Guest post by Eleonor Bindman

Over the course of my work on arranging the Brandenburg Concertos many people would ask me: “Why not for 2 pianos?” Now that the project is completed and the recording has been released, I am still getting emails from fans of the new Brandenburg Duets CDs with the same question. Well, there are many reasons why and the teacher in me strives for thorough explanations, so here are a few paragraphs on the topic.

Of course, the question is perfectly legitimate, since two pianos would be much easier to work with when transcribing this piece, or any orchestral piece for that matter.  No need to decide which string parts to omit completely, no need to transpose up or down an octave, no need to worry about density of texture in the middle register or about dividing a harpsichord cadenza between two players. It would have been easier to have an entire keyboard for each pianist: no bumping elbows, no deciding whose hand goes into an awkwardly high or low position, no issues of balancing register volumes or exact sound and touch matching when sharing the same theme. The sheet music would have been easier to print as well, without having to fit the same measure numbers for each page of Primo and Secondo and to print the hard copies of music back to back.

The overriding reason for this being a piano-4-hands arrangement is elementary: two pianos are much harder to come by than one.  Think of how many times you have seen two pianos in the same room, unless you were in a concert hall or a music school. And now compare that to all the times you have seen one piano in a room, like in your own home, perhaps. You can play this music at home with a friend whenever you are both available, but imagine if you had to have two instruments? And for performances, bringing a second piano in for a concert always requires rental, extra tunings and (unless we’re talking about a major concert venue) moving/ transportation, ditto for a recording –all this means major expenses in a world were musicians barely get paid for anything. Incidentally, recording on 2 pianos is a lot more difficult than on one, as far as synchronicity goes.

My motivation for working on the Brandenburg Duets was to replace the old arrangement by Max Reger which was hastily done and has barely ever been performed. For the same practical reasons as above, his transcription was made for piano-4-hands, as were other transcriptions of Bach’s works, Beethoven’s symphonies, many opera overtures,etc.. There was a huge body of piano duet repertoire generated mostly in the 19th century when pianos were found in most bourgeois homes. Those duet transcriptions served the same function as the radios and records did in the 20th century: they made classical music accessible for the public’s enjoyment outside the concert hall.

All piano teachers know how important 4-hand playing is for one’s development as an ensemble player. Duets for beginners figure prominently in methods books, yet there isn’t much music for that medium written by great composers. Mozart’s Sonatas and Schubert’s works are the only extensive bodies of work that advanced students and adult amateurs can enjoy. I am hoping that Bach’s 6 Brandenburg Concertos – a total of 18 movements of the most wonderful and varied set of orchestral pieces ever transcribed for piano-4-hands – can give piano partners a new source of learning and enjoyment. The single-keyboard format dictates a thinner texture and therefore simpler parts for both pianists, suitable for intermediate/advanced levels.  Some slow movements are very easy to coordinate, some fast ones are quite difficult and there are many in between. Many faster movements sound equally good at a slower tempo and may be used for exercises in finger dexterity and coordination. And playing this in such close proximity, next to one another, has a unique sensation and feeling of partnership in music for pianists who normally don’t find themselves so close to others in chamber music.

Lastly, for me personally, meeting the challenge of adapting the music well to one keyboard and two players was the real purpose of this project.  The process exposed the complex polyphonic architecture of 6 very different pieces and somehow resulted in a version which seems to belong in our times as much as the original belonged in the 1700s. Bach’s music can be heard in a completely new way without losing its essence.

The Brandenburg Duets arranged by Eleonor Bindman and performed by Eleonor Bindman and Jenny Lin are available on the Grand Piano label, and also via streaming services. Further information here

Meet the Artist interview with Eleonor Bindman


Praised for “lively, clear textured and urbane” performances and “impressive clarity of purpose and a full grasp of the music’s spirit” (The New York Times), New York-based pianist, chamber musician, arranger, and teacher, Eleonor Bindman has appeared at Carnegie Hall, The 92 Street Y, Merkin Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and on solo concerto engagements with the National Music Week Orchestra, the Staten Island Symphony, the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, the New York Youth Symphony, and The Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra of Moscow, Russia. Ms. Bindman is a prizewinner of the New Orleans, F. Busoni and Jose Iturbi international piano competitions and a recipient of a National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts award.

