Yehudi Wyner’s Life in Music: a Composer with Piano Hands

yehudi wynerYehudi Wyner is an approachable guy in a forbidding field: contemporary “serious” music. He gives us an opening here to ask where new sounds come from. In his case new music comes out of a sort of compost of the canon, from Bach to Bartok, and then everything else he’s heard over 80 years, from his father’s Yiddish art songs to boogie-woogie and gospel music. “Somehow it registers in the brain and has an effect,” he says of the past. The other big thing you’ll be hearing from Yehudi Wyner is that his music has its very bodily beginning in his hands. It’s a physical, almost gymnastic test of what ten fingers can do, want to do, find themselves doing.

The centerpiece here is the Pulitzer Prize piano concerto that was a Grammy finalist this year, “Chiavi in Mano” (or “Keys in the Hand”). Yehudi Wyner wrote it for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the pianist Robert Levin, “Mozart’s nephew,” as we call him here, the man who has presumed to fill in some missing elements in the “unfinished Mozart.” The one-movement “Chiavi in Mano” begins with an introspective piano solo and ends with an orchestral boogie-woogie. In between is a roaring contest of the elements. “For Bob Levin,” the composer laughs, “it’s just a skirmish, a war game with dull bayonets.” But all of it — in Yehudi Wyner’s unveiling of his process — stems from the simplest contrast of intervals between keys on the piano: the major and minor “third” between, say, C and E, then C and E-flat. It’s as simple and as grand as that: using a cellular structure to build something new and various, as different and connected in its parts as your nose and your toes.

The privilege here is to sit at the piano with a man who can think and play and talk all at once:

CL: You were playing a Bach Partita when we walked in. What does that daily dose do for a man?

YW: It gives him the feeling that he’s in touch with the greatest possible art: physical, mental, spiritual, integrated, and above all, healthy. Bach was really, I think, the greatest artist and possibly the greatest specimen of human being and thinker who ever was conceived on earth.

CL: Does the composing happen, Yehudi, between hands and ear, or do you write it with eye and pencil?

YW: Hands and ear. Hands, ear and pencil. And instrument. I work at the piano. The model for me is the indescribable, sensuous, as well as intellectual joy of dealing with Bach or Mozart. Other composers too, of course, but they above all, where every moment at whatever level of struggle… has a satisfaction, always is nourishing. I do this at the instrument and test it and feel how durable it is, how much I can stand repeating something without finding it exhausting or boring, then I think I have achieved something, I’ve found something, I’ve stumbled on some material that’s worthwhile.

CL: Is there a gold-standard “perfect” piece of music out there for you?

YW: No. If you want to say, are there 1000 pieces from the canon that I love beyond description and can find no fault with, I would say yes. But I do not feel there is one.

CL: Yehudi, give us a report to the ancestors, so to speak. A decade into the 21st Century, what’s the state of this art?

YW: I came back from the Grammys two weeks ago feeling there is very little affirmative music in contemporary America, and has not been for the last fifty years, because what passes as affirmative is really rather imperial and militaristic. It all comes from a kind of big-band, I mean marching-band society, and it blares and it proclaims, but it doesn’t really affirm. It ascribes to the affirmation that Beethoven would have, but it fails all the time because it’s very superficial and aggressive. And that applies even to the music of people we admire, like Copland and others. But it occurred to me — with all the jazz references in “Chiavi in Mano” — that that’s where the true affirmation in American music is. It’s in popular music, it’s in jazz, it’s in gospel. That music is so self-sufficient, it never proclaims its affect, or its message. It just is the message.

The music that is being promulgated, that is being produced and broadcast most widely, is aggressive, very shiny, very egocentric, very repetitive, and noisy, busy, and in some ways, mindless. It’s very physical. The problem not that that music exists, it’s that that music has inundated our culture and our youth. When you finish being conditioned by that music, there’s very little capability of any kind of other sensibility. You’re no longer sensitive to things that move at a slower pace, things that are nuanced, things that have complication and things that have lots of reference to the past.

CL: What’s the chance that we’ll get composers’ music in the public ear again — even in the manner of Copland and Gershwin?

