Grand Band ‘The Sound of Six Righteous Pianos’

Sextet Grand Band ‘Sound Engineer is 7th Member’Courtesy of Chris McGuire

Piano Sextet Grand Band will be performing this Sunday, September 7th* at Governor’s Island for the Rite of Summer Music Festival. FDRMX managed to catch up with four of the six members (and one composer) before they had rehearsal this week, to talk about everything from the legacy of Grand Band, to the joys of playing with fellow pianists, to what we can look forward to and expect to see this Sunday*.

Though not your average rock band, the six of them play so tightly in sync together that they appear as one musical beast, moving and breathing as one. “Definitely unified. A unit,” Isabelle O’Connell says. “The most satisfying thing about playing in a group of six is playing with other pianists,” says Isabelle O’Connell. “We understand how the instrument is played.”

“Pianists,” says David Friend, “especially ones who play a lot of contemporary music, they tend to understand the rhythm section mentality. If you’re playing with other instruments, there’s not that common bond, but when you play with other pianist, there is. So when that happens there’s this lock-in feeling thats similar to a band vibe.”  

“Fortunately we all have good rhythm,” says Lisa Moore matter of factly. “When you have a loose cannon, things can really be a problem. And it can happen, you know, their cues are different, and it becomes lost in translation.”  

“I think that’s why we didn’t stop after the first time,” O’Connell explains. “Cuz it’s like, ‘This is great!’ We were on such a high, not just because of the audience’s reaction. Such massive sound. And so we have to play again.”

“It’s very lonely being a pianist,” Moore says, “So you come together and you go ‘Oh ok, everyone has these issues,’ because normally pianists don’t hang out with pianists. We know each other, and we give each other work, and we go ‘Hey!’ at concerts and stuff like that, but for me, it’s the sound of it actually. The sound of six righteous pianos. The sound of all of us together, playing – it’s just thrilling! Y’know, it really gets your adrenaline pumping. I think it’s gonna be really fun to do this.”

The grand idea for them to perform Steve Reich’s piece Six Pianos at the Bang on a Can festival two years ago (which they will also play this Sunday*) was just the start, and since then they’ve commissioned and composed pieces for their combination that enables them to click in rhythmically and aesthetically together. Moore, one of the founding members of the group says, “It’s a real challenge – we’re really breaking new ground.”

Although they play real pianos half the time and keyboards the other half, this Sunday* we can expect to hear Vicky Chow, David Friend, Paul Kerekes, Blair McMillen, Lisa Moore & Isabelle O’Connell play three new premiere pieces on keyboards: Ben Wallace’s “A Road You Can Go” and Paul Kerekes’ “Wither,” and Michael Gordon’s “Ode to La Bruja, Hanon, Czerny, Van Cliburn and little gold stars…(or, To Everyone Who Made My Life Miserable,Thank You).”  

Wallace explains that his piece is not only an inside joke among gamers but also is a set of variations of the Mario Kart themes. For this tune, “We decided to go in a completely different direction, to make us even more confusing, but also flexible perhaps. Although we’re realizing there’s issues with that as well,” says Moore. It will feature the six not just on keyboards, but also two toy pianos, melodicas, auxiliary percussion and -wait for it – keytar! The benefit of this exploration outside of uniform instruments will enable the ensemble to play more concerts; it opens doors to gigs that would otherwise be physically impossible for six pianists to play an acoustic set on grand pianos. “That’s sort of been a long term goal for us as an ensemble, to come up with at least a program of material that we can play a venues that are interested in the group but don’t have the logistical capacity to have us there,” says Friend.

Wallace himself said he got the idea for “A Road You Can Go” from a friend who pointed out to him that video game music is “‘The folk music of our time,’ which is kind of silly, but in reality is true… because it’s a little bit more pervasive than it used to be. I’ve been obsessed with Mario Kart since the beginning of the summer. I got the video game and I’ve been playing it constantly. Then music was ringing in my head – even before then, so I started arranging this series of themes, taking the whole repertoire of Mario Kart game themes back to the 90’s and I tried to spin them out in as many different possible ways as I could. And I ended up with this massive thing for these guys to play.” The whole ensemble undoubtedly has Mario Kart stuck in their heads for good now, but honestly, who would pass up a chance to play the keytar?

As for Kerekes’ piece “wither,” he describes it saying “I had a big idea about the piece – I wanted to have music that would travel throughout the ensemble, because one of the important things about the group is that we take up so much space. A lot of the music starts from the front of the stage and moves its way back so that there’s this feeling of decay, or like something is running away from you. That was the basic idea that ran throughout the piece.

“I was playing a lot of Renaissance music that year, which has a lot of that gesture from strong to weak throughout, this strong connection to the voice. In a lot of modern performance we almost remove that human aspect, but it’s very much connected in that type of music. And that’s what I liked about [Renaissance and Baroque music] so much. I wanted that human element in the piece whether it’s on a small scale between two notes, strong to weak, or a larger scale from piano one all the way to piano six. Strong to weak. And the piano itself is just naturally a decaying instrument. There are a lot of moments where beyond just the gestures of strong to weak, a note being struck and held, uses the piano’s natural feature of decay. That was sort of the basic idea, just finding all the variations of that that I could, to write the piece.”  

As for whether or not this decay effect can be accomplished on keyboards has yet to be seen! We won’t know until this weekend. “Spatially its gonna be different, because when we play on keyboards, we sit in a circle, rather than the dovetailed pianos,” Kerekes admits. “So I think on keyboards it might be less decay and more spatial. I dunno how much we can fool around with sound in this venue [Governor’s Island], but it would be cool if there’s some panning effect we can try.”  

“Anything like that is a discussion with the sound tech,” points out Friend. “That’s the heart of the issue, really. The idea of sound engineer comes out of the tradition of rock bands and music that is tied up with being amplified, so any time you’re dealing with, first of all, totally acoustic instruments, or classical instruments, that’s the challenge. In a sense, it’s a new field. With keyboards, though, there’s still a challenge because it’s an aesthetic challenge.”

The group’s sound engineer for their debut concert at Bang on a Can was Jody Elff, a well known New York-based sound artist. The ensemble all agree; whoever the sound engineer is at a show, he or she becomes the seventh member of Grand Band, or a member of any band for that matter. Without a quality sound tech, the audience’s appreciation of the unique and powerful timbre of six pianos playing as one unit would be low indeed, and the ensemble’s performance (especially with bad monitors) would suffer as well, quite frankly. In this regard, Grand Band is similar to bands who travel with their own personal sound engineer, to ensure the quality of the performance is enjoyable for everyone involved. “I’ve often heard Jody referred to as a ‘twenty-first century conductor’ which maybe isn’t the best corollary, but they [sound engineers] are definitely in charge of the sound,” Friend explains. “We come out of a tradition of chamber music, where we are at least mostly sure that the sound we hear on stage is related to the sound out in the venue. Amplification upends that a little bit, there’s an intermediary step between the sound you produce and what the listener hears. That’s how Bang on a Can ended up travelling with Jody. There’s an emerging group of engineers who know how to do this and know how to do it well, but that’s not everybody. It’s still often a challenge.” Musicians everywhere, take heed: be nice to your sound engineer. 

Come hear the sound of “six righteous pianos” yourself this Sunday* at Governor’s Island, where Grand Band will perform at 1pm and 3pm. Check back in the FDRMX then for a full review of the event plus a photo gallery.

Due to anticipated stormy weather on Saturday, the Grand Band shows are being moved to Sunday, Sept. 7th at 2pm and 4pm at Nolan Park, Governors Island.