Long read guest post by Jack Kohl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will endeavor to thrive on such analogies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

www.jacksonkohl.com   

Guest post by Howard Smith

Like many adult learners, Howard Smith found it surprising that he would suffer that most debilitating of all pianistic ailments: extreme performance anxiety. He explained to me that this came as a big surprise, having been a confident keynote speaker at many large events during his long career in the IT industry. Now semi-retired, Howard is working hard to lead a new creative life, focussed on the piano.

Members of the London Piano Meet Group (LPMG) guided the initial development of Howard’s collation of collective wisdom.


Confronting my fears and learning ways to reduce and manage them is empowering. I can become a more confident performer.

There are two kinds of performance anxiety:

  • Irrational anxiety: fear for no good reason!  If I am well-prepared, it should be possible to overcome irrational anxieties.
  • Rational anxiety: insufficient practice and preparation. Maybe I was just lucky playing at home in the practice room? Under the spotlight, things fell apart.

The combination of sufficient practice and building resilience under emotional stress can help to reduce performance anxieties.

Technical preparation is the bottom line. Stiffness, awkward movements and poor technique become completely dysfunctional during a live performance; my mind and muscles won’t be able to cope.

I must develop a narrative of success and avoid a narrative of failure. A series of poor performances can result in a vicious cycle of negativity. Avoid at all costs.

Consider using techniques from NLP and CBT to turn negative messages and the ‘toxic inner critic’ into positive affirmation and confidence-boosting messages.

1) Adopt the Right Mindset

Accept yourself for what you are. How well you perform is not a determiner of your self-worth.

Nobody is perfect. A few mistakes are OK. Most audiences won’t notice, and many are non-judgemental.

Accept that a degree of nervousness (butterflies) is healthy. It is natural and affects most everyone. If you are not nervous or are overconfident, something is wrong. Adrenaline can be useful but needs a channel.

To build a narrative of success, seek out a graduated series of low-threat performance opportunities. Start with a video camera or tape recorder. Treat this session as if it were a real performance. Stand up and address your imaginary audience. Keep going, even if you make mistakes. Try to maintain the tempo. Then move to the next level: a trusted friend or musical associate. Then a few more friends. Etc.

Each time you perform, think about what you found hard. Consider what new coping strategies may be required.

2) Choice of Music

A successful performance of any piece of music boosts your confidence and increases emotional resilience in readiness for your next performance.

Choose music safely within or below your grade: ‘easy for you’ pieces with which you are entirely comfortable. Hard to say, difficult to do.

Play at a tempo at which you can be confident.

Performing less well-known repertoire can be helpful. Familiar or iconic music can attract higher expectations from audiences, heightening your natural fear of being ‘under the spotlight’.

3) Prepare for the Performance

Be well prepared. Practice. Practice. Practice. Eliminate anything and everything that can go wrong. Practice until you cannot go wrong.

Tip: A few days before your performance, identify the one bar (one) that you find the most challenging. Experience shows that this simple, practical solution seems to ‘clinch’ the sense of confidence after all else is said and done.

Perform whenever and wherever you can. For example, find a piano in a public space. Play when your friends come round, whether they want to hear or not. Tell your ad-hoc audiences to accept your performance for it is: the practise of practice! Doing so will help you feel what it is like to be nervous. These ‘safe’ performances reveal whether you have sufficiently practised.

Also, practise in front of your teacher. Take their advice but ask them not to obsess about tiny details. It’s too late for that. Ask them for their input on the entire sweep of the performance.

Work on controlled breathing, and meditation. Relax. Find the mind tools to redirect thoughts when they turn negative.

Be healthy. Exercise. Eat properly.

4) The Day Before

Limit stimulants. Get adequate sleep.

Practise yes, but avoid over-practise. Focus on the big picture.

Take a walk, jump up and down, shake out muscles, or do whatever feels right to ease any anxious feelings. Repeat nearer the time.

5) At the Performance

If possible, warm up beforehand by playing a few scales.  At least try to feel the piano keyboard in advance. Play a few notes and chords. Don’t forget the pedals.

