All posts by Philip Thomas

Philip Thomas (b.1972, North Devon) specialises in performing new and experimental music, including both notated and improvised music. He places much emphasis on each concert being a unique event, designing imaginative programmes that provoke and suggest connections.
He is particularly drawn to the experimental music of John Cage, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff, and composers who broadly work within a post-Cageian aesthetic.
Philip is a regular pianist with leading experimental music group Apartment House, with whom he has performed in festivals across the UK and Europe.
He joined the staff team at the University of Huddersfield in 2005, and was appointed as Reader in Music in 2011. Philip is one of the Directors of CeReNeM, the University’s Centre for Research in New Music. He continues to live in Sheffield, where he premieres the majority of his programmes, with his wife Tiffany and children Naomi and Jack.

Feldman’s search for a notation pt 2

It’s been three months since I posted my last blog entry, as I was preparing to record a number of works by Morton Feldman for multiple pianos from the late 1950s to late 1960s, including some with instrumental ensemble. The recording session took place in late June and I’ve recently been working with Simon Reynell from ‘another timbre’ on the edits for the double CD.[1] So I now feel ready to offer a few reflections on the music and our performances.

Firstly it was one of the most enjoyable weekends of music making I’ve had for a long time. The music reignited my love for Feldman’s work, which to be honest goes in waves – I think if there’s ever one composer whose music one can over-indulge in it’s Feldman. I tend to have periods when I am absorbed in the work totally and without reservation and other times (often up to a few years) when I don’t want to hear a note! However, the works we recorded, three of which I didn’t know – Two Pieces for Three Pianos (1966), False Relationships and the Extended Ending (1968) and Between Categories ­(1969) – blew me away. I think they are amongst Feldman’s absolute greatest works.

Working with the musicians involved in the project was a joy. How often does one get to work with three great pianists on the same day? Mark Knoop, Catherine Laws and John Tilbury are pianists whom I hold in enormous respect and their commitment to the music, to sound and touch, to nuance and to each moment made for such an enthralling weekend. We all probably approach Feldman’s piano music in subtly different ways and yet with a common appreciation for the values and sensibility required to perform it. It’s really fascinating to hear us play Piece for Four Pianos (1957), in which we all move through the same one-page score at our own pace. The sound of four quite different touches is clearly perceptible – we made no attempt to aim for uniformity – but the character of the music feels entirely unified.[2] There is a sense of the four of us enjoying listening to each other and responding, though at the same time there are many unpredictable moments that feel quite Cage-ian. (At the end of the recording session we recorded a 40-minute version of Cage’s Winter Music, which was also exhilarating, but that’s for another blog maybe!)

And then to perform with a wonderful array of musicians, some of whom I know very well, and others less so, was also a great privilege. Naomi Atherton (horn), Mira Benjamin (violin), Taneli Clarke (percussion), Rodrigo Constanzo (percussion), Linda Jankowska (violin), Anton Lukoszevieze (cello), Barrie Webb (trombone) and Seth Woods (cello) – all wonderful, insightful and committed performers. The two large ensemble pieces, False Relationships and the Extended Ending and Between Categories, which were unknown I think to most of us, were fascinating to play. There was a real sense of being in the heart of the experiment whilst playing these pieces, combining attentive playing to our instruments with curiosity and surprise at the sounds going on around us.

I want to reflect a little on the four pieces which involve what might be called ‘interdependency’ – Piece for Four Pianos, Two Pieces for Three Pianos, False Relationships… and Between Categories. These works are in some ways difficult to prepare; their form and relationships are worked out very much in the performance moment. Each of them requires performers to move through the music independently in some way: Piece for Four Pianos as described above; the first movement of Two Pieces… requiring no coordination between the three pianists; and the other two featuring two separate ensembles, with their own material and notations, moving through the music at their own pace, at times precisely with rhythmic details and metronome marks, and other times with simple noteheads without duration. The confusing quality of these two is that performers all read from the same score, which often gives the appearance of alignment between the two ensembles but in fact they are likely to be fairly significantly adrift at any point in time (or rather, on the page).

