B flat is a hauntingly melancholic key, and this collaborative music/spoken word project demonstrates this point exquisitely. A collection of video clips of people playing different instruments and sound-producing devices, it doesn’t matter when you start a clip, or in what order, you end up with beautiful ensemble piece which is different every time.

Go on – try it!

http://www.inbflat.net/

PS for fellow synaesthetes, for me the key of B flat is sea-green.

synergy syn·er·gy (sĭn’ər-jē)
n.
The interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects.

“those three minutes of perfection – when time stands still and the music just washes over you….”

This was Bruce ‘The Boss’ Springsteen, talking on Radio 4 on Saturday morning about playing and performing, in an interview broadcast to coincide with the release of his book and a new album ‘Promise’, and the re-release of his album ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’.

Those of who play and listen to music regularly known what The Boss is talking about: that moment when one is ‘transported’, taken out of oneself; where the experience transcends the norm and seems to take one to another plane of consciousness. I felt it on Monday evening at the Wigmore, while listening to Messiaen’s transcendental ‘Quartet for the End of Time’.  Such moments can be rare, and so they must be cherished because they can be fleeting and soon forgotten.

When one is playing music, it is even harder. In order to achieve such a state, one must work hard, for one must know the music intimately – and such intimacy only comes from repetitive work and thoroughly immersing oneself in the music. One must also possess purpose and focus, trust in one’s musical self, have a highly-developed ability to concentrate, blanking out all other distractions, and be able to stand back from oneself and the music.

I used to find it hard to concentrate on my practising; my piano is in the conservatory and I was regularly disturbed by birdsong (the famous Bushy Park parakeets usually start their daily squawking at about 4pm), a dog barking, a road drill, my neighbour mowing his lawn. Gradually, I trained myself to ignore these sounds; they merged into the background, becoming a foil for the music instead of competing with it. Sometimes the sounds of nature are helpful: working on Debussy’s ‘Voiles’ in the summer, with the French windows flung open, I listened to the wind in the bamboos in my garden, and drew inspiration from that sound.

Some days, when I’m practising something for technique alone, a passage of Chopin, for example, which is just fingerwork, purely mechanical playing, before the shaping and finessing begin, I can let me mind wander, but not too far because there needs to be a degree of engagement to ensure the fingers land in the right place each time. This kind of practising acts as an exercise, to strengthen the fingers and to train the muscular memory to achieve accuracy. As Vladimir Horowitz said “From the moment one feels that the finger must sing, it becomes strong”: it is at this point that one stops playing mechnically and starts to play musically. Pianists, who draw so much information from the tips of the fingers, transmitting it to the brain and back to the fingertips again – almost as if one has “eyes in the fingertips” as my teacher put it once – can feel when that moment is achieved. Rather like a runner or cyclist being “in the zone”, reaching that point of perfect synergy between body and mind, when all limbs, lungs and heart seem to be working properly and the action becomes fluid, comfortable, beautiful.

When one plays in this state, it seems as if everything has fallen into place. Sometimes, it even feels easy! I have the sensation of observing myself, standing back from the music, and myself, watching myself playing. There is a sense of having “let go” – and yet, it is at this point that one is concentrating most furiously. One has also done all the groundwork: learnt all those notes, assimilated and acted upon those dynamic, articulation, tempo or stylistic markings, understood the composer’s intentions. At this point, one feels one has created exactly the right balance between spontaneity and structure, technique and inspiration

