Guest post by Michael Johnson

Perhaps enough time has passed since the death of the French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger to step back and question her musical sainthood. She was, after all, only human.

My elder musician friends recall her as a brilliant analyst of composition yet as a person she tended toward the tyrannical, impatient and cantankerous. Composer Philip Glass, who studied with her for two years, wrote that she tried to be kind but “stayed pretty much in the range between intimidating and terrifying”.

She was like a lot of piano teachers, one might add. Fanny Waterman used to crack the knuckles of her young students with a ruler if they missed a note or dragged a tempo.

Nadia, who died in Paris in 1979, moved in the best circles of 20th century music. Leonard Bernstein often visited her in Paris. On one occasion, when he was already established as a composer and conductor, he recalled being made to feel small when he played one of his compositions for her. She objected to a certain b-flat. He recalled later, “I am 58,” but suddenly “it was like I was a child.…”

One musician friend of mine in Paris who studied with several of her students goes further, accusing her of “castrating” them (especially the males) by constant criticism and tedious exercises that had them “jumping through technical hoops for hours, years, on end”. Some of the exercises she wrote for her charges were “soul-destroying”, he says.

Nadia knew she had a mixed reputation and was comfortable with that. She maintained that musical training without rigor cannot be of value. Virgil Thomson wrote that she had a “no-nonsense approach to musical skills and a no-fooling-around treatment of anyone’s talent or vocation”. She once turned down a young girl applicant, exasperated, saying she would never find the patience to work with her. Fortunately, she added, her father was soon transferred to another country and the family left France.

I have just read an extraordinary collection of Nadia’s opinions and memories as assembled by Bruno Monsaingeon and published in 1980 as ‘Mademoiselle’ (Editions Van de Valde). Long out of print, I found a dog-eared, mildewed French copy in a bookstall and have studied it minutely. It is a portrait of a complex lady who describes herself as “pitiless” in her treatment of students, adding that she was just as rough on herself.

Originally an aspiring composer, she said that “if there is one thing I am sure of … it is that my music is useless”. Some listeners today would agree while others don’t. Her blandness and lack of originality seem evident to me. She admitted that she realized early on that she “had absolutely nothing to say.”

A student of Gabriel Fauré, Nadia gave up composition after the death of her beloved sister Lili, the more talented of the two sisters. Lili died of an affliction now known as Crohn’s disease, at 24, in 1918. Broken by Lili’s death, Nadia threw herself into teaching, inviting students from throughout the world to come to her Paris apartment and be forced into her straightjacket. There she taught conducting, analysis, harmony, counterpoint and composition as well as piano performance.

Some of the most important musicians of the 20th century worked under her harsh regime: Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Walter Piston, Pierre Schaeffer, Igor Markevitch, John-Eliot Gardiner, Daniel Barenboïm, Dinu Lipatti and others. Her list of students has never been completed but I should add the jazz composers Quincy Jones and Donald Byrd. The list goes on – Jean Françaix, Roy Harris, Peter Hill, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Michel Legrand, Gian Carlo Menotti, Jeremy Menuhin, Emile Naoumoff, Soulima Stravinsky.

Nadia was particularly critical of her American students who queued up to suffer under her rigorous demands. About 600 Americans took lessons from her in the 1920s to the 1970s. She found some of them brilliant but many, she said, lacked fundamentals or even a good ear. “The truth is that the study of the basics makes you understand that to be a good musician you must be a good grammarian.”

Conductor Igor Markevitch, who studied with her, recalled that she went out of her way to assert herself, even wearing a pince-nez to appear professorial. This, he said, helped her advance in a world then dominated by men.

She could be so harsh as to leave students stunned. Glass recalled in his recent autobiography ‘Words Without Music’ that while recuperating after a group class studying Bach chorales, the students would sit down at a café for coffee or beer. The Boulanger experience, he remembered, “invariably left us shaken and silent”.

Confused by the contradictory opinions in the air today, I turned to one of my main interests, portraiture, to try to get a better feel for the person behind the mask. Portraits can afford the artist a good opportunity to study a subject up close. In her case, I found nothing but severity — a strong jaw, narrowed eyes, arched eyebrows, a hard, thin mouth, and body language that students such as Glass found intimidating.

Watching her come to life on the page, I had to turn away. I felt fear. As a student, I would not have lasted an hour with her.

The Monsaingeon book is the most comprehensive account of Nadia’s views on music. He directed a television documentary on her 90th birthday and produced a book-length compilation of some five years of meetings and conversations with her. For easy reading, he reordered the material as an interview – inserting questions among her monologues.

I have produced this edited and translated version of Monsaingeon’s work, capturing the most pertinent extracts for a modern audience.

Aaron Copland described you as the most famous professor of composition alive.

Allow me to doubt the veracity of that statement. I believe a professor is dependent on the quality of the students. The professor’s role is less grand, less omnipotent, than one might think.

When did you discover music?

As a child, I could not stand the sound of music. It almost made me sick. I screamed. My sobbing could be heard in the street. The piano was a monster that terrorized me. Then one day I heard a fire truck passing by, siren blaring, and I sat down and found those notes on the keyboard. Suddenly I had discovered music with a passion. I can still hear my father saying, “What a strange little girl we have here.”

Your father was a French music professor and you mother was Russian?

Yes, my father was totally French and my mother Russian (Princess Michesky). We never spoke Russian in the home because she did not want the family language to be one that my father did not understand.

Do you believe your Russian ancestry has been important for you?

It has been very important … but I do not like to talk about personal background. There is no point talking about me all day long because it would interest no one and certainly not me!

Is it true that at the age of twelve you knew Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier by heart?

It was an obligation. I was instructed to learn one prelude and one fugue per week. But you know, let’s not exaggerate. One prelude and one fugue per week is not so much… After this kind of training, though, one has a good basis in mind.

It is said that you already had an encyclopedic knowledge of music when you began teaching.

You know, people say all kinds of things, few of which are true.

How did you end up at the American Conservatory of Fontainebleau?

Walter Damrosch founded the school and Francis Casadesus was the first director. I was brought in to join the faculty. I spoke two words of English, “Hello” and “Goodbye”. My first student was Aaron Copland. After Robert Casadesus, other directors followed, including Maurice Ravel, Charles-Marie Widor, and I succeeded Casadesus in 1946.

