I’m flagging up this interesting project which a colleague of mine in the US (and contributor to this blog), Catherine Shefski, is undertaking this year, to learn and record one piece of piano music per week. As she says in the blurb to accompany her recordings on SoundCloud “Like many piano teachers, over the years my own piano playing has taken a back seat to teaching and all the administrative work that goes along with running a music studio. This year I’ve decided to change that. I am making a commitment to record and upload one piece each week. By setting these weekly deadlines, I’m hoping to overcome my tendency towards procrastination and perfectionism.”
I think Catherine’s comments probably chime with many piano teachers – that we don’t play enough as we focus more of our attention on teaching. If one runs a busy teaching studio, it can be hard to find the time to play oneself, and at the end of a long teaching session, one may not feel like sitting at the piano. However, I think it is crucially important for a teacher to play regularly, if possible. One should be constantly exploring new repertoire, and honing one’s techniques and skill-base. All useful in teaching, and to me, more useful than reading dry pedagogical texts and music theory away from the piano.
I admit I am very selfish about my piano playing: this is partly because having got one Diploma (with Distinction!) under my belt, I am now working towards the next one (LTCL). I learnt from my preparation for the first Diploma, that if I don’t put the hours in at the piano, I won’t be properly prepared – and preparedness is essential. On another level, I really really enjoy playing the piano. Even if I am working on some particularly knotty passages of Liszt or a finger-twisting Rachmaninov transcription of Bach, I get a tremendous amount of pleasure and satisfaction from playing. I am rarely bored, because if there is nothing else to do, I will nearly always play the piano. And I know I’m not alone in feeling this – even a busy professional pianist has to love his or her job to do it well.
Take a look at Catherine’s accompanying blog to read more about the Go Play Project, and visit her SoundCloud to hear her pieces.
As for playing the piano, in the words of the slogan of a famous sportwear company – JUST DO IT!
I’ve always been fascinated by music written in unusual rhythms and metres. Right from earliest childhood I was very much a counter, an enthusiast of number, and one of my instinctive reactions to music is to count the beats. So I love those rare times when the beats don’t add up as you expect – in the usual twos, threes, fours, sixes, eights.
I think this fascination with number and desire for the dance to be unsquare is at the heart of it, and is something that divides both musicians and listeners, almost as if by brain-wiring. There are composers and songwriters for whom playing around with metre is the most natural thing in the world, and there are those who simply aren’t interested, and go on to write a lifetime of great music in 4/4.
And I think that cuts across all types of music. There have certainly been genres and periods in history when complexity with time was fashionable – psychedelia, prog rock and much of the twentieth century in classical music. But that experimentation is mostly about disruption, disorder, complexity, rather than actually setting down a regular rhythm in an unusual metre that is intended to be heard and felt. Though some 20th century composers like Bartók, Stravinsky and Messiaen really did have a taste and a talent for bold funky rhythmic eccentricity, it’s consistently been extremely rare – even in modern classical – to hear a proper tune in say 5, 7 or 11 beats.
In some ways it seems most surprising to find these strange metres in pop music, where we expect technical simplicity. But of course in every genre you find the whole range of human personality, just expressed in different ways. I’m interested in those occasional songs that break the mould and surprise us. We might hear them on the radio, in a shop, in a bar or club; we might even try to dance to them. We might be half-consciously puzzled, we might sort of feel something strange is going on, we might trip over our feet – or we might not even notice. As I said, I think receptiveness to this varies very much between individuals.
So I’ve listed ten songs that are all in one way or another metrically odd, dating from the sixties to the present day. Most of them I consider great songs. Several have had me counting furiously over the years, but having figured them out, I’m always left enjoying the slippery strangeness of their rock, bounce and swing.
This mysterious harpsichord-led ballad which reached no. 2 in the charts in 1982 is utterly unique and timeless. The introduction and interludes have a seven-beat off-waltz pattern that contributes to a potent sense of the surreal.
Originally recorded by Dionne Warwick in 1967 but now probably better known in the darker version by Aretha Franklin, this song starts off straightforwardly but switches to a puzzling 11 beat pattern in the chorus.
1969 was apparently a difficult year for George: according to wikipedia, he was not only arrested for marijuana possession but also had his tonsils removed. But this song is incomparably sweet, and its unusual rhythms come from an interest in Indian music rather than any dark expression. Bridge passages are in 6/8 + 6/8 + 2/4, and the middle ‘eight’ repeats a twisty 4/4 + 7/8 + 11/8.
