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Discovering An Hour for Piano

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

On March 4 of this year, Irritable Hedgehog Music released my tenth album, Adrian Knight: Obsessions. It’s been less than six years since my first album came out, but hopefully you’ll indulge me a bit of retrospection after crossing this milestone. Over the course of the next several months, I hope to tell the stories behind each of these albums—from the joy of discovering and selecting repertoire to the errors and messiness of production. My hope is that this will help you hear these albums as more than cold, fixed products, because to me they represent so much more.

So without further ado, let’s begin with my first album, Tom Johnson: An Hour for Piano.

This story has been told a few different times, as it is the origin story of Irritable Hedgehog, but while some details may be familiar, I think there is a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that will be new.

My curiosity about minimalist music began sometime around 2005-06 when David McIntire (co-founder of Irritable Hedgehog) introduced me to William Duckworth’s The Time Curve Preludes. My only previous exposure to minimalism had been some Philip Glass piano pieces I encountered as an undergraduate, which I remember enjoying though nothing came of it.

Not long after I began my doctoral studies in piano performance at UMKC in the fall of 2006, I approached Dr. Andrew Granade (a musicologist with a taste for 20th century American music) to begin a research project on minimalist piano music. Sorry, that sentence is a little misleading. It implies that I knew a thing or two about minimalist music, which I didn’t. I simply approached Andrew and said, “I like The Time Curve Preludes and want to do a research project on similar piano music.” His response was wonderful; he emailed me a list of similar composers and told me to collect as much music as I could and report back in the fall.

That summer was like an extended Christmas, and if you’ve never worked with living composers, you don’t know what you’re missing. Even as a lowly grad student, most composers were more than happy to mail me scores and recordings and answer any questions I had. In fact, it was during this process that I began a friendship with Paul A. Epstein, who was extraordinarily generous and whose music I recently recorded.

It was during this process that I came across Tom Johnson’s An Hour for Piano. I played through bits and pieces of just about everything that I came across that summer, but there was something about AHfP that made me want to give it a full run. I’m sure the insistence on a steady tempo of quarter=59.226bpm throughout caught my eye, but mostly I just wondered what it’d be like to play through a piece that was an hour long. So I gave it a go.

I didn’t make it.

The piece isn’t really difficult (you have streamed a bit of it already, yes?), but after about 30-40 minutes I started zoning out, for lack of a better phrase. The notes no longer made any sense, and I had to stop playing. It was my first experience with the hypnotic effect that minimalism can create, and I knew I had to give it another go.

If I fast forward a little bit, the research project I started with Andrew turned into a dissertation, and I began to really fall in love with AHfP. I decided a little performance would be in order, so in May of ’09, I gave a performance for a few friends. The performance went well, if I do say so myself, though I did discover that using my iPod as a timer was not the best idea.

(It turns out that the ‘classic’ iPod could be a little inaccurate with the stopwatch function. Not a huge deal for a short duration, but over the course of an hour it got off by about 20sec. And that really ticked me off, because I thought I had performed it within a second or two of the exact hour that is prescribed.)

And as you may already know, Dave McIntire said to his wife after the concert, “You know, Andy owns that piece in a way that’s really remarkable. I don’t think there’s anyone in the world that plays it better.” Michelle thought for a moment and then replied, “Well, I think Andy should record it. And you should produce it.” And with that, a seed was planted and a label born.

Next post: Setting a Path for Irritable Hedgehog

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