I understand that the conservatory was founded after World War I for American troops but after the war, what happened?

The Fontainebleau school became very important for the Americans. They had brilliant schooling and were very gifted but they lacked fundamentals in many cases; their musical ear was underdeveloped and they had bypassed the everyday details of music education. Why? Because — it was believed — one must not overwork the children.

What were your basics in the curriculum?

I had to insist on the fundamentals – hearing, looking, listening and seeing.

You trained a large number of Americans. There must be hardly a city in North America that doesn’t have one of your students.

Yes indeed, I had a great number of American students. One must remember that fifty years ago there was no such thing as American music. An immense change has happened since – Monsieur Copland, Monsieur Bernstein – their works are performed all over the world. The term “American musician” is no longer something unusual.

Didn’t you bring Aaron Copland to the attention of the American public?

A. Yes, in September 1938 I encouraged Walter Damrosch and Serge Koussevitzky to program his Symphony for Organ and Orchestra. Damrosch conducted it in Boston (in 1938) and was probably disturbed by the modernity of it. He turned to the audience as said, “Ladies and gentlemen, if a man of 23 can compose such a work, he will be capable by the age of 30 of murdering his own parents.” He was laughing but he was serious too. Naturally there was a reaction and agitation among the public but Copland’s reputation was made. Copland’s piece seems tame by today’s standards.

Music goes through phases of popularity. Is this a problem?

I am tormented by the phenomenon of fashion in music. Since I am an old fusspot, I don’t much like change. Of course change for reasons of necessity can be marvelous. But change because one does not know where to go next is fatal and destructive.

What about new voices in music?

Rather than deepening one’s understanding, we see too many people chasing discoveries as an end in itself — finding that unknown masterpiece at any cost. The less these people understand, the more enthusiastic they are. I recently heard a piece that made me wonder if the composer was ill, on drugs, or victim of a serious mental disorder.

How important is music in your life?

I am an absolutely mad consumer of music. I call it a sickness because even when I am exhausted after eight or nine hours of teaching, my first move – to the annoyance of the household – is to switch on the radio and listen. I am insatiable. I love listening (to music).

You say you can appreciate the good and bad elements of a work. What are your criteria for a masterpiece?

I have no idea. I don’t say they don’t exist but I have no idea.

And yet listening to a masterpiece you seem to be certain of your judgment.

It comes down to faith, to belief. Just as I accept the existence of God, I accept beauty, I accept emotion and I accept a masterpiece… Exactly what makes up a masterpiece escapes me… I can analyze anything. But a page, a line, a measure of Schubert, I have no idea.

How much training is necessary to appreciate great music?

One can be totally without training and yet feel the senses penetrated by melodic emotion – this is perfectly respectable.

How do you balance rigor and creative freedom?

I hope my teaching has influenced students to appreciate the need for rigor, for order. But in the area of style, I have never intended to exert any influence. If I am working with a foreigner and I try to make him or her into a French person I am sure to fail.

Isn’t it possible to list composers in a hierarchy of importance?

The seems very difficult to me.

Still, one could rank Beethoven against Max Bruch, for example.…

There you are falling into the abyss. You compare the Himalayas with Butte Montmartre. Really, I must say that I honestly almost never think about Max Bruch whereas hardly a day passes that I don’t think about Beethoven.

How would you sum up your role as a professor?

I know my job. I am someone who can help students acquire a basic technique, to listen, to hear, to transpose, to practice, to memorize. The role of the professor seems to me to be modest.


Another version of this essay-interview originally appeared on factsandarts.com

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. He worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his writing career. He is the author of five books and divides his time between Boston and Bordeaux.

 

Illustration by Michael Johnson

Long read guest post by Jack Kohl

I sometimes meet with apologies from venues when a piano’s action may not be serviced to top form. I reply with a smile that such apologies are unnecessary, for in my youth I had to pull up as many keys as push down upon them when playing on battered uprights before elementary school children. In those days I played as often with my palms up as down, like a day at the gym dedicated to both push and pull. Once, however, just before a recital in a private South Carolina home, I encountered a woman whose main concern was – though my naked hands were plain before her – that I remove any rings I might be wearing before playing upon her piano’s vulnerable ivories.

Something unexplored lurks in the human mind in regard to protecting and maintaining the piano keyboard and its action, and I have been giving this mystery considerable thought. Many people tap their fingers on a tabletop when they are confronted with a dilemma. One might expect a pianist to take double recourse to this outward expression of resolving an inward problem. But in my case – and I have been meditating this puzzle in many places: at my own home piano; while on walks in my native village, during which I study the fossilized trackways of dogs in sidewalk concrete; and, also, at a New York City exhibition opening of paintings by a very noted figure of the piano world – one might note my right foot, at any time during the day, in silent, reflexive action, raising figurative dampers as if onto a still unrealized insight, as if attempting to apply an imagined legato of reconciliation unto considerations too separated to be united by the connective force of equally figurative legato finger action.

We come to pedal all things in our mind; we come to raise the dampers between all events – even the most wildly and seemingly polarized – and endeavor to connect them in the driest halls of our consciousness. Even when the higher part of my mind falls out of this practice, it is not long before a hole forms in the sole of my newest right dress shoe, near the ball of my foot. And even when that hole is just forming, I am made to note it as soon as I walk to a hack accompanist’s job in the rain – and my mind goes back to pedaling at all hours.

I have been pedaling hard to connect the three sites I name above, for I have had personal investments in all three, including the last, though I am no painter. But I, too, like many re-creative artists, have felt a compulsion to disavow performance as my main identity. This happened rather early for me, and I turned to writing (novels and essays) over performance art because I was convinced that the former would leave a permanent mark whilst the latter dissolves at once into air. I have discovered that both, however, under the powerful light of honest appraisal, vanish with nearly equal speed.

