Danny Holt

Piano Music of Mike Garson

Innova 066


            1          Homage to Chopin & Godowsky  2:21

            2          Tribute to David Bowie  4:53

            3          Selected Nowtudes:

                        F# Major, C Minor, Ab Minor, A Minor, Bb Major, G Minor, B Minor  7:07

            4          Nocturne in B Minor  2:23

            5          Contrapunctus  1:28

            6          3x18  8:16

            7          Nocturne in Db Major  3:38

            8          Homage to Ligeti  2:32

            9          God Speaks  3:23

            10        Homage to Prokofiev  2:00

            11        More Love Now  2:17

            12        Tribute to Keith Emerson  1:15

            13        Butterfly  2:48

            14        For Ives  1:49

            15        Gospel  3:07

            16        Tremolando  7:52

            17        Prelude in Gb Major  1:25


                        Total: 58:38


When I first heard Mike Garson’s music, it was as if it reached out of my stereo speakers and grabbed me. I knew right away that I had to learn more about this man and his music. We first crossed paths in 2004 when I was a graduate student at CalArts, but it turned out he’d actually heard my playing in a competition he adjudicated several years prior. He told me that he’d always had a sense that I might be someone who would “get” his music. He was right!


Shortly after we met, Mike ended up co-producing my Fast Jump album, and during my numerous trips to his home studio outside of Los Angeles, we got to know each other – sharing wonderful conversation, playing music for each other, improvising together, etc. I witnessed his voracious appetite for new music, his monster piano technique, and his mind-blowing improvisational prowess. He soaks up whatever music he is exposed to, and when something excites him, he often incorporates those musical ideas into his own compositions.


That’s a big part of what I’ve always enjoyed about Mike’s music: it reminds me of so many different musics that I love, and yet also always sounds like him. Musically, he’s all over the place: channeling Ligeti, Ives, or Messiaen one moment, Bach or Rachmaninov the next moment, and then before you know it, it sounds more like Keith Jarrett or Chick Corea. As a pianist, Mike’s an animal: his fingers seamlessly merge with the keys and it’s magic. He’s a force of nature, and can go from a delicate ballade to the most intense – and extraordinarily dense – keyboard wizardry in the blink of an eye.


Mike’s music has a wonderful sense of immediacy, of aliveness, of being on the edge. Over time I came to realize that those characteristics are largely the result of his unusual compositional process. In the early 1990s he began honing a particular technique that blurs the lines between improvisation and composition. The tool that facilitates Mike’s approach is the Disklavier: an acoustic piano equipped with MIDI sensors and a complex reproducing mechanism so he can play the piano and send MIDI data to a computer (which can then reproduce his performance on the piano with surprising accuracy.) When inspiration strikes him, Mike can simply sit down at the piano and play the music that comes to him – without worrying about stopping to notate his ideas along the way. While some composers might use this as a chance to ‘noodle’ and gradually develop ideas, then use MIDI editing later to revise, edit, and extend them, Mike capitalizes on his outstanding improvisational chops: he churns out fully-realized compositions almost in real time…just slightly under tempo. I’ve watched this process unfold, and it is truly remarkable. I’ve always been fascinated by how he can separate tempo and gesture in his compositional process: his musical ideas unfurl almost in real time, but playing under tempo gives him just enough time to think in a way that’s different from a typical live improvisation. When he’s done, he simply has the computer play back the piece on the Disklavier at the faster tempo he had in mind (sometimes at breakneck speeds that are quite intimidating to a human performer…but more about that later!)


After spending most of the 1980s honing his jazz chops, Mike found himself searching for the next challenge. He recalled to me how one day in the early ‘90s, he was studying the score to Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto and listening to Ashkenazy’s performance. He described feeling so humbled that an almost crippling depression came over him that night. “It was around midnight and I couldn’t sleep. I passed by the piano in the living room and I felt like I just had to do something, I had to play. What came out 13 minutes later was my first sonata. So I wrote that piece and I said to myself: ‘I’m not Rachmaninov, I’m not Keith Jarrett, I’m not McCoy Tyner, I’m not Art Tatum…but I don’t know too many people who can do this.” Inspired by that experience, Mike created a self-imposed discipline and delved deeper into this particular method of composing. At first he forced himself to go far outside his comfort zone, making all of his pieces atonal. And for years he deliberately eschewed jazz, the musical language that came most naturally to him.


Mike admits that more traditional compositional techniques just aren’t his thing: he’s always been a “first take performer” and his interest in revisiting, revising, or expanding his ideas after their initial conception is quite limited. “When I tried composing with pencil and paper, I really saw myself as a 2nd or 3rd rate composer,” he told me. But what he is good at is capitalizing on a moment of inspiration and spinning that into a gem of a composition.


