American Innovator: a conversation with Anthony de Mare

Contemporary specialist and advocate Anthony de Mare arrives in Indianapolis this weekend to perform a program he is calling "The American Innovator." Innovator is an adept description for the pianist who has collaborated with many composers to expand the repertoire of the piano. American Pianists Association's Director of Marketing, Lee Clifford, spoke with Anthony about his musical background, career and the program he will perform in Indy. Read on and consider joining us this weekend!

Anthony de Mare

LEE: Let’s start with how you got into music.

ANTHONY:

Well it is a three fold thing: I started piano in the second grade. I think that made me about seven years old, and that continued straight through my grammar school years into high school.

A year later, I got involved with a summer children's workshop in theater, which I did for many years while I was a child. I continued to be part of the theater in high school and then did some regional work after high school. Then by the fourth grade, I had started to study dance, which I studied for eight years.

LEE: Wow!

ANTHONY:

Right! So those primary years between second and fourth grade I started all three disciplines, and I have had strong interest in all of them. They have all helped in tandem together with my development, because one is feeding the other. It is what has influenced the eclecticism in my work, that at a certain point in my career I wanted to fuse music from the theater, especially by people like Stephen Sondheim, into the classical music world along with other genres.

I have always been interested in many different genres of music. I was raised not only on classical music but also on pop music, film music, Broadway shows, etc.

We had all these different recordings so my record collection as a little kid was very eclectic I would just go from one style to the other and just keep listening to things. My father worked for the electronics division of a company in Rochester, New York, where I was originally from, and he used to bring home these test pattern records of electronic sounds for new machines. I would put those on and listen to them, and my parents were crazily wondering why I was so interested in this! The sounds fascinated me, though, and I think adding that to the mix is also what greatly influenced the path I took with contemporary music.

Of course, I was fully trained in classical and standard repertoire, but I was grateful and blessed to have teachers that supported my interest in works of the twentieth century when I was a little kid, starting with Gershwin, Debussy, Prokofiev and Bartók.

Then it just seemed to grow. From that point, I went into my undergraduate degree at Manhattan School of Music primarily focused on standard music. My teacher there supported certain contemporary composers as far as she could understand them because she was very traditionally oriented. My graduate work was with a man named Yvar Mikhashoff who unfortunately passed away in the mid-1990s. He led me to the University of Buffalo where they had a center for creative and performing arts in contemporary music, and that's where I think a lot of it blossomed. He groomed me for two competitions in Europe, which I won. He groomed me for the Young Concert Artists Auditions, in which I also did very well. These events were what I think helped spur my career forward. Mikhashoff encouraged me to incorporate other disciplines like using my voice. I guess I've been credited with pioneering the whole speaking singing pianist genre and one of the most important pieces of what has been a very growing genre over the past 20 to 30 years is Frederick Rzewski’s “De Profundis,” based on the text by Oscar Wilde, which I consider the king of the pieces.

There is another work by an American composer Jerome Kitsky who took an Allen Ginsberg poem from the “Howl” collection called “Sunflower Sutra” and made a large setting of that for me as well.

Subsequently there have been a lot of these pieces. That was the beginning of fusing some of the theatrical into piano playing as well as my work in the eighties with Meredith Monk's performing company in arranging some of her works for solo performance.

All of this I think added to the spectrum of what led me to where I basically am now.

LEE: Undoubtedly! The influences you were naming: theater, dance, the electronic sounds…I mean my goodness it seems like the perfect fodder for what became your signature sound and artistic vision.

Take me back again…what is one of the first pieces that you loved?

ANTHONY:

Way back, oh dear! Well, yes, I can identify quickly: while starting Bach and Beethoven and Schumann and Chopin—I think I must have been in fifth or sixth grade—I remember my teacher saying, “If you come in next week with everything really well prepared, I have a piece that I think you'll like.”

And he brought me Aram Khachaturian’s Toccata, which is a very famous piece especially a lot of students play it.  It has a great appeal, and for a young kid this just opened up this whole new spectrum of sounds and harmonies and the propulsive rhythmic quality of it. I had it learned in less than two weeks!

At one point my teacher had to say, “okay put this aside, we’ve got to go back to the other stuff” because I was so intrigued. From there I started into the Gershwin preludes and the whole jazz world influence on classical music at the time really, really intrigued me.

Then there has always been this weird sense for the avant-garde. I would come across pieces and realize I wanted to play them because they were so unusual and so different. This has been another element that has intrigued me throughout most of my work.

LEE: So how did the how did you get together with Frederic Rzewski?