I met a musician friend, a percussionist, for lunch recently, so that we could discuss the trade of writing. He told me of playing a performance of Haydn’s “Creation” with a high level ensemble. A videographer had been employed to document the performance. My friend was proud of his role in the concert. But every time the camera was on him, and he was about to play, the camera then panned or cut away. I told my friend that he should view that panning as Providential, that he should not care to leave his mark as the mere executant of another man’s work. Haydn’s “Creation” is Haydn’s creation after all. I told him that if he has the writer’s impulse that following its trade is the way to keep the best intellectual control (true), to say something perhaps utterly new (true), and to leave a lasting mark (false). I say false because when the figurative camera of my mind pans to the spines and folders of my collected written works, it pans then away instinctively before they can speak. We can never watch ourselves.

In the finished basement of my childhood home, stands the piano I principally use still when I practice. Its action is in good working order. In another room of that same basement, for quite some time stood the old Francis Bacon player piano upon which I first learned to play. That piano had very yellowed and ancient authentic ivories, and in many places on its keyboard it had irreparable, stuck, keys. When I would stare at that ruinous action, I often wondered if elephant tusks had been the material of choice because they reminded one that an animal that leaves such mighty footprints has its greatest feature – its tusks – thrashing forever in the unimpressionable air? Was not the suggestive strength of the piano keyboard already in play when mastodons cut the glaciated atmosphere?

But not until recently – though I always knew the tracks were there – did I start to think about how, just below the carpeting underneath both pianos’ locations, there is a lengthy fossilized dog trackway in the concrete of the house foundation. One can see the uncovered section of the tracks to this day in the adjacent garage, where they make their way in and out from the driveway. The tracks vanish where the floor of the garage meets the driveway. No one can trace the dog’s approach to the foundation from his day of liberty in 1972, and no one can trace where he went after he left by nearly the same path by which he entered.

I have been rising of late from the well-regulated instrument that still sits astride the fossilized dog trackways, and I have been taking walks with my own living dog. He and I have been making a survey of all the fossilized dog trackways in our native village of Northport on Long Island. There are two great examples on Woodbine Avenue, one on Main Street, one on Highland Avenue, one on Sandy Hollow Road, and a very fine and complex one on Washington Place. Perhaps I started to note the trackways that are available to me that parallel the ancient prints I have visited often at Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Connecticut. There I have stared down to the trackways and remarked to myself: that if one’s work is of value, someday, someone, will note it. For even the casual actions of unmindful dinosaurs from millions of years ago have not, at last, escaped detection.

But as I had felt in my final admonition to my percussionist friend, there seems something false in the permanence of legacies of any kind. I have been taking walks to Washington Place’s fossil trackway to think this through. I had discovered recently the Washington Place trackway because I had been compelled to take to its east sidewalk because two little white dogs were out in the yard on the west side of the street. A lady came out to gather them and mutter, to grumble reproaches to her tiny dogs for their combativeness, for I walk with a Rottweiler.

On three squares of concrete right before one house along that east sidewalk of Washington Place, are some splendid fossil prints, leading principally north away from the address, a frozen moment from which the instant before it is hidden, and a moment from which the instant after it is hidden, for the fossils are on only those three squares of an otherwise blank and lengthy sidewalk.

Such fossils always imply humor to me – humor from the printmaker. But the running dog had equal joy on the dry slabs of the sidewalk before and beyond the wet concrete. There is something in the glee that dogs find in locating the wet section, the blank slate, that is roped off to them. Vandals and dogs have no hesitation to christen a new, blank, notebook. They do not hesitate; they do not lose heaps of ideas because they fear what is best to record first – or fear what format the blank journal seems to demand.

The dog pedals with the joyful pant of his living tongue. The concrete tracks are a record of keys that stuck for him. But the solid pavement before and after the tracks were as the better regulated keyboard; they let him race and leave no record. What strikes me is how much a poorly regulated or humidity-plagued piano action stands in analogy to wet concrete on the sidewalk: individual paw prints can be immortalized until perhaps all the blank is taken up. A good action is like a dry sidewalk: always repelling any impressions, always keeping itself clear of print.

A book to its author is somewhat like the wet concrete. It captures the running mind of the writer as it passes over it. The figurative concrete hardens and captures the pawprint traces of his thoughts. But there is an equal amount missing in the record – as much is missing from the book of the run of the writer’s mind as is missing from the dog’s run over wet concrete when it occurred. There is something very significant about the blank blocks of concrete surrounding the printed areas – the blocks that were there to set the dog to speed and receive him at the end but could take no prints, for they were already dry and solid. At last, the sidewalk sections that record the prints and the adjacent ones that had been dry (and show nothing) seem equal to me. Both sections suggest to me that a re-creative artist’s and a creative artist’s legacy are ultimately the same. Legacy is, at last, only a well-used present.

The well-regulated keyboard is like that solid, already dry, concrete – and is like the ground leading up to the desk, to the manuscript in progress, to the studio, the easel – as much a trackway itself as it seems but a runway for getting up to speed for the impressionable trackway. In fact, are we not most uncomfortable in the area that takes impressions? Does not the dog shake his paws just after he hits the figurative plaster or manuscript of the concrete? I note that dog fossil trackways rarely double over themselves. And when we part from our own impressionable trackway – the writer’s desk, say – do we not seem to take to a fresher, healthier, more sensitive material, dip our pen in a better well, though of invisible ink – the ink like that of the well-regulated action, which keeps no records?

The writer must value that horizontal dash, what lives above the print sections and the unimpressionable slabs, as much as do the performing artist and the dog. The tracks do not immortalize the runner’s dash. They only immortalize another witness’ review of that dash – or the dasher’s review of his own run, in which case he is reduced to another witness, as alienated from his former self as if he is another man. All means of record keeping, all the stuck keys, omit the horizontal, the play of forward and lateral motion. The sticking keys leave a record only of vertical, separate, attacks. The kind of legato I describe is not captured by finger work, pedal work, or even by a recording device. It is only achieved in the mind in the moment. The best reader of any passing moment pedals in his mind and disavows his desiccated tracks. The dog pedals in his horizontal glee, not via his recorded landings. The latter are only as the punch holes in a player piano roll.

Somehow the wet concrete, that which allows supposed immortalization, is no more impressionable than the surrounding hard blocks that accept no prints. The most well-regulated piano action shows no sign of what happened at its keyboard after the playing is over. The well-regulated action shows no sign that one was there after one is gone. It is a like an Etch-A-Sketch toy that shakes and clears itself.