Remind yourself that you are well-prepared. Don’t over-think what could go wrong.

Foster a ‘safe space’ for yourself in which to perform. Get into ‘the zone’. Centre yourself.

Adopt an aura of confidence. Visualise your success. Face down your anxiety.

Think of the audience as your friends. Connect with them – smile, make eye contact.

Shift the focus from your vulnerabilities, towards the music itself. Close your eyes. Imagine your audience enjoying the music.

Aim not only to perform correctly but also to communicate the emotion of the music (sadness, joy, profound feelings).

As you start to play; play with confidence. The success of the first few bars is essential to your continued confidence throughout the performance.

Breathe. Don’t hold your breath. Relax your facial muscles.

Play with passion! Play joyfully. Play as if you are giving a GIFT to your audience, instead of focussing on what may go wrong or being over-critical of yourself. Perfection if not the same as beauty. Moreover, leave your ego at home!

As you play, listen but do not analyse. Focussing too closely on finger and hand movement is not going to help at this stage. Communicate the expression or ‘story’ of the music rather than its technical aspects.

Allow the music to flow through you, imagine yourself as a conduit for it, rather than deliverer or controller.

Be in the present. Play in the moment. Don’t anticipate difficult future bars or upcoming tricky passages.  Avoid thoughts such as ‘I must not get that tricky chord wrong’ or ‘I must not trip up at bar 25’. Avoid all such negative thoughts.

Tip: Imagine the music is a music roll ticker-tape, inexorably moving forward. Let the music carry you along. Declutter your thoughts from the mechanical details of performance.

Bring your mind and hands together as one, not as separate machinery. Concentrate as you play. Do not allow stray thoughts to enter your head. Chase them out.

If you make a mistake, pick up, recover and carry on – with the least amount of fuss. Keep going. Maintain tempo. Whatever happens, try not to re-start.

Have fun!

5) After the Performance

Don’t dwell on what happened during your performance, other than to learn from obvious mistakes.

Plan for your next performance, right away.

Postscript: Additional Thoughts

Minimise distractions. Find a fixed point in the distance. Focus on whatever makes you feel comfortable. This point could be your music stand, the keyboard, or somewhere beyond the piano itself. Wherever or whatever it is, ensure that your focal point is below eye level.

Be deliberate. When you step up to the piano, how exactly do you intend to sound? What, precisely, do you intend to communicate to your audience?

Build the appropriate mental image of the way you would ideally like to perform. Tell yourself that you are going to perform brilliantly, with passion and clear dynamics. Think about positive words such as light fingers, smooth playing, even shifts, fluid movements, strong chords, quiet, calm, ease. Breathe from the diaphragm.

Avoid shallow, rapid, chest breathing. Performance anxiety creates muscle tension. As you breathe, focus on each group of muscles, releasing tension as you exhale.


 

Howard Smith
instagram.com/howardneilsmith

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Guest post by Nick Hely-Hutchinson

Did any composer, I wonder, understand – really understand – the true scope, range and possibilities of the soprano voice as well as Strauss?

That is quite a bold assertion when you consider the huge competition; but my guess is that it would find a high level of support among sopranos anyway, of which his wife, Pauline, was one. She was about as fine a personification of the ‘prima donna’ as you could expect to meet, and their marriage was volatile; but their mutual love of music probably accounts for Strauss’s exquisite compositions for the human voice.

I will not deter you now on his operatic output, of which there were fifteen, except to allude to a comment I once heard made by Kate Royal, a fine English soprano, to underline Strauss’s mastery. The last twenty minutes of his opera ‘Der Rosenkavalier‘ would never lose its slot in my Desert Island Discs, being filled with the most sublime mingling of female voices: Royal said something along the lines of, “It’s one of those moments when you just stand and sing” – nothing else required.

Today’s piece will detain you for less than two minutes, but its three brief verses are all very slightly different, and a couple of hearings will reveal its subtle musical development. Strauss wrote over 200 songs, and many of those originally written for voice and piano were later orchestrated. ‘Zueignung‘ (‘Devotion‘) is one such, but the version I have chosen is with the piano, here played so sensitively by the renowned Strauss interpreter, Wolfgang Sawallisch.

