IAN PACE, PIANIST - Interview with Marc Bridle,
IAN PACE (b.1968) is a leading British pianist, renowned for his transcendental technique and championship of new music in both the UK and Europe, and in recordings. He is currently in the middle of a groundbreaking series of three London recitals attended by Seen&Heard, at the Wigmore Hall, Royal Academy of Music and King's College. In a wide ranging interview with Marc Bridle he discusses his background and musical training, and the egalitarian, anti-nationalist aesthetic and political beliefs which inform his gruelling schedule of varied musical activities, and that led him to seek to present an 'alternative Britain' in his debut CD Tracts recorded in 1997, but which has only now been belatedly released. He discusses in depth working with his chosen composers, and Michael Finnissy, with whom he is most closely associated as interpreter and commentator. Recently he premièred, in a marathon recital at the Royal Academy of Music, Finnissy's monumental The History of Photography in Sound, which he is also recording for CD.
Ian Pace believes that new music should be for all people, and the best of it comprehensible without specialist training. He has a healthy scepticism of received wisdom and tradition in interpretation of the classical and romantic 'canon', and discusses knowledgeably the limitations of the famous schools of piano playing. Some may be surprised to read of his interest in early music (and respect for the best period performers), lieder and chamber music. He talks of his aspirations to perform and record (on period pianos as well as modern instruments, and with his group Topologies) unique programmes juxtaposing disparate musics to their mutual illumination - an idea which was pioneered in the BBC's College Concerts. BBC Radio3, and some of the progressive record companies, should seize with alacrity upon Ian Pace's timely programming suggestions.
This is a long and thoughtful interview, which deserves to be printed out and studied at leisure by all readers, of whatever main musical interests.
Peter Grahame Woolf (Editor Seen&Heard)
MB: Can you tell us about your early teaching and its influence on your attitude to piano playing?
IP: I was very fortunate in studying with a wonderful teacher in America, the Hungarian pianist György Sándor. When I was a teenager, I came across his seminal book 'On Piano Playing', which to my mind is the most important work on the subject of piano technique ever written. I've studied different approaches: French schools of playing, Russian schools of playing, descending from Josef Lhevinne, and frequently taught in American institutions, the English school descending from Matthay. All these 'schools' have great merits, but I am also conscious of their limits: the high-finger French school rarely makes a true legato possible, contrariwise, the Russian school makes short staccatos, detached playing, off-limits; the English school typically provides a limp and limited compromise. Sándor's approach is the most all-encompassing I can imagine: it derives from a basic understanding of the fundamental nature of the instrument and the human performing mechanism. For just about every way I wish to expand the types of sounds, balancing, articulation, voicing, etc., that I can achieve in line with the various ideas I have, I find these are absolutely compatible with Sándor's methods.
Really, we place far too much emphasis on the idea of some God-sent talent when playing an instrument. I truly believe that most people could play Beethoven, Liszt, Ravel, Stockhausen or Barrett to a very high standard given the right training, dedication and application. In Japan, a much higher percentage of musicians have perfect pitch than is the case here. Is this because the Japanese have the 'perfect pitch gene'? - I think not. It is the result of good training in a society that believes in the principle of meritocracy. We don't really believe in the principle of constructive education in Britain - it conflicts too much with our tired feudal ideas that people's abilities are mainly a result of their birthright, and should 'know their place'. This opinion is rarely expressed explicitly, but is still embedded quite deeply within the collective subconscious.
MB: Your latest CD Tracts includes five works by five different composers. How was this programme chosen, and which of the works posed the greatest challenge?
IP: This was the first CD I recorded (in the summer of 1997 - I remember it was at the time when Diana died!), though since then I have made many other recordings, several of which have already been released. So this was my 'debut' CD. It was to be a disc of British composers (as it was for NMC) of my own choice. The first definite piece to include was Ferneyhough's Lemma-Icon-Epigram, which I had played many times; it is a very highly regarded piece of music, and of which there was no easily available recording. Then I particularly wanted to include Richard Barrett's Tract, which was written for me; it's an earth-shattering piece quite unlike anything else. This also provided a perfect opportunity to bring Richard in as producer. So these two contemporary masterworks (for all the problems inherent in that term!) were to 'frame' the disc. Then I had free choice of what else to include, so I chose three other pieces that I thought would make a coherent but diverse CD. All the music I chose seemed to be 'hard-edged' rather than necessarily opulent (though there are moments of that in the Dench and Barrett works). Richard and Bert Kraaijpel (the engineer) worked hard with careful placing of microphones to achieve a sound which was dry and clear but without being 'plasticky'.