At the height of prog rock in 1973 quite a few bands were experimenting with time signatures, but this Roger Waters song is unusual for its strikingly bold bass riff in a very clear 7/4 rhythm. (I’ve always assumed this was the inspiration for the Are You Being Served? theme, but I’m not so sure after researching it today.)
This song from 1999 is one of many by Radiohead using an unconventional metre – others include ParanoidAndroid(Radiohead – Paranoid Android) (sections in 7/8), Pyramid Song, Morning Bell [Radiohead – Morning Bell](another very slippery 5/4), 2+2=5 (7/8), Go to Sleep, and 15 Step (a banging 5/4). It features a highly syncopated keyboard riff that divides five beats into slippery semiquaver patterns with a dark dissonant harmony.
More Beatles, this time from John Lennon in 1967, with the most famous piece of music ever written in septuple time. John had a habit of dropping and adding beats to mix up the rhythmic flow of his songs – Strawberry Fields Forever, Good Morning, Good Morning, Across the Universe – but in this case there’s a real 7/8 rhythm in the verse sections. This song could just as easily have been written in 4/4, and I wonder if it was a last minute decision to chop off the final half beat to increase the energy.
One of the fattest tunes ever written in quintuple time, this has a swagger and perhaps a hint of a broken tango. There’s an virile energy appropriate to its purpose that comes from having to stop and shake your head twice at the end of every bar.
Although dance music is all about rhythm, and the best producers have spent the last quarter century dividing up time with astonishing innovation and refinement, almost nothing departs from a fundamental 4/4. I guess the reason for this is simply mixing – DJs have to be able to blend one tracks into the next – as you don’t really need 4/4 to dance (at least I don’t). So the best I can find by way of ‘unusual’ metre in dance music is this 2000 track in 6/4 by Dave Lee aka Joey Negro aka Jakatta.
The play of twos and threes against each other is ubiquitous in dance, but American Dream is distinctive in what it does with this. Dance music typically ‘resolves’ rhythmically to phrases of 2, 4 or 8 four-beat bars (e.g. by having a 3 + 3 + 2 pattern). This doesn’t – it is fundamentally triple. I’d be interested to know if this affects how people respond to it on the dancefloor.
Back to the late sixties for one final tune in quintuple time. This is a folky example that uses the same 3+3+2+2 pattern as Mission Impossible. There’s a lot of folk music that plays around with metre, and it’s been hugely influential in classical music.
With music in five I often find myself wondering if it is basically 4/4 plus one, or triple time minus one. The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique is definitely a disturbed waltz with a missing beat. A pure quintuple rhythm (if it is possible) would perhaps feel like neither of those things.
And finally, right up to the present day with this delicate harp-led track from Biophilia (2011). Many songs on the album use experimental rhythms (and experimental everything), and this one combines 4 and 5 beat bars into phrases of 17, inspired (in none-too-obvious ways) by lunar cycles.
“As the lukewarm hands of the gods
Came down and gently picked my adrenaline pearls”
Does anyone have any other songs to add to the list?!
Tim is a mobile technology specialist living in London who also sings, dances and makes things. He has recently started a blog – mangofantasy.wordpress.com – which explores music, art and more through the prism of his life.
Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin was born on this day in 1810 in Zelazowa Wola, a village in the Duchy of Warsaw. He left Poland when he was 20 and never returned. He settled in Paris for the rest of his life. His heart was returned to Poland when he died.
He is, dare I say it, one of the greatest composers for the piano ever, and he wrote some of the most arresting, absorbing, sublime and touching music for the instrument, music which has become part of the pianist’s standard repertoire and is regularly performed around the world by pianists amateur and professional. It is also some of the most difficult music in the repertoire, yet it is wonderful to play because, as a pianist himself, he knew what he was writing, so to speak.
The Nocturnes: as I said in an earlier post (Must Plays for Pianists), the Nocturnes are amongst his most exquisite miniatures for piano, and are some of the most charming and expressive pieces he wrote.
