Aug 18

Mark Limacher on the Woodlands Street Piano

by Downtown Calgary · 0 comments

Mark Limacher

As a composer, one of my favorite distractions is to think about instruments as found objects, uprooting them from their ‘normal’ contexts, choosing instead to think of them as perplexing, sound-producing human artifacts. Certainly this can take a person to the fringes of so-called “extended techniques”, but it can also mean something less, shall we say, superficial. It could mean using an instrument to achieve pre-established aesthetic ideas, thus expanding what could be thought of as ‘idiomatic’ for these strange things in the first place.

Despite being a pianist myself, my instrument often proves difficult to decontextualize in this way. Its gradual development since the 17th century has been inextricably linked to the developments of western music itself. Bach, Beethoven, Chopin; these names are practically inscribed in one’s very thoughts about the piano, or worse yet, serve as placeholders for having such thoughts in the first place.

The musical traditions that surrounded southern and eastern parts of the Mediterranean were not spared the incursion of the piano. Not only was contact made, but it became integrated in many of these musics.

Maghrebi chaabi is a prominent example, with Algerian pianists Maurice el Medioni, and Mustapha Skandrani being two deservedly famous artists. As far east as Iran, the piano’s tuning was adjusted in order to play beautiful dastgah by masters like Morteza Mahjoubi. To my ears, although recognizably a piano, it is somehow different, somehow new. These are musical traditions unconcerned with polyphony or harmony, and thus the piano is simply not played ‘that way’. Beautifully ornamented linear improvisations like those played on the the qanun (or the oud for that matter), and hypnotic oscillations like those of the santur, become the closest cousins to things heard. These traditions adopted the piano in the sense of my “found object” metaphor, suggesting other idioms for the piano, while not sacrificing their musical and aesthetic aims.

And what a pleasure it was to play this music on the Woodlands Piano. Residing on the street, its idiosyncratic design catches the eye before you even hear its unique timbral qualities. Although in some obvious ways it gives itself away as a piano (keyboard, pedals), its individuality demands more. Beyond being an exceptionally compelling artistic installation, it asks more of you as a listener. You are pitted against traffic, passersby, and construction. Such provocation!

This was a piano that absolutely requires being approached as a “found object”. Although to some extent true of any instrument, in this particular case there was more at stake. Its design was too unique, and my exploration of it had to take place simultaneously with my navigation of the urban acoustics. Furthermore, I had to be in some way convincing to an audience. Feeling through its mannerisms and its sonic ‘personality’ to find what could sit best, it is perhaps unsurprising that chaabi spoke beautifully. Its octave spans, sparse textures, its percussive qualities, and even its meditative moments, all of them married beautifully with this piano.

It is in these intersections of metaphor that I am most fascinated as a musician, and to have been given the opportunity to live that out in front of an audience in the heart of an urban center was indeed a treat.

Mark Limacher is a Composer-Pianist currently based in Calgary, Canada. He is a graduate of New School University in New York City, and has subsequently served as apprentice to composer Bunita Marcus in Brooklyn, NY. He has composed extensively for piano, solo instruments, and chamber ensembles, being particularly drawn to small gestures, soft dynamics, and “waiting”. He is particularly influenced by music from the Maghreb, the Middle East, and Anatolia, as a result of his study and interest in Sephardic music.

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