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New York
Le Poisson Rouge, West Greenwich Village
03/01/2009 -  
“When Brahma Sleeps”
Mark Wingate: Remember Seven – Sombras – Welcome To Medicare! – When Brahma Sleeps
Su-Lian Tan: U-Don Rock
Eric Moe: Dance of the Honey Monkey – When Branched Thoughts Murmur in the Wind – Hey Mr. DrummachineMan
Eric Chasalow: Three Symbolic Gestures – Cloudbands
David Rakowski: Chase – Dorian Blue

Donald Berman (Piano)

Donald Berman (© Gil Gilbert)

John Cage once told the story of a remote South Seas island chief who he squired classical concert consisting of Beethoven, Debussy, Copland and Mozart. Afterwards, the South Seas islander told Cage. “It was very pretty. But why did they repeat the same music over and over again?”

I had the same feeling–an erroneous feeling–listening to Donald Berman play acoustic piano in that most eclectic club, the Poisson Rouge in New York’s West Village. It was erroneous, since, after the concert, I could read the concise program notes of each composer, and learned how they each had original ideas which were extended for quite singular music.

But I do confess that, with the exception of two works, the others had a structural sameness, changed only by the synthesized sounds and sampling which gave them each a personal feeling.

Mr. Berman, though, is the kind of wonderful pianist who could probably make a good living playing any music at all. His recording of Charles Ives songs with Susan Narucki offers a new energy to Ives. His other recordings of obscure American composers also shows what a versatile pianist he is.

Here, he of course had the help of some Establishment electronic assistance—drum machine, electronic tape, digital delay etc, so the results were far more than a mere piano. In fact, the music was very pretty indeed, and equally inventive.

Certainly the quintet of composers, most of them now near their 50’s, are highly proficient with their instruments. Daniel Rakowski, for instance, could take a piece by Erroll Garner—and Mr. Berman played it with Garner flourishes—and transfer it to a pair of keyboards, which become more and more complex, with the notes going totally out of sync. The punny Dorian Blue by David Rakowski sounded initially resembled cocktail pianoism gone out of whack. But that “eccentricity” actually came from a supposed 12th century Dorian mode sketch (thus the double pun) from a Jewish mystic.

The two works by Eric Chasalow were delicate and delicately drawn with tiny ringing and echoing sounds from the electronic tape. Even the funky-named Hey Mr. Dummachine Man was a clever use of pseudo-canned drumbeat. (It wasn’t really canned, and took a life of ifs own as the seven-minute piece went on.)

Yet something was wrong, as if each composer had studied with the same teacher, employed the same bouncy rhythms, and knew just where to jolt the listener. The acoustic piano can certainly do that. What composer Henry Cowell had to do with a ruler and fists to create tone clusters, Donald Berman and his piano could easily accomplish, as well as the loudest and softest sounds.

Bu if the music was fun, and electronically challenging for the composer, one didn’t feel much more than passive pleasure. Audiences at Poisson Rouge are the most enthusiastic anywhere, but even they seemed a little apathetic at the sounds.

Two big exceptions, though. The opening Remember Seven by Mark Wingate was like a delicious buffet of Asian musics. Starting with some improvisations sung by Srini Rajagopalan with sitar, it gathered pace, took off in percussive style, was transformed into the sounds of “vocalized” Tibetan trumpet (or the actual sounds of drunken Bhutanese singers!!), and then faded away. Within a few minutes, one had heard South Asia in a nutshell, without any affected sounds.

The second exception should be the National Anthem of America in the 2000’s. Described by Mr. Wingate as a “hellish netherworld”, Welcome To Medicare! takes the demonic ”Automated Speech System”, which as we know, never works (“I! Did! Not! Understand! You! Please! Speak! More! Clearly!”), and turned the electronic voice, the absurd directions—and the tones of the telephone buttons—into a electronic-operator-electronic-operetta. The electronic operator became an Andrews Sisters quartet, the tones became harmonized, the automatic instructions of pressing buttons became a hallucinatory goulash of sounds, harmonies, and a most cheerful nightmare.

For that work alone, as well as Mr. Berman’s obvious fun in playing, the evening was a happy experience.

Harry Rolnick



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