City Music Foundation (CMF) welcomes applications from classical, jazz, folk, and world musicians – both soloists and ensembles – to join its innovative two-year Artist Programme.

Starting in September 2019, those selected for the scheme will enjoy:

  • A series of tailored Professional Development Workshopswith topics including tax and financial management, networking, presentation skills, contracts and legal issues, agents, PR, social media, pitching to venues and festivals, programming, and much more
  • Business Mentoringfrom senior business-people through collaborations with City firms
  • Artistic Mentoringfrom established, acclaimed international performers, including opportunities for collaboration in performance
  • Performance Opportunitiesin CMF-produced events, festivals, and residencies
  • Promotional Toolssuch as high-quality photos, a bespoke website, videos, and professional recordings
  • Day-to-day access to the Artist Manager, who works like an agent to secure live concert bookings and media appearances
  • Additional Supportwith individual projects and commissioning

The deadline for applications is Wednesday 3rd April 2019, 12pm.

Apply here: www.citymusicfoundation.org/apply


Current and previous CMF Artists include A4 Brass Quartet, Lotte Betts-Dean (mezzo soprano), Tabea Debus  (recorders), Foyle-Štšura  Duo (violin & piano), Andrey Lebedev (guitar), Ligeti Quartet,  Misha Mullov-Abbado (jazz double bass), and Emily Sun (violin).  

CMF’s mission is to turn exceptional musical talent into professional success by equipping outstanding musicians with the tools, skills, experience, and networks necessary for building and sustaining rewarding and profitable careers.

www.citymusicfoundation.org
Registered Charity Number: 1148641

 

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

When I was 3 years old, I joined an experimental folk theatre called ‘Gostsitsa’ as a singer and performer in my native town of Minsk. In the early 1990s, amidst all the uncertainty and volatility caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus experienced a remarkable cultural renaissance. It was a wonderful time to grow up as a child, although it was definitely not an easy period for adults. My identity and personality were hugely influenced by the Belarusian language, mythology and rich history, all of which are little known to most of the world. I have vivid memories of Gostsitsa’s powerful and, at times, quite avant-garde performances that showcased our cultural heritage. The group also gave me the first taste of travelling as we went on tour to places like Denmark and the Russian town of Salekhard on the Polar Circle. Cargo planes, deer sledges, the northern lights – we experienced true adventures! The musical part of our shows was very elaborate and often included complex polyphonic arrangements of folk songs. In fact, many of the artists in the company were classically educated and at some point, one of the artistic directors suggested to my parents that I should try to enrol into the Republican Music College – a national school for musically gifted children. I passed the entry exams when I was about five and went on to study there for the next 12 years.

I already played a bit of piano by that point. I actually started to play before I can even recall my first memory, so the piano was just always there. My parents had a studio apartment above a music shop, so they were able to purchase an instrument on credit. The school I went to combined both the national and intensive music curriculums. We were there pretty much all the time – often 6 days a week, sometimes for more than 10 hours a day, unless we were travelling for concerts or competitions. It was a wonderful place, almost a self-contained world, quite liberal for the post-Soviet era and bursting with talent and energy. It set me up with a very solid foundation for life.

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

Creative evolution is a never-ending process and influences come from all sorts of sources. Books, films, world cultures, science, history, my childhood in Belarus and formative years in Italy, friends and relationships – they are all intertwined with my personal development and therefore the music I play.

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

I think one of the greatest challenges in any profession is being able to separate the good advice from the bad and decide when to listen and when to ignore.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I am proud of both of my albums, which were the result of two deeply personal journeys: one looking outwards into space and the other directed inwards and putting the spotlight on my own experiences.

The first recording ‘Eta Carinae’ combined my passion for astrophysics with music of Scriabin and Busoni and explored one of the most fascinating periods in history: 1912-1920. It was an extraordinary time not only culturally and politically but also in terms of scientific advancements and our understanding of the natural world such as the structure of an atom, the first notions of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. The album has a narrative and if you listen to it as a whole, it tells a story that can be seen as the timeline of the physical transformation of matter, which in turn serves as an allegory for the progression of human reason itself.

In the second album ‘Et la lune descend’ I looked into my own life experiences through the musical lens of Debussy’s five piano suites. I also wanted to move away from the weight of academia which accumulated over the past hundred years since the composer’s death and just approach this music for what it is – with fresh ears, an open heart and the excitement of discovery. Behind the evocative titles and beautiful imagery in Debussy’s music, there are multiple layers of introspection and palpable enthusiasm for a new age of modernity that was meant to propel the world into the future.