In his excellent book ‘The Inner Game of Music’, Barry Green (a professional double-bassist) talks about us having two Selfs: Self 1 is critical, cautious, doubting, sensible, interfering. It gets in the way, telling us what we should and should not be doing; it predicts successes and failures, and talks of “if only”. Self 1 can also be extremely distracting. Self 2 is intuitive, tapping into the vast resource of our nervous system and drawing information from non-verbal cues, and our vast memory-bank of past musical experiences: everything we have heard, learned from others, or experienced ourselves. Self 2 is more creative, and is connected to an earlier, childhood state – that wide-open, receptiveness that exists in children until they are about eight years old, ready to absorb whatever comes before us. As we grow up, subtle changes occur as we begin to collect information, ideas, attitudes, and form our own conclusions. We also become more cautious, more risk-averse, more fearful of the consequences of our actions, and the gap between our “critical” self (Self 1) and our “creative” self (Self 2) widens. The ability to spontaneously tap into our intuitive resources of Self 2 disappears, as Self 1 takes over. It is possible to train oneself to let Self 2 back in, to master what Barry Green calls “the inner game” (a technique borrowed from tennis coaching), and to reduce mental interference which can inhibit the full expression of one’s musical (or sporting) capabilities.

Choosing to ignore Self 1’s commands, its “what ifs” and “if onlys” is an important process in learning good concentration skills and teaching us to trust our musical selves. It is also crucial in helping to overcome performance anxiety: as I say to my adult students (who are currently in a collective paroxysm of fear about performing in my forthcoming Christmas concert), “What’s the worse thing that can happen?”. I assure them that no one will boo, nor slow hand-clap, nor heckle. Indeed, most people in the audience are full of admiration of anyone who can get up on a stage and perform. It is no surprise that most of the children I teach, especially the younger ones (8 – 10 year olds), are eager to perform and love showing off what they can do. They don’t worry about making mistakes or stopping mid-performance; they just get on with it, demonstrating that their Self 2 is more powerful than Self 1 at this point in their lives.

So, those “three minutes of perfection”, which Bruce Springsteen talked about, that moment of perfect synergy, are a true product of one allowing Self 2 to take over, driving out the doubts and fears of Self 1, letting one’s true musical self play, and permitting one’s fingers, hands and body to make the decisions.

 

Resources:

Green, Barry: The Inner Game of Music. Pan Books. London, 1987

—————- The Mastery of Music. Macmillan. London, 2003

Rink, John: Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding. Cambridge University Press, 2002

Westney, William: The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self. Amadeus Press, 2006

Bernstein, Seymour: With Your Own Two Hands: Self-Discovery Through Music. 1981

To the Wigmore Hall last night for my first concert of the autumn season, and what promised to be a marvellous evening, part of clarinettist Michael Collins’s residency at the Wig.

Arriving super early – there was very little traffic on the way in – my friend and I had time to enjoy a leisurely glass of champagne in the front bar where we surreptitiously surveyed the other concert-goers, quite a mixed bunch, as one would expect from the programme. We observed, not for the first time, that some people were very scruffily turned out for the evening. Whenever I go to a concert, whether it is popular music (rare for me) or classical, I make an effort to get “dressed up”. It’s an occasion, after all, and if the performer/performers have gone to all that trouble to learn all that music and turn out to perform, I feel one should make a similar effort with one’s dress. Of course, these days, many performers, particularly men, are opting out of the traditional virtuoso “uniform” of white tie and tails, favouring instead Nehru jackets and collarless shirts, presumably because this attire is more comfortable. Given that performing the Rach Three is akin to shovelling several tons of coal in terms of its physical effort, it might be more comfortable for some performers to appear in a vest and shorts! But while male performers are dressing down, there is a general outcry if the women are not in sparkly evening dresses……but this is material for another blog post.

The first half was all Mozart: the Clarinet Trio K498, the “Kegelstatt” was undemanding and pleasant to the ear, while the Quintet in A K581, the one with all the recognisable “laahvely melodies”, was intelligently and sensitively played, Michael Collins displaying some fine virtuoso playing, especially in the arpeggiated passages in the last movement. This piece is very familiar to me: my father, who was a fine amateur clarinettist, played it many times as I was growing up –  with his chamber group, with me at the piano in a reduced version, and with Music Minus One. I am sure, had he come to the concert (I did invite him), he would have thoroughly enjoyed Michael Collins’s superb, precise playing.

As the final movement of the Quintet drew to a close, I had the sense of the performers clearing the way for what was to come in the second half: Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’.

