Survey on piano courses 2016

If you are an adult pianist who has attended a piano course this year (1-day course or workshop, weekend course, or longer residential course in the UK or abroad) please consider taking part in this survey which explores the reasons why people attend piano courses and what they hope to gain from them. The responses will then be collated and included in a round up of piano courses for 2017.

All responses will be treated in the strictest confidence. Thank you in advance for your help.

Click the link below to take the survey:

Why go on a piano course survey

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Students at La Balie, France

Meet the Artist……Yfat Soul Zisso, composer

26-apr-soul-zisso-contemporary-voices-web-131063328970695992Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
When I was 14 I started writing songs and realised I had so much music in my head that I didn’t know how to write down, as I couldn’t play any instruments. This led to a ‘eureka’ moment where I just knew that composition was what I was meant to do in life, which resulted in my deciding to go away to boarding school to study for an A Level in music from scratch when I was 15. 

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
My teachers (both composition and instrumental/vocal) and friends have had the most significant positive impact on my career. They have taught and supported me, always being honest and therefore helping me improve and acknowledge both the good and bad. 

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 
Having only started studying music at age 15, my greatest challenge was catching up with everyone else: first with general music and performing and then with composition. This meant always making sure I was working harder than everyone around me, and not giving up even when it meant not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for years and years on end.  

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 
Each piece is different and special in its own way. I treat the compositional process as a type of meditation, seeing the players playing in the hall inside my head, hearing what they’re playing and how it works spatially in the space. Once the initial idea of the piece is established, it’s all about answering all the different questions about what the piece is trying to do and how, until I can hear the whole structure in my head and can write it down.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
Every different instrumentation brings with it lots of possibilities and new ideas, which is always exciting. Working with musicians I know and admire is particularly great as it’s easier to write a piece that is influenced by them as players / singers and has that added element of being written especially for them. I find writing pieces for myself to perform (as a soprano) the most challenging – it’s like a constant battle between my performer side wanting to perform strange extended vocal techniques and my composer side needing to justify every choice compositionally.

Which works are you most proud of? 
Poke – a piece for large mixed ensemble I wrote two and a half years ago for a workshop with BCMG. Even though it was the only piece I’ve written in the last three years that has only been workshopped rather than performed, I worked on it for a solid three months and am very proud of the level of detail and complexity in it. I hope it’ll someday get a proper performance. 

From the Darkness, for symphony orchestra – this was my first attempt at writing an orchestral piece fresh from finishing my undergraduate studies and my chance to use all I’ve learned about orchestral writing from sitting in on weekly rehearsals and watching countless concerts (another attempt to catch up, this time by a 1st study singer catching up on orchestral knowledge). I’m still proud of this piece because it shows how much I’ve progressed in just a few years, from a singer who couldn’t tell apart oboe and clarinet colours to using the orchestra in ways I haven’t even seen being done before. 

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
Ligeti, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Radulescu, Saariaho

What is your most memorable concert experience? 
A few years ago I was fortunate enough to have my first orchestral piece ‘From the Darkness‘ chosen to be workshopped and then performed by BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The experience of having my piece played by one of my all-time favourite orchestras when I didn’t think it even stood a chance to be chosen was surreal and overwhelming, one which gave me hope for the future and that I would never forget. 

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 
That pieces of music need to have a reason to exist, be it an idea or structure that comes across – there’s no point to writing pieces that just sound pretty without having something to say. 

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Working professionally as a freelance composer and teaching composition at a University / Conservatoire 

What is your most treasured possession?
I have a few items that, to someone who doesn’t know me, might seem childish and bizarre but actively help me compose. These include a ‘touchy-feely’ hamster book, a squeezable orange octopus toy (with its knitted hat), and my personal scores for the Berio Sequenza III for female voice and Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata (which are both symbolic in reminding myself I can overcome massive challenges when I set my mind to it)

How do you work?

I usually compose in what I like to call my ‘office’, which is essentially sitting on the floor in the hallway of the Conservatoire, opposite the composition notice board. It may sound bizarre (and passers-by keep wondering what I’m doing there or assume I’m queuing for a practice room), but it really helps to think about new pieces away from a piano or any other instruments at first in order to get a clear idea in my head of what I want the piece to sound like and do. The sound of lots of different students practising nearby actually becomes a kind of white noise that helps clear my head and I really prefer it to silence, and lots of people walk by so it doesn’t feel too alone. To add to the weirdness, I’m usually surrounded by my ‘composition aides and mascots’ which help me deal with stress – quite often I’ll be sitting there hugging my copy of Berio’s Sequenza III and petting my hamster book. I heard I’ve become quite a mystery for pianists who frequently practice on that floor.
How would you describe your compositional language?

