IAN PACE, PIANIST - Interview with Marc Bridle,
February 2001 Part Two
MB: Finnissy's Gershwin arrangements are just one part of this composer's output of piano transcriptions. Do you think Finnissy has something important to say about the art of transcription for the piano? How do his transcriptions compare with those of other composers, such as Busoni and Liszt? How successful is Finnissy in incorporating the original meaning of Gershwin's original songs?
IP: Finnissy definitely has much of importance to say about transcription! He has spoken and written at length on the subject. Basically, he has been fascinated since a young age with Busoni's essay on the subject, in which he defined all composition as a form of transcription; music exists as an abstract idea, then the pen 'transcribes' it into written form, at which point it takes on a life of its own. This is why the maxim for composers 'you should hear it, then write it down' is very simplistic - musical notation is not innocent or transparent. Notation carries with it a whole series of connotations - historical, graphic or psycho-semantic - that operate to some extent beyond the composer's attempts to control them.
To return to the point, most of Finnissy's works of the last twenty years or so are in some sense 'transcriptions', by virtue of making reference to other musical material (as often from folk music as from the 'classical' traditions). I think he believes that in so culturally 'constructed' a field as music, it is practically impossible for a composer to have an 'original idea' - even a negation of everything before would be a form of relation. The post-war serialists had the ideal of a universal musical language, free from the past and from national connotations; with hindsight, however, we can see how much Boulez relates to French traditions, Stockhausen to German ones, and Nono to Italian ones. Finnissy's way of dealing with what Gramsci calls 'the infinity of traces that historical processes leave upon the soul', is to try and bring 'influences' and interests to the foreground, so as to be able to acknowledge them, deal with them, and modify them towards quite new ends. Finnissy's distortions, cut-ups, juxtapositions, over-layerings, etc., of Verdi, Gershwin, Bach, and many, many others are to my mind much more individual works than those of numerous composers who consider themselves to be writing without reference to previous models. He is able to create a synthesis (in the Hegelian sense of the word, not in the sense we use it now to refer to some type of compromise), taking that leap of the imagination to create something genuinely new from the bare-materials of the pre-existent.
Finnissy is certainly very aware of, and interested in, the whole history of transcription (of Liszt, Alkan, Busoni, Godowsky, Grainger, Sorabji, and others; I would also add the variations of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms to the category of 'transcription'). But I think his understanding of this 'tradition' is much deeper and more insightful than others. I believe he appreciates the radicalism of this literature, the qualities which make it still of interest today. Some of the transcriptions of Liszt (e.g. his Reminiscences of Simon Boccanegra) and Busoni (e.g. his Kammerfantasie über Carmen) can still seem strikingly 'modern'; Finnissy also says that the appeal of Godowsky's transcriptions was to due with their slippery, chromatic, approach to harmony. The Verdi Transcriptions are on one level a 'Homage to Busoni', but not in the sense of writing a piece 'in the style of Busoni' (whatever that might be!); more an attempt to relate Busoni's ideas (and Verdi's) to the present day. It's for this reason that I think the works are modern rather than nostalgic. I'm wary of programming Finnissy together with romantic pianist-composers for fear of this leading to a downplaying of his modernity.
It's very easy to turn the whole 'romantic' legacy of piano music into something altogether safer and less dangerous than I think it seemed at the time. I feel this has something to do with the fact that pianists and other musicians have lost contact with living traditions, so all music becomes appreciated for its distance rather than its proximity (I could say a lot more about this). The first half of the nineteenth century was a time of great social change, some of it progressive. People speak of a certain ideal of 'romanticism' in music; what they really refer to is a late romanticism, when the initial political motivations of the romantics had dissipated, and the movement as a whole had degenerated into a type of narcissistic individualism. And then many of the so-called 'neo-romantics' of now (particularly those composers of that description from the U.S.) have lost even that aspect; their romanticism is that of pre-packaged, easy to digest, commodified emotive gestures and effects. This is music that mirrors the worst aspects of mass consumerism. On the other hand, there are deeply interesting figures from Germany, such as Wolfgang Rihm or Wilhelm Killmayer, who have utilised fragments of romantic music (as Charles Rosen points out in his book The Romantic Generation, the fragment was a defining feature of early romanticism) from an undeniably modern perspective, creating a fascinating dialectic between form and content. Another composer who interests me very much in this respect is Salvatore Sciarrino who takes pianistic figurations or ornamentations from Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, Ravel and either creates a hallucinatory, physical experience from these 'archetypes', or presents them as disembodied surfaces of a world that no longer exists, applying compositional processes that cause them to 'decay', like the flowers in a vanitas painting, something that is alluringly beautiful but forever lost.
The best period performers have recently been re-thinking the music of the nineteenth century in terms of more radical notions of the meaning of 'romanticism', and discovering how many of these conceptions are born out by the performance aesthetics of the time. I just quite recently bought the CD of Emmanuel Ax and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment playing the first Chopin concerto. Quite apart from the fine piano-playing and Erard piano (not quite as impressive as a Pleyel!), the orchestral playing is so striking. Using a medium size orchestra, the strings playing with less vibrato and a more pointed sound than is customary, it's amazing how much of that spirit of rebellion and hope are contained even within the first few bars. When I hear it played in the 'normal' ways now, it just sounds kitschy to me.
