Refracted Reflections and Telepathic Static (world premiere, LA Phil commission)
Refracted Reflections and Telepathic Static was written for Christina and Michelle Naughton, who astonished me with their breathtaking technique and their seemingly telepathic communication. Inspired by their near-mirror image, I composed parallel lines that merge and diverge from identical parts. Separated by small intervals, these lines become flying tone clusters that swoop and dive, spinning a web of fast-moving almost unisons that clash and unite.
I was struck by Michelle and Christina’s powerful connection when they perform: it’s almost as if they communicate on their own private radio frequency. I imagined the air thick with their own invisible transmissions, a world of colorful and abstract signals loaded with secret meanings and coded messages. In response to these mysterious communications, I assembled an elusive, shifting audio backdrop made up of the sounds of shortwaves, Morse code, radio static, and jammed radio signals. I also incorporated prepared piano sounds that I recorded while composing the piece at the American Academy in Rome. I altered the piano samples to create sustained, atmospheric sounds that reflected my environment: an eerie studio where the air was thick with the damp of the ancient Roman cistern below.
I originally considered writing a companion piece to the Nancarrow on this program, and immersed myself in his work for player piano. It ultimately brought me back to my fascination with the mechanical instruments themselves, and the hours that I spent in San Francisco’s old Musée Mechanique, racing around with a handful of quarters, attempting to start up every instrument in the collection, in search of the glorious cacophony that can only be achieved by an army of oddly timed and oddly tuned musical machines all blaring away at once. The player piano’s inhuman speed originally had more to do with commerce than art; speeding up the instruments’ timing mechanisms brought in more nickels per hour in a barroom or carnival fairway. Christina and Michelle achieve an almost superhuman momentum that echoes the speed and wild colliding harmonies of those multiple musical machines. In a tip of the hat to these mechanical wonders, I also incorporated samples of an early 20th century Orchestrion (a musical behemoth with pipes, percussion, and other instruments) that I recorded in Utrecht, Holland. Its sometimes mournful, sometimes bright bell-like melodies repeat in slower sections of the piece.
Being raised in a household that valued jazz, boogie woogie, and barrelhouse piano above all else has left an indelible mark on my piano music. To me, two pianists playing together will always bring to mind Chicago’s great piano duos: Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson playing together in different configurations. This piece is dedicated to another great pair; my mother, whose wild chromaticisms at the piano were indeed accidentals; and my father, who was born and raised in Chicago in the shadow of those powerful piano pairings.
— Annie Gosfield