Elodie Lauten at Roulette in 1984

Elodie Lauten "Piano Works Revisited", Notes by John Schaefer and Elodie Lauten

image: Elodie Lauten at Roulette in 1984

Notes on "Piano Works Revisited" by John Schaefer

Listening to these recordings, almost 30 years after the first of them was made, I find myself struck by how well they have aged. Actually, they don't seem to have aged at all – even Piano Works, Elodie Lauten's 1983 debut, sounds absolutely contemporary now. As Elodie mentions elsewhere in these notes, I liked her early piano-based works and played them frequently on my NPR new music program, New Sounds. There was much to like: the term Post-minimalism hadn't been coined yet (hell, most people were still catching up to Minimalism at that point), but Elodie's music was clearly taking the repeating patterns of Riley, Reich, and Glass in a new direction. Then there was the delicate way she danced along the border of music and noise. Especially in the first two albums, Piano Works and the even more ambitious Concerto for Piano and Orchestral Memory, the combination of piano and electronic or "found" sounds was striking: it was as invigorating as it was disorienting.

You can follow the arc of Elodie Lauten's career through her piano works. The strong modal flavor of many of those early works, eventually made explicit in her Sonate Modale, hinted at a composer/pianist who considered herself a composer first, and a pianist almost accidentally. This was the sound of a musician straining against the bounds of the conventional piano, with its compromised equal-tempered tuning. The non-keyboard sounds -the fragments of speech, the ambient city noise -were not constrained that way, and her electronics quickly followed suit. Finally, with her 1991 piano piece Variations on the Orange Cycle, built around a low G (the frequency equivalent to the daily rotation of the earth), she created something of a farewell to the piano's equal temperament. Clearly aiming for a "natural" tuning, the piece spirals around the overtones of that low fundamental note. The piece would be a springboard for a productive decade-plus of compositions using alternate tunings, which for purely practical reasons meant a marked decrease in piano works.

These early works contain the seeds, and the early flowering, of the traits that have made Elodie Lauten such a consistently interesting composer for such a long time: a keen ear for the emotional content of a sound or a tuning; the rhapsodic character of her playing; and a mysterious, almost mystical approach to inspiration, Improvisation and performance practice. None of that goes out of date.

– John Schaefer, New Sounds, WNYC

Composer's Notes by Elodie Lauten


I was working at the 49th Parallel gallery in SoHo, a Canadian outpost run by diplomats. I got my own apartment on the Lower East Side a sixth floor walk-up. As soon as I moved there, I was robbed of my stereo and the ring my grandmother gave me, but my keyboard was spared because it was at the rehearsal space. This robbery prompted me to get a real piano, something that couldn't be taken away. I got an upright for $300. It took four guys to get it up the stairs. That was reassuring. It was there to stay. I had a cute black and white cat, Julius, and he was doing a great job with the waterbugs and mice. I was set. I had finally settled in New York. It had taken about seven years.

That's when I evolved from songwriter to composer. Suddenly with the piano and a new synth my father got me with the earnings from "Do the Dog", a song we co-wrote and was stolen by some British band, I had ideas.

The new album integrated three elements in an original way: the piano rhythms in a repetitive but lmprovlsallonal style which was later to be called post-mlnlmallst, the analog synth sequences as a bass texture, and sound loops of various environments, water, cars in the rain, pinball machines, even some television soundtracks. It was entirely instrumental, no vocals at all. The result, Plano Works, was recorded quickly and efficiently around Christmas 1982. I had another disc all recorded and ready to go, but I decided to shelf the other project and go for this one. There were no more bands. I was going solo.

My life was in order. I jogged in the morning, all the way to the East River, went to work at the gallery, and returned home to practice. I attended meditation sessions every week. All my earnings went to producing and releasing recordings. I sewed my ovm clothes to save money. But the releases on my Cat Collectors label were rewarding.

In the spring of '83 I was able to release Piano Works. I cropped the cover photo by Mike Morse so it would only show my arm. For a long time I was self-conscious about showing my face on a record unless it was somewhat hidden or remote. I was trying to say: I am only the medium through which the music is made. What I look like is not important. Don't look at me like an object. Just listen.

The final product had some misprints. I didn't throw out the misprinted albums though. I used them and gave them out free at my performances. It is amazing how many things can go wrong when you have something manufactured. Receiving the test pressing is very exciting. I remember having things redone that didn't sound right on the test pressing.

I sent off the disc to John Schaefer of WNYC who liked tt and aired it frequently. People told me "Hey, I heard your music on the radio!" I played at Dance Theater Workshop and that was a different kind of venue for me – a place to play where people actually sat down and listened to the music. What a nice change from the club scene.


My days at the 49th Parallel gallery were happy. I had gotten my friend Rob Keay, the painter, a job as a gallery assistant and we chatted when no one was around, which was a lot of the time. I handled the bilingual communications with the Canadian artists. Rob only did actual work for about a week per month, when we put up a new show. All the other gallery assistants that came for the installations were painters or sculptors. It was the height of SoHo, the rise of Julian Schnabel and other new expressionist painters. My old friend Terry - the guitar player from the defunct Orchestre Modern - worked at the Castelli Gallery two floors below. We were like a family of artists.