To return to the Gershwin Arrangements; they are, I find, some of the most challenging of Finnissy's music to play convincingly. There are a great many ways of performing them, and my approach is very particular, relating to my own set of priorities of what I believe to be most important in the music. While the melodies remain in a more or less intact form, the rest of the notes go in all sorts of directions. I was very conscious of trying not to over-emphasise the melodies, which I know is something Finnissy doesn't like - then they sound just like Gershwin tunes with Finnissy very much in the background. No, I firmly believe that these pieces should be addressed as music of now, music which couldn't exist without all that has happened in the intervening modernist period. So sometimes I consciously try to avoid 'shaping' the melodies too much, as that can lead to their assuming an overly foregrounded position (for example in 'Things are looking up', where the melodic voice is marked at a higher dynamic at the very outset, but not afterwards). The aim was to try and achieve the sense that the melodies exist in an uneasy equilibrium with the other lines/harmonies/rhythms. This can lead to some of them sounding quite flat on the surface, but containing all this suppressed 'latent energy'.
A piece like 'Blah, blah, blah' was an evocation of a particular individual who never stopped talking, so I tried to make it sound as incessant and relentless as I could. For 'I'd rather Charleston' I wanted, rather than aiming for an exuberant 'whiz', to create a type of danse macabre, so I took it extremely fast and often completely without pedal. At the end of 'Nashville Nightingale' I remember absolutely pounding the piano, trying not to get a 'nice sound', raucous rather than grandiose. Inevitably the microphone homogenises this a little. In general, I felt the true intimacy of the pieces demanded a somewhat 'bare-knuckled' approach; even in the many slow pieces, I thought their lyricism should seem a little too close-to-the-bone.
It would be much easier to 'characterise' the pieces in clichéd manners; indeed pianistically things can be a lot easier when what one's aiming for has been tried and tested by other performers. Inevitably therefore what I'm trying to achieve is by nature somewhat experimental. While I'd known and played the Gershwin Arrangements for nearly ten years before I recorded them, my ideas were continually developing or changing - probably they will continue to do so. Overall the disc seems to have been well received (contrary to what I'd expected!), but after a while I don't listen to my own recordings. As I think I mentioned in another answer, recordings are a document of a particular view, a particular type of playing, at a particular time. If people like them, then that's great, but I have to put them behind me and go on to keep exploring. Maybe some other time I'll record these and other works of Finnissy again and do them completely differently. The music is so rich and offers so many possibilities.
On the other hand, these pieces do contain the traces of earlier traditions within them, and I did want to acknowledge this in some way. At the recording studio at Wantage that we used (where we have also recorded the complete piano works of Walter Zimmermann - a future release), there's a beautiful Fazioli piano, a slightly soft-toned instrument. When we were testing the sound, we settled on a medium-distance position for the microphone (David Lefeber, producer and director of Metier, always likes to work with a single microphone). I heard the sound and it just clicked as being 'right'. I didn't quite realise why at the time, but it was because it reminded me a little of some of the sound of earlier piano recordings. This seemed a very potent mixture, a sound reminiscent of other times, whilst playing very modern music. While in some of the pieces I strived for a Stravinskian type of quite detached articulation, in others I went for a quite ultra-legato approach, which is quite out of fashion nowadays. I tried to apply this to multiple lines, however, rather than just the 'singing melody' as older pianists might have done.
Recording and live performance are two fields that I treat quite differently. If you're going to do more than one take of a section, because of a wrong note, a note that doesn't quite speak how you want it to, a plane going overhead, a pigeon stuck in the rafters (I've had that a few times!), the air-conditioning suddenly switching itself on automatically, or any of the other pitfalls that most recording musicians will be familiar with, there needs to be some consistency of approach so that edits can be made without the result sounding too arbitrarily disjunctive. It necessitates a rather different balance between the spontaneity and pre-planning.
Spontaneity, in the sense of not pre-determining everything I am going to do, is very important to me in live performance. I don't think I could really play a performance in an identical manner twice. There are so many factors to take into account and respond to - the piano, the acoustic, the levels of attentiveness in the audience. I think most listeners can tell quite clearly the difference between a performer who is just going through the motions and one who is creating something distinctive at the time of performance. Much of my practice and investigation of music is concerned with an attempt to expand the possibilities for spontaneous engagement. There's no contradiction, in my mind, between thinking concretely about a piece of music and how to play it, and acting instinctively, irrationally, in performance. The extent of the thinking serves to enlarge the reservoir of possibilities for the spontaneous imagination to draw upon and fashion into new approaches. Obviously a spontaneous approach carries a greater degree of risk, but it's a risk worth taking, I think. In the recording of the Gershwins, in some of the pieces I took a slightly more spontaneous approach than usual. This is still a balance I'm trying to get right, some types of impulsiveness or extreme stillness that are 'felt' can sound quite different on a disembodied recording - there is always a more 'objective' quality when you can't actually see the performer.
There's a brilliant article by the American musicologist Robert S. Winter in which he examines the tempi in a large sample of recordings of the second movement of Beethoven's Op. 111 - from Schnabel and Fischer, through Arrau, Ashkenazy, Brendel, Pollini, Rosen, to Badura-Skoda and Binns on period instruments. What is remarkable is quite how consistently almost all of these players speed up and slow down at the same places. The score would at least suggest a quite regular pulse - Winter doesn't claim this as the only possible interpretation, but suggests that one would have thought that someone might have tried it. No doubt many of these players were acting 'instinctively' in the rather naïve sense of the word. Some of what we classify as 'instinct' might actually be accumulated habit, not least bearing mind the huge influence of recordings; this is why I believe it's important to engage dialectically with both instinctive and rational approaches to performance.