Born in Riga, Latvia, Ms. Bindman began studying the piano at the E. Darzins Special Music School at the age of five. Her first piano teacher, Rita Kroner, hailed from the studio of Heinrich Neuhaus, the venerable Russian piano pedagogue. After her family immigrated to the United States, she attended the High School of Performing Arts while studying piano as a full scholarship student at the Elaine Kaufmann Cultural Center. She received a B.A. in music from NYU and completed her M.A. in piano pedagogy at SUNY, New Paltz under the guidance of Vladimir Feltsman. The Poughkeepsie Journal describers Ms. Bindman as a strong pianist who attacks her work with great vitality and emotion…and mesmerizes her audiences with her flair and technique” (Barbara Hauptman).

More about Eleonor Bindman

Guest post by 1781 Collective

Classical music is elitist.

Classical music puts up barriers to new audiences.

Classical music is inaccessible and unwelcoming.

A fair chunk of us in classical music performance have heard, acknowledged, and pondered the above statements which are uttered often enough to help us understand why a large majority of the population generally doesn’t want anything to do with us.

Our answer? Make it more elitist, build bigger barriers, and make it even more unwelcoming.

That is, on the surface. Whilst it may seem paradoxical to the extreme, our goal is the do the exact opposite: to release classical music from the perceived elitism that admittedly has a monopoly on a product that we as performers feel too passionately about to let go.

 

UNDERSTANDING OUR CURRENT SITUATION:

First, we need to understand where the accusation of elitism stems from. As it cannot be the complex arrangement of sine waves and overtones that organise themselves into the actual music, it has to be something outside the actual making of it. We point the finger directly at the institutions and organisations that charge themselves with ‘protecting’ classical music, i.e., the gatekeepers surrounding classical music who have spent the past 100 years building a wall around it (or as Daniel Barenboim termed, those in the ‘Ivory Tower’[1]) to make sure it is as hard as possible for an outsider to walk in.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in existing concert formats. For those of us who have attended more than a few concerts, the existing ritual is a wonderful experience. Arriving early to the Philharmonie, Staatsoper, Southbank Centre, Wigmore Hall (or wherever you prefer to get your kicks); having a crémant before the performance; settling down in your seats and waiting for the lights to dim; knowing exactly when applause is due and frowned upon; relishing in the silent nature that allows one to listen intently; having a pretzel during the interval (sorry U.K., the ‘Interval Ice Cream’ is good, the German ‘Pause Pretzel’ is GREAT) – all of these things we happily agree to upon entry because it is familiar, and a great way to listen to music that more often than not, we are acquainted with or have expectations of.

As an industry, we’re always bleating and bashing our heads against the walls to how to convince the white whale of marketing‘new, young audiences’ – that what we’re doing is a tonne-of-fun and they should come and shut up and realise what they’ve been missing. What we don’t realise is that telling anyone (not just the new and young) to come into an unfamiliar space filled with people all too willing to let them know when they’ve strayed from an unwritten set of rules, whilst sitting still for two hours to listen to something they’ve not necessarily any connection with… well, it hardly comes off as inviting.

So how does building bigger barriers, expectations, exclusivity, and coating it with a fairly thick pretentious layer of paint go against any of this?

RE-DESIGNING THE CONCERT FORMAT:

One of our first attempts at an answer has been to try and completely decontextualise classical music performance by looking at all the existing rituals inherent in the traditional format, and turn them around to observe how it affects audience enjoyment. These rituals can include (and are not limited to):

  • The choosing of concert based on repertoire, performers, instrumentation (generally online or in brochure form);
  • Purchasing tickets or reserving seats (generally online or through a ticket office);
  • Knowing dress codes and what is generally deemed ‘appropriate’ (seemingly obvious perhaps, though there is without doubt an expectation – bondage gear being generally frowned upon);
  • Arrival time at the venue and atmosphere (classical audiences know arriving at least fifteen minutes before is safe, and that there isn’t entry during performance. Non-classical audiences don’t necessarily know this);
  • When to applaud (the most contentious issue – no matter how much proof you give to fanatics, we’ll never go back to applauding between movements);
  • Communication of additional information through programme notes (is anyone else still worried that something as simple as performer speaking to audience is still referred to as a ‘new’ and ‘big’ change?);
  • Sitting silently during performance with as little movement as possible.

