In this guest post Roman Rabinovich explores the interrelationship between the visual and performing arts and composition

Ever since I was a kid I have loved creating things, whether sculptures out of randomly found objects and dirt (I didn’t yet know about Robert Rauschenberg), improvising little character pieces on the piano, or compulsively drawing my family members and friends. It seemed at first that these were unrelated and separate activities, but I soon realised that they all came from the same impulse – the need to create my own emotional world in which I could freely express myself. I imagine that most kids are like this, but sadly many stop as they grow older.

I come from a family of musicians and piano playing was the only activity for which I had proper teachers, so I would say I’m primarily a pianist who also paints and composes. That is not to say that I’m less serious about painting and writing music. In fact, I had a difficult time deciding what I would do when I grew up. I’m happy I didn’t have to choose.

Performing and composing are two seemingly different processes. We perform music that composers notate with black dots on the page. However, these black dots are not music. Music emerges only when a performer transforms notation into real sound. A performer’s goal is to get into the composer’s world and mind, similar to an actor who seeks to inhabit a character role. We are taught to analyse a composer’s every mark with uncompromising detail and base our interpretation on the clues the composer leaves us in the score. But just following what’s written in the score is not enough. A compelling performance breathes life into and shines new light on a work. In this sense, performance becomes an act of creation. The process begins with imagining the sound in one’s mind. Fingers are the last factor. As András Schiff said, “fingers are just the soldiers, the General is the mind”.

In composition, on the other hand, there are no instructions; the possibilities are endless. There are rules of counterpoint, voice-leading and form, but the whole “game” is about creating one’s own rules and then breaking them. Every piece follows a different process and it has its own inner logic so there are no shortcuts. Sometimes the process is quick and smooth but more often it is painfully slow and daunting. I feel that it is quite unproductive to impose ideas on a piece. It has to unfold naturally and it takes time for the narrative to unveil itself. When in a state of flow, it feels like a piece writes itself, and as a composer I just listen to what it has to say.

Composing helps me understand how the great masterpieces were crafted. Through this process I also learn so much about myself. I love making these “sound sculptures” and I love the struggle it takes to create art: to be completely lost and not know how to proceed; to try out different options before gradually landing on the right solution. It is a fun way to spend a day. When I wake up, the first thing I do is go straight to the piano. It is a productive time to improvise and explore musical ideas while the brain and the body wake up. There is no inhibition, expectation, nor doubt yet. Often after a few hours of work I hit a wall and it is very helpful to take a walk. Somehow things come into focus when you are outside and moving. No wonder most composers were avid walkers.

I have always been fascinated with painting because, unlike music, it is permanent. The main difference between visual art and music is the perception of time. Music unfolds in real time. When you experience a live concert and the last chord ends, that’s it, it will only remain in your memory. With visual art you take time to absorb it. You can go away, come back and the painting will still be there, unchanged. You change; the painting doesn’t. Taking time is part of your experiencing it. One of my favourite things is to look at a painting, analyse it, and try to figure out how a great master organised two-dimensional space and made it look three-dimensional. In the last few years I’ve been making images on my iPad. It’s a new and exciting medium, and it works differently from paints on a canvas, because you are drawing with light. It is a completely different sensation. When you are drawing on paper or painting on canvas there is a limit to the number of layers before it starts to look overdone. In a similar way, a musical passage can be out of balance if there are too many notes in a chord and all the notes are played with the same volume, making it difficult for the listener to know what to listen for. With digital painting, you have unlimited layers and textures at your disposal.

Just like music, painting is about space and spatial relationships. Our perception of sound changes in relation to the space we are in. We have a visceral reaction to it. The same music will be perceived entirely differently depending on the venue in which it is performed – a small chapel will sound worlds apart from a 3,000-seat hall. Similarly, a painting’s effect is totally dependent on the space, lighting and framing around it.

