Category Archives: General

Meet the Artist……Charlotte Bray, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

I came to composing by a rather unusual route. I was studying cello at Birmingham Conservatoire and during a musicianship course was asked to compose a piece in the style of Bartok. I quickly realised how much I had enjoyed doing this and within a few weeks had an interview to change onto the composition course. In the following couple of years I became familiar with Mark-Anthony Turnage’s music and this inspired me to keep going and find my own voice. Two years later, after accepting to teach me for my Masters Degree at the Royal College of Music, Mark continued to inspire me, this time in person.

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

My family have been the most significant influence. Without their continual support and understanding I am sure I would not have a career as a composer.

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

I find the greatest challenge to be balancing my time between composing and all the other things a composer must do to maintain one’s career. Being able to do this successfully whilst still finding the concentration and imaginative space one needs should not be underestimated.

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

Imagining the sound of the musicians and the process of working together with them on a new piece is something that I find incredibly motivating since this is a highlight of the whole process. When the ideas are flowing, I find the working process of composing very pleasurable.

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

Building a long relationship with a particular ensembles make the experiences of working together all the more pleasurable. Birmingham Contemporary Music Group stands out for me in this regard. I got to know the ensemble and organisation as a student, received opportunities to develop my compositional voice through working with them, and continue to have a strong relationship now in my career as a professional composer. Their virtuosity and brilliance makes every encounter special.

Of which works are you most proud?

When I achieve something in a piece that is ‘new’, adventurous or challenging for me, that is when I am most proud.

How do you work?

I start composing first thing and work through until I feel my concentration diminishing. I work with pencil on paper for much of the process, moving to Sibelius when I feel I have enough of an idea about the piece. I use a keyboard and sometimes my cello too, especially to try things out later on.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

My friends. I find nothing more enjoyable that hearing and watching a friend perform or a friends’ music being performed; feeling their sound, expression and interpretation, each time knowing them a little deeper.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My Proms debut in 2012 with ‘At the Speed of Stillness’. I’ll never forget the feeling of standing on that stage for the first time to take a bow.

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

Write the music that you want to hear.

And performers?

Play music that is being written now, before it is too late.

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

Somewhere unexpected.

The composer Charlotte Bray has emerged as a distinctive and outstanding talent of her generation. Exhibiting uninhibited ambition and desire to communicate, her music is exhilarating, inherently vivid, and richly expressive with lyrical intensity. Charlotte studied under Mark Anthony Turnage at the Royal College of Music and previously under Joe Cutler at the Birmingham Conservatoire. She participated in the Britten-Pears Contemporary Composition Course with Oliver Knussen, Colin Matthews and Magnus Lindberg, and at the Tanglewood Music Centre with John Harbison, Michael Gandolfi, Shulamit Ran and Augusta Read-Thomas.

Read Charlotte’s full biography

(picture © Michael Wickham)

Neil Chaffey’s birthday concert at St John’s Smith Square

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For the musically-inclined there can be few better ways to mark a significant birthday than to gather musicians, friends and family together in celebration, and this was the format for a delightful and varied concert on the 80th birthday of Neil Chaffey, concert artist manager. The concert comprised musicians represented by Neil Chaffey and the programme demonstrated the breadth, variety and individual talents of these artists. And with an audience of family, friends and supporters, the atmosphere at St John’s Smith Square was warm and convivial.

After a rousing rendition of the Largo from Handel’s ‘Xerxes’, performed by Chaffey himself on the magnificent SJSS organ, we remained in the Baroque era for songs and arias by Purcell, Blow, Handel and Monteverdi by The Musicke Company (soprano, countertenor, baroque cello and harpsichord). This provided an elegant first part to the concert and contrasted beautifully with a performance of John McCabe’s Clarinet Sonata. Neil Chaffey and John McCabe first met as students at Manchester University in the mid-1950s and Neil comissioned the sonata in 1969 when he was Artistic Director of the Macclesfield Arts Festival. This haunting work is in various linked sections which together make up a continuous movement, and the individuality of each instrument is given voice (including some interesting effects achieved by plucking the piano’s strimgs) while letting all three work with roughly the same motifs. It was a very committed and absorbing performance of a challenging work.

Another striking contrast came with Gitarrissima, an all-female guitar quintet from Vienna, who played well-known and some lesser-known works arranged for guitar (including the intriguing baby “octave” guitar) with great brio, virtuosity and individuality (their renditions of the Tritschtratsch Polka and Hoe-Down from Copland’s ‘Rodeo’ ballet suite were particularly enjoyable and entertaining).

The second half of the concert was mainly taken up with piano music, opening with an intimate and sensitively nuanced performance of works by Bridge, Schumann and Kapustin by Neil Chaffey’s pianist daughter Alicia. ‘Rosemary’ by Frank Bridge, dedicated to Alicia’s late mother, was particularly poignant, and her approach to Schumann’s Fantasiestucke op.12 demonstrated a clear appreciation of the composer’s shifting moods, from tender and introspective in Des Abends to the extrovert Aufschwung. After the spirited jazzy Kapustin, Alicia was joined by her duo partner Marzia Hudajarova in a charming rendition of Fauré’s ever-popular Dolly Suite.

