Occupy the Pianos 2015: the myriad soundworld of the piano

How many sounds is the piano capable of? I know the possibilities are infinite and I tell my students it can be any instrument they wish – a trumpet, a guitar, a flute, the human voice. With just a bit of imagination and wit we have the potential to create any sound we like on that magic box of wood and wires.

Occupy the Pianos, a festival of modern and contemporary piano music conceived and curated by pianist and composer Rolf Hind, gives performers and audience a unique opportunity to explore the myriad soundworld of the piano, and its seemingly endless possibilities, as evidenced by its vast repertoire which is constantly being added to by today’s composers.

The American composer John Cage (1912-1992) appreciated the range of possibilities afforded by the modern piano and he took this a step further – much further – with his “prepared” piano, creating what he described as “the equivalent of an entire percussion orchestra……….an exploded keyboad” by placing nuts, bolts, nails and other objects inside the piano.

John Cage’s instructions for preparing a piano

But Cage did not simply casually empty a bag of nuts and bolts into the guts of a piano. His instructions for preparation are obsessively precise – yet the resulting soundworld is of a piano set free.

Not many concert venues, and even fewer piano technicians, are prepared to allow a concert instrument to be prepared in this way and so Cage’s ‘Sonatas and Interludes’ (1946-8), his most famous work for prepared piano, is rarely performed. But at Occupy the Pianos, listeners were given a rare chance to hear this work, performed by Rolf Hind, a musician with a special affinity for this kind of repertoire.

The sound of the prepared piano is unexpected at first – akin to hearing Schubert for the first time on fortepiano – but the ear quickly adjusts, so much so that the “unprepared” notes are more unexpected than the prepared ones. In fact, the range of sounds, timbres and textures is greater than a percussion orchestra: there are gamelans and gongs, the deep “bong” of a long-case clock, the high tinkling of a northern European church carillon; there are “dead” notes and notes which resonate deeply, slowly decaying in the big airy acoustic of the venue (St John’s Smith Square). The music itself is generally tranquil and meditative, reflected by the pianist’s small gestures. The result is absorbing and other-wordly: this is music which takes you out of yourself – and out of time and place.

Contrast this with the second concert of the second day of Occupy the Pianos: a performance by the Françoise-Green piano duo which included contemporary works by Rebecca Saunders and David Thomas Duncan (receiving its premiere) as well as music by Ligeti at his most obsessive – a perpetuum mobile of sound, like a fly trapped in a window – and Kurtag. Here the sounds were created more conventionally (though ‘Choler’ by Rebecca Saunders called for elbows on the keys and strumming the strings with plectrums) while ideas about timbre, resonance, musical colour, dynamics, acoustics, sound decay, the sounds “between” sounds, the sounds of silence, and the sounds we imagine or continue to hear internally after the instrument itself has stopped sounding were explored through the contrasting repertoire. The concert closed with both pianists at one piano playing a selection of intimate, witty and playful miniatures from Kurtag’s ‘Jatekok’.

Morton Feldman and John Cage

The “silence between the sounds” (real and imagined) is examined even further in the music of Morton Feldman, who exploited the instrument’s limitations to produce austere and haunting works. His music has been described as “minimalist”, yet it owes almost nothing to the repetitive, spooling sequences found in the music of Philip Glass, for example. It is certainly “minimal“, with strikingly spare motifs and simple  harmonies unfolding slowly over time. It is also almost entirely contained within a very soft dynamic range, and, just as the person who speaks quietly often commands the most attention, so Feldman’s music forces us to listen intently.

‘Palais de Mari’ was performed by American pianist Adam Tendler, whose stillness at the keyboard contributed to the concentrated listening experience. He also played the entire work from memory, no mean feat since this music is not conventionally constructed in harmonic sequences. The resulting performance was meditative, intense and beautifully poised.

In complete contrast, John Adams’ ‘Phrygian Gates’ is an almost continuous stream of musical consciousness and although minimalist in style, it represents the composer’s desire to move away from the traditional conventions of minimalism. Over the work’s duration (approx 24 minutes) the music takes a tour of the classic Circle of Fifths, but via the Phrygian or Lydian mode. In doing so, the music moves through 14 sections each with a special character: fluctuations of pulse, different figurations and textures, a change of amplitude. The continuous motion of the piece creates extraordinary layers of sound which suggest other instruments – horns, gongs, cellos – or noises: electronics, machinery. Eliza McCarthy, who has performed this work for the composer himself, played with great sensitivity and nuance, creating a rich palette of colours and emotions and an impressive command of both instrument and the overall architecture of the work.

More about the Occupy the Pianos festival here