During lunch, I sometimes went to the back office to play the brand new Yamaha grand that was never used. It was a virgin piano - I was the first person who had ever played it beside the tuner. The guys down at Castelli could hear it and said, hey, you should do that more often. In my building on Ridge St., the front door could never be kept locked – somebody would break the lock as soon as it was installed. As a result, junkies were hanging out on my stairwell sitting on the steps, listening to my practice through the closed door. I could see them through the peep hole, and I was frightened at first, but they never did any harm. They apparently were there only to enjoy the music!

With Arthur Russell, Peter Zummo and Mustafa Ahmed there was a band of sorts. We used to call it the Singing Tractors. Peter and Arthur were both involved in the recordings of Concerto for Piano and Orchestral Memory and The Death of Don Juan. We recorded regularly at Battery Sound. Concerto has themes but no standard developments; the themes evolve organically, they are open-ended and augmented by synth sequences and concréte loops (as in Piano Works, loops of various sound environments that create a rhythmic cycle). The orchestral background Is modified electronically with effects. There Is more happening vertically than horizontally, there Is a texture made of interacting layers. The orchestration was written down for the musicians to read, but I couldn't bring myself to write out the piano part because I feared it would block me and make the piece frozen and stiff.


Tango was original written at the request of a close friend of the mid-70s, French abstract painter Robert Malaval – it predated my conversion from rock music by several years. The original version was a song in French combining the French song style and the mood of the Argentinian tango. Robert Malaval who called his wild, acidly colored art "Kamikaze paintings", committed suicide in the mid-80s. It had been years since I last saw him, but in his memory, I began to resurrect the piece without the singing, as a solo piano piece. A version of it was released In 1986 on Tellus. it was choreographed by Elinor Coleman and performed with her dance company at St. Mark's Church in April 1987.


While studying at NYU for my Master's, I started a piano piece that would have some elements of the sonata -the recurring themes - but in a much more undefined framework, including electronic tracks that I produced at NYU on the Fairlight computer. It was a compositional evolution of the form I had practiced in Piano Works and Concerto for Piano and Orchestral Memory. The result was performed in 1985 at the Music Gallery in Toronto, and later on (without the soundtrack) at Danse Mirage Theater in September 1986. There are only two piano sonatas: "Sonate Modale" and "Sonate Ordinaire". They both have French names - a reference to European classicism and my childhood in Paris. "Sonate Modale" remained unreleased whereas "Sonate Ordinaire" is from the WNYC recording at Merkin Hall was released on the 4Tay CD Piano Soundtracks.


Variations on the Orange Cycle is about the experience of time. It translates brain activity into music in real time, music inherent to the unfolding of time, mirroring a conscious experience of space-time. The starting point Is the 24 hour cycle (dally rotation of the earth = G frequency according to Hans Cousto) with its succession of phases of activity, leisure, transport, rest. The succession of moments is comparable to variations on a theme, except that in the Orange Cycle, the traditional parameters of theme and variations are altered. The theme and variation are in a subjective to objective partnership. The four variations or phases refer to subjective modes of experience that occur at any point. The theme exists not as a melody but as a most basic musical interval, F over G fundamental. In terms of melodic development, the Variations are an example Universal Mode Improvisation. The four phases are different treatments of the G fundamental: modal (phases 1 and 4), chromatic (phase 2) and polytonal (phase 3). In the chromatic mode, dynamic textures are superimposed to 1he fundamental in a bitonal framework. The polytonal mode explodes the textures into free form while holding the fundamental. This piece was composed in 1991 in New York. I recorded it in one take at Cedar Sound on a Steinway B (recording on this CD). Later, in 1995, to prepare for the New York premiere at Merkin Hall by pianist Lois Svard, I used a computer midi input to score the piece and revised it. The recording was subsequently released on the Lovely Music CD Other Places.

Musically, I belong to a generation who, having heard enough rock music, experienced both free jazz and minimalism as fresh, exciting reference points. Minimalism was my springboard. What I liked about minimalist music is that it Induces a kind of a trance, but eventually the trance state induced by the repetition makes you forget the music. I wanted to stay with the flow and not go beyond it, so there had to be more stimuli in the music, variations of rhythm, of accents, of notes. This is what I did in the Piano Works: working out texture out of a minimalist pattern and stretching it. Between these two inspirations: minimalism with its trance-like quality and free jazz with its explosive quality, my music eventually developed in its own direction, in what I now call Universal Mode Improvisation [UMI] a free style evolving from a basic modal scale Into bi-tonality, polytonality or atonality, usually with an underlying fundamental or even without, like the carpet has been pulled from under and everything is up in the air.

I use semi-repetitive patterns which are constantly modified. The mind is semi-repetitive, it goes around In circles for a while; there Is some randomness; some unexpected leaps. A thought wanders away and connects with something unrelated – my music mirrors mental activity. In free jazz, what comes out of the unbridled collective improvisation can be frustration, anger, ecstasy. Everything comes out without censorship, but instead of raw, disturbing emotions, I would rather transmit a peaceful state, a heightened consciousness, something uplifting, a way of connecting with the boundless mind.