Classical Notes

Onstage, a grand piano and an iPod

Mixing traditional with technological

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By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / February 4, 2011

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Bruce Brubaker, who chairs the piano department at New England Conservatory, is the kind of performer who finds ways to enlist the musical past and present into an intriguing, if sometimes uneasy, dialogue.

Case in point: his recital next Thursday at Jordan Hall, where he’ll give the first Boston performance of “Drones and Piano.’’ The piece was written for him last year by the young, highly touted composer Nico Muhly, whom Brubaker has known since Muhly was a graduate student at the Juilliard School. Some performers would create an entire evening of new music for the occasion; others might stick the Muhly piece on the first half as a kind of warm-up to a big, familiar piece on the second.

Brubaker, instead, has constructed a program in which the Muhly is preceded by alternating short works by Philip Glass (Etudes nos. 4 & 5) and Robert Schumann (Fantasy Pieces, Op. 111, nos. 1 & 2). Works by Glass and Alvin Curran are on the second half.

“I was practicing, one morning, some of these pieces and I realized that harmonically and texturally, there were a lot of strange and interesting connections,’’ he says during a wide-ranging phone conversation. He mentions one link in particular: the presence of drones — long-held notes a fifth apart — in one of the Schumann works. “I don’t think I’d ever really noticed that, and they’d been there for 150 years or something.’’

The point isn’t to suggest a clear lineage from the Muhly work back to the Schumann; it’s to create a listening experience where similarities can emerge subtly out of dissimilar parts. Or, as Brubaker puts it, “that kind of programming allows us to be more comfortable with the new, but at the same time, to be a little less comfortable with the old. We start to recognize, actually, [that] all music is new music. It’s just that it ages and eventually becomes something we think we know.’’

The drones in the title refer to prerecorded electronic tracks that Muhly created. Brubaker carries them around with him on his iPod and plugs into a sound system to perform the piece. Though the sustained notes are there in each track, “there is other stuff that goes on,’’ the pianist says, including rhythmic punctuations, odd sounds, and, in one case, a lengthy, distorted viola solo.

An unusual aspect of the five-part piece is that the score doesn’t specify how the backing track and the piano should match up. The pianist can even advance the iPod from one track to the next if he finishes playing and the drone is still droning.

Brubaker says that he tries to pace the music so that certain things — rests, aural coincidences — line up, making it almost into a chamber music piece. “There’s a social element to the piece,’’ he explains. “There you are with your iPod, but at the same time you’re actually contributing to it by playing something. I don’t think that’s totally trivial.’’

Such meetings of traditional styles of music-making and technologically tend to cause consternation in the classical world but are utterly common in pop. And they’re certainly familiar to Muhly, who’s part of a generation of composers for whom the distinction between the two genres is so murky as to be irrelevant. He’s almost as well known for his work as a performer with and arranger for Grizzly Bear, Antony and the Johnsons, and Björk as he is for his place as a conventional “classical’’ composer.

Brubaker admits that he’s no longer comfortable with the phrase “classical music.’’ When he checks a music recommendation site like, he often finds that very few people who are listening to the music he plays are also listening to, say, Mozart. Instead, most of them are “combining whatever it is I do with bands, with music from the historical avant-garde like [ambient music pioneer] Harold Budd. It’s a kind of constant boundary crossing that really suggests that there aren’t any boundaries left.’’

Questions of new and old, technology and tradition, bring Brubaker, somewhat oddly, to thoughts of Franz Liszt, whose music Brubaker has been investigating for a series of NEC concerts honoring his bicentennial. Looking back at Liszt’s concert programs of the 1840s, he noticed that they contained almost no music of the past, save the odd arrangement of a Schubert song or a Beethoven symphony movement.

Everything else “was music of that moment. And not only is it new music, it’s new music delivered through the vehicle of the latest high-technology instrument — the modern piano.

“To really honor what Liszt did, or to really get in there and experience what that would be,’’ he continues, “well, you’d have to play with high technology, you’d have to play new music, and you’d sprinkle in something else to represent where it came from.’’

He hastens to add that he didn’t model his recital on Liszt’s. Still, “if you look at it from that point of view, it’s a lot closer than if I were giving a recital of Beethoven and Liszt.’’

David Weininger can be reached at


At: Jordan Hall, Thursday, 8 p.m. free, 617-585-1260; concerts-events