There are many other ways in which I feel live performance and recording are different. I would compare them to the difference between a stage play and a film. The type of rhetoric that a stage actor applies, so as to project their voice across a hall, is quite different to that of a film actor whose words are being picked up by cameras and microphones. This is just as true of musical rhetoric, whether one is 'playing out' to an audience, or playing to a microphone, though of course these things can easily be exaggerated in both cases. I only occasionally record my live performances, mostly just for promotional purposes. Ideally, if recording a concert, I would place the microphone quite a bit further away that usual, but this tends to make the sound dull and cause lots of extraneous noise to be picked up.
Many times I've been to concerts which have sounded very dull and unengaging, then heard them broadcast on a later occasion, when they have seemed much more full of life; contrariwise, I've known electrifying live performances which have sounded over-the-top, messy and unduly volatile when broadcast. Nowadays many concerts (especially those of new music) are recorded, and musicians' approaches are more often engineered to the demands of the microphone than that of the concert hall. This is a shame I think, and I think it is better if possible to preserve the differences between the two media. If I ever get to be artistic director of a festival (something I'd like to do some day), I'd like to put limits on the recording of concerts, not least so as to tell listeners that if they want to hear this, they actually have to be there to participate in the unrepeatable moment of the occasion.
As far as the meaning of Gershwin's words go, I think Michael reacts to very particular facets of these. Some of the words echo with events in his own life - these provide for the most 'personalised' pieces, others remind him of people he knows, others make him think of the events of and historical circumstances of the time. He told me that in Shall We Dance? He imagined one of these horrendous dance contests that took place in the 1930's, which many people went in for desperate to win some money to help with their own perilous financial circumstances. Some people literally danced themselves to death; consequently this bizarre piece is a type of Totentänz. Nonetheless, I think these ideas feed the musical surface rather than actually being it; the pieces stand with just their title - a listener need not know the words in order to be able to appreciate the piece.
MB: You have, of course, performed Finnissy's monumental History of Photography in Sound at the RAM, and you are also recording it. How did you come to be offered the opportunity to perform the world premiere of the work in its entirety?
IP: I played Finnissy's complete piano works in a series of six big recitals in 1996 in London. It was after hearing this series, having a chance to hear his whole piano output laid in front of him, that Finnissy spoke with me about the idea of writing a mammoth piano work, which I would play complete. As it progressed, I performed each chapter as it was completed, so it was only natural that I should give the premiere. I've also written quite extensively about Finnissy's music, most notably in the two large chapters I contributed to the book Uncommon Ground, which I also co-edited. I think in fairness I could claim to know his music as intimately as anyone.
MB: The work has been written for many different pianists. Despite this, do you feel that the work has a symmetry and integration which makes it possible for one pianist to perform it successfully?
IP: Absolutely. The History of Photography in Sound, is no mere assemblage of separate pieces. There is a huge amount of thematic cross-referencing going on between the different books and chapters, and I actually think that many of the chapters make more sense as a part of the whole than individually. Now that I've played the complete cycle, it looks like there will be several further opportunities to do so; that nowadays interests me more than playing the separate chapters.
Finnissy has an acute sense of large-scale drama. In this sense the work is very different from other piano pieces of comparable length. When playing the whole, I am very conscious of how the individual moments relate to the whole, and try and use this knowledge as the basis for my overall interpretation. In this sense, I might play some chapters differently when giving a complete performance from how I might do so if I were playing them separately - the relative 'weight' given to certain appearances of material is in part conditional on whether this is their only appearance. I actually think that there are many good reasons for one pianist to perform the whole - otherwise big discrepancies can occur between different approaches which upset the balance of the whole.
There is a symmetry (slightly lop-sided, but Finnissy is far too thoughtful a composer to enact symmetry without some distortion!) to the whole work. Book 3, at the centre, was the first to be composed, and is the most accessible and most episodic. The middle piece of this, Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets, was the first piece to be written. Then the piece has a sort of fractured palindromic form around this. Chapters in Book 2 are mirrored by those in Chapter 4, and Book 5 is a counterpart to Book 1. Perhaps 'mirrored' isn't quite the right word, the various counterparts are more like 'the other side of the mirror'!
For the first chapter, Le démon de l'analogie, Finnissy described to me the idea of some long 'tracking shot', across broad expanses of much of the material that will occur later in the cycle. When playing this chapter as part of the whole, I tried to maintain a certain aloofness or sense of 'distance'. Conversely, in the last chapter, Etched Bright with Sunlight, again there is a wide range of material, but it is presented mostly in short snatches as the piece spirals frantically en route to its conclusion. The second chapter, Le réveil de l'intraitable realité, presents short snippets of material that go in and out of half-focus, dims and crescs to and from niente, never for a long time going beyond mezzo-piano. Traditional ideals of clarity and projection seem inappropriate to me at these points, in the context of the whole. There are also long passages at various points that are extremely quiet, another type of 'distance'. This sort of 'holding back' makes the events when material is presented in a more fully-fledged, 'in focus' manner, all the more striking. In the last piece, Etched Bright with Sunlight, there is a quite explicit quotation from Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette, which had been vaguely alluded to at various earlier points. There is a lot hanging on such a moment - if one 'plays it out' too much, it becomes the 'big tune' at the end, a type of catharsis that could sound very tacky and banal. When playing this, I was very concerned to do the opposite, and keep it 'under wraps' or veiled. That sort of thing can affect one's perception of the whole piece.