The final part of the concert featured the Fujita sisters Arisa, Honoka and Megumi, who together make up the Fujita Piano Trio. Initially, Megumi gave a solo performance of three of Chopin’s most popular Etudes (Black Keys, Thirds and Revolutionary) in which she balanced power and richness of sound with a wonderful delicacy of touch. Joined by her sisters, the trio performed Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in c minor, entirely from memory, which made for an intensely musical and impressively concentrated performance, and thrilling close to a most enjoyable concert and a wonderful musical birthday tribute to Neil Chaffey.

 

Responsibilities

A concert is an occasion, an event, and as such has its own special etiquette and “rules of engagement”.

As the audience we have certain responsibilities, including arriving on time, sitting quietly during the performance, showing our appreciation for the performer and being courteous towards our fellow concert-goers and the performer, who has worked so hard to create this performance to share with us.

The age of the smartphone constantly threatens to disrupt these “rules” (coughing and the noises of living, breathing human beings are acceptable aspects of the live concert experience), and venues continually remind audiences to turn off their phones (and other electrical devices such as watches with alarms) prior to the start of the concert. It is, sadly, all too common for a phone or two to go off during a performance, but generally this is tolerated and met with a sigh or tut from audiences members (fortunately, I have never been party to the kind of reaction as described in this article).

But it’s not just a ringing phone which can disturb concert goers: I was forced to watch most of a concert by Yuja Wang at Queen Elizabeth Hall via the video function of an iPhone belonging to the person seated in front of me. Not only is it generally forbidden to film or photograph at concerts, it is also extremely distracting to have a phone screen glowing in the gloaming of the concert hall. And the other night at Wigmore Hall, where Igor Levit completed his Beethoven Sonatas odyssey, the young man seated on my right checked his phone every 10 minutes, presumably to check in with his Facebook chums. This was done silently but the lit up screen was an intrusion on my enjoyment of the concert. It does make me wonder why people bother going to concerts if they can’t do without their phone for a couple of hours. It is also discourteous to the performer: never mind that we were sitting in Row X – if you’re checking your phone, you’re clearly not concentrating on the performance.

In a programme of late Beethoven no less. Why would one even go if one isn’t prepared to put everything aside for those sonatas?

@Tmcguitars on Twitter

Of course performers have responsibilities to the audience as well. In creating a concert, the performer makes a virtual “contract” with the audience (and a formal one with the venue/promoter), and the audience are complicit in that by attending the concert and fulfilling their side of the arrangement, as noted above. In a recent blog post, music journalist and writer Jessica Duchen describes a concert where the performer seemed displeased that the hall was only half full and manifested his displeasure via his performance. Whatever was going on with the performer, it seems singularly unfair to the audience to treat them with antagonism. They have, after all, paid to hear you play (that “contract” again) and even if you’re tired or ill, you have made the commitment to perform.

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The green room at London’s Wigmore Hall

Then there are the responsibilities of the venue towards performer and audience. The vast majority of venues are very well run, with friendly, helpful staff and pleasant areas and bars where people can meet and socialise. Performers are well-looked after with proper facilities to warm up and get changed, important aspects which help make the performer feel comfortable and at ease (as far as possible) ahead of the concert. But I have come across stories of performers being told to change the programme at short notice, because the promoter demands it, and a recent case where the performer arrived at the venue and was not permitted a proper warm up on the piano, nor was the tuner given an appropriate amount of time to prepare the instrument. There was no green room, and no refreshments for her. Of course she gave the recital, because she is a professional, but I suspect the experience left a sour taste in her mouth and it is unlikely she will hurry to perform at the same venue again.

A concert is a shared experience, with shared responsibilities. When these coalesce in a virtuous circle of good practice, courtesy and commitment, we should all be guaranteed an enjoyable and engaging experience.

 


Hall half full, glass half empty – blog article by Jessica Duchen

Virtuoso Pianists – a playlist for IDAGIO

How do we define “virtuosity” in a musical performance? I believe that when one hears it, it is as if one’s level of consciousness had been raised, and that it is impossible to ever think of the piano in the same way again. Such experiences are highly personal, revelatory, memorable and almost impossible to describe.

A true virtuoso “must call up scent and blossom, and breathe the breath of life” – Franz Liszt

It is during a performance by a true virtuoso pianist that we, the audience, enter a state of wonder, from which we emerge speechless, hardly able to put into words what we have just heard because the experience of the performance has awakened in us what it means to be a sentient, thinking, feeling, living, breathing human being.

I hope this selection will demonstrate some of the very special qualities of each pianist chosen.

Listen to the playlist

 

Meet the Artist…….Jess Gillam

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Who or what inspired you to take up the saxophone and pursue a career in music? 

When I was 7 years old, I went to the Barracudas Carnival Arts Centre with my Dad as he was teaching drums and percussion. In the room next door to him, there happened to be a saxophone workshop and I decided to try it. I picked it up, made a sound and immediately fell in love with the instrument. I haven’t looked back since!

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

I take inspiration from many different saxophonists (and musicians) from hugely different genres. My saxophone role models are Barbara Thompson, Rob Buckland, John Harle and I love the music of King Curtis and Snake Davis’ solos. A family friend first introduced me to the music of Barbara Thompson when I was about 12 and ever since then I have really looked up to Barbara. As well as being such a fantastic musician, she is also such a determined and creative person and this has had a influenced me very much.   

