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Becoming a Human Metronome

This post is the third in (what I hope will become) a long series of posts telling the stories behind my albums. An archive of all posts in the series can be found here: The Stories of Irritable Hedgehog.

Quarter note equals 59.225 beats per minute. That remains the oddest metronome marking I’ve encountered in my admittedly short career. The reason Tom Johnson used that tempo for An Hour for Piano is easy enough to deduce—he wrote a piece that was 3,553.5 beats long and wanted it to have a final duration of exactly one hour (3553.5 beats / 60 min = 59.225 bpm)—but to understand why the tempo remains unwavering and why an hour is important, we have to turn to the man himself.

Andy Lee and Tom Johnson
Me and Tom Johnson, Kansas City, Second International Conference on Minimalist Music, 2009

In 1967, Tom Johnson was living in New York and working as an accompanist for a modern dance class at NYU. As part of the gig, he would play as the dancers warmed-up, which required maintaining a strict tempo. He would often improvise these accompaniments and later sketch out anything that seemed “worth remembering.” He writes:

I had a drawer where I would keep these sketches. Many months after this started I went through the drawer and really liked seven (I think) basic textures, so I took them home and started writing them out in detail, expanding them and composing transitions from one texture to another….

When I had quite a mess of isolated sections, I began connecting them, which often required writing a few additional pages. The pages and the sections began piling up, and it was clear that this might go on for a while, so as a way of setting a goal I came up with the title “An Hour for Piano.” Gradually I linked all of these two-page and four-page and twelve-page sections together into one piece without interruption, but there was still no before and after. All the sections were just floating in the same time frame. The only reason the piece starts the way it does is that I never found anything that seemed to lead to that. (Personal correspondence from June 2010)

The end result is remarkable. Tom Johnson is able to take these simple ideas and comfortably fill an hour with only subtle variations and elegant transitions. Learning the piece was a little less elegant.

One major problem was finding a (free) metronome that could render the indicated tempo. I was able to find a simple app that would get me to the tenths place, so when set it to the eighth note (a necessity anyway due to irregular measures), I was only off by 0.05 bpm. For a while, then, I would play through the piece with the metronome, developing a physical sense of tempo.

Step two was to take the metronome away. I should point out that it was David McIntire’s suggestion that I do this; I assumed a click track would be necessary to record a piece with such a specific timing. The problem with a click track, of course, is that it affects  interpretation. Not only is it difficult to avoid emphasizing the beat too strongly, but it would also require nearly immediate adjustments if I was to get off. I was skeptical about being able to do this, especially with the multiple takes a recording session would require, but David had faith in me.

The score provides timings on every fourth page (every 3-9 min) to aid the pianist in hitting an hour. When I first went off the metronome, I struggled with overcorrections—I would be 20 sec to early to one marker only to find myself 15 sec behind the next. I would occasionally go back to the metronome, but most of my work was simply to refine my sense of tempo. After a while, I knew precisely where I tended to speed up or slow down and could make adjustments much more gradually. Where before I was constantly adjusting, I could eventually take 20 minutes to correct a 10-15 second error. That was a good feeling.

Of course, despite all my efforts, I knew it wasn’t going to be perfect, so (confession time!) I tried to always end about 5 seconds early. That way I could add just a hint of ritardando at the end and hold the last note a little longer (which made musical sense to me) to hit an hour exactly. With that little adjustment, I was able to hit my final mark consistently.

While tempo is critically important to this composition, I obviously had many other musical aspects to consider, and never before had I tried to interpret a piece without being able to use the damper pedal or rubato (the pedal is held for the entire hour). Tone and phrasing became paramount, and I tried to create different characters for each of the musical ideas in the piece. Tone was useful to consider as it helped add variety despite constant pulse and similar textures. Phrasing was trickier, though, because it wasn’t always clear how much was required, e.g. if a four-beat idea repeats multiple times, how appropriate is it to give the idea a sense of shape or imply that it has a sense of direction?

For the highly curious and extremely bored, I published an analysis of AHfP, which was partially inspired by many interpretive questions, in the journal CeReNeM: “Temporality as an Analytical Approach to Minimalist Music: Tom Johnson’s An Hour for Piano.” For the more sane among you, know that I thoroughly enjoyed tackling these issues, which I continue to grapple with as I expand my repertoire.

So with my internal metronome fully calibrated and new musical challenges overcome, I was ready to record my first album. I felt more prepared for this than I ever had for a live performance, but what I didn’t anticipate was how wildly different the recording process would be.

Next: Recording An Hour for Piano

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