Mike will be the first to tell you, though, that for every successful piece he has turned out there are many mediocre ones. After his revelation in the early ‘90s, he hunkered down for the next decade and explored his concept of “NOW Music,” tinkering like a madman in his studio (often for more than 16 hours every day!) At first he stuck to a specific discipline of creating very short atonal pieces, about 20-30 seconds each. Over the years this evolved into a broader, more eclectic stylistic palette and longer, more mature compositions. Reflecting back on that turning point in the early ‘90s, Mike told me: “After I wrote that sonata, I said OK that’s my role. Yes, I can play jazz, I understand blues, etc. but I need my own music. I learned that from Lennie Tristano – he always wanted the improvs to be different, to avoid clichés. I thought I would take that concept and do it with a more classical and atonal vocabulary. In that 10-year period, I composed about 3,200 pieces, of which I was batting about 1 out of 10. The other 9 got me there.”


We happened to meet around the time Mike was probably at his peak with this NOW Music process. Over a period of several years, I assembled pieces that spoke to me and gradually started learning, performing, and recording them. Throughout the process, I’ve felt a special responsibility, since this would be the first time anyone recorded an album of his solo piano works. I’m grateful to Mike for his patience, encouragement, and trust throughout the endlessly fascinating process of bringing his music to life.




Despite being known for his work in the jazz, rock, and pop worlds, those styles are not always immediately apparent in Mike’s original compositions. Many of the works I’m drawn to are the tributes and homages. From a young age, Mike demonstrated a gift for imitating different performers and musical styles. In these pieces, though, we get more than a mere imitation: it’s like he gets at the essence of something (a particular composer, musician, or style) and then runs it through a Mike Garson filter. Oftentimes it’s as simple as Mike hearing a specific piece, and getting inspired by that in the moment. His Tribute to Prokofiev was inspired by the last movement of Prokofiev’s first piano concerto; Homage to Ligeti by Ligeti’s first etude; Tribute to Keith Emerson by the Emerson, Lake, and Palmer album Tarkus. For Ives perfectly captures the wild, rambunctious nature of Ives’ idiosyncratic piano writing, and his fondness for quoting popular tunes (“I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad” pops up a few times in Mike’s piece). Homage to Chopin & Godowsky is a double whammy: Mike heard some of Godowsky’s brilliant and virtuosic reworkings of Chopin’s etudes, and said to himself, “This guy is as crazy as me! He’s taking these etudes and making them twice as hard. OK, well, fuck him! I’m going to write the third version harder than both of those guys!” (The piece was also inspired by a particularly bad performance of Chopin’s famous C major “Waterfall” etude that Mike heard…it was so slow that it made him furious, and he just wanted to create something even more virtuosic!) Although less specific than the homages and tributes, Gospel similarly showcases that ‘Mike Garson filter’: it’s a playful experiment juxtaposing gospel licks with dissonant, angular “free” improv.


One of the pieces I was always especially drawn to is 3x18, which Mike composed on his 54th birthday. He was studying Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit – somewhat infamous as one of the most challenging works for solo piano from the early 20th century – and in typical Mike fashion, he felt compelled to compose something that would rival that virtuosity. What came out is a three-part tour-de-force, one of the longer and more substantial of his piano works.

On the other end of the spectrum, Tremolando was an exercise in patience: Mike told me he wanted to challenge himself to see if he had the patience to play very slowly for a long time. “This piece was a deliberate effort to do something different,” he explained. “It became sort of meditative…I was admiring the subtlety of the notes moving, as the harmonies slowly changed.” The end result is unlike anything else he’s composed before or since.


3x18 and Tremolando stand out because of their length, clocking in at around 8 minutes. Most of Mike’s output consists of short miniatures (nocturnes, preludes, meditations, sonatas – titles he throws around fairly loosely.) Among the shortest pieces are his Nowtudes. He originally composed more than 80 of these very short pieces, and worked with his longtime copyist, Bruce Donnelly, to assemble a collection of 24 quasi-etudes in every major and minor key. I selected a handful that I enjoy and included them here as a short suite.


Tribute to David Bowie was created for Mike’s 2011 Bowie Variations album, which mostly featured his solo piano reworkings of classic Bowie tunes. Although he’s never felt quite at home in the rock/pop world, Mike has also told me that almost every day, something happens in his creative life that’s directly connected to his work with Bowie (particularly his iconic solo on the title track of 1973’s Aladdin Sane). David Bowie was always very enthusiastic about Mike’s original music, and often encouraged him to continue composing and to share his music with the world. Mike’s tribute is a simple, beautiful piece that feels like an intimate gift from one friend to another. (The piece became even more poignant after Bowie passed away in 2016.) For the Bowie Variations album Mike added a delay and Disklavier overdubbing to give the piece an otherworldly feel, but I think the piece stands on its own and the simplicity is satisfying, so I present it here in its unadorned version, as Mike originally played it.




