of classical culture with light, and dissonance with dark: after some downward runs from the treble, heavy Germanic chords set the stage for the rest of the work, soon to be overtaken by muddy bass rumbles. In the midsection, this darkening repeats with Chopin-esque chords which never quite resolve. The piece ends with a full arm slammed onto the keyboard, left to sound for long seconds. Certainly a fitting symbol of our political exhaustion.

           

 

In the end, then, the synthesis of stasis and juxtaposition proved impossible. Perhaps it was only in the classical tradition that it was possible at all, having not yet disintegrated. The moment has passed; our miniatures are no longer able to contain multitudes. But concerts still are, and it is programming like this which points a way forward. Not mere eclecticism, but breadth of subject and self-critique. Hannau is a clever composer and talented performer, but much more: he's a natural historian. Give him a high-five at his next show, you'll both be happy about that night.