When the Hammer Hits the String: “Quiet Music” As Performed by American Pianist Ashlee Mack

Celeste Pepitone-Nahas / 19 sty 2024

Soft interlocking tones. Notes in the upper and lower registers of the piano. Patterns that repeat, then subtly change. The result is a soundscape that conjures overlapping colours and images, reminiscent of 20th century impressionistic composers such as Debussy and Ravel, but with far less concern for traditional “melody.” Such is the texture of American pianist Ashlee Mack’s performance of Still, a 54-minute solo piano composition written by her partner, composer James Romig. Mack has presented the piece more than 30 times, including at the Clyfford Still Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright’s historic Cedar Rock Estate, and The Stone in New York City. Her recording of Still was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Music.

Over the past few weeks, I listened to and watched recordings of Still several times, trying to get to the root of its meaning and to understand the genre on a deeper level. Each time, I found myself entranced by the way Mack maintains tension and focus for the duration of the near hour-long performance. The piece belongs to the genre so-called “quiet music”, a piece of the contemporary music universe that emphasizes music of contemplation, stillness, and slowing down. Though such music may move slowly and never reach a dramatic crescendo, it is not background music. Rather, it is emotional, human music that asks us to listen, and to tune into our bodies, minds, and disparate selves.

Like many pianists, Ashlee Mack initially received classical training. It was while earning a degree piano performance that she met an influential teacher who specialised in 20th century American music. Her mentor pushed her to perform music by living composers, and she never looked back. Today she is a contemporary music specialist with over two decades of performance experience. She has given recitals in Germany, Italy, Czechia, and across the United States. On a regular basis, Mack plays work by living composers in the Khasma Piano Duo, formed with her colleague Katherine Palumbo, and continues to commission new works. In 2023, Mack and Palumbo celebrated the 10th anniversary of their duo with their freshly conceived “Trekking Project,” in which they toured national parks with seven contemporary works and visual art by Chris Craychee. Due to her special interest in quiet music, she has collaborated with the Prague Quiet Music Collective— one of the only groups dedicated to this specific genre — to perform a solo piano recital of quiet music works.

These days, not a moment passes when we are not bombarded with the visual and sonic fury of advertisements, beats streaming from gyms or café-bars, or even the blather of Podcasts and Spotify playlists we willingly plug into. Music, noise, and sound are so ubiquitous it can be hard to distinguish one thread from the next. For those involved in writing, producing, and performing quiet music, part of the goal lies in untangling these very threads.

For Ian Mikyska, the founder of the Prague Quiet Music Collective (PQMC) in the Czech Republic, quiet music doesn’t necessarily have to be soft in volume, but it must foreground contemplation as opposed to drama. As Mikyska wrote: “The music might be quiet, it might be slow, it might be long, it might be repetitive, it might be all of these or only one – or even neither, though that’s more difficult to achieve.” As it turns out, trying to describe the subtleties of quiet music is a task that almost threatens to rupture the inner purity and calmness the music provides. To say that this music must be experienced in real time to be fully understood would be an understatement. Yet to summarize, what the Collective aims for is “quietude on the spiritual level.”

This intense state of spiritual quietude is not unlike the state of focus necessary to learn a musical instrument. Ashlee Mack began studying piano at age ten and knows well the dedication it takes to perfect one’s craft. Though when a performer swings through a Rachmaninoff concerto or a Chopin etude a piano can sing with the violence of a storm and the power of a full orchestra, at heart the piano is a simple instrument. Think: basic percussion.

As a piano student for many years myself, I have become clear on one fundamental rule: When you play piano, you cannot “force” the sound to grow louder by pressing “harder” or pushing your body weight into the keys. You only have control over one thing: the speed of attack. When you press a key, an interior hammer is triggered. This hammer hits a string and the resulting vibrations create sound. The only way to make a sound louder is to move at a quicker speed. Think: physics. Having spent hours with my piano teacher, focused on just one measure of music, trying to finesse the angle of my hand, I grew to understand the immensity of focus that goes into every note. In this way, I believe that piano is perhaps the most ideal instrument for the quiet music genre.

Pianists are both gifted and cursed with the sheer immensity of music we can select to play from. One could live a whole lifetime playing only Chopin and might not even touch all his oeuvre. For Mack, a great virtue of playing contemporary piano music is being able to communicate and collaborate directly with composers. “The ability to ask a composer questions about their music and receive feedback through the learning process is an enormous privilege,” she explains, adding that, “bringing life to a brand-new piece of music is absolutely thrilling.”

Working in the here and now with composers who are alive and awake to the forces of the modern age is indeed a tantalizing proposition. In the 17th, 18th and even 19th centuries, it was far more common for musicians to play works by living composers. Only during the 20th century did piano performance habits stagnant somewhat, with musicians feeling content to repeat the so-called “classical canon” of mostly white, male masters: Beethoven, Brahms, Bach. Today, new music ensembles are pushing contemporary music towards uncharted terrain.

Mack has studied and performed numerous quiet music compositions. In Marti Epstein’s Haven, commissioned with the specific intent to serve as a respite from the “noise and confusion of daily life”, solitary opening notes are followed by spaces of silence and eventually, a series of smooth rolled chords. One might imagine a harpist practicing at a distance, where resonances hang in the air like the quiet that comes in the aftermath of church bells. Marti Epstein is a composer and educator, and her teaching philosophy at Berkeley College of Music mirrors her artistic interests. “I’m not interested in teaching all the rules, memorizing the rules, and then [doing] exercises,” she says, in an online interview from 2014. “That’s not interesting to me. And that’s not how the composers who wrote the music that we study composed.” For Epstein, musicians must learn to create from their imaginations; bringing a piece of music from the idea state into reality is “one of the most miraculous things about our existence.” Discussing what it was like to rehearse Haven, Mack explains that the dynamic is written ppp throughout the entire piece, which requires the pianist to hold down both the una corda pedal (sometimes called the “soft pedal”) and the sustain pedal at the same time. “There is always sound,” she writes, “but it’s always dying away, with varying degrees of rests/silences between each attack.” By eschewing the traditional features of instrumental music, such as drama and climax, quiet music emphasizes the idea that “something”—however soft, however small – can indeed emerge from “nothing.”