I wanted to record composers whose work (not just the piano music) I knew intimately, and with whom I'd worked with closely. So I chose pieces by James Erber, Christopher Fox and Chris Dench. They're all very different. Chris Dench's music hasn't been played so often over here since he moved to Australia, which I is a great shame, I think. His piano piece Topologies actually the most 'optimistic' piece on the disc; my ensemble takes its name from that piece. I'm particularly pleased to include the first CD recording of an Erber work (I intend to record more of his music - he has numerous other pieces for piano, and ensemble works I'd like to record with Topologies); his work is extremely powerful and visceral. In the piece on the disc, You done torn your playhouse down, he begins with an abstracted 'riff' derived from a style of jazz piano, though cast in atonal terms, and works this into this labyrinthine, hallucinatory polyphony. His work should be much better known than it is - I would love to see someone take up again his fantastic piece Music for 25 Solo Strings. The Fox might seem an odd choice; obviously it is at a considerable idiomatic distance from the other works. However, I wanted to avoid this disc being easily categorised as so-called 'complexity' music, and Christopher's piece, which I like enormously, seemed a way out of that impasse. It uses a relatively sparse range of musical material, but what he does with it, harmonically and rhythmically, is very intricate and 'complex'. For all the idiomatic difference, I sense some connections between his work and Richard Barrett's music; they both often de-emphasise individuated material in favour of processes (this perhaps shows the influence of Stockhausen), and both pieces on the disc have a bipartite structure which involves a form of dual visitation of a 'terrain'.
Overall, I wanted the disc to present an 'alternative Britain'. I think many of us know the characteristics of the sort of middle-of-the-road British music that one hears most frequently: emotionally reserved, well-proportioned, not stepping outside of clearly defined limits, concerned with 'colour' for its own sake rather than the expressive potential of colour, notable for its 'musicianly' qualities i.e. those things that are only really comprehensible other than to musicians. This is most particularly true, I think, of the composers that have come to prominence in the last two decades (in the previous era, Bryars, Ferneyhough, Finnissy, Holloway, Knussen, Colin and David Matthews, Maw, Osborne, Saxton, were all recognized - that was real diversity, and all those figures composed from genuine conviction rather than opportunism or ignorance). With this disc, I wanted to show another, quite different, side to British music which is marked by its distinction from the mainstream: often acerbic, relentless, unafraid to be demanding on the listener, but in a way that fundamentally stems from the immediacy (in my opinion) of the musical language, which is expressive of extreme emotions.
However, I don't at all want the disc to be seen as an exclusive group of the best of British music. There are many other composers I who I admire equally: Birtwistle, the earlier work of Maxwell Davies, Michael Finnissy, Howard Skempton, James Dillon, James Clarke, Chris Newman, Rebecca Saunders; lesser known figures such as Gordon Downie, Richard Emsley, Ross Lorraine, Alwynne Pritchard, Mark R. Taylor, Ian Willcock; some of the work of Gavin Bryars, Steve Martland or even Michael Nyman (before he started being sponsored by car companies!) has a strength of purpose. I've played works of Julian Anderson and Thomas Adès, and may at some point perform works such as George Benjamin's Sortiléges or Oliver Knussen's Variations. Nor in any sense do I carry any particular flag for British music - that sort of nationalism I dislike very much. There is a wide range of contemporary music that I play or am interested in which is every bit as important as the British composers whose work I champion: Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Sylvano Bussotti, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Aldo Clementi, Franco Donatoni, Pascal Dusapin, Morton Feldman, Vinko Globokar, Hans-Joachim Hespos, Volker Heyn, Nicolaus A. Huber, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Michael Jarrell, Mauricio Kagel, György Kurtág, Helmut Lachenmann, György Ligeti, Luigi Nono, Horatio Radulescu, Wolfgang Rihm, Giacinto Scelsi, Dieter Schnebel, Salvatore Sciarrino, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Toru Takemitsu, Galina Ustvolskaya, Christian Wolff, Iannis Xenakis, Walter Zimmermann, and many others. One of my next tasks should be, I think, to explore more fully the work of younger generations of European and American composers - I'm sure there's lots of interesting stuff out there. Whenever concerts are presented of 'alternative' music, it's usually still British - to many people abroad, the 'Britishness' of all sorts of music from here is more apparent than the apparent diversity. When Lachenmann and Rihm were featured in Huddersfield last year, I got sick of reading reviews commenting on how 'German' they were - why don't the critics think about why our own music sounds so 'British'? However, as I mentioned above, I absolutely realise how the positing of an 'alternative' Britain still maintains the Anglocentricism of our musical scene.