Thinking of my live performances, I am and always will be my biggest critic. But there are, of course, plenty of happy moments and great memories. For my favourites, I would single out two solo recitals at Wigmore Hall, my performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at Barbican Hall and Rachmaninov’s No. 3 in Duke’s Hall at the Royal Academy of Music, when I was still a student there. Those were intensely exhilarating experiences that went in one breath once I was on stage.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

At the moment, I am very fond of French and Russian music of the early and mid 20th century and the two composers to whom I feel a special connection are Debussy and Scriabin.

For many people, Debussy is the composer of the moon and the sea and beautiful escapism. But he is also firmly rooted in the fast-paced urban environment of the turn of 20th century Paris, which was the melting pot of contemporary ideas and the avant-garde. And that is what makes his music relevant to our modern experiences, in my opinion.

If I had to select a composition that would be the last ever piece I would play in my life, it is Scriabin’s Vers la flamme. If I am in the right state of mind when playing it, I feel like I’m in touch with the truest essence of myself while reaching out to the stars.

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

Ever so often I discover a piece that I become obsessed with. These form the core around which the theme and the rest of the programme will develop. As I accumulate a deeper knowledge of the topic over time, it gradually begins to morph into a different theme altogether. Some pieces will remain, some will go and the new repertoire will evolve to reflect the change – it is a very organic process.

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

I love playing late evening concerts in open-air venues in Southern Europe in summer. Why? The starry sky, the gentle breeze, the murmurs of the night merging with the music, the colourful audience and boozy post-concert dinners going on well past midnight.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Whenever I have a musical block of any sort, I have a simple method I call ‘Ask Richter’ where I listen to his recordings from various years. Richter’s playing has a unique quality that distils the essence of music and reveals a version of fundamental musical truth, transcending the performer.

I love Sokolov, Ashkenazy and de Larrocha. My favourite young chamber ensemble is the Heath Quartet. I admire their passion, superb musicianship and attention to the smallest musical detail. For them, every note matters.

From time to time, my partner introduces me to various progressive metal bands. It is a great genre to discover incredibly impressive musicians in terms of skill and creativity. My latest introduction is a French metal band called Gojira.

I am a long-term fan of James Braddell (aka Funki Porcini). His music has been the soundtrack to my formative years since the age of 13. I highly respect his integrity as a musician and eagerly await each new release.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

One of the most memorable performing experiences was the recent launch of my all-Debussy album ‘Et la lune descend”. It was a wonderful project where I collaborated with some of London’s brightest talents in jazz, craft beer and illustration. Debussy’s groundbreaking explorations in rhythm, colour and tonality were originally inspired by traditional Indonesian gamelan music that he heard during the World Fair in Paris in 1889. I thought it would be great to include gamelan into a performance and reached out to Byron Wallen, one of the most innovative and versatile trumpeters in the world, who over the years assembled a beautiful gamelan set. I proposed to collaborate on a piano / gamelan / trumpet arrangement of some of the pieces from the album and he agreed to my delight. On the evening, us performers could literally feel how the music was created in that very moment when we touched our instruments, emerging from silence and dissolving into nothing. It was a magical experience.

The event was hosted by one of Shoreditch’s original clubs: Zigfrid’s, which is run by our friends. It had a wonderfully intimate atmosphere without any segregation between the musicians and audience. The energy was bouncing freely between all of us. At the beginning, when the gamelan sound blended into the piano opening of Debussy’s Cloches à travers les feuilles and at the end when Byron and I were improvising on Pour l’égyptienne, I was literally in music nirvana. None of us wanted it to end.

It was also very exciting to collaborate with our good friends at Partizan Brewing and create a limited-edition beer named ‘Doctor Gradus’ (after ‘Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum’ from Children’s Corner). Craft beer is an old passion of mine and in our Debussy beer we fused French and Indonesian flavours, reflecting musical influences in the taste. The label and artwork featured the distinctive artwork of award-winning illustrator Alec Doherty with whom we encoded many symbols and themes from the album. It was a true feast for the senses and a labour of love between many friends, each of them supremely talented in their respective field.

My other very moving experience is also connected to jazz. It wasn’t actually a concert per se. Last Christmas Eve I was walking back home after practice and next to a grocery store on Portobello Road I heard an incredible young jazz clarinettist. I thought: ‘Wow, those are some amazing sounds’ and kept on walking. But the music was just too irresistible, so I turned back and hid behind a corner. He was playing his soul out and no one was stopping to listen. He could have been playing at Carnegie Hall or on a deserted island – for him it did not matter. In this moment, nothing existed apart from his clarinet and his music. A few angry residents began to hassle him, one of them politely and another one quite rudely. I started to negotiate with them and defend the musician so I could hear ‘just one more piece’. At that point the clarinettist finally saw me, smiled and played his last tune for his sole listener. There was solitude, hope and empathy in his playing that spoke directly to my heart. It was a beautiful moment of understanding not only because I was on the same wavelength with him as a musician but also because through music he was able to create a human connection between two complete strangers. I cried my eyes out on my way home.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

A successful performance unites physical control and emotional abandonment. The magic happens when the sound manages to trigger a deeply personal response in each listener in what is otherwise a communal experience. For me, a successful performance comes with having a lump in the throat.

