Megan Grace Beugger Discusses 'Liaison'

In Megan Grace Beugger's Liaison, a dancer is harnessed to a piano via wires that, when pulled, bow the strings inside the instrument. Thus, the physical movements of the dancer generate the sonic result. It is a visually and aurally striking work. Below is a video of Melanie Aceto performing Liaison at this year's June in Buffalo Festival. In addition, I asked Megan a few questions about how the work came together. Her responses reveal a fascinating process informed by multiple collaborations.

D.B. How long did it take to create the apparatus that connects the dancer to the piano? Did you work from a pre-conceived plan or was the process defined more by trial and error?

Megan Grace Beugger

Megan Grace Beugger

M.G.B. It was quite a long an intense process. From the initial conception, it probably took about 9 months to get a contraption that produced sound which resembled the final apparatus. After, there were a lot of adjustments made along the roughly one year it took to write the piece. I originally just thought of really long piano bows being tied to a dancer. When I tried that, parts of the piano (dampers and the frame bars) actually prevented any sound from occurring. So first, I just designed a simple device that was just a large wood block with a pole, which would be placed on top of the piano and pull the bows away from anything preventing them from resonating. This worked fine, and could be a useful tool for other pieces, which include intricate bowed piano, but it was rather limiting for this piece. It required two hands or body parts to operate one bow, which was off-putting because of the few amount of potential bows we could use, and the mandated scissors motion would get old really fast. From there, we wanted to have a contraption which would retract the strings, and we had to enlist tons of help from everyone we knew that had any sort of experience in designing mechanisms of any sort. We had three guys from the Center for the Arts at UB, who normally work on set design, Tom Tucker, Gary Casarella, and Tom Burke, architect Michael Rogers, and engineer John Roeseler, among others who worked extensively with us to come up with designs, problem solve, and physically build the contraption. It was extremely exciting to have so many people from such diverse fields actively and enthusiastically involved in making my idea for a piece with into a reality. Once the machine was built, we found problems as we began to work on it, which we consulted our friends for advice and help. The solution for one little problem would usually cause a trail of more, so we had to follow it to the end to get a final apparatus that would work.

D.B.To what degree is the gestural vocabulary in Liaison informed by your collaboration with Melanie Aceto?

M.G.B. It was extremely informed by my collaboration. Due to the nature of the piece, there is no possible separation of dance and music, so we had to write the entire thing together. Melanie would record improvisation sessions with the contraption, which was really helpful, and I’d bring pre-composed segments to rehearsals. The success rate of my pre-composed segments was much lower than I’d normally have composing music. Probably about 80-90% wouldn’t even be physically possible, and that is before you start to cut out what is boring, overdone, and ineffective. Melanie was much more likely to come up with gestures that were linear, rounded, gentle, and smooth, while I was much more likely to come up with gestures which were more choppy and harsh. Our collaboration allowed us to work with material that we would have never come up with on our own, which was really challenging but also rewarding. Additionally, our points of view about larger scale issues, such as form, were very different due to the different fields we were involved in, and it was really interesting for me to see how someone outside the music field thinks about the same concepts composers think about.

D.B. Is there a score for Liaison? If so, what does it look like and how did you come up with an appropriate notation?

M.G.B. Not yet, but one is in the works. As a composer, I always have worked in score, but dancers and choreographers use purely videos of performances in lieu of a score (giving an even stronger interpretive role to the first performers of a work). The piece clearly uses motion beyond that of an everyday person, and requires a skilled dancer. I’m sure there are a few musician/ dancers out there that have a relationship to written scores, but they are in the minority. Most dancers are very visual, and prefer that I show them how to do a movement instead of reading about it, and I prefer doing that too (given enough rehearsal time) as I get to really refine the movement and interpretation to fit with my visions for the piece. However, as this piece has consumed the last year and half of my doctoral studies, I’m hoping to create a score in order to include it in my doctoral portfolio, as well as be something that can open up more musicians to the work. The notation will be a mix of pictures depicting a motion and boxed text that describe sections where one specific motion is repeated until it is “maxed out.” Right now, the focus is on creating extremely detailed diagrams, which document the apparatus and its setup so it can be successfully recreated.

D.B. Given the physical setup of the piece, it makes sense that the pitch material is static. How did you decide upon the chosen pitch collection?

M.G.B. That was something that we experimented with and changed a lot as we wrote the piece. A lot of my choices regarding pitch for this piece were more about practicality than anything else. There were many pitch combinations that I was pleased with the sounds, but due to their placement in the piano they created some sort of technical issue (getting stuck, being hard to pull, twisting with other lines, or producing too much friction and snapping). I also wanted to pick a collection with enough timbral variety. After much trial and error we found a collection that worked great physically in the piano, and I was happy with the sound. The pitches are quasi based off the A spectral series, but there are a few pitches in there to throw it off and create dissonance.

D.B. The title of the piece, the striking image of a performer harnessed to a piano, the provocative ending gesture- all of these elements suggest a variety of possible sexual/political themes. Is this piece intended to explore a particular political idea?