ADM:

Rzewski was through my teacher again, Yvar Mikhashoff, when I was at the University of Buffalo. When he was preparing me for the International Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition back in the 1980s, he wanted me to learn Rzewski’s Piano Piece No. 4, which I am also playing on this concert.

Piano Piece No. 4 is from a group of four pieces that are loosely based on a Chilean folk tune. It was written by an artist who was mysteriously killed by the government. Rzewski during that period was—as he has been most of his career—very politically oriented in his writing for the piano. The piece is very intense, and it has this beautiful dance-like folk tune in it that keeps coming back.

My teacher said he wanted me to learn it for these competitions. I played it in many concerts and ended up playing it for many, many years because it was always had such an impact on the audience.

Then soon after winning the Gaudeamus competition, I met Frederic in Europe. He had come to one of my concerts, and it just started a relationship with him. I started playing more of his music, and that led to my doing a piece of his that was actually written for a percussionist because it is done at a table. It is a theatrical piece called “Lost and Found” in which the performer recites in fragments a letter that was written by a Vietnam War lieutenant from Texas.

Back in the 1980s they actually reprinted some of these letters from some of these veterans who were riding home to their family. Rzewski came across this very troubling letter by a man writing to his grandmother telling her that he had given a class on ambushes and basically congratulating himself on what a great job he did.

So Rzewski creates this piece where the performer is sitting at the table basically almost naked which is symbolic of the stripping of the self. The piece gets more and more involved or violent even in the way he starts beating up on himself. The text is very self-congratulatory; it is sort of this dichotomy of the two forces, unconscious and conscious going at each other.

Rzewski saw me perform this piece in Europe as well, and that is when we sat down and had a serious conversation about “De Profundis.” He said the Oscar Wilde text was a text he had always wanted to do. He originally wanted to do it for an ensemble with a singer, but he had already done that. Then he thought an ensemble with a narrator, but he had already done that. He said this gave him the impetus to create a piece whereby the pianist and the piano—the body and the instrument itself—sort of become one by allowing the pianist to speak and sing as they're playing.

So he extracted eight sections of the very long letter that Oscar Wilde wrote to his partner Lord Alfred Douglas while he was imprisoned from 1895 to 1897. It is eight sections of text that are interceded by eight instrumental interludes, but it's all pieced together as a full one movement work. It became sort of the basis of this genre. I fell in love with the piece immediately—it is very intense. It can be very emotional, and it can be uplifting at the end. It is also troubling at times because Oscar Wilde went through the matrix of all these different emotions while he was imprisoned.

LEE: Had you been familiar with Oscar Wilde's work before that?

ANTHONY:

Yes, I had been familiar with some of the plays and poetry, but I was not as familiar with “De Profundis” before Rzewski pointed it out. I knew about the “Ballad of Reading Jail” which was another prose poem he wrote where Rzewski actually extracts just a few lines from that; he interpolates it into the into the text of “De Profundis.”

LEE: Performing that around the world, how do you think Oscar Wilde’s plight resonates with the public today?

ANTHONY:

You know I was doing this piece throughout the nineties and at the turn of century and laid it to rest for a while. Then I was asked to program it here and there. It seems like whenever I'm asked to program it it's always timely for the situations that we're going through socially and politically in this country as well as what's going on around the world.

The text and his words seem to keep resonating with the present, and I found it fascinating that his words always seem to make sense for where we are at the time. Especially in these troubled times, I think the text is even more potent at this point, so I'm very kind of excited to be bringing it back to life.

I performed it last year a couple of times after not doing it for many years because basically for several years I was just performing the “Liaisons” project pieces, the commissions that I did on Sondheim’s work.

So I took a break from doing it and last year it seemed appropriate to bring it back and audiences still seem to respond to it very potently

LEE: Fascinating. Can we can we finish with the Sondheim pieces? Your “Liaisons” project is an incredible undertaking! I listened to the NPR story on it and can share details with our audience, so maybe let's just talk about the pieces that you're playing in Indianapolis.

ANTHONY:

Yes there are two of them. First, I am doing “The Demon Barber,” which is based on the opening “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” from “Sweeney Todd”. That was set by Kenji Bunch who lived in New York but has now been back in Portland for many years. Kenji said that he first saw “Sweeney Todd” on a PBS broadcast of the show back when he was about 10 years old.

Sondheim has always called it proudly a horror movie for the stage in which he wanted to keep the audience in suspense and possibly even scare the hell out of them.

