The second piano sonata of Pierre Boulez – who turns 90 this year – is mentioned in hushed tones, because it’s one of the most difficult things a pianist can play. But for me, it’s one of those “have to be learned in a lifetime” works, along with Ives’ Concord Sonata, the Goldberg Variations and similar daunting pieces. It’s way more than a euphemistic “challenge”: damn hard, and it takes a long time to learn.
I’ve been circling around it for a year, learning large chunks and getting some sense of the work, but have never really settled down to completing it because there was no performance lined up. (Does any musician NOT work in this way?) Boulez’ 90th birthday is a great reason to perform it, and so the work starts.
In some ways, it pays not to look ahead in the score. I usually do this: having learned so much music I can get a sense from the pages of the big shape and structure, and that feeling of how to pace it slowly unfolds. The rules are different this time: meticulous work with my focus on very small sections at a time. VERY small.
Now it’s back to the piano…
I’m going to be performing “Ein Schattenspiel” (Shadowplay) by GF Haas next week in Johannesburg. The concert is part of Unyazi, a biennal South African electronic new music festival. Unyazi is the Zulu word for lightning – what a great name!
My journey with this piece started some time ago, when I optimistically ordered the score online without really knowing it. And then looked for an opportunity to play it – like most performers, I don’t work on something unless there’s a date. (Are there any performers who DON’T work like this?).
But of course the interesting thing about EIn Schattenspiel is the real time sound processing. what I play is picked up, delayed, pitch shifted upwards by 50 cents and then played back. I am playing with myself, and need to read the “other” piano part so as to play in time with it. This is pretty interesting sometimes as I have perfect pitch and the pitch shifts play gentle havoc with my eyes and ears…what I read is not exactly what I hear!
Also the time delay becomes shorter and shorter, so it starts to feel like a real game of catch up – if I play too slowly, I will be overtaken by my “other” self.
And after all of that: it’s an astonishing piece! The “Shadows” created by the repetition and pitch shifting are haunting, and the colours created by the overlap of the piano ands it altered sound are extraordinarily beautiful, and the complex textures as the arpeggio figures pile up on each other to form a wonderful wall of pitches and sonorities towards the end.
What a delight to discover, play and fall in love with it!
I will be performing this on Thursday 11th September at the Goethe-Institut, Johannesburg.
Learning new notes is a funny process. It’s really exciting to be embarking on a journey of work, discovery, learning and satisfaction. It can also be pretty daunting to see a page smothered in black dots!
My daughter told me how much she has learned from music that can be applied to many things, some of those skills being discipline, patience and perseverance. She’s absolutely right – that’s part of the job. And learning brand new piece is a real test of those things. The difficult part is believing that it WILL come right, the notes will stick, and my hands will remember where to go, without needing direct instructions from my brain. Those are the times when it helps to remember that seemingly impossible pieces have been subdued, and enjoyed.
And…then come those moments of insight when the structure of the piece emerges in deep non-verbal ways, my hands become part of my brain, and I actually start enjoying the sounds I’m making. Gradually the work coheres, and suddenly it’s nothing but pleasure at the music, and looking forward to performing and sharing it.
I’ve long known that the morning is the best time to work – the scientists say it, we all know it, and my brain tells me the same. Any work done on the piano before lunchtime is golden, and I positively enjoy the sense of achievement, knowing that the memory of mind and body is being laid down. When I pick up the practising the next day, the progress will be obvious.
The difficulty is that my body is not a lark, but something between lark and owl (as I suspect most of us are). My fantasy is to wake up at 6am, bright and breezy as I jump out of bed. I will then do the necessary emails and admin, before sitting down at 8am, to spend the next five hours working at the piano.
The reality is I’m finding it almost impossible to retrain my owl. Yes, I’ll wake up fairly early (7am) and then drink tea while I gather my wits. But being sharp at that time? No way!
And the slumps?
I take those working troughs as a necessity – that dreaded crash after lunch is something that no coffee will fix. But then…there’s a lift later in the day, and I observe that while my hands might not feel as smart as they did at 10am, my thoughts have the space to take a longer perspective. Those are the moments when I am aware (in a wonderfully non-verbal way) of the big shapes and silences in the music, when insights and ideas can elegantly present themselves. But: this is usually just when my dogs (vociferously) remind me of their need for a walk, and supper needs attention.
Sometimes the music just has to come first.
My dream for the arts is for arts education to start at preschool level and continue through school, so that children learn from early on the pleasure and satisfaction of their own creativity.
I would like to see people supported, nurtured, respected and encouraged in their dreams to become arts practitioners. My dream is for everyone to have access to the arts – to listen, see, experience or practice.
I would like government to understand the immense non-monetary benefit of the arts, and that art does not necessarily have to have a deliverable “product”
I came across something on the web recently where a female musician was taking exception to the phrase “play like a man”. It’s probably something we’ve all encountered, either directed at us or used to describe others. It is indeed offensive with its implication that women are somehow defective when it comes to performance, and resonates with the sexism that still abounds on the planet. What’s wrong with how we play? Isn’t music genderless? Don’t we have something to bring that’s special and relates solely to our talent? I would reply that there’s nothing wrong with how women play, and of course every individual of any gender or sexual orientation has something unique to offer. This is the miracle of music: a gift is a gift; after that comes work, persistence and the courage to realise that gift.
So the phrase “playing like a man” is demeaning and nonsensical. And yet…and yet… I was recently listening to a colleague (male) who was having fun on my piano, and heard qualities that I liked very much. Soon after that I heard another male pianist in performance – fabulous stuff. Both times I was struck by how they were “playing like a man”, and was surprised at myself. Much thought was needed! What exactly does this mean?
I started to think about what was different, and realised they both played with a confidence that was almost separate from their music. They felt assured enough in the world (yes, I know: almost all musicians doubt themselves sometimes!) and that quality came through their playing. It wasn’t aggressive, just a feeling of reasonable entitlement as to their place on the planet as human beings, which informed their performance. This is what struck me as different. I heard it in the way they played out – boldly, making a statement about their playing and themselves. I’m not sure that as girls or women we reach that confidence: we aren’t always taught that our gender does not make us lesser beings.
What we need to to do is sift out the noxious stuff about men – the cliches and assumed behaviours, exactly as we want for women. There are differences – some genetic, others learned. That is a another enormous and complex topic, but the point is: what can we learn from men that is useful to us, without it being at the expense of our female-ness? I believe that that confidence-in-the-world is a wonderful thing, both at the piano and away from it. It’s a quality which I am busy learning for myself, and when I get it right, it’s like being able to fly!
The joys of working and living in Johannesburg are many (despite the terrible things that have been happening recently) – but the constant battle to please my pianos with a Goldilocks kind of humidity is not a joy at all. They are both thoroughly spoiled, with lifesavers to keep the soundboards happy, and a built-in humidifier in the room, which switches itself on and off (mostly on) as the long hot summer drags on. Said humidifier having a noxious-sounding drone which always seems to be out of tune with whatever I play.
Of course the room becomes positively tropical. It’s lovely in winter when the outside humidity is nothing short of living in a desert. But summer is another challenge: it feels like a hothouse as I wilt away at the keyboard. (Sometimes I cheat and switch it off, hoping that I won’t be found out.) I suppose I should be grateful not to live at the coast, where excessive humidity is another whole story and I can imagine mould grows in pianos with very little encouragement.
But Goldilocks was maybe on to a good thing – and so are my dear Steinways. They DO sounds better for living in this environment. No more horrible rattles from a dessicated action sounding like Beecham’s proverbial skeletons on a tin roof. And the tunings hold so much better! Back to practising…in the hothouse!