Pianist Conor Hanick Revisits “Book of Sounds,” at Hahn Hall in Santa Barbara

Launching new Music Academy series, Acclaimed Pianist Conor Hanick Reprises a Highlight of the Ojai Music Festival


By Josef Woodard

Santa Barbara Independent

Photo Credit: Laura Desberg


Not an organization to let a milestone season go easily into the good night, the Music Academy of the West is capping off its grand 75th anniversary year with a three-concert “Mariposa Series” at Hahn Hall. On the slate is a recital by alumna Michelle Bradley on December 4, and an Alumni All-Star Cello Choir on December 17.


But one of the series’ highlights nods to both the Music Academy and to this year’s Ojai Music Festival, where pianist Conor Hanick — an Academy faculty member for the last decade — mesmerized the audience with his complete reading of late German composer Hans Otte’s The Book of Sounds. The hour-plus mosaic of short “chapters,” sometimes echoing Satie, Messiaen, and Morton Feldman, adds up to a beguiling language all its own. You have to be there, and can, at Hahn Hall on Thursday, October 27. (Hanick also performs it in Los Angeles’ respected “Piano Spheres” on December 12.)


We checked in with Hanick for an update this week.


Is your “Mariposa Series” kickoff concert a welcome opportunity to return to Santa Barbara, and build on a continuum of what the Music Academy is about?


Conor Hanick: Any invitation to Santa Barbara is welcome, all the more if it extends from my work at Music Academy. This particular performance is a way for me to appear as a performing artist in the “off-season,” sure, but more than anything it’s an opportunity to share great music with a dear community of friends.


Hans Otte’s The Book of Sounds, to my ears, was a clear highlight of this year’s Ojai Music Festival. Has this been a piece you have worked on for some time now?


I’m so happy to hear that, thank you. I’ve been playing The Book of Sounds for almost as long as I’ve known about The Book of Sounds, which is to say about ten years. I performed the piece for the first time in 2014 and have played it about once a year since, the pandemic notwithstanding.


Hearing it as a whole piece — the proper way to experience it — the score covers such a range of harmonic ideas, densities and emotional states, but coheres into something larger than the sum of its parts. Is that fair to say, from your insider’s perspective?


Your read is right on, I think. Like all pieces, some movements have a more immediate voice. But for me those movements gain such a luminous potency in the context of the whole that I can’t really imagine them separately.


The other thing that I’ll say is that the “journey” of the piece — the pathway created movement to movement, and the expressive vistas of its geography — is somehow both pre-scripted and entirely free. In other words, the piece is doing a very specific thing on a compositional level. But on a human, psychoacoustic level, the music suggests an infinite number of perceptive modes.

Someone came up to me after a performance once and said that in the last movement they had hallucinated themselves into their childhood room, laying alone on a bed, a patio door open with the drapes blowing gently in the breeze. That spooked me.


Do you feel that it occupies a unique place in the pantheon of solo piano works, and do you have a desire to spread the gospel about the piece and expand awareness about it?


For me, there are few pieces more beautiful. It’s beautiful in the obvious aesthetic sense, with its unabashed exploration of consonance sonority, but it’s also beautiful in the way it invites deep, communal listening. Happy to spread that gospel far and wide.


Is life on the Music Academy faculty a particularly rewarding experience for you?


Next summer will be my tenth year as a faculty artist at Music Academy. It is my artistic home away from home and I look forward to being with my brilliant colleagues and the remarkable fellows every year.


What projects are you engaged in at the moment that you’re finding satisfying and challenging?


I’m preparing a new piano concerto written for me by the composer Samuel Adams, which we’ll premiere in February with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the San Francisco Symphony. That’s certainly keeping me busy and is a total blockbuster piece. I’m also learning the Berg Sonata for the first time — after all these years of teaching and obsessing over it — and I’ve never had more fun digging into a new score.


My three-year-old Willem is also a project — satisfying and challenging — and I can’t wait to bring him out to Santa Barbara next summer for the festival.