I really like using different types of microtones to explore less common soundworlds. My pieces used to be mostly harmonic-series based but in the last year or two I’ve been frequently experimenting with other microtonal soundworlds, which feels like exploring a wealth of unexplored territory. As part of my doctoral research at Birmingham Conservatoire I am researching microtonal singing in order to create my own unique microtonal language that will incorporate voices as well as instruments, which is why I’m currently trying out lots of different ways of using microtones. Another side of my compositional language is influenced by my work as a performer – using extended techniques and/or a greater sense of acting/performing, especially for voices.


Carla Rees and Xenia Pestova premiere Hidden Elegy for alto flute and piano at The Forge, Camden, on 6th September 2016. Further information and tickets here

Ever since commencing on her music studies at the relatively late age of 15, Soul has been dedicated to her dream of becoming a composer. She graduated from Cardiff University, studying with Arlene Sierra and Robert Fokkens and for a brief time studying with Alison Kay, before commencing on a Masters and later a PhD in composition at Birmingham Conservatoire under the tuition of Joe Cutler and Howard Skempton.

Her music, which has been described as “curiously original” (Wales Online) and having “real character and sensitivity” (Wales Arts Review), has been performed by the likes of BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Orchestra of the Swan, Xenia Pestova and the Fidelio Trio across the UK, Europe and Canada in a wide range of venues including Wells Cathedral, Hoddinott Hall and Stratford Town Hall, and festivals such as the Cheltenham Music Festival, Occupy the Pianos and Frontiers new music festival.

Her interests range from the use of different microtonal soundworlds and textures to children’s books and the exploration of various extended techniques. She is also interested in writing for dance and has composed music for Rambert Dance’s Vintage Rambert project.

In addition to composing, Soul is also a singer, specialising in performing contemporary repertoire, including Berio’s Sequenza III for female voice. She is a member of Via Nova chamber choir, has performed as both soloist and choral singer across the UK (including at the Wigmore Hall and at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival) and abroad and is committed to promoting new music, which includes premiering many new pieces, particularly ones for solo unaccompanied voice.

www.yfatsoulzisso.com

Sunday Concerts at Conway Hall, 2016/17 season

something-blue-110Conway Hall, in London’s Red Lion Square, just a stone’s throw from Holborn and the British Museum, was purpose-built in 1929 to host concerts and lectures, which continue here today, and is a landmark of London’s independent intellectual, political and cultural life. The hall is owned by the Conway Hall Ethical Society, an organisation which advocates secular humanism.

Conway Hall’s chamber music concert series is the longest-running of its kind in Europe: the Sunday Concerts at Conway Hall can be traced back to 1878 when the Peoples Concert Society was formed for the purpose of “increasing the popularity of good music by means of cheap concerts”. Today’s concerts at Conway Hall continue this ethos of affordable music for all, and the Sunday Concert series includes workshops and concerts for children and young people as well as a full and varied programme of chamber music. 50 tickets for those aged 8 – 25 are kindly subsidised by the CAVATINA Chamber Music Trust to encourage young people to attend the concerts.

The new season begins on Sunday 11th September with a concert of music by Haydn, Mendelssohn Brahms performed by Gémeaux Quartet. Future concerts in the season feature pianists Alasdair Beatson, Ashley Wass and Simon Callaghan, artistic director of the Sunday Concerts series, and chamber ensembles Brook Street Band and members of the London Mozart Players, amongst many other fine musicians.

Conway Hall Sunday Concerts full schedule

Robert Schumann’s Advice to Young Musicians – revisited by Steven Isserlis

27072-books-origjpgPublished by Faber & Faber
Publication date 1 September 2016
Length 112 pages
ISBN 9780571330911
Format Hardback

 

This book is an absolute joy from start to finish. So much so that I read it in one sitting, busily making notes in the margin and nodding my head in agreement.

