"And of course, we play this piece like children—with some mistakes," said the Belgian composer and keyboardist Dominique Lawalrée as he sat down with his wife, Claire, and musician Kelly Moran at a piano to play an encore. If this was an apt way to describe the evening's penultimate track, then the rest of the performance was that of an elder revisiting some of his characteristically crystalline music with deft and tender hands.
Thanks to Blank Forms, an 18-month-old event series focused on dance, sound art and experimental music, New Yorkers were treated to a rare weekend of Lawalrée's work. On Friday afternoon, The Lot Radio broadcasted a pipe organ performance at the nearby San Damiano Mission Catholic Church. Then, on Saturday evening, Lawalrée returned to the venue for a concert that combined his works for ensemble and solo piano. Though he's been composing and self-publishing music since the mid-'70s, Blank Forms marked his debut on US soil.
In February, the labels Catch Wave Limited and Ergot Records co-released a compilation of Lawalrée's early music. The Blank Forms event was an extension of this project and involved some of the same players. (Catch Wave's Britton Powell played in the ensemble performance, and Ergot's Adrian Rew works as a curatorial assistant for the series.) The Saturday show focused on this same period, and many of the pieces played featured on the compilation.
Lawalrée opened with the standout "Le Secret Blanc." In the original recording, the piece's primary repeated figure is played on a tinny electric piano, but here, played by Powell on the church's Mason & Hamlin model, it reverberated through the sanctuary. I was reminded that we, the listening public, might only perceive certain works as ambient because of timbre. In the flesh, these notes resounded fully and commanded attention. Though played at a much slower tempo than many of the best-known examples of mid-century minimalism, it had the same clashing and overwhelming harmony, the piano, keyboard and synthesizer all winding around each other.
Decay plays a prominent role in much of this music. Lawalrée will often not provoke another tone from an instrument until the preceding one has gone completely. Powell played a pair of small cymbals in "Waiting For The Bus," letting their gleaming resonance fill a microphone until it resembled feedback. Moran contributed sparse xylophone notes to "Rainy Sunday: Dimanche Pluvieux," adding bewildering filigree to the plaintive, cinematic swirl. The piano strings also did their fair share of sustained vibrating. Lawalrée played so carefully that the clarity of his statements might sometimes have been mistaken for timidity. At one point, he called the notes "hesitant."
Lawalrée revealed more of his personality during the solo piano section, and the audience fawned over his avuncular tone as he introduced each piece. He played more tracks from the compilation—"Please Do Not Disturb," "Listen To The Quiet Voice"—as well as "Blues III" and "Aux Alentours" from his 1977 album, Le Choix Du Titre Est Un Faux Problème.
This part of the set featured some of the night's most virtuosic playing, though it was a new composition, "Lullaby In The Water," that was the most special, due, in no small part, to Lawalrée's introduction. He stood and addressed the pews with what may as well have been a parable: he was dreaming in a pool (the nicest pool in Belgium) when he saw a group of disabled people arrive with two carers. The carers got in the pool while the others sat on the side, and the carers gently splashed water on their legs. Some members of the group seemed scared to enter the pool, so one young carer approached a woman and invited her into her arms. The carer rocked her back and forth in the water while singing a lullaby. "I wish you could see the face of the woman," said Lawalrée. As the piano rippled through the silence, I was able to do just that.
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