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Barbican Radio Guest Mix #10: Steven Osborne

In the latest in our Barbican Radio series, we meet pianist Steven Osborne as he talks us through some of his favourite music ahead of his upcoming performance.

‘I love extremes in music, and when I relatively recently started listening to Morton Feldman’s music, I became very excited indeed. Here was a composer who went even further than Messiaen in exploring stillness in music.

The focus of my Milton Court concert is Feldman’s last piano composition, Palais de Mari. Lasting 25 minutes, it is a quiet, eerie piece with little variation in its sense of pace. Why write such music? Why play it? Feldman was a believer along with John Cage that a piece of music shouldn’t sit separate from the listener, and that the details of a composition were less significant than drawing the listener into an immediate awareness of their experience. To this end, Feldman sometimes actively set out to subvert any sense of cohesion in his music, going back over the score and rearranging the bars randomly. His aim was to disorient the listener and so invite us to suspend our awareness of past and future. Whether this is actually possible is an interesting question: are we not hard-wired to create meaning and structure in the music we hear? But in a way, that’s what makes this music so interesting and provocative: it fundamentally challenges our listening instincts.

Performing this music, it is even harder to find a genuine sense of disorientation. Rather, I’m aware of a very loose and gently unfolding structure, devoid of any sense of hurry or agency, like a stream of consciousness. At times it’s quite exceptionally beautiful.

This playlist isn’t a broad survey of American music. My tastes in it are passionate and narrow: minimalism and jazz.’

Steve Reich, Music for a Large Ensemble

To start with, a major obsession of my teens, Steve Reich. Reich’s music developed from extremely sparse beginnings to a ‘middle period’ of great harmonic and instrumental richness. Of all the pieces here, this is my desert island track. I find it a pure, visceral pleasure.

Leonard Bernstein, Prelude Fugue and Riffs

This is a really fun piece, seamlessly blending Stravinsky with jazz. Not the easiest to bring off – classical players tend to shy away from the moments of true sleaziness you hear in Bernstein’s performance here.

Bill Evans, Up With the Lark

I got into jazz through playing Evans transcriptions. Evans built his style painstakingly, note-by-note, with the precision (and sometimes the actual harmony) of Ravel. He tells of the exact moment working off arrangements in a dance band when he played his first ever ‘improvised’ note. On this track you can hear the outcome of decades of painstaking development from that one note.

Philip Glass, Koyaanisqatsi

While this film score has its fair share of Glass’s trademark saxophone arpeggios, the combined development of music and visuals (no dialogue) has quite a cumulative impact.

Steve Reich, Vermont Counterpoint

Reich did a number of ‘Counterpoint’ pieces for one player repeatedly overdubbing themselves. This is the first and, for my money, the most successful. Electric Counterpoint for electric guitar runs a close second.

Miles Davis, In a Silent Way

There’s something about this deceptively simple modal melody that I can never get enough of. It’s a Joe Zawinul tune and the original version comes complete with chord changes and a soft shuffle beat. Davis transformed it into something much sparser, giving it greater depth and an unsettling beauty. Keep going into the more up-tempo section which follows and you’ll hear one of the greatest jazz grooves ever.

Thomas Newman, American Beauty

You might not know the name of this film composer but you will know his music. He’s worked on The Shawshank Redemption, Erin Brockovich and Finding Nemo, but my favourite of his work is American Beauty, typified by this mesmeric track.

Norah Jones, Come Away With Me

Jones’s background is rooted in jazz, and she’s a wonderful musician with an understatement in her piano playing and singing which belies a whole world of feeling. I also have a personal reason to choose this: my wife and I listened to her first album a lot when we just got engaged.

Steve Reich, Tehillim

To end as we began (I could have happily put down another two or three Reich tracks) Tehillim was a significant departure for Reich at the time, moving into more complex rhythms and structures than he’d previously explored, and the joy and freshness in this setting of four Hebrew psalms is palpable.

The Music of Silence: Steven Osborne Plays Crumb and Feldman is performed on Tuesday 31 May in Milton Court Concert Hall.