Whenever I am in need of musical inspiration, I listen to Pee Wee Ellis’ solo on the live version Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey. The way he combines rhythm, melody, harmony and feeling is something I greatly aspire to.

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

It has taken me a long time to realise that I am never going to be able to give a performance that I am completely happy with and that this is part of the beauty of exploring music. 

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I am most proud of my performance of Michael Nyman’s ‘Where the Bee Dances’ in the BBC Young Musician Final 2016. I had never before been quite as focussed and immersed in the music and that feeling is unforgettable.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season? 

I love the versatility and dynamism of the saxophone. It can convey so many different emotions, just like the voice can, and one minute you can be making a hugely powerful, aggressive sound and the next you can be floating the sound and singing out a beautiful, delicate melody, and I try to reflect this as much as possible when choosing repertoire. I try and include repertoire that I can really connect with so that hopefully audiences can enjoy it as much as I do.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? 

I don’t have a particular favourite concert venue; I love performing and would perform anywhere! However, the first stage I ever performed on was the Coronation Hall in Ulverston when I was 9 years old. Since then, I have had so many unforgettable performance experiences on that stage and it always feels like home.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

One of my favourite pieces to perform just has to be ‘Where the Bee Dances’, the concerto I performed in the BBC Young Musician Final.  The piece begins with the most beautiful chords and the perfectly paced build to the very last note is something that requires my whole being to concentrate and be completely consumed by the music.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Creative musicians who manage to convey intense emotion to an audience hugely inspire me. David Bowie is one of my all time favourite musicians as is John Harle. They are both such artistic people who have written music that resonates with so many people.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

One of my most memorable concert experiences is making a guest appearance with Jools Holland and his R+B Orchestra. I had absolutely no idea what we were going to play until 5minutes before stepping on stage. This made me quite anxious but once we had started playing, I couldn’t have been happier.

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

I think to enjoy music is the most important piece of advice I have been given. It makes the hours of practice an absolute joy if you are enjoying being inquisitive, determined and passionate about attempting to master an instrument! Aiming to convey a personal interpretation of a piece of music is also important I think. Music is one of the most powerful forms of communication and can be used to say an incredible amount.

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

I would love to be regularly performing across the world!

What is your most treasured possession?

Most definitely my saxophones – I don’t know what I would do without them!

18 year old saxophonist Jess Gillam from Ulverston, Cumbria, began playing saxophone 11 years ago, aged 7.

Jess made history as the first ever saxophonist to win the Woodwind Final of BBC Young Musician of the Year and after competing in the Semi Final, she reached the Grand Final where she performed a concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at London’s Barbican to critical acclaim.

Jess was also recently awarded Musician of the Year at the Cumbria Culture Awards presented by Melvyn Bragg. She has a busy performance schedule and has made a guest appearance with Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra and has performed as a concerto soloist with the Worthing Symphony Orchestra (in the same series as Nicola Benedetti, Emma Johnson and Julian Bliss). Upcoming concerto highlights include performances with the Southbank Sinfonia and the Northern Chamber Orchestra.

Recently, Jess was the youngest of 2,600 delegates to perform at the World Saxophone Congress in Strasbourg. She performed a recital consisting entirely of world premieres by some of the world’s leading saxophonists: Barbara Thompson, John Harle and Rob Buckland as well as one of her own compositions.

Read more about Jess on her website

The success in failure 

A new museum in Helsingborg, Sweden, celebrates failure. Yes, you read that correctly – it celebrates failure. The museum displays corporate products which flopped but which paved the way for greater innovation and extraordinary commercial success (for example, Apple’s Newton device was the forerunner of the iPhone and iPad), and prove that failure, and a willingness to learn from it, is a crucial part of success.

“Innovation requires failure. Learning is the only process that turns failure into success.”

– Dr Samuel West, creator of The Museum of Failure

Meanwhile at Smith College in the US students can enroll on a “Failing well” course designed to “destigmatize failure”, foster resilience and equip them with the tools to cope with the exigencies of real life – failures, setbacks, disappointments, making wrong choices.

Despite knowing that we can learn from mistakes, and that the process is an important aspect of life experience, most of us fear failure, and fear the reactions to that failure – ridicule from family, friends, colleagues, embarrassment, personal disappointment, negative self-talk, imposter syndrome, crippling self-doubt and depression. As musicians, setbacks and failure can have a profound effect on how we approach our music making and professional career. If we perceive failure as humiliation, it can paralyse our ability to learn and develop, but if we can separate our ego from the failure or setback, we can use the experience positively as an informed learning process to shape our future approach, make us stronger and motivate us to work harder and smarter. Sadly for many of us, the “wrongness” of making mistakes is inculcated in us from a young age – by parents, teachers, and peers – and such prejudices combined with a constricted mindset leads us to blame and criticise ourselves for our failings.

The problem for many musicians is that our music and our instrument are crucially entwined with our identity and setbacks can therefore feel like a very personal attack. But if we are able to see what we do as ‘work’, and not allow it to define us as a person, we can take a more objective approach to mistakes and setbacks. It’s fine to take time to wallow in frustration and disappointment, but better to reflect on what can be learnt from the experience to do things differently next time.

