Music is the most abstract and moving of artistic media. Invisible soundwaves unfolding in real time to palpably express the human spirit. Of all the acoustic instruments, piano is the most versatile vessel for sonic expression, resulting in every style from baroque to blues, from ragtime to rock. Eight-eight bits of clay to mold into countless aural landscapes.
I first got my hands into that clay at age four when we inherited an old, anonymous, upright piano. Upon its arrival, we discovered I had also inherited intense musicality from a relative before me (likely my grandmother, a natural artist). For the first decade, I shaped sound by ear and instinct. Unable to read notes, I relied on listening, musical memory, and inborn dexterity to reproduce patterns heard on the radio or turntable, and on an inner creative machinery to make those unique impressions on the keys that would later become my pianistic identity.
My parents nudged, then finally shoved me into formal lessons, which led to a bachelor’s degree in music from Penn State, where I studied composition and piano performance. Like an orator at last learning to read and write, music literacy set me free. I was no longer in a creative feedback loop of fossilized personal habits. Further, I could now write music in my mind, unrestrained by the physical limitations of what my hands might stumble upon at a given moment. Like thinking before you speak.
Despite the newfound artistic freedom, I began to feel physically trapped and burned out by the isolation of life in a practice room or music lab. Without joy, there is no fire, so I took a break from piano upon graduation. After a couple very dark, aimless years of redefining myself, I moved to China and taught high-school English. The adventure was just amazing, but long-term I needed something more stable, something in between sitting alone in a studio and flying halfway around the world, so I returned to the states and continued teaching here.
Education can be beautiful work, but a hole developed at my center over time. The growing years away from the fine arts were dimming my light. I began drawing and writing poetry to brighten that space (two more inheritances from my grandmother). That, in turn, developed into a solo stage show of spoken word with projected artwork called The Face Zone: Surreal Daydreams to Trip Your Imagination… After some years of regionally performing this act, it occurred to me that music would enhance the experience for both me and the audience!
Excited by this revelation, I reacquired a piano, blew the dust off some scores I wrote back when I had long, dramatic, piano hair, and found my way back home (this time with the hair on the opposite side of my face). In addition to relearning older compositions, I began writing new pieces to rotate through my spoken-word set until I finally had enough music for a full-length album to take you places all on its own.
With Trips for Piano, I invite you on eight musical excursions. Though there are titles and themes to guide your way, you are free to travel wherever the notes take you. The point is to set mind in motion. Toward what and to what end is for you to decide as you lose yourself in the resonance of these evocative piano pieces made to move the soul and light the imagination…
—Martin Graff, Spring 2021