Example 1
Example 1

Piece for Four Pianos is one of my all-time favourite works by Feldman, a view I think shared by many people. The simple concept of the same single page of music, given to all four pianists, with durations of events free, results in some of the most entrancing music, and is I think quite unique amongst the output (though the slightly earlier work Two Pianos works according to the same principle). What I hadn’t perhaps felt so keenly in the past was that as well the gorgeous sonorities of the opening section (example 1) and later passages which involve a number of repeated chords (so that, for example, if there is one chord notated four times in succession, one is likely to hear that chord 16 times, creating a wash of harmonic stability) there are also a number of stranger passages, involving more silence and a feeling of harmonic instability. Most odd, perhaps, is the final line (example 2), which follows an extended section of harmonic stability, due to a repeated figuration, and features the most dense and dissonant chords in the whole piece. Not only do these feel strongly contrasting to the rest of the piece, suddenly shifting into a new galaxy having become accustomed to the atmosphere of the planet on which we seem to have landed, but these are also the most difficult and exposed chords to play. It feels rather cruel of Feldman to have ended so, and certainly these few chords had me breaking into a sweat – after all, if I misplaced these then the whole performance might have to be scrubbed! But of course they make for an enigmatic and curious ending, as if Feldman himself was also very aware of the dangers of over-indulging in his soundworld.

Example 2
Example 2

The sparse sound and density which marks Piece for Four Pianos is in total contrast to the first of the Two Pieces for Three Pianos, which features very dense piano chords, a number of which are simply impossible to stretch (even for Feldman’s apparently large hand-span; see the third and fourth events of the second piano part in example 3). The challenges for the pianist here, aside from trying to project the best quality and quietest sounds from these awkward combinations of notes, are in allowing the music to sound free whilst at the same time measuring it against the sounds of the other pianos. Whilst the first two pianists can probably keep tabs on each other’s progress (though in the event I chose not to, opting instead for listening rather than ‘watching’) the third piano takes off at quite a pace, with a first bar which lasts around nine seconds, a second bar which lasts around four seconds (despite measuring about a fifth of the length of the first bar on the actual page), and so forth. Listening back to the recording, the third pianist’s first line was completed by the time the first two pianists had played about two-thirds of the line. Whilst it might be possible to follow this in performance I certainly chose not to and instead focussed upon the instruction that each sound ‘is held until it begins to fade’. This instruction is the crucial one – it sets the pace for each event but also for the whole piece. On the whole the pacing averages out between these two parts, and pianist 1 and 2 ended at roughly similar times in each take. The third pianist, whose part is measured precisely throughout, ended before the first two pianists in each take. Playing this music – and the same is true for all the pieces discussed in this blog – I felt totally alive in each and every moment, in a very similar manner to my experiences of playing Cage’s post-1951 ensemble music. The pleasure of playing this sublime music whilst at the same time being fascinated and delighted by the sounds being made around me is wholly exhilarating – music very much for playing, as well as for listening.

Example 3
Example 3

 

False Relationships and the Extended Ending and Between Categories were no less a joy to play.[3] Many of the comments above apply to these pieces, but the notation for each ensemble within each piece, shifts during the piece, so that one time one ensemble might be playing strictly metred music whilst the other plays noteheads without duration, and vice versa. Again, following the other ensemble in both pieces is very difficult – I don’t think any of the performers attempted it. Quite often the ensembles are one or two (possibly even more) pages apart, yet we follow the same score. A combination of counting and listening is what determines the pacing and coordination of both pieces. This was made a little more difficult in Between Categories, however, due to both ensemble consisting of the same instruments (violin, cello, chimes, piano), so the occasional sound of the chimes from the other ensemble occasionally threw me into panic thinking it emanated from my ensemble.