Robert Schumann’s Advice to Young Musicians was originally written in 1848 to accompany his famous, and still very popular, Album for the Young, a suite of piano pieces for children and students. Schumann was a remarkable man, not least for his huge and varied oeuvre of miraculous music, but also his championing and support of other musicians, as well as teaching, writing and encouraging young musicians. Celebrated cellist Steven Isserlis has taken Schumann’s advice and expanded upon it, added his own commentaries and words of wisdom, and often matching Schumann’s humorous or witty tone with his own amusing observations. Schumann’s advice, though couched in the language of his age, is always relevant and Isserlis, through his own words, demonstrates how perceptive Schumann’s wisdom is by passing it through the lens of his own experience as an established and highly-regarded classical musician. He brings the advice right up to date for today’s musicians working in a profession that is increasingly busy, competitive, uncertain and stressful. Such advice includes the importance of playing with others, receiving critical feedback from one’s peers and teachers, appreciating audiences and understanding the structure of music.

Divided into five sections, the book explore keys facets of the musicians life and work, from being a musician through playing (and performing), practising to composing, something which Schumann felt all musicians should do, and which far fewer practising musicians do today (Steven Isserlis’s good friend and colleague the pianist Stephen Hough is a notable exception, whose polymath musical life Schumann would certainly approve of). The final section contains Isserlis’s own pieces of advice which are thoughtful, intelligent and accessible. Isserlis reveals his reverence and enthusiasm for his chosen art in a way that is never didactic, sometimes profound, always realistic yet never depressing. The tone throughout is modest and sensitive, for musicians can be fragile souls. prone to much self-doubt and anxiety.

Not just a handbook for young musicians, this delightful and wise book is a manifesto for all musicians, music teachers and music lovers, one which one can read in a single sitting, or dip into at one’s leisure to extract a nugget.

Highly recommended.

One of my favourite quotes: “As you grow up, communicate more with scores than with virtuosi”

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do audiences want?

To be entertained
To be moved
To be transported
To be amused, amazed and bowled over
To hear familiar tunes
To hear rarely-performed repertoire
To learn something new
To be challenged
To have a “bespoke concert experience”
To enjoy whatever is on the programme
To feel the musician’s concentration and communication
To sense the synergy between ensemble players, or orchestra and conductor
To enjoy a concert in an unusual venue, by candlelight
To get up close and personal with the musicians
To applaud whenever they like
To exclaim at the soloist’s beautiful gown
To see more young people in the audience
To dress down
To dress up
To sit in comfy seats
To have value for money
To meet friends & have interval drinks
To have time for dinner beforehand – or afterwards
To not have to get the last train home
To not be patronised or treated as uneducated or ignorant
Performers can never please all of the people all of the time and usually need to balance their desire to play certain repertoire with the expectations of the audience. Personally, I don’t think performers should ever feel the need to pander to an audience 
Some actual audience views
…..quality, enthusiastic performances (not robots) and a diverse mix of repertoire

[I want] An ineffable mix of emotion, technique… and always something new. I want to be moved, educated, entertained, and astonished!
And some actual performers’ views:
……communicating. I want them to know and feel what I’m feeling in the amazing music

Audiences want to feel that they are engaged in the performance, that they are part of the communication. I think primarily they don’t want to feel patronised or bored. It’s probably easier to say what they don’t want. I think it also depends where you’re playing. In a village church with an audience who like classical music but might not want to feel challenged, you’d play something different to what you might do in an inner city concert hall……. different audiences want different things but ultimately they want to feel part of what’s going on.
This debate will run and run, in tandem with the endless hand-wringing and eye-pulling about the death of classical music. There is no simple answer. Maybe, as this article suggests, it is time classical music became more radical, to stop chasing audiences or worrying about ticket sales, and to simply revel in “great, challenging and rewarding music”. An idealistic view perhaps, but certainly one which merits consideration.
Why do I go to concerts? Because I love the uniqueness and excitement of a live performance, the sense that it is a one-off, created there and then (of course, as a musician myself I also appreciate the many hours of careful practising that go in to creating that performance). I love the sense that this is a shared experience, but one from which we can each take something personal and special – and that, for me, applies to all concerts, regardless of performer, repertoire or quality of performance.
As a performer, I believe the music was written to be shared and for me that is the fundamental motivation for performing.

Further reading
Issues in Planning Concert Programmes by Hugh Mather (who runs the excellent concerts at St Mary’s Perivale)

Meet the Artist……Scott Wheeler, composer

2751c7d40-04b5-aae9-56825b8f0700ef0fWho or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music? 

It was a slow process, with music growing into such a presence in my life that midway through college I realized it had taken over, so I switched from pre-med and never looked back.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer? 

