Dennis Johnson’s 1959 solo-piano piece, November, is an unquestionably epic work of art, both in brilliance and the lore surrounding it. Often cited as the first truly minimal composition, November is haunting and somber in its plodding pace, a laboriously constructed piece of structured-improvisational music created by an artist of unassailable inventiveness. The piece may have also served as the inspiration for La Monte Young’s 1964 piece The Well-Tuned Piano, considered one of the most important works in the history of minimal music.
The original version of November was also more than four hours long.
Yet November was all but forgotten until, in 2009, composer and musicologist Kyle Gann, working from a 112-minute cassette recording, performed a reconstructed four and a half hour version with pianist, Sarah Cahill, taking turns every hour or so.
“I was one of a couple dozen—at most—who were present for that concert,” contemporary classical composer R. Andrew Lee told Folio Weekly.
Lee—who has garnered praise for his virtuosity in minimal music—recorded a version of Johnson’s epic piece on the four CD box set Dennis Johnson: November for his Irritable Hedgehog Music label in 2013. The album was subsequently named “the best classical album” of the year by Time Out NY. On Nov. 7, Lee will give an uninterrupted solo performance of his five-hour version of the composition on the second of two evenings at the University of North Florida Fine Arts Center.
“My initial interest was based in curiosity,” Lee said. “I wanted to know what it would be like to perform for nearly five hours. But of course as I got into the work, that initial curiosity turned into profound appreciation and joy. At the time, I had only two pieces in my repertoire that were almost an hour or longer, but now that number is about eight.”
As a contemporary performer of classical music, Lee’s work is often described as New Music.
“Obviously there are a lot of problems with such a definition,” Lee admitted of the term, which seeks to accurately describe more than 50 years of classical compositions. “First, 50 years is a relatively long time, and playing a piece of music composed in the ’60s, ’70s, or even ’80s doesn’t necessarily feel new except in the world of classical music.”
“And that brings me to the second problem,” he continued. “Which is that while almost all practitioners and composers of New Music are classically trained, the boundaries separating recent classical music from popular music have blurred significantly, as have the ways such music is presented.”
While Lee is classically trained in piano performance, with degrees from Truman State University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, his compositions often delve heavily into minimalism and improvisation. But his journey into minimalist music wasn’t really kick-started until fellow grad student (now Lee’s partner at Irritable Hedgehog) David McIntire introduced him to William Duckworth’s 24-part Time Curve Preludes.
“As an undergrad and even graduate student, I had a tendency to hang out with composition students, even as I continued to perform works by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Prokofiev, to name a few. I had little interest in looking beyond the first half of the 20th century as I chose repertoire to perform,” Lee said of his pre-Preludes years. “That changed when David McIntire introduced me to [Duckworth’s Preludes] and I was hooked. They were immediately appealing to me aesthetically, but, much like Mozart, I was struck by how much complexity was behind their accessibility. There was also a mathematical interest as well—I minored in math as an undergrad—and I couldn’t wait to try them out in the practice room.”
Lee went on to record Preludes for his third album to widespread acclaim. Today, after several more releases, Lee is consistently praised as one of the top classical composers of his generation, with publications from Pitchfork to The Guardian to The Wire Magazine heaping praise on the 35-year-old.
UNF English professor Clark Lunberry, who is known for the slow burn of his experimental poetry installations, says that upon hearing Lee’s music for the first time, he was immediately drawn in by both its minimalism and long duration.
“What I love about Lee’s music is that there is willingness and an eagerness to locate a particular note of one kind or another and to stick with it for often a very long time, perhaps with occasional small and subtle adjustments that alter one’s hearing of that original sound,” Lunberry said.
As a fan of the works of prepared piano pioneer John Cage and indeterminate music innovator Morton Feldman, Lunberry says Lee’s music comes out of a similar tradition.
“If I hear a sound that I love, I want it to endure; these composers have the courage to do just that, holding onto a sound, often for a very long time. It can be blissful and utterly disruptive of how time is experienced and acoustically felt.”
Lunberry and UNF piano professor Erin Bennett are sponsoring Lee’s visit, which encompasses two evenings of piano performances, beginning on Monday, Nov. 6 with Lee’s renditions of pieces by Jürg Frey, Eva-Maria Houben and Marti Epstein, and concluding with Tuesday’s five-hour, uninterrupted performance of Johnson’s November.
“It’s a whole new dimension of performance, one that, for me, begins to merge a musical event with something resembling theater or even performance art,” Lunberry said. “Lee’s very body will be put on the line, as well as his mind’s capacity to concentrate, and, to some extent, so will the minds and bodies of those of us in the audience, who will endure what I anticipate will be a richly complex and pleasurable experience.
“Audience members can come and go, quietly of course, during the performance, but the pianist will remain in place, performing for the duration.”