Our modifications to these existing rituals include:

  • Not communicating at any point who is performing and what repertoire will be presented – allowing us then to programme according to artistic desires rather than hiding a contemporary work between a Beethoven and a Brahms.
  • Sending formal invitations to selected guests, chosen to represent a wide variety of networks. Note: at least 80% of audience members are not those who currently engage with classical music on any constant level.
  • A strict dress-code policy of all white clothing. Originally this was to change with every performance (for instance, each member would need to wear flowers, or bring a gift), however the success of the white clothing in atmosphere curation has led us to instigate this as a constant across the series.
  • Knowledge of the arrival time (between 20:00-20:25), with no exception allowed.
  • A blanket ban on all applause – taking out the insecurity that non-classical listeners all experience, which can overwhelm their listening attention by creating a sense of anxiety. Note: repertoire selection needs to support thislarge fortissimo perfect cadences tend to leave the audience with the musical equivalent of ‘blue-balls’ if they’re not allowed to express afterwards.
  • Subtle communication of repertoire during the performance, and using a candelabra with five candles to let the audience know how many pieces have been played and how many remain.
  • Selecting different physical situations for each piece, including standing, kneeling, sitting cross-legged, lying down, eye-gazing with a neighbour, and free positions. The audience is informed that every position is wholly optional, with no insistence.

Finally, we want to address the existing performer-audience dynamic, traditionally based on a top-down model. Referred to by Prof. Julia Haferkorn in The Classical Music Industry as the ‘sit-and-stare’ model, audiences attend a performance as passive consumers: having chosen the particular concert they wish to attend, it is then up to the performer to bear the responsibility for the performance (outside of the audience not moving and clapping in the wrong places). We want to realign this relationship to a horizontal dynamic, with both audience and performer responsible for the outcome of the performance – a further justification for the dress code, arrival time, honouring their RSVP commitment, and non-applause. Primarily, we are looking to create a more direct and honest point of contact for the listener to challenge core communication issue that underlies the current barrier between audience and performer.

THE CASE FOR NEW RITUAL DESIGN:

All of this is geared towards delivering a strong element of value for the audience. By respecting certain requests and requirements, we imbue them with a responsibility which gives them more satisfaction at having contributed to that value. For non-classical audiences, simply begging them to attend because we promise the music will be great is not enough: adding additional layers to it welcomes them to see the event as a whole, separate to their existing notions of what a classical music performance is.

Most importantly, whilst designing these additional layers we are conscious of not letting anything get in the way of experience of the actual music – as our goal is to communicate high-quality classical music, nothing can be gimmicky or without justification. Each layer then is designed to highlight or enhance the listening experience, and we’re fully aware of the fine line that separates ‘effective’ and ‘interruptive’, meaning this process includes an element of trial and experiment. The challenge is to create a natural environment where the audience feels comfortable, whilst simultaneously maintaining the necessary elements of silence and reflection to allow them to delve fully into the music.

Our goal through this concert series is to develop a highly-engaged audience community, who we can then utilise as a base for further performance concepts going forward. By and large, this growing community is completely separate to the existing classical audience: as we have no desire to undermine or attack the traditional concert formats in our long-term mission, we aren’t seeking to convert traditional concertgoers to our methods – hence the focus on developing a new audience base. By ‘engaged’, we hope the attention to experience design, and increased audience responsibility and resulting value improvement, means they won’t attend purely for the Instagram-able nature of the events, or just so they can say ‘we went to this weird space to listen to classical music’. Our goal is not to trick people into liking classical music, but to demonstrate its real value.

Following on from this, we want to create a sense of trust in our product from the community, so they introduce the concept to their immediate networks – i.e., marketing. As mentioned above, the initial invitees have been selected because of the diversity of their networks. Each attendee then is encouraged through ‘Invite Cards’ to select friends they believe would appreciate the performance. Inspired by the members’ club model, we hope this method builds a large and motivated core group of attendees.

RESULTS, GOALS, PROJECTIONS:

Which brings us back to the concept of exclusivity, elitism, and unwelcoming barriers. Yes, on the surface, this is extremely exclusive. However this exclusivity is limited to these early stages of audience-community development – allowing us in the future to curate the larger, open-for-all performances that form our mid-term goals, with the knowledge there is a strong audience base to support. Whilst the images above scream ‘elitist’, we believe it is far removed from the perceived existing elitism that stains classical music in the form of traditional format expectations (which can seem like a private party where the initiated understand, and the ‘plebs’ don’t). And, as explained in detail above, the unwelcoming barriers have a two-fold effect: 1) building value and delegating responsibility to audience members; and 2) taking out uncertainty and anxiety from audiences by communicating exactly what is expected, giving them freedom to operate how they prefer within the clearly defined boundaries.

