Anderson & Roe is not:
1) A law firm
2) A figure skating pair
3) Married (to each other)
4) Your typical piano duo
Anderson & Roe is one of the most exciting young duos performing today, with a musicality, repertoire and stage presence that bring their concerts closer to rock shows than demure chamber music recitals. Forget your image of a sweet sister team playing piano duets in matching dresses (more on my personal PTSD around that topic later on...), Greg Anderson and Liz Roe have a musical partnership that is anything but adorable. Whether playing their original arrangement of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, their performances are passionate, wild, intensely physical, and completely gripping. Audiences around the country flock to their concerts in numbers that defy the rumors of dwindling attendance for concert music, and the duo holds their own on MTV as well as on NPR.
Their interactive website is buzzing 24/7, with a dynamic online community that includes fans of all ages, bloggers, and the millions of YouTube viewers of A&R's self-produced, visually exciting and dramatically compelling music videos. Greg and Liz communicate with their fans in real time, generating an energy and sense of community that contributes to their success, and furthers their commitment to "make classical music a relevant and powerful force in society; to connect with others; to engage, provoke, illuminate; to serve as a conduit for the composer's voice; to express our inner lives; to share the joy and fulfillment that only music can elicit." And, furthermore: " to free the world from the constraints of sleep-inducing concerts." Done.
Anderson & Roe's new album When Words Fade recently came out on the Steinway & Sons label. It's a remarkable collection of vocal works inspired by the night, in virtuoso arrangements for piano duo (composed by the artists themselves). Traveling through very different soundscapes of song, from Vivaldi to Coldplay with stops at Schubert, Bizet and Villa-Lobos along the way, the duo proves that their musicality is up to the challenge of reimagining songs without their words, and infusing them with new and profound meanings. Greg and Liz describe the music this way: "When words fade, a song sheds its specific narrative—but the emotion remains with all its potency. You, the listener, are free to infuse the music with your own personal meaning."
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They're celebrating the album with a release party next Tuesday, May 22, at Galapagos Arts Space in Brooklyn. It should be a great party - go if you can!
I spoke to Liz and Greg by Skype, in a long and often hilarious three-way conversation (which has been slightly sanitized here for your protection)
Lara: I know you met at Juilliard and started playing together there. Was the partnership based first on friendship or musical issues, or both?Liz: Well, we had known each other from the first week of school, and at Juilliard, that also means getting acquainted with each other's musical styles (in classes, etc.)Greg: Only after we began playing together did we realize that we were so musically compatible, and after that, we realized we shared bigger musical goals...Liz: Right, we both assert that, individually, we are quite different pianists, yet we are bound by a shared outlook and ideals.Greg: But we were most definitely friends -- as we often say, "friends who are musicians find a way to make music together." Our first concert together was so much fun, and because it was such a success, we decided to play more together ... but at the time, it really felt like fun and games...
Lara: I was laughing a lot when I read one of your interviews where you talk about the "cuteness factor" that's usually associated with piano duets. I have some sad stories of my own about playing 4-hands with my sister, and wearing matching dresses.Liz: Sisters + matching dresses = winning comboGreg: most people's first impressions of the genre is that it is "quaint"... so when I describe us to non-musicians, I say we're in a piano duo and our concerts are adrenalized and sexual...Lara: Seriously? That's your elevator pitch?Greg: Gotta spice it up to counter that first reaction to the genre -- sisters in matching dresses playing boring piano together!Lara: By the way, there was plenty of adrenaline with the matching dresses - but mostly negative energy!Liz: I think the sensual / romantic aspect makes most sense when you consider that it is so physically intimate to share the same space, plus there’s the male/female dynamic…Lara: Do people assume that you’re a couple?Liz: all the timeGreg: I got married (to a man) a few years ago, and when people see the ring, they ask where Liz's ring is!Liz: It's pretty amusing, and I suppose it speaks to our "chemistry."Lara: Right, well, we know that musical chemistry doesn't necessarily translate offstage! Seriously, though, it's a very intense relationship. How many days a month do you spend working together?Liz: It varies. This year is the first time we have lived in the same city (since our Juilliard years), so that allows for great flexibility in scheduling. I can literally call Greg anytime and say that I'll be over in five minutes! And then we always travel together to our concerts, so we can discuss projects and ideas on planes, trains, etc.Greg: And when we're touring, we spend nearly all of our time together On a recent tour -- 21 cities in 26 days -- we were pleased to find we were still good friends (perhaps better!) when all was said and done. When we’reLiz: And of course it's always fun to unwind after a concert.Greg: And eat meals together -- our favorite part!Lara: Maybe you should actually get married! That's better than most married couples I know.Greg: Probably if we were married, things would be totally different...Lara: It's funny, I can see that one of your main goals/focuses is the physicality when you play, and for me, the genre inherently makes that difficult, just the crowded nature of the piano duo configuration. Did you have to work around that at first?Liz: It is pretty crowded!Lara: Do you choreograph your performances, to what degree?Greg: Yes -- we have to, simply because we'd collide non-stop if we didn't. And that's where we devote much of our rehearsing -- to figuring out how to play the music we've arranged! We choreograph to express the music -- so in "Libertango", for example, our hands are all over the place for a reason -- we wanted to capture the physical friction and element of danger inherent in the dance. Likewise, in the Mozart Two Piano Sonata, the piece seems to be all about the dialogue -- so we found ways to capture that conversation physically in the video.Lara: How large is your rep? I mean, how many programs are active at any one time?Liz: It’s pretty vast, and always in flux. We're always adding on new pieces, sometimes one at a timeGreg: It can be fun to play the same pieces over and over again, especially since we value spontaneity - it doesn't get boring - but there is certain electricity to a premiere! Usually we're in such a hurry to learn a new piece that we have no idea what is going to happen in the moment -- so the adrenaline is off the charts!Lara: Oh, thank you! I thought I was the only one! So give me a short description of your rehearsal process, from the beginning, with a new piece, learning the music, choreographing movement, etc., just broad strokes.Greg: We discuss a new piece in advance -- brainstorm concepts, structure, etc. I write the piece down on paper (or Sibelius, really), and then we rework the piece as necessary. We never really compose at the piano I actually do most of the composing in the shower!Lara: Wait, do you shower together too??