Messiaen is one of those composers (and there are many!) whose music nudges at the edges of my musical conscious; that is to say, I am aware of his music, but I have not had the opportunity to explore it in depth. At the piano course I attended in the spring, one of the students played one of the Vingts Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus, and I found it utterly captivating. I keep meaning to look up this music and learn one or two of the movements, but as usual, there is just too much repertoire and never enough time!

The Quartet for the End of Time was famously composed during a period when Messiaen was a prisoner of war in Silesia, yet it remains a work of religious meditation rather than political protest: as the composer said “this quartet was written for the end of time, not as a play on words about the time of captivity, but for the ending of concepts of past and future……..for the beginning of eternity”. I have heard excerpts from it on the radio – the more melodic, contemplative sections – but I have never heard the work in its entirety, performed live. Imprisoned with the composer, were a cellist (Etienne Pasquier), and clarinettist (Henri Akoka), and Messiaen wrote for them “an unpretentious little trio”, which they played to him in the latrines. This became the creative impulse for the remaining seven movements, and the complete work was first performed in the prison camp. The Quartet was directly inspired by a quotation from the Book of Revelation, and retains a sense of the Apocalypse throughout, even in the most quiet, meditative movements.

But one really doesn’t need to know all this: from the outset, it is obvious that this is a work of immense scale and emotional range, born out of incredibly straitened circumstances. The instruments clang, shriek and scrape; they sing and cry plaintively. There are fragments of birdsong (and I wondered whether these were the sounds the composer desired to hear while in captivity, or whether they were the only pleasant sounds he could hear), distant celestial trumpets, sirens, hammers falling on anvils, angelic choirs…. In one movement, Abime des oiseaux, the clarinet plays long sustained notes, from ppp to fff, and one can only marvel at the  technical control required to achieve this sound, while feeling one is staring right into the abyss.

The overall effect was searing, painful, extraordinarily beautiful. I told myself I would not cry, yet at the close, the tears poured down my cheeks, staining a path through my make up. There was a full two minutes of silence at the end as the audience continued to absorb what they had just heard, before rapturous, sustained applause. To adapt the composer’s own quotation at the first performance of his work, never before have I listened with such consideration and understanding. The elegant Wigmore Hall seemed altogether too refined a place for such a performance: it seemed as if we should be gathered on a rocky, windblown outcrop, the musicians playing while the churning sea below pounded the rocks to eternity…..

This breath-taking, beautifully crafted book by Janice Galloway presents a fictionalised account of the life of Clara Schumann from childhood to the committal to a mental asylum of her husband, Robert, her growing friendship with the young Johannes Brahms, and Robert’s death.

Clara Schumann is all too often eclipsed by her more famous husband, yet this book reminds us that from a very early age, she was a formidably talented pianist in her own right, and a fine composer.  It is Clara who, along with Liszt, made the piano recital what it is today, in particular, the habit of playing without the score. She exerted her influence over a 61-year career, hardly interrupted by marriage and pregnancy, changing the tastes of the listening public and the format of the traditional piano recital.

From the outset, we sense the extreme pressures of the life as a child prodigy and young virtuosa, with an overbearing, highly ambitious and extremely controlling father, and a muddled, disjointed family life (her parents divorced when she was four, and her father remarried). A life of self-denial and duty was drummed into her from a very young age. Endless practising, studying, being fitted for concert dresses, and touring, where she was presented to the crowned heads of Europe – all in the company of her father, Friedrich Wieck. Written in a slightly breathless, immediate style, the author creates a sense of Clara looking in on her own life, observing herself at arm’s length. Yet, this book does not lack passion: as her love affair with Robert, who was nine years her senior, develops, we sense the frustration of two young people, deeply connected – physically and spiritually – but bound by the conventions of the time.