It is a little gem, composed in 1885, set to the words by the poet Hermann von Gilm. I remember seeing the American singer, Renee Fleming, perform Strauss’s ‘Four Last Songs‘ at the proms a few years ago and mentally begging her to sing ‘Zueignung‘ as an encore. Never underestimate the power of wishful thinking! I have scrolled through a number of recordings, but it is the purity of Lucia Popp I cannot resist. The touching, pining, lyrics end with the lines ‘Heilig, heilig an’s Herz dir sank, Habe Dank.’ (Joy and bliss shall thy love impart.Thanks, sweet heart!)

There are some who argue that German is an unmusical language. It was Lady Bracknell, of all people, who, when commenting on a programme of songs in Oscar Wilde’s ‘Importance of Being Ernest said ‘French songs I cannot possibly allow…but German sounds a thoroughly respectable language‘. A slightly tenuous link on the face of it, but the two men had more in common than you might expect: Strauss’s controversial opera ‘Salome‘ was based on a play by Wilde.

I hope you enjoy this, it is gorgeous.

 

 


 

Nick worked in the City of London for nearly 40 years, but his great love has always been classical music. The purpose of his blog, Manuscript Notes, is to introduce classical music in an unintimidating way to people who might not obviously be disposed towards it, following a surprise reaction to an opera by his son, “Hey, dad, this is really good!“. He is married with three adult children.

Guest post by Michael Johnson

The Stakhanovite work ethic among young piano students in China shows no sign of fading as their tiny fingers fly up and down the keyboard ten or twelve hours a day. Competitions are welcoming the new Asian talent and European concert halls tend to fill with admiring fans. Some of us (including me) don’t quite know what to make of it.

It’s not all about Lang Lang, Yuja Wang or Yundi Li. Potential new superstars are emerging each year. Brace yourself for more in the years ahead. Some 20 million Chinese are said to be practicing madly as our European and American kids play with their smart phones and iPads.

Two contrasting Chinese women have caught my eye (no, not like that …) recently and promise to leave indelible marks. They both have worked hard to get noticed and – contrary to myth — they are capable of absorbing and mastering the Western canon.

Ran Jia, the Shanghai-born daughter of an established composer, has become a recognised Schubert interpreter. And Zhu Xiao-Mei has adopted the Goldberg Variations as virtually her own. Music without borders is no longer a cliché.

Elegant, poised and deeply musical, Ran Jia has brought a new freshness to Schubert, a phenomenal achievement considering how often the piano sonatas have been performed by the greatest pianists of the past 75 years. The music press in Germany, where she played all eleven works in a four-day marathon last year, christened her “the challenger”.

And Xiao Mei, a battered survivor of five years in the labour camps of Mao’s China, recovered her piano training and managed to escape, first to Hong Kong, then Los Angeles, then Boston, and finally Paris. It’s difficult to read her book “The Secret Piano” without welling up.

In one passage, she describes the beginning of her career at Beijing Conservatory.

We worked at the piano like galley slaves, in little closed rooms whose doors were fitted with a small, round window (for monitors to check up on students)… The school’s leaders encouraged rivalry between students. The best pupils not only had the right to more classes but also to better food.

Living conditions were Spartan. “At night, forty of us slept in the same dormitory hall. Bunk beds were placed next to each other so closely there was just enough space to move about the room. The atmosphere was suffocating.”

And her first serious teacher, Pan Yiming, was “unrelenting”, she recalls. He ran her through the Hanon virtuoso book plus the main volumes of Czerny, Cramer, Moszkowski and Brahms, plus Bach’s “Inventions” and the Well-Tempered Clavier”. He told her, “I want you to play all this by heart. From now on, for each lesson, you must play a piece by Bach and two etudes from memory with no mistakes.”

By a circuitous route she ended up at the New England Conservatory in Boston, studying under Gabriel Chodos who had trained under a student of Arthur Schnabel. “Professor Chodos was forbidding. With him, it was a life-or-death struggle. After every class, I wanted to quit the piano.

