School of Music

Pianist Bridget Convey to Use Bolts, Screws and Plastic for Unusual Concert at the USM

Bridget Convey

Bolts. Screws. Plastic.

Pianist Bridget Convey will spend about five hours meticulously placing those items, along with nuts, an eraser and pieces of rubber, between the strings of the concert piano at University of Southern Maine (USM) Corthell Concert Hall before her concert on Friday, Sept. 20. Those aren’t items that an audience typically associates with a musical concert, but Convey’s performance of composer John Cage’s complete “Sonatas and Interludes” for prepared piano requires those items be placed precisely on the interior of the piano.

The details of the performance are:

  • Bridget Convey Performs John Cage, 8 p.m., Friday, Sept. 20, Corthell Concert Hall, USM Gorham Campus; Tickets $15, general public; $10, seniors, USM employees and alumni; $5, students. Make reservations online at http://usm.maine.edu/music/boxoffice or call the USM Music Box Office at (207) 780-5555.

Since when does a piano concert involve such items? Since the 1930s when John Cage, avant-garde American composer, began experimenting with the sound of alternative instruments, and coined the term “prepared piano.”

Cage’s “Sonatas and Interludes” is his most technically complex piece and is widely regarded as his magnum opus. The piece, however, is rarely performed. For Cage’s unusual piece to be presented, a venue must supply a small-to-mid-sized grand piano and must allow the piano’s strings to be tweaked and tinkered with. It takes several hours of precise dedication to prepare the instrument. 

“The preparation is pretty extensive,” Convey said during a recent interview. “The chance to hear this work performed in its entirety -- even in sections -- doesn’t happen often. It’s a very rare opportunity.”

Convey is a part-time faculty member of the University of Maine at Farmington, and adjunct faculty member of Bates College. She has performed at venues throughout the United States, including the Lincoln Center in New York City. This concert will mark her third performance at USM.

Convey’s concert will include a visual premiere by Hil Tozier, a University of Maine at Farmington student.

In addition to her concert, Convey will lead a workshop with the USM composers class at 5 p.m., Friday, Sept. 20. Students will compose pieces for prepared piano and work with Convey on the Corthell Concert Hall piano after she has prepared it, which is another rare opportunity.

Convey has specialized in prepared piano pieces since attending graduate school at the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, Calif. 

The school “emphasized new music, and focused on teaching students about modern music,” Convey said. “They were very supportive of pianists treating the piano in ways that are unorthodox or not typical.”

Unorthodox methods include plucking the piano strings, bowing the strings, and even using mallets on the strings, also known as “extended techniques.”

The manipulations of the piano are not a degradation of the instrument, but rather, as John Cage, described, a “simple practical measure.”

“His concepts were revolutionary at the time,” said Convey about the composer. “He was a phenomenal figure for 20th century music, not only for what he did with prepared piano, but also with the concept of sound and the absence of sound.”

The absence of sound can be heard in Cage’s landmark work, “4’33”,” in which musicians do not play their instruments. The audience instead listens to the sounds of the environment, which emphasizes Cage’s experimental philosophy that the primary act of a musical performance is not the making of music, but listening.

When John Cage died in 1992, Convey attended his funeral. “It was an honor,” Convey recalled.

Shortly after Cage’s death, Convey worked with Cage’s close friend, Dary John Mizelle, American composer of avant-garde classical and jazz music and faculty member of Convey’s undergraduate alma mater, State University of New York at Purchase.

Mizelle composed "I Was Standing Quite Close to Quiet Process” in tribute to Cage, and Convey premiered the work at Lotus Music Studio in New York City. 

Now, to celebrate the 101st anniversary of John Cage’s birth, Convey will perform one of his finest achievements. Cage was inspired by Indian philosophy, and wrote the 16 sonatas and four freely structured interludes of “Sonatas and Interludes” to express the eight permanent emotions in the Indian tradition of “rasa,” which defines the emotional states experienced during aesthetic experiences. These emotions include love, joy, peace, anger, courage, sorrow, fear and disgust.