As my previous blog testifies, there were a number of questions I had about how we would approach coordination that I’d thought would be clarified through rehearsal. As it turned out, no clarification was required – we played and it worked. How exactly that worked I’m not entirely sure, but is to Feldman’s great skill and his understanding of the natural pacing of each ensemble, despite the apparent freedoms that the notation offers, that credit must be due. In the rehearsals themselves and still now I marvel at how this came about. In my last blog I cite Brett Boutwell’s excellent writing about these pieces[4]; he writes about Feldman’s layout of the score for False Relationships…, from his sketches, which demonstrate a central coordinating point on page 8 (which would not otherwise be obviously discernible without access to the sketches). In performance there was no intention on any of our parts to arrive at this point, however it was heartening to discover that in each take (other than a rather more exploratory first take) we did indeed arrive at page 8 at around the same time – no exact coordination, but, after quite a long time of being one or two pages apart, the coming together at page 8 feels entirely natural, unforced. However, in contrast to Boutwell’s suggestion that the first ensemble to end on the score is actually the last to end in time, in each of our takes this first ensemble did also end first. There was no sense that anyone was moving ‘too fast’ or ‘too slow’ and so we made no attempt to change this natural order of things.

Applying Boutwell’s discoveries in False Relationships… to Between Categories I was delighted to discover a comparable point, here later in the piece than the mid-point of False Relationships…. The beginning of the penultimate page (page 8) features for the first time since page 2 a double bar line, which is aligned across both ensembles. After having been apart for one or two pages for most of the piece, in each of our takes the ensembles did in fact arrive at this point approximately together (if the pause that ends page 7 for the first ensemble had been a little longer in one take then page 8 would have begun as a simultaneity). Now’s not the place for an analysis of the pitch content at these apparent coordinating points but it would be fascinating to understand more what the significance of these points was to Feldman. Between Categories is an exquisite work; the shared material between the ensembles recalls the more simple processes of Piece for Four Pianos but now within a more complex setting, and the relationship between the ensembles is rich and satisfying.Between Categories pg 8 2014-09-15 002

These extraordinary works deserve to be played and known more. They reveal a composer who is not only rightly revered for his attention to sound and sonority but who was also, despite what I wrote in the opening paragraph of my previous blog, a master of notation, form and design.

 

[1] To be launched in November at hcmf 2015 alongside a concert featuring the works for multiple pianos alone http://www.hcmf.co.uk/event/show/426

[2] In my previous blog I raised the question of black noteheads vs white noteheads. In discussion with the other pianists we all had slightly different views on how to approach these. In many ways this was an issue of language and imagery, but also differences of touch and attack. We agreed not to resolve this and conform to one idea but we did all agree that for each of us the difference of notehead provoked a difference in touch and sound in some way. That was sufficient!

[3] The pieces are closely related, procedurally but also in content – there is an arpeggiated piano chord which occurs in both pieces, and is a recurring feature of Between Categories.

[4] Brett Boutwell ‘”The Breathing of Sound Itself”: Notation and Temporality in Feldman’s Music to 1970’ (Contemporary Music Review, 32/6 (2013), 531-570); and also ‘Coordinating Morton Feldman’s False Relationships’ Mitteilungen der Paul Sacher Stiftung No. 23 (April 2010): 39–42

Feldman and his search for a notation. Part 1

I’ve often felt that Morton Feldman was on a lifetime search for a notation that suited the sounds he wanted. His definition of composition may have been ‘the right note in the right place with the right instrument’[1] but that elusive ‘right place’ seemed always to be ill-suited to music notation of any kind. Very often it would appear he got it wrong. The early graph notations (which notated sequence of events but not the events themselves, beyond which register they appear) resulted in performances of which he didn’t approve because performers chose not to play the notes he would have wanted them to. The traditionally notated pieces of the 1950s were too formal for his desired elasticity of time (though I love these pieces, which remind me of the gorgeous Webern pieces from the 1909-15 period). The pieces, such as the Durations series, which notate all sounds but not how they are aligned rhythmically, also resulted in performances which he didn’t like, such as the infamous performance of Piece for 4 pianos in which Cage finished approximately 20 minutes after everyone else (after which Feldman didn’t speak to Cage for weeks). Many of the works composed during the 1960s would appear to be the height of Feldman’s notational experiments, and are the subject of this blog, but the next phase of Feldman’s compositional output sees a return to a much more conventional style of music notation, in the works of the 1970s, and are arguably his least contentious works in terms of notation. However he soon moved on from this phase and his last great works, those composed from around 1977 to his death in 1987, include works of extraordinary complexity in rhythm and ensemble coordination. Some of these works are almost designed to ‘fail’ such as the three layers of piano music in Piano (1977), which are impossible to play strictly as notated.

