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Curtis Clark, Connie Crothers, and Joe Bonner: Exploring the World of Piano in Northampton, MA

Lyn Horton By

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Curtis Clark, Connie Crothers, Joe Bonner
World of Piano Series
Northampton Center of the Arts
Northampton, Massachusetts

Sitting at the piano before playing it is somewhat like sitting at a drawing table in front of a blank piece of paper before drawing on it. The keyboard is like the piece of paper. Until a pianist touches the keyboard (or not, i.e. John Cage, 4'33,"1952) or the artist makes a mark (or seems to not, i.e. Robert Rauschenberg, "White Paintings," 1951), nothing happens: the emptiness is brimming with potential (which implies "substance" to Cage because Cage was exploring the meaning of silence as itself and Rauschenberg was reacting to the overdone-ness of Abstract Expressionist Painting).

The pianist, like the visual artist, is an individual interpreter of the piano. Through this interpretation, how the pianist plays the instrument and subsequently develops a language using it evolves. The instrument becomes the medium of expression, or communication, as well as a participant in the conversation between instrument and musician. The material with which to communicate through piano is, in turn, drawn from the musician's life-experience.

For the first three weeks in February, a consortium of contributors brings the Series "A World of Piano" to the Northampton (MA) Center for the Arts. This year, three pianists, each of whom might be said to travel under a popular audience radar, performed: Curtis Clark, Connie Cruthers and Joe Bonner.

Curtis Clark

Curtis Clark is mild-mannered, diffident and carries a small frame. He seemed unaccustomed to performing solo. He announced every piece on the program, reading from a list of one-word titles: simple, direct, unadorned.

His fingers carefully picked out the first notes. The tempo as yet uncharted, he paid great attention the placement of his hands. A tune arose through his fingers. He stopped. The tune resumed like a pageant march. It was time to break open: his right hand zoomed up the keyboard. His left hand pointedly struck chords in the bass and alternated in sets of two. These chords broke the continuity of the arpeggios he rolled out in the treble notes. Recollecting himself in the central section of the keyboard, the entire cycle started anew. Anew in the sense that his gestures constantly changed, but the auditory patterns bore similarity. The resulting textures prevailed in the balance of the program, thick with improvisational dynamic and teeming with signature moves.

Throughout each piece, Clark processed an even mix of chord and fingering progressions. He attended to discrete packages of sonic (and "sound") ideas, each piece comprising a composite of many unique ideas. The positioning of his hands just to the left of middle C provided the founding of a center.

He would unleash the beginning of a musical line with his left hand and continue it with his right, his hand placements steered by the rhythmic groove, which also prepared the groundwork for the accents. He alternated being poised and deliberate with allowing his fingers to fly into relentless expressions during which a singular phrase disappeared into a plethora of phrasings, the closeness of the intervals the key to the precision of an arpeggio. In every instance when he started a fingering process that brightened the pace, he counterbalanced that gesture with chord plants, clusters and other slow and deliberate finger manipulations that would, in effect, deconstruct the tempo, laying bare its constituents. Not all the ideas were abstract; in fact, they were simple, melodic, concrete and direct, exemplifying articulation in the plainest sense of the word.

Thoroughly open to the keyboard's promise, he adjusted himself on the bench before he played one note, as if that decision of physical positioning would lead the musical idea to follow. And it was not only one note that he aimed for: it was tens upon tens—chords and phrases, ostinatos, synchronizations, or syncopations— jettisoning him forward in an endless sonic stream that traveled over rocks and through valleys to finally settle in the nearly flawless surface of a pool of glistening water.

Clark exhibited no roughness, no severity, no explosiveness—only repeated straightforward emphasis. If the music slipped into perceptible familiarity, he always pushed himself out of that territory. One could see the music taking shape in his mind as he looked at the keyboard and then picked up his head to look straight ahead. The ending of each piece came without flourish, not unlike the characterization that might fit this unique artist, who described himself as once just a "wee lad," an autodidact nurtured in Chicago and further educated in California where he adopted classical underpinnings, eventually moving to Europe and then returning to the US, a fully-grown improvising composer who plays genuinely from the heart.

Connie Crothers


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