After their marriage, Clara continued her concert career, though Robert loathed touring with her, managed the their home and finances, and produced eight children (one died in infancy). In the book, the author offers a unique view into the Schumann household: two creative people living and working side by side – dedicated artists in one home can prove a test with their selfish habits and fickle moods – and the tensions of trying to maintain a ‘normal’ family life while continually feeding the artistic talent. Clara comes across as immensely talented, pragmatic, patient, loving: supporting her husband and his increasingly fragile mental state (it has been suggested that Robert suffered from bipolar disorder). She was his wife, mother to his children, his helpmeet and, perhaps above all, his muse.

The narrative introduces some of the key musical and cultural personalities of the day – Mendelssohn was a friend of the Schumanns, Liszt a regular visitor; Moscheles, Thalberg, Sterndale Bennett, Chopin, Paganini, Goethe; later, the young violinist Joachim, and fledgling composer Johannes Brahms – and takes the reader to many of the cultural centres of nineteenth-century Europe as we tour with Clara and her family. There are musical soirees at home and grand concerts in the great venues of Europe: the Gewandhaus, the Musikverein, the Concertgebouw. It is a restless, urgent journey, and with Robert’s increasingly unstable mental state, we empathise with Clara’s predicament: the constant tug of the artistic life against her commitment to her family.

This book is thoroughly researched, full of information about the Schumanns, and sympathetic to Clara’s enormous personal burdens and self-sacrifice. The author is adept at bringing Clara to life, but we never really see Robert as a “normal” person, and the reader remains distanced from him, observing, rather than feeling, what is happening to him. Readers who are not familiar with the cultural landscape of the day, and the life of the Schumanns may find the narrative a little hard to follow in places, but it never ever lacks atmosphere.

‘Clara’ perfectly captures the internal life of a musician, muse, wife and mother, and in many ways it is a modern story, for Clara was a working woman who supported her family. Clara’s love is beautifully rendered – like a madness all of her own, at the same time both thrilling and terrifying.

A couple of years ago, I read another novel about Robert and Clara Schumann, based on their letters, Longing by J D Landis. Another rollercoaster of a narrative, it offers a poignant context to their intense and oft-thwarted love by presenting the totally encompassing musical, literary, philosophical, and political climate of the day. A good ‘companion read’ to Clara, and equally well-researched.

“It sounds wrong, but it’s right” is something I say to my students quite regularly. And sometimes I say it to myself as well, when a ‘crunchy’ or unexpected harmony catches me out, and I have to go back and check that what I played was in fact correct.

Fairly early on in their lessons with me, my students learn about intervals, “the distance between one note and another” as it says helpfully in the tutor book I use. We play them and listen to them and describe them: a major second, a “pinched” sound, usually elicits a shriek of distaste at its dissonance; a third is pleasant, warm; a fourth, when played in different places on the keyboard, “sounds Chinese” (it sounds “medieval” to me); a fifth is a bare, open sound – it needs the middle note to form a satisfying chord; a sixth is easy on the ear; a seventh “hurts” almost as much as a second, though when converted into a dominant seventh chord, it is enjoyable, especially the sense of relief when the harmony goes “home”.

An unfamiliar, or especially crunchy harmony – and in the simple pieces (pre-grade, and Grades 1 to 2) my students are learning these are often very bare chords, formed of only two notes and are therefore far more noticeable – can bring a student up short, cause them to stop playing, go back and play that section again, thinking they have made a mistake. “It sounds wrong but it’s right” I say patiently, urging them to keep playing. Afterwards, we play “spot the interval”, and it becomes apparent that the problem was not an incorrect note, merely that the ear did not like the sound!

Saskia, who is working on ‘Tarantella’ from the Grade 1 repertoire, a rather charming, plaintive little A minor dance by Pauline Hall (she of the excellent Piano Time series), does not like the chords in the first section, which alternate between a straight A-minor tonic chord and a chord composed of A, D and E. “I can’t play it!” she grumbled at her lesson this afternoon, and then proceeded to play it perfectly, albeit somewhat tentatively. We have been trying to achieve the effect of a strummed guitar in the left hand, with soft chord changes, while the right hand melody dances moodily over the top. Going back to the score, I showed her why she did not like that A-D-E chord, and explained that it was a deliberate device on the part of the composer to create moments of tension, and delayed gratification, before the resolution comes on the next beat. “Music would be very boring if we didn’t have these crunchy harmonies and surprising moments,” I said.