Kenji said yes he did scare the hell out of him when he was watching it, but he said it also convinced him that he wanted to be a composer. And so all these years later, this was the one piece he wanted to choose for the project. It is almost like a transcription in this case. Some composers in the Liaisons Project went the transcription route, some adapted, and some went a little bit more creatively with their reimagining of each of the songs. Kenji basically made a Lisztian transcription of the piece. It has very virtuosic sections, and it follows the basic shape of the opening prologue, including all the different voices from the vocal leaders from the chorus.

It has been very, very effective. There is a certain innovative quality to it that I thought would go along with the whole theme of this program, “The American Innovator.”

I’m also playing Steve Reich’s setting of “Finishing the Hat” from Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” one of the most popular and beloved ballads from that show. Steve Reich, of course, is just an icon himself and a longtime friend of Sondheim’s. I should say that when he agreed to participate I was trying to get Steve Reich to choose a song from the show “Pacific Overtures” about the opening of Japan to the western world in the nineteenth century. Sondheim has said that he was somewhat influenced by Steve Reich when he was writing it. I thought it would make this great symbiotic connection, but Steve Reich was set on “Finishing the Hat” because he said the show “Sunday in the Park with George” meant so much to him and he always loved the song. He set it for two pianos because of course he does not really write compositions for solo instruments.

So this was for two pianos, and I've recorded piano two. I am sort of accompanying myself live. The composer's first choice is to do it live with two pianos, but you know it is hard to get a second pianist for a three and a half minute piece!

This works really quite well. I have done it numerous times in concert, and the piece has great energy. It has become one of the favorites in the whole collection; even people who don't know the song have taken to the piece because it has that Steve Reich energy, that kind of pulse like energy underlying in the second piano part that keeps the whole thing moving along.

Interestingly he said he hadn't written melody in years, and this was the first time in a while he incorporated melody, which in piano one is the melody from the song obviously Sondheim’s melody.

So like most all the pieces in the in the entire project this is sort of a perfect marriage. In fact, both of these pieces are perfect marriages between the composer's style and Sondheim’s original source material.

Many people who have heard my concerts and are focusing on the project said they can hear the particular composers’ styles but they know it is Sondheim’s material. That to me was one of the most exciting things to discover about the project and to realize that people really took to this.

LEE: You know most pianists just travel with clothes and show up to play, but you have additional requirements for your concerts.

ANTHONY:

Right, right! I mean in this concert there is a piece on the inside of the piano by Henry Cowell, there is the piece with the audio track with Steve Reich and then “De Profundis” has a few bells and whistles as well.

LEE: So what is your hope for the audience attending your performance?

ANTHONY:

Well, it is a very eclectic program, which has been my history to be as eclectic as possible. When Joel Harrison asked me to create a program, I thought because I called it the American Innovator, let's look at the first three of the earliest American innovators which were Charles Ives, George Antheil and Henry Cowell. Each was very different from one another, but they share similar aesthetics and philosophies so I thought that would make it really interesting.

I also know that the American Pianists Association programs a lot of jazz concerts, and I wanted to touch on that element. I chose a piece that isn’t performed that often: Fred Hersch’s arrangement of a Billy Strayhorn classic called “Lotus Blossom.” This was a piece that when Billy Strayhorn was working with Duke Ellington it was one of Ellington’s favorites and he often played it as an encore. I am sort of combining that with a piece by a recent composer named Bruce Stark. Bruce was originally from California and now teaches at University of Washington, but he spent a good deal of his career in Japan. He has crossed over the jazz world with classical and he writes very intriguing and very adventurous piano music. He created this piece in 2014 called “Urban Nocturnes,” which is actually a single piece highlighting nightlife in the cities that he lived—large cities like Los Angeles, New York and Tokyo. He says it exemplifies the diverse qualities of what an urbanite is in a series of different themes that are each very distinctly different from one another.

Along with that and Rzewski’s music and the pieces from “Liaison,” I hope there is something for everyone. I would never expect everyone to like everything, but usually they come back and say yes they really did. Rzewski used to say the biggest success of a program is being invited back to perform again!

Mine was that hearing afterwards that people wanted to buy the recordings or they want to know more about the composer or they want to hear more music by the composer or students will say where can I get the score--where you know people want to play it. That to me makes for a successful concert and that is what I am hoping that this program will achieve.

LEE: Well I hope we have a hall full of people saying that in Indianapolis.

ANTHONY: Thank you.

LEE: Thank you for such an interesting discussion!

ANTHONY: My pleasure. Okay take care.

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Anthony de Mare presents his program "The American Innovator" Sunday, November 17 at University of Indianapolis. Tickets here.

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