The Powell Tribune
Album recorded here

Drummer Ronnie Bedford, pianist Carol Lian improvise

Ripples of rhythm build to a storm of sound in the Powell High School auditorium.

Drummer Ronnie Bedford of Powell and classical pianist Carol Lian of New York City are recording an album here. They started taping Thursday and continued through the weekend, mixing the sessions on Monday.

Not only is recording an album in Powell unusual, but the music itself is unique. That, in fact, is the point. The music is completely improvised. Nothing is rehearsed or written out in advance. Form, rhythm and melody are completely spontaneous.

Lian crouches over the grand piano in quiet concentration. She hits a few Rachmanioff-like chords from piano to forte as recording engineer Steve Singer of Garland punches up the reel-to-reel tape deck. The analogue recording will be mixed to a digital audio tape from which a compact disc will be made, due for release in perhaps May.

Bedford rattles among his drumsticks, eyeing them closely and selecting a pair as a painter might select his brushes. He begins with a pulse of sound. Lian responds with a seemingly independent burst from the keys. The sounds, the rhythms at times converge with each other, intertwining to spin about like dancers in their own worlds, orbiting a common sun. Snippets of rhythm are transferred between two sets of ears and hands.

At times the sound resembles a tone poem, perhaps New Age-ish at other times but not as diaphanous or somnolent.

Singer hunches over his control board, adjusting the levels. Bedford switches to brushes. Lian rises from her chair to pluck the piano strings in a pizzicato fashion. “I used to play cello,” she says later.

At times percussive, at times melodic, Lian and Bedford wipe sound off their instruments, hurling it into the quiet auditorium.

The piece ends as quietly as it started. Singer says, “that was nice,” as he stops the tape. “Should we give that a listen,” says Bedford. “It was great,” says Lian. “It’s definitely a take.”

They listen to the playback. “I think it’s very exciting and we’re very lucky that we found each other,” says Lian.

“This stuff is hard,” says Bedford. Heads nod approvingly as the playback continues. The recording approach Lian and Bedford use contrasts with the highly polished, produced sound common in current contemporary music. To imbue the music with freshness, this duet sits down to produce an album in three days instead of three months.

“I love it,” says Bedford. “Let’s hear a little more.”

Despite her classical training, Lian seems to come by her improvisational skills naturally. She recalls performing the Bach inventions on the New York radio station WNYC at age 13. She suffered a memory lapse and improvised her way out of it. It happened again in college during a Mozart piano concerto, when she again improvised the cadenza. “I obviously had a talent for it and look where it’s taken me,” she says.

Lian had started doing free form improvisations as a part of her classical recitals as early as 1983. Her husband, jazz musician and composer Jack Reilly, had written pieces that included a cadenza-like section intended for improvisation.

“It’s a very scary thing to do and the music just came out,” Lian says. While agents hesitate over it, she says “the audiences do respond It may be new to them but it’s important to do.” She recorded the piece and continued to use it in classical recitals.

Lian and Bedford began their improvisational collaboration about five years, although they’ve known each other for the past 20 years. Lian and Reilly participated in the first Northwest College jazz camp at the college field station along with Bedford. They tried improvisational pieces that Reilly taped. “When we listen to the tape we were impressed with what happened,” recalls Bedford.

“Sometimes art can affect you and you really can’t put it into words,” says Bedford. “It’s like living life out here and the beauty of the mountains. To me, it’s a religious experience.”

“It’s very inspiring for me to be here, away from the different kinds of energies you’re going to have in New York,” says Lian. 

Bedford and Lian recorded their first album together at the Cody High School auditorium two years ago. Both come from classical training, with Bedford heavily influenced in jazz as well.

But both see their improvisation as different from that of jazz musicians. Improvisation in jazz is based on a melodic structure. “We build the structure as we improvise,” says Bedford.

“You want the music to sound fresh and alive,” says Lian. She tries to imagine visual aspects to the music. “Every time we sit down it’s something different,” she says. The collaborators usually don’t talk about what they will do ahead of time. “Ronnie’s so melodic as a drummer,” she continues. “I hear him speaking and he hears mine and it just takes off. You just have to keep playing and have faith.”

Improvisation involves “using another side of your creative gifts” besides those used as a classical pianist, she says.

“The form unfolds. It’s not just rambling. It has a beginning, middle and end,” she continues. “It’s a totally free kind of improvisation rhythmically, structurally, and harmonically...I don’t want to have a preconceived anything. It’s a total letting go.”

Lian and Bedford taped an extended piece nearly 30 minutes in length, something they had done in concert in Billings in November.

The musicians venture down an uncharted course each time, not knowing quite where they are going or where they will end up “it’s the real thing,” says Lian. “It’s of the moment.” Like looking into an abyss, Lian says, “It’s definitely an edge.”

Some pieces seem to work better than others. “It’s very hard for me,” says Lian. “I don’t do it all the time. I don’t say, ‘next week I’m going to do an improvisation.’ “

Asked how she would describe the music, Lian replied, “I would say that it’s basically melodic. I think very melodic when I play. I think that Ronnie also plays very melodically on the drums.”

“It is emotionally inspired...You can’t think. You can’t be editing as you play. You are in such a natural state of being at the instant, like speaking to an old friend.” Without any preconceived ideas, “it then becomes a reflection of the musician, how they see and feel life.”

Bedford describes the music as “a spontaneous dialogue,” analogous to a spoken dialogue in which one person makes a statement and the other responds. Sometimes they overlap. Sometimes they share the same thought, he says.

“I don’t know where we’re getting these ideas,” says Bedford. After Thursday’s session, he says “it had me dancing. It was really strong You couldn’t define the beat, but there was a pulse there that you could feel...Most of it is emotional.”

“I think it’s a letting go of the emotions,” says Lian.

“You have to release them or it’s impossible to get any creative ideas,” says Bedford. “You’re as free as you are in your own mind...I just go with the flow.”

“I would like to see it evolve to be as musical as possible and as exciting as possible,” says Bedford. “I think it can grow and grow and become more interesting to us and to then listen to...We’ll be telling stories with this type of playing.”

“I hope the meaningfulness of it comes across,” says Lian. She sees a new receptivity to new musical forms among traditional classical music audiences. That seems particularly true in performances by Lian in Italy, London and Scandinavia.

Bedford and Lian are considering a New York concert next October with a possible European tour in 1993

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