Is the concept perfect? Of course not, it is still very much a work in progress. Does it hold the answers on how to ‘save’ classical music? Again no, we don’t presume any claims of greatness in this realm. However, our audience retention and engagement has been pleasantly high with a vast majority of guests requesting to come to the next events, and reporting that they previously hadn’t experience such a close connection to classical music. Are we claiming our ideas to be unique? Not at all, they’ve been inspired by the constant historical change within the industry. And is it the only way to break out of the traditional model? Not by a long shot, there are many excellent groups doing some really excellent explorations – and one of our goals is to connect with them all.

Finally, to those who have gotten this far and are still not convinced – that’s great! We have no need to be in competition with you. As it is inconceivable that there is anyone who is actively trying to ruin classical music, it stands to reason that we’re all passionate about developing and communicating classical music to as many people as possible. To those who think everything above is trite and unreasonable, well if this is the case, trust the audience to make that decision – if true, then you probably won’t be hearing much more about it. All we can say is that we are looking forward to the future, and you’re more than welcome along for the ride.


The 1781 Collective.

www.1781collective.com
info@1781collective.com

About the 1781 Collective:

Why play along with their system, when we can just create our own?

1781 is an international collective of musicians and interdisciplinary artists. Launched in Autumn 2018, their mission is to explore new listening and performance methods with music, and offer an alternative to the traditional music industry for both audience and creators.


[1] Quote in Alan Rusbridger’s ‘Play it Again’

hammershoi_interior_with_woman_at_piano_0

Guest post by Rhonda Rizzo

It’s an average practice day and I’m at the piano—just me and the score—and I’m staring into the unforgiving mirror that is making art. I say unforgiving because every musical wart, every lazy line, every single inadequacy is reflected right back to me in the way I play or don’t play each phrase. I once had a trained psychologist as a piano student. After three months of lessons, she told me playing the piano is harder than being in therapy.

Practicing is hard work. Performing is hard work. Creating art is hard work. I know of very few professions where you’re required to search your soul every single time you do your job. And then there are the outside critics—the former teachers who’s voices still sound in our heads, the critics, the Classical “high temple” or “museum” that fills performers with “should” and “have-to” and “only-one-right-way” judgments that further complicate the process of making music. It’s a wonder so many of us bother to go to work every day.

And yet, along with thousands of fellow musicians, I keep returning to the piano and to the music that challenges every part of my intellect, instinct, training, and skill. I do it because it’s oxygen for me. I do it because it’s something that I can never conquer because at this stage of my life, conquering the piano means conquering myself. I do it because the music has so much to say to me and I humbly believe that I may have something of my own to say through the music I’m privileged to play.

Don’t expect applause. It’s what I’ve learned from years of trying to please all of the people all of the time. I’ve never been able to please everyone and I never will. One of the gifts of being a “musician-of-a-certain-age” is that I no longer expect that I can please everyone. Of course, that’s what I think on my more enlightened days. The not-so-fun days are the ones where every negative review, every criticism, every botched performance comes back and settles on the piano bench next to me, howling my failures in my ear like a bunch of harpies. Those are the days I have to remind myself: don’t expect applause.

Not expecting applause is a gift you give yourself. For me, it’s given me the freedom to survive failure. Surviving failure gave me the freedom and strength to simply disregard the judgment of naysayers because I know failure won’t break me. Knowing this gave me permission to trust my musical instincts and my own voice.

Not expecting applause has made me a more confident performer because I’m not thinking “please like me, please like me” every time I step on stage. I play. I do my best to communicate the music. I play some parts well. I smudge some bits here or there. Maybe I have one of those magical nights when the audience is breathing every note of the piece with me. Maybe it’s the “gig from Hell” where anything and everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Either way, when I don’t expect applause, I’m less tossed around emotionally by the highs of a great performance or the lows of a bad.

Don’t expect applause. When I take my own advice, I’m free to disregard the ill-fitting interpretations of others and find my own custom-made sense of the music. I’m open to playing with the music—and maybe even messing it up a bit—as a way to get beyond the stiffness of the notes to the warm, living core of the composition. Most importantly, it allows me to move beyond soul-killing, rigid perfectionism and embrace the wild, vibrant, unpredictable dance of co-creating a work of art.