YW: I think for the foreseeable future the chances are very slim. In the long term, things change. Certain cultures collapse and others come up, the convention of the concert hall and the function of concert music and art music is not a permanent given. The audience is certainly shrinking and certainly aging. Those things are incontrovertible. The thing that persuades us that there are possibilities for other things is the ubiquitous presence of music: people have it on their iTunes, they have it constantly at their beck and call. There is this phenomenon… people coming out of schools and forming small groups here and there, and somehow keeping the art alive, perhaps as the monks kept ancient art alive in the monasteries, in isolation during the middle ages. But I think for the foreseeable future there is no possibility for an Igor Stravinsky or a Shostakovich, or an Aaron Copland, or even an Ives on the general public screen.

Yehudi Wyner at his piano bench with Chris Lydon in Medford, Massachusetts, February 18, 2010.

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  • I’ve spent the past couple hours struggling to write about “the tempo of American life,” what it is, where it comes from, how it effects different kinds of people, and how it effects appreciation for art, the news, and some other things. But I think the people here already get it. I really just want to say we need to pull people out of it, get people to relax. It wouldn’t be difficult to seed a love of serious music in some people.

    (Or I want to say “what we need in the United States is a program like El Sistema.)”

  • Thank you, Kento.

    Just as you posted your comment, I was reading a wonderful evocation of “the tempo of American life” from just 50 years ago.

    This is Bebo Valdes, the exiled Cuban pianist, today approaching 90, speaking with Ben Ratliff of the New York Times about a Frank Sinatra record from 1960, “Nice ‘n’ Easy,” arranged by Nelson Riddle.

    Here’s Bebo: “Nobody can play music like that except in America, that kind of swing, that time. It’s impeccable. The most difficult thing in the world is to play slowly and keep time. When I listen to this, I see American black people dancing.”

    Ratliff wondered if Bebo felt a Cuban influence on Sinatra’s timing.

    Bebo says: “I think it’s really an Italian influence… No, it’s just that a lot of things like that are called American really come from the Antilles. Like his incredible sense of swing. Yet America, from the Thirties to the Fifties, gave a lot of music to the world, of which we are all the children.”

    So I am answering your beautifully mysterious question with another set of puzzles: what are the relations between art and culture? between rhythm and power? between influence and empire? And what has happened to the sound and tempo of American life in the last 50 years?

    In the meantime, of course I’m all for El Sistema, in America and everywhere — the program, that is, born in Venezuela to train the vast mass of children to play the classical string instruments. See: El Sistema and El Sistema — the US version.

  • This interview was an utter delight. It carried a light, a late afternoon New England light of a late summer day at Tanglewood or the MacDowell Colony, streaming through the windows on a teatime conversation with a group of marvellous artists, composers, writers and others who are disappearing as we watch — Arthur Berger, Louis Krasner, Gunther Schuller, Gardner Read, John Updike, George Russell, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss, and of course Yehudi.

    The easy, exquisitely virtuosic banter about mastery and the deft illustrations in real sound, all characterize a radical competence of craft that have not germinated in the following generations as much as we would like to assume.

    Thank you Chris and thank you Yehudi for a life well lived and now shared.

    George Mathew

  • Yehudi Wyner singing ” Fragrance and Unctiousness” over that little piano vignette brings memories of Leonard Bernstein in this little bit of Blitzstein

  • I had no idea there was an El Sistema USA. That’s fantastic.

    I think you intended those questions to be— not rhetorical, but something to spend a lot more time with, rather than answer immediately, but I’m so tempted to attempt an answer. That coupling of rhythm and power especially comes very close to what I had come up with an incomplete answer for.

    I thought one way to finding out the source of where a metaphorical tempo might come from was to think of the reasons people say “I can’t keep up.” One’s workload, culture change, technological change, current events, and one’s position (social or otherwise) in comparison to perceived peers came to my mind, and I’m sure there’s more. And if it’s useful to think of there being an overall tempo to American life, changes in any one of these can perhaps change other things. If you’re spending a couple more hours a week learning about and getting used to using new technologies and information systems, maybe you’ll have less time, and less patience for music that takes more than one listen to understand. And as one becomes accustomed to things being immediately understandable, there’s little patience for anything else. The art that becomes popular will reflect this more and more, validating this quickening of cultural tempo, and further accelerating it. Technology changes, and to stay competitive in many workplaces, individuals need to spend new time adapting to the technology, companies need to implement it to improve productivity and lower costs. I can go on and on, but one very specific thing I want to note is how hipsters, who today think knowing things is cool, often listen to serious music sometimes out of competition more than love of art. If you know more, you have more references to drop, but you need to keep up, be a little bit faster about learning than everyone else otherwise you’re going to embarrass yourself by not knowing enough about Josquin des Prez or a new gypsy-punk band. We can think of this “tempo” as feeding competition, making it very difficult for many people to slow down to appreciate something without feeling like they’re falling behind.

