Michael Century explores the infinite musical possibilities of a simple, well tuned piano at EMPAC

Over at RPI in Troy, NY, musician and teacher Michael Century is exploring not just the world of music, but its universe. On the piano. WIth 88 keys and all sorts of possible combinations, you and I, like Carl Sagan, probably think there are “billions and billions” of variations to choose from. Surprise! My cocktail napkin calculation shows somewhere between 10 sextillion and 1 septillion when you allow for finely nuanced durations in addition to the notes themselves. That’s like 100 billion times 100 billion. In truth, there simply is no limit. Imagine, 88 keys and endless variables. What an artistic equation!

A century ago Arnold Schoenberg thought he was on to something elemental when he devised the twelve-tone system of composition. But the good professor and composer Michael Century is mixing it up in new ways in a program that explores the instrument and its limitless possibilities on April 25, 2011 at 4:00 pm in the Concert Hall at EMPAC. Admission is free. Parking for this event is available in the Rensselaer parking lot on College Avenue. Additional event information can be found on the EMPAC website: www.empac.rpi.edu/. Questions? Call the EMPAC Box Office: 518.276.3921.

The final work on his program includes the first performance of a truly new piece, titled “Twenty One,” as a structured improvisation. Century describes it this way: “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,” Century said without blinking. You can hear a bit of it by clicking the excerpt embedded below.

The calculated dissonances are but one aspect of the palette of sounds that a piano is capable of. Century is equally adept at engaging your emotions with soaring lyricism and beauty as you can hear in this mesmerizing sample.

So it comes as no surprise that his program will include a thoughtful mix of contemporary and classical music with the premiere of a modern minimalist piece and one of Beethoven’s final sonatas for piano, at 4 p.m. on April 25 at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center. The program includes the U.S. premiere of work by Canadian composer Ann Southam, and the first performance of a new composition by Century.

Century, a Rensselaer professor of new media and music and accomplished pianist, said the unlikely combination stemmed from a moment soon after he first heard and determined to perform Ann Southam’s piano piece,the enigmatic and beautiful “Simple Lines of Enquiry.”

“A few months ago, something unexpected happened – I heard the piece, in my inner ear, juxtaposed with another,” Century said. “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 never yet heard in music history at the time of its composition in 1821.”

Century said he was more greatly compelled to perform the two pieces together when he read that Southam, who died in November, 2010, described her late minimalist works in feminist terms, relating their repetitive patterns and long durations to ‘traditional women’s work.’

He began to see “Simple Lines of Enquiry” as “a new take on minimalism: a feminist take, and entirely original.” And while the music of Beethoven is more commonly associated with “a fierce fury and even a misogynist spirit,” said Century, Opus 110 in A flat suits the spirit of the Southam piece.

“My connection was to a softer, more probing, vulnerable Beethoven,” Century said. “Critic Edward Said had called the piece I have chosen – which dramatizes loss and lament, restoration and regeneration – the most ‘feminine’ of his last piano works.”

Just where Michael Century’s “Twenty One” the final piece on the program will lead is anyone’s guess. As a structured improvisation, there is conflict inherent in its very description. But so is there in much of modern science. The twelve-tone movement spawned by Schoenberg influenced at least three generations of composers in the European and American traditions, many of whom consciously extended his thinking or, in some cases, passionately reacted against it. During the rise of the Nazi Party in Austria, his music was labeled, alongside jazz, as degenerate art. But his students included Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Hanns Eisler, and later John Cage, Lou Harrison, Earl Kim, and many other prominent musicians

Michael Century’s resume is impressive, but for lovers of new music one needs only mention that he studied music privately with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, French language and literature at the Sorbonne, electronic music, sound engineering and orchestral conducting at the University of Iowa, and computer music at the Eastman School of Music. was trained in musicology and piano performance at the Universities of Toronto and California at Berkeley and science/technology policy at Sussex University (U.K.).

Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, Century is dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada. He earned an Honours B.A. degree from the University of Toronto, and an M.A. from the University of California at Berkeley, both in music history and theory. At Berkeley he also studied and performed Javanese gamelan and West African drumming. He earned his licentiate (A.R.C.T.) in Piano Performance from the Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto, in 1975. He is a Professor in the Arts Department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which he joined in August, 2002.

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