Music is an abstract language and most of the time it doesn’t need any help from other art forms. However, sometimes I find it useful to visualise structures in music, especially if it is a long and complex piece. For example, when one plays a Bach fugue, one can envision a great cathedral and observe it from the bottom to the top. It all starts with one brick at a time, as with one voice at the beginning of a fugue, and slowly, layer by layer, develops into a marvellous structure. Similarly to decorative art, which has threads or visual motives, composers like to develop pieces from small and simple cells.

In my piece ‘Memory Box’, a suite of six miniatures which I performed at my recent Wigmore Hall recital, music and art merged. The opening movement, “Forgotten dreams”, is based on one of my oil paintings, and part of a series called Memory Box. My piano piece came out of the same creative impulse as these paintings – they are cousins, if you will. In this work I explored the theme of dreams, fantasies and the subconscious. Both the music and the painting are quite fragmented. They are full of gestures and bits and pieces that never seem to resolve and evoke a dream-like state.

Despite the discipline and the daily work routine, it is important for me that whatever I create comes from a place of spontaneity and playfulness. We must not forget to have fun and stay curious. For me, the initial impulse in a creative act has to be instinctive, whether it is improvising or just throwing colours at a canvas. I want to see how the art materials respond, or how the notes react. I can edit things later, but I try to compose with no concrete thoughts – they are often distracting and limit the imagination. I like to keep the integrity of this initial impulse as much as possible. We live in a crazy world full of distractions and it is rare to have a moment of quiet, a moment of being fully present. Art is a very powerful thing and it can give these moments, this sense of purpose to anyone at anytime.

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Roman Rabinovich was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan; raised in Israel; and is now based in the USA. A multifaceted musician, praised by the New York Times for his “uncommon sensitivity and feeling”, Rabinovich is also a composer and visual artist, and often creates artwork to enhance his musical performances.

Full details at: www.romanrabinovich.net

Meet the Artist……Roman Rabinovich

Guest article by Shirley Smith Kirsten

Facebook was abuzz with reminders of George Li’s touchdown in the Bay Area’s glittering Davies concert hall, a venue that absorbs a splash of pastel beams from the neighboring flagship government building. Glass panels reflect back montages of color that provide a rush of excitement for ticket holders slipping into seats right under the bell.

FB “friends” and faithful George “followers” were page-alerted to a ‘meet and greet’ event in the lobby following the recital. It would be a shower of support for a pianist we’d seen and heard by livestream from exotic locations including Moscow and Verbier. Frames in progress had included George’s Silver Medal triumph at the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, magnified on computer screens around the world!

***

The Back Story

From my humble perch in Berkeley, I’d set aside 75 conscientious minutes to get to Davies Hall. It was a conservative travel measure, given lax Sunday train schedules and my propensity to get mired in Civic Center traffic as a clueless pedestrian in foreign urban terrain. (San Francisco’s maze of complex street crossings and intersections, bundled in congestion, had always seriously confused me, impeding on-foot progress in any direction).

Yet, despite well-intended, precautionary travel efforts, I couldn’t have anticipated a vexing single platform BART crisis that launched a crescendo of complications right up to my shaky finish line arrival at Davies. There, at its entrance, my concert companion/adult piano student stood patiently, dispatching block-to-block text messages to keep me on track.

With good luck and concerted teamwork, we made it to our first tier balcony seats just as George advanced toward a shining model D Steinway grand.

It was a pure bliss erasure of prior travails:

Melted deceptive cadences rippled through a crystalline rendering of Haydn’s B minor Sonata (No. 30) as trills and ornaments immaculately decorated clear melodic lines in a liquid outpouring of phrases. The middle Minuet movement was charmingly played passing with grace to a culminating Presto in brisk, bravura tempo with unswerving attention to line, shape, and contour.

Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata in F minor, op. 57, followed with tonal variation and keen structural awareness. The performance was both gripping and directional, wrapped in ethereal tonal expression.

Li’s singular sound autograph permeates his performances amidst an array of varying nuances and articulations. He has what pianist, Uchida terms “charisma” and a singular tonal personality.

