Perspectives: What I have discovered when learning modern music

Recently, I launched my next series of concerts across the east coast of Australia called “New. Novel. Next” and in my own private practice and, recently, in performances, I have discovered a few things about what it is to successfully convey music of the 20th and 21st centuries.

“New. Novel. Next.” was borne out of wanting to step away from Chopin and expand my musical horizons with compositional styles that I had not played since my conservatorium days. In 2014 and 2015 I played 28 recitals which featured the music of Chopin, Mozart, and Liszt and, admittedly, I was tired. Whilst I can appreciate (and be HUGELY envious of) those high-octane recitalists with 200 concert-a-year calendars containing nothing but the Schumann Fantasie and Beethoven Sonatas, I felt drained and bored after barely 30 over two years.

So, at the end of 2015, I decided that 2016 would focus on modern music; trying to understand it better, and trying to expand my repertoire by including it more in programs. The end result was the recital series “New. Novel. Next.” which is a rotational recital program of 60 pieces (this means that 60 pieces are chosen and then rotated through each concert – no one concert is the same experience) that encompass everything from Debussy onward. For this recital series, I also commissioned a work from an American composer, Forrest Starling, to boost the experience of bringing something new to the table.

The following composers are represented on the programs:

Denes Agay, Miriam Hyde, Frank Hutchens, Forrest Starling, Aaron Copland, Robert Muczynsky, Alfred and Mirrie Hill, Peter Sculthorpe, Larry Sitsky, Bela Bartok, Glenn Hunter, Nigel Sabin, John Cage, Dmitri Shostakovich, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Alan Silvestri, John Williams, Zez Confrey, Jelly Roll Morton, Jesse Greer, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Rodion Shchedrin, Keith Humble, Dulcie Holland, Stephen Sondheim, Art Tatum, John Ireland, and Frank Bridge.

As is usual in all of my recitals, there is a strong Australian contingent. The reasons behind this (concerning ALL of my recitals) will be shared in another post. Essentially, I was trying to cover all areas within modern music – atonalism, post romanticism, aleotoricism, serialism, English pastoralism, stream of consciousness composing, jazz, novelty solo, transcription, popular music/musicals, film scores, and video game music. I think, for the most part, I succeeded in narrowing a lot of this music down in order to rotate it through a series of 20 recitals throughout the year. It has been an amazing experience so far (9 concerts down!) and I am sure the next 11 will be just as exciting. I have met interesting people, students, teachers, and fellow performers who have asked some interesting questions, including one I heard more than once: what have you discovered from doing this?

The answer is immediate: I have discovered contrast on a whole new level.

Let me explain…

When I play the music of Chopin, it’s the same. The music itself is different from piece to piece, but the execution remains the same; the touch and tonal control needed in Chopin remains the same, even when it is pushed to its limits through various virtuosic technical hurdles. It seems like I am diminishing the craft of performing his music, but what I am really saying is that the technique and style for Chopin is inherent regardless of difficulty or ease. I believe this can be said for Mozart, Liszt, etc as well. With modern music, my scope and range was tested and tested again. I have since used elbows for aggressive tone clusters, I have well and truly ripped skin off the back of my hand playing glissandi (especially in one piece that utilises them non-stop!), I have plucked strings, clapped, whistled, made whale noises, I have thumped and flogged the keys with my fist, and I have done things with pedals that I didn’t think was possible. Another advantage is the copious amounts of reading I have done in the last few months – biographies, technical treatises, research papers, essays, and textbooks on modern piano playing and interpretation, composers, and history. I found myself constantly aware of trying to mentally break free from the classical constraint of thinking of “tone”this and “tone”that, and, as a result, became much more of a learning experience than I could ever have imagined (this is not to say that modern music is to be played without attention to tone! On the contrary, tone is of the utmost importance but with many different elements and freedoms! Anti-Classicist, if you will)

I won’t wax lyrical any further other than to say that I am enjoying this series of recitals very much. I’m enjoying the reading, the history, the listening, the practicing, the different technical approaches, and the myriad of responses (emotional and otherwise) that I have received from audience members. The after concert talks have been excellent and inspiring to say the least.

One last discovery – the guest home that I generally stay in when playing in Sydney has a neighbouring dog who remains silent when I practice…

I can report that he absolutely hates the music of Arnold Schoenberg.

D.

 

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