    This is very speculative of me, though! And it fails to explain a lot of things, it’s a very limited perspective.

    I know I’m looking at this too simply because I’m trying to figure out of “Nice ‘n’ Easy” is what Mr. Wyner would call affirmative or aggressive and I’m thinking about that powerful brass section, and wondering if that’s “marching band.” I’m missing the point, somehow…

  • Yo, Kento:

    I’m listening to Sinatra sing “Nice ‘n’ Easy” as I try to type this… and I’m thinking: this is as affirmative as Sinatra gets. He was famously an aggressive guy, drawn to violence, and a tender vulnerable love-lorn soul all at the same time. But this is his light swinging side that Bebo rejoices in. Sinatra’s finger snapping on that song is also wonderfully gentle, almost serene, “nice and easy,” so to speak. It reminds me of Duke Ellington instructing his audience to snap on the 2 and 4 beats — never on the one or three, which as could be considered “aggressive,” as Duke wonderfully cautioned. Something is beginning to make sense here in Yehudi’s general observation, I think.

  • It’s a great recording. But oh, I can’t help but feel it’s incredibly deceptive! The man has never been more in control! (That comes from the lyrical content in addition to the musical content though, the musical content by itself is, like you say, as affirmative as you’re going to get from Sinatra.)

    I need to try harder to listen with Yehudi’s ears (and Bebo Valdes’s, for that matter), I know I’m parsing his observation the completely wrong way. I’m listening to Allegeri’s Miserere and thinking how nakedly repetitive it is, Clearly I shouldn’t be looking for the individual traits he listed divorced from all others, I’m never going to understand what it means for music to be aggressive or affirmative if I think Miserere is aggressive. There’s a lot I do, at least in some way have a shallow understanding of. His comment on texture and instrumentation explains why film scores and new age records sell. It’s time to immerse myself in music again, and learn to listen with less rigidity.

    There are some Leonard Bernstein records with some spoken word content, and I’m wondering if there’s anything like that with Ellington? That would be a treasure.

  • jim mcdowell

    I love the little Mozart! The genius of the piece startled me.


  • It was most useful to hear Yehudi’s description of the piano concerto, which I heard at the premiere and have listened to repeatedly. My ear had caught everything he mentioned but named none of it.

    By the way, the chattering wind entrance at the beginning of chiavi in mano inspired a similar moment in my 2006 chamber concerto City of Shadows, though I used quartal rather than triadic harmonies, in a similarly quick harmonic rhythm. My goal was to give that sudden surprising lift that chiavi in mano achieves.

    The Mozart fragment was a great musical thought experiment. When it started, I thought it might be early Haydn, then wondered if it were CPE Bach, then decided it might actually be JS, then some little classical pileup made me think that couldn’t be right either, it had to be later. Mozart I never guessed.

  • dave bernard

    I’m hearing something rare in theme development here. Ordinarily, one derives the passing tones by analyzing the chords and connecting the dots. In some of these, Mr Wyner seems to be hearing ‘secret’ passing tones in advance of the chords and going forward to an utterly unpredictable tonal center. Yes, it does bring to mind the heart-tearing beauty of the drawing room or chansonette mood. Like Sam Barbers’ “Souvenirs.”

  • Potter

    Thank you for putting this up. I missed it in 2010. I will listen again too!
    What a wonderful warm educational chat about contemporary classical music and more delightfully, Yehuda Wyner’s own creativity. I love the sound of his piano. A couple of riffs I found too far out for me, but most of it, especially after he deconstructed it, explained it, was very accessible and wonderful. I loved what he called his “sleazy modulations” and the Mozart-after-Bach gem. It’s so difficult to talk about music, but you two did. I found myself understanding the conversation from what I remember of my own music lessons long ago, but also the language that you two were grabbing from everyday… very accessible. It was gratifying also a relief to hear Wyner talk about his disappointment in a lot of music today, including inaccessible ( non-referential?) classical and the thin surface of pop.

    If you asked me what cross genre works came to mind while listening I would say the paintings of Juan Miro and Paul Klee.