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

I think the most important factor is to know yourself and to understand your true passions. And when you do, not to compromise. The best music emerges from deep soul-searching. It is a tough and time-consuming process with inevitable disappointments along the way. It might translate into fewer opportunities at the start of one’s career but I believe it is a risk worth taking. The experience will ultimately help an aspiring musician to mature into an artist of true quality and integrity and lay the foundations for a fulfilling and sustainable career.

Olga Stezhko’s CD ‘Et la lune descend’ is available now. Comprising of five suites, the album marks the centenary of Debussy’s death and charts the development of his writing for piano solo from the very first ‘Suite bergamasque’ to the much lesser known last suite ‘Six epigraphes antiques’. Further information


Olga Stezhko is an award-winning concert pianist, recording artist and leading interpreter of early and mid-20th century piano repertoire. Acclaimed by Classical Source in a Wigmore Hall review as ‘a supremely delicate master of her instrument’ who possesses ‘an extraordinary presence’, she has performed worldwide at venues including the Barbican Hall, Salle Cortot and the Carnegie Hall. Recent highlights include performances in St Martin-in-the-Fields, Wigmore Hall, the National Gallery, Palermo Classica Festival, Leeds International Concert Season and the ‘Belarusians of the World’ Arts Festival in Minsk, where Olga was awarded a special recognition by the Ministry of Culture.

Born in Minsk, Olga was educated in Belarus, Italy and the UK where she completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees with distinction at the Royal Academy of Music. Her successes on the international competition circuit include the Grand Prix at the ‘Halina Czerny-Stefanska In Memoriam’ International Piano Competition in Poland, First Prize at the Nikolai Rubinstein International Piano Competition in France and Third Prize at the Prix Amadèo de Piano International Piano Competition in Germany.

Olga’s specialism is early and mid-20th century repertoire and she is particularly distinguished in Scriabin and Debussy. Her debut album ‘Eta Carinae’ (Luminum Records) combined her passion for astronomy with music by Scriabin and Busoni and was hailed by the Gramophone Magazine as ‘an outstanding debut’ and ‘not a record for the faint-hearted but rather for those who enjoy dark and menacing regions of the mind’. Olga’s second all-Debussy album ‘Et la lune descend’ was released on Palermo Classica in 2018 to mark the centenary of the composer’s death.

www.olgastezhko.com

Mentor – an experienced and trusted adviser

(OED)

A mentor is not necessarily a teacher. The musician’s journey is a complex one, requiring many years of highly rigorous, focused training, and a consistent routine of work (practising) and performing and/teaching, and more…. While many of us have studied with particular teachers during this journey – teachers who have helped carve the path for us and form us into the musicians we are today – we may encounter or seek out others along the way to offer advice, support, encouragement and honest critique.

The most obvious definition of a musician’s mentor is someone you might play to – a master teacher (perhaps recommended by your regular teacher) or well-regarded musician who is able to offer a different perspective and insights on your music making which inform not only the evolution of a specific piece or pieces or music, but also your personal development as a musician. We might visit such a person on a number of occasions during our career – I know of several renowned concert pianists who still refer to a mentor for guidance.

A good mentor is able to offer advice and critique in an honest yet sympathetic way, providing support and inspiration, and instilling in one a sense of empowerment and personal autonomy – qualities which I believe are crucial in our ongoing development as musicians and which enable us to create our own artistic vision and persona. In addition, a mentor is a brain to pick, a sympathetic ear to listen, a nudge in the right direction and a guide in achieving one’s goals. The best mentor-mentee relationships are built on mutual trust and respect, and shared values, and while the mentor may be superior in knowledge and experience, there is a certain equality to a good mentor-mentee relationship.

Of course not all mentors are musical ones. We may seek advice in managing our career and dealing with the business side of being a professional musician, someone who can inform and guide us through the minefield of building a professional profile (including creating a website and online presence), approaching promoters, funding applications, tax planning and so forth.

Trusted friends and colleagues can also act as mentors, offering advice and support over a range of issues, musical or otherwise. I have a very good friend, a medic by profession and an advanced amateur pianist and piano teacher whom I regard as my mentor. His positive pragmatic approach (playing the piano is not a life or death scenario!), sheer pleasure in music making, and an ability to critique my playing honestly and helpfully without making me feel inadequate or insulted, has done more for my confidence as a performer and self-esteem as a musician in general than any teacher. Our friendship is founded on mutual respect and a shared enjoyment in playing the piano, exploring repertoire and attending concerts (and much more besides, as befits a deep friendship).