Meaning and musical context are core ingredients of Li’s artistry and his wide palette of colors are at his liquid disposal through deeply felt effusions of expression. (While Li is a natural, intuitional performer, his sensitive fusion of aesthetics and intellect is always on display, exposed, as well in media interviews.)

A Presto Classical set of queries elicited thoughtful responses.

http://www.prestoclassical.co.uk/interview/1893/George-Li-Live-at-the-Mariinsky

***

The Davies Hall recital, continued after Intermission with a rippling roll-out of works by Rachmaninoff and Liszt, all imbued with a permeating spirit of mature music-making that’s intrinsic to Li’s ongoing ripening process. And as a cap to a memorable evening of inspired artistry, George played his final encore – a pyro-technically charged Bizet/Carmen transcription that drove listeners to their feet in a chorus of BRAVOS!!!

(This snapshot was provided by a friend who had permission to publicly post it, thanks to Li’s generosity and that of his representatives)

In a culminating MEET and GREET event, post-recital, audience members had an opportunity to share IN PERSON enthusiasm and appreciation of George’s artistry, while purchasing the artist’s newly released CD.

For me, a tete a tete with George, provided an opportunity to thank him for his generosity as a teen when he delivered well-conceived responses to my reams of technically framed questions about practicing, technique, and repertoire.

https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/my-interview-with-george-li-a-seasoned-pianist-at-16/

Finally, here’s an encore of gratitude to George for his inspired love of music, and for his reach into our hearts with each memorable performance. Come back soon!


 

Shirley Smith Kirsten is an American pianist and teacher who blogs at arioso7.wordpress.com

Polish-Hungarian pianist Piotr Anderszewski was photographed and interviewed by Humans of New York, a blog (and bestselling book) featuring portraits and interviews collected on the streets of New York City. Founded in November 2010 by photographer Brandon Stanton, the blog has a huge following via social media.

Piotr Anderszewski, a pianist I much admire in particular for his sensitive and thoughtful approach to the keyboard music of J S Bach, is a famously perfectionist and selective about the music he plays. By his own admission, he “cannot play just anything” and chooses to perform only those composers he feels a strong urge to play. By the standards of most pianists active today his repertoire is regarded as “narrow”, but it is this limited focus which results in playing which is both fastidious (without fussiness) and spontaneous, and such spontaneity is clearly the result of a long association with the music coupled with a patient, thoughtful study of it. I was fortunate to meet Mr Anderszewski after his Wigmore Hall concert in February 2016: he was quietly-spoken and modest in accepting glowing praise for his playing. During the green room conversation, he mentioned taking a sabbatical in order to study some new repertoire and that he might soon be “getting to know” Schubert better, something I look forward to with great interest when he returns to the concert platform.

Speaking to Humans of New York, Anderszewski offers insights into the life of the concert pianist, performing and his approach to interpretation and communication with his audiences.


Piotr Anderszewski 25th anniversary concert at Wigmorr Hall

(photo: K Miura)

In a concert celebrating 25 years since his Wigmore Hall debut, Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski presented a programme of music with which he is most at home – works by Bach, Schumann and Szymanowski, with an encore by Janáček. By his own admission, Anderszewski “cannot play just anything” and chooses to perform only those composers he feels a strong urge to play. By the standards of most pianists active today his repertoire might be regarded as “narrow”, but it is this limited focus which results in playing which is both fastidious (without fussiness) and spontaneous, and such spontaneity is clearly the result of a long association with the music coupled with a patient, thoughtful study of it.
Read my full review

Acclaimed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes has been spending a lot of time with Beethoven: four years in fact, as Andsnes has journeyed physically and metaphorically through the five piano concerti to understand and interpret one of the greatest sets of works for piano ever written. This extraordinary journey ended, perhaps appropriately, at this year’s Proms, the greatest festival of classical music on the planet, where Andsnes performed to a packed Royal Albert Hall.