And recordings are like a file, an archive, of stuck keys. Perhaps that is the real reason they become so odious to their creators – and, ultimately, to others – over time? Recordings, even notated compositions, are but signs of stuck keys. They stand in the way of the future. A well-regulated piano is rather like the ground just before and after a trackway; the keys do not stick. The dog who left the fossil prints leaves a clue in his incomplete trackway: that the choice of the wet concrete was not by design, but partial and by chance – part of a greater sequence. Tree roots push the old trackway slabs up, like scores onto the piano’s music rack, yet no matter how we play and run, the best mediums (the well-regulated actions, the hard sidewalk), reject all efforts to leave new tracks.

The tangible objects of a body of creative work – the books, the canvases, the scores – are like pianos with irreparable, sticking, keys. Imagine having to cast aside and store each piano on which one has performed after only one use! One would be left with the opposite of a piano showroom; one would be left with a piano charnel house. One would be left with slabs of stored trackways, but soon only a collection of a hoarder’s tragedy. The record left on the piano with sticking keys is less important than the record one cannot see in adjacent and perfectly regulated keyboard actions. Who among piano majors has not, late on a weekend night, moved from piano to piano in the vacant practice rooms, as if to rehearse on varying actions? Who has then not thought of such charnel houses but for the work of the piano technician? The piano technician is as a priest in confession – creating the forward moving motion of inalterable blank slates.

These ideas absolve, even vindicate, the concert pianist – or any re-creative or interpretive artists or performer whose medium is time-dependent – from his seeming dependencies on the trackways of predecessors. He lives a sort of hopscotch life in respect to trackways – and would seem to be helpless after the tracks end, and in the area before the start. But whether it is one’s own original work or another’s, only the living, unrecordable utterance is of ultimate value. I have known many Henrys, but not a one seems to share the same name when I hear it.

Only the most transient creation is the most eternal and ineffaceable. There is no impressionable material to record how a solitary consciousness improves a moment. A pianist feels his work is written in haste onto atmospheric sheets that are immediately cast into a fire of succeeding silence. But intuition tells me more and more there are no safe and permanent library shelves or secure archives. One comes to suspect that knowledge and achievement are not cumulative, but that growth of mind is really a succession of abandonments.

Always the well-regulated action protects us. We in turn are careful to keep it from proximity to windows and heaters, and we add climate-control devices. We seem to want them so well-regulated that no cavity can ever form on the figurative elephant’s teeth; sometimes the strings look like floss meant to tackle tusks.

The well-regulated action works then to push back instantly against all sounded notes, so as to erase the marks of utterance, to keep our philosophy high. The well-regulated action works in analogy to the sun and the moon, working to render blank the shorelines by cleansing tides. Does this not suggest, perhaps, why we favor celestially black lacquer on concert grand pianos? The darkness of the cosmological voids suits the mystery of such instruments.

We are right to worship the achievement of the inventor of the piano’s mechanism. One can credit Cristofori for his genius in respect to turning a harpsichord into a piano, but his mechanism’s receptivity to later improvement in respect to speed may be its greatest legacy. I notice the common human trait of impatience at elevators – as if repeated pressing of the call button will somehow accelerate an arrival. But on the best pianos the repetition has an answer for every attack. I do not think any facile pianist will disagree that there is no other button that is always so ready to meet our efforts to push it in faster succession. We even have fingerings for this: 4-3-2-1 (or alternate attacks between the two hands on one note). Again, the greatest representatives of modern actions will reset and give a note for each of our strikes. We cannot dance fast enough to leave a fossil on a well-regulated action.

Now that I have lingered over my home piano and one of the fossil trackways in my own village, I wish to tell of the third consideration I named at the start: my recent time at the art gallery on Columbus Avenue in Manhattan. I was early for the 6:00 PM opening, so I spent time alone on one of the benches in the dog park adjacent to the American Museum of Natural History. I watched many dogs run about with glee over a firm, dry, unimpressionable, dust. I entered the gallery after friends arrived, and with all the thoughts I have given above very much in mind, I was struck immediately by the arrangement of the room. On the three interior walls of the small space were the paintings. But of most significance to me was that the gallery was also a performance space. A grand piano stood before the front window; thus it stood principally before a canvas that can hold no images. The canvases that reject permanence – the keyboard and the window – were placed together well.

Again, on the walls perpendicular to the piano were the paintings. If their canvases could have provided the same unremitting challenge as the well-regulated piano and its action before the front window, then those canvases would have been as trampolines to the paint as soon as it had been applied. The paint would have bounced back with each brush stroke; or, like the front window glass, the paint would pass right through and absorb the mark of the artist no more than a footfall on the edge of the tide. But the hanging paintings were as stuck, as sticking keys. The piano stood there as the ultimate, unremitting, blank canvas. The well-regulated action is as an infinitely perfected piece of glass, one that permits no reflections: all of the performer’s inner spiritual photons pass through, consigned to an endless outbound journey. The piano keyboard is as a revolving door that leads somehow ever forward. Scratches, fossils from the nails of virtuosos, may remain in the fallboard, but nothing fossilizes in the keyboard below.

What distinguishes the great halls of the different branches of the arts from each other? A library must be expanded, for its shelves begin to creak – even, to a microscopic degree, if its holdings are electronic. The same holds for museums. Their rate of accession must always threaten their space and future. But a performance space does not augment its holdings with time. It deaccessions a work as soon as it is acquired. In virtually the same instant a work is gained, displayed, and then deaccessioned; for it vanishes by a power beyond our will. A concert hall is a library with the most voracious kind of bookworm.

The piano action is as an artist’s pencil with tip and eraser on the same end. It resets constantly and always offers no more than the present to its user. Not only does it efface even the record of one’s most superior virtuosic predecessors, it erases the record of oneself from even an instant before. I know of nothing that welcomes so much the utterance of only the present moment. Only the player sitting at the bench, sitting perpendicular to the keyboard can hear the performer whose arms move parallel over such a resistant fossil bed.