Another composer Mack has played is Anthony Donofrio, whose work cuts across various artistic forms. Whether in his cross-genre work Disquiet for Cello, Piano, and Dance or his piece Mechanical Ghosts, which utilises various percussion instruments set around an open grand piano–Donofrio brings both academic and bodily influences to the page. According to Donofrio, their work “investigates the compositional intersection of music and experimental literature, specifically in the realm of nonlinearity and structural distortion.” Mack and Donofrio performed Donofrio’s piece Altars for Piano and Percussion, a “75-minute meditation on time, timbre, and patience” together at Knox College in 2023. Such investigations paradoxically mirror the nonlinearity of the internet and yet require a certain distance from today’s frenzied attention economy. Mack feels grateful to remember the time before the internet, writing: “I didn’t have a cell phone until I was in my 20s, so I didn’t have my attention being drawn to a lot of different things in my formative years.” Being able to play the new music pieces she loves sometimes necessitates that she remains focused for 60 or 75 minutes at a time without breaks, almost like a long-distance marathon runner. “Discipline is everything,” she says.

To know about quiet music, one must also understand the history of the Wandelweiser collective, a group of a musicians who formed in the 1990s and took a Cageian approach o fundamental musical concepts including sound, silence, and duration. Ashlee has played the works Swiss composer Jürg Frey, a Wandelweiser mainstay, whose Miniature in 5 Parts (2014) is plays homage to Music in Twelve Parts, the longest concert piece by contemporary composer Philip Glass. “I tried to open and spread the music and the time to get wideness and calm,” Frey wrote.

Although innovations are made each day, it is true that music history builds upon itself like a series of nesting dolls. One can find precedent for Wandelweiser’s ideas about silence, space, and time in John Cage’s “4’33”—a piece that shocked audiences in 1952. Since then, ideas about the silent, still, or quiet aspects of music have ricocheted into an ecosystem of philosophical inquiry. This constellation of artists and performers circulate around a central concept as Earth spins around the sun: that as much as music is about sound, it is also about silence, as much as it means noise, it means quiet, too. Music is about the space that time creates, and what can occur when we resist the urge to rush. “Take a breath,” my piano teacher told me, “when you play with others you can slow things down with rubato—but you must never rush the tempo. Don’t be early. Wait.”

For Ashlee Mack, “quiet music” can fall into many categories, but at heart, she says “it’s minimal.” Sometimes there will be clear rhythms, patterns, while other times notes seem to fall from nowhere, disrupting all musical norms. “If I project a quiet state on stage,” Mack explains, “then the audience will feel comfortable being in their own quiet state.” If it sounds a bit like meditation, perhaps that is because it is. Quiet music is, in a way, accessible to a wide variety of people precisely because it lends itself to meditation, relaxation, and otherwise stepping away from our click-bait world.

Ian Mikyska’s Collective is alternative in the sense that it resists a culture of noise, commodification, and hurrying. He works to emphasize a deeper understanding of the philosophical and non-Western cultural backgrounds it relates to. While artists the Collective works with must have at least some “feeling for the contemplative,” he is always willing to help shift their work in the quietude direction. Sometimes this shift comes from the outside—from related artistic endeavors rather than music in isolation. Two long-term PQMC projects make the link between quiet music and practices of Buddhism and Zen: “Sitting” is described by Mikyska as “essentially a Chinese tea ceremony accompanied by live music,” while “Ryōkan in Banská Štiavnica” is an evening-length performance for two musicians which features the poetry of Zen monk Ryōkan in combination with field recordings and structured improvised music. Both events bring people together and help teach the aesthetics of quietude, as well as the practice of extended focus. One realizes that to appreciate quiet music, one must learn to be still with fleeting emotions, and to truly listen. For Mack, the result of close listening in a performance setting is clear: “an attentive state of being among every person in the room.”

And what happens when the music leaves the room? Ashlee Mack is an avid nature lover and hiker herself and has been invited to participate in artist residences located in American national parks. For her, music is deeply tied to a connection with nature, as evidenced by her role as a collaborative pianist on the chamber album Leaves From Modern Trees by James Romig (1999-2016), an album based on the complexity of the natural world. It is no surprise that Still, initially inspired by the work of American abstract painter Clyfford Still, is often performed outside. The piece is a journey not up, but through the soft valleys of a mountain; the interpreter becomes our guide.

Quiet music today is an emerging and rich genre, one which still respects certain classical performance standards, and yet walks the ridgelines of experimental and popular work. In a 2014 article for The New Yorker, American music critic Alex Ross wrote that the music of Wandelweiser Collective is “not music for everyone.” Such is a common misconception about new music — that it may be difficult to understand. Yet for Mikyska, because quiet music has such clear objectives, one can appreciate the genre without knowledge of musical theory or specific training. A pianist of great depth and concentration, Ashlee Mack will be an excellent guide for those who are curious, as well as those looking for an immersive arts experience. Her live performances and recordings go beyond mere notes, inviting listeners to fully understand what quiet music can bring: both inner attentiveness and outwards connection with others.