In this guest post Roman Rabinovich explores the interrelationship between the visual and performing arts and composition

Ever since I was a kid I have loved creating things, whether sculptures out of randomly found objects and dirt (I didn’t yet know about Robert Rauschenberg), improvising little character pieces on the piano, or compulsively drawing my family members and friends. It seemed at first that these were unrelated and separate activities, but I soon realised that they all came from the same impulse – the need to create my own emotional world in which I could freely express myself. I imagine that most kids are like this, but sadly many stop as they grow older.

I come from a family of musicians and piano playing was the only activity for which I had proper teachers, so I would say I’m primarily a pianist who also paints and composes. That is not to say that I’m less serious about painting and writing music. In fact, I had a difficult time deciding what I would do when I grew up. I’m happy I didn’t have to choose.

Performing and composing are two seemingly different processes. We perform music that composers notate with black dots on the page. However, these black dots are not music. Music emerges only when a performer transforms notation into real sound. A performer’s goal is to get into the composer’s world and mind, similar to an actor who seeks to inhabit a character role. We are taught to analyse a composer’s every mark with uncompromising detail and base our interpretation on the clues the composer leaves us in the score. But just following what’s written in the score is not enough. A compelling performance breathes life into and shines new light on a work. In this sense, performance becomes an act of creation. The process begins with imagining the sound in one’s mind. Fingers are the last factor. As András Schiff said, “fingers are just the soldiers, the General is the mind”.

In composition, on the other hand, there are no instructions; the possibilities are endless. There are rules of counterpoint, voice-leading and form, but the whole “game” is about creating one’s own rules and then breaking them. Every piece follows a different process and it has its own inner logic so there are no shortcuts. Sometimes the process is quick and smooth but more often it is painfully slow and daunting. I feel that it is quite unproductive to impose ideas on a piece. It has to unfold naturally and it takes time for the narrative to unveil itself. When in a state of flow, it feels like a piece writes itself, and as a composer I just listen to what it has to say.

Composing helps me understand how the great masterpieces were crafted. Through this process I also learn so much about myself. I love making these “sound sculptures” and I love the struggle it takes to create art: to be completely lost and not know how to proceed; to try out different options before gradually landing on the right solution. It is a fun way to spend a day. When I wake up, the first thing I do is go straight to the piano. It is a productive time to improvise and explore musical ideas while the brain and the body wake up. There is no inhibition, expectation, nor doubt yet. Often after a few hours of work I hit a wall and it is very helpful to take a walk. Somehow things come into focus when you are outside and moving. No wonder most composers were avid walkers.

I have always been fascinated with painting because, unlike music, it is permanent. The main difference between visual art and music is the perception of time. Music unfolds in real time. When you experience a live concert and the last chord ends, that’s it, it will only remain in your memory. With visual art you take time to absorb it. You can go away, come back and the painting will still be there, unchanged. You change; the painting doesn’t. Taking time is part of your experiencing it. One of my favourite things is to look at a painting, analyse it, and try to figure out how a great master organised two-dimensional space and made it look three-dimensional. In the last few years I’ve been making images on my iPad. It’s a new and exciting medium, and it works differently from paints on a canvas, because you are drawing with light. It is a completely different sensation. When you are drawing on paper or painting on canvas there is a limit to the number of layers before it starts to look overdone. In a similar way, a musical passage can be out of balance if there are too many notes in a chord and all the notes are played with the same volume, making it difficult for the listener to know what to listen for. With digital painting, you have unlimited layers and textures at your disposal.

Just like music, painting is about space and spatial relationships. Our perception of sound changes in relation to the space we are in. We have a visceral reaction to it. The same music will be perceived entirely differently depending on the venue in which it is performed – a small chapel will sound worlds apart from a 3,000-seat hall. Similarly, a painting’s effect is totally dependent on the space, lighting and framing around it.

Music is an abstract language and most of the time it doesn’t need any help from other art forms. However, sometimes I find it useful to visualise structures in music, especially if it is a long and complex piece. For example, when one plays a Bach fugue, one can envision a great cathedral and observe it from the bottom to the top. It all starts with one brick at a time, as with one voice at the beginning of a fugue, and slowly, layer by layer, develops into a marvellous structure. Similarly to decorative art, which has threads or visual motives, composers like to develop pieces from small and simple cells.

