Christopher Taylor (2.1.06)

Posted on July 28, 2008

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George Steel, the program director in charge of putting together this week’s György Ligeti performance at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, is declaring it a “pioneering performance,” but not a once-in-a-lifetime deal: “Generally, with extremely difficult things like this, someone finally tries it, and that makes someone else decide they can do it. Eventually, everyone will be playing it.”

In this case, that “someone” is Christopher Taylor, who’s been internationally accepted as a complete madman on piano and is pretty much peerless in the Profuse Sweating Onstage department. Taylor and Steel recently worked together on a concert of Conlon Nancarrow pieces. Nancarrow was famous for writing music to be performed exclusively on player pianos, since the music was too complicated and fast to be within the realm of human ability.

“Chris just came in the first day and ripped it apart, no challenge,” Steel says.

So onto the next level: every etude written by Ligeti. Often known as The World’s Most Important Living Composer, Ligeti is notable for having hoisted the avant-garde out of its serialism rut in the ’60s and ’70s. Before that, he had already worked up a dense and experimental body of work that drew from Stravinsky, Chopin and Debussy, branching out to embrace anything modern ears could possibly want, including jazz.

Ligeti’s etudes come in three books, which he began writing in 1985 and are a kind of scientifically engineered utopia of polyrhythms. His compositions unfold before your eyes like an untethered Steve Reich, and Monkish clusters of cool dissonance spread out, while the mechanized ghost of Nancarrow supervises. If it’s not perfect, it’s a flop.

“You start playing, and a million notes immediately descend on you from the score,” Taylor says. “You just have to be a little patient.”

Taylor spent all year studying the pieces for the show, which was performed late last year in New York and San Francisco. “It’s almost disappointing,” he says. “To have a piece go by in two or three minutes, which is all these etudes are, after having spent probably thousands of hours on them.”

Taylor at least has the comfort of being able to hear the pieces performed whenever and wherever he wants—he can play the entire first book from memory. The rest of us will have to get it when we can.

[Originally Appeared in Boston’s Weekly Dig 2.1.06]

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