This week I fulfilled a long held wish – to attend a live performance of John Cage’s infamous and iconoclastic ‘silent’ work 4’33”. The performance was part of a special visit to a recording studio at City University to see how Edition Peters create content for the innovative and high-spec Tido Music piano app. This involves a filmed masterclass where the pianist (in this instance Adam Tendler) sets the work in context, with information about its creation and critical reception, and advice on practising the music, together with a live performance (more about Tido Music here). The decision to include 4’33” in the Tido Music library is entirely due to the work’s extraordinary and for some, controversial, place in twentieth-century music – and for pianist Adam Tendler the work should be regarded as a “standard” of piano repertoire.

Ever since its premiere given by David Tudor on August 29, 1952, in Maverick Concert Hall, Woodstock, New York, as part of a programme of contemporary piano music, the piece has courted controversy and opprobrium, its detractors claiming it is not “real music” or that the work is some kind of joke. Some audience members felt cheated or angered by the performance, saving their loudest, most uproarious protests for the post-concert Q&A session. “Good people of Woodstock, let’s drive these people out of town!” someone reportedly shouted after the concert.

 

So why is 4’33” so controversial? When John Cage conceived it, in the years immediately after the Second World War, he was attempting to remove both composer and artists from the process of creation. Instead, by asking the musicians specifically not to play, Cage allows us, the audience, to create our own “music”, entirely randomly and uniquely, by listening to the noises around us during four minutes and thirty-three seconds of “silence” and removing any pre-conceptions or pre-learned ideas we may have about what music is and how it should be presented, perceived and received. The work is an example of “automaticism”, and was, in part, Cage’s reaction to a seemingly inescapable soundtrack of “muzak”.

Neither composer nor artists seemingly have any control over or impact on the piece; the piece is created purely from the ambient sounds heard and created by the audience. In this way, the audience becomes crucial: this aural “blank canvas” reflects the ever-changing ambient sounds surrounding each performance, which emanate from the players, the audience and the building itself. Maverick Concert Hall, where the work was premiered, is partially open to the elements, and thus the audience at that first public performance could hear the “accidental” sounds around them: birdsong, the wind in the trees, rain on the roof, and the sounds of the audience members themselves. This of course was one of Cage’s intentions for the piece – to prove that the absence of musical notes is not the same thing as silence.

Cage was not the first composer to conceive a piece of music consisting entirely of silence: examples and precedents include Alphonse Allais’ 1897 Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man, consisting of twenty-four blank bars (Allais was an associate of Eric Satie, a composer whom Cage much admired), and Yves Klein’s 1949 Monotone-Silence Symphony, an orchestral forty-minute piece whose second and last movement is a twenty minute silence. And there are examples from the world of visual art too: American artist, friend and occasional colleague of Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, produced a series of white paintings, seemingly “blank” canvases, which change depending on the light conditions of the rooms in which they are hung, the shadows of people viewing them and so forth. Like Cage’s work, Rauschenberg’s canvases are brought to life by their viewers and the venue in which they are exhibited (I saw one of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings at a retrospective at Tate Modern, together with other works dedicated to his friend John Cage, and the canvas really does shift and alter depending on the conditions of the room in which it is displayed). There are parallels with other visual artists too, including Carl André and Marina Abramovic, both of whose work explores the relationship between artist, artwork and audience, the limits of the body, and the possibilities of the mind.

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Installation view of Rauschenberg’s White Painting (three panel, 1951) in the artist’s studio, 1991. (©Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)
On another level, Cage was challenging – and exploiting – the conventions of traditional concert hall etiquette. By programming a work to be performed at a prestigious venue, with high-status players and conductor, the audience’s expectations are heightened long before the performance begins  – think of the excitement and anticipation generated when Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim or Jonas Kaufman come to town.

Cage was also experimental – he liked to try new things and challenge conventional ways of doing things. For him art was “a sort of experimental station in which one tries out living.” I am sure he felt the audience’s reactions – curious, puzzled, angry, intrigued, amused – to 4’33” were as interesting as the concept of a silent piece of music.

