Gradus ad Grayson

by Diana Daggett Margeson

If you were in attendance Friday evening, October 28, 1994, at the Hyatt Regency Ballroom, 8:30 p.m., you witnessed a world class performance by a Yamaha artist whose name you will always remember: Richard Grayson. If you missed it, memorize the name and, if presented another opportunity to hear this artist, capture a front row seat for a spectacular musical adventure! Prior to anyone arriving onstage, our interest was piqued as we observed six keyboard instruments being jostled into position on center stage. Here's how it looked from left to right: aYamaha Clavinova, three polished ebony Diskiaviers (studio uprights that are both acoustic and digital) with front covers removed and hammers exposed, another Clavinova, and a Yamaha TG 300 synthesizer--an impressive display! We waited in anticipation and sensed excitement.

Upon introduction, a slender, relaxed form appeared on stage and, in a casual, almost nonchalant manner began describing what we were about to hear. Mr. Grayson's wry sense of humor and sometimes acerbic wit attracted attention and compelled the audience to listen first to his words and then to his music. In the first selection he utilized technology to extend the range of the performer, weaving a musical tapestry with a stunning performance of the first movement of J.S. Bach's Triple Harpsichord Concerto in C Major. While he played one harpsichord part on the Yamaha TG 300 synthesizer, a Macintosh computer provided the orchestral part as well as those of the other two harpsichords. Next, an avant garde jazz piece recently composed by Mr. Grayson titled, Anybody's Guess, sharply contrasted the Bach with its swingy beat, strong pulse, and almost atonal feel. A well stated theme began the piece, then returned as a jazz riff and made a final appearance once again at the end of the piece. Technically the instruments played everything this time, and we watched and listened with interest.

And now for my favorite: another Grayson composition, Mr. 528. The title aroused curiosity, and the explanation demonstrated the clever inventiveness of the composer: a composition for six piano keyboards each with 88 keys (6 X 88 = 528).

As the audience sat in rapt attention, Mr. Grayson pushed start on a computer and six keyboards began to play: sometimes together, sometimes mimicking each other in a style that swirled in all directions--in, out, up, and down. Remember that the three center keyboards were Disklaviers with front covers removed and hammers exposed. We watched in amazement as keys and hammers punched out patterns in synchronization as playfully as a game of cat and mouse. What a visual and aural sensation! At this moment, I began thinking about the creative skills inherent in this composition as well as the technical skills and calculations required to program these six keyboards to perform this feat.

As though this were not enough, the tempo now doubled and Grayson surprised us by visually expanding the ensemble to include notes appearing on a large screen at the same moment they were being played on the keyboards. In other words, what you heard was what you saw, and what you saw was what you heard. The audiences was mesmerized as eyes darted back and forth from the screen to the keyboards and from the keyboards to the screen. For the dramatic ending, Grayson stepped over to a keyboard and played the final chord.

Few of us were expecting an ensemble such as this, but those of us who experienced it will remember it well. Of significance here is the fact that the composer succeeded in utilizing today's technology to create an exciting visual and aural encounter that clearly and cleverly exhibited what happens when musicians read music and play a keyboard. I would love it if each of my students and their parents could see and hear Mr. 528.

In the first part of the program, we came to appreciate the compositional and technological skills of the artist. The latter part beautifully showcased the improvisational abilities of this fine musician. He gleefully called out to the audience requesting first a musical selection and composer, then a suggestion or style. I challenged him with a 5/4 meter. "Take Five--Dave Brubeck!" I called out. And from two rows behind: In the style of Scarlatti, please. Seated at the piano he chatted a bit with the audience and himself about what one might he able to do... He was thinking--trying to find a context for the theme--exploring how to fit it into the style in a general way--looking for a texture... and then, voila! ... we were soon intrigued with an amazing rendition of Brubecks Take Five played exactly in the style of Scarlatti.

As the evening continued the audience reveled in calling out musical selections and styles and Grayson accommodated each wish demonstrating his creative genius with only a brief moment of forethought before plunging into each selection. We heard classical music played in a ragtime style, ballads played in a rornantic style, et cetera. You knew he enjoyed the challenge, and you wondered how he could create such substantial, stylistically accurate and formally convincing compositions so extemporaneously!

Throughout the performance, I enjoyed recalling the very first time I heard Richard Grayson perform. It was in California, about thirteen years ago at a Yamaha seminar. No wonder I remember the place, the piano, the performance, and the person. You dont forget having heard a live performance by an artist of his caliber.


Diane Daggett Margeson is an independent piano teacher in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.