Along the way, Andsnes has been followed by award-winning film-maker Phil Grabsky and his Seventh Art team, and the result is a remarkably absorbing, insightful and beautifully-crafted portrait of both pianist and music. Following the chronology of the five concerti, we hear directly from this articulate and intelligent musician as he speaks honestly and humbly about the unique characteristics of each concerto, the development of Beethoven’s artistic vision, and his personal connection with this music. His decision to devote four years of his life to one single composer, and specifically the five piano concerti, is clearly one he relishes and he speaks of his special relationship with the music of Beethoven, which developed when he was still a young performer. We see Andsnes working with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (with whom he has also recorded these works), practising at home and interacting with other musicians, including the conductor Gustavo Dudamel, as well as friends, colleagues and family. These interactions are mirrored by glimpses, though Beethoven’s letters, of the relationship between the composer and his world. Detailed footage from the concerts in Prague forms the main structure of the film, offering the viewer wonderful shots of both pianist and orchestral musicians at work, as well as a fascinating insight into the day-to-day life of a busy international performing and recording artist.

Part composer biography, part personal diary, this intelligent and accessible film is a must for anyone who loves this music, or who has enjoyed Andsnes in concert or on disc. The film is released on 7th September and is being screened at selected cinemas across the UK (details of screenings here). View a trailer of the film:

Director Phil Grabsky says “I knew this exclusive journey with Leif Ove would allow me access to great performance – but I had no idea it would be this great. These became the best reviewed concerts of the past few years and I was on stage to record them. Even more importantly the music and Leif Ove’s intelligent and accessible insight creates a staggeringly interesting new biography of arguably the greatest composer of all time. (source: Seventh Art press release).

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?  

I started to play the piano at a very early age (I was 4 years old). I can’t remember exact details but my parents were telling me that every time I saw a piano, I always wanted to play on it. It was even hard to pull me out of it once I started playing. Then they decided to buy me a real piano at home. My father was a professional musician, a teacher and a child prodigy. His name was Georgi Stavrev. He played the violin, the guitar and his big dream later was to be a symphony conductor but he got very sick. I remember listening to classical music at home all the time (especially Brahms, Beethoven, Bach) and always playing the piano. Sometimes my dad would play The Beatles, Queen, Aretha Franklin and jazz but it was mostly classical music that I was surrounded by at home and at school. Music was just a part of my life and I was born at the right musical family where I was lucky to have my parents support to pursue music as a career from early age. There was music at home, music at school, I was going all the time to the school’s concerts, the festivals concerts and the local Symphony concerts. I was in an intensive professional music program for children since the age of 4. When my parents moved to Plovdiv two years later, I started working with the renowned pedagogue Mrs. Rositsa Ivancheva at the National Music School “Dobrin Petkov”. She is a major influence and she was my piano teacher for 13 years. During my last 3-4 years of music school, I started lessons also with Prof. Krassimir Gatev at the National Conservatory in Sofia (while studying in Plovdiv with Mrs. Ivancheva). I miss both of these incredible teachers because they left the world just few years ago…

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

Important influences from the past: growing up I was very inspired to listen to the interpretations of Horowitz, Richter, Gilels, Pogorelich, Van Cliburn, and Rubinstein. They all have influenced my musical life for years and here is an example how: after hearing Scriabin’s 3rd Sonata (performed by Horowitz) I immediately got inspired to learn it. I had big success with it at concerts and competitions. Later Horowitz inspired me to learn also Vers la Flamme and the Barber Sonata (my recordings of these works are all on YouTube).

New influences: 1) working with new composers (Mason Bates, Gil Shohat, Vasil Kazandjiev, Carl Vine, Penka Kouneva, Nikolai Kapustin etc.) – what is amazing about this, is that there are not that many recordings of these composers’ works. Often, there are even no recordings at all – which means that I have to learn the work on my own (can’t listen to another pianist to get inspired). This is a direction I would like to continue – to create from my inner self rather than get inspired by somebody else’s interpretation. 2) Contemporary pianists: I’ve had the pleasure to work with and share musical ideas with pianists such as Daniel Pollack and Frederick Chiu, whose unique program “Deeper Performance Studies” is a major influence on my musical life and career.