Rhonda (Ringering) Rizzo is the author of The Waco Variations. She has crafted a career as a performing and recording pianist and a writer. A specialist in music that borrows from both classical and jazz traditions, Rizzo has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It.  As both a soloist and a collaborative artist, her performances include several allclassical.org live international radio broadcasts, Water Music Festival, Central Oregon Symphony, Oregon Chamber Players, Aladdin Theatre, Coaster Theatre, Ernst Bloch Music Festival, Bloedel Reserve, Newport Performing Arts Center, Skamania Performing Arts Series. In addition to her work as half of the Rizzo/Wheeler Duo, with pianist Molly Wheeler (www.rizzowheelerduo.com), Rizzo records and writes about the music of living composers on her blog, www.nodeadguys.com

Her numerous articles have appeared in national and international music magazines, including American Music Teacher, Clavier, Piano & Keyboard, and Flute Talk. Her novel, The Waco Variations, was released in the summer of 2018 and can be found on www.amazon.com.  

 

(Image: Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864 – 1916) Interior with Woman at Piano)

ireland-england-cover-resizeGuest review by Adrian Ainsworth

A fascinating work to review, this. A deliberate hybrid of artforms: the soundtrack element combines features of electronica, classical composition and sound art, while the video it accompanies is more verbal than visual, a series of facts and figures displayed over an unchanging, neutral background colour.

As Clancy is first and foremost a composer, I paid most attention first time through to the music. It is described as ‘drone-based’, so –repeating and sustained patterns of notes and chords, occasional percussion… here, all created on synthesisers. It’s an intense listen: the rhythmic taps near the start reminded me of Reich’s ‘Drumming’, and the flurries of ‘blips’ which follow increasing the sense of bustle, agitation. Even at its most stretched-out, there are often elements of dissonance or slight distortion that underline this unsettled vibe.

As this composer was new to me, I listened to some of his previous work, in particular the album ‘Small, Far Away’. In many ways, much of that record seems to capture – in bite-size tracks – an approach that Clancy is pushing to almost ‘concept album’ limits on ‘Ireland England’. The music suggests to me a grounding in an ambient, freeform soundworld, invaded by more industrial, hyperactive influences… where a Brian Eno recording might be respectfully – but not too reverently – taken apart by sonic disruptors like Aphex Twin or Shackleton.

I’ve now mentioned the ‘concept’ – and this is where ‘Ireland England’ in fact becomes a multimedia proposition, as you watch the text video while listening. Like art in a gallery, then, the interpretation is provided to us – we’re not left to our own devices. There are two key strands running through the piece. As ideas, they are linked, but as the music plays through, they run more or less in parallel without meeting.

The whole work represents the flight Clancy regularly takes from Dublin to Birmingham. He has divided it into seven sections (“safety announcement / taxi / take-off / cruise / descent / landing / taxi”). This is all explained in the opening stages of the video, which then pursues the second strand, detailing other journeys made by Irish travellers to England, and their reasons for doing so. My impression is that while the stages of his own commute have given Clancy a framework, his composition really takes flight with this second idea – as the intensity levels of the piece seem to increase at points where the migrations are at their most heart-rendingly stressful (fleeing unrest, seeking abortions).

I suspect that if the visuals had pushed into even artier territory – maybe found some way to illustrate the commuter flight alongside the statistics – the piece could have soared higher. But that is to review something the work isn’t, rather than focusing on what it is.

In the face of such emotive subject matter and such a strong folk tradition, it’s fascinating in itself that a composer has sought to express these scenarios through the ‘colder’ medium of electronics. There are ghosts in the machines.

I like to think that ‘Ireland England’ – outside its mission, so to speak – will find a future as an opportunity for electro-classical musicians and groups to experiment with levels of extremity across single, extended performances. The score Clancy has prepared for the work (some instructions and a single sheet’s worth of notation) seems to allow players to re-interpret almost every element, including its length. The composer’s own 35-minute recording is as precision-tooled as it gets, with the sheet music allowing for performance times of up to an hour or so. It would be interesting to hear a ‘cover version’ and see where someone else might take this blueprint.

In the meantime, I’ll be looking out with interest for whatever Clancy decides to do next.

ireland england by Seán Clancy. Released 1 February 2019

Album available to stream/download here


Seán Clancy is a composer and performer who writes music for electronic and acoustic instruments. Through defamiliarisation, repetition, fragmentation, and the use of drones, his music tries to reach out to people and say hello… He lives in Dublin and is a senior lecturer in composition at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in the UK.