Failure is part of creativity and mastery. Without it we cannot learn, explore, experiment, expand our horizons, and progress. By removing emotion and adopting a more positive mental attitude, we can turn failures into successes and become more creative and motivated to succeed. Neuroscientists have found that the parts of our brain responsible for self-monitoring are actually switched off when we are being creative. Thus, by being creative, negative feelings connected with failure can be turned down, allowing the brain to think clearly and spark new ideas and approaches.

My students don’t believe me when I tell them about a book called The Perfect Wrong Note, which celebrates mistakes and what we can learn from them. In our day-to-day practise, mistakes should always be regarded as opportunities for evaluation, reflection and refinement. Mistakes should encourage us to consider the following questions:

  • Where did the mistake happen?
  • Why did the mistake happen? Was it due to poor fingering, poor technique, misreading?
  • How can I put this right?
  • What can I do to ensure I don’t make the same mistake again (or elsewhere in the music)?

As a teacher, the student who continues to make the same mistakes should give one pause for thought, calling into question one’s teaching approach and forcing one to consider the following:

  • Why is the student making this mistake/s?
  • Does the student know why the mistake is occurring?
  • How can I help him/her put it right?
  • Is there something lacking in my teaching? Am I not explaining something clearly, has the student been using an awkward fingering or does he/she need some technical assistance?

Mistakes show we are human, and fallible, that it’s ok to have an off day when your playing and practising may not go as well as usual. Giving ourselves permission to make mistakes allows us to be fulfilled by our music and to feel empowered about our practising. A willingness to make mistakes teaches us to be self-critical, but in a positive, productive way.

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Mistakes and failures contain all the information needed for learning – if we are willing to use it – and as the Museum of Failure demonstrates, failure is a crucial part of innovation, creativity and progress.

There is no such thing as failure — failure is just life trying to move us in another direction……Learn from every mistake. Because every experience, encounter, and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more of who you are.

– Oprah Winfrey

 

 

Silence, presence, and challenging conventions – thoughts on John Cage’s 4’33”

This week I fulfilled a long held wish – to attend a live performance of John Cage’s infamous and iconoclastic ‘silent’ work 4’33”. The performance was part of a special visit to a recording studio at City University to see how Edition Peters create content for the innovative and high-spec Tido Music piano app. This involves a filmed masterclass where the pianist (in this instance Adam Tendler) sets the work in context, with information about its creation and critical reception, and advice on practising the music, together with a live performance (more about Tido Music here). The decision to include 4’33” in the Tido Music library is entirely due to the work’s extraordinary and for some, controversial, place in twentieth-century music – and for pianist Adam Tendler the work should be regarded as a “standard” of piano repertoire.

Ever since its premiere given by David Tudor on August 29, 1952, in Maverick Concert Hall, Woodstock, New York, as part of a programme of contemporary piano music, the piece has courted controversy and opprobrium, its detractors claiming it is not “real music” or that the work is some kind of joke. Some audience members felt cheated or angered by the performance, saving their loudest, most uproarious protests for the post-concert Q&A session. “Good people of Woodstock, let’s drive these people out of town!” someone reportedly shouted after the concert.

 

So why is 4’33” so controversial? When John Cage conceived it, in the years immediately after the Second World War, he was attempting to remove both composer and artists from the process of creation. Instead, by asking the musicians specifically not to play, Cage allows us, the audience, to create our own “music”, entirely randomly and uniquely, by listening to the noises around us during four minutes and thirty-three seconds of “silence” and removing any pre-conceptions or pre-learned ideas we may have about what music is and how it should be presented, perceived and received. The work is an example of “automaticism”, and was, in part, Cage’s reaction to a seemingly inescapable soundtrack of “muzak”.

Neither composer nor artists seemingly have any control over or impact on the piece; the piece is created purely from the ambient sounds heard and created by the audience. In this way, the audience becomes crucial: this aural “blank canvas” reflects the ever-changing ambient sounds surrounding each performance, which emanate from the players, the audience and the building itself. Maverick Concert Hall, where the work was premiered, is partially open to the elements, and thus the audience at that first public performance could hear the “accidental” sounds around them: birdsong, the wind in the trees, rain on the roof, and the sounds of the audience members themselves. This of course was one of Cage’s intentions for the piece – to prove that the absence of musical notes is not the same thing as silence.

Cage was not the first composer to conceive a piece of music consisting entirely of silence: examples and precedents include Alphonse Allais’ 1897 Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man, consisting of twenty-four blank bars (Allais was an associate of Eric Satie, a composer whom Cage much admired), and Yves Klein’s 1949 Monotone-Silence Symphony, an orchestral forty-minute piece whose second and last movement is a twenty minute silence. And there are examples from the world of visual art too: American artist, friend and occasional colleague of Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, produced a series of white paintings, seemingly “blank” canvases, which change depending on the light conditions of the rooms in which they are hung, the shadows of people viewing them and so forth. Like Cage’s work, Rauschenberg’s canvases are brought to life by their viewers and the venue in which they are exhibited (I saw one of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings at a retrospective at Tate Modern, together with other works dedicated to his friend John Cage, and the canvas really does shift and alter depending on the conditions of the room in which it is displayed). There are parallels with other visual artists too, including Carl André and Marina Abramovic, both of whose work explores the relationship between artist, artwork and audience, the limits of the body, and the possibilities of the mind.