In my piece ‘Memory Box’, a suite of six miniatures which I performed at my recent Wigmore Hall recital, music and art merged. The opening movement, “Forgotten dreams”, is based on one of my oil paintings, and part of a series called Memory Box. My piano piece came out of the same creative impulse as these paintings – they are cousins, if you will. In this work I explored the theme of dreams, fantasies and the subconscious. Both the music and the painting are quite fragmented. They are full of gestures and bits and pieces that never seem to resolve and evoke a dream-like state.

Despite the discipline and the daily work routine, it is important for me that whatever I create comes from a place of spontaneity and playfulness. We must not forget to have fun and stay curious. For me, the initial impulse in a creative act has to be instinctive, whether it is improvising or just throwing colours at a canvas. I want to see how the art materials respond, or how the notes react. I can edit things later, but I try to compose with no concrete thoughts – they are often distracting and limit the imagination. I like to keep the integrity of this initial impulse as much as possible. We live in a crazy world full of distractions and it is rare to have a moment of quiet, a moment of being fully present. Art is a very powerful thing and it can give these moments, this sense of purpose to anyone at anytime.

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Roman Rabinovich was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan; raised in Israel; and is now based in the USA. A multifaceted musician, praised by the New York Times for his “uncommon sensitivity and feeling”, Rabinovich is also a composer and visual artist, and often creates artwork to enhance his musical performances.

Full details at: www.romanrabinovich.net

Meet the Artist……Roman Rabinovich

I Musicanti
 
Leon Bosch, conductor
Arensky – Tchaikovsky Variations
Tchaikovsky arr. Stephenson – Rococo Variations
Alexandra Harwood – Sinfonia Concertante ‘The Secret Ball’ (world premiere)
Shostakovich, arr Stasevich – Sinfonietta after the String Quartet No. 8

4th November 2017, St John’s Smith Square, London

 

On (almost) the eve of the centenary of Russia’s October Revolution, I Musicanti presented a programme which spanned the old and the new: music from Imperial, Tsarist Russia (Arensky and Tchaikovsky) to an elegy to post-Revolution, post-war Russia in Shostakovich’s searing String Quartet No. 8 (here arranged for string orchestra with timpani), and the world premiere of a new work written by a fifth great granddaughter of Catherine the Great, Alexandra Harwood.

Following on the success of their first series at St John’s Smith Square, I Musicanti’s latest series ‘Alexandra and the Russians’ showcases brand new works specially written for the ensemble by Alexandra Harwood alongside well-known pieces and lesser-known or neglected gems of repertoire. This is proving a very successful and satisfying “formula” for I Musicanti: the juxtaposition of old and new, familiar and lesser-known offers interesting comparisons and contrasts within programmes, and brings to the fore music which may otherwise have lain dormant and unheard (for example, Schubert’s Quartet in G D96 for flute, viola, cello and guitar, which was part of the May 2017 programme). The programmes are also just about right in terms of length, no more than 40 minutes maximum per half – an important consideration for those of us who have a longer train ride back to the leafy suburbs after a concert.

Perhaps the most significant facet of the success of the I Musicanti formula is the selection of musicians. The ensemble is flexible – sometimes a quartet, sometimes at septet, depending on the repertoire; on this occasion a small string orchestra, led by Fenella Humphreys. The musicians are hand-picked: as Leon Bosch, the driving force behind the ensemble, said to me after the first concert (which included Peter Donohoe on piano), “I can choose the best people to work with” – and this shows in the quality and commitment of performances and performers. This is not flashy, ego-driven playing, but really exceptional playing driven by common purpose and a shared love of the music.

The concert opened in Russia’s Imperial age with Arenksy’s Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, written as a tribute to the recently-deceased Tchaikovsky, and which begins, choral-like, with a motif which mimics the sound of male voices in a Russian Orthodox Choir, expressed in the dark sonorities of two cellos, violin and viola. A lyrical work with seven variations of differing tempi and moods, it was an affecting and genial start to the evening, elegantly presented by I Musicanti.

For Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, a work inspired by the composer’s love of Mozart, the ensemble was joined by South African cellist Peter Martens for a performance which combined understated virtuosity (the work contains some fiendish technical challenges for the cellist and few opportunities for the soloist to rest) with a delightful interplay between soloist and ensemble. This arrangement, by cellist and composer Allan Stephenson, restores the variations to their original order and assigns the original wind solos to the string principals (in this case Fenella Humphreys, violin, and Richard Harwood, cello, who both brought colour and verve to the music). Peter Martens’ tone was rich and colourful, balancing wit with seriousness to create a performance of great variety, character and warmth. This was the first performance of Allan Stephenson’s arrangement, the scoring for strings bringing a clarity to the music with no less texture or richness than the original.

After the interval, the world premiere of Alexandra Harwood’s Sinfonia Concertante: The Secret Ball, a work scored for string quintet surrounded by orchestra inspired by a story by Alekxander Afanas’ev (1826-71). A single movement takes the listener through a series of dances, opening with a grand, if slightly raunchy waltz followed by a polonaise, tango, polka, mazurka, tarantella, sarabande (using fragments of melodies from Corelli and Bach), minuet (with a fragment from Mozart), Bourree (Bach quoted again), Badinerie (Corelli), Galop and finally another waltz, the music fading away to nothing, as if the dancers are disappearing into the dawn. Alexandra is a noted composer of film music and the piece had, for me at least, a very visual quality with a clear narrative. In the lively, foot-tapping fragments of dance, one could easily picture the secret ball, dancers twirling on the dance-floor, while unspoken scenes and assignations perhaps took place in side rooms.

This work provided a striking contrast to the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 (in an arrangement for string orchestra and timpani by Abram Stasevich) which followed. Here was a work of great emotional power which takes Shostakovich’s motto theme DSCH as its starting point, the motto returning in various guises throughout. The timpani provide an underlying martial character to the work (said to be dedicated to “to the victims of fascism and the war”, but also perhaps dedicated to the composer himself who in July 1960 discovered he was suffering from a debilitating muscular weakness). This was a compelling, sombrely elegaic and tautly managed performance, and a fine close to what I feel was I Musicanti’s best concert so far in their residency at St John’s Smith Square. This concert also represented a debut of sorts for double bass player Leon Bosch as it was his first appearance in London on the conductor’s podium, a role he seems to relish.


Further I Musicanti dates at SJSS

Sunday 21 January 2018 at 3pm – music by Arensky, Alexandra Harwood (world premiere), and Tchaikovsky

Sunday 3 June 2018 at 3pm – music by Prokofiev, Smirnov, Alexandra Harwood (world premiere) and Glinka

Do go – I promise you won’t be disappointed.

 

Meet the Artist interview with Alexandra Harwood

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

I used to listen to a lot of music (mainly vocal) when a young child and so my parents decided to buy a piano for me.

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

I’m largely self-taught as a pianist but have been inspired at different times by recordings of artists such as Richter, Gilels, Barenboim, Brendel and many others.

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

Performing all the Beethoven sonatas in two weeks during the 2011 Edinburgh Festival.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I have just finished recording most of the Beethoven solo piano music and I’m currently listening to the tapes to work out whether I can be proud of them or not.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I think that’s probably for other people to decide.

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

I usually devise a large-scale project for the season such as a Beethoven or Schubert cycle but it’s also important to play as many different composers as I feel comfortable with. Inevitably I have to deal with requests from promoters which mean I always play more repertoire than is ideal each year.

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

The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam (both large and small halls) has amazing acoustics and I have fond memories of my Carnegie Hall debut.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Possibly my debut at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2003 or returning there to play Charles Ives’ mind-bogglingly complicated Concord Sonata.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Being able to go to sleep after a concert and forget about it, not lying awake thinking that it wasn’t good enough.

