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“Codex”: a preview/release event for Bruce Brubaker’s new album “Codex” on InFiné Music (Warp)
Bruce Brubaker, piano
5:00 pm doors | 6:00 pm show | All Ages
Table Seating: $20 advance, $25 day of show | Standing Room: $15 advance, $20 day of show
On “Codex,” American pianist Bruce Brubaker sets up a clash (or a discussion) between Terry Riley’s Keyboard Study No. 2 (1965) and pieces from the Codex Faenza, a 15th century manuscript considered to be one of the very first collections of keyboard music. By putting the work of the performer/creator above that of the composer, this back-and-forth takes the listener on a journey that is at once timeless and eminently current.
Over six centuries ago, at the dawn of the 15th century, unknown scribes – authentic artists or inspired copyists, that we do not know – collected over fifty vocal compositions, some from the previous century. Liturgical or secular, anonymous or bearing the imprint of the Ars nova’s most famous French and Italian composers (Jacopo da Bologna, Francesco Landini, Guillaume de Machaut, Pierre des Molins…), these works were transcribed on two parallel staves, which was unusual at the time and indicate that they were intended for keyboard. Thus the Codex Faenza – named after the Ravenna-adjacent town where it is kept – created circa 1420 and rediscovered in the 1930s, became an object of fascination for harpsichordists, organists and pianists the world over, as one of the oldest keyboard scores to have survived.
In 1964, in San Francisco, composer Terry Riley, then age 29, invented American repetitive music with his In C, with an ensemble featuring Morton Subotnik, Pauline Oliveros and Steve Reich. At the same time, in 1964-65, he would compose his Keyboard Studies, in the vein of In C. Based on improvisation, they are loosely articulated around the free combination of a series of melodic cells of different lengths, giving the pianist the freedom to use them following a freeform protocol. Keyboard Study No. 2, in particular, is noted on concentrically-arranged circular staves, is a series of three- to ten-note fragments, with no indication of rhythm, and which the performer can even transpose in pitch. A prototype of the young composer’s “open form,” a precursor of the extra-occidental improvisational practice he would go on to develop under Indian master Pandit Prân Nath.
Fast forward to today, with Bruce Brubaker bridging those two worlds and simultaneously resurrecting two sources – seemingly the most appropriate term in this instance – across their 550-year divide. The American pianist intertwines them on one album, working out their textures to bring out their differences – the Codex Faenza’s quasi-declaratory, rhythmically-unstable dimension contrasting with Riley’s metronomic ostinatos – as well as their similitudes, in particular their rhythmic ambiguity: in the Codex Faenza for example, the instrumentalist is sometimes free to choose the alignment of left and right hand, and thus, the piece’s dissonance.
Above all, what these sources have in common is that they allow for an infinite number of “readings” – Brubaker’s preferred term for “interpretation”: “rather than a collection of compositions, the Codex Faenza to me is almost like a collection of recordings, in the sense that it freezes a certain event in time. It brings us back to the origins of musical writing: music preceded writing, and if we started writing it down, it was in the beginning a way to record what was happening in the context of a musical practice where improvisation played an important part – and not to create something from nothing, as the romantic view of the composer would have it. As well, Terry Riley, in his score, gives us a lot of material without telling us what to do with it. In the pieces of the Codex Faenza as in Study No. 2, the authority of the composer is not an essential component of the music. It would almost be the opposite: we could claim that the identity of these pieces rests on the absence of the composer.”
“Codex” presents six possible “versions” of Terry Riley’s Keyboard Study No. 2, alternating with works extracted from the Codex Faenza. Having been fascinated by this “music that is so ancient that it almost appears to be completely new,” Brubaker was also convinced that it would sound great on a modern piano, which can sustain long notes. This is important because the crux of the project deals with time, with the passing of time. The right hand, ornamental and busy, evokes the present’s precipitousness, while the left, minimal and stripped, expresses a slower, vaster temporality. Brubaker’s discourse here, beyond simply bridging two worlds – the ancient and the new, the Europe of the Late Middle Ages and sixties America, the mainstream and the intelligentsia – is to resuscitate these breviaries of freedom to extract their substantive marrow.
Music that is, by its essence, that of the present moment.
Bruce Brubaker says:
“Hearing the pieces from the Faenza Codex and Riley’s Keyboard Study, I get the strong sense of being alive — all those long slow notes in the low register correspond to long-term changes we know are taking place in our life and, at the same time, the faster high notes seem like the busy events that occupy our consciousness.”
“In this very old music, keyboard players already were reworking and reimagining (remixing) even older music to make something new.”
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