[Article first published as On Minimalism: Repetition and Change on Blogcritics.]
Minimalism — Dictionary.com defines the movement as “a reductive style or school of modern music utilizing only simple sonorities, rhythms, and patterns, with minimal embellishment or orchestrational complexity, and characterized by protracted repetition of figurations, obsessive structural rigor, and often a pulsing, hypnotic effect.”
Two years ago, I wrote a blog post about the experience of hearing Philip Glass’s “Mad Rush” at a concert, and noted back then that this was music that could be extremely beautiful both in its attractive textures, consonance, and hypnotism. On the other hand, I found it an extremely limited musical language. Lately, I’ve been thinking again about the appeal of minimalism, especially as I program John Corigliano’s “Fantasia on an Ostinato” for some upcoming concerts.
In trying to explain the rise of minimalism, Kyle Gann wrote that minimalism was an expected return to simpler forms after serialism, or music both extremely difficult to compose and hear, had run its course. But while serialism may be an extremely difficult listening experience, and a disorienting one at that, minimalism poses its own challenges to the listener even with all its seeming tonality. John Corigliano, who dabbled in minimalistic techniques in his 1985 piano composition “Fantasia on an Ostinato,” wrote,
I approached this task with mixed feelings about the contemporary phenomenon known as minimalism, for while I admire its emphasis on attractive textures and its occasional ability to achieve a hypnotic quality (not unlike some late Beethoven), I do not care for its excessive repetition, its lack of architecture and its overall emotional sterility.
I’ve listened to “Mad Rush” multiple times since then, and this piece seems to reinforce all the negative aspects of minimalism that Corigliano describes. While it does have an attractive texture and is undeniably hypnotic, the repetition is exhausting. The effect was exacerbated in the concert hall, where one at least feels implicitly expected to engage with the music actively, and that failure to do so is a direct reflection on one’s inadequate attention span and poor listening skills. Or could the music be to blame? The piece cycles through four simple sections that are repeated over and over in various orders for about 13-15 minutes. The hypnotism makes it too easy for one to feel estranged from it. Is that too much to ask of the listener? Repetition may be a form of change, and some may find it delightful to listen to the nuances in a similar phrase for any length of time, but I think that repetition can feel like a sign of stasis, especially in a work where the sections seem to simply follow one another rather than leading into each other.
Minimalism works in a piece like “Fantasia on an Ostinato,” which uses bits of minimalism within the context of a more structured piece — a means to an end rather than mere cycles of repetition. The hypnotism is used in small doses very artfully.
“Phrygian Gate” by John Adams is another example. This 25 minute piece cycles through the various modes in the circle of fifths. This piece is more directionally oriented, with different motives and attacks. The sense of purpose keeps it varying enough for listeners to be attentive, though 25 minutes may be a lot to ask of anyone to listen with intent. How would one program such a work? By extension, would the idea of an all-minimalist program be realistic? Do we have the attention span?
Repetition is a form of change. This quote brings with it the implication that minimalist music can be an invigorating listening experience. Does this mean retraining oneself to be more mindful of the constant recreation involved in these repetitions?
Then again, listening to five different new releases of Beethoven sonatas for upcoming reviews, one wonders, what is the appeal in doing more of these?
I think it’s fascinating to see the degree to which different kinds of artists are inspired by music. In literature, poems like T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, techniques like the sprung rhythm in Victorian poet’s Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnets, or the novella The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy are testament to that fact. But what about visual art? We’ve already seen in John Cage’s Notations that the visual element can be an important aspect in these composers’ attempts to represent sound. It’s equally fascinating to see how various visual artists were likewise inspired by music.
Teri Malo is a painter based in Boston, Massachusetts, and a constant commenter and visitor to the blog. Upon seeing the lovely paintings on her blog, I noticed that a recurrent theme of Teri’s paintings is the relationship of visual art to music, and how certain qualities of music (tonal areas, forms) corresponds to qualities in a painting. Another interest of hers is water, from her Land and Sea paintings to her Pond series and, most interesting to me as a musician, her Water Music series, which explores how the ocean, a painting, and music could be related.
In the ongoing Water Music Series, I started by painting waves and the sea, but quickly found that the relationship between the movement of water and rhythms in music, especially the music of Philip Glass, haunted me. Some of the paintings are concerned with rhythm, some are more about color – all are about creating harmonious environments.
