The Baltimore-based interdisciplinary artist Liz Durette recontextualizes the Fender Rhodes, an electric piano best known for its classic rock connotations (heard in The Eagles, The Doors, The Doobie Brothers, and the like), as the outlet for her solo improvisations informed by classical theory. The instrument is the basis for Durette’s setup heard on her two latest albums: the 2016 tape “Six Improvisations,” and her debut LP “Four Improvisations,” released this past September. Both are available on the prolific Baltimore experimental/avant-garde label Ehse Records; other notable soloists on the label include saxophonist Andrew Bernstein (with whom Durette has improvised live), noise/visual artist Jimmy Joe Roche, and pianist Leo Svirsky.

I met up with Durette at her home studio in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood, to find out more about her evolution as one of the underground/DIY community’s most acclaimed soloists, and how she uses classical influences to broaden the possibilities of improvisation. There was downpour throughout the evening. She made us tea, and when I was about to head out after our conversation, Durette gave me an umbrella of hers to take on my walk back to the bus stop.

VAN: Do you still improvise on electric organ?

Liz Durette: No. I play Rhodes, electric piano. They’re different, the action on a Rhodes is more like a piano. The way I improvise depends a lot on gesture, so I need to use a very touch-responsive instrument.

Where did you first play the Rhodes? I’ve always associated it with classic rock.

One of my friends had one and I bought it from them. Yes, the Rhodes piano has very specific connotations with a few certain types of music, even specific songs. I’m using it in a new way. Often when people ask about my instrument, they say, “Oh I love the sound of Rhodes!” I feel neutral about the sound itself—I use it because it is very flexible and sensitive, I can make it sound a lot of different ways, and it’s simple, too. At this point I just use a booster pedal and an amp, it doesn’t need a lot of pedals to make it sound great. I don’t need to mess with a lot of extra gear. The only downside is its weight, which can be pretty hellish going up stairs.

Photo Oliver Degabriele (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Photo Oliver Degabriele (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The electric organ music which Durette was making right after graduating from art school wasn’t as tethered to pianistic comprehension and methodology as her latest music. In the past handful of years, she has been practicing piano more regularly. Shostakovich, whose Preludes and Fugues “loosened some unconscious constraints” (a quote taken from her artist bio on Ehse’s website), has been especially profound. Accounting for Shostakovich’s impact along with the high touch-sensitivity of the Rhodes, looseness—arguably the most integral element of improvisation—has both technical and spiritual significance to Durette’s current approach.

When was the first time you heard Shostakovich?

His music was definitely a catalyst to the music I am making now, though at this point there are other composers that have more of a direct influence on me than him. I would have first heard his music at orchestra concerts, I would go when I was growing up. I practiced cello and I remember working on his cello sonata, I loved the opening movement. His way of letting melodies drift around is definitely an impulse I can relate to, and tend to exaggerate, in my own music. I heard Keith Jarrett’s recording of the Preludes and Fugues, and that really blew my mind. I guess I would have been 20 or so. At that point I was starting to practice piano again. I’d taken lessons when I was a kid. I wasn’t very good then, and now, still, I’m only a proficient enthusiast at playing classical music. Eventually, as I became a better sight-reader, I got the score. A lot of them are very difficult, especially for someone at my level, but I started working on them.

At the same time I had been making my own keyboard music and was into it, but not taking it super seriously. I went to school for painting; after I graduated I was making music but was mostly focused on art. After I started working on the Preludes and Fugues, it felt as if the keyboard was cracked open for me and I could play my own music. It happened in a day, and everything made more sense to me than the music I had been making before.

Was it Shostakovich’s chord shapes that you found unique, or something else?

It was more his way of moving around the keyboard. I had been practicing the easier parts of Mozart and Beethoven pieces. Just something different about moving around the keyboard. I don’t really know how to explain it. With chords, Schubert is more of an influence, once I started practicing his sonatas, I really love those. Those come through in my music a bit, the way he tucks the melodies into his chords, that is a direct influence on my playing.