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Installation view of Rauschenberg’s White Painting (three panel, 1951) in the artist’s studio, 1991. (©Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)
On another level, Cage was challenging – and exploiting – the conventions of traditional concert hall etiquette. By programming a work to be performed at a prestigious venue, with high-status players and conductor, the audience’s expectations are heightened long before the performance begins  – think of the excitement and anticipation generated when Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim or Jonas Kaufman come to town.

Cage was also experimental – he liked to try new things and challenge conventional ways of doing things. For him art was “a sort of experimental station in which one tries out living.” I am sure he felt the audience’s reactions – curious, puzzled, angry, intrigued, amused – to 4’33” were as interesting as the concept of a silent piece of music.

“They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”
– John Cage, speaking about the premiere of 4’33”

Later in his life, Cage stated that he played 4’33” every day, and the notion of incorporating 4’33” into one’s daily practising regime is very appealing, never more so in our noisy, fast-paced, always connected modern world. The work was composed, in part, as a reaction to “muzak” and the “background noise” that seems to invade every corner of our lives. I’ve become more and more aware of this when I am out and about. There is music everywhere and it’s becoming increasingly intrusive – it’s in bars, cafés, restaurants, shops, leaking from other people’s headphones, even my bank, often at a volume which precludes comfortable speech or hearing, and which invades our conscious, creating unwanted “earworms” or aggravating my tinnitus. It seems that there is some unseen force which requires us to have a soundtrack for every moment of our day. In contrast, 4’33” impels us to to take time out to listen, and really listen. And it encourages a special kind of in-the-moment focus, common to the practice of meditation.

This intensity of listening and engagement with the work was very evident at the Tido Music performance by Adam Tendler. The performance took place not in a conventional concert hall but in a small performance space at City University. The audience was very small –  just Tido and Edition Peters staff members and I, no more than 15 of us. The excitement and anticipation of the performance began before we entered the room, much in the same way as it would if one was at Wigmore Hall or the Proms. The pianist was seated at a gleaming Steinway D which stretched before us like a sleek black limo. On the music desk was the score and a stop watch. After a very interesting, articulate introduction to the piece (for the benefit of the Tido Music app content), Adam was invited by the film crew to begin when he was ready. A palpable ripple of expectancy vibrated around the room, a couple of people primed their smartphones to take photographs. I had expected to be able to hear the ticking of the stopwatch but it was not audible at all. Instead I heard the hum of the air-conditioning, the stomach gurglings of the person sitting next to me, someone stretching their legs. And all around me I could sense everyone else listening very intently, focusing, engaging. It was a remarkably intense experience, an intensity which made 4 minutes and 33 seconds feel much longer than it actually was in real time. When the performance ended, there was an audible collective sigh and the sense of the tiny audience releasing, unwinding, relaxing, before the applause came.

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Adam Tendler preparing to play 4’33” (picture: Tido Music)
The actual performance began when Adam lowered the fall board of the piano and started a stop watch on the music desk. He sat almost motionless at the piano, but there was no sense of him disengaging from the performance or relaxing. He might not be playing any notes on the instrument, but he was still performing a piece of music. And this leads to another fascinating concept which 4’33” provokes: the idea of performance and the pianist’s presence, gestures and body language during performance.

In a conventional piano recital, the audience’s reactions are largely led by the sounds the pianist makes. But physical gestures and body language are important too (some performers seem to allow exaggerated body language to obscure the music; I’m no fan of this kind of pianistic histrionics). From the moment the performer enters the stage, we are engaging with them via their body language – and vice versa. A bow, for example, is the performer’s way of greeting and acknowledging the audience, just as we applaud to demonstrate our acknowledgement and appreciation (for what we are about to hear and what we have heard). How the pianist comports him or herself at the piano can be crucial to our relationship with both performer and music, and stage presence and bodily gestures create an important channel of communication which can hold the audience captive during a performance. Through gesture the pianist can control audience reactions to the performance – the most basic being the lifting the hands away from the keyboard to indicate the end of a piece.

The issue of “what to do between pieces” came up at the recent Diploma Day event, at which I gave a brief presentation on basic stagecraft. A couple of people (adult amateur pianists who were preparing for performance diplomas) told me that they “didn’t know what to do between the pieces” in their diploma recital programme – i.e. how they should comport themselves, or what body language was appropriate. I explained that it very much depended on the music which had gone before and what was to follow in the programme. Some pieces lend themselves to more space or silence between them while others encourage the performer to segue from one to the next. Understanding this ebb and flow of a concert programme and the need to create space and silence within it is crucial to shaping the narrative and energy of the entire concert. Thus, if one wishes to prolong a sense of stillness or meditation after, say, a performance of Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch II, one might simply sit quietly at the piano, head bowed, hands resting lightly on one’s knees, allowing the memory of the sound to resonate in the audience’s consciousness, after the physical sound has decayed.