What is great about her blog is that she includes a paragraph about “painting techniques” at the end of many posts, giving the background for each painting, or how something about music informed her approach. Granted, I am not a painter or a visual artist of any kind, so I appreciate the opportunity to learn more about the subtleties that went into the work.
For instance, in Song in a Key for Lucent Green, she looks at how “the purity, or saturation, of a color influences its impact.” Granted, many may think that it is a little odd to call something that is not music to be in a “key” and seems at first glance to be an overreaching for a musical context. This is especially true in literature, where it’s hard to relate words to tonal areas. However, in paintings, I think it can works. Teri explains how the color is something like the key of a piece — it affects how we perceive the piece and colors our emotional perception of it. The piece, of light penetrating the surface to the bottom, along with the downward thrust of the wave, is informed by the green, a dark, almost unusual green to which the eye is drawn. It’s also fascinating how this “green” is developed. There are little splotches of yellow on the bottom, darker greens, maybe a little bit of aquamarine, white, and the tiny details of all the little bubbles. These different elements all contribute to our impression of the overall picture, not to mention the “lucent,” or luminous quality of the painting. In the same way, the tonality of a piece, or lack of it, can inform our understanding and emotional reaction to it.
Water Music – On the Dispersal of Notes is more abstract. The painting looks at the subtlety of notes, and wonders where notes go when they leave their staffs.
Notes float away from their point of origin, but the keystroke can whisper, echo for a long time, and leave a trail of muted colors and nuances of feeling.
The painting to me evokes the feeling of being underwater (notice the gradient). I liked how the droplets, related to the subtlety of notes, were small and more subdued. The palette she uses seems to be very varied, evocative of this “trail of muted colors.”
Another interesting series within the Water Music series is the Crescendos portfolio. These are investigations into the energy of a wave and its movement. The titling doesn’t necessarily have to be an explicit theoretical relation of music to water, but I think it is a good title for something that is a natural progression both in music and in the build up, crash, and descent of a wave. I think these paintings are especially lovely, and Teri is very skilled at capturing the nuances of a wave suspended in the moment of release: the minuscule water droplets in the spray, the color of the wave at its peak, the silky texture of the water, and the movement of the currents underneath.
What ultimately comes through is that there can be something deeply musical in the rhythms of nature; in the graceful rhythmic push and pull near the shoreline, or in the more unpredictable wildness of a storm, and I think that Teri gives her viewers a nuanced look at the relationship between both.
Teri also has a new exhibition entitled Along the Blue Margins that is opening at Arden Gallery on June 5, 2012! It will run through June 30. The location is 129 Newbury Street in Boston, Massachusetts for anyone that’s interested. I also recommend readers to check out the rest of the paintings on her blog, which has many more paintings of the same type, as well as information about open studios and exhibitions.
*Pictures are used with the artist’s permission.
I think it’s really easy to give composer John Cage a bad rap. Water Music? 4’33”? This is music that seems to be deliberately purposeless; avant-garde to the extreme. Much of his music can be likened to the practice of throwing paint on a canvas and surveying the chaos. It’s controversial. It’s confusing. It can be very difficult to listen to or enjoy.
It’s also incredibly exciting in its own ways for its own reasons, and even though it’s rare to see John Cage programming, John Cage has his enthusiasts. Check out this blog post about by Norman Lebrecht of Slipped Disc about a recent programming of John Cage’s Europeras 1 and 2. All six performances were (surprisingly) sold out. Lebrecht said, “It makes you wonder why more organisations don’t take a risk on John Cage.”
Perhaps John Cage programming is still selling out for good reason. Although his music doesn’t make sense, and even though it can be argued that one of the “selling” points of his music is its senselessness, there’s something thrilling about music that can be made out of radios: both in the possibility of the soundscape, as well as in the satirical jab (according to Alex Ross) at the cacophony of modernity. Musicologist James Pritchett outlines in his 2009 article “What Silence Taught John Cage: The Story of 4′ 33″” many of the themes that made Cage famous. “Sounds are just sounds, all equally valid; that a composer acts as experimenter, discovering new sonic possibilities; that it is important to use twentieth-century technologies to create twentieth-century music.” The famous and controversial 4’33” is an example of such experimentation; a piece that is perhaps more than just merely the evidence of a destructive avant-garde where the movement implodes into nothingness. The silent concert hall devolves into the dissatisfied shiftings of a confused audience, and the ambient sounds in the stillness, and these reactions are what makes the piece, more than the silence.
