Pianist Ian Power wants you to slow down and reconsider classical music traditions

City Paper

Toward the bottom of the flier stuck all around town for pianist Ian Power’s “Very Long, Very Slow Music for Piano,” it requests the audience, “Come in, go out, move around, sit, stand, lay.” In other words, relax and enjoy the music, leave your fancy, stodgy classical music pretensions at home. That message should give you a sense that Power, who has been in Baltimore for a little over a year, is currently teaching at University of Baltimore and UMBC, and finishes his Ph.D. at Harvard in the spring, isn’t so keen on toeing the classical-music party line (that his Twitter handle is the playful @ianpowerOMG should also give you a hint of what aspects of his work he takes seriously).

The three-hour, minimal “meditative afternoon concert” at An die Musik on Saturday features Power performing two of his own pieces and four others. We spoke to Power at a Mount Vernon coffee shop about curating the concert, gently challenging the classical music concert dynamic, stoner metal, and DJ Screw. 

City Paper: How did you choose the pieces you’d play for “Very Long, Very Slow”?

Ian Power: I guess it started because there were a couple of pieces of piano music I’d written [‘Construction Song (After Dick Higgins)’ and ‘Ave Maria (Variations on a theme by Giacinto Scelsi)’] that I wanted to play. For some reason the piano’s a very introspective instrument to me, probably because I grew up playing it, so, whenever I write on the piano it tends to be sort of long and slow and meditative. And there’s this Erik Satie piece [‘Les Sonneries de la Rose+Croix’] that’s a little bit lesser known that I’ve always wanted to play. I wanted to play it at regular speed but it seemed like it might work better if I played it a little slower and matched it to the tempo of the others. I’m doing a couple of Fluxus pieces [Mieko Shomi’s ‘Boundary Music’ and Alison Knowles’ ‘Chair Piece for George Brecht’] which aren’t really for piano but sort of in the quiet mold. And I was going to add a Dick Higgins piece before mine as a prelude, but I’ve recently, I don’t know, I’m sort of sick of all-male programs. I think it’s a thing that we need to address as a community so I reached out to a friend of mine whose work I really admire, Carolyn Chen, and she had a similar piece, this 80-minute long thing [‘My Young Life Has an End’]. I’m doing an excerpt of that.

CP: It seems like you’re trying to avoid the typical concert experience, which, as someone who is mostly just a pop-music fan, makes your event more inviting. I don’t feel like I’m walking into a place I don’t belong if I’m being told that I can you know, chill out on the floor and listen.

IP: I like for concerts to be real events. Often the classical concert is just a concert. You come in, you see the pieces, you clap after 15 minutes. You know? What can be oppressive to an audience about going to a classical music concert is that they think they have to be listening for something, and they don’t know what that is. But I went to see a performance of Morton Feldman’s ‘For Philip Guston,’ which is five hours long, and in his program note he says, ‘It’s a long piece, you know, go to the bathroom, take someone to the airport, it’s not a big deal.’ And I brought some wine, went in and out and took and some breaks, laid down, stood up, and it was [a] really nice experience. I thought that might be a nice vibe for this concert.

CP: How concerned are you with demystifying classical music or, I guess, trying to think of new ways to present it to audiences? That seems like an ongoing concern in classical-music circles.

IP: That’s certainly a concern of mine, but every time I read someone else being concerned about it, I absolutely hate everything that they say and come up with. But if you look at the history of classical music, it’s sort of problematic about how it’s been propped up. It’s reminiscent of elitism in a lot of ways. Of white culture over all of these other cultures. So, I’ve spent time thinking about what is it that I inherently find valuable about classical music. One of the things is that it’s some of the only music where people sit and they focus in silence, you know? Which is obviously a very oppressive atmosphere to a lot of people, which I sort of understand, but that’s what I focused on [for ‘Very Long, Very Slow’]. What would I cultivate in a space where people are going to, for one fleeting moment in our lives, sit quietly next to each other and be aware? The classical music I love the most is the stuff that washes over me or just hits me straight in the face. That’s what I’m trying to cultivate.

CP: Can you give me some examples of what you mean?

IP: Let’s see. Alvin Lucier is a really clear example. I often say I have three favorite classical composers: Lucier, Satie, and Mozart. The Mozart thing is probably nostalgia as much as anything but I’ll still fight for it. With Lucier, I guess, there’s no deception in that music. There’s no development really. There’s no waiting for anything. You know what the process is going to be. His music is extremely physical. When the notes get so close together they create a beating that, if you move your head even slightly around the space, you can feel it going around your skull. So, that’s literally what I mean. But apart from that, I admire music that has a very clear idea of what it’s going to do, that does one thing and does it really well and thoroughly. I like pieces that allow me to have a subjectivity. They’re there to get me heightened from a regular experience.

CP: I’m coming from a far-less-informed-than-you popular-music perspective, but I know of Lucier because his work is kind of proto-noise music or proto-doom metal. Slow music is a thing right now on the fringes of pop.

IP: You know, if I could name something that I think this concert aspires to, it would be a slightly toned-down version of Sleep’s “Dopesmoker.” You know what I mean?

CP: Yes! Do you know about DJ Screw? His whole shtick was slowing down rap and funk and R&B records. He’s a hugely influential figure on rap right now, especially radio stuff, which all sounds kind of druggy and slow right now.

IP: DJ Screw kind of started it all. I found out about DJ Screw through a friend of mine who did the same [slowing music down] thing with techno, but like the bro-iest techno from the turn of the century. But when you played it at half-speed, it was just ecstatic. For me, it was like (mimics a wide-eyed infant), “Goo goo, ga ga.” He played that for me in 2007 and since then, it’s been really foundational for me in how I think about creating sounds. 


Ian Power’s “Very Long, Very Slow Music for Piano” begins at 1 p.m. on Dec. 6 at An die Musik.

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