Described as “a keyboard superstar” (The New Yorker) and “Vigorously virtuosic” (LA Times) the Grammy-nominated Richard Valitutto’s new release brings together a set of works he has been working on with his distinctive approach over the past decade. Here he talks with Composers Edition’s Dan Goren about the making of this extraordinary album.
Dan Goren: Congratulations on a tremendously atmospheric album, as if encountering you alone at the piano in a huge hall. We know in darkness our aural attention becomes more acute and your performances here of these works demand my attention in a similar way. Tell me about how the recordings were made.
Richard Valitutto: Thank you very much—it’s incredibly meaningful to receive such affirming feedback on this album, from you and from many other listeners. In particular, hearing folks’ responses to it has confirmed my hopes for the record, a vision which began in some form or another about six years ago.
In November of 2014, I had just commissioned and premiered Nicholas Deyoe’s NCTRN on a Piano Spheres Satellite Series concert at REDCAT. The program was called NAKHT (punning the German words for “night” and “naked”, as well as an esoteric reference to the Ancient Egyptian god of the dead) and was the first of several nocturnal programs I would perform. I was also of course, drawn to Deyoe’s earlier piano solo Lullaby 2, and I had performed several other pieces by him over the years (including another commission, Lullaby 4, which gnarwhallaby premiered at Carnegie Hall in 2013). I knew these works and many other “nocturnal” pieces I had been collecting—including both Linda Catlin Smith’s A Nocturne and Philip Cashian’s Nocturne—made for compelling programming that spoke to me and, as it would turn out, audiences as well. Being that both of Deyoe’s big solo works were unrecorded, as well as several others (including Cashian’s piece), I knew I wanted to create a recorded document that would capture the spirit of these programs and present what became the “nocturnes & lullabies” concept in a special way, hopefully altogether in an album format.
As I kept presenting partial or full programs of this material over the next couple years—including on such series as wasteLAnd and Omaha Under the Radar—I noticed that ambience and intimacy were a huge part of the program’s impact. Obviously, this is always the case with live music, especially acoustic “Classical” music, but if the space didn’t have a great acoustic, or had too much ambient noise, or the lighting was too severe, it really detracted from the energy and impact of the pieces to a particular degree. I suppose I’m also really drawn to the introspective, meditative side of concert experiences, both as a performer and an audience member. On the recording side of things, I’ll be frank: I was getting more and more disillusioned (or, perhaps better put, bored) with the traditional classical recording aesthetic, especially for solo piano. There are so many solo piano records out there that seem to have a single aesthetic goal simply to recreate the “clean” sound of an acoustic grand in a nondescript, medium-sized hall—usually pristine and warm, sure, but often lacking in personality and immediacy. In a simultaneously oversaturated and undervalued recording market, I really don’t see the point in that. Knowing I wanted something that presented these pieces in a way that heightened their intimacy, rawness, and fragility (as well as their occasionally terrifying power and intense sonority), I was picky about working with an engineer who was curious, artistic, and highly skilled, and my friend Nick Tipp was all of these things and more. It didn’t hurt that I had worked with him on a number of other recording projects, both as a performer and a production assistant, so we had a rapport, and I knew and was inspired by his predilection for progressive approaches to recording acoustic concert music.
Together, Nick and I planned the technical and artistic approaches to the recording over several weeks leading up to the sessions. On the artistic side, we talked a lot about the specific feelings and psychologies of each individual piece, getting really nuanced about the moment to moment shifts of feeling and texture, and what type of emotional and experiential journey the album as a whole should convey and evoke. This also partially informed the technical side of things, for which we discussed how many and which types of microphones would be used and where they would be placed in the studio. For a few sections of music, we ended up having as many as 10 separate tracks, capturing the piano strings’ resonances at varying distances and degrees, but also for recording the various auxiliary sounds and vocalizations I made for the pieces. Because of the wide-array of techniques and sounds called for in some of the music, for a couple pieces we even used an over-dubbing approach, capturing the strings’ sound from “normal” piano playing on one take, and then overdubbing the prepared piano, extended technique percussive effects, and, in one instance, my whisper-singing(!) towards the end of Deyoe’s Lullaby 2. While this approach complicates the recording logistics somewhat (more takes had to be done, we needed a click track at times, and editing takes longer, etc.) it actually saved some time in post-production. Most importantly, it enabled Tipp to mix and EQ the disparate piano sounds to their optimal capacity. Add onto that his amazingly curated mixing studio setup, ample reverb library, and fastidious and virtuosic skills at the board and with ProTools, and I was more than excited to know that these recordings would sound really special: a fresher, unique aesthetic approach to the solo piano record. This type of pop-music production approach was really exciting for what it could allow in the final product, presenting the pieces together as a collective in a recorded object, artistic in its own right, not merely some sort of simulacrum of an idealized “live” performance.
DG: There is of course a long tradition of piano Nocturnes, originating in nineteenth century Europe. What has been your relationship as a pianist with that heritage?