Although those that believe that all worthwhile music has to have an exalted purpose of some kind may balk at this, this thought process has its merits. Though easy to dismiss as the experiments of a madman, this music can also reveal something about cultivating a listening awareness of the world around. John Cage in his composition/lecture “Where are we going? And what are we doing?” said,
…when we actually set to work, a kind of avalanche came about which corresponded not at all with that beauty which had seemed to appear to us as an objective. Where do we go then? . . . Well what we do is go straight on; that way lies, no doubt, a revelation. I had no idea this was going to happen. I did have an idea something else would happen. Ideas are one thing and what happens another.
The ongoing revelation involved in chance music can bring with it a certain excitement.
John Cage’s Notations, a collection of scores and quotes from a variety of different composers, is a museum of mid-century notation following many of the same principles of chance music, revelation, and the expansion of the musical landscape. The book collects music manuscripts accompanied by passages written by roughly 269 composers. The manuscripts are arranged alphabetically. However, the text for the book was determined using I-Ching chance operations (for more information on John Cage and his use of I-Ching, especially with “Music of Changes,” read here). Each composer was arbitrarily given a certain number of words to write. The typography too, with letter size, intensity, and typeface, was determined using chance operations.
The act of notation is twofold, appearing both in the manuscripts and in the words themselves. The result is an exploration of notation through notation, and the relation of notation to the sounds they supposedly represent. Many of this music has never been performed. Probably most hasn’t. To most readers, the music appears bizarre and indecipherable; verging on notation for the sake of notation. In that case, most of the manuscripts are more of a visual experiment, or a visual approximation of noise.
The manuscripts range from the more traditionally notated, like Carl Bowman’s Triptych Symphony. Others, like Compose, Part I (1966) by Milko Kelemen (shown below), are more abstract. The quotes are likewise thought provoking, asking, “What is notation anyway?” And what is the relationship of the visual to the aural?
Noel Llinos has an “answer” on one of the pages:
Notation of sound in time and space must give its information as clearly, as precisely and as beautifully as possibly. While it is primarily a chart for ears, it must play provocatively and irresistibly on the eye. A painting appeals to inner senses through the eye. A score of sound must reach these senses through the ear through the eye.
Notation is important on a aural level first and foremost as a conveyer of correct sound but is also important on a visual level and its appearance must not be discounted entirely.
On the same page, Frederic Rjewski says of the importance of images:
If in history we knew music through notation, it’s because we worshipped images. Images are not dead: they live and speak.
But then Terry Rusling says, “Euphuistically, notation’s essence is nonessentiality.”
It appears, then, that many of these quotes are a play at elucidating the importance of something a bit hard to pin down. Traditionally, we’ve seen notation’s importance as a way of preserving music for interpretation and performance. How it looks on the page becomes just as important as what you hear. But how successful is it at representing what we hear? How good is it at transcribing what the composer wants the performer to play? There are things that are notated and performed, and other things that are performed and not notated. IIf notation is supposed to be exact, then most notation falls short. For the most part, we are fine with that. No music performance is a perfect reproduction of its original, and part of the beauty of a live performance is the active reinterpretation by audience and performer.
The question of notation comes up too in dealing with music that is experimental, much like many of the pieces in the book. Having standard notation means that a piece of music can be translated and played by most people, given the proper training. It’s a little too easy at times to look at the notation and fail to find its sonic equivalent, and that would seem to imply that the notation has failed. The effort of notating something could mean that it is meant to interpreted, though this doesn’t have to be the case. Maybe some of it seems to veer on the edge of desperation — an attempt to innovate when all convention has been exhausted. But some of it, accessible or not, truly spotlights the trippiness of capturing a diversifying harmonic and instrumental palette. If the sound that emanates from a car horn can be considered music, then that means that the methods of notation that we have traditionally used could be rendered inadequate. If the soundscape is changing to the extent that Cage says it is, then there needs to be an expansion of notation, just as different kinds of notation (jazz notation, for instance) is needed for different kinds of music.
This book is ultimately eye-catching and thought-provoking. It also makes us question ourselves about our methods of representing knowledge, facts, and ideas, not just music. And isn’t this blog post too another attempt at an artistic representation through words — bits and fragments from different studies and biographies and books and essays — to form another portrait of an enigmatic way of looking at art?
