Luke Gullickson
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  • Luke Gullickson

Pianist and composer Luke Gullickson is part of a new breed of new-music figures who make the boundaries between once-disparate stylistic approaches as porous as they want. Not only does he ignore the traditional wall between serious composer and performer, his wide-open ears allow all sorts of unique approaches to mingle with his fluid writing. Although he’s now based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Gullickson has spent plenty of time in Chicago. He studied at nearby Illinois Wesleyan University, and he remains a member of the Grant Wallace Band—a trio of composers that includes another former Chicagoan, mandolinist Ben Hjertmann, as well as violist Chris Fisher-Lochhead—which melds bluegrass, pop, and experimentation in artful, unexpected ways.

He’s back in town this week and tomorrow evening he’ll perform his stunning piece Open at High Concept Labs. The pianist released a recording of the work on his own Two Labyrinths imprint late last year (you can hear it in its entirety below), which features his own piano playing and viola work from Doyle Armbrust of Spektral Quartet. The composer dedicates the work in part to the Australian piano trio the Necks (“whose music once drew me a path through a very cold garden”), and there’s little doubt that Open was inspired by them. The Necks improvise every performance, with one of the musicians starting each concert-length work with a spontaneous phrase or pattern, which the rest of the group then elaborate upon, stretch, and mutate for the next 45-60 minutes.

Gullickson doesn’t follow that approach—he wrote out the music, although he did so over the course of a month, adding a page of notes each morning but never going back to edit. Yet the feel is similar, with simple, almost folksy phrases developing and mutating, both for his piano and the pizz-heavy patterns played by Armbrust. The piano parts are at once tenderly lyric and percussive, with a hard, ringing clarity, while the viola seems to shadow that action with more hesitant counterpoint, a kind of secondary feeling that lends the performance some of its power. It’s a stunner. For Wednesday’s performance the musicians will be joined by dancers from Dropshift Dance.

Today’s playlist:

Rebekah Heller, 100 Names (Tundra)
Sweet Breeze, Advice (Tembo)
Coco Mamas, Get an Understanding (Daptone)
Rachel Podger Brecon Baroque, J.S. Bach: Double & Triple Concertos (Channel Classics)
Various artists, Nigeria 70: Sweet Times (Strut)