Another acquaintance, a concert pianist, has been helpful in acting as a kind of “coach”, challenging my interpretive choices and asking me to justify every decision made within the music (technical and artistic, specifically in relation to the late piano sonatas of Franz Schubert) in a way which was non-confrontational, stimulating and respectful. This was not “teaching” between master and pupil, but rather a more equal discussion about the music. One of many interesting outcomes of this particular relationship was when he told me our discussions had taken him back to his scores, to examine the music in new way in the light of our conversations. Thus, mentoring is a two-way exchange.

We may also cultivate “inner mentors” who resonate with us and who we have identified as offering us what we need for ourselves. These may include a fictional character or a great musician whom we admire. As we resonate with these mentors, we make them our role models, tune into their special qualities, and draw these into ourselves so that we can utilise and be inspired or motivated by them.

Having a mentor or mentors is not about dependency or neediness, but about growing, pushing boundaries, learning, exploring and allowing someone to guide you – more than you could do on your own – in a direction that is your own. Mentors can pave new internal ground too, giving one greater self-trust and confidence in one’s path and purpose.

 


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Buy me a coffee

A picturesque drive through west Dorset, the sun setting over the sea, snow still covering some of the higher ground along the route, took us to West Bay yesterday evening for a concert by violinist Philippa Mo at Sladers Yard, a small gallery in a historic Georgian rope storage warehouse.

getlstd-property-photo
Sladers Yard, West Bay

By day the gallery’s café, by night, with seating arranged in the round on three sides, the small space was transformed into an intimate concert venue for a programme of music for solo violin by Teleman, Pisendel, Bach, Smirnov, Tartini and Karg-Elert. This was the fifth concert in Philippa’s series ‘Partita, Fantasia, Caprice’, her personal journey through Bach’s solo violin sonatas, complemented by baroque and contemporary music which reveals connections between music and composers. Philippa introduced each work in the programme, highlighting points of interest which gave the audience a way in to the music.

As someone who frequents piano concerts, usually in larger-scale venues where one can feel at one remove from the performer/s, the experience of hearing and seeing Philippa perform in such a small space was fascinating. The late great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter queried why audiences might want to see him playing and opted to play in almost complete darkness, so the audience couldn’t see him “working”, but I think audiences have a great fascination with the way musicians produce the music and if you’re ‘up close and personal’ in a small space such as Sladers Yard, you really appreciate the physicality of music making. You’re right there with the performer in the moment of creation, following the fingers, the body. In addition, in a small space with a good acoustic, I heard wondrous colours, harmonics and resonances from the instrument which I had not thought possible, sounds and timbres which may be lost in a larger space or when the violinist is accompanied by a piano or other instruments.

The whole concert was an intensely absorbing experience. In such a small space, one is compelled to listen attentively, and Philippa’s understated mannerisms and gestures are proof that one can create a profound ‘presence’ by sound alone.

The final concert in Philippa Mo’s series is on 8 June at Sladers Yard, West Bay, Dorset.

Concert-goers can enjoy a glass of wine or local craft beer before and during the concerts and there is also the option to stay for supper at Sladers Yard after the concert. The atmosphere is friendly and convivial.


Meet the Artist interview with Philippa Mo

 

Young musicians take to the stage alongside leading professionals

The SCO Mahler Education Project

Sunday 3 March 2019, West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge

“a unique opportunity for aspiring young musicians to learn from and perform alongside top professionals” – JOY LISNEY, conductor


On Sunday 3 March, the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra (SCO) will give a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, the last symphonic work he completed and one of the most iconic pieces of the 20th century.

The SCO will be joined by the best Cambridge University players, select graduate students from leading conservatoires, exceptionally talented young musicians from the Cambridge area (NYO principals and BBC Young Musician finalists) and guest players from professional orchestras. The concert will raise money for the Voices Foundation.

Prior to the evening performance, the guest players will lead sectional rehearsals (mentoring one section each) and will also perform in the concert.

“there is no hierarchy in this orchestra” – Joy Lisney

Guest ‘mentor’ players include:

Paul Barritt (guest Leader of the Hallé)

Michael Whight (ex-principal clarinet of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra)

Michael Buchanan (trombone, winner of the ARD Munich Competition and previously principal of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester and Scottish National Opera)

Colin Alexander (cellist, BBC Symphony Orchestra)

This promises to be a very special performance and an exciting musical and educational collaboration, with profits going to the Voices Foundation.