Ultimately re-notating it in a blog post for someone’s digestion, or indigestion.
[Article first published as Music Review: Klara Min - Pa-mun: Ripples on Water (Piano Music from Korea) on Blogcritics.]
In the midst of a dominant Western classical music tradition, Asian classical composers tend to get overlooked, whether it be in live performance or in recordings. Few know that beginning in the 20th century, Korea had a fruitful classical music culture with individuals like Isang Yun being recognized by their Western counterparts as composers of great stature. Many of these compositions were unique for their blend of Western and Eastern influences, as these composers utilized a distinct Western heritage while retaining traditional Eastern elements like scales, different methods of articulation, and more in their compositions. As a Korean concert pianist, I am particularly impressed by concert pianist Klara Min‘s efforts to spotlight works by Korean composers in her recording Pa-mun: Ripples on Water, released on the Naxos label in 2011. The recording is informed by an awareness of these dual influences from the beginning to the end.
According to the program notes, written by Min herself, the composer of title track and opening piece “Pa-mun,” sought to renew Korean musical culture using Western compositional techniques. This piece, composed by Youghi Pagh-Paan, is a soothing musical description of wave reflections on water (the word pa-mun describes the effect of ripples on water). The composer wrote that the organization of the piece is very evocative of the act of throwing small stones onto a surface of a lake, and this is apparent in the opening of the piece: the initially calm tempo and lower range quickly gives way to dissonant and ascending clusters of notes that sound very much like water droplets spreading to create more ripples. The dynamics, superbly controlled by Min, are never overpowering and the ripples, while they may become agitated, never become aggressive either in speed or volume. This piece as an opener colors the rest of the pieces with a contemplative mood.
Isang Yun’s Five Piano Pieces, composed in a twelve-tone idiom, follow. In this set of miniatures, the Korean influence is more subtle, for the piece seems more dominated by the German compositional principles Isang Yun absorbed while he was in Berlin. Yun himself did state that he was interested in the formation of a distinct Korean classical art music rather than one that merely copied German music, and Min notes that elements associated with traditional Korean music, like the pizzicato articulation or sliding notes (no. 2) are blended into the strict tone rows. It takes some listening to notice it, though. Interludium A (referring to the fact that the piece revolves around the note A, most apparently in the slow section) is a majestic later work of Yun’s, and here Klara Min’s interpretation skills are highlighted. This piece was executed flawlessly, and one got a sense of the improvisatory nature of the piece with its shifts in dynamics, color, and layers.
My favorite parts of the recording, though, are in the second half of the recording, which seem to me to continue in a highly atmospheric vein with more of an explicit traditional Korean influence. The Piano Sketches by Sukhi Kang are a beautifully constructed series of three short pieces that also sound somewhat like variations on ripples on the water. Though there is a clear tempo indication in the titles (quarter note = ca. 42), this (one would think) rigidity of tempo is not apparent in the pieces themselves. The first one has a lot of notes that seem sustained indefinitely, with sudden dynamic changes and arbitrary leaps, and on the whole seems to highlight the contrasts between stillness and sound. The second one has dancing notes that wander up and down rapidly, sounding like splashes on a lake in a rainstorm before giving way to the calmer lower register. With her beautiful phrasings and strategic pedaling, Min cultivates an awareness of sound and motion as well as its absence.
The Preludes, by Uzong Chae, spotlight simple musical languages in contrast to the harder-to-listen-to twelve-tone of Yun or the splatter of the sound in the Sketches. These pieces are a blend of Western elements like counterpoint, canons, sixteenth century polyphony, and minimalism. The Prelude No. 2 features pentatonic scales, open fifths that hearken back to Renaissance polyphony, and an ostinato bassline that adds much to the thoughtful mood of the piece. Prelude No. 7 is contrapuntal and canonic, but within the pentatonic scale system rather than the tonal paradigms we’ve come to expect. The articulation and stresses, along with Min’s pedal techniques suggest plucking strings. These contrapuntal passages are interspersed with moments of clear cut tonality only to cut off abruptly. Prelude No. 8 is a wonderful minimalistic piece of work built around a dense mist of sound, also with the use of pentachords that lend to its Asian sound. Strands of melody emerge from this web, separate and distinct. I admire Min’s control in this piece. The sixteenth notes somehow retain their articulation without becoming either muddy or dry, and the top lines are always sparkling and clear. This piece was one of the highlights of the set, and I enjoyed it immensely.