When there are no audible notes, as in 4’33”, the pianist’s presence is even more crucial. If the pianist were to slouch at the piano, or stare around the room, pull faces, or study his finger nails, the presence would be lost, along with any sense that this was a “performance”. Thus to be successful, 4’33” demands the performer to be fully aware, in the moment, present and engaged – and that’s no mean feat when one is not actually required to play the instrument before which one sits. This makes 4’33” perhaps the hardest piece to perform convincingly.

I learnt a lot about performance and the performer’s “presence” while watching and of course listening to Adam Tendler’s interpretation of 4’33”. It has made me consider even more intently notions of public performance, stage presence and body language, and with this in mind, I will close this article with a quote from Adam himself:

Cage eliminates the details of notes, rhythm, tone, and leaves the performer with the basics of presence. It means the handling of (again traditionally) a piano lid, a clock, and a body—fingers, legs, torso. We use these parts of our body as instrumentalists, of course, but 4’33” isolates them, zooms in on them. It puts a microscope onto the passage of time and how our body—the thing that performs— behaves in that time.

Poise.

I can’t tell you the number of times I have attended a fine, accurate, acceptable and perfectly usable performance from a musician who has never actually learned to sit.

 


Further reading

Searching for Silence

What silence taught John Cage

Defending 4′33″ as a standard in the piano repertoire

 

 

Meet the Artist……Pieter Wispelwey, cellist

Who or what inspired you to take up the ‘cello and pursue a career in music?

My father is an amateur violinist and has been playing in string quartets with friends all his life. At the age of two I was allowed to sit in the room when they were rehearsing and I was obsessed with the cello and have been ever since.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I was extraordinarily lucky with my first cello teacher. I started the piano with my mum, who taught me to read music and was then introduced to my teacher, Dicky Boeke, at the age of six, but didn’t start with her until I was eight as she was so busy. She taught me for 10 years, and not just about cello; it was about art, literature, opera. She helped me audition for the great Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma and I studied with him for two years from the age of 17-19. I have been on my own since then, apart from a year of studies in the US and an unforgettable summer course with William Pleeth in Aldeburgh.

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

I consider my career to have reached its middle length so far, and I still have two decades to go. So of course there are ups and downs and disappointments – everybody has these. One challenge could be physical in terms of injury; however I have been very lucky in that sense. Practising and the relationship with your instrument keeps you inspired.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

My last recordings, although I still hope to keep improving and being more expressive. I’m now at two-thirds of my recording project doing all the sonatas by Schubert and Brahms which include many violin pieces and on the last release is the 2nd Brahms violin sonata, which I believe is a world premiere recording. I also recorded Schubert’s Fantasy for violin and piano, which is technically a very intimidating piece, so getting my teeth into that was great, very stimulating and I am very happy with it. Some recordings just have very happy memories, for instance doing The Walton Concerto with Sydney Symphony Orchestra 7 or 8 years ago in Sydney Opera House, that most glamorous and gorgeous place.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I am always happy performing concertos with orchestras, however the Beethoven Cello Sonatas are particularly rewarding to perform, brimming with energy and lyricism, as they are.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

As I said, I have embarked on this enormous recording project with the Schubert and Brahms pieces so they will appear on my recital program, concertos are up to orchestras that invite me to play and then there are occasional collaborations in chamber music programs, in trio, quartet, quintet or sextet repertoire, but also projects like the one I’m doing next month with a singer and a pianist.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I mentioned Sydney Opera House; however another example is the new Melbourne Recital Centre, a stunningly beautiful place in which to perform and listen to music. I will be doing three recitals on three consecutive days in August: Beethoven, Brahms and Bach marathons, a bit of a milestone week for me.

Who are your favourite musicians?

My all-time favourite musician is a singer, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the German baritone. As a teenager I started collecting his albums and still collect today. He is a supreme musician and a fantastically inspiring singer to listen to. I also really respect and enjoy listening to the American cellist YoYo Ma.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

The Walton Concerto with Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Sydney Opera House, but it could also be Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. In fact it’s hard to say. I enjoyed Paxton last year for example.

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

I am a professor in a German Musikhochschule and I try to inspire and discipline the students; however what musicians might not realise is that they must work as creative artists. They are of course recreating scores that composers delivered, but it is very important for them to do that with creativity. They must consider traditions, what they mean, and how important and unimportant they are. Also creativity in how you practise and make things better. It is important to keep muscles supple and continue to practise in that way. Also to simply enjoy alternative approaches to keeping your mind fresh.

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

My wife is English so maybe living in the UK once we have raised our kids in Holland.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

That includes other people around you, conversation and good food.

What is your most treasured possession?

Other than my cello, nothing in the material sense.

What is your present state of mind?

I have just been working as a jury member in Brussels which was an intense period, so I am recovering from that. I am looking forward to the summer festivals, which include Music at Paxton, and also to catching up with my colleagues and working with them. I am also looking forward to going to my little basement cellar to practise!

Pieter Wispelwey performs at Music at Paxton this summer and will also be giving a masterclass:

Sunday 23 July 1.30pm, cello masterclass

An opportunity for advanced students of all ages to learn and gain insight into Bach’s Cello Suites from an acknowledged master. 