In no sense do I adhere to some particular stylistic camp, and I don't at all like being seen as part of some 'complexisist faction'. There are a number of such factional composers, usually shallow imitators of Ferneyhough or Finnissy, whose music has little substance beyond a superficially 'complex' surface. Depth, stimulation arising from the music, powerful emotions, music that challenges ones preconceptions; those are the things that I find most vital, and different idioms provide different possibilities. I play often around Europe; it's always interesting to see the different view they have of the most interesting British composers to the accepted 'canon' here. A concert of mainstream British composers was presented at Darmstadt in 1998 - people just found it trivial, and continue to talk about it. One younger composer I know found it difficult to battle against perceptions that his own music would be like that.
As for the greatest challenge, beyond any doubt that is provided by Tract. It's one of the hardest piano pieces ever written, in a way I would describe as 'transcendental' - meaning a difficulty that lies on the very fringes of possibility. There are a number of such 'transcendental' pieces that come to mind: Xenakis Evryali, and some of the piano parts in works such as Eonta, Synaphai and Keqrops, several works of Michael Finnissy such as English Country Tunes, all.fall.down, some of the Verdi Transcriptions and the Piano Concerto No. 4, Clarence Barlow's Çogluotobüsisletmesi, Walter Zimmermann's Wüstenwanderung (which I have recorded for Metier). A few other pieces skirt the border of this category: the beginning of Stockhausen's Klavierstück X, Bussotti's Pour Clavier. All the other pieces pose great pianistic challenges, but not in that league of difficulty.
MB: The works by Erber and Fox owe more to popular musical influences than the three works by Ferneyhough, Dench and Barret which take their inspiration, either directly or indirectly, from literature and poetry. Did this make recording the disc, and achieving a sense of musical integration, more difficult than it might otherwise have been?
IP: Well not necessarily, because as I suggested above, I think there are broad ways in which the pieces relate to each other. I listen to jazz and rock music, and hope that informs (at least on a subconscious level) my approach to the music of Erber, Fox and others, and read a lot of literature and poetry (and other writing) which affects how I approach the other composers.
What I'm always trying to get away from is the cultivation of a singular style of playing. When you play contemporary music, or for that matter music of any period, you are dealing with many different worlds, many different ideas, emotions, sounds. I believe it is the task of a performer to expand themselves around the piece they are playing, rather than adopting the piece into their own self-contained set of prejudices and preconceptions. Performing musicians, pianists in particular, rarely take this sort of approach, and the nature of critical discourse which praises the 'individual style', regardless of the music being performed, only encourages this. For any all-purpose set of 'musical' or pianistic ideals, it's not difficult to find a piece from any era that turns these on their head. Recently I've been working with composers such as Dusapin, Kagel, Lachenmann, Rihm and Zimmermann; I think they've all been pleased that I try and take a flexible approach to all aspects of playing, from types of rubato to the actually physical way of approaching the instrument. Working with composers is both one of the most testing and one the most rewarding aspects of playing new music - you can learn much more, discover more possibilities, than from much of conventional pianistic wisdom.
When playing older music, I try to imagine having to play that to the composer themselves, from what I can discern through reading their writings, letters, biographies, listening to the instruments they would have heard, etc. Sometimes the conclusions can be startling: I am convinced that Brahms desired a quite fundamentally different approach to articulation than one hears conventionally, and that Schumann's piano music is a lot more raw and urgent (not least with respect to the tempi) than it seems usually, sheltered by the comfortable aura (which incorporates such ideals as 'depth of tone', 'long line') that is provided by the late-romantic aesthetic of much playing. Nowadays I perceive an unfortunate trend towards this aesthetic being applied to the performance of contemporary music, to make it more conventionally 'musical'. I don't think we should be afraid of such qualities as dissonance, asymmetry, dryness, flatness, in music; they are all part of the seemingly infinite range of possibilities. Sometimes even to 'shape' a melody in the usual way can cause it to assume an undue prominence within a polyphonic texture.