Min closes the set with Chung Gil Kim’s Go Poong: Memory of Childhood. The first three of the original suite are included, and these character pieces are rife with Korean folk-melodies and traditional tunes. The first piece suggests the expanse and grandeur (to me) of a Korean temple. The chords are spacious, deliberately placed, and reflect an arch much like the architecture of a building. The second piece, “Namakshin,” with its repetitive Gutgery ostinato is energetic and rhythmically vital. The composer seems to play with intervalic relationships throughout and the driving repetition feels restless and agitated. The third piece in the set has more folk characteristics than the other two last pieces. A well-known Korean folk song is highlighted, yet the harmonization is dissonant and jarring. I found it haunting: the familiar is placed within the unfamiliar territory with his arrangement and winding dissonances — perhaps a distorted memory of childhood. Even at the end, there is no clear resolution to tonality, as the ending pitches are a major second apart. Yet the piece for all its seeming simplicity, is arresting. Min’s approach in these pieces is understated and delicately expressive.
I applaud Klara Min’s effort to record and promote such fine pieces of piano repertoire by Korean composers. Min succeeds in presenting the vibrancy of a different musical culture. Even for those unfamiliar with a traditional Korean musical idiom, the mood of the recording is a whole is never brash or showy, but brings with it a sense of sound, space, and silence.
[Article first published as Music Review: Solungga Fang-Tzu Liu - The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan: Piano Works on Blogcritics.]
Perhaps my readers will not be too familiar with enigmatic classical composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920). This comes as no surprise, because though Griffes was a brilliant Impressionist composer with a unique musical language, he only composed a handful of pieces during his short life. He could count among his influences French Impressionism, contemporary European music with its bitonality and tonal ambiguity, and Asian music, a compositional influence that was relatively new at the time. His music is therefore a dynamic and distinct blend of these influences: one hears something of Scriabin and Debussy in music such as the set Three Tone Pictures (1910-1912) or the simply titled Sonata (1917-1919), tied with this undercurrent of Oriental exoticism that makes his work so unique.
It is precisely this composer whom Taiwan-born concert pianist Solungga Fang-Tzu Liu has decided to showcase. The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan, released on Centaur Records, features a selection of Griffes’s most notable solo piano works. Liu, currently Assistant Professor of Piano at Bowling Green State University, is known as a dedicated performer of 20th-21st century music. In addition to her performances of Ravel and Prokofiev, she has many premieres and recordings of composers to her name, such as Steve Reich, Gregory Mertl, and Robert Morris. In this latest recording of hers, Liu takes the listener through a sensory experience not unlike an ornate tapestry of sound.
When one hears the Three Tone Pictures (1910-1912), which opens the recording, one cannot help but think of Debussy or Ravel. These meditative pieces act as mood setters, bringing to mind specific scenes or images. Griffes links all three pictures in this set to specific poems or texts (in this particular recording, the set is actually, perhaps mistakenly titled Three Tone Poems: these are pictures, but they are also highly poetic). “The Lake at Evening” is thus linked to the “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats:
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
And this shimmering little piece depicts this scene beautifully. “The Vale of Dreams” and “The Night Winds” are similarly prefaced with epigraphs by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). The former refers to “The Sleeper” by Poe, and with its Scriabin-like harmonies seems to evoke some mystic undercurrent of unrest with the perpetuity of the left hand. Midway, the piece ascends fitfully to a climax before descending back again into stillness. The poem that corresponds correlates to this feeling of unrest – this is no peaceful vale of dreams. The lady in the poem is described as sleeping, but in fact she is dead. The latter, “The Night Winds” seeks to evoke the mystic winds “murmuring in melody” mentioned in Poe’s “The Lake.” Overall, Liu’s thoughtful interpretation brings out the lovely nuances in this set, evoking the calm lake water with the ascending pulsing figures in the bass of “The Lake at Evening” and the soft but virtuosic rolling arpeggiations in “The Night Winds.”