feldman_piano05-1
Feldman ‘Piano 77’ extract

I am about to embark on a recording project focussing upon the works for multiple pianos and piano(s) + ensemble Feldman composed mostly over the late 1950s and into the 1960s.[2] It is these works, some of which were previously unknown to me (how many people know the Two Pieces for 3 Pianos?), which have prompted this blog. There is an extraordinary and tangible sense of Feldman digging deep into the possibilities of rhythmic notation here. I get such a thrill looking through these pieces and seeing the slightly different ways Feldman teases the notational schemes, shifting from one to another and combining them in highly idiosyncratic ways. This is very much ‘experimental music’ in two senses, whereby the composer is experimenting with notational possibilities, and at the same time there is a sense of discovery through performance itself.

None of the pieces we’re recording use entirely traditional music notation, though all (with the exception of Projections 3) are pitch specific. The range of notations include: pieces where the pitches are allocated noteheads but no rhythmic value (other than the usual ‘slow’ or ‘very slow’), where the performers simply move through the score together, such as Piano (Three Hands) (1957); pieces where again noteheads are all that are notated but the performers move independently (Piece for 4 Pianos (1957), Two Pianos (1957), Piano Four Hands (1958)); one piece in which players play independently and choose the order of events (Intermission 6 (1953)); pieces which mix events played together with events played in succession, with the instruction to enter ‘as the preceding sound begins to fade’ (Vertical Thoughts I (1963), De Kooning (1963)); and, finally, three extraordinary works which divide the ensemble into smaller ensembles, with some musicians playing rhythmic notation, others playing independently, others playing in non-rhythmic coordination, all at the same time (Two Pieces for 3 Pianos (1966), False Relationships and the Extended Ending (1968), and Between Categories (1969)).

In many ways these last three works look, from the notational design, set to fail. How can these work as ensemble pieces when the different members of the ensemble are existing in entirely different time planes? However, I have found Brett Boutwell’s article ‘”The Breathing of Sound Itself”: Notation and Temporality in Feldman’s Music to 1970’ (Contemporary Music Review, 32/6 (2013), 531-570) to be extremely helpful in gaining some understanding of these works. Boutwell argues convincingly, drawing upon Feldman’s own words, for the visual obfuscation of Feldman’s notation as a deliberate aesthetic choice. Whilst I’ve always accepted this in relation to the early and late works (in very different ways), the highly unusual layouts of these works from the 1960s I confess to having often considered as the best job from a poor set of options! But Boutwell describes these works as being conceived of ‘vertically’, with the goal of ‘creating aesthetically static music lacking explicit audible contrast’. Thinking of the music ‘conceptually’ in this way means that the lack of vertical alignment across instruments in these pieces makes no difference to the character of the music as it is conceived vertically as a whole. Hence the series of pieces to which Feldman gave the title – ‘Vertical Thoughts’.

Thinking of the music afresh in this way has meant that I’m approaching these scores not so much with the question ‘Is this what he meant?’ but now ‘What’s this going to sound like?’ I get the feeling that performing these works will be really an experiment in sound, that the performers will be at the heart of the experiment. So I am labelling this blog as ‘part 1’; part 2 will appear after the rehearsals and recordings have taken place. Practising these pieces at home I have no idea really quite how they will sound, at least in their detail (and I generally avoid listening to recordings whilst preparing for a performance). So as I continue delving into the notations and feeling my way round the piano notes, in advance of the rehearsals with the full ensembles, there are a number of questions that are posed by these scores to which I don’t have answers as yet:

Feldman 001 (2)
Two Pieces for Three Pianos, opening
  • The rhythm-less noteheads: Feldman specifies each sound played by the first two pianos in  ‘Two Pieces for Piano’ (see above) is to be held ‘until it begins to fade’. Is this a vague way of indicating a sort of tempo? (In ‘Between Categories’ the instructions simply state ‘Durations of simultaneous and single sounds are extremely slow’, but much of this piece is notated within a metre with tempo indications, which suggests that these single sounds are simply very isolated, unmeasured, events.) Or do I take each sound on its own merits and listen carefully to the envelope of the sound? When does a piano sound fade? Immediately? Or is there a point sometime after the attack at which one feels it perceptibly starts to fade? When the dynamics are so low anyway, these are subtle points! And how different is this point in the different registers? Certainly the upper octave notes don’t so much fade as disappear almost instantly! And how am I going to be able to hear these ‘fade points’ amidst the sounds of the rest of the ensemble?
  • Connecting noteheads: in the second of the ‘Two Pieces for Three Pianos’ Feldman connects sounding events across the ensemble by dotted lines and the instruction ‘Each piano enters as the preceding sound begins to fade’. Obviously the same issues as I described in the point above are in play here, but I wonder how different it is to hear the ‘fade point’ of sounds I’ve made, with my instrument, in comparison with those someone else has made, on their instrument. This ‘cue-ing’ notation I realise now is very similar to the kinds of notations Christian Wolff was exploring in the early 1960s, a connection I’d not made before. For sure the aims were very different, but, as Michael Hicks has argued in his chapter ‘”Our Webern”: Cage and Feldman’s Devotion to Christian Wolff’ (in Chase, Thomas (eds) (2010) Changing the System: the Music of Christian Wolff (Ashgate, Farnham) 3-22) Feldman was greatly inspired and influenced by Wolff in ways that shaped aspects of his later music.[3] Feldman’s De Kooning, which uses this notation for the first time, was composed in 1963, a year after Wolff’s For 5 or 10 Players and the year before For 1, 2 or 3 Players. It’s fascinating that both players – in complete contrast to Cage – were exploring ways of performance which depended upon other players for the rhythmic placing of events.

002 (2)

  • Black noteheads vs white noteheads: what’s the difference? Feldman mostly (in these pieces) uses black noteheads, but does also notate some pitches as white noteheads. Are these meant to be more ‘measured’? (are they semibreves?) Or do they affect articulation in some way? Why also are some grace notes white noteheads? Likewise, I’m absolutely sure that a single stemless chord is approached differently in performance from one which is, say, a semibreve within a 2/2 bar. The articulation somehow feels more attacked in the latter, due to the chord’s relationship to the barline, whilst the stemless chord feels to be outside of time, to have no gravitational force against which to be measured.
  • Ensemble coordination: in the first of the ‘Two Pieces for Three Pianos’ the first and second pianos are notated entirely as stemless noteheads, as described above, whilst the third piano is notated with a succession of different tempo marks, bar lines and rhythmic notation (see example above). I have no idea whether or not we will all finish at roughly the same time, or whether we will entirely at odds with each other. I wonder how closely Feldman thought through what he felt the durations of each part would be, and whether he intended for them to last approximately similar durations? The third piano part is not notated spacially in any case: the first bar lasts about 8 seconds, whilst the next seven bars, which are together arranged over the same amount of space as taken by the first bar, lasts about 50 seconds. There is thus no way that the visual alignment between pianos 1 and 2 and piano 3 is reflected aurally. I am extremely curious as to how it works out in rehearsal, and also what we will as a group decide to do about it. Will we decide to adapt our understanding of the durations of pianos 1 and 2 to better ‘fit’ piano 3? Or will we agree to remain doggedly independent? After all, this is not Cage… or is it…? In ‘Between Categories’ the two ensembles are mostly notated in measured time, but there are sufficient unmetred sections within each to ensure the ensembles are not to be forced into any connecting relationship. This work does very much feel like two closely related pieces co-existing, rather like the two prepared piano pieces from the 1950s by Cage (31,57.9864” and 34’46.776”), which are similar in terms of content but not coordinated in any way when put together. This is confused even more in ‘False relationships…’ which begins, as in the first of the ‘Two Pieces for Three Pianos’, with one ensemble in measured time and one using stemless noteheads. If we assume that these are two co-existing pieces, without any concern for alignment, then the point on the third page of the score where the two ensembles look like they come together, with bar lines in both ensembles coordinated with the other, continuing like this over the next few pages. Should the two ensembles come together here and start this section together? But then one notices that the tempo for one ensemble is crotchet=66-56, whilst the tempo in the other ensemble is minim=63-54, and that the time signatures for the two ensembles differ, despite the vertical alignment of the barlines. Nothing, it would appear, is as it seems in these extraordinary pieces.