Above all, when playing the complete cycle, my top priority is to maintain the sense of the whole; to concentrate in particular on the macroscopic dialectical relationships between stillness and activity, flatness and variegation, stasis and dynamism, as well as obvious contrasts of dynamics, articulation, etc. There is always a danger of a 'law of diminishing returns' - too much variety can itself produce a form of sameness. This is something that I think most 'complex' composers have been highly aware of, and a performer should think about also. My personal bêtes noires are kitchiness and excessive sentimentality (there is a world of difference between sentimentality and genuine emotion. I realise with some hindsight that I have been guilty of a sentimentalised approach sometimes in the past, something I now try hard to avoid!); if a piece contained these qualities in large measure, I probably wouldn't play it. I don't think this is at all true of Finnissy's music, but I think it takes a careful approach to ensure they don't enter by the back door. There are passages within the History marked 'sentimental', but these are contextualised in such a way as to partially objectify such an affectation, and survey it from a wider perspective.
MB: History of Photography in Sound incorporates many different styles, ranging from the Negro spirituals of the second chapter to the more classical elements of the Alkan-Paganini sections of chapter three - and beyond. How successful do you think Finnissy has been in achieving his aim of composing 'a history of photography in sound'? How all embracing is the work?
IP: There are many 'histories', many 'photographies' and many 'sounds'! Like most of Finnissy's titles, this can be read in numerous ways. It's as much about the connotations of the three concepts as a chronological 'history'. I'm wary about using the term 'style' - that implies pastiche. With Finnissy it¹s more like he takes an avocado, removes its contents, and replaces them with his own - only the 'shell' remains. The idioms or materials with which he works are only the starting point - what he does with them is the thing of interest. I think it's an immensely successful work because of the panoramic range of emotions and ideas stemming from it, as well as the way it combines into a coherent whole. 'History', 'Photography' and 'Sound' as concepts help to bring about this end; in this sense, it is very all embracing. Ideas from the cinema (the idea of 'photography' includes moving as well as still photographs) have for a long time informed Finnissy's approaches to structure and texture; he uses these with a greater level of sophistication than ever before.
History of Photography in Sound contains many allusions. In North American Spirituals, he takes the pitches of the spirituals, then reworks them within one of the parts of a chorale derived from William Billings, so as to present, ambivalently, a musical analogue of the whole notion of 'assimilation'. He performs similar procedures when combining Vendan African songs and bass-lines from Schubert and Mozart. Elsewhere, the rhythms of the materials are often distorted, or they are combined with other things; almost never is there pure quotation, 'photographs' presented with no element of critique. In Alkan-Paganini, he uses some basic gestural formations and small pitch cells from Alkan and Paganini (and Schumann), and the structure of the whole piece (left hand alone, right hand alone, then both combined) comes from Alkan's Trois Grande Études, but it doesn't sound like these composers' music; it is utterly a work of Finnissy's own. He has absorbed many influences, engaged with many older musics, but almost never uses them as convenient 'ready-mades'.
I wrote about this at length in the programme note; overall I think in part the piece constitutes a critique of the whole questions of musical representation and assimilation. This is what fundamentally differentiates Finnissy from superficial imitators, who just use the same sorts of references, but for cheap effect. There were composers who were initially a little influenced by Finnissy's earlier works - such as Chris Dench, James Dillon, Richard Barrett and Richard Emsley - but all of these people quickly struck out on their own, to produce something genuinely original. The subsequent generation of 'Finnissy clones' don't begin to compare with these figures, I think. Sometime I might write an essay entitled 'Finnissy defended against his devotees' - the way in which he distorts, modifies, critiques his musical 'objets trouvées', the way in which he refuses to allow a nostalgic interpretation, these are what makes his music worthwhile, much more than the fact of his using the range of reference he does. Lots of younger composers can reach for a folk tune, a batch of clusters, an unadorned modal melody, etc., as an easy-to-handle 'sound effect' to produce a predictable effect in an audience, ensuring the piece will be a 'fun romp' rather than anything more serious. Of course then the music is consoling and not disconcerting for the audience, as it appeals to the familiar.
There was a talk that Lachenmann gave in Huddersfield last year where he cited a piece of Penderecki that, at the climax, suddenly turns into a Bach quotation. People said that this was a moment of great elation, whereas Lachenmann found it so cheap. When this takes the form of direct quotation of stylistic pastiche, it's obvious; however, there is much other work that is little more than a patchwork quilt of 'heard' music, with a few minor alterations to cover one's tracks. Critics talk about what a fine 'ear' a composer has in the way that they 'hear what they write' - indeed, they sometimes heard it somewhere else before they put it onto paper and passed it off as their own.
Quotation is something that needs to be further thought about and discussed. Whatever a composer's motivation in using a quotation or pastiche, often that is what primarily the listener hears, and overshadows anything else. How many people listen to the third movement of Berio's Sinfonia, when really they would sooner listen to the original Mahler Symphony, but see this as the 'acceptable face of modernism'? It concerns me particularly in the field of contemporary opera that so many works in this medium are dependent on clichéd effects to create a rather hackneyed form of 'word painting' or 'commentary'. It's quite an easy way to write an opera, to take a stage play and add these elements; I think that composers would do well to ask not just 'how does one write an opera', but 'why write an opera at all - why is it a valid medium in this day and age?'