“They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”
– John Cage, speaking about the premiere of 4’33”

Later in his life, Cage stated that he played 4’33” every day, and the notion of incorporating 4’33” into one’s daily practising regime is very appealing, never more so in our noisy, fast-paced, always connected modern world. The work was composed, in part, as a reaction to “muzak” and the “background noise” that seems to invade every corner of our lives. I’ve become more and more aware of this when I am out and about. There is music everywhere and it’s becoming increasingly intrusive – it’s in bars, cafés, restaurants, shops, leaking from other people’s headphones, even my bank, often at a volume which precludes comfortable speech or hearing, and which invades our conscious, creating unwanted “earworms” or aggravating my tinnitus. It seems that there is some unseen force which requires us to have a soundtrack for every moment of our day. In contrast, 4’33” impels us to to take time out to listen, and really listen. And it encourages a special kind of in-the-moment focus, common to the practice of meditation.

This intensity of listening and engagement with the work was very evident at the Tido Music performance by Adam Tendler. The performance took place not in a conventional concert hall but in a small performance space at City University. The audience was very small –  just Tido and Edition Peters staff members and I, no more than 15 of us. The excitement and anticipation of the performance began before we entered the room, much in the same way as it would if one was at Wigmore Hall or the Proms. The pianist was seated at a gleaming Steinway D which stretched before us like a sleek black limo. On the music desk was the score and a stop watch. After a very interesting, articulate introduction to the piece (for the benefit of the Tido Music app content), Adam was invited by the film crew to begin when he was ready. A palpable ripple of expectancy vibrated around the room, a couple of people primed their smartphones to take photographs. I had expected to be able to hear the ticking of the stopwatch but it was not audible at all. Instead I heard the hum of the air-conditioning, the stomach gurglings of the person sitting next to me, someone stretching their legs. And all around me I could sense everyone else listening very intently, focusing, engaging. It was a remarkably intense experience, an intensity which made 4 minutes and 33 seconds feel much longer than it actually was in real time. When the performance ended, there was an audible collective sigh and the sense of the tiny audience releasing, unwinding, relaxing, before the applause came.

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Adam Tendler preparing to play 4’33” (picture: Tido Music)
The actual performance began when Adam lowered the fall board of the piano and started a stop watch on the music desk. He sat almost motionless at the piano, but there was no sense of him disengaging from the performance or relaxing. He might not be playing any notes on the instrument, but he was still performing a piece of music. And this leads to another fascinating concept which 4’33” provokes: the idea of performance and the pianist’s presence, gestures and body language during performance.

In a conventional piano recital, the audience’s reactions are largely led by the sounds the pianist makes. But physical gestures and body language are important too (some performers seem to allow exaggerated body language to obscure the music; I’m no fan of this kind of pianistic histrionics). From the moment the performer enters the stage, we are engaging with them via their body language – and vice versa. A bow, for example, is the performer’s way of greeting and acknowledging the audience, just as we applaud to demonstrate our acknowledgement and appreciation (for what we are about to hear and what we have heard). How the pianist comports him or herself at the piano can be crucial to our relationship with both performer and music, and stage presence and bodily gestures create an important channel of communication which can hold the audience captive during a performance. Through gesture the pianist can control audience reactions to the performance – the most basic being the lifting the hands away from the keyboard to indicate the end of a piece.

The issue of “what to do between pieces” came up at the recent Diploma Day event, at which I gave a brief presentation on basic stagecraft. A couple of people (adult amateur pianists who were preparing for performance diplomas) told me that they “didn’t know what to do between the pieces” in their diploma recital programme – i.e. how they should comport themselves, or what body language was appropriate. I explained that it very much depended on the music which had gone before and what was to follow in the programme. Some pieces lend themselves to more space or silence between them while others encourage the performer to segue from one to the next. Understanding this ebb and flow of a concert programme and the need to create space and silence within it is crucial to shaping the narrative and energy of the entire concert. Thus, if one wishes to prolong a sense of stillness or meditation after, say, a performance of Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch II, one might simply sit quietly at the piano, head bowed, hands resting lightly on one’s knees, allowing the memory of the sound to resonate in the audience’s consciousness, after the physical sound has decayed.