When he assigned the Schumann “Davidsbüldlertänze”, he warned her it would be the “ultimate test … Once again, he was right.”

She saves her greatest enthusiasm for the Goldbergs, which she says “took over my existence – it contained all one needed to live.” The variations, she says, “are all about flow … this is what makes Bach’s music so soothing for its listeners.”

Her mastery is evident in this sample of her Goldbergs:

Ms. Jia rejects talk of competitive striving among the Chinese. “My dream is simple,” she told me in an interview, “to share my musical inspiration deep down in my heart with the audience …” To her, Schubert’s music “dances between our world and heaven”.

Her modest persona comes as a welcome change in the face of the flamboyance of other young Asian players seeking to distinguish themselves through hair-styles or performance antics. She may well be the next Chinese superstar, a versatile player who thoroughly understands her music and performs it for us without excesses.

One American critic noted that onstage she simply and calmly “looked as though she were thoroughly enjoying herself, frequently smiling at Schubert’s more engaging nuances”.

I asked her about the growing criticism of young pianists who place technique above musicality. Not wishing to join the polemic, she agreed however that “music is not only related to the physical action but also the knowledge, emotion and the depth of the spirit behind it”. She brings all these crucial elements to her playing.

I have spent the past few days listening attentively to her latest CD (Ran Jia Schubert, Sony Music) a pairing of Sonata No. 19 in C Minor and Sonata No. 16 in A Minor. As a bonus, she includes “Three Preludes for Solo Piano” by her well-known composer-father (also an accomplished painter), Jia Daqun.

In this video she discusses her love of Schubert and demonstrates her exquisite playing.

Ms. Jia has already built the foundations of a long-lasting career, with debuts at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York. As she explains in our interview (below) she became a multicultural musician by growing up in a musical household. Her father is Senior Professor of Composition and Theory at Shanghai Conservatory. He is regarded as China’s leading composer and has worked in various musical styles, including traditional Chinese music.

A bonus on the new CD is the world premiere recording of his Preludes. Most captivating is his variation swirling around Schubert’s A Minor sonata and placing it very much in the 21st century. After absorbing his daughter’s pure Schubert, this contrast is chillingly beautiful.

INTERVIEW WITH RAN JIA

Q. Your four-recital cycle of Schubert the eleven piano sonatas in Germany last year left critics in awe. They called you an “astonishing” artist, a “piano poet”. How has that success changed you?

A. I would say it changed me as a pianist. After this almost impossible mission, I suddenly found peace and freedom in myself as a musician.

Q. You are in very good company, devoting so much of your musical talent to Schubert. The competition could not be stronger – Brendel, Schiff, Perahia, Kempf, Lupu, Richter, Barenboim, among others. What drew you into this stratosphere?

A. Schubert has been my favorite composer since I was a teenager. Ever since I played his music the first time, I have felt a unique connection. All his music has become my mission in my musical life. I don’t feel there should be any competition between the interpreters as you mentioned in the question. For me, my dream is simple, to share my musical inspiration deep down in my heart with the audience, and to diligently dig into Schubert’s music as much I can.

Q. Will you really spend the rest of your life discovering Schubert’s “spiritual delicacy and profoundness”, as you have written? Is your ambition to become the definitive interpreter of Schubert?

A. Of course I will spend the rest of my life discovering Schubert’s music. For more than a decade I have continuously studied his pieces. I feel his music is still underrated compare to his genius — he is so much more than just a songwriter (even though the songs are amazing!) The boldness of his harmony is absolutely stunning and he uses music to express his philosophy of life.

Q. You have said that you moved from your native China to Europe to better understand the Germanic culture of Schubert. In what way did this help your interpretations?

A. The language, the culture, the atmosphere, those are the foundations for better understanding his background.

Q. What is Schubert’s secret in drawing the tragic and painful strains from major rather than minor keys?

A. True, major brings a brighter feeling than minor, but Schubert’s use of the key changes make me feel that major is more sad than minor because of the way he uses the major sounds seem like a beautiful dream that will never come true.