The next set is the Fantasy Pieces (1912-1915). Much like the Tone Pictures, the three pieces in this set have texts attached to them. The “Barcarolle,” which is attached to a verse by obscure poet William Sharp (1855-1905) contains a rather innovative hint of bitonality. With the flying figures on the upper register of the piano along with the steadier, lilting theme in the lower register, it mimics the “passionate, impetuous old sea.” The “Notturno” is languid and calm, but also contains the most tonal ambiguity when compared to the “Barcarolle” and the “Scherzo,” evoking a dream state. The text comes from the poem “The White Moon” by Paul Verlaine. The selected lines, translated, are as follows:
The pond reflects,
Of the black willow
Where the wind weeps…
Let us dream; it is the hour.
The “Scherzo” is a personal favorite of mine. It is something like a danse macabre, wild and brilliant, with a memorable theme. Griffes himself wrote the text to accompany the piece: “From the palace of Enchantment there issued into the night sounds of unearthly revelry. Troops of genii and other fantastic spirits danced grotesquely to a music now weird and mysterious, now wild and joyous.” Indeed this piece brings to the listener a sense of something otherworldly.
Following this is the meat of the recording, the Sonata, revised 1919. Often spoken as one of Griffes’s highest musical achievements, this composition, though divided into three movements, is played as though it were one movement. A slower, more meditative second movement is framed by two faster, more agitated ones. This piece seems to resemble the Pleasure-Dome rather than the Fantasy Pieces or the Tone Pictures, both with its loud dramatic moments suddenly slipping into more pristine moments, and his use of Asian scales. It’s a piece that takes a lot of sensitivity of interpretation out of the performer, and Liu’s playing shone here.
The Roman Sketches are a set of four character pieces, each bringing to the listener a certain image: “The White Peacock,” “Nightfall,” “The Fountain of the Acqua Paola,” and “Clouds.” These, like the Fantasy Pieces, are based on poetry of William Sharp. William Sharp’s poetry is actually not regarded highly today, but they produced some of Griffes’s most descriptive music. Maybe they even presented the pictures better than the poet did! The Fountains are another favorite of mine. Liu really brings out the sense of the sublime and the ethereal in this set, from the spreading of the peacock’s tale, the dissonant yet sensuous nightfall, the beautiful wave-like motion of the “Fountain,” and the spacious “Clouds.”
Liu concludes the recording with the Pleasure-Dome itself. This piece is a favorite of Liu, who claims Mongolian descent. Again, one can think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem of the same name, which also inspired this work. One is grasped with a sense of the mysterious from the bass ostinato giving way to the opening melody. The listener is transported, perhaps, through “caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea.” The piece is a lush, sensuous tapestry of dance-like motifs and wandering passages, which bring to the listener’s eye the “sacred river / Five miles meandering with a mazy motion.” Finally, the opening melody reappears, majestically, before ending as it has begun into silent. However, the listener is left with this sense of waking from a particularly realistic (and strange) dream. I wonder if Griffes in composing this piece wanted to be like Coleridge, who writes in the poem, “Could I revive within me / Her symphony and song, / To such a deep delight ‘twould win me / That with music loud and long / I would build that dome in the air!” I would say that Griffes succeeded in capturing this pleasure dome with music, and Liu succeeded even farther in recreating it magnificently.
Overall, an excellent recording. Liu has done justice to this sometimes overlooked body of work with her playing, as well as paying tribute to such an unique and evocative composer.
[Article first published as Concert Review: Pianist Junghwa Lee at the Ashburnham Community Church, 10/2/11, with the Frederick Piano Collection on Blogcritics.]
On October 2, 2011, at 4:00 PM, the Frederick’s Historical Piano Collection hosted a concert at the Ashburnham Community Church. Concert pianist Junghwa Lee, who is currently an active soloist and associate professor of piano at the Southern Illinois University, beautifully performed from memory a program of Fauré, Ravel, and Liszt. Lee, a native of Korea, who has upcoming concerts in Missouri, Illinois, London, Paris, and Amsterdam, has been described by various sources as a pianist of “acute intelligence,” with “flawless technique” and “masterful artistic control.” Lee is also an old friend – she and I actually went to school together at Eastman School of Music. This was her first appearance in the concert series, and it was a superb one as Lee skillfully blended historical authenticity on the centuries old piano she performed on along with dynamic interpretations.