[1] Feldman (1984), ‘The Future of Local Music’, in Friedman, B.H. (ed.) (2000) Give My Regards To Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman (Exact Change, Cambridge, MA) 160

[2] The recording is for another timbre and features works for two pianos played by John Tilbury and myself, works for more than two pianos, for which we will be joined by Catherine Laws and Mark Knoop, and pianos and ensemble, featuring Mira Benjamin, Linda Jankowska, Anton Lukoszevieze, Seth Woods, Naomi Atherton, Barrie Webb, Rodrigo Constanzo and Taneli Clarke.

[3] Hicks argues that the minimalist tendencies of Feldman’s late works have their roots in Wolff’s equally minimalist early pieces of the 1950s, which use only a few pitches for their musical content.

Playing Tim Parkinson’s music

The piano music of Tim Parkinson exemplifies perfectly for me the classic duality which I find in much experimental music (from Cage to Crane, White to Wolff) of being both anti-pianistic and gloriously pro-piano. This was brought home to me in a performance I gave last week of Tim’s untitled 2004b (the first performance of this work, ten years after it was composed) alongside James Clarke’s Island (1999), at the London Contemporary Music Festival.[1]

I love the music of both composers very very much, and there is much they have in common – in particular a concern for musical material and its use which is primarily abstract, demonstrated by the choice of both composers (Clarke in more recent years) to give their pieces titles which are merely labels, such as the date of composition or catalogue number of the work. But there is no doubt in my mind that James’s music is situated within a context of Western notated music, whereby the harmonic and structural language is entirely his own but the gestural and physical language is borne from the ways in which traditional music notation makes the performer move and, in the case of Island, how the pianist moves. James’s extraordinary harmonic sensibility, his understanding of form, texture and movement, combine so that it’s almost impossible not to be swept up by the organic drive of the music. Playing it I found that the music carried me through it, that my job was to go with what’s already there and to bring out those elements, such as the various states of volatility and uneasy calm, the dark brooding opening section, and the waves of rapid notes which elaborate the harmonic scheme.

The abstract concoctions of Tim’s untitled 2004b, however, require the opposite approach to performance. The harmonic language, whilst not untypical of his music, could not be said to be a mark of individuality in the same way as it is in James’s music. The material of Tim’s music generally draws much more upon historical models and could broadly be said to be a mix of chromaticism and tonality, or taken from tonal models, though it certainly doesn’t function tonally. Although it feels familiar – and indeed looks more familiar than some of the intricacies of James Clarke’s notation – the material is drained of all rhetorical context that we may normally associate with it (even though we cannot place the material exactly it feels familiar but is somehow an empty shell of something once infused with expressive life). All that is left are notes – pitches, durations and patterns. The score is marked sempre mp (although in my performance last week the composer and I agreed to make it sempre mf for acoustical reasons). The task is to accord no intentional priority to any material at any time, neither to right nor left hands, nor to higher or lower material, nor to material which might be considered melodic or harmonic, leading or accompanying. At all times the material should feel, at least to me as performer, equally ‘plain’. Flat. Anonymous.