Please note places are strictly limited. For further information and application details, please contact info@musicatpaxton.co.uk by 01 June 2017.

Tickets £10.00 (concessions free entry) – unreserved.

NB: free to ticket holders for the evening concert.

Sunday 23 July 7.30pm Pieter Wispelwey in concert

J S Bach Three Suites for solo cello – No 3 in C, No 4 in E flat & No 5 in C minor

Full details and tickets

Pieter Wispelwey is equally at ease on the modern or period cello. His acute stylistic awareness, combined with a truly original interpretation and a phenomenal technical mastery, has won the hearts of critics and public alike in repertoire ranging from JS Bach to Schnittke, Elliott Carter and works composed for him.

Highlights of the 16-17 season include a play-direct project with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a performance of the complete Bach suites at Auditorium de Lyon and the City Recital Hall in Sydney, performances of Tavener’s Svyati with the Flanders Radio Choir and two recitals at King’s Place in London as part of their ‘Cello Unwrapped’ season. Pieter will also give series of extraordinary recitals at the Melbourne Recital Centre as part their Great Performer Series, where he will perform the complete Bach Suites, Beethoven’s complete works for cello and piano, and the two cello sonatas by Brahms over the course of three consecutive evenings.

Pieter Wispelwey enjoys chamber music collaborations and regular duo partners include pianists Cédric Tiberghien and Alasdair Beatson and he appears as a guest artist with a number of string quartets including the Australian String Quartet.

Wispelwey’s career spans five continents and he has appeared as soloist with many of the world’s leading orchestras including the Boston Symphony, Dallas Symphony, St Paul’s Chamber Orchestra, NHK Symphony, Yomiuri Nippon, Tokyo Philharmonic, Sapporo Symphony, Sydney Symphony, London Philharmonic, Hallé Orchestra, BBC Symphony, BBC Scottish Symphony, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Academy of Ancient Music, Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig, Danish National Radio Symphony, Budapest Festival Orchestra and Camerata Salzburg. Conductor collaborations include Ivan Fischer, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Herbert Blomstedt, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Jeffrey Tate, Kent Nagano, Sir Neville Marriner, Philippe Herreweghe, Vassily Sinaisky, Vladimir Jurowski, Louis Langrée, Marc Minkowski, Ton Koopman and Sir Roger Norrington.

With regular recital appearances in London (Wigmore Hall), Paris (Châtelet, Louvre), Amsterdam (Concertgebouw, Muziekgebouw), Brussels (Bozar), Berlin (Konzerthaus), Milan (Societta del Quartetto), Buenos Aires (Teatro Colon), Sydney (The Utzon Room), Los Angeles (Walt Disney Hall) and New York (Lincoln Center), Wispelwey has established a reputation as one of the most charismatic recitalists on the circuit

In 2012 Wispelwey celebrated his 50th birthday by embarking on a project showcasing the Bach Cello Suites. He recorded the complete Suites for the third time, released on the label ‘Evil Penguin Classics’. The box set also includes a DVD featuring illustrated debates on the interpretation of the Bach Suites with eminent Bach scholars Laurence Dreyfus and John Butt. A major strand of his recital performances is his performances of the complete suites during the course of one evening, an accomplishment that has attracted major critical acclaim throughout Europe and the US. “On paper it is a feat requiring brilliance, stamina and perhaps a bit of hubris. In practice Mr. Wispelwey proved himself impressively up to the challenge, offering performances as eloquent as they were provocative” ( New York Times).

Pieter Wispelwey’s impressive discography of over 20 albums, available on Channel Classic, Onyx and Evil Penguin Classics, has attracted major international awards. His most recent concerto release features the C.P.E. Bach’s Cello Concerto in A major with the Musikkollegium Winterthur, whilst he is also midway through an imaginative project to record the complete duo repertoire of Schubert and Brahms. Other recent releases include Lalo’s Cello Concerto, Saint-Saen’s Concerto no.2 and the Britten Cello Symphony with Seikyo Kim and the Flanders Symphony Orchestra, Walton’s Cello Concerto (Sydney Symphony/Jeffrey Tate), Prokofiev’s Symphonie Concertante (Rotterdam Philharmonic/Vassily Sinaisky.

Born in Haarlem, The Netherlands, Wispelwey’ studied with Dicky Boeke and Anner Bylsma in Amsterdam and later with Paul Katz in the USA and William Pleeth in the UK.
Pieter Wispelwey plays on a 1760 Giovanni Battista Guadagnini cello and a 1710 Rombouts baroque cello.

www.pieterwispelwey.com

(photo credit: Carolien Sikkenk)

Diploma Day 2017 with Graham Fitch

The second Diploma Day, brilliantly organised by Claire Hansell, who with Rob Foster, runs the London Piano Meetup Group, was held at Morley College on Sunday 9th July. As with last year’s inaugural event, the day was designed to give those taking performance diplomas a chance to perform selections from their diploma programmes to Graham Fitch and a small friendly audience, and receive expert tuition and guidance from Graham. In addition, Frances Wilson (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist) discussed the benefits of taking a performance diploma, which diploma to choose (all the main exam boards – ABRSM, TCL and LCM – offer a variety of diplomas), how to select repertoire and create a varied programme, and offered advice on stagecraft and presentation skills, and managing performance anxiety (see the end of this article for a link to download Frances’ notes). In the afternoon, Peter Wild, senior lead examiner from Trinity College London, joined the event and took questions from the audience.