RV: Ever since I first started playing, I connected particularly deeply with the piano repertoire of the 19th-century, and some of my earliest favorite pieces were anything considered “conventionally” beautiful and/or brooding and in slow tempos: voilà, the Chopin nocturnes. Two of my go-to recital pieces in my middle and high school years were the Op. 9 No. 2 in E-flat and Op. 27 No. 1 in C#m—those pieces, along with some moody Rachmaninoff ones, were the closest I came to singing without opening my mouth. Part of what was initially so compelling to me about the project as a whole is precisely the connotative baggage the term “nocturne” carries with it and the sorts of inquiries and investigations it provokes. Obviously, for most people, Chopin immediately comes to mind, and if you’re a little more well-read you might also know about Chopin’s predecessor in the genre, John Field, and hopefully the later Fauré nocturnes, which are totally beautiful and amazing in their own right. What struck me as weird was that, at a certain point, I kept discovering one or a few pieces in so many modern and contemporary composers’ catalogs called “Nocturne” or with nocturne in the title, often for solo piano. Why that word? You don’t see many (or any) 20th- and 21st-century pieces called “Romance”, “Impromptu”, or “Bagatelle” or whatever. In some ways, you could point to Debussy’s Nocturnes for orchestra as responsible for the modernist shift from the Chopinesque genre’s focus on arpeggios and bel canto melody imitations. Other pre-modern and modern composers had a lot to do with the stylistic shift in “night music” as well: Bartók, Britten, Scriabin, etc. But I view this project—both the recording and various concert programs I’ve done which feature contemporary nocturnes and/or lullabies, as interacting with the heritage, at least conceptually, and not eschewing it. At first, I thought I wanted to include 19th-century pieces alongside the 20th/21st-century ones, but to my delight, I was finding so many great recent pieces, I often didn’t have the space to do that. I soon realized I didn’t want the programs to become all about inviting comparison across centuries, or demonstrating some sort of manufactured, myopic teleology for the genre: as if everything Chopin, Fauré, and others did was old-fashioned and out-dated and “thank god for modernism” and all that nonsense. There are some ways that a nocturne by Fauré for example, is way more immediate and relevant than one by, for example, Sciarrino or whoever.
DG: Your attention to the resonance is vital to your performance here to the poetry of Philip Cashian’s Nocturne. It’s the oldest work on the disc – what’s your relationship with/to it?
RV: Philip Cashian’s piece was one of the earliest I discovered in the research quest I described earlier. I knew a little about Cashian’s music having read through his wonderful duo for violin and piano Stobrod’s Violin with my friend (and then teacher), violinist Mark Menzies, while I was a student at CalArts. I found Cashian’s music attractive and enjoyable to play, so I guess I was just perusing his catalog and saw this early piece from 1984, and that hadn’t been recorded. I think most contemporary pianists’ interest is piqued to some degree if there is a possibility to get first recording rights to a piece, but that was just a small part of it for me. From the first gesture and resonant sonority in Cashian’s Nocturne, I knew it was a piece that I would enjoy playing and presenting on programs, and eventually, this album. In addition to performing it in the US, I even gave the Macedonian premiere, alongside the Deyoe and Saunders solos, at the Macedonian Philharmonic in December 2018.
DG: Nocturnes are often associated with uncertainty or disquiet. For me, Linda Catlin Smith’s A Nocturne distinguishes itself as the work which most embraces the nocturnal world and that seems reflected in the distinct recording quality here. Does this description chime with how you relate to it?
RV: Absolutely. Over the last few years, I’ve become totally infatuated with Linda Catlin-Smith’s music, in particular the way she communicates an effortless formal logic and poignant emotional content with minimal means and unassuming materials. Practically all of her pieces are mostly slow and soft, and generally quite peaceful, but they each have their unique character and raison d’être. But this piece, more than any other of hers I know, seems to have buried within its placidity and luminosity a particularly beguiling beauty, mixing some really complex emotions, that at times border on an almost existential dread. Recording this piece was one of the most memorable parts of the album-making experience, because it was the only sizable piece on the album that Nick Tipp and I recorded without an extra person in the booth to take notes and give feedback. So it was just Nick and I, basically doing complete take after complete take, like half a dozen, until finally at a certain point we both confessed to each other that we were having a really emotional experience. Like, we were both becoming more and more vulnerable and quiet energetically. Then came the only point in the tracking sessions where we just sat and really listened to a full take of a piece—not listening for cosmetic imperfections or mistakes or whatever—just feeling the music of the piece flow by and reacting to it emotionally. Then we did like a couple pickup takes of each page for safety, but I think the majority of what ended up on the album was just big sections from a couple complete takes performed in a pretty heightened emotional state. Once we got to mixing the track in Nick’s studio, I definitely remember how exciting it was when he started applying some markedly different reverbs and EQs for the various sections in Smith’s piece, which are obviously so different from each other in both mood and which register of the instrument they occupy. Interestingly, A Nocturne is the only piece that isn’t a premiere recording on my album: I had come to obsess over the piece in the recording by its dedicatee Eve Egoyan, on her album thethingsinbetween. Furthermore, I wouldn’t have known about her music at all, had it not been for my performing Marc Sabat’s Nocturne back in 2011, which is dedicated to Smith and which caused me to look her up in the first place. (Thanks, Marc!)
DG: It’s certainly a very intimate listening experience, something which I know from attending a concert of yours recently is an important part of your performance aesthetic. Making it was clearly a real labour of love and it’s a wonderfully distinctive album as a result.
Label: New Focus Recordings
Catalog Number: fcr243
UPC Code: 655646189161
Release Date: March 20, 2020