When there are no audible notes, as in 4’33”, the pianist’s presence is even more crucial. If the pianist were to slouch at the piano, or stare around the room, pull faces, or study his finger nails, the presence would be lost, along with any sense that this was a “performance”. Thus to be successful, 4’33” demands the performer to be fully aware, in the moment, present and engaged – and that’s no mean feat when one is not actually required to play the instrument before which one sits. This makes 4’33” perhaps the hardest piece to perform convincingly.

I learnt a lot about performance and the performer’s “presence” while watching and of course listening to Adam Tendler’s interpretation of 4’33”. It has made me consider even more intently notions of public performance, stage presence and body language, and with this in mind, I will close this article with a quote from Adam himself:

Cage eliminates the details of notes, rhythm, tone, and leaves the performer with the basics of presence. It means the handling of (again traditionally) a piano lid, a clock, and a body—fingers, legs, torso. We use these parts of our body as instrumentalists, of course, but 4’33” isolates them, zooms in on them. It puts a microscope onto the passage of time and how our body—the thing that performs— behaves in that time.

Poise.

I can’t tell you the number of times I have attended a fine, accurate, acceptable and perfectly usable performance from a musician who has never actually learned to sit.

 


Further reading

Searching for Silence

What silence taught John Cage

Defending 4′33″ as a standard in the piano repertoire

 

 

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A plethora of P’s PP’s and PPP’s by three guest writers for this entry in A Pianist’s Alphabet

Piano……Whisper it softly, everything we do as pianists is indicated in advance by the letter ‘P’. If we play the piano as a piano – which is to say play it piano – then we are simply following this alphabetic instruction.

We might, therefore, be tempted to say that the most pianistic pianist was Chopin, who played his piano so piano that his audiences often struggled to hear him play at all. Importantly, Chopin achieved this pianism not through the use of another ‘p’, the una corda pedal (signed ‘ped’), but through the fingers. He played with great touch, preferring to practise and perform on instruments that suited his style – notably, on Parisian Pleyels.

And yet, shout it loudly, the great strength (or forte) of the piano is that it holds within itself its polar opposite. It was originally conceived by Cristofori as a harpsichord that could be played both quietly and loudly. It is the gravicembali col piano e forte. The piano, that is, is always the pianoforte or ‘pf’.

Thus it was that Liszt, who had been inspired by Paganini (another ‘P’), was able to perform in places like La Scala, Milan, and to thousands of gathered aristocrats in St Petersburg without any loss of sound. Not that it was it just about sheer volume for Liszt. The Hungarian was, by all accounts, the master of pianoforte playing in the fullest sense. In performance, one of his strengths was that he played the pianoforte ‘pf’, moving from quiet to loud, from lyrical passages to bravura runs and back again. For him, the pf was to be played ‘pf’.

James Holden is a writer working across the critical-creative divide. He is a specialist in British and European culture from the birth of Chopin in 1810 to the death of Monet in 1926. His published work includes In Search of Vinteuil: Music, Literature and a Self Regained (Sussex Academic Press, 2010). He is currently working on a philosophical reading of romantic pianism. James also writes experimental prose and poetry. He is currently associated with the HOARD art project in Leeds. 

His website is www.culturalwriter.co.uk and he tweets as @CulturalWriter 

 

P  is  for  Piano. Many call it the Perfect instrument. It can Play every note, high and low, that the orchestra can. It can be both melody and accompaniment. Or a wash of sound and colors. Or even five individual voices all vying for their chance to sing above the others. It can be Percussive, Pulsating, Pounding, or Powerful. It can be Pensive, Profound, Philosophical, or Prayerful. It can be Playful, Presto, or Peculiar. It can be Pleading, Poetic, Plaintive, or Pianissimo. The Piano can express a range of emotions, to the audience of course, but also to the Performer, who often experiences the music in a totally different way than the audience. It can at times sound Pompous and Pretentious. Or Produce the most Private, Personal, innermost thoughts and feelings.