It is this sense of delayed gratification that makes the Chopin Ballade I am working on (and indeed all his other music I play, or listen to), so fascinating, so suspenseful, and so utterly addictive. He forces player and listener to work hard, taking the ear on amazing harmonic journeys, to distant highways and byways, and so when it comes, the resolution, the “reward”, is all the more wonderful and satisfying. Sometimes it may sound ‘wrong’, but in Chopin’s extraordinary hands it is most definitely right.

I first heard this work live a few years ago, at a concert given by the American pianist and noted Mozart specialist Robert Levin, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Played on a fortepiano, whose relatively modest voice spoke so elegantly to the Queen Elizabeth Hall, from the opening measures I was completely hooked. The next day, I purchased the music and started to learn it, but for some reason, I never learnt it properly, and it was only when I had been having lessons with my current teacher for about six months, that I recalled that moody little Rondo, and decided to revisit it. I worked on the piece seriously for about six months, and after playing it for my teacher as a performance, she suggested I put it to bed for awhile and learn something else. I then revived the work for my LTCL: it was wonderful to be able to work on it in detail again, and I discovered all sorts of new things about it when I revisited it for a third time. It’s a piece that keeps surprising both listener and performer.

Composed in the spring of 1787, after Mozart returned from Prague, it has been suggested that its composition was in response to the news that one of the composer’s closest friends, Count August von Hatzfeld, had died, and may therefore be a rare example of a personal event in Mozart’s life prompting a composition. The piece is introspective and private, consistently freighted with melancholy and sadness, while exuding a thoughtful, measured elegance throughout. It is touching and beautiful, simple and perfect; but its deceptive transparency offers no place to hide. It requires great clarity and preciseness in order to express its overriding melancholy, and its poignant charm.

The Rondo theme is a pensive melody which looks forward to Chopin – and has been mistaken for Chopin by an unwary listener when I’ve played it. A rising theme, yet it hardly seems to move forward, and with each weary semitone step, there is a dying fall, almost sigh or a painful intake of breath, emphasised by the quaver rests. The dissonance, created by the first ornament (which reappears regularly throughout the piece) further enhances the sense of tragedy. I play this on the beat, so that it sounds with the first A in the left hand, and, momentarily, it hurts, as it is clearly meant to. Each reappearance of the theme is treated slightly differently, further emphasising its pathos and poignancy. The word “zal“, more often associated with the music of Chopin, seems entirely appropriate here, with its bittersweet melancholy, poetic shadings, plaintiveness and longing. The C major phrase is somewhat less painful, but it is hardly hopeful.

The first subsidiary theme (‘B’), beginning at bar 31, harks back to the Grand-daddy of them all, J S Bach, in its use of counterpoint and chromaticism, while the texture is suggestive of string quartets with its different melodic voices. The new theme pours forth, the mood more hopeful and consoling, with a lovely LH cello-line which is very different to the haunted bass of the opening melody. There’s an almost operatic grandeur through these measures, immediately dispelled when the music lurches unexpectedly into D-flat major at bar 46. The music creeps chromatically, recalling the opening theme, and, after an episode marked by plaintive descending and ascending chromatic figures, the earlier ‘B’ material returns, building to a climax in bar 59, marked by the octave figures in the LH. A greater, more full-toned climax at bar 63 is carried through to bar 69 with a grand, energetic arpeggiated figure in the RH. From bars 69-75, the long chromatic notes hark back, once again, to the chromaticism at the beginning of the piece, while from bars 74-80, the music seems hang in suspense in the dominant, in anticipation of the rondo theme, which returns at bar 81.