A well-regulated piano’s action will no more let a key stay down than will the water in a pool permit one to keep a ball under the surface. One can keep the ball submerged if complete focus is rendered on that one ball. But let one’s focus and downward force be set off balance in any way and the ball pops up – as will the key of any chord if one’s proper weight is not maintained upon it, as is often the case with one’s outer (and sometimes inner) fingers in wide or densely voiced chords. The well-regulated action will no more retain a shape than a pool of water. But though the glory of public performance may lure many a narcissist to the trade, the action of the instrument at the same time does not permit Narcissus to see himself reflected in the pond of keys.

Probably the only significant fossil permitted to form in proximity to a well-regulated piano action is on the music stand. Perhaps that is the real reason we respect so much those who play from memory. The audience does not so much crave the impression of improvisation as it desires the reassurance of seeing the instrument admit no fossils – seeing the keyboard insist that the canvas is always unfilled, that all prospects are ahead even when time is up. The encores are but preludes.

The grand piano’s lid is shaped not unlike an artist’s palette. But when the lid is opened, is it not on such an angle that any figurative paint could not but slide away? That surface, too, seems to hint at an unremitting will toward a blank slate, toward an infinite future. Perhaps that is why there is something unnerving to me when I play on pianos in private homes where the lids are closed and covered with family photos and other impedimenta. A pianist craves those things to be removed from the lid. Perhaps many a pianist practices with the lid up because then the symbol of a palette that sloughs away its paint augments the suggestiveness of the well-regulated action that retains no history.

Perhaps the reminder of an unremitting and endlessly demanding future is at times too much for some? Perhaps it is not to keep the dust away that we have fallboards on pianos? When one closes the fallboard of a piano it is like the gesture of closing the eyes of a dead man, for we fear those eyes are still seeing. And, to boot, we often cover a closed piano as if with a shroud. Something lurks within these gestures; they are inspired by more than fear of dust and ghosts.

Under very rare circumstances for a pianist, Nature conspires to augment the perpetual prospective blank of the piano action’s canvas. Once, when I had cause to perform on a piano positioned on an outdoor platform, an intense beam of sunlight passed directly over the keyboard for a time. Then it was as if I was challenged by an even greater unimpressionable canvas. The white keys, despite that intense sunlight, were not heated, it seemed, much more than they would have been under other circumstances. C major was not unpleasant. All white keys seem in accord with each other, even though, after close inspection, one will notice that not a one in the compass of an octave is cut the same! I groped the C major sections under that sun as when one walks barefoot in a beach parking lot in summer and strides, tightrope-style, the lightly painted lines of the parking spaces.

But the black keys! The black keys became hot. They were hot enough to make me anticipate the moments when my fingers could leave them. The farther a key signature was from the twelve-o’clock position on the circle of fifths the more uncomfortable it was to touch that keyboard. The sun had augmented the brevity of the action’s retention. I cannot recall – even from times under the brightest stage lights – another case when a keyboard presented two temperatures to the hand.

Yet under common circumstances a pianist must warm up his own hands. Most other instruments warm up with the player. But the piano – ever-resetting – for the most part remains cold as the Cosmos, giving harsh but vast reassurance amidst the mortal paintings, amidst the canvas fossils on the walls and the books on the shelves, of a ceaseless breadth of time that is yet to be; as the piano in that Columbus Avenue gallery sat in that center of canvases, silent as a Sphinx, yet not quite radiating riddles nor music yet to be written or played, but, instead, a promise of infinitely incipient and prospective time.

When I left the gallery I walked with brisk steps to the subway, and I kept my eye upon the blank slabs of the cheerful and hard sidewalk, and only looked up to dodge the herds of the professional dog walkers – each living animal with a tongue protruding like a damper pedal from the midst of ivory teeth.


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   

Guest post by Joanna Wyld

I recently enjoyed a concert in the rejuvenated Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank Centre; ‘An Evening with Danielle de Niese’ in which the soprano was joined by a host of other stars: Menahem Pressler, Sir James Galway, Mark Simpson, and the Navarra Quartet. The concert was memorable for reasons too numerous to detail here, but, alongside the purely musical elements of the occasion, I was struck by the fact that the programmes sold out.

Before the concert, the QEH kiosk queue (try saying that after an interval drink) was considerable and, alarmed by the increasing urgency of the announcements that the concert would start at any moment, I went into the hall, expecting to pick up a programme in the interval (it just so happens I’d written the programme notes, so I knew the works and running order already). At the interval I duly tried again to obtain the elusive programme, but was told by the QEH staff that they’d run out. They took my name and address, along with those of several other audience members hoping for a copy to be sent to them afterwards. Then, after the concert was over, I noticed that people were still giving their names to staff, wanting a programme even after any immediate necessity for one had passed.

So what? You might ask. Things sell out all the time. Gig tickets snapped up by touts. Almond croissants in cafes. Those leisure trousers you’d hoped to snaffle in the sale. But the significance here, especially for someone who writes programme notes, is that it demonstrates the real value of concert programmes to audiences. For some, it will have been a tangible souvenir of a combination of artists not likely to be seen together again. But concert tickets alone are a souvenir, so there must be more to it than that.

Programmes have a tactile appeal; they have gloss and weight, a sensual pleasure akin to a well-bound book. They tell us about the artists – yes, you can look up biographies on the internet, but it’s so much better to have all the information in one place, to browse during the concert or on the train home. And they contain the programme notes, those insights into the music and the composers, the song texts and translations. For many, a programme is essential during a concert, but it’s also a joy to happen upon at a later date, an aide memoir discovered whilst tidying a bookshelf. By that time, perhaps years later, one might well have forgotten the details of the concert, but finding the programme again brings to life the whole experience, reminding us of the artists and music we heard, animating faded, ghostly memories with fresh colour and life.