The Études, Opus 10 and 25: Chopin took the student study, a genre developed by earlier composers such as Clementi and Czerny, and elevated it to a concert piece while retaining the crucial attributes of the form – that it is intended to practice specific technique or techniques. There is huge variety of mood, texture, sound and technical difficulties throughout the two opuses; some are very famous, others less so. Here is Sokolov in one of my favourites, and the first Étude by Chopin I learnt:
The Mazurka and the Polonaise: peasant and folk music from his homeland, like the Études, Chopin elevated both forms into refined, drawing room music. He gave the Waltz the same treatment: these are not pieces to dance to, but to perform and enjoy, in the salon or at home, amongst friends. The Mazurka in F minor, Opus 68, No. 4 is one of the most beautiful and poignant pieces Chopin wrote, with the ambiguous direction in the score regarding the repeat: ‘D.C. al segno senza fine‘. In effect, the keep repeating and eventually fade away to nothing). My teacher told me she “never teaches” this piece because it is so special. Here is Ashkenazy:
The ‘infamous’ Marche Funèbre from the B-flat minor Sonata. Much has been written and posited about this work, many commentators suggesting that Chopin wrote it with intimations of his own death in mind. In fact, it was composed some years before he conceived the Sonata, and he then included it in the work. Played well it is grandiose and soaring, its darkness offset by the trio with its beautiful cantabile melody.
The Ballades. Chopin ‘invented’ the Ballade, deriving it from its poetic and vocal cousins, and was the first composer to apply the term to a purely instrumental piece. It was later taken up by composers such as Liszt and Brahms. The Ballades are innovative in form in that they cannot be placed in any other form, for example, Sonata form. Despite sharing the same title, each is highly distinct, with its own character, though all share certain attributes, such as the clever use of “lost” or “ambiguous” keys, exquisite delayed gratification through unresolved harmonies, contrasting, climactic passages, and moments of pure romanticism. The structure of the pieces does not suggest a firm narrative; rather, the listener is able to form his or her own narrative as the music unfolds. (The Third, for example, has a “ticking clock” motif which brings to mind a lovely image of Chopin working at Nohant, while an elegant carriage clock chimes on the mantelpiece, perhaps reminding him, poignantly, of the passing of time.)
Chopin and me:
Hearing English pianist John Lill play the B-flat minor Sonata on the Southbank, circa 1980. A highly emotional experience (Lill was in tears at the close of the work) and the first time I’d seen red roses thrown onto the stage at the end of a concert.
Visiting Chopin’s frugal accommodation at the monastery in Valldemossa, where Chopin and Sand spent their ill-starred holiday in 1838 (documented in Sand’s book A Winter in Majorca). The museum there contains some touching memorabilia – a lock of Chopin’s hair, letters and manuscripts.
Hearing Chopin’s music played on a piano which belonged to him when he visited England in 1848, held in the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands. The programme – the Opus 55 Nocturnes and the Sonata in B minor. That same day, in the evening at the Royal Festival Hall, I heard Nelson Freire play the B minor sonata on a modern concert Steinway – the difference was extraordinary, yet it was clearly the same work.
Learning to play some of the Études, and feeling I had finally “arrived” as a pianist. This sense of having entered a rather exclusive “pianistic club” was enhanced further when my teacher suggested I should learn some of the Ballades and/or Scherzi.
I stupidly left some of my precious scores at the venue where I attended a photoshoot last week. I put the scores on the windowsill of the theatre while my photographer friend and I moved the piano into position: I remember thinking, “I mustn’t forget to take those scores with me”….. I only discovered I was missing the scores when I went to practice on Saturday morning, and for a moment I suffered that awful heart-in-the-mouth feeling as I tried to recall where I might have left them. Unless I am reading a score away from the piano (usually in bed, when others might be reading a novel!), my scores live on or close to the piano. Having searched briefcase, bedroom and car to no avail, I realised I had left the music at the theatre.
I felt curiously bereft without them: the Dover edition of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage with a rather fine portrait of Liszt on the front cover, the pale mauve ABRSM edition of Chopin’s Nocturnes, which I had when I took my Grade 8 exam over thirty years ago (still with my then teacher’s annotations), the dusky blue Henle edition of Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux which accompanied me to my Diploma exam…… “You must have something else you can practice,” my husband said, seeing my miserable face. “You can go back to the theatre on Monday and collect them.”
He was right, of course – and I did retrieve the scores – but without them nearby all weekend, I did feel rather unhinged. It’s not so much the books themselves, which of course can be replaced, if necessary, but all the annotations and personal scribblings on the pieces I’m working on which I missed.