The second statement of the theme is stripped of its C major sentence, and is even more haunting, with its sobbing, breathless syncopations in bars 86-87, a kind of written rubato, which needs no additional increase or decrease in tempo in the bass line (prefiguring Chopin). The quaver rest in bar 88 can be lengthened in readiness for the A major section (“C”).

Now, we are in more familiar, comfortable territory, for here is Mozart at his most charming and elegant, before a brief shift into B minor, with dissonance created by the ornaments. A more hopeful D major passage (I read somewhere once that Mozart declared D major “the happiest key”) begins at bar 101, reprising some of the material from the A major interlude. At bar 116, the chromaticism in the bass again recalls the opening motif, leading into further chromatic surges and grinding diminished seventh harmonies. The thematic material of the opening is never really forgotten, thus further reminding us of the prevailing sense of sorrow.

At bar 129 the rondo theme returns in its original form, but with more elaborate ornamentation this time, tortured rather than decorative. There’s a real sense of desolation at bar 155, while the repeated A’s and chromaticism in bars 155-157, evoke almost a wailing, grief-laden lamentation.

The Coda, beginning at bar 163, heartbreakingly recapitulates all the elements that have gone before and all the motifs return in a grim, Bachian setting. It is highly emotional, mixing tragedy and frustration, with a final, whispered statement of the opening theme in the closing measures.

It is no accident that this piece is included in the diploma repertoire list, for it is both technically and musically challenging, and repertoire such as this reminds one that a musical performance diploma is a long way on from Grade 8: one is being assessed on one’s technical ability, musicality, maturity, conceptual understanding, stylistic awareness and stagecraft. From one’s programme choices to one’s dress, this is, in all sense, a ‘proper’ recital, leading to a recognised professional qualification.

More a Fantasia than a strict Rondo in the assemblage of its thematic material, the K511 offers many technical challenges, and, as stated earlier, requires absolute clarity in its delivery. Overly fussy playing will only obscure the deeply emotional nature of this work – and this, to me, is the real heart of it. Conveying that sense of melancholy, sadness and grief is the hardest part, while always maintaining honesty and fidelity to the score. For those of us whose early pianistic encounters were with the ‘boyhood’ works of Mozart, the pieces with the earliest ‘K’ numbers, jaunty little numbers, all smiling childish innocence and playfulness, the Rondo K511 represents a work of great maturity and life-experience.

The weekend after I heard Robert Levin perform the Rondo K511, I went to an OAE study day, at which Professor Levin spoke most eloquently and lengthily (he likes the sound of his own voice, but everything he said had value) about Mozart’s piano music. He demonstrated, through the use of excerpts, and, in the afternoon, a masterclass on the Piano Sonata K332, all the subtleties of Mozart’s music: its chiaroscuro, its many moods, some fleeting, passing in the space of a single bar, its storms and its sunshine. Too often, Mozart’s music is given a simplistic reading, but it is not for nothing that pianist Artur Schnabel pronounced the piano sonatas of Mozart “too easy for children, and too difficult for artists”, while Leonard Bernstein said, “Mozart combines serenity, melancholy, and tragic intensity into one great lyric improvisation”, a quotation which, to me, beautifully sums up the enduring fascination and appeal of the K511.

An afterthought:

I read a very useful and informative book while learning the Rondo last year – Mozart and the Pianist by Michael Davidson (London: Kahn & Averill, 1998), which provides helpful overviews and analysis of Mozart’s major solo piano works. I found it particularly useful in relation to the ornamentation in the K511: according to my Wiener Urtext Edition of the work, these were “written out” ornaments, as opposed to decorations left to the performer’s discretion.

My favourite recording of this work is by Mitsuko Uchida. I also like Ashkenazy’s reading: he places the turns before the beat, as I do (or had been doing!), something which generated an interesting and heated discussion with a pianist colleague, who feels such ornaments should be placed on the beat. This is, in the end, a matter of taste: there is no hard evidence that I could find in my research of this work of how Mozart intended the ornaments to be played.