EVEN IF YOU'VE HEARD MICHAEL JACKSON’S “BILLIE
JEAN” MILLIONS OF TIMES, you’ve never heard it like Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Roe play it. They
this and other classics worthy groove, intrigue, and power, yet manage to fold
new layers of harmonic and rhythmic sophistication. In short, their
rock—and leave you feeling smarter for having listened. The Juilliard-trained
latest album, When Words Fade, has earned them widespread acclaim, and what’s
perhaps most surprising is that they do it all using just 20 ﬁngers and two
Steinway grand pianos. Scroll down for a video of them discussing their new album, or CLICK HERE.
What’s your musical goal as a duo?
Greg Anderson: Since 2005, our mission
statement has been to make classical music a
relevant and powerful force in society. That’s in
everything we do, from the music we arrange to
the videos we produce, from the way we put our
websites together to the way we present our mu-
sic. When most classical music was written, it was
extraordinarily relevant to people, and as duo pianists, we’re always looking
for new ways to make
it relevant to contemporary audiences, too.
Elizabeth Roe: A non-classical listener might
stereotype classical music as dull or passé, so
every element of our artistic output is meant to
bring the music to dazzling life. Our belief is that,
whether a piece was written last year or centuries
ago, it has a tremendous amount of intrinsic
How do you approach that through your music videos?
GA: When we were recording Mozart’s “Sonata for Two Pianos,” we tried to bring
dialog between the two pianos by showing one
pianist’s hands and the reflections of the other
pianist “conversing” onscreen. We also wanted to
highlight the structure of the piece, so we used a
different style of filming during the piece’s development and returned back to
the original style
when it hit the recapitulation. For nearly all of
the videos, we do everything from filming to edit-
ing ourselves. We try never to do anything that’s
going to detract from the music, though.
How did you approach reinventing Piazzolla’s “Libertango”?
GA: We watched tango dancers and wanted
to get a real flavor for the tango as a genre. We
were inspired by a lot of the choreography, so we
thought of our hands as four feet on the dance
floor, rather than four hands on the keyboard.
From there, we were inspired by the tango’s element of danger. In our
arrangement, we literally
wanted to trip each other up with intricate choreography, chemistry, and
friction between the
“dancers.” We also reach inside the piano during
this piece to mute strings. That was an attempt
both to sound a little more like a tango band and
to give the sense that we’re doing something that
we shouldn’t be, since the idea of the forbidden is
so inherent in the tango.
What appeals to you about Steinway pianos
ER: The pianos are so human. There’s so
much depth and nuance to the instrument
that it really adds this extra spark of inspiration to everything we’re
playing. One of the
joys of being a pianist is that you meet a new
instrument each night. It can be challenging to
have to adjust right away, but it can lead you to
discover new things about the music, and especially when we have two pianos
continually find new elements of the interplay.
That adds so much creative excitement to the
Can you talk more about playing inside the
GA: There’s quite a bit of new music for
piano that involves muting strings. We’ve
done more with that—in “Billie Jean” we pluck the strings, and for Vivaldi’s
“Sento in Seno,”
we built a complex system of mutes. The title
means “I feel within a rain of tears,” and we
wanted one piano to sound like the raindrops
and tears, so we filled it with mutes. The other
piano needed to sound very human, like some-
one crying as the droplets fell around them.
ER: Sometimes what we do inside the piano
is predicated on the original instrumentation
of the piece. In “Libertango,” you have the bandoneón, the percussion, the
singer. With the
Vivaldi, the original is just pizzicato strings with
voice. We strive to emulate that in our own two-
How did you make the mutes?
GA: We took multiple trips to Lowe’s hard-
ware and kind of went crazy. We bought saws,
clamps, staples, and foam, and traced out the in-
side of the Steinway D. We cobbled together this
monstrosity of foam, wood, and washers, which added weight. We ended up with
contraption covered with red felt to match the
inside of the piano, but it was pretty ugly. When
we traveled with it, airport security couldn’t
figure out what the mutes actually were!
A lot of classical players can’t groove, but
you groove hard. How do you pull it off?
ER: My secret fantasy is to be a rocker. I
primarily listen to non-classical music in my off
time, since classical takes up so much energy
when I’m practicing and performing. I also grew
up listening to the Beatles, and great music
transcends genre. If it electrifies you, that’s
enough. We also have a mutual chemistry on-
stage, which helps our playing lock in.
GA: I’m the one who tends to gravitate
more towards classical repertoire, so when we
fuse our influences, it’s Liz that gets us to play
Radiohead or “Billie Jean,” and I’m the one who
usually turns it into something a little more
complex than it needs to be. [Laughs.] That
said, we don’t think of our renditions as all
that different from Mozart creating variations
on popular tunes, or Liszt writing piano fantasies based on the opera that was
rolling through the city that week. We’re trying
to make something new and inventive out of
what’s popular at the moment.