Jan Beran: Mist Covered Mountains and Winter711

  • Mist Covered Mountains I
  • Mist Covered Mountains II
  • Mist Covered Mountains III
  • Mist Covered Mountains IV
  • Winter711
    Jan Beran and me with oboe
    Jan and me in booth
    Over the last several years I have been collaborating with Swiss composer (and statistician) Jan Beran on two pieces for oboe and piano, written specifically for my accompaniment system. Jan's music is well-served by this medium, since the demands it places on the players are, at times, extrordinary (though I did convince him to "dumb-down" the oboe parts to Winter711 somewhat from the original conception). While the music is still technically demanding, even after my "suggestions," the main challenge is in coordinating the parts. Jan said of Winter711 that he tried to avoid any familiar sense of musical flow. In other words Jan's music doesn't give the performer (and listener) the usual cues needed to rhythmically organize the music. While the music is sometimes highly rhythmic, many sections contain no recognizable steady pulse, nor clear points of emphasis whose times differ in simple ways, as in much mixed meter music. While I think these pieces are engaging on their own terms, they work as a wonderful showcase for the accompaniment system, since I doubt they could be played by an all-human ensemble. I would be delighted if any pianist believes I am wrong and offers to play either of these pieces with me.

    While I have done my very best to play these pieces accurately, I would be at a total loss to perform this music without my accompaniment system. So much of the music is hard enough to "feel" that I don't believe I could have even learned these pieces without an accompanist that understood the rhythmic complexities from the very beginning. The accompaniment system continually compensates for the inaccuracies of the live player, mostly producing quite good coordination between the parts, and reinforcing a correct understanding of the way the parts relate.

    While Jan lived in the States for a number of years, Winter711 does *not* refer to the 7/11 convenience stores. Rather, the piece is named for the complex interplay of 7-tuplets and 11-tuplets (sometimes simultaneously) that appear in several sections, as well as a somewhat obscure reference to "Winter" from the Vivaldi Four Seasons. The main melody in "Mist Covered Mountains" comes from an Irish folk song by the same name, appearing in all four movements. While Jan's compositional style is truly his own, this piece uses familar idioms of the oboe such as plaintive lyricism, the "little saxophone" and the shawm and sackbutt band.

    Over the years I have become something of a "weekend warrior" of the oboe; this might be part of the reason these pieces were so difficult for me to perform. I spent the better part of the summer of 2005 learning Mist Covered Mountains as well as refreshing my memory of Winter711 from an earier effort. Putting this music together required me to learn a new way to mentally organize rhythm, since the usual techniques didn't work for much of Jan's music. In addition to notating many cues and rhythmic groupings in my part, I simply memorized many sections the way a child learns the Pledge of Allegiance --- much of the music I understand at the sylable level without having a notion of the higher level "words." However, I believe that my musical understanding has not been completely thwarted by this idiot-like comprehension. How else could I find such pleasure in playing it?

    The mp3's at the top of this page are from our recording session during August of 2005 at Hardstudios in Winterthur, Switzerland. Here Jan and I were joined by recording engineer Moritz Wetter, whose ears and observations were helpful throughout the day. The pieces were originally recorded using a MIDI piano which I heard on headphones. The MIDI track was then used to drive a Yamaha Disklavier, which was recorded and mixed with the original oboe. While some synchronization errors were fixed during this process, the coordination is nearly the same as exhibited in live performance.

    HardStudios from outside
    Jan Beran, Moritz Wetter, and Me (left to right)
    Chris playing in studio
    Coaxing reed as always
    Jan and Chris in booth
    Moritz and Chris in booth