P  is  for  Practicing. Many a Pupil will Procrastinate on this essential Part of Piano Playing.  Picking apart a Piece to understand it, analyzing minute details like the chord to chord Progressions, and the overall structure and compositional form. Researching Performance Practice, to ensure that the Pedaling is appropriate for the Period, or that the Portato touch is not too short. Practicing means Painstaking Preparation. Patience. Persistence. Repeating Parts, over and over, literally thousands of times. Purging wrong notes and solving Problems that arise along the way. It means Pleasure in Perfecting a Passage. Or Sometimes Physical Pain, when a Pianist overworks his muscles and Pushes himself too hard. Or even emotional Pain, because Practicing Piano also means being alone.

P  is  for  Psychology. As performers and teachers, not only do we need to know how to Physically Play the Piano, but we need to be our own and often our students’ Psychologists. We Practice Performing to Prepare ourselves for Principal dates and venues and maybe even Premieres. We try out our Programs, Playing for whoever will listen, making ourselves nervous with the hope that at the “real” Performance we will be calm and collected, and therefore able to make music more easily. Mistakes still happen, though, even though we Played our Program Perfectly many times in the Practice room and beyond. Bad mistakes can sometimes lead to a Phobia of Public Performance, which is tough to overcome. With our Psychology in one hand, and solid Preparation in the other, however, we Push down the Panic, the Palpitations, and the Perspiration (often on our Palms!) and get back on stage, encouraging our students to do the same, hoping to share a musical moment with the audience. After all, Playing the Piano is not about Perfection, but about making a connection: to the music, to ourselves, and to the audience.

Francesca Hurst

Francesca Hurst is a New Music and Classical Pianist and teacher in Washington, DC. 

www.francescahurst.com

 

P is for PPPP –  Plan, Practise, Prepare and Perform!

It’s Spring 2016, and I’ve just been planning my repertoire for concerts in 2017 and 2018. In this post about the Performance of a new piece, let’s begin with the Planning, which starts a long time in advance. Yes, we must be conversant with different periods of music and different styles, but think long-term, play to your strengths and play music you respect, believe in – and enjoy; this will communicate itself to your audience.  Keep learning new repertoire, investigating the unusual as well as the familiar, to keep programmes fresh and interesting.

Then comes the Practice. If a musical performance can be likened to an architectural structure in sound, then the score is the blueprint, and much can be gleaned from studying it away from the instrument. See how the piece is put together; what are the musical motifs which form the building blocks, how are they used, and which sections reappear in different guises? What stylistic features are apparent; to what stage of the composer’s life does the composition belong, what else was he/she writing at the time in other genres, and what does the title tell us? What were the characteristics of the instruments of the day, and what else was going on in the world ?

Having grasped an overview of the piece and ascertained its context, it’s time to start the Practice. Be strategic; learn similar sections simultaneously. I would always start with separate hands and careful fingering in small sections, gradually building into longer sections with hands together when they are fluent. Memorise as you go using not only muscular memory, but an awareness of keys, patterns, harmony and structure.

After learning the piece, we then enter the crucial Preparation stage before the first Performance.  Here we need the aim of a complete play-through some weeks, or even months, before – keep going, no matter what happens. Seek to replicate performance conditions, and try ‘stress-testing’ by getting friends and family to reproduce the noises which seek to distract us in public. Coughing, rustling, mobile phones, glasses clinking… you’ll think of others, I’m sure. Try recording yourself in private or making a video –  anything that raises the expectation and which highlights areas that need reinforcement. Seek out opportunities for trying-out pieces in informal settings. Have a dress rehearsal; ensure that clothes –  and shoes –  are suitable. Brendel writes amusingly of a piano duet performance with Daniel Barenboim wherein he became tangled in Barenboim’s concert outfit; they had rehearsed in their shirtsleeves.