M.G.B. Our goal was to create strong imagery, but not specific imagery. I think when you allow an audience member to connect with the piece by creating their own symbolisms, imageries, and meanings; the piece becomes more personal for them. Neither of us is interested in creating a linear story, however we were interested in creating characters. I often think of the piece more as a duo than a solo piece, where the piano/contraption is character too, and I was very interested in exploring the relationship between the piano/contraption and dancer. The dancer is in control of moving the bows that sound the piano strings, but the piano and contraption have more physical weight and mass, therefore the dancer must face the contraption’s resistance while being stuck in a confined space. This raises questions for me, such as what is strength and what/whom holds it.

Politics, the Piano and the Making of Stress Position

The following post contains the liner notes to Marilyn Nonken's CD of my complete piano works on New Focus Recordings.

Pianists spend lifetimes alone in small rooms with antique instruments. This intimate scenario is defined by an atmosphere of confinement as well as an overt physicality. The piano receives the weight of the body and disperses sound.

These simple and rather obvious facts regarding intimacy, physicality and space are essential to my piano works. Whether addressing extra-musical and political topics or simply existing as "absolute music," every piece on this recording attempts to lay bare the visceral intensity that directly results from the act of playing.

This is quite apparent at the outset of Asa Nisi Masa for solo amplified piano. With brute force, the performer strikes a series of low cluster chords that begin as dry, cannon-like shots separated by long pauses, before evolving into resonating, beating choruses of pitches. As the piece inches forward from the lowest depths of the piano to its highest octave, the listener experiences a vast spectrum of articulations, densities and rates of decay.

Gray for solo piano also investigates the instrument's resonant capacities, albeit on a much gentler and smaller scale. This work is named after my nephew and was written to commemorate his birth. I think of this piece as a series of melodic phrases moving in slow motion. As with Asa Nisi Masa, the deliberate pacing enables the listener to take in the action of the piano as sonorities appear, interact and dissipate.

Interaction of a sonic and spacial nature is a critical feature of Gaeta for two pianos and water percussion. One might think of this work as examining the piano through the filter of its percussive relatives. I began the compositional process by deciding upon the percussion instruments (waterphone, wind gongs, almglocken, earth plates and more - many submerged in water) and exploring their timbral potential. After establishing a set of sounds and textures, I incorporated the pianos with the intent to conceal their traditional identities. Not only are the pianos treated as percussion, the pianists and percussionists move around the stage, playing, holding and transporting a wide array of instruments. Interaction is critical to the process of playing, the resultant sound and, in the case of live performances, the visual experience.

Watching the process of interaction is also central to the title track of this recording, Stress Position. Here we return to the aforementioned intimate physicality embodied in the relationship between pianist and piano. In the case of this piece, however, that relationship is taken to an extreme and even perverse level. The insistent and unrelenting rhythmic repetition, coupled with an ever-increasing mass of pitches and dynamic intensity, creates a scenario whereby the piano becomes a torture apparatus. Virtuosity in this case is defined by the ability to endure. To a large extent, perfection in the most basic sense (avoidance of wrong notes and rhythms, command of tempi) is impossible given the manner in which the pianist must marshal all strength and concentration in order to merely continue.

The title of Stress Position refers directly to an ancient form of torture that was recently brought back into the public consciousness following the atrocities at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Prisoners at both locations were forced to maintain positions in which the full weight of the body is directed at a specific muscle group, resulting in extreme pain and even disfigurement. In the case of the U.S. military, this technique was often augmented by visual deprivation (use of blindfolds) and auditory abuse via the playing of deafeningly loud music.

The pianist in Stress Position must play the entire piece with the arms extended to the extreme ends of the piano. As events unfold, the hands are likewise stretched until each accommodates six pitches spanning over an octave. The tension is not limited to the performer. The audience, which initially plays the role of voyeur in this situation, is subjected to ever increasing volume. Once the pianist reaches a maximal dynamic, amplification is introduced and steadily increased. Finally, without warning, the lights are cut and the closing section of the piece is played in total darkness.

To a large extent, Stress Position makes the notions of confinement and physicality the focus of the piece. However, one may rightly note that the confinement of the practice room or concert hall stands in direct opposition to the brutality and inhumanity of the torture chamber. Within this stark contrast lies one of the central political themes. As humans, we are capable of remarkable civility and the most base, animalistic behavior. The piano, a historical technology of great innovation and beauty, reveals these conflicting human capacities when turned into something that physically compromises the player.

The other politically motivated work on this recording is National Anthem for solo piano. Unlike Stress Position, the political ideas are somewhat hidden despite the fact that they provide the harmonic, rhythmic and formal basis of the piece. The Star Spangled Banner is simultaneously played in three different keys at three proportionally related and very slow tempi. To further conceal the anthem, the melodic contour is altered so that ascending motives often descend and vice versa. The solemn and almost dirge-like sound that results is intended to contradict the usual overt and often trumped up patriotism of the anthem. Instead, I wanted the mood to more accurately reflect my own unease and sadness about America’s place in the world as wars continue in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I must express my deepest thanks to Marilyn Nonken for championing my music and for challenging my understanding of the piano and its potential for continued exploration. Marilyn commissioned National Anthem and Stress Position, both times requesting politically charged works. I had not previously attempted to musically investigate political themes in this way, but was very much intrigued. My goal was to create works that engage the listener from sonic and political perspectives. In the end, just playing the piano seems a political act in itself, one which from the confines of small rooms, refuses to forget the past while continuing to grasp at now.