Acting: It might sound strange but acting had an important influence on me too. During my time in Bulgaria I also had 5 years of private acting training. I couldn’t do both – theater school and music school so I was taking acting lessons only privately and secretly (my parents didn’t allow me to study acting but I decided to do it anyway lol). Acting opened a special door in me as an artist and it helped me even further with music – being able to perform with imagination, to “speak”/connect to the audience, to transform into a different character depending on which composer/piece I am working on. These are classes musicians don’t learn at music conservatories and they help very much with interpretation and stage presence. In Bulgaria I was trained by the Stanislavski’s system and I am a similar performer when it comes to my piano works – I get very emotionally involved in the content. I feel that all the arts are connected within each other. They are like different languages we would like to learn or explore but only one is our mother language and in my case it is music.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

Finances. When I first moved to the USA it was very difficult learning how to support myself, to rely on myself, to take care of myself all by myself. I was only 18 or 19 years old. I didn’t know anybody when I first moved to Boston, I wasn’t used to the language too. I had $20 cash in my pocket, two suitcases, a full scholarship and lots of dreams. The full scholarship covered my tuition and school fees but I had to work the max hours possible in order to pay by myself for rent/dorm, living expenses, etc. There was a law that freshman must live on campus during the 1st year. I wasn’t informed about it while in Bulgaria. I found out about it when I arrived. International students on a student visa F-1 were allowed to work only on campus, no more than 20h per week for only $8h. Imagine if this is really enough to pay $1500 per month for dorm required by the school (basically 3 girls in one room) without living expenses and if that would allow the needed time to focus on practice, studies, go to classes, etc. The stress was incredible! To keep long story short – my college years were some of the most difficult times ever in my life where I faced some serious challenges.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?  

Recordings: My upcoming debut album titled “Rhythmic Movement” to be released this coming fall, depending on finances. It features music by Bulgarian composers Pancho and Alexander Vladigerov, Mason Bates, Ginastera, Kapustin and I composed 2 works as well. A lot of the pieces on the program for July 25th at the 1901 Arts Club are also on the album.

Performances: it’s hard to point just one. I would say probably my Carnegie Hall/Weil debut. Harris Goldsmith was one of the critics reviewing the concert and this debut basically was the start of a real career. Another performance I will never forget was a multimedia at a modern space in NYC featuring music, live body painting and photography. I like to experiment with the idea of synesthesia and connect my art to other artists work.

Which particular works do you think you perform best? 

The ones that I practice the most! Also the ones that I’m spiritually connected to and the ones I have something meaningful and something special to say. I also believe that music (art in general) is a reflection on personal life and that’s one of the reasons my programs are very unique. The program on July 25th features works that are very close to my hearth. Each piece is very special and very meaningful to me.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season? 

My repertoire ranges from Baroque to Contemporary. Sometimes concert presenters would ask me to play anything I would like to put on a program but sometimes they would specify if they have any specific preferences. For example when I performed at the French Cultural Center, the entire program had to focus on featuring French and French influenced composers. When I performed at the Bulgarian Center in New England, I performed works by all Bulgarian classical composers. New music concert series require all contemporary composers programs and other presenters prefer more traditional (Bach, Beethoven, Chopin) type of programs and more well-known composers.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? 

In New York: I just recently performed at the Tenri Cultural Institute in New York – a beautiful and intimate concert venue and a gallery in West Village. I love the area (West Village in Manhattan), I also love art (the fact that it is a gallery) and that the setting is intimate (it allows a closer connection with the audience). There is a very good energy about the space and location and I just feel excited and comfortable performing there.

