Guest post by Rhonda Rizzo
When did I begin my love affair with the music of living composers? The moment I found Yvar Mikhashoff’s ‘Incitation to Desire’ CD of tango music for the piano. The smoky cover, the provocative title track – I was caught before I listened to a single piece. Ah, and what a collection! Tangos from multiple eras and in multiple styles. Tangos that spoke of something illicit, a smoky world of furtive late-night romance, smoky dance halls, and sensuality. These tangos represented a freedom I craved – freedom from the performance practice expectations of standard repertoire, and freedom from the years of insecurities and assumptions I brought to the music I’d been playing my whole life. Tangos broke the rules. I’d never danced a tango in my life, but I knew I needed to make music with the freedom I heard in these pieces.
I’d never worked on music by a living composer before I found this CD, but my love of this music was such that I set about tracking down the scores of my favourite pieces. Many of the tangos were unpublished, which meant I wrote to the composer to purchase a copy. Scott Pender’s tango, ‘Ms Jackson Dances for the World’ was one of these. After I received it, Scott and I kept corresponding. We became friends and have remained so for over a decade. And I loved his music – so much so that I eventually played, performed, and taught most of what he’s written for the piano. Ironically, although Chester Biscardi’s ‘Incitation to Desire’ was easier to find (it was published), I never felt I got inside it well enough to perform it publicly. It sat in my music collection, its provocative title and gorgeous writing teasing me with the promise of something I couldn’t quite grasp.
It took me over a decade to put ‘Incitation to Desire’ on a concert programme. I think this was because I needed to live more before I truly understood it. I needed to go tango dancing and feel the freedom and sensuality of the Argentine tango in my bones. I needed to perform and record Piazzolla tangos with my duo partner Molly Wheeler. And, on a deeper level, I needed to break a whole lot of rules. I needed to experience the judgment that comes from choosing to leave a marriage that had been on life-support for years. I needed to experience being swept off my feet by an unexpected grown-up romance that changed my entire life. In other words, I needed to know freedom before I could play it on the piano.
Because ‘Incitation to Desire’ is about sensuality and freedom. Much like the Argentine dance, it relies on the pianist’s ability to instinctively feel their way through the score. This piece begs to be played almost as an improvisation – just the same way that the Argentine tango is danced. It’s the pianist and the piano and the interplay of notes – sensuous, slinky, unapologetic. Chester Biscardi asks for a flexible interpretation of dynamics and tempi. I take this to mean that that this piece is best played from the senses, not the brain; instinct, not reason. In other words, you can’t play this music until you let yourself be seduced by it.
It was my No Dead Guys post about (and YouTube recording of) ‘Incitation to Desire’ that prompted Chester Biscardi to email and tell me how much he enjoyed my performance of it. That correspondence led to me learning ‘In Time’s Unfolding’ and ‘Companion Piece (for Morton Feldman)’, two pieces that, ironically, I still feel I had more of an innate understanding of than the tango that introduced me to Chester’s music. Best of all, Chet and I kept corresponding, and that correspondence blossomed into another friendship that I cherish.
I’ve never coached a student on ‘Incitation to Desire’; I’m not sure it can be done without introducing topics to a lesson that can get an instructor arrested. Furthermore, because it’s so improvisatory, the key to playing this piece well lies within each pianist’s personal experience. If they’ve lived it, they can play it. If not, no amount of musicianship or technique will bring this piece to life. I can, however, offer some general guidelines on how to navigate the score:
1) Don’t be in a hurry. This is slowly unfolding, sensuous music that can’t be forced by the pianist. All forward momentum must come from the sense that the power of the moment itself is what propels the music forward.
2) Don’t dig in too deeply on the scale passages. These are flourishes, the twirl of a tango skirt, a spin. They’re caresses, not demands.
3) Don’t start your accelerando too quickly at m. 29; you’ve got a very long way to do before you hit the end of it. This – like everything else in the piece – should feel inevitable and effortless.
4) Pay very close attention to the pedalling; it makes or breaks the piece.
5) If you’ve never danced the Argentine tango, watch some videos of it. This will explain the start/stop, slow/fast, gesture-driven nature of the score.
6) When you play it, drop all expectations of the piece, surrender to the music, and let it take you where it wants to go.
Sometimes the best way to find ourselves is to break a bunch of rules. Incitation to Desire gave me the permission I needed to follow my instincts rather than others’ expectations. It seduced me into a lifelong passion for the music of living composers. And even today, it reminds me to let moments and situation unfold naturally; it reminds me that the richest life (and my best playing) lies in releasing rigidity and entering the messy, beautiful, passionate dance of earthy, real life with my hands and heart wide open.
Rhonda (Ringering) Rizzo is a writer and a former performing and recording pianist. Her novel, The Waco Variations, was released in the summer of 2018, and her numerous articles have appeared in national and international music magazines, including Pianist Magazine, American Music Teacher, Clavier, Piano & Keyboard, and Flute Talk. A specialist in music that borrows from both classical and jazz traditions, Rizzo 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.
She holds a BA from Walla Walla University and a MM from Boston University and is a passionate advocate of new music and living composers.
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