Awadagin Pratt Challenges Resistance Between New Music and the Canon

Awadagin Pratt does not stay still, but he doesn’t rush. Whether as a pianist, as an educator at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, or as the founder of The Art of the Piano festival and the Nina Simone Piano Competition, Pratt brings a solemnity and focus to everything he does. That’s what I remember when thinking back to his performances with the Cincinnati Symphony: a stoic and purposeful pianist in black dress pants and a vibrant dashiki. This comfort in taking his time is present in our discussion of his career and his newest album, STILL POINT, out August 25 on New Amsterdam Records.

The album is a collection of six newly-commissioned works by Jessie Montgomery, Paola Prestini, Alvin Singleton, Pēteris Vasks, Tyshawn Sorey, and Judd Greenstein, performed by Pratt in collaboration with the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth and the string orchestra A Far Cry. Promotionally, Pratt is the focus; but in execution, STILL POINT is a musical conversation: dialogic, supportive when needed, but ultimately equal. A Far Cry and Roomful of Teeth, as chamber ensembles, cannot survive without collaboration and compromise. And though Pratt has forged a career as a soloist, neither can he.

I ask Pratt if the album has changed his relationship to genre; he frowns a little. “What do you mean by genre?” he asks. And as I stumble to clarify, it becomes clear that my definition of genre is not the same as his. “Growing up, 90% of what I did was from the Romantic period,” he clarified. “Twentieth-century music was a smaller niche, not something you needed to know to be considered a consummate musician.”

Awadagin Pratt's STILL POINT is out August 25 on New Amsterdam Records

Awadagin Pratt’s STILL POINT is out August 25 on New Amsterdam Records

Pratt sees STILL POINT as a public announcement of his engagement with new music. And yet his professional choices show that new music has been just as important to him as the canon. While he performed and recorded standard repertoire in the early stages of his career, he also conducted music by composer friends, improvised preludes for Brahms sonatas with violinist Carla Kihlstedt, premiered a piano concerto written for him by friend and film composer Theodore Shapiro with the Seattle Symphony, and became the artistic director of the New Generation Music Festival, in 1996.

Pratt views the music he plays with fresh eyes, whether it was composed 200 years ago or last year. He doesn’t see the canon and new music as antithetical, nor does he feel tension between notation and improvisation. This relational practice has historical precedent among major figures in classical music and piano virtuosos: “Chopin would publish his editions a little differently in England versus France,” Pratt explained. “Beethoven had a huge improvisatory background, but still cared that the marks were attended to.”

My process of approaching the music that I’m learning hasn’t changed. It’s all about vocabulary, what the marks mean to the composer.

The subtle frown returns when asked if performing new music has changed his approach to standard repertoire — why would there be a difference in approach, in locating and understanding the intent of the composer? “I certainly enjoyed being part of the birthing process of these pieces [for STILL POINT],” he says. “I think we have some great pieces, but my process of approaching the music that I’m learning hasn’t changed. It’s all about vocabulary, what the marks mean to the composer.”

STILL POINT was born from two sources: a conversation with friends on reconfiguring classical genres, and Pratt’s love for T.S. Eliot, in particular his poem “Burnt Norton.” A section from the poem’s second canto serves as the album’s mantra:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixit,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Jessie Montgomery’s Rounds toes the line between concerto and chamber piece in its intimacy and balanced dialogue between Pratt and A Far Cry; it is active, melodically interesting, and inspired by the mesmerizing symmetry of fractals. The piece calls for Pratt to improvise his own cadenza, as was the tradition in the time of Beethoven, Liszt, and Bach. Paola Prestini’s Code is spectral and crystalline, also blurring the line between concerto and chamber music in its conversational structure. Alvin Singleton’s Time Past, Time Future is energetic and rambunctious; the angular articulations and austere, contrapuntal movement texture remind us that musical expressions of time don’t always mean a lack of linear direction.

For Castillo Interior, Pēteris Vasks was inspired by both Eliot and St. Teresa of Avila, the expression of chronological stasis and religious devotion merging through the meditative quality of Pratt’s performance. Tyshawn Sorey’s Untitled Composition for Piano and Eight Voices is a transportive and mesmerizing exploration of resonance: how the sound waves of the singers and piano merge, buttress, and consume each other. Of all the works on the album, Untitled is perhaps the most reflective of the contrast and tension in Eliot’s words, primarily “Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline.”

Composer Judd Greenstein and executive producer/program notes writer Mark Rabideau were the two people who inspired Pratt to pursue this project, so it is fitting that Greenstein’s Still Point closes the album. A gorgeous synthesis of Pratt, Roomful of Teeth, and A Far Cry’s ability to enhance and support each other, Still Point reminds us that the experience of  time is unique and individual; what is still and balanced for one can be electrifying and generative for another. You see this in the way that Awadagin Pratt conducts himself. He has not blazed his path so much as patiently and firmly tamped it down, creating a road no less strong, admirable, and aspirational.

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