That has changed many times: As a teenager I tried to play piano like Erroll Garner, then more like Keith Jarrett. In college I fell in love with the music of Edgar Varese and Stefan Wolpe, but listened about as much to Bonnie Raitt and the Band. In more recent years my work in opera led me to Verdi and my work in ballet to Prokofiev. Next week I might mention different names, but just now these are the influences that spring to mind.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?  

My challenges are the same as those of most composers: almost all orchestras and opera houses pay lip service to the importance of new music but in practice consider it a risk to their box office. So our work as composers is marginalized, perhaps set apart as a prestige item; classical music as a whole is correspondingly impoverished. Wonderful music is being created and performed all over the world, but you wouldn’t know it from Lincoln Center or similar places.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece? 

I find it most inspiring to be given very specific guidelines, such as “an oboe quartet of about 15 minutes, to be paired with the Mozart for the same ensemble.” Or “5 minutes of fight music that becomes a love duet, for changing numbers of dancers.” These are both challenges and pleasures.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras? 

For most of us this is the usual situation, and it’s a healthy one, because as a composer I don’t write for the audience – I write for the performer, who in turn shares the music with the audience. Performers can do that best if I can write effectively for them – show off what they do best, while giving them something a little unlike the rest of what they perform. I love tailoring the music in that way; it also offsets the essentially solitary nature of composing.

Of which works are you most proud?

My four operas, because I think the way I combine the various elements that make up opera (text setting, stage timing, vocal deployment, use of the orchestra) is not like anyone else’s, and works better than most. Each of my operas is full of the most radical music I could think of, and at the same time each one reaches out passionately to the largest possible audience of non-specialist listeners. I try to combine those goals with anything I write, but opera feels particularly congenial.

How would you characterise your compositional language? 

I’m a “notes and rhythms” kind of composer. There is lots of life left in traditional musical devices, in fact more life than there is in straining for extremes or following musical fashions of any kind. I enjoy inventing unusual melodic lines, finding surprising moments for traditional chords, and combining fairly simple rhythms in unexpected ways.

How do you work? 

It depends on the piece. If I have a text, that helps me to organize the music. A dance or film scenario gives me another kind of structure. A portrait done from life is a combination of meditation and improvisation. A tribute usually starts with some sort of core of pre-existing music around which I spin other notes and rhythms.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers? 

I return over and over to the music of a few composers of roughly my own generation. In no particular order: Judith Weir, Stephen Hartke, Lee Hyla, Arthur Levering, Poul Ruders, George Benjamin, Chen Yi, Scott Lindroth. I’ve also played and conducted music by most of these composers, and highly recommend any of them to listeners looking for a fresh musical experience.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Here are a few: Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony when I first heard it live; Sibelius 6th symphony live; The Band in concert; the opportunity to conduct Ramifications by Ligeti and Corpus Cum Figuris by Poul Ruders.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Composers should write what they actually want to hear; performers should play and sing what passionately inspires them; audiences should demand excitement, not settle for what the PR agents are peddling that month.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Writing more music, probably in New York.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?  

Coffee and composing in the morning, friends and a good meal in the evening.

What is your most treasured possession?  

Nothing physical – I treasure my family and friends.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

Besides composing? Playing tennis, I guess, if I could only find the time to do it more.

What is your present state of mind? 

Opening out to new possibilities.

 

Scott Wheeler’s new album ‘Portraits & Tributes’ (works for piano 1977-2014), performed by Donald Berman, is available now. Further information here

scottwheeler.org

17 year old schoolboy comments on music teaching in UK state schools 

Growing within our schools today is a disturbing trend; increasingly, music is viewed as an optional subject – something equivalent to a passion that merely runs parallel to ‘academic’ subjects – that leads to contempt for classical music borne out of an ignorance of all it contains.

This thoughtful and well-argued article appeared on the Gramophone website, an “insider’s” view of the way music is taught in UK state schools.

 Read the entire text here 

Celebrate the Elite in Classical Music

elite
noun
noun: elite; plural noun: elite
a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society

The word “elite” has been frequently heard during the fortnight of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Athletes and sportspeople at the top of their game are regularly described as “elite”, and afforded an elevated status. And rightly so: these people are at the peak of their fitness, they’ve trained long, hard and meticulously to prepare for the games, and the medals and approbation are the visible badges of their great achievements. They are truly “elite”. We have no problem in applying this word to our sporting champions and when we use it it is replete with respect, admiration and awe.

