Thursday, January 27, 2005

On the Couch

Heather Heise does not write music or extemporize though she knits without patterns, cooks without recipes, and drives without maps. She sometimes writes poetry, changes her own bicycle tires, and invents...on the piano--but only in dark concert halls when no one is around. She is a classically trained pianist known for her "senstivity" and the deeply personal level of committment she brings to ensemble relationships.

Pony Keg (1979)--Unable to find a piano stool, the firemen bring me a little keg and top it with a piece of plywood. My first piano, and I climb up to it, teetering, staring...improvising songs with my fists until, having just discovered an infinite palette of techniques (not just fists, but elbows, too!), my mother declares I will take lessons. "Better to learn to play real music not just that made up banging around." At this decree, I slip quietly from the pony keg to the box of alphabet blocks on the floor where, with my words, I am more easily unheard.

Junior High Band (1986)--I play keyboard on top of a thirty-year-old amp that smokes and shorts on a daily basis. On a mission to escape certain death by electrocution, I grab my best friend's flute for a run-through of Magnificent Seven. I push air roughly through the pipe and clack, clack the keys, mimicing rhythmic gestures and musical phrases. Three quarters of the way through the piece I suddenly sound something more like a note than a ragged breath. Giddily I let my fingers fake a sequence of pitches. "Who is playing that...?" By the time the other students cease their racket, I am halfway down the hall to the principal's office.

The Happy Birthday Incident (1995)
--"Oh yes, they'll need you to play Happy Birthday. Ok? In C, and" in pure terror and disbelief I sound a C major chord, hoping that someone will be able to pick the tune out of the harmony. Thinking furiously, searching for dominants and subdominants, I attempt to "improvise" a way to the end, fail miserably, and endure the stares of sixty kindergarten parents and their confused, stage-fraught children. Later I practice Happy Birthday in every key before quitting in disgust and throwing most of my ideas about what it means to be a pianist in the trash. I think I feel the first nudge of musical freedom.

Cookies & Accordions (2001)
--Prowling the streets of Portland with old college friends, I discover the tiny accordion in a shop filled with vintage clothes, tinted postcards, and rusted lunchboxes. I pick it up and begin noodling, turn to my best friend and joke, "hey I've almost got these left hand buttons...wanna hear something? I'll improvise for you...ah-hah!" The shopkeeper interrupts in a blatantly disdainful tone, "hello? The thirty second accordion performance period is--OVER." Still laughing, I ask, "are you serious?" and he says smuggly, "you gotta learn to play it right, you know, buy it and take some lessons." I put the accordion down and smile, "yeah, lessons." Who is more free, the instrument or me?

--In the practice wing hallway, half a dozen men sit hunched over pages of music. They rest their coffee mugs on instruments still in cases--fiddle, drums, accordion, bass, guitar. As I walk past, "hey what's up?" Bill asks, "would you like a bagel?" A bagel. I linger, peering over David's shoulder at the score, wondering if, given a few minutes, someone might say, "wanna join us?" But the band, even as they stand barricading the door to the women's bathroom, seems decidedly for the boys.


Diagnosis--Everyone should be encouraged to explore their own creative potential! Heather's experiences demonstrate a struggle between an automatic, intuitive desire to play the instrument and the reprimand associated with acting on such an instinct. Under conscious awareness and over-thinking (of "correct" musical idioms and expected forms, styles, or tunes), the piano becomes a trap rather than a freedom. Finding joy in improvisation demands that she shed the self-conscious "thinkyness" of her actions and reactions. Also problematic is that Heather waits for the "invitation" to join others in this process. Must women initiate the ensemble context for themselves? In some (un)necessary attempt at validation, must they define who they are and what they are doing? Heather's biography reveals a resistance to certain labels and definitions: while old school "classically trained pianist" is an accepted moniker, "composer," "chef," or "bicycle mechanic" are terms that are carefully avoided.

By Blogger Heather, at 11:49 PM  

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