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

The idea that music-making is not a circus and that we’re not necessarily interested in how fast you can play. Use imagination in choosing and exploring lesser-known parts of the repertoire as there is a risk that all young pianists now want to play the same pieces.

pfcd065Lambert’s Clavichord Op. 41 (HH 165)

Howells’ Clavichord Book I (HH 237)

Julian Perkins, clavichord

Prima Facie PFCD065/66

The intimate tinkling twang of the clavichord immediately suggests Tudor galliards and other courtly dances, and songs written to fair ladies and noble knights. Herbert Howells was introduced to the clavichord by Herbert Lambert (1881-1936), a photographer and clavichord maker, and began composing miniatures for the instrument, delighting in its expressive qualities, colours and surprising range of harmonics. His two sets of pieces for clavichord, ‘Lambert’s Clavichord’ and ‘Howells’ Clavichord’, pay homage to Tudor keyboard music such as the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, with which Howells would have been familiar, and exploit the same textures, gestures, idioms, cadences, piquant harmonies and expression inherent in Tudor keyboard works. Writing about Lambert’s Clavichord in 1928, organist and musical scholar Dr (later Sir) Richard Terry observed: “Mr Howells has absorbed all the wealth and variety of Tudor rhythms, but keeps his own individuality intact. His music is modern inasmuch as he uses chords and progressions unknown in Tudor times, but the spirit of the old composers is there all the while.”

There are galliards and pavanes, fancies and groundes in Howells’ two suites, pieces common to Tudor and Renaissance dance suites, and Howells plays on the organisation of Tudor keyboard suites by giving his miniatures titles such as ‘My Lord Sandwich’s Dreame’, ‘De la Mare’s Pavane’ and ‘Sir Richard’s Toye’. The pieces are warm, witty salutes to Howells’ friends and fellow composers. Howells intended them to be thus – “to my friends pictured (or at all events affectionately saluted) within” – with references to the dedicatee’s own music, or in tribute of their life and work (for example, ‘Finzi’s Rest’ was written the day after Gerald Finzi died and its simple melody is a fitting honour to Finzi’s writing). Meanwhile, in ‘Walton’s Toye’, the opening theme suggests William Walton’s ‘Crown Imperial’, but it is quickly overtaken by rapid quavers which give the piece propulsion and animation. Some pieces are jazzy, replete with unexpected dissonances and satisfying resolutions; others are lyrical and tender. Some pieces stray into the realms of pastiche, but never to the extent that the musical strength and imagination is lost.

There is nothing po-faced or academic about the playing on this double disc album, and Julian Perkins brings vibrancy and colour to his performance, using a selection of clavichords for the recording by Dolmetsch and Goff.

Howells never intended the suites to be confirmed to the clavichord or harpsichord alone, and these pieces are equally delightful on the modern piano (a notable recording by John McCabe is worth exploring for comparison). The pieces are within the reach of the intermediate to advanced pianist.

This is the first complete recording on clavichord of this music, and this new recording is dedicated to the memory of Ruth Dyson, noted pianist, harpsichordist and clavichord player, in her centenary year.

There is some background hiss on the recording (more obvious when listening through headphones), but the instruments themselves sound bright and richly coloured. Comprehensive liner notes by Andrew Mayes, together with a note on the instruments by Peter Bavington and performance notes by Julian Perkins.

Release date: 3 November 2017.

Further information

Guest post by Jennifer Mackerras

A performer with “presence” has something to say and is communicating effectively, with focus, commanding the audience’s full attention

– Mark Swartzentruber, concert pianist

Occasionally one attends a concert where the performer’s presence seems so modest and yet so powerful, commanding awed silence from the audience… I think such an ability comes from a deep love and respect for the music and a willingness to set aside one’s ego in the service of the music. Loss of ego brings powerful presence and creates an empathic relationship with the audience.

– Frances Wilson, pianist and blogger on classical music and pianism

The topic of stage presence is one that is often subject to heated debate. Who has presence? Is it the person with the biggest or loudest personality? Is it the performer who gives the most original interpretation of a work? Or is it something rather more personal and less showy – the performer whose focus and commitment to a work is so total that the audience is compelled to enter their musical world? Fran certainly came to that conclusion in her excellent post, quoted above.

So how do you learn to set aside your ego? How do you learn to put yourself in the service of the music? Here’s some practical advice on how to move towards that goal, coming from the work of FM Alexander.