And so – The Performance. Everyone approaches Performance differently; some withdraw into isolation before it, some are gregarious. Find what works for you. Try the piano in advance. Before you play, take deep breaths, smile, walk tall and enjoy! You’ve Planned, Practised and Prepared; be confident.  And afterwards …  Ronald Smith used to say that pieces always improve themselves after the first performance, and he was right. Learn from what went well, note what still needs attention – then move on. Tomorrow is another day.

Christine Stevenson

Christine Stevenson enjoys a distinguished career as a recitalist and concerto soloist in the UK and abroad. She is a Director of the Summer School for Pianists, and is on the staff of the Royal College of Music Junior Department in London.

Her concerts continually draw critical acclaim for her virtuosity, musicianship, and the engaging rapport she establishes with audiences of all ages.

www.christinestevenson.net

www.notesfromapianist.wordpress.com

Meet the Artist……Christine Stevenson

“There is no word to describe it because all the work, all the sacrifices, all the things you put into it, it’s just unbelievable.” (Mo Farrah, double Olympic gold medallist)

You won the gold medal, you achieved the ultimate accolade, you revelled in the euphoria of success, the attention, the adoration of the crowd. You worked hard for this, every day for weeks and months, maybe even years. It’s everything you’ve strived for. You ascend the podium, bow your head to receive the medal on its purple ribbon. You lift the gold medal to your lips and kiss it as a thousand flashbulbs go off all around you…..

During the London 2012 Olympic Games we have witnessed many moments like this, from athletes of all nationalities, who have been successful in their chosen field, and whose hard work and dedication has been rewarded and recognised. But how does it feel the day after the ceremony, and the day after that, a month down the road? The euphoria of winning, of achieving such dizzying heights, soon wears off as you contemplate that early morning start on the track, in the dark, in the rain. As British rower and four-times Olympic gold medal winner Matthew Pinsent admitted in a programme on BBC One ahead of the closing ceremony, after the euphoria has worn off comes the question “what next?”.

Musicians understand and experience these feelings too: the euphoria of live performance is matched by a special kind of depression compounded by a profound tiredness after the event. In the last days and hours before a concert, just like the distance runner or the sprint cyclist, everything you do is geared towards the single-minded responsibility of the main event, a super-human organisation of physical and emotional resources.

A vast amount of energy – mental and physical – is expended in the experience of the performance, and the excitement of the concert fills your every moment in the hours leading up to it. And then, suddenly, it is all over. (Sometimes, when performing, you lose all sense of time passing. I was astonished, when I checked the clock on my mobile phone after my Diploma recital last winter, that a full 45 minutes had passed: it felt like no time at all. And yet, the moment in the Liszt Sonetto when I had a minor memory lapse felt like a lifetime……)

After a performance, you feel drained, your mind is completely out of breath, your body physically depleted. You’re ready for your bed, but you’ve still got to do the PR thing post-concert: meet people, sign programmes and CDs, give interviews. But there’s no time for exhaustion: you have work to do tomorrow – and work is the best antidote to these feelings of depression and tiredness.

“At this low point, we have only to let music itself take charge. For every challenge we can possibly want lies before us in the vast and inexhaustible repertory that cannot but replenish our spirit. For true musicians, depression is temporary because their music is permanent.” (Seymour Bernstein, from ‘With Your Own Two hands’)

For the athletes, there’s not just the next Olympic Games to train for, there are any number of trials, competitions, and world championships to prepare for. The winning of a medal or medals has endorsed all those hours of training, and may even encourage a shift of focus, an adjustment to a tried-and-trusted regime. And for the pianist, there’s the next concert. There’s no future in looking back, going over what has been (a promise I made with myself immediately after my Diploma recital was “no post-mortem!” – I refused to analyse what had happened in the exam room, errors, memory slips, etc., at least not until I received the report and could set any of these issues in context). As performers, we’re only as a good as our last performance, and if that was less than perfect, the best thing is to move on and plan the next performance. We draw strength from our love of the repertoire, our excitement about our individual pieces and the prospect of putting them before an audience. Like the runner on the track, the rider entering the show-jumping arena, the swimmer poised to dive, the performance is what endorses all the hours of practice and preparation, and a fine performance will erase the memory of a bad one.