In the last couple of years I've become very interested in historically informed performance (as I gather the politically correct term is at the moment!), and the debates surrounding it. In this, I think I have been influenced by friends and advocates from within the contemporary music world such as Richard Barrett (few people know how deeply interested he is in period instruments, period performance practice, and early music - this informs his own work), Carl Rosman (with whom I have exchanged many a lively e-mail debate on the subject) and especially the clarinettist Guy Cowley, who plays in my own group, and with whom I have worked frequently. He's an absolutely brilliant player who combines a career playing contemporary music with work in various period instrument orchestras. He rejected the ideal he was taught at the Royal College, of developing one's own singular 'individual sound' in favour of an approach which seeks to expand one's sound and approach with each new piece of music.
All this said, it would be disingenuous to deny some essential characteristics to one's own playing - this is the sort of thing that another person can often hear more clearly, with a greater degree of objectivity and perspective. I listen to my own recordings, and listen to the opinions of fellow musicians and others who I respect, and listen to other people playing music that I play myself, all to try and get some measure of how I would hear myself if I were someone else. So I aim to view my own playing more dispassionately, to get a sense of how it is circumscribed, so as to try and explore beyond these circumscriptions.
As I mentioned earlier, I recorded this disc three-and-a-half years ago; since then I think my playing has changed quite a bit, and it will go on to change. If I recorded these pieces again, I would probably do things somewhat differently. All solutions are inevitably provisional. There is in my opinion no such thing as a 'definitive performance' (or a definitive recording of any piece); what I do is a document of my own playing, my own conceptions and ideals (as well as practical things such as nature of piano, studio, schedule, amount of recording time, etc.!) at any one particular time. I think most of the music I play, old or new, contains much more potential than can ever be encompassed in any one performance or recording.
MB: Brian Ferneyhough is well known as one of the most intellectually rigorous of all British composers. How far did you have to understand Ferneyhough's compositional and technical complexities (i.e. the inspiration beyond the notes) to make sense of Lemma-Icon-Epigram?
IP: I read several times over the brilliant article by Richard Toop on the piece, in which he exhaustively explored the compositional processes that brought it into being. Understanding how one gesture relates to another, even if that is not immediately apparent from the musical surface, affects on a deep level how one perceives the overall trajectory of the work. In much music, a dialectic occurs between the macroscopic design of the whole, and the latent energy contained within the localised level. In composers such as Barrett and Finnissy, I think the balance of power is in favour of the former; in Brian's work, the latter takes a greater degree of precedence. When I first played Lemma-Icon-Epigram to him, I was struck by how clear a sense he had of the expressive potency of each gesture. Understanding how these things are perceived, and how the various unseen compositional processes 'feed' the musical surface, plays an important part in how I construe the piece and sense a way of playing it. However, I do think the 'intellectualism' in Brian's music is not some type of wilful obscurantism: it manifests itself in the hyper-expressionistic, sometimes surrealistic, quality of the musical object. His notation is complicated because it's counter-intuitive, intended to channel the performer's efforts in directions other than the familiar and supposedly instinctive.
I also read Ferneyhough's various ideas and essays (I reviewed the volume of these some time ago), and perhaps more importantly, listen to and investigate his other works, not just those for the piano. I am interested in some of the artists and intellectuals who Brian often refers to - Baudelaire, Benjamin, Adorno, Derrida, and others, though I could never pretend to Brian's level of understanding and insight. Nonetheless, I hope I have some measure of 'where he is coming from'!
Brian wrote a new piece for me last year, Opus Contra Naturam, which I have played a number of times now. It's an amazing, macabre, disorientating, work which plunders the deepest recesses of the imagination (also very hard to play!) in which it is most clear how much Ferneyhough's music exceeds the systematic expectations that are imposed upon it.
MB: Richard Barrett's Tract is by far the most challenging, as well as being the longest, work on this disc. What particular problems did learning and playing this composition cause?
IP: Richard takes a quite startlingly original approach to the instrument and performer. He seeks to re-invent it in terms of the ten fingers as if they were all separate instruments or players, and composes accordingly. He creates a level of intricacy that is mirrored on every level: using an essentially 'vectorial' approach, the trajectories of pitch, rhythm, dynamic envelope, articulation (graduating at various rates between ultra-staccato to ultra-legato), density, register, etc., are all working at different disjunctive rates. Consequently the difficulties for the performer are immense!
When learning it, I found the best approach was to repeatedly work on passages, concentrating each time on different parameters: pitch, rhythm, dynamics, articulation, until his desired result becomes reasonably embedded. His music in particular raises questions of prioritisation: not in the sense of paying attention to some levels and ignoring others, but rather to do with which levels of information one pays most conscious attention to at the moment of playing it. There is so much going on, no-one could be reasonably expected to be conscious of every level of detail in the course of one performance, so one makes decisions, which consequently affect the manifestation of spontaneity/pre-planning, based on convictions with regard to the nature of the work, and for the rest, hopefully the practising will serve its function! The priorities I make for a recording are not necessarily identical with those for a live performance.