“learning through an amazing piece of music, the Mahler 9th Symphony” – Joy Lisney


Sunday 3 March, 8pm

West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge

Tickets £15 (concessions £12 / students £5)

BOOK TICKETS

For interviews and other press information please contact Frances Wilson


Seraphin Chamber Orchestra

Founded and conducted by cellist and composer Joy Lisney, the Seraphin Chamber Orchestra (SCO) comprises talented young musicians studying in Cambridge and guest soloists. The orchestra performs music from the rich repertoire for strings including lesser-known and rarely-performed works as well as encouraging living composers to write for the ensemble.

Seraphin Chamber Orchestra website

Twitter: @SeraphinCO

Joy Lisney

Praised for her stylish playing, musical maturity, formidable technical finesse and keen advocacy for new music, Joy Lisney is one of the most exciting young musicians to emerge in recent years in a busy career combining the cello with composing and conducting.

She has been performing internationally since her teens, at leading venues including the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Queen’s Hall Edinburgh, St. George’s Bristol and the Southbank Centre, in concerts featuring some of the best known works for cello as well as specially-commissioned new music and her own compositions. Her first string quartet was premiered by the Arditti Quartet in 2015 and she premiered her own composition ‘ScordaturA’ for solo cello in 2017 at St John’s Smith Square as part of the Park Lane Group concert series.

Forthcoming performances this season include the Elgar Cello Concerto and the Brahms Double Concerto (with violinist Emma Lisney), the premiere of her new work for chamber ensemble, and concerts at Temple Music Foundation, West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge, St George’s Bristol, the Purcell Room, and St John’s Smith Square.

Joy Lisney’s website

Twitter: @JoyLisney

 

 

 

Long read guest post by Jack Kohl

This address is in part about the musician who has studied as a concert pianist, but does not pursue the narrow and precise field for which he has been trained, yet does not quit; but does not often play solo recitals nor concerts, nor chamber music, nor strict lieder activities, nor teaches. No, this address will talk about the loner who picks up odd jobs in theater pits, in audition and rehearsal playing – seemingly taking advantage of his higher skills as a reader for performing the labors of a hack. But in these tasks he stays at the piano – free of the terrors of repeating precisely the work of another mind – at ease with music of greater ease, yet making better strides in considering the metaphorical implications of his trade than he could ever do in a classroom, or in practice aimed at a degree recital or a competition or even a concert to be televised before millions; or in the ostensible act of interpreting works that have been held now so long in human hands that they have, to the forward-looking and thinking mind, fallen apart like newsprint amidst wet fingers. Nor does he labor in the conceit that by some untried combination of ancient notes, something new can be composed that does not suggest something old.

Because the expectations for the level of rendering are not often high, and because what is rendered is rarely of an exalted quality, a hack is placed frequently in the best position to observe the metaphorical implications of musical utterance, a position beyond the wildest aspirations of the thinking but, alas, overcommitted virtuoso. The hack logs a count of unthreatened hours of which the virtuoso cannot dream. The hack does not look back on his errors – for he goes into the job knowing he will make them – and he does not prepare, for he does not fear to make the errors. He plays – though often badly – only in the present and never defers his thinking.

Some of my best metaphor hunts have come about from my habit of saying yes to most hack work – even to that for which I should prepare but do not. It takes a real practiced discipline – it takes real preparation – to go into a job unprepared in the traditional sense. But this is quite different from having no shame. I have come to feel most in practice when I have spaghetti fingers. To play well enough to attract notice neither in a good nor a bad way – to leave one free for observation and contemplation at a post suspected to be too busy for observation and contemplation – is the most highly cultivated of seemingly average skills. I rely a great deal on my powers of sight reading, the result of years of discipline – again, allowing me to play well enough to avoid notice, yet protecting me from being forced into specialty.

Though I started earlier, to gain that skill I had practiced unremittingly from age fourteen through thirty. For sixteen years, then, I sat in an almost foetal position – committed to that posture from adolescence to well into manhood. I maintained an umbilical connection to the musical canon before I could judge that canon for myself as an adult. I was not trained enough to judge music before I was trapped in it as a tradesman.

I can now report what I would tell the conservatory aspirant or recent graduate. As a young musician myself I had heard many a lecture on the trial by market that lay ahead for me. But if I were asked to speak to the young in my alma maters, I would put the question to them: Do enough of you subject Music – both new and old, popular and canonical, sacred and profane – not so much to a trial by market in relation to your own efforts as practitioners, but Music to a trial of yourselves, to a trial of you?