I’m not setting out to make classical music—what I do with practicing and learning classical music is the ground for what I’m doing. Practicing new pieces opens up different ways of playing that I wouldn’t necessarily come to if I was just improvising on my own. Also, when I’m improvising, I want to be able to go wherever I want, to have the facility to do that. Working on classical music helps a lot with that; the patterns and intervals get in your hands a bit while you’re playing the same thing over and over, and that comes out in improvising.

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For both “Six Improvisations” and “Four Improvisations,” were there guidelines you followed while improvising? Did they differ from those of past improvisations?

Not so much with “Six Improvisations,” there was no specific goal or plan beyond my ideas about improvising. I was feeling out being in the studio, I hadn’t done that before. A lot of the “shape” of each album happens during editing. For both “Six” and “Four Improvisations,” I recorded about six hours of music each, and I spent a long time listening to find the starting and stopping points of songs, and spent a long time cutting out anything that doesn’t feel completely essential. There is no editing within the songs themselves.

“Six Improvisations” has some distortion on it—for “Four Improvisations” I wanted to see as much as I could do with a very straight, clean sound. I wanted very little room sound, if you play it on your stereo then it’s in your room. I wanted the sound to be very simple and straight, so that all of the musical interest or excitement is coming from the playing itself. Where the music tends to be very free and sometimes complex, I wanted the sound to be very direct, nothing is hidden.

The pieces on “Four Improvisations” are longer than those on “Six Improvisations.” Was that natural or intentional?

It’s just how the music is. The music has its own start and stops. I listen and try to follow what it wants. If it’s long, I’ll leave it long. Part of what I “practice” in improvising is trying to keep track of longer amounts of time, while still being in the moment—as I practice this, over time the songs sometimes get longer, as I can gradually keep track of more information in my head as I’m playing along. The 20 minute song on the B side [of “Four Improvisations”] was recorded after I spent a day alone at the beach, I felt so full of sunshine and ocean sounds, all that sun energy organized itself in a piece. If it sounds complete, then it is, and I leave it that way even if it gets long.

Photo mike brown (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Photo mike brown (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Have you ever thought about giving your pieces different titles?

No. If it was up to me there would be no titles at all (right now I number them). But, you can’t have a blank titled digital file! So I use numbers, it seems like the most neutral. The music is not verbal, and I don’t see any need to add any content or context to it.

Because Durette’s approach is so technical, it’s unmarked by defined sensory cues—she doesn’t associate any visuals, symbolism, or feelings with her compositions—yet listeners in Baltimore’s underground arts community have had sensational experiences at her live performances: A showgoer once approached her after a set and told her about vividly imagining some kind of magnificent, luminous field.

When you listen back to a song, do any particular images or feelings become apparent?

No, not for me. I’m thinking more about musical form. But people tell me all the time that they have a lot of visual experiences when I play live shows. People will tell me afterwards things like, “While you were playing I saw I was in a clearing in a forest, and there were these floating lights,” all kinds of things like that. A few people have told me they have intense feelings, that they cried, or that they felt bad before and much better after. It does seem healing and ecstatic to listen to free, direct music, and it’s cool people are feeling this way and seeing things. But I don’t come at it from that angle, nothing visual from me. For me, it’s more about the structure of what I’m doing, the process of improvising.

I’m not thinking, I’m paying attention. It’s a mindset of trying to be in this weird balance-space. On the one hand, you’re opening to things—being open but then, also, finessing whats going on with your own ideas—for me that area in between is the most important part. I always want the music to leap off, but sometimes it can really go too far; I know, then, it’s not communicating with anybody for any good. It’s important to me for the music to communicate. So it’s this back and forth between those two poles of balancing it.

It is spiritual, it’s not something to describe in words, I use music. ¶

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