In Bulgaria: I was born in Sofia but my hometown is Plovdiv. There is a very unique amphitheater from Roman times in the center of the city that in the summer features film nights, concerts, dance performances, operas, etc. This would be a very magical place to perform – under the starts! The view from there is amazing too. I’ve never seen a piano on that stage but maybe one day soon… I started dreaming already

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

To perform: Right now I’m really into Schumann, I’m working on the piano concerto. Last month I was into Vladigerov. My current favorite pieces are the ones on the program for July 25th at the 1901 Arts Club but I assure you that I’m going to have more new favorites soon since I keep searching for new inspirations all the time 🙂

To listen to: I love “Gaspard de la nuit” (performed by Pogorelich), Scriabin’s 5th sonata (performed by Horiwitz), Beethoven – “Appasionata” (performed by Richter), Brahms – the 1st Piano Concerto (performed by Claudio Arrau), Prokofiev – the 2nd and 3rd Piano Concertos, works by Bach (especially when Glenn Gould performs them), Sonata for Violin and Piano (by composer Milcho Leviev). I love listening to orchestral music too: Daphne’s Cloe, Stravinsky – Firebird, Mason Bates – Alrernative energy. I also enjoy listening to jazz (Bill Evans, Miles Davis), some rock (a lot of British bands)

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Deceased favorite musicians: Bach, Richter, Horowitz, Gilels, Claudio Abbado, Evgeny Mravinsky, Rubinstein, Ginastera, Beethoven, Leonard Bernstein, Anton Dikov, Krassimir Gatev, Maria Callas, Freddie Mercury,

Living/contemporary favorite musicians: Joshua Bell, Keith Lockhart, Ricardo Mutti, Mason Bates, Vasil Kazandjiev, Yo-Yo Ma, Frederic Chiu, Daniel Pollack, Evgeny Kissin, Martha Argerich, Penka Kuneva, Will Calhoun, Matthew Bellamy,

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Concert Hall: the Grammy Museum Auditorium (Clive Davis Theater) – I was a part of a great mix of artists and musical genres. I loved the red curtains at the back and the lightning.

Rock club: probably when I opened for Amanda Palmer at the Webster Hall in NYC. This is memorable since I got to play Ginastra in a rock club introducing the composer and a movement from his 1st sonata to several hundred fans of Amanda’s that never knew that classical music could sound like that. 😀 A lot of my friends from school were telling me that I was crazy and that this could affect my good reputation. It was fun. It’s a different type of energy on such stage. I like making classical music more accessible to untraditional audiences as well. Did you know that the British band ELP arranged the “Toccata” from the piano concerto by Ginastera and played it for Ginastera? He loved it and he said that this is how his music should be played

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

To be present in life and also when they perform on stage, to be very strong, not to be afraid to take risks and experiment with new ideas, to take a good care of themselves (eat well, sleep well, exercise, meditate, stay healthy), to know what they want and from there to know what they give and why, to perform live as much as possible, to stay always inspired and motivated, to never give up, even when they face difficulties.

Where would you like to be in 10 years?

To travel the world while living in the present moment

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being present. You can tell that I am into meditation. Often the things we want are not the things that make us happy, even when we get what we want. There is something called “the wanting mind” that will never stop wanting no matter what we get. I feel happy the most when I do something to make somebody feel happy. I get happiness when I give happiness. Actually, when I give, sometimes I get even more than I expected.

What is your most treasured possession?

We don’t owe anything forever. We temporarily have things and people. We are even temporarily in our bodies. Greatest values in my life are my dearest friends, being surrounded by people who care about me and love me and people who made a difference in my life. But I don’t owe them, I’m just lucky to have them in my life…

What do you enjoy doing most?

Being on stage, collaborating with amazing artists, musicians, creating and sharing

Tania Stavreva performs in London at the 1901 Arts Club, 7 Exton Street, London SE1, on Saturday 25th July. The concert includes the UK premiere of her ‘Rhythmic Movement in 7/8’ as well as premieres of works by other composers. Further details and tickets here

More information about Tania here