It’s a rather different scenario when the word is used in relation to classical music. In this case it suggests exclusivity, inaccessibility, snobbery, and describes an art form which is regarded as the preserve of the few not the many whose practitioners are aloof, stuffy and out of touch.

You wouldn’t say that about Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah or Bradley Wiggins would you?

But of course classical musicians are elite. Look at how they train, the meticulous way they approach preparation, fitness, mental attitude. The mindset and physical preparation of the musician is very similar to that of the athlete, and many comparisons can – and should – be drawn between sporting elite and musicians.

Multiple gold medal-winning British track cyclists Laura Trott & Jason Kenny (source: BritishCycling.org.uk)

These days many musicians look to sport and more specifically sports psychology to inform their musical training and preparation (cf The Inner Game of Music which came from “inner game” sports training which has been used successfully by top tennis players). Musicians, like sportspeople, require discipline, dedication and commitment to put in the many long hours of training to do what they do and do it well, and many make huge sacrifices to achieve this. And just like elite athletes, musicians undergo a very rigorous training which includes much repetitive physical activity (practising) and psychological conditioning. We admire our elite athletes for their physical prowess, their stamina, their grace and strength – and we praise them for their dedicated, meticulous training. And we should admire the same attributes in our musicians.

Musicians, unlike sportspeople, last longer: those who’ve been elevated to the dizzy heights of “elite” (aka “world class”, “internationally renowned”, “legendary” etc) can continue a career well into their 80s (Paul Badura Skoda, for example).  A few know when it’s time to step back to let the younger players through (notably, Alfred Brendel). Others cling on determinedly, even if their playing does not match their revered status.

Sportspeople, meanwhile, are judged more objectively by their results and they usually know when it’s the right time to quit. They retain their special status and enter the hall of fame for others to aspire to and emulate. The greatest sportspeople go out at the top of their career (Bradley Wiggins, for example, who eschewed the big salary to concentrate what he enjoys and does well – track cycling; also Sir Chris Hoy, Boris Becker and Victoria Pendleton). These people know that they have reached a point in their professional career where there is nothing left to add and that now is the time to stand down. This is partly because of the physical demands on the body, motivation, the punishing lifestyle, and the recognition that better, younger people are coming through. Many turn their attention to coaching, sharing their wisdom and experience to support and inspire the next generation of elites.

An elite pianist - Daniil Trifonov (source: Intermusica)
An elite musician – pianist Daniil Trifonov (source: Intermusica)
We want our musicians to be elite: by adopting a mindset and training regime akin to that of the elite athlete, musicians are able to produce performances which are consistently impressive, technically assured, absorbing, moving, exhilarating, inspiring…… These are the traits we admire in our elite musicians and for this reason we should celebrate their superhuman talents, in just the same way that we lionise our medal-winning athletes.

 

 

It’s education, stoopid

Stephen Hough’s recent comments about changing the length and format of classical music concerts by ditching the interval and perhaps starting concerts earlier or later in the evening has generated a lively discussion. And rightly so, because those of us who care about classical music should be concerned about keeping this wonderfully and incredibly varied art form alive and kicking. In his article for the Radio Times, Hough expresses his concerns about attracting a younger audience to classical music and notes that there is no one simple solution to attract more people to concerts.

It strikes me that whenever young people are mentioned in the context of classical music, a whole host of commentators immediately respond by saying that “it’s all about education“. They cite the woeful provision for music education in our state primary and secondary schools (true), the fact that music lessons are often the preserve of the better off (also generally true, sadly) and that our children need to be educated to understand and appreciate classical music.

As I’ve mentioned several times before on this site, I was fortunate in that I had a very good musical education as a child, initiated first by my parents, who were keen concert-goers and music lovers, and subsequently through excellent music provision and teachers at both primary and secondary school (both state schools). My enjoyment and interest in classical music was inculcated at a young age and has stayed with me: I have not, as one friend suggested, grown to love classical music as I’ve got older, only that my tastes change as I explore more repertoire. I was very very lucky – privileged, in fact – in my musical education.

The debate about music provision in our state schools is ongoing and no one seems to have the solution. Various musical celebrities such as Nicola Benedetti and James Rhodes have initiated projects to try and right this terrible wrong, and I applaud anyone who cares enough to encourage our children to enjoy classical music, in and out of school. And Stephen Hough’s ideas should not be dismissed out of hand, just because they might run counter to established ways of doing things in classical music.