Of course I might be held somewhat suspect in all my observations in this address, for I have always worked to master a discipline so that it can at last be dropped and used only for analogy and not for trade. I have never aspired to the stasis of the expert. I have always aimed to toss over my shoulder, plow under, even that discipline of my greatest knowledge, even that of my supposed ultimate vocation – to render it but a point of reference for some unknown future thing. At my recent thirtieth high school reunion I identified my vocation differently to each person who asked what it is I do. The answer was always honest, and somehow the difference was not inspired by the identity of the inquirer.

But I became trapped early in a primary trade – for I always played just a bit too well for anyone to discourage me from my early and intense pursuit of the piano. Thus I have fallen into music as a profession that I cannot escape; it is my day job.

Once more, I work as a hack. Some of my former teachers, and many who are close to me, object to my use of the word hack for myself. Perhaps they are correct, for in using that word I am guilty of engaging in duplicity, guilty in part of false self-deprecation; for my hack work – the depth of field of witness to which I refer – has a very layered meaning for me.

And the supposed pride of pianistic pedagogical descent has never held my interest. I have offended one former professor by leaving teachers’ names out of my bio altogether. But would he wish to lay claim to my hack performances? And he cannot lay claim to what I see and witness in my hack renderings. Not even I can claim responsibility for those thoughts. That credit must go to what Samuel Taylor Coleridge characterized as Reason: “Reason is the Power of universal and necessary Convictions, the Source and Substance of Truths above Sense. . . .” I must cite Reason in my bio as my principal teacher.

But if I gave any name in my bio, my first teacher’s would be enough. For she showed me Middle C – and that key is as likely to be called B-sharp or D-double-flat. (That any one key on the piano can contain more than one viable and distinct note is due to the musico-grammatical phenomenon known as enharmonics, brought about by the full adoption of Equal Temperament tuning in the eighteenth-century. Equal Temperament divides the octave into twelve equally distanced half-steps, forcing formerly separate notes – like, say, C-natural, B-sharp, and D-double-flat – into a shared space. Enharmonic spellings stand in distant analogy to homonyms in spoken language.) Again, my first teacher showed me enough. For once we are shown Middle C we have been shown how to play the piano; then we spend too much time learning not the piano, but a literature.

That first lesson of Middle C and its enharmonic identities has never failed me, even in the midst of my most ostensibly grim days as a hack. I offer for an example my recent assignment to serve as a sub for Keyboard 2 in the pit of a regional level theater during a summer run. Descending into a theater pit sometimes seems promising to me. The outer edge of the pit – the wall separating the pit from the house – is often slightly curved, that edge suggesting only a small part of an imagined greater circle’s arc. Were one to follow the full implications of that circle, it would wrap around much of the outside of the theater’s neighborhood. Thus a pit is suggestive of a crater on a partially eclipsed moon. And a completely covered pit is like a fully eclipsed moon: hidden but there, having all the effects of a satellite without being seen at all.

When one descends into a true orchestra pit it feels very much like one is on the surface of a river or pond – of a surface that is, however, below the water. Thus, for the single man, the sunken Pre-Raphaelite maidens are above, on the stage, the hems of their skirts cupped in dance to the deck like upside down flowers over one’s head.

But to a trained pianist, the descent into a modern pit is just as often disheartening. The might of a grand piano always suggests to me an athlete in the posture of a one-armed push-up. But to descend into a pit unto a synthesizer is as to climb into a crypt with a deceased beloved and embrace a two-dimensional plastic rendering of her skeleton – as thin and as mass-produced as a page protector, replete with the latter’s unwelcome and threatening glare. Even the figurative foot of the deceased beloved, the pedal, slides away with every touch, is attached only by a wire, fastened as if only by a gruesome and exposed tendon. If I were to play – even mildly – with the Lisztian full torso conception of a pianist when sent to the frail bones of the synthesizer, I would be in fear of pushing the keyboard over or of pushing it off of its stand.

The sight of synthesizers is always disturbing. They represent a profoundly negative compression – the kind of negative compression humanity accepts increasingly with virtual reality. The synthesizers in a modern musical theater pit look like patients on tables, patients plugged into wires.

What kind of instrument is it that is as no instrument, that in having so little mass, also has no identity – but is instead a detectable imposter of all its poor multiple false identities? Strange that the principal instrument in such a pit is the one that would go silent, would be the most powerless at the loss of power. I call it the principal instrument for it is the keyboard family that has reigned in respect to our hearing, our sonic culture, since the rise of Equal Temperament. Did not the keyboard command, too, the inevitability of Equal Temperament tuning: the division of the octave into twelve equidistant half steps, presently referred to as 12-TET, permitting one to play in all twelve keys? But when the power goes out now, they (the keyboards as synthesizers) are useless. Even the electric guitar has some communication in a blackout with an acoustic actuality – and of course the electric bass, the reeds, and the drums do, too, in that ensemble into which I descended.