(a future blog post will focus on performing)

This afternoon is my annual student concert. On one level, this is simply a happy gathering of children, parents, family and friends, and an opportunity for my students to share and show off the music they have been studying recently. The programme, as always, is selected by my students, resulting in an eclectic mix of music, and an indication of the wide variety of repertoire we study. Each performer has chosen pieces which reflect his or her particular tastes and skills – surely the basis for any musician’s selection of repertoire?

On another level, the concert is about sharing music. A professional pianist, who I interviewed some years ago, described performing as “a cultural gift”: a gift to oneself and a gift to those who love to hear the piano and its literature, a sharing of the music between soloist and audience. As a performer, one enjoys a huge responsibility, and privilege, rather like a conservator or curator, in presenting this wonderful music to others.

Performing is a very special experience, and one which I have come to relatively late in my musical career. As a pianist at school I was sidelined, encouraged to learn an orchestral instrument, and to recede into the relative anonymity of first desk clarinet. My then piano teacher never organised concerts for her students, and I only played one festival in my teens (an excruciatingly awful experience). At the last school concert before I left to go to university, I was allowed to play the first movement of a Mozart piano sonata. Apart from that, ‘performing’ was limited to taking piano exams. My current teacher gave me the confidence and self-belief to perform, starting with the informal concerts which she hosts at the end of her twice-yearly piano courses. While not as nerve-wracking as playing in a ‘proper’ concert hall, these concerts have their own special atmosphere and attendant anxieties, but the nicest part is the sense that the audience is there because they love to hear piano music, and at every concert I’ve played at Penelope’s house, I’ve felt this important communication between performer and audience.

Of course, performing is not just about playing pretty pieces to other people. To be a performer, one needs to hone a stage personality which is different from the personality which encourages disciplined, focused practising day in, day out, to prepare repertoire for the performance (pianist and teacher Graham Fitch has blogged about this in detail – read his post here). While one’s onstage personality should never obscure the music, one should be able to present oneself convincingly to the audience – and not just through the medium of the music.

There are all sorts of ‘rituals’ involved in performing: travelling to the venue – by car, train or taxi; the clothes one wears; waiting in the green room (whether an elegant space such as at Wigmore Hall, or a dreary municipal cubicle); then waiting to go on stage, behind a door, or a plush velvet curtain, just offstage, pulse racing, real fear now passed, only excited anticipation, and enough adrenaline coursing through the veins to propel one onto the stage. Then the door opens, the curtain swings back, and the adventure of the performance has already begun as one crosses the stage. Applause: the audience’s way of greeting one, and, in return, a bow, one’s way of acknowledging the audience. And now, isolated at the keyboard, the full nine feet of concert grand stretched before one, ready to begin, the brief moment before starting a work resembles nothing else. One has a sense of the awesome formality of the occasion, the responsibility, the knowledge that, once begun, the performance cannot be withdrawn. It identifies the music, singles it out for scrutiny: it is irrevocable. All these things combined are the ‘adventure’ of performing.

Whether my students will have a sense of this ‘adventure’ this afternoon I am not sure. I know some are very nervous: one of my students has never performed in one of my concerts before, and to help with her anxiety, I have placed her near the start in the running order, so she can play her piece and then sit back and enjoy the rest of the occasion. Others, who have been learning with me almost as long as I’ve been teaching, betray no nerves and seem to actively enjoy the chance to ‘show off’ to family and friends. Some play with real chutzpah and flair, others prefer to simply play the notes, but each and every performance will be unique, special and memorable. I should probably remember to take some tissues!

Normansfield Theatre, Teddington, where I hold my student concerts