The need for programmes has been called into question in recent years. There are those who suggest that artists should speak about the music beforehand, as a replacement for programme notes. I’m not against this idea for those artists who wish to; it can be a pleasure to hear from musicians if they feel like engaging with the audience verbally as well as musically. But not all artists wish to do this, and there are language barriers to be considered, too. I heard James Rhodes perform a couple of years ago and he began with his own spoken programme notes. Rhodes is a great example of how this approach can work: personal, humorous, engaging. But, whilst I remember enjoying what he had to say, I remember his playing much more vividly. His words are harder to recollect now, not because they weren’t well communicated – they were – but, perhaps, because memory (my memory, at least) responds differently to visual and aural experiences. The nature of memory is far too complex to delve into here and is hardly my area of expertise, so I recognise that and it would be unfair to extrapolate a general principle from one experience. But perhaps the convention of hearing music and reading words has evolved because this is the way our brains best assimilate each facet of the concert. If one reads the score and listens to someone talking about it, it’s a lecture, not a concert; the visual and aural aspects of music are not straightforwardly interchangeable.

I overheard a woman at a conference recently dismissing programme notes as “boring”. Now, I took this with a pinch of salt, as people at conferences very often want to sell things to each other, and I imagine that whatever she wanted to sell was an alternative to the “boring” notes she mentioned. But it’s a nonsensical statement, too easily articulated in an age of poor attention spans; like saying that newspapers are boring on the basis of one article that didn’t immediately grip you, or that all food is boring because of one dish of overboiled Brussels sprouts. I cannot imagine someone talking of theatre programmes with the same dismissive attitude. For plays or musicals, programmes are a must, and to imply that classical concerts are fusty by including them is part of a wider trend in how classical music is sometimes discussed: self-flagellating, hand-wringing, terribly worried we’re not accessible enough, not fun enough. Whilst I agree that the accessibility of classical music to as wide an audience as possible is of real importance, there is a risk of creating a vicious cycle: the more we repeat those fears, without anything constructive offered as an answer, the more they risk being absorbed as insurmountable fact. Whereas if we believe in music as its own reward and act on that belief, many will discover it for themselves without needing to be apologised to or persuaded. Music writers are amongst the most devoted and enthusiastic out there; usually, if you take the trouble to read our efforts, you’ll be rewarded.

Programme notes can be fascinating because music, and musicians, are fascinating. I still love writing about music after 15 years of this kind of work, not only because of my own love of the music, but because it’s a real joy imagining that my writing might increase the pleasure of a listener; that it might entertain, move, amuse, or even, on a good day, induce goosebumps. Composers themselves are wonderfully helpful in providing these moments: flawed, eccentric, passionate, their words can be almost as delightful as their music. One of my favourites was a letter found in a library book (shout out to Bromley Library, to whom I owe a huge debt) when I was writing for a concert of music by Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Shostakovich had written to Prokofiev, who was reaching the end of his life, with remarkable tenderness:

“I wish you at least another hundred years to live and create. Listening to [your] works… makes it much easier and more joyful to live.

​I warmly clasp your hand.”

Goosebumps.

Then there’s the bawdiness of Mozart (much of it unprintable), the searing melancholy of Beethoven, the love-triangle of Brahms and the Schumanns (enough to titillate a tabloid), the pitch-black, meandering thoughts of Mussorgksy, the dry wit of Stravinsky (exhorting us to listen – “a duck hears also”) …

I could go on, but far better if, at the next concert you attend, you buy a programme and read the contents which, hopefully, will add to the joy of the music itself. I wish you charmed evenings of thrilling music, exceptional performances, absorbing programmes, and goosebumps. I warmly clasp your hand.

© Joanna Wyld, 2018


Joanna Wyld was born and educated in London before reading Music at New College, Oxford, where she was an Instrumental Scholar. She was listed as one of the Women of Distinction in 25 Years of Women at New College.

Joanna established Notes upon Notes in 2004 and has been writing liner notes, programme notes and other copy for a wide range of artists and record labels ever since. She also worked on Stop The Traffik for Steve Chalke and Cherie Blair, a book used as a resource by the UN.

Joanna won the 2014 OUP spoof Grove Dictionary article competition, as well as both second and third runner-up slots.

She curates playlists for classical streaming service IDAGIO, and recently appeared in a Southbank Centre video introducing a concert at the new Queen Elizabeth Hall. Joanna is Editor at Odradek Records, and is working on her first libretto for an opera by Robert Hugill.

Notes upon Notes

Guest post by Adrian Ainsworth

In its February 2018 edition, Gramophone’s regular ‘Specialist’s Guide’ feature (where a writer recommends recordings sharing a particular theme, genre or style) focuses on ‘Unashamed accompanists’. This is a subject dear to my heart, and I’ve written before about the importance of the pianist in art song.

So I was pleased to see Tully Potter reference a number of contemporary accompanists in his beautifully appreciative introduction. However, all the actual recordings he chooses are, broadly speaking, ‘historical’ – ranging from Michael Raucheisen (born 1889) to spring chicken Graham Johnson, one of our justly-revered elder statemen of song, represented by a 1992 volume in his monumental survey of Schubert lieder for Hyperion Records.

I understand that Potter is a music archivist, which may explain the leaning towards older performances. As this is a knowledge gap for me, I’m looking forward to tracking his selections down. However, I can’t help but feel there’s a place for a companion piece which could point towards some more recent, excellent recordings – highlighting our current generation of accompanists and, hopefully, encouraging readers to go out and hear them live as well as buy the discs. Here’s my attempt at making this selection.

A bit of housekeeping:

  • As I hugely admire everyone I mention, the list is – both democratically and diplomatically – in alphabetical order.
  • I’ve included a Spotify playlist of tracks so that readers can hear the musicians without (at least initially!) breaking the bank. However, where some labels do not feature on Spotify, I’ve tried to ‘recommend around’ the issue, or simply mention some non-playlist recordings along the way. For example, Hyperion’s absence from Spotify had an impact on my choices for Julius Drake and Malcolm Martineau.

I hope you enjoy the recordings.

James Baillieu

‘Chanson Perpetuelle: French Chamber Songs’, with Katherine Broderick.

On this brilliant CD, JB is a superb match for KB’s richness, and in the Debussy I’ve included in the playlist, simply dances around the vocal part – there’s all the push and pull this song about the shore requires. The heft of the ocean and drops of the spray. In the past couple of years, JB has also featured on excellent releases from Benjamin Appl (his debut lieder CD) and Ben Johnson. I’ve also included a glorious track from the latter’s disc of English song, ‘I Heard You Singing’.