The Frederick’s Historical Piano Collection, which supports this concert series, is a gem for classical music aficionados and the general public alike. Maintained by Patricia and Edmund Michael Frederick, this Center is a wealth of resources, mainly concentrated in their wonderful collection of over twenty early grand pianos. A main feature is their Historical Piano Concerts, a concert series featuring internationally renowned pianists performing works on selected pianos of the collection. The pianos are determined by program choice: if the pianist chooses to focus on Chopin, then the piano of choice is the 1840 Erard. If the pianist chooses to focus on piano literature by Mendelssohn, then the Tröndlin (c. 1839) might be a good choice. Performers, like Junghwa Lee, do painstaking research and practice, adjusting their own techniques to accommodate the often more delicate touches of these pianos. One cannot simply pound away on these pianos, sturdy as they are. Sometimes a more subtle technique is required.
On the website and in conversation with Patricia Frederick, an important issue was brought out. When thinking about these pianos in their particular historical stage of evolution and in context with the composer and the piano literature that was produced, one might ask, “What is the relation to sound and the particular instrument?” It’s an important question to think about, and it’s definitely not something performers may think about as often, especially with the more standardized grand pianos of today. Chopin, Ravel, and Liszt alike are performed on pianos like the Steinway, and we (performers and audience) don’t devote to it as much thought. But when performing these same works on older instruments, one must think about such things. These older instruments were not characterized by their uniformity of sound. Each composer wrote for a certain piano, and for a certain sound. Even more importantly, when performing on the piano the music was originally “meant for,” certain features of touch or pedaling or articulation are revealed. This is why the Fredericks place so much importance on playing Liszt on an 1877 Erard or Mendelssohn on a Tröndlin, rather than Mozart on the 1877 Erard or a Brahms on an 1845 Pleyel. The result is definitely a more historically authentic performance.
Lee’s choice of piano was the 1877 Erard extra-grande modele de concert, a favorite of composers such as Ravel and Fauré, who performed, composed, and practiced mostly on such pianos. Liszt also owned several, or variants, during his time. As stated on the Collection’s website, this particular Erard, made in Paris, has a fantastic dynamic range, with 90 keys extending to a low G in the bass. This great dynamic range was shown off to great advantage in the pieces Lee chose. The piano is also characterized by its superb clarity and its slow decay – features unforgiving of mistakes. Lee’s performance was flawless.
Lee opened the concert with two Nocturnes by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). The first one, No. 1 in E-flat, Op. 33, No. 1, a delicate and contemplative lovely little gem of a piece. Lee played both sensitively. The second one, No. 6 in D-flat, Op. 63, composed roughly 20 years after the first, is equally lovely in its subtlety, but contains many more exciting dynamic changes and delicately articulated arpeggiations. The differences between the Erard and the Steinway were clearly noticeable in parts: the Erard brought out these dynamic contrasts and created some unexpectedly beautiful sounds with its wonderful clarity. Following this piece was the Le Tombeau de Couperin (1917), composed by Maurice Ravel in tribute to friends who died in World War I. Each movement is dedicated to a particular friend, and the structure on the whole is imitative of a Baroque dance suite. Ravel drew from 18th century models in the composition of the piece, and it is as much homage to composers such as François Couperin or Bach as much as it is a moving tribute to his friends.
To close, Lee performed the Sonata in B (1853) by Liszt, a massive single-movement masterpiece that demands great technical skill and endurance from the performer, not to mention provides a challenge in memorizing the entire work! Lee was superbly up to the challenge, performing the piece and its wonderful dynamic contrasts and expressive contours with finesse and power. Even from the outset, the piece, with its wildly virtuosic moments dropping into gentler and more melodic sections, is in sharp contrast with the Fauré and the Ravel, which seem more delicate in comparison. Themes are skillfully interlocked and arranged to form this one cohesive whole, or the entire exposition, development, and recapitulation over around 35 minutes of unbroken music. One faces the successful performance of this piece with something like awe, and fittingly so. The conclusion of the piece earned an instantaneous standing ovation for Lee.
All in all, this was yet another successful Historical Piano Concert, and I look forward to visiting again and attending more concerts.
For more information about the Historical Piano Concerts, please visit this link.
For more information about these pianos, and how to support the Piano Collection, visit here. The Study Center is open for free tours year round.
It seems that talk of innovations in classical music and the production of dynamic new performances is a frequent theme in my blogging. It seems that more often these days, I am writing about interesting things other people are doing that work, interesting things people are doing that don’t work as well but still have plenty of value, or even things that I am trying to do to engage the audience a little bit better.