Untitled 2004b (restaved) pg 1-page-001

This is the biggest challenge and for me the most exhilarating one. Because once I feel I have achieved the required equilibrium the material is then in a position to be expressive in and of itself. It needs no context. Every moment is a winner. This is what I mean by it being both anti-pianistic and pro-piano. I have to consciously work to negate the pianistic impulses that are suggested by the material – namely, at times to favour one hand over the other, at other times to shape a group of notes according to informed and intuitive impulses, at other times to let the music ‘groove’ – almost to ‘deny myself’. Paradoxically this requires a conscious raising of dynamic or intensity to some material which would perhaps intuitively be overshadowed by other material. Once this has been worked at and achieved then my attention comes back to touch and presence, and a re-engagement with the piano. Here is where I think Tim’s music differs from, say, that of Chris Newman, where arguably a more crude approach to touch and projection might be called for. In untitled 2004b my focus all the time is upon clarity, evenness, transparency. I don’t want anything to get in the way of the music. This sounds like a non-interpretative approach but of course such an approach is itself highly aware and intentional.

I would apply – and have applied – a similar aesthetic and interpretative attitude to other music by Tim. untitled 2004b differs from other works by him that I have played through the sheer density of material. The more pared down music of, say, piano piece 2006,[2] has its own challenges – less clutter means more of the inconsistencies in my touch can be heard and the difficulties of playing a simple scale slowly, evenly, at a consistent dynamic are revealed for all to hear! untitled 2004b, with its abundant material, multi-layered across the hands, is a much busier work, too much to take in, and feels to me to relate most of all to Cage, strangely most of all to the Music of Changes. Once fingering has been worked out to enable a smooth movement through the material all that is left to do is to quite literally work my way through it. In contrast to how we are generally taught to play music there is no need to find or make connections, nor to consider shape and flow. And as I wind my way through the piece I find that each and every moment has real quality. It’s a great trip and, although it’s technically tricky in places, my overall state playing it is one of joy.

 

 

 

[1] www.lcmf.co.uk The concert consisted of a first part which included my playing with Gavin Bryars, Chris Hobbs and John Tilbury in two of Chris Hobbs’ pieces from the 1970s, and then a second part in which I alternated two solo performances with vocal improvisations from the wonderful Maggie Nichols

[2]I recorded piano piece 2006 and piano piece 2007 for Edition Wandelweiser

 

Vessels and the sensuality of touch

Vessels 23 001 (2)One of the works which has occupied me over the past 18 months is Bryn Harrison’s Vessels. It was composed for me as part of my ‘Canada Connections’ project which took place over 2012-13, and was premiered at the University of Sheffield on October 30th 2012. For that occasion and a few subsequent performances, mainly in Canada in April 2013, Vessels was a 20-minute piece. Soon after, Bryn felt that it was needing to be a longer piece and, partly in response to an invitation to record the work for Simon Reynell’s another timbre label, he extended it so that it now lasts approximately 70-75 minutes (see here for an interview with Bryn about the piece and the recording, and here for an extract of the recording). As such it is an extraordinarily mesmerising work, toying with the listener’s memory and sense of time, present past and future. Whilst the extension features absolutely no new material, there are passages which, even for me, even now, feel as if they are entirely new. Pitches, relationships and rhythms are reconfigured, or reiterated exactly, in a mysterious toying with the material.

I have become very close to the piece; I feel it perfectly suits my sensibility and my touch. I’m delighted to note that others clearly feel similarly, and reviews and feedback on both live performances and the CD recording have been (mostly) extremely positive.[1]  However, I have a confession to make…

Whilst I am very happy that reviews particularly mention my touch and focus, it is a piece that basically plays itself.

