Michael Century, solo concert

Michael Century, solo concert

EMPAC Theater

April 25, 2011 4:00 PM - 5:45 PM


Read the concert preview from Berkshire on Stage



Ludwig van Beethoven:     Sonata 31 in A flat major, Opus 110 (1821)

Michael Century:   Twenty-One (2010)

Ann Southam:    Simple Lines of Enquiry (2007)


Notes on the program

The idea for this program formed around Canadian composer Ann Southam's entrancing hour-long piano piece, "Simple Lines of Enquiry", after I read these words describing it in a 2009 review by The New Yorker's music critic, Alex Ross:  "immense, glacial, hypnotic".  On one listening I was hooked, and I decided to perform it sometime.  Then something unexpected happened.  I heard the piece, in my inner ear, juxtaposed with another.  And not just any other: Beethoven's penultimate piano sonata, Opus 110 in A flat, an amiable yet quirkily experimental piece that crosses genres and styles in a way not yet heard at the time of its composition in 1821.  In a relatively short 20-minute span, Beethoven incorporates passages of lyrical romanticism, whimsical aggressiveness, operatic recitative, mournful arioso, and the strictest devices of counterpoint. As Milan Kundera recently has written of this sonata, "[Beethoven] laid his hand on the scar left by the passage between two great periods: the one stretching from the earliest polyphony in the twelfth century to Bach, and the next one grounded in what we have come to term 'homophony'".

I was saddened then to learn of Southam's untimely death in November 2010.  Reading an obituary in her home town Toronto Globe and Mail, I found out she spoke of her late, minimalist works in avowedly feminist terms, relating their repetitive patterns and long durations to 'traditional women's work'.  "There is a close connection between composing for or playing the piano and other forms of work done by hand, such as weaving, that reflect the nature of traditional women's work -- repetitive, life-sustaining, requiring time and patience. But through it all, runs a thread of questioning…I see 'process music' [i.e., minimalism] as the perfect way of expressing this, and as a wonderful metaphor for life."

 "Simple Lines of Enquiry", then, as a new take on minimalism:  a feminist take, and entirely original.  So what of the pairing with Beethoven – a composer associated with a fierce fury, and even a misogynist spirit?   My innerly-imagined connection was to a softer, more probing, vulnerable Beethoven; critic Edward Said had called the piece I had chosen, which dramatizes loss and lament, restoration and regeneration, the most "feminine" of his last piano sonatas.   So this was it, the link was drawn.  

Joining these two masterworks is a modest new piece of my own:  a structured improvisation called Twenty-One.  A 21 beat pattern, grouped in overlaid units of 7 and 3, is sounded throughout, as I spontaneously invent the melodies and harmonies to give life to the pattern.

MICHAEL CENTURY is Professor of new media and music in the Arts Department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which he joined in August, 2002.  Raised in Calgary, Alberta, he was a piano student of Reginald Godden in Toronto, where he received his artist diploma from the Royal Conservatory of Music in 1975. His academic degrees are in musicology, from the Universities of Toronto and California at Berkeley, and he pursued doctoral studies at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) of the University of Sussex, England.  In 1976-77 he studied music theory with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. He also studied instrumental conducting with James Dixon and electronic music composition with Kenneth Gaburo at the University of Iowa.   Long associated with The Banff Centre for the Arts, he directed the Centre's inter-arts program between 1979-1988.  In 1980, he initiated and coordinated a groundbreaking workshop in Improvisational Composition under the artistic direction of Karl Berger.  Also as head of Inter-arts, he curated and produced hundreds of interdisciplinary performances, lectures, films and exhibitions, notably R. Murray Schafer's Princess of the Stars (an opera at the shores of a remote mountain lake), and a multimedia production of John Cage's Songbooks.  Century founded the Centre's Media Arts Division in 1988.  As a producer of experimental media art, he initiated The Art and Virtual Environments project (1991-94), one of the first large-scale and sustained investigations of virtual reality technologies as a new medium for artists.  During the 1990s, he worked as program director for cultural research at the Montreal Centre d'innovation en technologies de l'information, and as senior policy advisor for art and new technology to the federal Department of Canadian Heritage. In 1998, he became an adjunct professor in the Graduate Program in Communications at McGill University.  As an independent consultant between 1998-2002, Century advised a host of clients including The Rockefeller Foundation, the Canada Council for the Arts, the Arts Council of England, and McGill, York, and Concordia Universities.  He was a panelist and co-author for the National Academy of Science study on information technology and creative practices, Beyond Productivity (2002). At Rensselear, he is leading the growth of performance activities in contemporary music, through the Rensselaer Contemporary Music Ensemble and other projects, showcasing since 2008 student performances of works by Eastman, Rzewski, Tenney, Oliveros, Leach, Cage, Feldman, Monk, Mazzolli, Glass, Riley, Reich, Klucevsek, Adams, Nyman, Crumb, Kennedy, and Lindemann, as well as Bach, Mozart, Bartok, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Weill.  He is married to artist Barbara Todd and they have two sons, Louis and Adam. 

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