The Private Universe theory

Back in 1923, FM Alexander wrote a sentence that I keep coming back to in my teaching:

We all think and act (except when forced to do otherwise) in accordance with the peculiarities of our particular psycho-physical make-up. – FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual

In other words, all of us have a psycho-physical make-up – a unique melding together of mind and body – that is composed of all the influences, individualities and quirks created by our upbringing, friends, schooling, environment, media… We create our own little private universe of ideas and beliefs about the world and how we interact with it, and we act according to its rules. We think and act according to our private universe – our psycho-physical make-up.

Now, some of the ideas in our private universe will be fantastic, but some of them will be rather less so! Sometimes our ideas of what we need to do to fit into the world really don’t help us. Just think about the kid at school who tried to hide his insecurity and lack of self esteem by bossing other kids around. Or the girl who spends her teenage years hiding behind a wall of hair so that she doesn’t have to interact with the world.

When it comes to performing, each person will approach the performance according to the rules and assumptions of their private universe. If their private universe says that people only like them if they’re loud or very extrovert in their presentation, then they’ll approach the performance of music that way. If their private universe says that people are naturally judgemental in nature, and particularly if they assume that the judgements will be negative, then they will approach performing in such a way as to protect themselves from the negativity.

These private universes then begin to manifest themselves physically. Perhaps one performer will tense muscles in order to shield themselves from the negativity they assume they’ll receive. Another performer might be so concerned to ‘get the music across’ that they add in lots of unnecessary movement and tension that ultimately detracts from the piece they’re playing.

My job as an Alexander Technique teacher is to help performers get out of their own way. I work with a lot of musicians – amateurs, students and professionals. Typically, when they reduce the physical tension they create, they report feeling more vulnerable. But they also report an improved ability to achieve what they want technically, an improved sound, and improved ability to ‘get inside’ the music.

The best performances often come from the performers who are most prepared to ‘sit with’ the audience; to be wholly and unapologetically themselves. They are not trying to hide themselves because they are nervous; they are not trying to project an image of themselves, nor are they trying to ‘present’ the music. They are simply placing themselves at the service of the music and the audience

How can you begin to achieve this state for yourself? Here are a few ideas.

  • Really know the music. If you feel unprepared, you are more likely to be nervous, and more likely to increase the mental and physical tension prior to performing.
  • Come up with a one phrase (or even one word) key to your goals for each piece that you are playing.
  • Before you play, acknowledge that being nervous is completely normal and reasonable.
  • Remember that mistakes are normal. Everybody makes them!
  • Before each piece in your programme, take a moment to settle yourself and remember your key word or phrase.
  • Really examine your attitudes towards the audience. Do you view them as adversaries, or as a group of friends?
  • When you’re an audience member, are you judgemental? Or are you there to enjoy yourself? Perhaps remembering that audience members come out of enjoyment may be a helpful thought before you perform.

If you work on changing your thinking, you can begin to change the muscular tension that is getting in your way. And if you can do this, everyone will benefit: you, the audience, and the music.


 

jen_working6Jennifer McKerras is a performance coach, musician and fully qualified and registered Alexander Technique teacher

activateyou.com

 

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Acclaimed violinist David Le Page will perform his own music composed in response to artwork by Klara Smith.

The concert takes place in the Robert Phillips Gallery. Tickets are limited and early booking is recommended.

Saturday 4 November, 8pm

Riverhouse Barn Arts Centre, Walton-on-Thames

BOOK TICKETS

In this exhibition, I try to capture the shapes and movements from under the water and above the clouds, giving a nod to the times when my childhood hero – Captain Nemo – roamed the world filled with Ernst Haeckel’s creatures in his sumptuous, exquisitely crafted Nautilus. The shadow world of my papercuts hints at the nature-inspired technology, keeping it in a dream-like state. And dream-like is exactly how I feel about David Le Page’s music. I am really proud and excited that his compositions and violin playing are accompanying my artwork

– Klara Smith, artist

…his unique sense of creativity infuses everything he does. His own music has a strong personal voice, full of improvisatory flair and independence of thought – and, like his interpretations of the classical repertoire, seems driven by a deeply poetic spirit

– The Independent

Saturday 4 November, 8pm
Tickets £15 (£5 U15)

BOOK TICKETS

Pre-show supper available, £12 per head (bookable online, or call the box office on 01932 253354)

Presented by Seven Star Arts and Riverhouse Barn Arts Centre

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