Again, in such a pit, I labored for weeks at Keyboard 2. Yet despite having a speaker (often called a monitor) so that I could hear myself, I could hear myself rarely at all. There were headphones attached to Keyboard 2, but I resisted using them. For some time, instead, I just relished my increasing rage. Surely when a drummer is miked yet plays, too, behind a plexiglass baffle, there is an element of madness in civilization.

For days I played without hearing myself, and for days it was as if I had returned to the time before the   eighteenth-century, to the time before Equal Temperament tuning, for the keyboard did not reign on this job. I heard instead an unconscious microtonal supremacy blaring from all instruments and from all the actors above. It was all at a professional level (as far as musical theater is concerned), but without hearing the Equal Temperament reference point coming from myself and my own playing, I lived in the midst of a subtle chaos of the senses – in a chaos without enharmony, a chaos of externally distinct B-sharps, C-naturals, D-double-flats (and every microtone in between).The reed player seated next to me remarked that my description of playing without hearing myself would be like a horn player performing with his bell inserted into a vacuum.

I gave way during one performance and put on the headphones. They placed me suddenly into the Equal Temperament frame of reference: C-natural, B-sharp, and D-double-flat were under one key again, and enharmony placed power within me once more rather than without me. I told the guitarist of this during intermission, and he did not seem to grasp the importance of what had struck me. The headphones threw me back into the grand alloy of Equal Temperament – because I could hear all the subtle lack of intonation in the production once the drums and other noises were pushed away. For me this experience of putting on the headphones was nothing less than a miraculous restoration – a re-entering of the Equal Tempered, the enharmonic world.

So what is it that a pianist detects when under one key one can hear many distinct notes, can feel many distinct notes? What is the miracle of enharmony – that C-natural, B-sharp, and D-double-flat can all reside under one key? I will omit theoretical examples for the same reason that an author of, say, a popular science book on physics will omit equations from his text lest he lose the earnest lay reader with technical proofs that are not required.

And I will not burden this address with attempts to draw too many comparisons between homonyms and enharmonics. When singers in musical theater rehearsals have complained to me that a C-natural and a B-sharp should be written as the same note, I have countered: Would not the costume department have trouble if in a memorandum the following message were written: “To to to tos to many buttons were added” instead of as “To two tutus too many buttons were added”? Again, I will not follow this path further; because homonyms are the result, we imagine, of a sort of convergent evolution in language over time; whereas enharmonics are separate though closely adjacent notes forced into the same locations by an act of human theoretical will, initiated at a self-aware moment in history. But I will say that touching one’s fingers to the lips of one speaking homonyms, feeling the slight differences of shape from emphasis and semantic placement – that might be akin to a pianist detecting the change of B-sharp into a C-natural, or C-natural into B-sharp.

I will endeavor to thrive on such analogies.

An enharmonic shift – the moment of its initiation – is as the magic of standing at midnight or during an unplowed snowstorm at the center of a normally busy perpendicular crossroad. Or who has not felt something akin to an enharmonic shift when transferring to a perpendicular track line at a subway stop?  An enharmonic shift makes a locomotive roundhouse of a key under the finger of the thinking pianist.

I think the idea of an enharmonic – again, say, C-natural and B-sharp – might be considered from the idea of the pianist hearing – and hearing by feeling with the fingers – one note as level and one as banked or on a slope. A stable tone would feel level; an unstable tone would feel sloped. Yet, again, both are found within the same level key on the instrument. I played in the ballroom of a cruise ship at one time in my life, on a grand piano. While still in port on the first day of the job, I could not understand why I felt suddenly odd and disoriented. But when I took a moment while playing to look across the room and out the window and could see that we were at last moving, then I could comprehend the respelled world – that what had seemed to be my alteration into instability had been really the new instability of the entire room. The room – the entire setting – had changed from stable note to unstable note.  A single piano key encompasses a microcosm of this: therein live a mighty ship and its ballroom and its grand piano – all, say, as a stolid and stable C-natural – but therein is also an unstable, watery, B-sharp.

A runner’s treadmill can suggest what a shifting enharmonic spelling feels like under a pianist’s finger. If I try to rest on it, my fingerings make the note seem as a treadmill belt that will fly me away if I try to remain still, if I try to resist the unstable tone’s quality to lead! Imagine, then, that a pianist almost feels a stationary ivory moving from side to side if that key is rendered into an unstable enharmonic identity – feels the key move as if it were a moving treadmill on which one tried to stand still! Imagine that a keyboard is sometimes almost as a treadmill whereon the arms and fingers of the player need no lateral motion, but the keys run as if on their own from side to side – acting like the belt of a moving sidewalk! (The lateral motion of the una corda pedal’s action is premonitory of this fanciful idea.) The unstable tone seems stable if one runs at the dictated pace of the musical work at hand; but it will throw one’s fingers otherwise, be hot to the touch, if resisted, throw one as when one must take to the sidebars of a fast-moving treadmill if one looks to make an instant stop – when one’s legs then are flailed like a too-long tether or chain attached to a rear bumper of a car.