Q. What are you preparing now in repertoire? Do you plan more ensemble work?

A. I am at the moment preparing a lot of repertoire. I have some interesting projects, for example all the Beethoven concertos, and a Schubert cycle in China in the second half of the year and some trio concerts (mainly transcriptions) with piano, saxophone and violin.

Q. Your father, the distinguished Professor Jia Daqun, is perhaps the ultimate cross-over East-West composer, combining some Chinese traditions with vigorous Western-style contemporary music, as he does in “Melodies from Sichuan Opera” on your new CD. Has his musical culture always combined a balance of the two?

A. Yes, he wrote a lot of interesting chamber works with the combination of Chinese folk melody and Western modern composition technique. He has recently been commissioned by Yo-Yo Ma for a string quartet for the Silk Road Project.

Q. In your own musical life, did you have to move from the Asian pentatonic to the Western heptatonic scales? If so, did you make this adjustment gradually?

A. I never had to move because music of all kinds was always just naturally there with me. I started studying piano when I was three and half years old. Because of my father, I heard a lot of music in different periods, of course including Chinese folk music. I didn’t need to change anything.

Q. Are you still interested in Chinese music or have you definitively crossed over?

A. I don’t think you can speak of crossing over in this context. It is not a question of interest in Chinese music, because this music is a part of me. I am Chinese :).

Q. How should we understand the current explosion of popularity of Western music in China? Some observers think it has become a status symbol to love Western music, like the “Gucci shoes of the music world”, as one pianist has called it. How true is this?

A. First of all, there are a lot of Chinese, so it might seem like it’s an explosion of popularity of western music. Second, the competition in the schools in China is enormous, the teenagers usually have to have several interests besides their normal subjects of study. And music became very popular because it can cultivate one’s feelings.

Q. What drives Asian children to over-practice, sometimes 12 hours a day ? Don’t their results sometimes favor technique at the expense of musical understanding? Are Asian piano students more driven to succeed or are Western children going soft?

A. Asian children work very hard and they want to be good in any area they study, whether in music or other subjects. It’s important that at a certain age they build up a good technique through a lot of practice, but in my opinion, it has become very critical because music is not only related to the physical action but also the knowledge, emotion and the depth of the spirit behind it. I think we should not see a music career as ‘succeeding’ but rather as ‘devoting’ and ‘growing’, or we lose the essence of being a musician.


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.

Illustrations by Michael Johnson

Guest post by Adrian Ainsworth

We’re coming up to the first anniversary of a slightly unusual and unexpected musical event – or to be more accurate, ‘music business event’. On 17 November 2017, the record label ECM made virtually all of its catalogue available on streaming services for the first time.

For anyone unfamiliar, ECM is a Munich record label, founded almost 50 years ago – and still run – by producer extraordinaire Manfred Eicher. Initially the focus was on modern jazz music, but in the mid-eighties Eicher established the parallel ‘ECM New Series’ imprint to cover classical music.

It may be because the boss is a producer that ECM Is famed for exceptional recording quality and detail. It’s tempting to think that the New Series seemed at once boldly contemporary (featuring composers linked to minimalism, like Arvo Pärt and Steve Reich) and wilfully archaeological (the exquisite early choral recordings of Trio Mediaeval or the Hilliard Ensemble), because these ‘extremes’ of classical music particularly benefited from such finely-wrought clarity.

This wide variety means that while there isn’t an ‘ECM sound’ as such, there’s definitely an ECM aesthetic. As well as making the records sound gorgeous, the label’s sleeve design – even into the CD era – has a largely abstract austerity that totally fits its musical output: enigmatic yet welcoming, arty, classy, attractive, open to wide interpretation.

This strong identity is arguably what kept ECM away from streaming platforms for as long as possible: the physical object, played on the best equipment you can muster, is part of their ideal. However, the fact that Eicher and co have now given in means you can at least explore a remarkable range of beautifully documented music at great leisure (and little or no cost) – hopefully on a ‘try before you buy’ basis, as a shelfful or so of ECM releases is a truly joyful sight.

