Sleepy? This music is for you
It doesn’t bother pianist R. Andrew Lee when you fall asleep at his performances.
They can last awhile longer than most classical music concerts — sometimes up to five hours. He’ll often tell the audience beforehand: You don’t have to stay the whole time.
Many take him up on the offer and leave early. But that doesn’t faze the 35-year-old, who teaches music and serves as the associate university minister for liturgical and sacred music at Regis University.
“I think you really have to enter into this kind of music,” he said. “And if you’re entering into the piece to the extent that you’re so relaxed that you’re able to fall asleep, I think something right has happened.”
Lee, who lives in Denver, is a recognized leader of minimal music, a reductive genre of contemporary classical that uses sparse chords, simple melodies and extended repetition to strip down sound to its most basic elements.
He didn’t expect to stumble upon the austere school of sound. Lee grew up listening to Beethoven and Rachmaninoff outside Kansas City, far from the neighborhood in south Manhattan where minimal music was first developed in the 1960s.
The native Missourian followed a largely traditional path in classical training: a bachelor of music in piano performance at Truman State University, followed by a master’s in music in 2006 and a doctorate in 2010 from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
At UMKC, a mentor introduced him to “The Time Curve Preludes,” a watershed post-minimal composition penned in 1978 by the American composer William Duckworth. The discovery changed Lee’s life, steering him away from canonical classicalists toward contemporaries.
“He realized then that he wanted to work with composers still alive,” said Andrew Granade, a professor of musicology at UMKC who advised Lee’s
dissertation. “Andy’s very humanistic in the way he lives his life. He cares deeply about people. It was a revelation to him when he realized that instead of wondering what a composer would have wanted, he could just ask them himself.”
He’s collaborated with composers across the globe, helping to chart the course of the living genre as an acclaimed performer, as a teacher and conductor at Regis, where he’s worked for seven years, and even as a record executive.
In 2010, he and David McIntire, a friend from grad school and current assistant professor of music technology at Missouri Western State University, co-founded Irritable Hedgehog Music, which has produced all 10 of Lee’s albums. (In 2011, he recorded his own interpretation of “The Time Curve Preludes,” a 2012 Critic’s Choice by Gramophone Magazine.) The fledgling label has developed a reputation as an outlet for minimal and electro-acoustic music.
“To us, this music isn’t really ‘experimental’ or avant-garde,” McIntire said. “We are engaged with it because we take real pleasure from it; it stimulates and nourishes us as much as any other sort of music. Not everyone appreciates it that way, and we are well aware that this is not a mass-appeal genre. The flip side is that we engage with a really enthusiastic and loyal group of listeners, and we have made some recordings which are regarded as benchmark performances of the work in question.”
On stage, his sonic experiments come to life with glacial patience. In March 2013, he played a solo piano composition over two nights at a café in London. During the first set, Lee performed a piece by Jürg Frey that involved repeating the same perfect fourth 468 times in a row. He returned the following evening to perform the entirety of Dennis John- son’s 1959 five-hour minimalist epic, “November.” TimeOut New York called Lee’s recording of the marathonic melody “superhuman,” and annointed “Dennis Johnson: November” as best classical album of 2013.
“Listening to this music is like looking at a statue,” the pianist said. “You can get close, you can back off, you can move around. The listening experience is one that you enter into, as the music tends to dwell on ideas and doesn’t rush forward or have a sense of busyness to it. That opens up a lot of sonic possibilities.”
Classical music isn’t known for innovation. Its very name relegates the genre to a pre-modern, bygone era long-argued dead. But Lee, a millennial minimalist, has brought new life to the ostensibly moribund style through social media.
Though he still tours the traditional circuit — symphony centers, art galleries, music halls — Lee has taken concerts to the cloud. Free hour-long shows on Facebook Live broadcast his music to a younger cohort who might not frequent the concert hall. Twitter allows him to engage with composers and connoisseurs across the world.
“It’s like whistling in a digital hurricane,” he said. “It’s a great thing, and it’s also a struggle. I can reach anyone with an internet connection anywhere in the world. At the same time, everyone has the same tools at their disposal. So trying to stand out can be difficult.”
Minimal music has analogues in various other media, including painting, sculpture, poetry, literature and architecture. Lee has dabbled in music writing of his own, but only fleetingly.
Instead, he envisions his role as that of an alarm clock, waking up the world to dormant music yet unappreciated.
“Every now and then I’ve had cool ideas, but I’m more than content with exploring what’s already been written,” he said. “There’s more than enough work that needs advocacy, more than enough to keep me interested and curious.”
R. Andrew Lee, 35, is a leader of minimal music, a reductive genre of contemporary classical.