My basic view is that 'serious' music new or old is worthwhile to the extent that it moves beyond the tried and tested, beyond the familiar. This is a necessary though not necessarily sufficient condition, I believe; otherwise it's little more than light entertainment or quasi-film music. Now, of course there is a place for these latter categories, but I think popular music serves those purposes much better. The claims made that new music should primarily be entertaining don't hold up - only a small number of people listen to it, so it can't be succeeding very well in its aims. Is there not a place for something more serious and challenging? A similar situation applies in literature - so much new 'serious' writing seems to be pot-boilers dressed up in pointlessly verbose, 'literary' language. If people want to write a popular novel, why not just do so? Correspondingly, the trendy, image-conscious, string quartets that have been an unfortunate feature of musical life recently will never achieve the popularity of a real rock group. By being a string quartet, they are making a token gesture to achieve artistic respectability. There's no way it's possible to justify subsidy for new music if the only claim to be made for it is that it provides a respectable form of entertainment for the middle-classes, the vague aroma of 'high art' without anything more. It's a rather pathetic spectacle, hearing 'classical' composers talk about their interests in 'rave' and 'house' music; most people who are into such things would just laugh at what they produce. There is good music inspired by rock and jazz (e.g. the Fox piece we talked about earlier, I think) - that uses elements from these other styles, but creates something quite different from them. Richard Barrett was very happy when once his music was compared to Captain Beefheart - yet that similarity is much deeper than a form of stylistic allusion would allow.
The great thing about the best music of recent times (particularly that of the 50's, 60's and 70's) was that the composers, for the most part, wrote what they did out of a sense of necessity and commitment, rather than playing to audiences' expectations. That rarely applies nowadays; composers instead think 'what should I write to become successful'? I've seen and heard this again and again, composers who are so terribly self-conscious about their place in the scheme of things, and write accordingly. It's careerist compromise at its worst, though I suppose somewhat mitigated by the perilous career insecurity that obtains today in the highly under-subsidised music world. Unfortunately it seems rather prevalent in Britain, amongst composers of all persuasions, whether they see themselves as 'mainstream', 'complex', 'experimental', or any other tired-out old category. The 'Manchester School' never saw themselves as a school (I was asking Maxwell Davies about this recently) - they were a group of highly distinctive composers who happened to study at the same place at the same time.
Another thing that comes to mind is the whole nature of 'character' in music. One finds 'character' in the novels of Dickens or the operas of Britten, usually a matter of stereotypes. As a humanist (of types!), I do believe that human beings are much complex and rich than can be contained within any pigeonhole. Music of 'character' or playing of 'character' is just as invalid, I think, as any novel of 'character'. Usually all the distinctive things - ambiguities, discontinuities, volatilities - are evened out by some hackneyed form of 'characterisation'. That doesn't interest me at all as a performer, though I know it's an easy way to win over audiences and critics. 'Characterisation' is a code word for playing something in a way so that it sounds familiar. All performers articulate their own sense of priorities about a musical work; mine are the ways in which the music breaks with convention, 'makes strange', is 'modern'.
There's some interesting recent writing by the American musicologist Christopher Gibb on Schubert, questioning the numerous myths that have grown up about the 'poor, struggling artist'. Actually Schubert wasn't doing too badly for someone of his age; it's mainly the fact that he died early that makes us think that he was unrecognised. Now this rather simplistic notion of Schubert has quite strongly affected the way of playing his music, just as the easy connotations we draw concerning the 'bearded Brahms' have conditioned attitudes to his. In Schubert's case it is quite commonplace to play the music extremely slowly, with an all purpose legato in place of his own quite detailed articulations, with a consistent 'rounded tone', to give the music some sort of cod-pathos. With Brahms, the music is often played in a heavy (with far too large orchestras), again slow, again unarticulated manner, rather stodgily, because isn't that after all the sort of music a bearded man would have written? (though he only grew the beard in his late years, nonetheless a CD I have of a wonderful period instrument performance of Ein Deutsches Requiem, which he wrote when he was in his 30's, still reproduces the old bearded photograph on the cover). It's equally easy to romanticise Schumann's madness, to see this as some form of daemonic possession; actually the works from his period of mental instability are more notable for their greater banality and over-repetition.
The importance of taking a biographical approach to understanding a composer's work is not necessarily one I would dispute, but it can be very problematic. Biography is something forever being rethought and modified, and it's all to easy to form one-dimensional conclusions as to a composer's 'character', and equate the work with this. Perhaps composition can sometimes be a form of catharsis, a way in which the composer demonstrates a part of their personality quite at odds from that which they present in their everyday life?
A statement I'm fond of making is 'There are no good composers, just good compositions. Similarly there are no good performers, just good performances.' It's always a difficulty for both composers and performers, that people hear one work or one performance and assume that everything is like that. Sadly there are numerous cases where that is indeed the case, but that doesn't mean we should apply it as a general rule. Why is a recognisable personal style in all of a composer's works, and a performer's concerts, a good thing? If ten works might seem to be by different composer¹s, or ten performances might seem to be as if by different performers, what is wrong with that?
MB: Does it slightly sadden you that pianists with incandescent techniques, such as Maurizio Pollini, do not always show a willingness to play, and commission, more contemporary music?
