Anderson and Roe

November 20, 2012
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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 give this and other classics worthy groove, intrigue, and power, yet manage to fold in new layers of harmonic and rhythmic sophistication. In short, their interpretations rock—and leave you feeling smarter for having listened. The Juilliard-trained duo’s 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 energy.

How do you approach that through your music videos?
Left to right: Elizabeth Joy Roe and Greg Anderson.GA: When we were recording Mozart’s “Sonata for Two Pianos,” we tried to bring out the 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 in particular?
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 together, we continually find new elements of the interplay. That adds so much creative excitement to the performance.

Can you talk more about playing inside the piano?
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- piano arrangements.

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 this bizarre 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 just steam- rolling through the city that week. We’re trying to make something new and inventive out of what’s popular at the moment.

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