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Taking Musical Improvisation on the Road : Professor Taking Musical Improvisation on the Road

May 20, 1989|GREGG WAGER

After 20 fruitful years filled with grading papers, giving lectures and all the chores associated with being a college professor, Richard Grayson is reaching for new directions. He now sees himself performing more and touring around the country.

"I admit I've always been a shy person," said the 48-year-old composer-pianist and master improvisationist from his Santa Monica home where he lives with his wife and two cats. "But now I have a manager to take care of all the little things that were never done before and think I might be ready to take my act on the road."

Tonight Grayson will give his 20th annual concert on piano and synthesizer in Thorne Hall at Occidental College. A teacher of theory, composition and several other subjects at Occidental since the fall of 1968, he has long been a member of the Los Angeles academic community.

"I was the third person to ever receive a Ph.D. in composition from UCLA," he recalled, citing Southern California veteran musicians Michael Zearott and Ed Applebaum as the first two. "I'm happy in the secondary college system, and it's been good to me, but now I'm ready to concertize some more."

Grayson's academic credentials are certainly in order, but his unique talent of improvisation is an ability that's nearly impossible to teach.

"It was something I always could do," he said. "I used to do it for friends and then one day decided to make a public concert out of it."

Composers of the ilk of Bach, Beethoven and even Boulez have had the ability to improvise in their own respective styles. But Grayson is like few others in that he improvises in any style with any given melody.

"I have audience members call out the melody and style. That way it's more raucous and fun."

What then flows from his fingers is an extemporaneous composition that deftly captures the personality of any given composer, no matter how banal the melody might be. In a way, his talent is like that of an impressionist, but with musical styles.

When asked if he has ever been stumped, especially by 20th-Century styles, Grayson replied: "Every once in a while something doesn't work quite right. But some of my best improvisations have been in 20th-Century styles, especially Schoenberg, whose music I love.

"One of the most outrageous combinations was 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game' in the style of Henry Cowell. It worked out nicely because the melody is mostly a pentatonic scale and Cowell frequently used tone clusters on the black keys of the piano (which also constitute a pentatonic scale)."

Other combinations he mentioned that worked particularly well were the theme from "I Love Lucy" in the style of Beethoven, "Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a Pirate's Life for Me" in the style of Mozart, the theme from "The Pink Panther" in the style of Handel, "When You Wish Upon a Star" in the style of Ives and the "Hallelujah" Chorus in the style of Philip Glass. A rare example of one of the few combinations he was not able to work with is the "Russian Easter" Overture in the style of Satie.

But Grayson's talents as an improviser don't end with these unusual creations. He also improvises with a small Macintosh computer/Yamaha synthesizer,

"I like to use atonal, big-band-like lines against sets of regular and irregular rhythms recorded on the computer," he explained. "Each piece has a separate title and a specific focus, even though they are largely improvised. Otherwise, most of my written compositions now are clearly in the minimalist style."

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