IP: Well, Pollini has played works of Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, Sciarrino, Manzoni, and a few others, which is more than most. I'm sure there all lots of pressures, from agents and promoters, that place limits upon performers such as Pollini's opportunities to play and commission contemporary music. For anyone with such a huge reputation and international profile as Pollini, there are obvious dangers were he to play a great deal of new music. While perceptions are gradually changing for the better, there is still a certain stigma attached to playing new music, or early music for that matter. Ridiculous prejudices still apply that somehow people in both these fields are the second best. To my mind, few 'mainstream' violinists could match Reinhard Goebel's performances of Bach or Biber, or Irvine Arditti's of Xenakis, Nono and Ligeti, and others. In both their cases, as well as their stupendous technical facilities, I'm impressed by the extent to which they are less encumbered by received ideals of 'musicality', and as such are free to think through the music afresh. Performers such as these, and others who have taken a thoughtful and insightful approach to music, and developed technical approaches which allow them to do all they wish, interest me nowadays more than the 'stars'.
Pianists such as Aloys Kontarsky, David Tudor, Herbert Henck, Frederic Rzewski, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Pi-Hsien Chen, and others, whose focus is upon contemporary music, also have or had incandescent techniques. It's a shame, I think, that none of these figures were thought fit to be included in the Phillips 'Great Pianists of the 20th Century' series; nor wonderful fortepianists such as Malcolm Bilson, Robert Levin, Andreas Staier, Paul Komen, Jos van Immerseel. I would love to hear some of this later category playing new music.
I'm an agnostic as to the question of whether specialisation is a good thing. When people say so-and-so is a fine performer because they can play both Beethoven and Stockhausen well, they often mean that they play both in a conventionally 'musical' way. That's one possible approach, but not really the one I wish to take. I gave a concert of Beethoven and Tippett recently, and it struck me that the Beethoven seemed to have much more in common with the new music I play than did the Tippett. When doing another concert with the Hammerklavier Sonata and the Boulez 2nd, the closer proximity, temporally speaking, of the Boulez somehow made the interpretative questions much easier to answer than with the Beethoven.
I do believe that all performers should play music of their own time; that was the case in previous eras, and should be now. That seems to me to be a good perspective from which to observe all music. Just to have the experience of working with living composers, living traditions, would affect many people's perceptions.
This makes me also think about programming - programmes of music the relationships between which can be relatively arbitrary, are often unified by a consciously applied consistency of interpretative approach (defined as 'musicality' or 'the performer's personality'). I believe there are meaningful connections to be made between music old and new, through programming; many more possibilities than standard recital formats allow. People often criticise programmes for having too much similarity; on the contrary, I believe a lot of programmes have too much difference, which is only alleviated by a sameness of approach. To put a programme together which contains works whose connections are clear, then to try and apply a diverse interpretative approach; that can be much more interesting.
As I suggested earlier, I don't believe in the Werktreue notion of performance, that the player should be just some type of transparent executor. That to me seems neither possible or desirable (Richard Taruskin's essay 'On Letting the Music Speak for Itself', in Text and Act, is very good on this subject). As a counterbalance to the late-romantic idea of the interpreter, the Werktreue ideal has been much espoused by performers of both early/period instrument and contemporary music. This was probably a necessary stage to go through so as to get rid of lots of 'deadwood', so to speak. I believe the best period performers today have a rather more sophisticated notion of the aesthetics and ideals of performance than many performers either of the standard repertoire or often of new music.
MB: What new music do you want to add to your repertoire in the near future?
IP: There are various things for the imminent future! - James Dillon has just finished a fantastic new set of piano pieces, very difficult but very rewarding, which I'm premiering at the Berlin Biennale at the beginning of March; also Pascal Dusapin has finished a new piece for me for the same concert. I'm also working on some more Sciarrino works for concerts in Geneva and Chicago, a big piano piece of Jay Alan Yim, and some extraordinarily difficult piano pieces by Gordon Downie for a recording session at the end of March.
Then there are a number of works that I have been meaning to get round to learning soon: Carter Night Fantasies, Ives First Sonata, the remaining Sciarrino piano music that I haven't yet played, some more Scelsi, piano music of Tristan Murail, Luc Ferrari, Christian Wolff Accompaniments, the few Ligeti Études I haven't done yet, maybe some more Cowell, Antheil, etc. I played Jolivet's Mana suite for the first time last year, and want to dig into some of his other piano music. Various other Italian music: Stefano Gervasoni, more Marco Stroppa, Marco DiBari. Of older repertoire, I've played about 70% each of the piano music of Schumann and Chopin; I want to learn the remaining pieces, Liszt¹s Dante Sonata, Don Juan Fantasy and some other pieces. Whenever there's a relatively quiet period, I often learn a big batch of music by a composer, e.g. last year I went through a period working on lots of sets of Beethoven Variations.
Overall, I think my repertoire is quite comprehensive, from Beethoven to the present day (anything earlier I don't really like any longer on modern instruments). But there are always many corners to explore of lesser-known repertoire. At some point, I want to look further into some of the slightly more obscure early Russian modernists (Mossolov, Roslavets, Protopopov, Lourié, etc.). Also, I haven't played so much Scandinavian music. There are various interesting groups of Eastern European composers, particularly in Hungary and Slovakia, who formed samizdat cults around figures such as Cage, Feldman and Wolff in the communist days, when that music was scarcely known over there.