What ‘magic’ there is is due in most part to the register of the piano combined with the dynamic level, the transparency of the texture, and the quality of the pitch selection and relationships. The piece has a range of exactly three octaves, from G3 (a fourth below middle C) to G6, which is a very luminous range of the piano. The extremely quiet dynamic requires me simply to so touch the keys that the hammers barely brush the strings, whilst ensuring just enough strength in the fingers to allow the attack still to project sufficiently in a concert hall. I always start quieter than one might normally begin a piece knowing full well that, over a 70+ minute duration the listeners’ ears will adjust so that by the end of the piece an effective range of, say, pp to f will have become apparent all within an overall dynamic bracket of ppp. Of course, the piano itself plays a huge role here: it is true that I had to work harder whilst playing the Café Oto Yamaha earlier this week, which though actually a pretty decent piano doesn’t have quite the impact of the stunning Fazioli piano in Montreal’s Chapelle Historique, my performance of Vessels on which caused one listener to have ‘the feeling that everyone in that concert hall–performer, composer, audience–was balanced on the fuzz of a peach.’[2]

The relationship between the two lines are an endless source of fascination to me in performance and I still hear new facets to that relationship. Because whilst my comments above suggest a continual focus upon each and every ‘now’ attack, there is also a continual tracing of the horizontal – the melodic shapes of each line. The lines continually move at different speeds (6:5, 7:6, 7:5, 7:4, etc.) and this elasticity prevents the music from settling into a steady ‘groove’. A few times a ‘groove’ does emerge, often to quite unsettling effect, making the subsequent shift to a different time frame feel all the more ‘out’. For me, as performer, this continually flexible approach to time (reflected in the notation) is what keeps me alert and curious throughout the duration of the work. If the way the lines move in relation to a pulse was more consistent I can imagine struggling more with the long duration.

The duration. It is true that Vessels is more demanding physically than, say, late Feldman, during which there are often moments to stretch, scratch, ease the tension in shoulders, etc. Vessels provides no such breaks and I find my body tensing in all the ways I warn my students against. So yes, a little stamina is required, but this is really the only challenge of the piece. In actual fact, it is a complete joy to play. No inside piano techniques to navigate, and not even changes of register to explore, instead I am entranced by the love of a) the piano, and b) pitch. Because the thing I think the piano does best is pitch. (Apologies to lovers of various tuning systems.)

Vessels 1 001 (2)

I love pitch. And the pitches of Vessels are revealed as exquisite and radiant. From the first note, a solitary B, to the ensuing major 14th, a glowing, spacious quality, sliding to the single B flat only to open out again with a major 7th (D/Eb) supported by a low (for this context) Ab (a perfect 12th below the Eb) then to the semitone slide in contrary motion to create a very warm major 13th… each and every interval – no matter whether played vertically, as a dyad, or horizontally, as a contour – is to die for. I am reminded of John Tilbury’s reflection that, in Webern, the major 7th is simply a displaced octave, having warm and sensuous qualities, more like timbres.[3] There is no dissonance here – everything is gloriously consonant and light. Yet there is also a residue of tonality, such that some intervals do somehow feel to resolve and others to lean toward or away from neighbouring pitches. I find these qualities are renewed and change with each performance. So it is simply left for me to revel in these qualities – these pitches, these sounds, this action. There is no need to add any further layer of ‘interpretation’ – indeed, to do so would to take away from the qualities of the material, which needs no qualifying from me as a pianist, and would serve only to draw attention to my mannerisms. Any ‘nuance’ perceived by the listener is the result of either the particular qualities of those intervals on that piano, or irregularities in my touch and/or the piano. Again, I am reminded of Tilbury, many years ago, drawing my attention to Roland Barthes, who considered the pad of the fingers to be the most erotic part of the pianist’s body, ‘whose “grain” is so rarely heard’.[4] As I caress the keys, allowing my ear to be drawn into the ensuing sounds, I can think of few finer ways of spending 70 minutes! So when people find my focus and stamina to be worthy of praise, I’m touched but also feel guilty, as if the praise should be directed elsewhere. Because really I’m having a ball.

 

[1] You can read some of them here: Dusted in exile; Improv Sphere; Boring Like A Drill; all about jazz; others (print)

[2] Jennie Gottschalk, ‘A weekend in Montreal’ (May 10, 2013)

[3] Tilbury, J, Parsons, M ‘The Contemporary Pianist’ The Musical Times 110/1512 (Feb. 1969) pp.150-152

[4] Barthes, R ‘The Grain of the Voice’ in Image-Music-Text (Fontana Press, London, 1977) p.189