The piece creates the sense that the hands and fingers have a life of their own, and literally 'drag' each other across the keyboard. Within the first part the writing is mostly contained within the lower register of the piano, so you have this immense tension created by something wanting to 'break out'. This is achieved in the second part. In the light gleams an instant, you need to combine an attention to the fine details with the sense of this incredible momentum and consistency, as if the whole piece is one extended sound. In the last part, as heard so murmured, a compression of all that has come before, the challenge is to make the events - changes in dynamic, register, articulation - seem as if they emerge as discontinuities within the texture, rather than specifics imposed upon it.
But just as much of a pianistic challenge is to create the right type of sonority and balancing in the slow sections, which obliquely quote from Beethoven. To me they have a sort of dark but gilt-edged quality, like the black spots on the sun.
MB: Barrett has consistently resisted the 'inanities' of minimalism and simplicity in his music (so much so, his music deliberately evokes the spirit of being almost unperformable). Do you, firstly, feel any empathy for his Marxist materialism and, secondly, his desire to seemingly breach the capabilities of the piano which is so evident in Tract?
IP: Indeed I do feel much empathy for his Marxist materialism, but with some differences (Richard probably thinks I'm something of a woolly liberal!). Marx's analysis of history, politics and economics is immense, penetrating and far-sighted in its implications (from my selective reading of his writings, in English translation; I don't feel I know his work in quite the level of detail and intricacy as to be able to call myself a Marxist). There is no more important intellectual paradigm from the last two centuries. Nonetheless, I am instinctively a reformer rather than a revolutionary (unlike Richard), and would prefer to call myself a progressive rather than necessarily a socialist. Probably naïvely, I still hold out some hope for the possibility of a better world achieved through democratic means (though the stranglehold a figure such as Murdoch holds over the country's, and the world's, media, is anything but democratic - changes in the concentration of media ownership are an essential prerequisite for any broader democratically-achieved reform).
Many people of my own generation are too young to remember clearly any time before the Thatcher/Reagan years. In the 1980's, there was at least some measure of resistance to Thatcherism - the miner's strike, CND, Greenham Common, poll-tax protesters, etc. Now, with the end of the cold war and so on, those with short memories and empirical non-imaginations believe that this is the only type of world there is, and that politics in any real sense of the word is dead. I don't accept that this is the best world there could be (one only needs to look at the third world, the hideous inequalities in the world's wealth, at nationalist wars, at the oppressive face of American, British and European foreign policy, to see that). Capitalism as we know it has only been active for around 250 years - feudal societies lasted much longer than that. Many of the world's problems: environmental, nationalistic and racial, religious, of gender, even of sexuality, have their basis, in my opinion, in material conditions. The oppressive Sharia laws in the Islamic world are primarily used by the rich against the poor; those who might preach feminist liberation don't necessarily extend this to the woman who cleans their house at a pittance, etc., etc. The contemporary tendency (American-imported) to focus on single-issue politics, without taking into account their economic determinants, is a very weak form of engagement.
I come from Hartlepool (though from a middle-class suburb on the outskirts, so my background is of a bizarre no-man's land!), a town which was one of many that experienced the terrible brunt of the Thatcher years - a legacy of much unemployment which remains to this day, notwithstanding the best efforts of local people to improve the situation. When I drive through the neighbouring ex-mining villages - Blackhall, Horden, Easington - they are like ghost towns. The mines were closed, then all the shops and other local businesses closed, when the residents lost their purchasing power. This makes me both upset and angry whenever I see it. Few people in government care about this any longer - Blair, like Thatcher and Major, tries to find ways of shifting the blame onto the unemployed as a justification for welfare cuts. People from the shire counties generally know little of this world, and care less. Like many people, I had hopes of the new Labour government, only to see them frustrated under the new politics based on style rather than real issues, while maintaining the stagnant consensus. The election (by dubious means) of George W. Bush in the U.S., and probably the inevitable election of William Hague or some comparable figure in the British election after next, is another step in the reactionary nature of things. However, on the basis of hunch and instinct as much as anything else, I somehow have a sense that the consensus may be sowing the seeds of its own destruction, and different times (to some extent) might not be so far away.