In Britain, we scarcely know that much of the music of the elder statesmen from Europe and elsewhere. I want further to explore what younger composers from outside Britain are doing. I've played and supported a lot of young British composers; now I want to familiarise myself more fully with younger generations from abroad.
But also, going through and re-thinking my old repertoire can be as important as learning new pieces. Almost continually, I'm engaged in a process of trying to think hard about the music I play and the reasons for which I think it's important. For example, I was playing Scriabin's Tenth Sonata recently. Now, Scriabin is a composer whom I have found problematic in the past - the music could seem overblown, superficial and ultimately banal. It's hard to deny that his formal structures are rather elementary. Now the standard way of playing his music involves a good deal of emphasis upon the primary melodic line, with the other parts placed firmly in the background. I started to think about the extent to which Scriabin was influenced by Chopin, and Chopin in turn placed such great store by Bach. So I have been trying a different, more contrapuntal, approach to Scriabin, attempting to achieve a greater degree of equitable balance between the various lines that occur simultaneously. I'm fascinated by the recordings of Rachmaninoff playing, in which, rather than over-emphasising one part, he creates a form of clarity of line by the slight de-synchronisation of different lines (even within one hand), a technique which actually finds resonance within the work of some Renaissance polyphonists. Rachmaninoff achieves a sense of fluidity and freedom (his rubatos overall follow the principle that where one adds time to a note, it is subtracted from a subsequent one, so that the underlying pulse remains relatively constant) which I find captivating without ever being sentimental. It's a shame that for the most part we hear the type of Hollywood-ised Rachmaninoff that is the staple of competitions the world over; Rachmaninoff himself almost never played like that.
Similarly, I found it extremely interesting to listen to the recordings of piano-rolls of Busoni playing. Busoni is a composer who is often assigned the simplistic role of late-Romantic pianist-composer, despite his disdain for Wagner and attempts to fuse a type of neo-classicism together with elements of the Romantic tradition which he admired. In his own playing, one finds a much more complex, varied approach to pedalling and articulation, amongst other things, than is commonly found in performances of his work. The conflicting pulls of both Germanic and Italianate traditions is crucial, in my opinion, to the individuality of Busoni's work. His interpretative approach to both his own and others' music demonstrates this form of synthesis. In the music of Busoni, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, also Schoenberg, Debussy, Bartók, and many others, I am always concerned to try to look beyond all the paraphernalia that has come to surround them. This can be a difficult process and provoke some hostility from those who have very firmly ingrained and received views about how these composers' music should be played, but I still believe it to be a worthwhile endeavour.
Notwithstanding my earlier comments about the differences between early and late romanticism, I nonetheless believe that late romanticism is a richer and more complex phenomenon than is commonly believed to be the case. We often speak of a 'romantic' style of playing; yet few of the pianists from the late romantic era actually played like that. Think of the relationship between Horowitz and Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, Rubinstein with Stravinsky, Marguerite Long with Debussy, Ravel and Fauré, Sándor with Bartók, Firkúsny with Janácek, Richter with Prokofieff; all these pianists, and many others, had contact and worked with living composers. I'm sure that most people today who have worked with composers will know that what those composers most desire in performances of their own music is by no means identical with what will be most crowd-pleasing or guaranteed to win over reviewers. Over the last fifty or so years, there have been far too many performers, singers, conductors who have had little or any contact with living composers; music of all times has become commodified by the easy availability of recordings. How often do people really sit down and just listen to a CD? - more often it provides background music while doing the cooking, reading a paper, or whatever (and I'm not innocent of these things myself). So much of the expectations placed upon music today are shaped by these situations - 'classical' music is expected to provide easily digestible moods, 'character', just like a print of a wonderful painting from the past is judged by its amenability to being an attractive piece of furniture.
I don't accept this view of art of any type. I still hold on to the, perhaps quaintly old-fashioned, view that culture can play a more fundamental part in people's lives, and can be enlightening and inspiring rather than fodder for passive consumption. These ideals are always in the forefront of my mind when performing music of any era.
I often write programme notes for my own concerts which some might find of a rather acerbic and belligerent nature. Another pianist asked me recently why I felt the need to do this, why I couldn't 'just let the playing speak for itself'. If this were a truly open-minded and pluralist aesthetic climate, then this might be possible; however, it is clear to me that this is emphatically not the case. Many come to concerts with fixed but rather narrow ideals of the role that music making should play - that is what I wish to challenge and question. When some critics accept all the baggage they inherit without question, I feel the programme note is a good medium to suggest how they might rethink and expand their musical expectations. They can say and think whatever they like about how I play a piece of music; what is more important for me is to attempt, through writing, to alter and critique the whole nature of critical discourse, which itself has a profound effect on the ways composers compose and performers perform, desperately seeking critical approval. Look for example at how often the term 'aristocratic' is used as an expression of praise for a performance or composition. When musico-critical discourse is so deeply infiltrated by the language of class supremacy, can we really treat it innocently?
MB: Do you feel there is a general reluctance by the 'big' record companies to record contemporary music?
IP: Indeed, and this is symptomatic of a general malaise in the recording industry. Around fifteen years ago, when CD's were a relatively new thing, the big companies could make a splash by releasing the first digital recordings of the whole of the standard repertoire. Now, when they release a new recording, they're often forced to confront the fact that it has to compete with several digital recordings, by renowned artists, at mid-price, on their own label. Consequently, the only new selling point they can reach for is some type of glossy or alluring packaging or other form of hype. To be able to hype something, as all students of mass consumerism know, it is an essential prerequisite that the product itself be sufficiently homogenous and anonymous so as not to get in the way of the hype. What place is there for any remotely challenging contemporary music when this state of affairs prevails?
