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

Guest post by Michael Johnson

I have just dusted off ‘The Writer’s Brush’, a book in my chaotic library that reproduces the artwork of 200 well-known novelists and essayists. Looking over their paintings, I can almost hear them letting out sighs of relief as their images took shape on the canvas. Writers often turn to painting for relief from the tyranny of words. It’s a form of therapy — the visual arts provide immediate respite.

Pianists seem to be perfect candidates for this same escape yet finding them and making them talk about it is like pulling teeth. I have identified a handful of pianist-painters and captured some of their thoughts, and my hunt continues, but it might be in vain. Composer-critic Virgil Thomson wrote in one of his better polemical pieces, “The music profession is more secret than most … No other field of human activity is quite so hermetic, so isolated.

Some of my pianist friends will even admit that too much time at the keyboard is ultimately bad for the soul. They are weary of working on muscle memory. It’s the endless repetition of notes penned by someone else that rankles them most. The late Charles Rosen once told me he dealt with this dilemma by propping a book of detective stories on his piano to read as he repeated tricky passages a hundred times. Is that art?

True artists seek self-expression, artistic adventure. They feel the urge to own their work, and written music strictly limits departures from notation. Some musicians eventually realize they are mere messengers, but of what messages? (Deciphering Chopin’s detailed dynamic markings, they ask themselves, “Why did he insist on such constraints?”) If they stray too far, their teachers steer them relentlessly back to the page.

My advice to pianists is to grab some pots of paint and start splashing. Painting has a “touch of the miraculous” about it, one artist told me recently. Of all the arts, painting will grant you the most license for creative release.

I have been collecting samples of musicians’ artwork for the past year or so, and have been surprised at how committed some of them became, often mounting

their own exhibitions and publishing their visual creations, at least on the internet.

Moreover, I find similar urges among academics, business executives, and even one magician, David Blaine.

Alexander Motyl, a novelist and political science professor at Rutgers University, Newark, N.J., finds painting a release from the straightjacket of words – much as musicians fight the constraints of music. “There are no words, no speech, no ‘thinking’ in my painting,” he tells me. “It’s just lines and colors and spaces and visual creations. Stuff happens and, suddenly, you realize, gosh, this is really good.

Somewhere among the painters I find myself, once a struggling pianist, then a working journalist, now a successful portrait painter. I get chills of the “miraculous” when one of my portraits seems to speak to me. My first book of music-makers’ ecstatic faces * has just appeared and my recent one-man show of 70 watercolors in Bordeaux attracted press coverage and a few commissions.

While frustration has driven some leading musicians to the drawing board, reasons of course vary. Among those who turned to the pot-and-brush are Felix Mendelssohn, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Arnold Schoenberg, George Gershwin, former Juilliard professor David Dubal, the British polymath Stephen Hough, the Argentine virtuoso Ingrid Fliter, Boston’s Russell Sherman, British composer-pianist Richard Rodney Bennett, the Israeli pianist Ilana Vered, The German composer-painter Heiner Goebbels, and the early work of Alfred Brendel. Some Chopin drawings are on display in Warsaw. Ferruccio Busoni, Edward MacDowell, Charles T. Griffes, and Enrique Granados all left visual art among their legacies. Even Mozart doodled funny faces in the margins of his scores.

Stephen Hough tells me in an email exchange that he finds painting more release than relief – a way to explore a different branch of creativity. In playing the piano, he says, “sounds evaporate into the air… but a painting stands as a thing, complete.” As he put it in a separate interview, “I’ve always felt that playing the piano just by itself was not enough.” Painting allows him to find a further outlet. “I feel like I need to move in other directions,” he said.

David Dubal, pianist, broadcaster, pedagogue and accomplished abstract artist, believes that drawing and painting are things we should experience “all the time”. It would “make for a more peaceful world”, he tells me. “Painting and drawing have taught me to see and remember. The hand moving on any surface with brush or pencil is a major activity of the unconscious and conscious mind. One must be absolutely ready to let the hand activate its power. It is an adventure and a gamble.”

He quotes designer William Morris as writing to his painter friend Edward Burne-Jones, “If any man has any poetry in him, he should paint …

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In one of the quirkiest cases of backward cross-fertilisation, John Cage was so inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s “white painting” (blank canvasses that Cage called “mirrors of the air”) that later the same year he composed his most famous work, 4’33”, at which a pianist sits quietly at the keyboard but does not touch it.

Left-handed violinist Paul Klee was talented in music and art. He ultimately embraced art, dropping the confines of music altogether and becoming a leading avant-garde painter.

Like Hough, I too find release in painting, sometimes spontaneously. I am often seized by the impulse to sketch a player when I see him or her emotionally high in public. Musicians’ faces and body language provide great material for the artist, inspiring my approach to their portraits — joyful, tragic or just deep concentration.

There is a peculiar pleasure in portraiture. The artist must take an intimate, even intrusive, approach to detail, exploring the eyes, noses and lips – their crinkles, wrinkles and folds — to make the subject come alive. An expressive face can reveal something of the individual’s inner life, and that is what I seek. It takes time to study these faces. The English painters John Singer Sargent and Lucian Freud were known for their multiple false starts in oils, scraping away the face and starting over and over. Leonardo da Vinci invested five years, off and on, in his “Mona Lisa”.

Conductors are some of the most emotive performers in public. Yutaka Sado, Kent Nagano, Paul Daniel, and of course Leonard Bernstein lose themselves in the music. I have seen Bernstein leap so joyfully that both feet left the podium at the same time.

Studying faces puts the artist in a spooky symbiosis with his or her subject. I know I have captured the pianist when I can hear the music or see the subject come to life. I stop short of a related spookiness, however, in the very spiritual conductor Seiji Ozawa who also gets that “miraculous” chill. Intensive study of an orchestral score eventually gives him the feeling that it is his music, that he composed it.

Music can get inside you that way.

 

* My collection of portraits of musicians is available at Amazon


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.

 

 

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