Lara: So, I want to talk about your videos. They are really good, and they look expensive, but I'm guessing you have your secret ways?Greg: We pull all the strings we can!Liz: We do everything on our own, which allows us tremendous freedom and inspiration. No hiring of anyone to film, edit, produce, etc, except for the Erlkönig video.Greg: I'd say 80% of all the videos have been filmed by Liz, me, or a tripod.Lara: When I watch the videos, I feel like this is a medium that expands hugely on your ability to be physically expressive, right? You do really great things with the cutting and angles - it opens up the world of the piano bench to a much bigger place.Greg: Our four-hand works were physically expressive from the beginning, but we wanted people to see thing up close, so we started filming the pieces.Lara: It’s interesting. Your performance style and your videos are calling a lot of attention to the physical aspects of your work. But of course your playing is tremendous. How do you feel about the balance of attention to the physical and the musical? Any conflict there, or do you see it as totally positive to blend the two aspects?Liz: I think that performance is a hybrid of emotion, movement, sound, and expression.Lara: I totally agree. Personally I think it's absurd to separate out the physical and the musical. No other art form allows for that kind of separation.Liz: I love watching great artists -- in any genre – perform, to literally see passion and involvement. It’s incredibly inspiringLara: Yes. I think for me it's odd to see the more restrained performers. It's very foreign to me! I kind of admire it, I guess, because you know the music is coming from a very interior place. But I can't help expressing physically, and you too I think. It comes naturally. If it were artificial it wouldn't work.Liz: I love that -- the interior becoming manifest through physical expression.Lara: Tell me about your audiences. Are you seeing young people coming out, mixed with a more traditional audience?Liz: Our audiences are diverse: we see a broad range of people, people of all ages, literallyGreg: Lots of young people! It's very exciting to see.Lara: Funny story: Chris O'Riley played his Radiohead/Schumann show at Mondavi Center last year, and one of the goals of course was to attract a younger crowd. Instead the usual subscription audience turned out, and they were totally into it. So instead of getting the "kids" turned on to Schumann, you had a lot of traditional concert goers who were really excited about Radiohead! I could see that happening with your concerts too.Liz: That has happened to us!Greg: We aim to be like a good Pixar film -- we aim to speak on multiple levels throughout our performances so that people react from multiple anglesLara: What do you think of the big "labeling" question? Do you want to be known as "classical" musicians who are playing pop tunes too? Or would you rather do away with the genre labels?Liz: We're not attached to the idea of labels. I think they’re inherently limitingGreg: I always roll my eyes when people say we're a classical duo playing pop tunes. Classical musicians have been playing "pop" tunes for centuries!Lara: At least the term "crossover" seems to have disappeared!Liz: It's encouraging to see that in our time, the lines are being blurred between stylesGreg: We play music we like... very simple. And we've been told by piano teachers that their students show our videos to their school friends -- so that their friends will think that even “classical nerds” can be cool too!Lara: Amen to that!
The On the Bench Questionnaire(with apologies to Proust and Vanity Fair)
What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to practice?
Liz: I have a short warm-up drill -- scales, etc. -- that I've done for nearly two decades. It feels like a (minor) ritual of sorts ... musical teeth-brushing, if you will!
Greg: I dive right in; I start playing the music I'm most eager to practice. No scales… whoops!
What's the last thing you do before you go onstage?
Liz: If I'm performing with Greg, we always hug before walking onstage. Otherwise, I give myself a brief moment of silence to get into "performance mode" and take a last-minute swig of water.
Greg: I try not to think about it too much. Immediately before performing, I find that it's best to turn off my brain and go with the flow. That said, if Liz is with me, I always give her a really big hug.
If your piano could speak, what secrets would it tell about you?
Liz: It would reveal that I've been known to practice and read simultaneously, a book propped up on the music stand; that I occasionally sing and jam on the piano during practice breaks; and that I feel most adventurous and liberated while making music. I relate to this Flaubert quote: "Be orderly in your life ... so that you may be violent and original in your work." And I also love Forster's exhortation to "only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height." As a person and artist, I aim to integrate the prose and passion of life.
Greg: I've been traveling so much that my piano feels quite abandoned of late. As for the secrets it could share, we'll let them remain secrets. ;-)
If you could travel in time to hear one piano recital, which would it be?
Liz: Glenn Gould's New York debut recital, Town Hall, 1955.
Greg: Wanda Landowska performed a recital in 1950 celebrating 200 years since Bach's death. The program is structured brilliantly, featuring some of Bach's transcriptions and music of Bach's contemporaries, and it concludes climactically with the Italian Concerto. She even performed on different keyboard instruments throughout the recital! In her day, Landowska was known as somewhat of an academic, but looking back (and compared to some of today's "academic" performers) her playing is wonderfully free and imaginative. Such a creative, expressive, and titanic genius would have no trouble holding my attention for two hours!
If you didn’t play the piano, what would you do?
Liz: I think I would still be involved in something creative: writing, songwriting, the visual arts -- something along those lines.
Greg: I have a feeling I would be no less busy… you'd find me composing, making movies, preoccupied with graphic design, writing, looking at the stars, obsessed with the material sciences, editing websites, cooking, winemaking, and traveling the world.