When you go back to the 1960's and 1970's, Deutsche Grammophon, and some other big labels, were regularly releasing discs of Stockhausen, Kagel, Berio, Schnebel, Globokar, and many others, even before these composers' reputations had become firmly established. The easy availability of these recordings made my local music library buy them, which is how I first became acquainted with this music. The foresight and perception of those executives who took these decisions can't be admired enough. Yet can we really see any such courageous decisions on the part of the big companies nowadays?
I feel that the big companies have had their day - their monolithic position has led to a good deal of inertia. On the other hand, there are more than a few smaller or medium-size labels who are much more adventurous in their choice of repertoire and performers: Accord, Black Box, col legno, CPO, ECM, Erato, Etcetera, Harmonia Mundi, Hat Art, Kairos, Metier, Mode, NMC, Salabert, and others. There are many complications: for example, some of the CD review magazines' readiness to review discs from these labels can be conditional upon the labels' willingness to take out advertisements in the magazines. However, I hope we can achieve a state of affairs where the discs from these and other labels are taken every bit as seriously as those from the big companies.
MB: What are your hopes and aspirations for the future?
IP: I hope to continue discovering and championing new composers, and commissioning and performing new works. I have seen how advocacy of such composers such as Christopher Fox, Richard Emsley or Mark Taylor has gradually had a knock-on effect, and now other performers are taking up their work. This is something I find immensely gratifying.
There are numerous ideas I have which I would like to see come to fruition. I would very much like to play and record cycles of the piano music of Debussy, Bartók and Messiaen. I have various other programming ideas that I believe to be stimulating, such as the coupling of Dusapin's Études with works of Schumann, Finnissy's English Country-Tunes with the Beethoven-Liszt Pastoral Symphony, concerts exploring traits of mysticism and irrationalism in 20th century music, through the work of Scriabin, Messiaen, Scelsi, Wyschnegradsky, Radulescu and Mark Taylor.
I also hope to have more chance to perform and record on period instruments, on which I have had a certain amount of experience. I would deeply like to play works such as the Schumann Fantasy, or the F-sharp minor sonata, or indeed any of his piano works, on a period instrument; the Liszt Sonata on an Erard, the music of Alkan, also on an Erard. The view of the development of pianos as being one of linear progress is becoming increasingly untenable today; I would be very interested to get contemporary composers to write works for older instruments.
On a personal level, I suppose simply that I want to continue to be able to give concerts and make recordings, and hopefully achieve bigger audiences. I also have great hopes for my group Topologies, which consists of a number of outstanding players who achieve a great level of rapport. I hope that the contemporary piano department which I co-direct at the London College of Music and Media continues to grow and expand.
I enjoy making music with others every bit as much as playing as a soloist, and want to continue to expand this side of my activities. When I was starting out, I did a lot of work accompanying singers and choirs, from which I learnt a lot. I would love to perform Winterreise, or Dichterliebe, with a good singer.
More broadly, I hope that a more just society, and a more genuine idea of 'culture' in Britain, will emerge in Brtain than is currently the case. These two things go hand-in-hand, I think. I still find Britain a very narrow-minded and intolerant culture, in which people are always so apt to pass snide judgement on others so as to detract attention from their own weaknesses and insecurities. This is a process which generates its own momentum, and I am deeply saddened by it. If we were a little more tolerant of people and their true individualities, more accepting than patronising, I think it would be much for the better. Just consider the infinite variety and diversity in human beings: I am sure that most if not all of them have vast stores of creative potential if only it were not suppressed and thwarted by particular forms of education and social pressures.
I love playing the piano and making music, more than is imaginable; I couldn't imagine not doing so. When I play Schumann's Humoreske, or Debussy's Preludes, or Barrett's Tract, or Feldman's For Bunita Marcus, or participate in a performance of the Brahms Eb Clarinet Sonata or Lachenmann's Allegro Sostenuto, or listen to Bach's Brandenburg Concertos or Stravinsky's Le Sacre or Stockhausen's Hymnen, I never cease to be amazed and wondrous of what human beings are able to create. This gives me faith in humankind and thus in the possibility of a fairer, happier and a more equitable world. I truly believe that if more people can appreciate these and other things more than materialist values, then we will have taken a step forward.
* * * * * * * * *
Ian Pace's next recital on 26 February is at King's College, The Strand, London; 6 & 7.30
Programme:26 February 2001 : Great Hall, King's College, London
Early evening programme:
N.A. HUBER - Darrabuka; Beds and Brackets; Disappearances
Main programme to include:
GYÖRGY LIGETI - Touches Bloqueés
MAURICIO KAGEL - Metapiece/Mimetics
RICHARD EMSLEY - For Piano 10
HELMUT LACHENMANN - Serynade
SALVATORE SCIARRINO - Nocturnes
SYLVANO BUSSOTTI - Pour Clavier
His impressive and elegant website is
IAN PACE at bmic, The Warehouse 28th October
Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music 2000 (JW)
MUSICA2000 at STRASBOURG 25-28 September 00 (PGW+AW)
S&H Editorial October 2000
CD Review Tracts
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