Learning Mike’s music often involves making interpretive decisions informed by the effect of the Disklavier on his compositional process, and this has been both a topic of serious conversation and also an ongoing joke between the two of us. Various self-released albums of his piano music contain Disklavier reproductions of his original performances, but at his ideal (faster) tempos. These Disklavier performances make quite the first impression: I’ll admit I was totally blown away by pieces like Homage to Chopin & Godowsky, 3x18, and Homage to Ligeti when I first heard them. Unfortunately I’ve come to accept that I’ll never live up to those lightning-fast Disklavier performances. (This has actually been a source of considerable anxiety for me over the years...!) Composer and musicologist Kyle Gann once told me about how Conlon Nancarrow took such gleeful delight in demonstrating his player piano compositions at ridiculously fast tempos for visitors to his Mexico City studio, even though those tempos didn’t always serve the music well. I sometimes give Mike a hard time for having that same inclination. Hearing this music played at breakneck speed is admittedly thrilling (and the faster playback has the added benefit of glossing over some of the limitations of the Disklavier reproduction) but frequently not only are these tempos impractical for a real live pianist, but they don’t allow the music to groove or breathe.


Occasionally Mike’s dream tempos and Disklavier shenanigans present some interesting challenges, and force the pianist to make some careful decisions about execution and interpretation. I recall asking him about a passage in Homage to Prokofiev where I had to choose: either play all of the notes he wrote, but at a slower tempo, or make some modifications and play the entire piece at the fastest possible tempo. We opted for the latter. Mike’s Disklavier recording of Gospel includes one impossible passage near the end, and I’ve just had to do my best to capture the essence of what he wanted. 3x18 includes numerous extremely fast runs that do sound quite extraordinary when played by the Disklavier at Mike’s desired tempo, but I’m a mere mortal and I’ve done the best I can. The very end of that piece was so dense that it actually maxed out the Disklavier: in playback, it just can’t keep up, and omits some notes. After I’d already gotten very familiar with that recording, years later Mike sent me a MIDI sequence of the piece using a sampled piano sound and suddenly that final passage sounded quite different (because it actually reproduced all the notes the Disklavier couldn’t!) I’d already fallen in love with it the way the Disklavier struggled to play it, though. Thankfully, Mike didn’t mind me keeping that “original” version, which is how it’s presented here.


When learning Mike’s music, getting to know all those different versions of the piece is necessary, since the printed score is really just a starting point. Mike has relied on the skillful work of several copyists over the years to notate his music, which is a daunting task since what the Disklavier spits out is very messy, raw MIDI data. Bruce Donnelly was responsible for notating most of the music on this album, and his work really is impressive: looking at that mess of raw MIDI data and studying Mike’s recorded performance, he would make careful determinations about how to most clearly notate the music so that it would best represent what seemed to be Mike’s intentions. That process involves a certain amount of interpretation, however. Just as a good urtext score is your best friend when learning music from the 18th and 19th centuries, I think Mike’s Disklavier recordings (and, in some cases, sequences using a sampled piano sound, sometimes even slowed down) are the best window into his musical mind.


Some of the scores I used were rough drafts that required significant surgery: I was constantly pushing myself to get as close to Mike’s intentions as possible, using the scores only as a starting point. But even if all of Mike’s scores are meticulously edited someday, I think anyone who performs his music should always return to the source and study his original performance (as reproduced by the Disklavier).


Speaking of returning to the source, it felt both logical and special to record the album at Mike’s home studio, especially since I loved his piano: a one-of-a-kind prototype Yamaha concert grand that Mike had somehow convinced the manufacturer to sell to him instead of sending it to the dreaded ‘piano crusher’ where prototypes usually go to die. The piano was ballsy and robust, especially well-suited to his more intense music. It felt right to record the music on the very piano on which it was originally created. Unfortunately, in 2018 when I was preparing to finish recording the album, Mike lost his home to one of southern California’s devastating wildfires. It was especially painful seeing the image of the remains of that spectacular (and irreplaceable) piano in news reports about the fire. But we were determined to see the project through to the end. I was able to finish tracking at CalArts in early 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic upended everyone’s lives – especially those of us who find meaning in connecting with audiences through live music. As I write this, it is my sincere hope that in the coming years I’ll have many opportunities to share this music with live audiences in concert, and that perhaps this recording will spur other pianists to explore Mike’s voluminous output.


— Danny Holt, January 2022


Mike Garson is a composer, performer, producer, and educator widely respected for his impressive skills as a pianist. Born in Brooklyn in 1945 to a musical family, Garson began playing at age 7 and started composing at age 12. Since that time, he has never looked back. In his youth, he studied piano with Leonard Eisner of Juilliard and later earned degrees in music and education from Brooklyn College. He also studied with Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Hal Overton, Robert Starer and Lennie Tristano; and he has played with jazz luminaries such as Stanley Clarke, Elvin Jones, Lee Konitz, Stan Getz, and Freddie Hubbard.