Perhaps treating all of its artists with the same sonic respect, whatever the genre, is the engine behind another distinctive feature of ECM’s output: inspired collaborations. Eicher seems to delight in bringing musicians on the label from both jazz and classical camps together, resulting in highly rewarding joint releases, without compromising the spirit of their individual recordings.

This is a key theme in my very personal ECM playlist. There’s a run of three tracks where Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek first plays with a group of Pakistani musicians, followed by a selection from his celebrated partnership with the Hilliard Ensemble – then we hear the Hilliards on their own performing a striking contemporary piece in contrast to their original ‘early music’ idiom.

Latterly, the Trio Mediaeval have recorded an album with trumpeter Arve Henriksen – a record that, while very different, seems to rejoice in a similar spirit, and a choice from this starts the whole playlist off. Bringing proceedings to a close is John Surman – another versatile saxophonist who can career from furious hard bop to drones/electronica and all points in between. However, his two albums with a string quartet are real jewels in ECM’s crown, as I hope ‘At Dusk’ proves.

Along the way, I’ve tried to bring in some of ECM’s most arresting characters. There’s Stephan Micus, who seems to learn and compose on a different array of instruments from all over the globe on each release, yet here foregrounds his own voice. Or Nik Bartsch, a Swiss pianist who describes his work as ‘ritual groove music’ (about four minutes into the playlist track, you’ll hear why). He records mainly with two bands, Ronin – who feature here – and Mobile, depending on the configuration of musicians the material needs. The distinctive, unhurried and wonderfully delicate piano of Marilyn Crispell, followed by the atmospheric vocalising from Susanne Abbuehl.

And much more… I could have carried on and on but thought I had better stop at 20 tracks (and 2 hours)! As you will find if you explore ECM further for yourself, I could have gone off at so many tangents: used Ralph Towner as a springboard to fellow guitarists John Abercrombie, Pat Metheny or Terje Ryphal; or followed Alexei Lubimov into the label’s roster of esteemed classical pianists (including Sir Andras Schiff). Keith Jarrett’s recordings alone must provide more than 100 hours of listening (some 90 recordings, including a few multi-disc sets).

I hope you enjoy this rather focused selection, then, and feel inspired to find ‘your ECM’ among the label’s near-limitless riches.

Adrian’s ECM playlist

 


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

Twitter: @adrian_specs

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

 

Guest post by Elaine Chew

As a child, having supra-ventricular tachycardia meant that, due to extra electrical pathways in my heart, a simple trigger such as an early heartbeat could double my heart rate at any time. The early beat is often hard to feel, but the delayed beat that follows was unmistakeable—a big thump! that would jump start the doppio movimento. (For an example of doppio movimento, Professor John Rink has kindly suggested the beginning of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35; see a performance by Ivo Pogerelich.) Another thump would end the tachycardia episode as abruptly as it began, which was as likely to be three seconds, thirty minutes, or three hours later.

Doubling the heart rate is fine and good when one is at rest, say seated and reading; twice 60 beats per minute (bpm) would only be 120 bpm, still within a normal range. But rate doubling can be problematic when exercising, like when swimming, where doubling the heart rate of 120 bpm results in a breathless 240 beats per minute and seeing stars if standing upright, the only recourse at this point being lying horizontal and waiting for the episode to pass.

This non-deadly but troublesome arrhythmia was cured through a minimally invasive procedure called radio frequency ablation, which burns the dysfunctional tissue in the heart. The scar tissue that forms can no longer conduct electricity, and the circuit is thus broken. For a long time afterwards, every skipped heartbeat would still cause my muscles to tense and my breathing to pause in anticipation of tachycardia that never materialised, making me realise how unconsciously arrhythmia had impacted my life. I was thus blissfully arrhythmia free until atrial fibrillation hit.