There were fine performances, including a most impressive rendition of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, Mozart’s Sonata K310, and a delightful Scherzo Humoristique (‘The Cat and the Mouse’) by Copland which closed the event on a very light-hearted note. Graham Fitch offered plenty of excellent advice on practising, technique, projecting one’s vision for the music, and good preparation, as always peppered with colourful metaphors and presented in an accessible and articulate manner. It was a most inspiring and supportive day, of benefit to adult amateur pianists and teachers alike.

Claire and Frances live-tweeted during the event – find a compilation of the tweets (plenty of pianistic wisdom) here

Download the DIPLOMA DAY 2017 notes (Word doc)

London Piano Meetup Group

The Self-Compassionate Pianist

The life of the pianist is, by necessity, solitary (and I have written before about The Pianist’s Loneliness). For many of us, the solitude is not an issue: we crave a sense of apartness to enable us to do our work and to create special connections with audiences when we perform, and we need quietude to allow time for self-reflection and evaluation.

The sequestered nature of the pianist’s life also calls for great self-reliance: we must  be self-starting, motivated, driven and focused to ensure our work (practising and preparation) is done each day. Most of us draw pleasure and satisfaction from knowing our work is done and done well, but without other colleagues and musical companions to interact with, it is easy for self-doubt to creep in, for us to question our role or our value, to ask “am I good enough?”.

Such negativism can stem from a performance which didn’t go to plan, the disappointment (and anger) from failing an exam or audition, a less-than-favourable review or some ill-advised comments from a teacher or mentor. Alone with our thoughts, such things can fester and grow into bigger problems than they need to be, and while most of us know that these things should simply be put down to “experience”, reflected upon and then put to one side, it can sometimes be difficult to shrug off feelings of inadequacy.

In his book ‘The Mindful Pianist’, teacher and pianist Mark Tanner notes the importance for the pianist of exercising “self-compassion” as a protection from the feelings of failure that can develop from setbacks, in addition to negative self-talk, lack of self-esteem, or dismotivation which can plague us when we spend so much time alone.

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Self-compassion is really no different from having compassion for others: the ability to recognise or understand difficulties, pain or suffering, and to respond in a kind, humane and sympathetic way. Having compassion enables us to offer understanding and support when someone makes a mistake, and demonstrates that we appreciate that we are all human and that suffering, failure, and imperfection are all part of the shared human experience.

By exercising self-compassion, we simply turn these kind and sympathetic responses back on ourselves. It involves acting in the same way as we would towards others when we are having a difficult time, fail or notice something in ourselves which we don’t like.

Self-compassion can be defined in three elements – self-kindness, mindfulness and common humanity – and can be applied to the pianist’s life and work as follows:

Self-kindness helps us cease the self-evaluation and critical assessment, the negative self-talk, asking “am I good enough”, comparing ourselves to others and the subsequent feelings inadequacy.

By exercising self-kindness we can recognize that perfection is an unattainable artificial construct, that when we fail, we need not beat ourselves up nor judge ourselves too harshly, but instead accept that we are human, that we “had a bad day at the office”, Self-kindness allows us be curious, open, and loving when it comes to how we regard ourselves.

Self-compassionate people appreciate that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life’s difficulties are inevitable. By being self-compassionate we can be more gentle with ourselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of our expectations or set ideals. This can lead us to greater emotional equanimity.

From the musician’s point of view, such an attitude enables us to work with curiosity and open-mindedness, to be more self-inquiring, to regard mistakes as tools for learning and self-improvement, and to be kind to ourselves when lack of time or motivation means we may not get as much practising in on a given day as we’d hoped.

Mindfulness helps us to be non-judgmental and to take a balanced approach to our emotions. Being mindful allows us to observe our thoughts and feelings from a distance, and for the musician it encourages a positive attitude towards mistakes (learning tools) and setbacks.

Mindfulness also means “living in the moment” and being awake to experience: for the musician mindfulness encourages us to practise thoughtfully, with concentration, commitment, improved focus and care.

In a performance situation, it encourages us to focus on creating the sound we hear on the spot, and to immerse ourselves in the vibrancy and “now-ness” of the music, rather than over-thinking what we are doing or getting caught up in comparing the performance to the ideal one we have in our head. It also enables us to banish the destructive “inner critic”, to be less “over-identified” with our thoughts and feelings, and to be accepting of our own strengths and weaknesses.

Common humanity is about recognising that personal inadequacy, vulnerability and failure are part of the shared human experience – something we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone. By recognising this, we accept that we don’t need to be singled out as the “most” or “least”, “best” or “worst” of anything, and we can become more objective about who we are in the world and how we choose to be. For the musician specifically, this includes not constantly comparing oneself to others but rather being accepting of who we are, and freeing oneself from the tyranny of perfectionism.

Self-compassion can protect us from the negative thoughts, self-doubt or feelings of inadequacy that the life of the musician may provoke, but it can also encourage us to open ourselves up to the full spectrum of our experience which is the starting point for truly compelling and mature musicianship.