Solo playing, whether improvising or playing Cowell, Cage and others, has been an important part of Chris Burn’s work since the late 1970s. Also many of his fully notated composed pieces are for solo instruments. Reviewing a concert from the Red Rose Theatre, London, the Guardian’s John Fordham wrote;
Simultaneously playing the piano and deploying drums and cymbals arranged besides and behind him, he launched into forays that were both manic and expertly precise, in a manner that suggested a piano-playing Han Bennink. Waves of thunderous keyboard trills would abruptly give way to percussive passages in which treble notes would accompany the pinging of small cymbals and bass notes the echoing shimmer of big ones; mellifluous zither-like sounds or irritable buzzings would swarm from the bugged strings, and Burn went about all this with an air of methodical composure.
The above review was of a concert where his 1988 cassette recording ‘A Fountain Replete’ was launched. A mixture of arrangements, Cowell and Cage and improvisations. (Also a Burn piece for pre recorded piano and live piano.) Often at his solo concerts he would both improvise and perform Cowell (and to a lesser extent Cage or others such as Crumb and Lachenmann). Although his own improvising at this time was focussed almost exclusively on the inside of the instrument his interest in Cowell extended to both the keyboard cluster pieces and Cowells’s pieces for ‘string piano’; Cowell’s term for inside playing on the strings. In 1993 Burn released ‘A Henry Cowell Concert’ - Acta 7.
‘Chris Burn, poised technician and trenchant interpreter, is the most convincing Cowell champion I’ve heard.’ Andrew Porter, The Observer (UK)
From the 1990s onwards, a whole string of solo performances took place. Primarily these were improvised though as mentioned above he would on occasion mix in Cowell and Cage: The Yamaha Piano Series, London 1990, Bochum; Ruhr Valley Jazz Festival 1991, FMP Berlin 1992, Krefeld, Cologne, Ulrichsberg Kaleidophon 1994, LMC London 1995, Victoriaville Canada 1996, Sound Art 1998 (where he played an all Cowell programme), Musica Genera 2002, Acousmental Festival,Sheffield UK, Bangor University, and many others. Music from the LMC and Victoriaville concerts is to be heard on the Victo CD ‘Music from three rivers’, Victocd50.
Using the keyboard one handed, the other manipulating the grand interior with objects of various texture, he created an ongoing, ever changing dance, of which he was not only the perpetrator, but as well a gracious dancer. This continuously flowing, flowering terrain, was the result of multiple conversations of the hidden voices of the grand dame. This was not really prepared piano, because he was continually working with the objects. From subtle drum rhythms co-generated from the vibrations of a Tibetan bell, or a plastic funnel, its tip between the strings, its bell being wow-wowed, he produced a great variety of sounds that appeared to fill up the not only the piano, but the entire theatre. I suspect this grand pianoforte had never experienced such diverse pleasure………including the quite rare occasion of an encore, where he closed the piano down, sat down, and wow-wowed the entire instrument with one of its lids. A Sunday morning concert of sanctified music.CODA USA
A studio recording with electronic manipulation by Martin Archer forms part of the 1997 Discus 11 CD.A 1998 solo concert in Norwich UK where Burn placed improvisation in amongst Cowell and Cages - ‘Suite for Toy Piano’ - was reviewed in Avant magazine:
Chris Burn’s command of ‘inside’ piano techniques was stunning. Using a variety of objects including sticks, rubbers, a funnel and a darning mushroom he was able to obtain a great array of prepared and Semi-prepared sound. These tools, (a collection he has acquired and honed down over the years) were never used gratuitously, each sound having a structural significance when combined with the more conventional keyboard and pedal techniques.….. The emphasis placed on resonance and decay was summarised for me in John Cage’s ‘Suite for Toy Piano’. With the little instruments perched on the grand, Burn achieved a remarkable approximation of prepared piano sounds on a little Bontempi toy, whilst the sounds coaxed from a Chinese ‘Lucky’ piano were amazingly Oriental.Keith G Thompson
More recently he performed solo at Vienna, 2005, Berlin 2006, Munich 2007 (Ad hoc Music) and again at Ulrichsberg 2007. At the 'Concepts of Doing' Festival, Berlin 2013 he performed both solo and in duo with Magda Mayas. Most of his solo concerts now involve some significant use of amplification and at Munich and Ulrichsberg, the use of electronics. Primarily, the amplification is used to bring to the musical foreground, piano sounds that are naturally very quiet. At Munich and in Ulrichsberg - both 2007 - he played his piano arrangements of Derek Bailey guitar solos and it was at Ulrichsberg that he performed excerpts from arrangements he had made of Alan Lamb’s ‘wire music’. In addition to extensively performing Cowell, Burn has played compositions by a number of other composers: Primarily Cage but on occasions others such as Crumb, Lachenmann, Schoenberg, Ives and Satie - along with Ellington and Fats Waller.
Chris Burn - Piano. Munich 2007.
photo credit Hannes Schneider.
Chris Burn - Piano, Munich 2007.
photo credit Hannes Scheneider.
Cover illustration by Peter Burn. Recorded 1988.
Chris Burn and armour display. Musica Genera, Poland 2002.
photo credit Matt Hutchinson.