The rhythms of tachycardia were rapid and regular, but atrial fibrillation was irregular in both musical rhythm and pacing. It is also associated with increased risks of mortality if allowed to progress unchecked. My heart started making its own funky rhythms like the following:

which was meticulously transcribed from the inter-beat intervals in the electrocardiogram (ECG) recording from a Holter monitor:

This is not unlike the kinds of rhythms musicians are used to reading. A minor adjustment to the well-known Siciliano, the middle movement from the Flute Sonata in E-flat major (BWV 1031) by J. S. Bach, readily produces an exact fit to the transcribed rhythm:

See the video with audio playback of the modified Bach Siciliano. Readers interested in the gnarly details of the transcription process and its precision can refer to this Music & Science article on notating temporal deviations in music and arrhythmia.

AF is a fast growing global epidemic; statistics show that the condition afflicts over two million people in the UK alone. The inefficient blood flow through the heart in AF increases the risk of blood clots that can lead to stroke. Many people with AF are unaware that they have the condition, but I was amongst those doctors euphemistically describe as very symptomatic. Another ablation procedure—this time with freezing balloons (cryo-ablation)—created barriers in my heart, rings of scar tissue around the pulmonary veins, to contain the errant electrical activity, thus curing the condition.

When the consultant cardiologist came by the ward to ask if I had any questions, I asked for ECG data that I could use for musical analysis and experimentation. This has led to a number of computational projects, mostly scientific in nature, but the first of these was a growing set of piano pieces called the Arrhythmia Suite. With the help of three research partners at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, the inter-beat durations were extracted from the ECG traces and the rhythms carefully transcribed. I then cannibalised existing music to make collage pieces based on these rhythms. See the video on the making of the Arrhythmia Suite. When performed, the pieces make visceral the rhythmic experience of arrhythmia.

On Tuesday, 20 November 2018, at 1pm, I will perform these pieces in Heart & Music at the Octagon (Queen’s Building, 327 Mile End Road, London E1 4NS) at Queen Mary University of London, as part of the Being Human Festival. The concert programme will feature music made from stolen rhythms, including the ones taken from ECG traces of cardiac arrhythmias. Professor Pier Lambiase, the consultant cardiologist who led the clinical team on both ablation procedures, will give a short introduction to arrhythmia research at the Barts Heart Centre before the performance. Admissions to Heart & Music, which kicks off the all-day Keyboard Evolutions event is free, but booking is recommended.

Other pieces on the recital programme include Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Haydn’s Stolen Rhythm (2009), in which the composer assigns new pitches to the third movement (Finale) of Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat, Hob XVI:45, keeping intact Haydn’s original rhythms; Practicing Haydn (2013) is a transcription of my sight-reading of the same Haydn sonata movement complete with hesitations and repetitions—this was a collaboration with composer Peter Child and conceptual artist Lina Viste Grønli that premiered at the grand opening of the Kunsthall Stavanger; Intermezzo (2015) was written by Jonathan Berger for pianist Pedja Muzijevic’s Haydn Dialogues; and, compositions based on J. S. Bach’s A Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena and Kabelevsky’s 30 and 24 Pieces for Children (2016) were created by a computer programme called MorpheuS, written by Dorien Herremans as part of her Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship in my lab.

Following the concert, at 2:30pm, an interactive workshop will enable free-form Q&A with Profs. Lambiase, Peter Taggart, and myself on the preceding presentations as well as our ongoing study on cardiac response to live music performance. Abnormal heart rhythms can often be linked to strong emotions or mental stress. Because music is a powerful idiom through which to evoke strong emotions, this study uses music to induce mild tension in patient volunteers with biventricular pacemakers or ICDs to better understand the connections between emotion response and heart rhythms.


Elaine Chew is Professor of Digital Media at Queen Mary University of London, where she is affiliated with the Centre for Digital Music. She is recent recipient of a European Research Council Advanced Grant for the project COSMOS: Computational Shaping and Modeling of Musical Structures, which will start in January 2019. COSMOS aims to study musical structures as they are created in performance and in recordings of cardiac arrhythmias.

About COSMOS — https://erc-adg-cosmos.blogspot.com

About Elaine’s research — https://elainechew-research.blogspot.com

About Elaine’s piano activities — https://elainechew-piano.blogspot.com

About the Music, Performance and Expressivity lab — https://mupae.blogspot.com