Sean Clancy’s website


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 Michael Johnson

Let’s face it. Except for the lucky few who have the gift, young students struggling to coax music out of a piano are in for a world of pain. Most of them just suffer in silence, and so do their families in the next room, as sharps become flats, allegro becomes lento, everything is hammered to death, and Mozart rolls over in his grave.

But in the past few years, a strange ritual has taken root in our so-called civilization – a safety valve for those who crack under the strain of music’s harsh discipline. It is called “piano destruction” and it is more than a diversion for vandals.

This is different from performance art, in which pianos have been abused for decades by artists seeking to shock. A Swedish pianist, the late Karl-Erik Welin, took a chainsaw to his piano and composed a piece he calls “Esservecchia” calling for strong fist blows to the keyboard and strings.

The occasional comic take on piano destruction survives on film, such as Harpo Marx and his version of “Wreckmaninov”.

But now young piano students sometimes go mad, jumping on the keys, smashing the soundboard, torching the instrument, raking the strings with garden tools – and capturing it all on video

Is this really porn? At least it is an act offensive to public morality, so I call it “pure piano porn”.

Fine instruments produced by piano craftsmen are transformed into bonfires, torn to pieces by heavy construction equipment, exploded with TNT, pushed off cliffs and tipped over the edge of tall buildings.

3_Ortiz_Piano_Destruction-1100x733
Raphael Montanez Ortiz attacks a grand piano with an axe as part of a piece of performance art

Admittedly some ageing pianos are so worn out that they cannot be tuned, and there comes a time to drag them to the knackers yard like an old horse. What makes the practice obscene is the glee with which the demolishers attack the doomed instrument.

A search of the web reveals dozens of amateur piano-bashers at work under the heading “piano destruction”. The best compilation I have found is a link called “25 ways to kill a piano”, accessible here.

Not everyone can find enjoyment from these wanton acts of devastation. Music lovers cringe at the sight of them and scratch their heads. Piano tuners and piano builders weep.

And yet, men and women, boys and girls, will rush at a piano with an axe or hammer or iron bar if motivated by their desperation. The more ambitious of them go to the woods and plant explosives inside. Much merriment – diabolical laughter, actually — is associated with these events.

Occasionally a truly accomplished player takes out his frustration on the instrument. Recently in France, François-René Duchâble, during a pause in his career, recalled his personal act of vengeance. He says he liberated himself from an overly demanding career by dropping the wooden case of his grand piano from a helicopter into Lake Mercantour, in the French Alps, and never saw it again.

He branded the piano “an arrogant instrument which excludes all those that don’t know about music.”

People thought this was a desperate move,” he recalled. “In fact it was a liberation. An act of purification.” And he told a reporter, “I have had enough of sacrificing my life for one percent of the population. I have had enough of participating in a musical system, which, in France at least, functions badly and limits classical music to an elite.”

Thus he brought to a close three decades as a concert pianist and recording star, “a life I detested”, he said. At a stroke, the helicopter stunt had put an end to everything that was weighing him down – “the travel, the rehearsals, the recording sessions in which one is a mere student of the producer in the studio.” He hated taking direction from record producers and he likened his road trips to traveling around in a hearse.

Duchâble’s works are still on the market. His performances of all the standard repertoire of Liszt, Chopin, Beethoven, Rachmaninov, Grieg, are easy to find. He feels his entire life was ruined by his career. “I have a few good memories, a few successes, but not much,” he recalled. “I spent 30 years regretting I had this talent which prevented me from having a life,” he recalled. Finally, he snapped.

Until his recent retirement, he was saying he felt “reborn”, performing for children or the sick, or pedaling around seaside resorts with a keyboard mounted on a specially built tricycle, attracting crowds of old and young with his mobile arpeggios and snatches of Chopin.

The more common piano-bashers seem to be amateurs who arrive on the dreaded “plateau” of learning during which nothing seems to move forward despite intense practicing. Clips of piano destruction on YouTube are enlivened with viewer comments, such as: “Wow he must have had a terrible teacher.”

Yes, piano pedagogues have much to answer for.


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. He is a regular contributor to The Cross-Eyed Pianist

 

Another version of this story appeared on http://www.factsandarts.com

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