Iain Burnside

‘Rachmaninov: Songs’, with various singers – here Ekaterina Siurina.

Surely one of IB’s finest releases, this set of all Rachmaninov’s songs features young Russian singers – who are, understandably, hugely suited to the material, freshness and enthusiasm bursting out of the speakers. I’ve chosen two IB tracks for my playlist – the astonishing ‘Arion’, with the pianist negotiating a heroic series of sudden changes, twists and turns, plus a spectacular Respighi track from Rosa Feola’s debut CD.

Julius Drake

‘Songs by Schubert (Wigmore Hall Live)’, with Ian Bostridge.

One of the most purely exciting accompanists I’ve heard – and seen live. So often, I’ve heard his elemental basslines give the most distinctive, larger-than-life singers the uplift they need to raise the roof. But the necessary restraint is always there, too. The playlist includes this CD’s hell-for-leather version of ‘Auflosung’, as well as the humorous – yet light on its feet – rendition of ‘Fischerweise’ with Matthew Polenzani, also at Wigmore Hall.

Christopher Glynn

‘Percy Grainger: Folk Songs’, with Claire Booth.

Recently, CG has emerged as a strong advocate for the communicative power of English art song, with a recording of Donald Swann’s (non-Flanders) body of work for Hyperion, and this delightful CD with Claire Booth. Clearly a labour of love for both – who have apparently researched and performed Grainger’s music for years – the rapport and affinity for the material are joyously audible.

Gerold Huber

‘Nachtviolen’, with Christian Gerhaher.

It’s a tribute to GH – Gerhaher’s regular accompanist – that when the baritone received the Wigmore Medal, he remarked that if he could he would split the award in two, so he could give half of it to Huber. They have made many recordings together, but this relatively recent album captures their dynamic perfectly. Resisting any urge to over-sentimentalise, GH provides a gently rhythmic counterpart to the bruised beauty of Gerhaher’s voice.

Simon Lepper

‘Nights Not Spent Alone: Complete Works for Mezzo-Soprano by Jonathan Dove’, with Kitty Whately.

This pianist is relatively new to me, but the recordings I know find him surrounding huge voices with supreme agility and dexterity. His Schubert album with tenor Ilker Arcayurek is a superb listen but this set of contemporary compositions with Kitty Whately is a revelation, not least in the bravura performance of ‘The Siren’.

Susan Manoff

‘Neere’, with Veronique Gens.

It still feels all too rare to see women as both singer and accompanist in recital duos. Having heard Gens and Manoff live, it’s easy to project a particularly close dynamic between them, but to me, they do seem to share a special empathy. On this marvellous disc of French song, SM avoids any sense of ‘laissez-faire’, playing with a shining, wilful clarity in support of Gens’s passionate delivery.

Malcolm Martineau

‘Portraits’, with Dorothea Roschmann.

A pianist who seems able to play ‘in character’ as effectively as the singers he accompanies. On this stunning recital album, the version of ‘Gretchen’ – where the piano represents the movement of the spinning wheel – sees his constantly alert approach capture the distracted yet intermittently purposeful work of the lovelorn heroine. To show how astonishingly expressive MM is in French song, I’ve included a live performance of a Debussy melodie with Christiane Karg in the playlist.

Joseph Middleton

‘Fleurs’, with Carolyn Sampson.

Winner of the Royal Philharmonic Society’s 2016 Young Artist Award (when he was described as a ‘born collaborator’), JM combines ceaselessly versatile musicianship with a flair for programming. This leads him to create recordings with the wide-ranging appeal of ‘albums’ – and so prolific is he that I’ve included three tracks on the playlist. My top pick represents his ongoing partnership with soprano Carolyn Sampson, their first CD (from 2015) introducing her to art song with some brio, marshalling her reliably gorgeous tone to his dazzling array of accompaniment styles. He is also the backbone of song supergroup, the Myrthen Ensemble, whose double CD ‘Songs to the Moon’ is another piece of brilliant curation. Finally, his night-themed record with Ruby Hughes, ‘Nocturnal Variations’, was one of 2016’s finest discs.

Anna Tilbrook

‘Schubert: Schwanengesang / Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte’, with James Gilchrist.

Another duo who seem to represent a perfect match. I was lucky enough to experience total immersion when first introduced to AT’s playing, as she jointly helmed a full weekend of Schumann and Mendelssohn that also featured Gilchrist, with a guest appearance from Carolyn Sampson. Sadly, the ‘Robert Schumann: Song Cycles’ CD that followed is not on Spotify. Luckily, their Schubert discs are: this lovely song (the final one Schubert wrote) can be over-emotional, even over-prettified – but AT approaches it with poise and precision, every note a distinct chime.


Adrian Ainsworth writes for a living, but mostly about things like finance, tax and benefits. For light relief, then, he covers his obsessions – overwhelmingly music, but with sprinklings of photography and art – on the ‘Specs’ blog, which you can find at

Adrian is a regular guest writer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Guest post by Alison Mathews

During my career in music, I have always tried to find ways to balance the inevitably large amounts of time spent working alone – whether that be practicing, writing, preparing lessons or as now, composing works aimed at the intermediate pianist. Collaboration has always felt like the key to a healthy working life! At college, that meant a large amount of accompaniment and duet work. In private teaching, I developed and ran workshops with a like-minded colleague. As the focus of my career shifted to composing I naturally looked for ways to continue collaborating. This was not so easy to achieve!

True collaboration means inviting another individual into your creative process, which of course, requires trust and mutual respect. You need to have a shared vision that allows room for the expression of personal ideas. This of course, is true in many forms of musical collaboration, but in composition, where you essentially begin with nothing but an idea, perhaps something fairly abstract, it takes a special form of relationship for a partnership to be able to grow and flourish.

