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"I watched a pianist play 18,000 notes in 42 minutes & remembered why I love music"

"By about 20 minutes the audience surrender"

"I watched a pianist play 18,000 notes in 42 minutes & remembered why I love music"
06 June 2016

When I was in junior school, I considered myself a pretty good piano player. Having played from the age of 5 and diligently practised those scales – chromatic, major, harmonic and melodic minors and all the rest - I could play most things that were put in front of me, even subbing in for the music teacher on school hymn accompaniments when he was away.

Classical, blues, a bit of pop: yeah, I knew how to tickle those ivories as well as an elephant masseuse.

But then, in senior school, at the beginning of year 7, I met Ben.

Imagine your local district 100m schools' champion going up against Usain Bolt, or Carlton Palmer playing alongside Paul Gascoigne (oh wait, that actually happened) and you'll begin to imagine the disparity in performance between the two of us: the guy was incredible, capable of playing literally anything – yes, including the likes of Rachmaninov, who up until that point I'd assumed was simply a useful winger for Spartak Moscow.

Naturally, I did what any musician with a highly competitive streak would do. I immediately gave up.

You see, piano is a winner-takes- all sport. It's first past the post. Rare are the pieces and orchestras which demand two piano parts. No – one person is resplendent on the throne that is the softly-padded piano stool - and they are master of all they survey. There can be only one Mufasa. And there was no doubt that Ben was our musical king of the jungle.

Luckily, I was able to shift my efforts onto another, complementary instrument – the bass guitar - and I was able to enjoy watching Ben's continual and astounding brilliance at close quarters, before he went off to music college and then on to become a professional musician, trotting around the globe playing insanely difficult pieces of music to the adoring hordes.

Alongside his manifest skill, another – often rare - talent he has is the ability to be open to playing and listening to any style of music, rather than staying in the ghetto of the 'big names', so when he mentioned an intriguing forthcoming performance, I immediately took notice.

Imagine this popping up on your Facebook page.

Just look at it. It's absolutely ridiculous. It looks like a sea of worker ants hauling miniature bridges across a page. And then you read the accompanying comment – it goes on for 42 minutes? There's nearly 18,000 notes? What the hell is this piece? How would you go about composing such a thing? How on earth would you play it?

I had to hear it.

A little research revealed that The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) were giving the piece its UK live premiere, just under three years after it was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and composed by the American composer John Luther Adams, winning the Pulitzer Prize for music a year later and a Grammy award for best Classical Contemporary Composition the year after that.

It was entitled Become Ocean and was inspired by the oceans of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, with the author explaining: "Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean."

You don't get that with a Pitbull record do you.

I immediately booked my train tickets to Birmingham and read as Ben explained to Facebook commenters the difficulties of getting to grips with the piece, self-deprecatingly explaining how, “It's easy to get snow blindness... There are several ways out of it though. The easiest is that every time we reach a big letter (A, B, C etc) the conductor makes an obvious signal so we all know where we are in case any of us have got lost. And the other thing is that it makes your eyes go weird, just following the small notes on the part for so long, so you just have to stare into the distance at some point to re-focus your eyes. In that case just remember how many bars you've got til you need to look at the part again! It's a given I'll get lost at some point.”

Meanwhile the cynics amongst us quizzed him on whether this was a copy and paste job – perhaps it was simply a piece designed to attract attention purely for its epic unwieldlyness? No, assured Ben, “It changes, sometimes subtly, sometimes quite abruptly. There is no ad infinitum repetition.”

He also revealed that the conductor, Ludovic Morlot, who was flying over from Seattle to oversee the UK debut of the piece, had assured his orchestra that, “By about 20 minutes the audience surrender to what's going on and you can feel it.”

Music that forces you to submit to its power: that sounds like Metallica. That sounds great.

Sat in the circle at Birmingham Symphony Hall, warmed up by a bit of Sibelius and Ravel (newcomers tipped to do well, so I've heard), we waited for the main event. The lights came down; the audience awaited.

It was utterly glorious.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, shortly before beginning the piece

The orchestra was split into three sections: full-sized strings, woodwind and brass with each given slowly-moving passages of sound which rise and fall at different paces, while Ben's piano, a celesta and several percussionists maintained the constant, underlying rippling effect, without pause. At three points in the performance, the peaks coincided. As a bonus trick, the entire piece was palindromic – so 21 minutes in, the whole thing was played in reverse.

It was staggeringly beautiful. As someone who has only dabbled in the ambient genre, this, to my limited knowledge, seemed to evoke the feelings of the very best: the gentle waves of sound of Jonsi & Alex's Riceboy Sleeps, the patience of Brian Eno's Ambient 1: Music For Airports and – I realise this is slightly specific – a constant reminder of the feel of the beautiful horn section toward the end of DJ Shadow's Stem/Long Stem (the section around six minutes in).

It was surprisingly consonant: notes moved around but never clashed. Suspensions were left hanging gorgeously as other notes slowly moved to join them, never rushing. The passages unwound at a slow pace, yet Ben's piano and his xylophone friends either side maintained a constant feeling of movement.

Fascinatingly, you would never have guessed the palindromic nature of the piece; the second half felt new and different. Moreover, for a piece 42 minutes long, it was over in what seemed a flash. Truly, this was transcendental stuff.

Afterwards, I asked Ben – fresh from playing 18,000 notes in 2,500 seconds (that's a constant 7.2 notes per second, maths fans) - if it would be performed again soon. Sadly, due to the rather niche nature of the piece, he replied that it was unlikely.

What a shame. For I'm telling you now: they should put this stuff on the NHS. Forget Prozac, this is the only high you need in your life.

In addition, at a time when digital devices invade every part of our lives, this was a situation which demanded you stop, untether yourself from the matrix and – literally – let sound simply wash over you for an extended period of time. Music as an elemental force of nature. Music as nothing less than life itself.

So, I hear you all screaming, when can I hear it? Well, sadly, as Ben explained, in its ideal live form, probably not any time soon. But, luckily, the Seattle world premier recording is available to listen to – and no less a musical luminary than Taylor Swift was so impressed with it that she donated $50,000 to the Seattle Symphony to support one of their educational programs.

If it's good enough for Swifty, it's good enough for you, ladies and gentlemen.

So, treat your ears; turn on, tune in and drift off as you, too, Become Ocean.

You can follow Ben on Twitter here


(Main image: Rex)