In Praise of Richard Grayson

by John Steinmetz

I dont like reviews, and I distrust reviewers, so I want to make sure you don't mistake this for a review. This is a very personal, biased, subjective, one-sided discussion of Richard Grayson's concert at the National Conference on Piano Pedagogy.

It is neither impersonal nor disinterested: Richard is a friend, and I think he ought to be more famous than he is. I would have praised him even if Yamaha (the sponsor of his concert) hadn't given me a warm-up jacket. So this is not a review; it is an outpouring of enthusiasm. It is a letter of recommendation. It's a fan letter.

Richard Grayson did two exceptional things in his concert: he presented new compositions that used electronic instruments in a personal fresh, and utterly enjoyable way, and he improvised piano that was so complex and fully-formed that it was nearly unbelievable.

Let me start with the improvisations because they are the flashiest part of his presentation. They made up the second part of the concert. Grayson, dressed in white tie and tails, and managing to appear simultaneously professorial and affable, took requests from the audience.

Audience members were asked to suggest melodies and composers styles. That night the audience mostly thought of themes--everything from Laura to the opening theme from Brahm's second symphony to a Beatles tune. Grayson, standing at center stage, jotted down the suggestions in a music notebook, bantering with the audience all the while. Then he sat down at the piano to ponder the possibilities. He selected a theme and a style; then, after gazing at the notebook for a moment, he launched into an improvisation.

He used the Brahms theme twice, once as a Chopin Mazurka and once as Ragtime. We heard several other ventures, including Simple Gifts in the style of Mozart.

What came out of the piano goes well beyond the capacity of words! Grayson has an impressive grasp of musical styles--not only can he imitate a composer's idiom, he is able to connect musical ideas in the manner of each composer, and to construct, as he is playing, the kinds of forrns that the composer used, complete with the tricks, surprises, red herrings, and tangents typical of that composer.

And he does all of this using a melody that doesn't fit the style.

The result is often funny, as we listen to a familiar tune twisted to fit an inappropriate style--he played Take Five in the style of Scarlatti--or, as that same tune goes into hiding and then jumps out of the texture when we least suspect it. The performances were not just impressive, but sometimes quite moving, for Grayson taps not just the potential for humor, but also the eloquence of a composer's style.

I remember some exquisite harmonic twists in a Schumanesque treatment of the pop tune Laura, when he created an expectation and then, just as Schumann would have, abruptly veered off in another direction.

A Bach prelude and fugue based on Yesterday was a tour de force of multiple voices, harmonic daring, and flashy virtuosity. It's hard enough to play this kind of music, but to make it up as you go along. How does he do this? He says that he can teach others to improvise in this way.

Sure. Right.

The first half of Richard Grayson's concert consisted of works composed by him and by Bach, and scored for different combinations of MIDI instruments. For me, the highlights were two Grayson compositions. One, called Anybodys Guess, was a driving, jazzlike piece with a sequenced synthesized accompaniment (the harmonics are so chromatic that it's anybodys guess what key its in). Grayson improvised solos on a Clavinova, and soloed again on a computer screen by scribbling the mouse across the staff lines of a music software program. (The audience could see the computer display on a giant video screen.) The effect was darkly playful.

My favorite piece was the one--he forgot to announce the title--for three Disklaviers and three Clavinovas [Mr.528]. (A Disklavier, in case you're as ignorant as I was, is a Yamaha piano with MIDI output and input, which means that you can, among other things, play the piano, record your playing onto a diskette, and then have the instrument replay your performance while you sit back and watch the keys move.) The three Disklavier uprights had had their fronts removed so we could see the piano action move along with the keys.

After introducing the piece, Grayson started his sequencer and left the stage. Sounds bounced between instruments, but nobody was playing them, even though we could see keys move and actions flail. The performance had a ghostly quality.

The composition appealed to me in several ways. First of all, Grayson managed to find engaging electronic sounds, sounds that were musical. Some of the sounds were downright lovely. Also, there were musical ideas that kept me attentive. There was emotion.

Last but not least, Grayson used the topless Disklaviers not just for music, but also as visual art. He wrote scale-like phrases that rippled sensuously, and amusingly, across the actions of the Disklaviers. We could watch the ripples chase each other, cross, and jump between instruments.

As I remember, the music had a kind of austere sweetness, a delicate humor, and some tenderness; it created an atmosphere; it had its own perfume.

Now don't forget: tnis is all just my reaction, remembered from one particular night when I had a wonderful time at a concert. Who knows whether you'd feel the same way. Take a listen to what Richard Grayson is up to, and find out for yourself.


John Steinmetz was the keynote speaker for the 1994 National Conference on Piano Pedagogy.