A pianist friend of mine, on seeing my richly annotated score of Liszt’s Sonetto 123 del Petrarca (heavy with my fingerings, comments to myself, and excerpts of the libretto from the song version), suggested that I rub out all but the most essential markings and “clean up that score!”. “Oh no! I can’t possibly do that!” I exclaimed in horror. For to me those markings are as familiar as old friends, and without them it’s just NOT MY SCORE!
I expect we all have our own set of personal markings and annotations: I favour rings around notes to remind me of a place where I regularly make a mistake, exclamation marks (rather like the road signs) to alert me to ‘hazards’, a cartoon pair of spectacles to remind me to look out or ‘watch it’. Then there are general notes about context, the composer, facts about the work. (In the case of the Liszt Sonetto, it was incredibly helpful in my interpretation and shaping of that work to have a translation of the libretto at crucial points in the score, as well as a copy of Petrarch’s original sonnet pinned to the inside cover.) It’s always interesting, almost voyeuristic, to see someone else’s score, for the marks within in are highly personal: someone else’s fingering and comments, which, if analysed, might reveal someone’s deepest insecurities and frustrations, their unspoken hopes and most secret desires. Someone else’s annotations, their wisdom, the score they have lived in, and worked over many times.
My scores are now safely stowed on the lid of the piano, ready for this week’s practising. Meanwhile, over the weekend, I worked on Mozart’s Rondo in A minor (K.511), and made some useful inroads into Messiaen’s Prelude ‘Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste’ and Rachmaninov’s wonderful transcription of the Prelude from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3.
Tenor John Aler sings ‘I’ vidi in terra’ – Sonetto 156 di Petrarca (S.158/3)
Revisiting a work one learnt last month, last year, or 20 years ago can be a wonderful experience, like reacquainting oneself with an old friend, while also making a new friendship. Picking up a piece again after a long absence, as I have been with Mozart’s melancholy late work, his Rondo in A minor, K 511, often offers new insights into that work, and reveals layers and subtleties one may not have spotted the first time round.
My experience with my studies for my Performance Diploma taught me how to practice deeply, to the extent that I was on intimate terms with every note, every phrase, every nuance, every shading in all of my exam pieces. After I had performed the pieces for the exam, I might have considered them “finished”: certainly, on the morning of the exam, my thought was “I have done all I can. There is nothing more I can do”. But that was then, on 14th December 2011, and now, mid-February, picking up the Liszt Sonetto123 del Petrarca again ready for Richmond Music Festival, the piece feels very familiar, yet certainly not “finished”. Of course, it needs some finessing for its next performance in just over two weeks’ time, and some reviewing in the light of the examiner’s comments, and, yes, it is “all there”, in the fingers. But it has changed since I last played it: it’s more spacious and relaxed, gentler and more songful. It won’t be quite the same piece as before, when I play it in the festival.
The Mozart Rondo K 511 is multi-faceted: it prefigures Chopin in its rondo figure, a weary yet songful and at times highly ornamented melody, and harks back to Bach in its textural and chromatic B and C sections (a more detailed analysis of this work here). This is actually my second revisit of this work: I first learnt it before I started having lessons with my current teacher (about 5 years ago), and then revived it about two years ago. So, third time around, I am finding more subtleties in it, while also being struck at how cleverly Mozart manages to express his entire oeuvre in the microcosm of a piano miniature: there are arias, grand operatic gestures, Baroque arabesques and chromaticism, Chopinesque fiorituras, extremes of light and shade, sometimes within the space of a single bar. All the time when I am working on it, I find aspects which remind me why I picked it up in the first place, while also discovering new things about it.
A work can never truly be considered ‘finished’. Often a satisfying performance of a work to which one has devoted many hours of study can be said to put the work ‘to bed’, but only for the time being. The same is true of a recording: rather than a be-all-and-end-all record, maybe a recording is better regarded as a snapshot of one’s musical and creative life at that moment. As a pianist friend of mine once said “it’s always the way: you commit a work to a CD then discover all sorts of new things about it….”. American Pianist Bruce Brubaker, in his sensitive and thoughtful blog Piano Morphosis, describes this as a process of “continuing”. Thus, one performance informs another, and all one’s practising and playing is connected in one continuous stream of music-making.
Here is Mitsuko Uchida in Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K 511. For me, this is a peerless interpretation of this work.
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