Thus the stable enharmonic counterpart of the unstable note described above may be like running on solid ground. One can leave that note or remain on it by act of one’s own will.

When a player feels an enharmonic shift under the finger within one key on the Equal Tempered keyboard, the pianist shifts as from mortal to cyclops. The cyclops is as a symbol of the positive force of our Reason – of our ability, as children of the gods, to perceive depth though we are beings of concentrated and localized perceptions. The cyclops hears enharmony in one Equal Tempered key, hears herds in one atom of ivory. Thus could we have a keyboard with even less keys and hear as much? Perhaps therein is the hint of cyclops conflation! Perhaps the eighty-eight keys could all be one long undivided tusk?

No wonder we sit so long before pianos. The sitting implies the triumph of the Equal Temperament system. Thus, again, indeed the finest piano lesson – the one with most potential information and prophecy – always remains that first one: “Here is middle C; but it is also B-sharp and D-double-flat.”

Everything collapses into the premonitory wonder of just one note. Not for nothing does the sound of the solitary church bell, the sole barking dog, the isolated hooting owl, the creak of the lone cricket at autumn’s end, the cry of a lone distant locomotive; not for nothing do they work miracles, because they evoke so much within us, and evoke so much within for being so distant – and thus incapable of being hoarded and collected as on a keyboard. Nothing can harm their ability to inspire our greater inner power of division by Reason.

After reestablishing the wonder of a single Equal Tempered note; after, in effect, meditating the significance of my first piano lesson over the course of the pit job I describe above, I took off the headphones and stood up. I left the pit behind and decided to go for a run in the woods before the night was through.

Right at the start of this run, not very many yards into the trail, in a partially open area of the forest, lightning struck so close that for a moment I was forced into a crouch, a crouch as profound as that of a Bill Evans or a Glenn Gould before the piano keyboard. Yet as the day has passed that the great boom of Equal Temperament tuning should inspire us to crouch before the reports of the keyboard, we should not crouch before even the lighting from an actual piano-black sky.

But stand up and face the Cosmos like a tuning hammer, and perceive enharmony even in the seemingly irreconcilable, because it is already there within – demand that compression be realized from the without to the within by each individual will. Even before the lighting we should not crouch like a Gould or an Evans. Nor should we sit or even sit up straight on a piano bench; we should stand before the keyboard of the Cosmos as did my elementary school teachers leading us in the simple songs they learned in Teachers College. We should stand over it all and concentrate Creation from without to within. A positive compression should be worked by every individual ready for the good labor, and a new sort of Middle C will be positively compressed without, yet still recognized as a C-natural or D-double-flat or B-sharp within.

My own skeleton is an ivory, each digit of any finger both a C-natural and a B-sharp. Thus my own self is full of enharmonics.  And we walk on the other digits. An organist – from experience with the Equal Temperament pedal board – must feel enharmonics even on the stones of a beach, anywhere he places his feet with more insight than mere locomotion, with more than mere acquisition from the senses. If we really felt the enharmonic glory of the ground of our native places, we would not boast but be ashamed to share our travel photos. Enharmony suggests that a note moves based upon angle of approach – as if Italy or China were to move based upon my point of entry. And would this not obviate my travel if I at last determine the location of my planned destinations? Move rightly and all comes to me.

After graduating from the rudiments of art, from the rich, stationary, and infinitely vast skeleton key to Reason that is hinted at by even one Equally Tempered note and the system of enharmony, later piano works and their latitudinal franticness suggest to me the despair of the modern tourist.  The extant literature always seems a defamation, a profanation, of the greater promise in a single note, to what we see and hear within.

What greater invention than Enharmony has there been? What greater invention has there been than one that confirms we need no inventions? It is an invention that proves that our inner powers are always able to survive our external powers to summarize.

I do not know what the new grammars of the new arts and sciences will be, but I am certain that they will come from within, and I will close the piano’s fallboard and remain standing as the search begins.


Jack Kohl is a writer and pianist living in the New York City area. He is the author of That Iron String (A Novel of Pianists vs. Music), Loco-Motive (A Novel of Running), and You, Knighted States (An American Descendentalist Western), all from The Pauktaug Press.

 

www.jacksonkohl.com