And these are all questions that are definitely fascinating and useful to think about, especially if you’re a young musician trying to scratch out some sort of impression on the classical music scene. Ultimately, we don’t want to do something that is just the same as everything else — we want our art to stand out in some way, make some statement that the public can understand and appreciate, and forge a lasting emotional connection or impression with the listener.
That’s why I was excited when Bruce Brubaker, chair of the piano department at New England Conservatory and piano faculty for the Atlantic Music Festival’s Piano Institute and Seminar, offered to host a classical music forum here at the festival. Mr. Brubaker is somewhat known for his interpretations of 20th-21st century music, especially music by Philip Glass, and has premiered works by Glass, Nico Muhly, and John Cage. An avid writer and researcher, Mr. Brubaker is also preoccupied with thoughts about classical music’s future, and its relevancy in society, as evidenced by his Artsjournal.com blog, “Pianomorphosis.”
The classical music forum was held on July 27, 2011. This event, held in a intimate classroom setting, was open to the general public as well as musicians from AMF. Both upcoming as well as established artists would discuss the current state of affairs in the classical music world, as well as talk about the innovative means of expression in artists’ presentation of classical music today.
To open the forum, Mr. Brubaker explained some of his thoughts on the state of classical music today. He brought up some interesting points: what if this traditional repertoire (Mozart, Beethoven, etc) that we pianists struggle to interpret and perform isn’t all that is? To clarify, he explained that in his professional life, his concentration is in music written in the past few years. It’s “artistically useful,” he explained, because it’s something that no one else does.
Mr. Brubaker proposed that concentrating in Beethoven is not bad, but ultimately not “useful,” a statement which is perhaps controversial, and perhaps worrying to the Piano Institute and Seminar students and fellows.
This definition of usefulness did not get clarified very well throughout the course of the discussion, though it came up many times. It seems that one of the main purposes of art is to communicate something, whether it be a solid idea or simply an impression. This act of communication is between the musician and the listener, and perhaps “usefulness” is measured by how well the musician communicates something. Is “usefulness” in art defined by how well we as artists communicate something, rather than on the merits of the piece itself? That’s another debate for another day.
But controversy and all, I can definitely agree with where this is coming from. If usefulness has something to do with communication, what we tend to do a lot is simply immerse ourselves in it and forget about the listeners. This can be seen in our recording of Beethoven of Mozart. In some senses, I do believe that Beethoven’s music or Mozart’s music is music that can never get old. It’s fantastic music. However, I do agree with him that specializing in music of Beethoven or Mozart or Liszt is something that’s already been done. If you do a simple search for Beethoven’s piano sonatas, you’ll find dozens and dozens of records of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Fantastic recordings, of course, performed by fantastic pianists.
Each recording purports to present highly nuanced recordings of the sonatas. We’d like to talk about the subtle nuances of the pedaling that such artist brings to the work, and the gentle and artistic slurring. At the same time, what it really is seen as is just “another” recording of Beethoven. Perhaps classical music critics can really appreciate the nuances, but at the same time, what about the mainstream? They see that the great masters such as Horowitz or Rubinstein have already recorded the sonatas by Beethoven, so why is there another “need” for more recordings of the same things, with nuances barely perceptible from the next recording? It is here that the people receiving the information are not participating.
Mr. Brubaker noted that it’s true that in terms of artistry, what these pianists doing could be better than what’s been done before. But where it falls short is in a failure to communicate.
To fix this failure in communication, Mr. Brubaker proposed that we do something new and interesting and innovative; find something fresh that hasn’t really been done. In an interesting analogy, Mr. Brubaker compared music to a scientific experiment: scientists nowadays don’t recreate the same experiments to see if we get something new out of it. It’s the same about making music. It’s not about hearing music the same way over and over. It’s about trying to make something new out of each experience.
It’s an interesting analogy, and one that may not totally hold true for all cases. However, Mr. Brubaker makes a good point. We do need to find something new. A lot of musicians now, he said, impersonate or regurgitate. It’s like the Glenn Gould impersonators, or the Elvis impersonators, or even cover bands in rock music. As musicians, we have to move beyond regurgitation to finding and making something new.
However, it’s easier said than done to make something “new” out of everything.
And that’s the struggle of the musician today. How to make something that doesn’t merely repeat or regurgitates, but does something that hasn’t happened before? It is in this sense that even though classical music is something that has existed for years and years and years, we as musicians are just figuring things out right now. How do we present our music so that we form emotional connections with listeners that is so desperately needed?