I was very lucky to make contact with the composer Barbara Arens through Facebook about two years ago. Over a few months we developed a friendship, which quite quickly became a working partnership. We discovered early on that we had many things in common, both musical and non- musical! Significantly, despite our differences in compositional style, we have a similar aim in composing, linked to our long experience as teachers. We both know that in setting a goal for a pupil, the imagination needs to be engaged through the music learnt. Progress through meeting technical challenges is important but above all it must be achievable – it cannot be out of reach. Engagement provides motivation and allows for expression, success leads to progress and development. To this end, we both aim to write music that is appealing, that uses the wide tonal range of the piano and encourages expressive playing. We take care to write as pianistically as possible, using shapes that fit well under the hand with potential technical challenges carefully placed. For example, my pieces may use wider stretches or leaps and Barbara’s may use cross rhythms.

So how does this partnership work in a practical way? Barbara lives in Germany and I live in the UK so we rely heavily on email and messenger, along with the regular sending of pdfs and mp3s. The free exchange of ideas early on in a project can spark creativity, which is especially motivating when perhaps one of us needs a push or a little inspiration! Very happily, similar things, for example art, history or literature, often inspire us, which will lead to time spent researching. This is an important part of the process as I know we both feel that no matter what level we are writing for or what the subject matter or theme is, background knowledge lends authenticity to the finished project.

When it comes to the actual process of composition we tend to send each other “work in progress” or pieces in various stages of completion. This is the point at which we invite each other into our individual process of creativity. This is where trust and respect is vital. We both value honest feedback and suggestions to improve the work shared. We both have a similar view on criticism – it can be healthy and constructive when balanced with a dose of encouragement or praise! Accepting that the joint goal is more important than the individual is so important. There has to be give and take and very often compromise! After some misgivings, I ended up rethinking the keys of several pieces to ensure they balanced with Barbara’s – a good decision. We would both be prepared to rewrite or discard work if ultimately it didn’t fit well within a book.

This summer, we did get the chance to work together at the same piano. I spent time with Barbara at her home, where we were able to explore new ideas for future projects. As we both compose at the piano and develop ideas through playing and listening, we naturally spent some time “noodling” as well as discussing and bouncing ideas between us. This was a particularly enriching experience. Not only in terms of working on specific ideas, but just the chance to play other music together and develop our friendship.

There is only one occasion so far when we have both independently wrote a piece at the same time, on the same subject matter without the other knowing! Not so much of a coincidence perhaps, when you consider the project was an exploration of the joys of winter, but interesting as the outcome differed so much. We both wrote a piece of music inspired by frost. For Barbara, this was after an early frosty morning walk. For me it was seeing the wonderful patterns created by frost on a windowpane. We both used similar compositional techniques such as ostinato patterns and syncopated rhythms as well as a similar tonal range with the higher register of the piano and yet each piece is individual in style. Barbara makes use of rhythmic devices such different groupings in each hand, which propels the music forward as well as giving a light, fresh, extrovert feel. Although mine also begins with an ostinato-like pattern in the left hand, it relies much more on harmonic shifts to provide colour and is more thoughtful and introverted.

These differences are another important feature of a good collaboration. Although we do consider aspects of our composing jointly, such as the keys we use, difficulty levels and the style or character of a piece, we are well aware our differences create variety within a similar genre of writing. Pieces which are complimentary but distinctly our own work best. There are plenty of differences between the way we work – Barbara much more quickly and usually late at night. I’m the opposite! Early morning can be a productive time for me and I find Barbara’s meticulous approach, especially to detail in scores, keeps me on my toes!

With any form of collaboration, if you are open and generous in your approach then it can be an excellent learning experience and a real opportunity to improve and develop. We began with a book of arrangements of ancient Christmas carols, transformed into contemporary, lyrical solos. Our second book mixed arrangements with original works and the following projects (one just complete, one planned) will be only original compositions.

As I said in my opening, collaboration provides a healthy balance to my work. I enjoy my solo projects and continue to work on more personal ideas but have found that working in partnership has increased my confidence, sharpened my critical ear and given me a far more objective and questioning approach to my own compositions. No matter what area of music you may be working in, collaboration and if you’re lucky, the development of a longer working partnership can be very rewarding and lead to personal development.


dscf5710_1Alison Mathews is a classically trained pianist and composer living and working in Surrey, UK. A graduate of the Royal College of Music, London, she holds both a Teaching Diploma and an Honours degree. Alison went on to complete a Masters degree at Surrey University, with the aesthetics of music at the heart of her studies. This led to a wider exploration of the links between art, myth and music with the award of a scholarship for a Doctorate at Surrey University. She was unable to complete this, as having a family intervened and a career in music education came to the forefront. Alison has been running a thriving private teaching practice for over 25 years along with workshops integrating art and music. Alison’s interest in composition grew out of a desire to provide students at all levels with imaginative music to play and the opportunity to explore the full range and sonority of the piano. Alison’s solo and collaborative works are published by Editions Musica Ferrum.

http://alisonmathewspiano.weebly.com/

Autumn 2017 brings a significant change of direction for me as I embark on a two-year MSc at the Royal College of Music, studying Performance Science.

The science and psychology of performance has become a growing area of interest for me, developing from when I learnt how to be a performer myself in my late 40s. Numerous conversations and interviews with professional musicians – and specifically concert pianists – and much time spent observing musicians at work in concerts and masterclasses – has fueled my interest in this relatively new area of musical study and I am excited at the opportunity to explore it in more depth. I hope to be able to share my discoveries via this blog, but my academic commitments may also mean that I might not have as much time to devote to the blog…..

So, this is a call for guest posts to help keep the content of this site vibrant and interesting and regularly updated. Suggested topics for guest posts include:

  • Concert, CD reviews
  • Opera reviews
  • Book and DVD reviews (musically-related)
  • Articles on piano technique, repertoire, performing and teaching
  • Musicians’ health and well-being
  • General musings on musical subjects

If you are a blogger yourself, contributing to other blogs is a great way of bringing your writing to a wider audience (and this blog has an average readership of c25,000 per month). I can’t offer any payment, but I can promise your writing will be shared across my social media networks – over 7500 followers in total.

If you would like to contribute a guest post, please use the Contact Page to get in touch initially

I look forward to hearing from you

Notes for guest writers

Suggested word limit – 1000-2000 words

I’m happy to include pictures, video and audio clips and links to other sites.

When you submit your article please include a brief biography and a link to your own website/blog, if relevant

Please note that articles which obviously advertise products or contain embedded marketing links will not be considered