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Music Notes: George Flynn puts his piano where his politics are

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"This is music that almost nobody wants to hear," says composer and DePaul music professor George Flynn of his solo piano work Trinity. Variously described as "raw and bloody," "relentlessly dissonant," and "possibly the most violent piano music ever written," the 93-minute piece contains three sections: "Wound" (1968), "Kanal" (1976), and "Salvage" (1993). "Wound," says Flynn, "might be how Osama bin Laden would express his attitude about this country, were he to write new music."

Raised in Montana and Washington State, Flynn joined the DePaul faculty in 1977, after getting a doctoral degree in music composition from Columbia University and teaching in New York for several years. In his 40-year career he's written more than 100 solo, chamber, choral, and orchestral works, and he's widely hailed as a master of ferociously difficult piano music. He says he's always been drawn to dissonance--even in an early teenage composition, a jazzy, torchy piece, he couldn't resist dipping into discordant territory. "Even then I always liked the dark stuff," he says. "There is a sound that I like that includes two intervals. One of them is often referred to as the devil of music. The other is called the angelic. Of the two, the devil is certainly the one that you'll be more likely to hear. That's my music for sure--a combination of both."

Flynn's compositions are intricate puzzles set up--and then solved--within technical borders of his own devising. Flinty and tough, his music is filled with chords he describes as "muscle twitches" and clusters that call for the pianist to use the flats of both hands to cover the keys. "I wanted to extend my own poetic horizons and do things that were interesting and unusual instead of redoing what other people were doing," he says. "I'm creating a kind of sound world that you're not going to hear in anybody else's music."

But his work isn't just an elaborate formal experiment; Trinity, for example, is also an antiwar statement. "Wound" was inspired by the Tet offensive, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the Columbia student riots. "Kanal" takes its name from Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda's bleak 1957 depiction of the Warsaw uprising, which ended when Jewish partisans were driven into the sewers by the Nazis and murdered. "Kanal" ("Sewer," in Polish) is anchored for two-thirds of its duration in the lower half of the keyboard--symbolizing the underground--before rising up to use the whole piano in its last section. "Salvage" is quiet and meditative, suggesting peace and resolution.

Understanding these "extramusical" aspects, says Flynn, may give listeners a point of entry into work they might otherwise find impenetrable. "Presumably, if they can listen beyond the poetic notion of war and all of the rest of that, into the music itself, they will find lots of other things that might interest them. It's not really violent--it's exciting for the people who are used to listening to this."

The jarring feel of a great deal of new music makes it a good medium for Flynn's antiwar themes. On the other hand, the composer insists that "The music has got to stand on its own feet without any extramusical crutches, if it's worth anything. I will be the first one to acknowledge that if nobody knew what this was about and had not been told in advance they never would have divined this from the music."

At the 1968 New York premiere of "Wound," says Flynn, "the page turner held on to the piano when it started to roll offstage as I banged away." Since then, all three pieces have been widely performed individually, and Flynn recorded a double CD of Trinity (released on the local Southport Records in 2000), but the work--"a knuckle buster"--has never been performed live in its entirety. On Tuesday, April 8, however, Swedish pianist Fredrik Ullen will tackle Trinity in a concert at DePaul (he'll also perform it in New York on April 4). Flynn, who retires at the end of the school year and plans to devote himself to composing, thinks it could be an interesting show: "The length, combined with the physical demands of the performance, means that there is an issue concerning Ullen's ability to get through the work without collapsing."

Flynn will introduce the concert, which starts at 8 in the DePaul University Concert Hall, 800 W. Belden. Also, on Thursday, May 8, pianist Winston Choi will perform Flynn's 1989 American Icon, which Flynn describes as seeking "to present images that 'America' might evoke in the minds of people who have been victims of American violence." Both events are free; call 773-325-7664 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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