Garson is perhaps best known for his relationship with David Bowie, which began in 1972. He made his mark on numerous Bowie albums and traveled thousands of miles on tours spanning more than four decades, including Bowie’s first and last performances in the U.S. Of Garson’s musicianship, the rock icon once wrote: "It is pointless to talk about his ability as a pianist. He is exceptional. However, there are very few musicians, let alone pianists, who naturally understand the movement and free thinking necessary to hurl themselves into experimental or traditional areas of music, sometimes, ironically, at the same time. Mike does this with such enthusiasm that it makes my heart glad just to be in the same room with him."


Mike Garson’s music has been performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Hollywood Bowl, UCLA’s Royce Hall, The Kennedy Center, and Segerstrom Center for the Arts, among others; and he has been a guest artist at universities around the world. His life and work have been the subject of a book (Bowie's Piano Man: The Life of Mike Garson by Clifford Slapper) and a documentary film (Mike Garson and His 88 Friends, directed by Harry Bromley-Davenport). In addition to appearing on more than 20 David Bowie albums and on albums by Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, and No Doubt, Garson’s work can be heard on numerous albums on the Reference Recordings label. He also contributed to the soundtracks for the 1999 supernatural horror film, Stigmata, and the recent HBO series Watchmen.


From Bach to Bowie, East Coast to West Coast, piano keyboards to computer keyboards, Mike Garson works to make the world a more creative, compassionate and compelling place.




Called “phenomenal” by the late music critic Alan Rich, and hailed as one of the “local heroes” of the Los Angeles music scene (LAcitybeat.com), pianist Danny Holt brings his boundless energy and wit to unique interpretations of new music, 20th-century music, and obscure, unusual, and neglected repertoire from past centuries.


Holt performs around the globe in concert halls (Carnegie Hall, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Hollywood Bowl), clubs (Joe’s Pub, The Blue Whale, Copenhagen Jazzhouse) art galleries (MASS MoCA, Hammer Museum), churches, living rooms, and wherever else he can find a piano and someone to listen. Known for his no-holds-barred style, he has been called “the classical music equivalent of an extreme sports athlete” (The Record) and “an artistic maverick who isn’t afraid to tackle tradition” (WWLP-TV).


He has held fellowships at the Bang On a Can Summer Music Institute, the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall, and New England Conservatory’s Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice, and has worked with composers Steve Reich, Louis Andriessen, Christian Wolff, James Tenney, Graham Fitkin, David Lang, Michael Gordon, Augusta Read Thomas, and Michael Finnissy, among others.


Holt has received awards and grants from ASCAP, Yamaha, the American Composers Forum, the Yvar Mikhashoff Trust for New Music, and others; and has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, Blue Man Group, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the California EAR Unit, and the Calder Quartet. He can be heard on the Innova Recordings label, pfMENTUM, New World Records, Deutsche Grammophon, and l’st records.


Gramophone called Holt’s Fast Jump album “a compelling showcase for Holt’s innate virtuosity and gregarious temperament” and WNYC’s John Schaefer selected the album as one of the best new releases of 2009. Among Holt’s recent ambitious solo projects is The Piano/Percussion Project. More than 25 composers have created new works for Holt’s unique setup in which he plays piano and an array of percussion instruments simultaneously. When he’s not performing cutting-edge contemporary music, Holt enjoys curating programs of obscure repertoire from the 18th and 19th centuries, bringing rarely-performed works and the unheard stories of lesser-known composers to audiences. Holt holds degrees from California Institute of the Arts, Hampshire College, Smith College, and Interlochen Arts Academy. He splits his time between Los Angeles and Desert Hot Springs, California.





Tracks 2-5, 7-9, 11, 13, 15 & 17 recorded at Hitching Post Studios, Bell Canyon, CA, 2012-2016; edited by Blanton Ross


Tracks 1, 6, 10, 12, 14 & 16 recorded by John Baffa at The Wild Beast, CalArts, Valencia, CA 2019-2020; edited by John Baffa; Piano technician: Alan Eder


Mixed by John Baffa at TV Tray Recording Studio, Ventura, CA


Mastered by Wayne Peet at Newzone Studio, Los Angeles, CA


Yamaha pianos


Artwork: Mike Garson


Design: Philip Blackburn


Special thanks to: Miriam Schulman, Madelyn & Jerald Jackrel, Raulee Marcus, and Beth Curley.


Many thanks also to over 80 Kickstarter supporters who helped make this album possible (and who patiently waited for two years during a society-upending public health emergency to hear the final result…!)


innova is supported by an endowment from the McKnight Foundation.

Chris Campbell, Director of Recordings

Tim Igel, Manager of Recordings