At Occidental College, where he has taught for nearly 20 years, Richard Grayson is a mild-mannered professor of music who usually keeps to himself, teaches his courses, interacts with his students and sometimes practices the piano late into the night.
He spends a lot of time in his quiet, orderly and soundproof office in the music building at the north end of the hillside campus in Eagle Rock.
Except once a year, when this Clark Kent of a pianist turns into Superimprovisor.
"It isn't that dramatic," Grayson claims, trying to describe what happens when he steps onto the Thorne Hall stage once a year for his annual "Classical Keyboard Improvisation and Live Electronic Music Concert."
"But it is unpredictable, because most of what happens has not been planned," Grayson said. "True improvisation, of course, depends on being ready to do it, but not knowing what you will do."
Tonight's the night for the 19th edition of this early rite of spring. With "synthesist" Clark Spengler--the third electronic partner the 46-year-old pianist has collaborated with in these concerts--he will devote half a concert to straight, solo improvising on a Yamaha (C-7) piano, and a second half to on-the-spot composition of electronic pieces.
Insisting that it's not a cult event, Grayson nevertheless says that "it is amazing to me that so many people turn out, year after year. I'm very grateful. I guess they keep coming back because, somehow, it's always interesting. And we seem to have a good time."
The format for Grayson's classical-style--as opposed to jazz-style--improvisations is often a pre-existing melody or musical motto. What he then does to the given tune or motif, chosen always at random by his audience, is compose on the spot, a setting in a given style. "The Man I Love" in the style of Brahms. "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" in the style of Gluck.
This dangerous activity--"It is definitely risk-taking," Grayson admits--sometimes works, and sometimes does not. "It's a high-wire act. But, at least, you can only kill yourself aesthetically," he said.
And, "there is a tremendous excitement when it's done well, an excitement that doesn't usually happen in a normal recital. The danger is real, and every wrong note is a reminder that what is going on has not been pre-processed."
At the concert tonight at 8:15, the piano Grayson plays in the first half will remain onstage for the second part, this time electronically connected to "a whole bunch of synthesizers, including a drum machine, turning the piano into a big percussion orchestra." At its most simple, the pianist says, his musical collaboration with Spengler will be divided this way: "He will provide the timbres and I the notes. But, of course, it won't stay that simple. We may devise an ordering of timbres, even a program. . . . "
Grayson and Spengler have been rehearsing just one week, "not to put any pieces together, but to survey our resources. We need to know what all we have before we start to put it together."
How does he prepare himself, personally, for the solo improvising?
"Well, first, I try to keep my fingers in as good shape as possible, all the time. They have to be ready to respond to the imagination taking over. Technique is important because it has to be ready to use," Grayson said.
"I don't practice improvising, but I do practice real pieces to keep the juices flowing. And all year long, I am always looking at music I didn't know before. One has to keep the horizons growing." Grayson insists he never improvises "out of a repertoire of patterns. That wouldn't be using the mind creatively. I do try, when improvising, to hook onto musical ideas and impulses that may occur to me at that moment. Things work best when the brain concocts something, then the fingers follow. Hopefully, that will happen a lot."