But we need to be careful how we frame “educating young people to like/enjoy/appreciate classical music”. As a Twitter colleague of mine said in response to Stephen Hough’s article:

Too often, whenever people start saying “Education” is the important factor, it sounds coercive

We should not seek to “programme” people, whatever their age, to like classical music. Let us not forget that the word “teach” comes from the Old English tæcan which means to “show”, “present” or “point out”. As a music teacher, I agree with my colleague and fellow blogger Andrew Eales, who suggests in his post in response to Stephen Hough’s comments, “When it comes to generating enthusiasm for classical music (and any other genre for that matter) the responsibility truly lies with those who perform and teach it.”. Andrew then goes on to offer some simple and creative ways in which to engage young people with classical music and which do not involve sitting a bunch of 6 year olds in a classroom and force-feeding them Beethoven and Bach.

It’s very easy – and lazy – to blame the young for all the ills in our society, and debates such as music education are too often, in my experience, loaded with a sense of entitlement or superiority – that the role of educators is to produce people who think and do things our way, rather than exploring ways to engage young people. Maybe one of the first things we need to do is shift the vocabulary from “tell” to “show”, “present” or “point out”……

I don’t have all the answers either. But in my very small way as a private music teacher, and via this blog and my other musical activities, I hope I am making a contribution, albeit a tiny one…..

Further reading

No More Loo Breaks – Stephen Hough’s original article in the Radio Times magazine (PDF file)

Stephen Hough: no more loo breaks? – Article by Andrew Eales/Piano Dao

Nicola Benedetti: Every young person in Britain should be made to study classical music

 

 

‘It May Have Been’ – the piano works of Paul Burnell

it20may20have20been20album20front20cover201500This new album celebrates the piano music of British composer Paul Burnell, spanning 30 years. Paul had recorded and produced previous albums himself, but in this instance he decided it was time to work with another musician, the pianist, composer and recording engineer James Bacon who runs the Piano Recording Studio. The music was recorded on a Bosendorfer Phoenix Imperial 290, fitted with the Phoenix agraffe system pioneered by Richard Dain at Hurstwood Farm Pianos, which gives the piano greater sustain and clarity of sound, especially in the high registers. This makes it ideal for Burnell’s piano music, much of which explores the timbre and sonic possibilities of the piano rather than melody per se.

“Unembellished, unfussy, unsophisticated…..and short” – Burnell’s own programme note for his Plain Pieces, a triptych dedicated to pianist Natalie Bleicher, could be applied to all the music on this album, though I would hesitate to use the word “unsophisticated”. Short, unfussy these pieces might be, but there is sophistication in the careful placing of notes to create subtle shadings, unexpected harmonies and suspended sounds. “Minimalist” is a description which immediately springs to mind on first hearing Burnell’s music, but this is not the frenetic (sometimes irritatingly so) repetitious minimalism of Philip Glass or Michael Nyman, but rather the more contemplative and spare minimalism of composers such as Lawrence Crane, whom Burnell cites as important influence (It May Have Been, Just Before Dawn). The more up-tempo pieces here (Pacer Nos, 1, 2 and 3) owe more to Howard Skempton (another significant influence) in the use of changing chords and sequences to create energy and climactic episodes. There are also echoes of that other great American minimalist, Steve Reich, in Standing in the Rain. Composed in the mid-1980s, the piece features a persistent rhythmic figure redolent of Reich’s Clapping Music and similar compositions.

Paul was kind enough to send me copies of the scores of the pieces featured on this album and it has been a pleasure to explore the music both through listening and playing. The music is accessible (roughly Grade 3-7) and attractive, but not simplistic (see my earlier comments about sophistication) and it takes a skilled and thoughtful pianist to create the considered sounds which Burnell’s music requires. This music also offers the piano student a good introduction to minimalism and provides a jumping off point for further exploration of this genre.

James Bacon brings the works to life on this recording with clarity, sensitivity and creativity – adding a drone to 2 Ping – combined with his technical expertise in the field of recording and sound engineering, and superb state-of-the-art equipment.

Recommended.

‘It May Have Been’ is available from iTunes, Amazon and other retailers as a download or CD, and can also be streamed on Spotify.

Paul Burnell’s Meet the Artist interview will be published shortly.

 

 

 

 

 

Frances Wilson blogs on pianism, classical music and culture

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