Anyhow, my political convictions do inform my musical activities at least in a small way, bizarre though that might seem. Quite simply, as an egalitarian, I believe that new music should be something for all people, and I believe that the best music has the potential to be comprehensible to those without a specialist training (indeed that is one of my most fundamental measures of quality). I would include Ferneyhough within this category, surprising though it might seem to some; what he creates may present difficult, complicated, ideas and emotions, but not in an auto-referential way; beyond the techniques by which it was composed, the musical language is quite archetypal in nature. What it has to say may be unfamiliar, and not what everyone wants to hear, but that doesn't necessarily imply that it is only meaningful in terms of 'taught' criteria. In the 1960's, Stockhausen was at one point practically a household name (before he emigrated to Sirius!) - I saw a newspaper cartoon about Hymnen. That if nothing else demonstrates that there is the potential possibility for wider appreciation for radical music than is currently the case.
The audiences at some of my concerts, though I can't deny that they're often a relatively small and particular crowd, include many people who are not musicians by training or profession. Often they have the most interesting perspective on the music being played. Recently, I played an extremely strange piece by Nicolaus A. Huber in London, and someone who was by profession a social worker spoke to me about the piece afterwards. He latched on immediately to the way in which this piece was in a non-rarefied sense not just about the sounds being made, but also about their means of production. A lot of musicians would just talk about whether the composer has 'an acute ear', whether they have found their 'individual voice' or whether the piece is compositionally 'interesting', in the sense it relates to other compositions. These are indeed relatively meaningless categories to the non-specialist, which is why I reject them as exclusive musical criteria. I've recently been re-reading a seminal book from around 30 years, John Berger's Ways of Seeing (which accompanied a television programme in better days of broadcasting), which hasn't dated at all. He has a lot of important things to say on these questions.
As a performer, I try and think about what I'm doing (or the performance 'language' which I work with) in terms of its comprehensibility to the non-specialist, if I am able from my privileged position to do so. I only hope so. Is it possible to achieve immediacy without resorting to crudely manipulative and sensationalist effects? Is their not a difference, musically speaking, in the representation of genuine emotion and idle sentimentality? The solutions of primitivist dumbing-down, or resorting to commercial gimmicks and marketing, are only patronising to their potential audience, or exploitative of transient false consciousness, respectively.
Also, it has become clear to me how much the world of new music, in this country at least, is dominated by a small network of people, mostly public school- and Oxbridge- educated (I should point out that I went to a type of public school, Chetham's, and to Oxford), probably like most artistic fields. Mostly they help their friends and other members of their circle. The old school tie is an easy substitute for any real notion of cultural possibility. People are too intimidated by new music to talk about it; consequently they exert an undue deference towards the cognoscenti.
It is extremely hard for anyone involved in new music, particularly a composer, to survive economically. To live in London (where all the networking and the rest of the paraphernalia goes on) is prohibitively expensive for many. I have had some fortunate circumstances; without those I probably wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now. I spoke to another performer recently, who has a very rich partner, who claimed that everything was all right with the state of things, because things were going well for them. That also makes me angry, this sort of arrogant contempt of those in any field of life who conveniently choose to ignore the arbitrarily fortunate conditions that make their situation possible.
Richard comes from Swansea, Brian from Coventry, Michael from South London, James Dillon from Glasgow, Howard Skempton from Merseyside; probably none of them would want to lay claim to some mantle of economic 'oppression', but nonetheless they all come from backgrounds distinct from the comfortable, economically privileged worlds of many people that constitute the new music world. We are all shaped in part by the world we grow up in; I can't but believe that the perception of worlds outside of the cosy self-contained circle of 'artists' has a decisive influence upon the nature of all these composer's works, towards a greater worldliness, immediacy than might otherwise be the case. They have a perception, not just of their work, but of themselves, in terms of a wider world, so probably they would find it difficult to accept easily the notion that they and their music operate in some blissful oasis, oblivious of anything outside of it. That composers such as Cardew or Nono, both from backgrounds of extreme privilege, were able to see through the limitations of the ideologies they inherited, is a great tribute to their courage and integrity.
I am just a musician; I don't see myself or my role as any more important than any other member of society. I dislike the way that artists see themselves as special; that just creates unnecessary forms of social divisiveness. Actually, for the most part artists are narcissistic, self-centred people unconcerned with anything other than themselves; not people I would give the time of day to were it not for their work. I try to take a broad view of the term 'culture' (Terry Eagleton's recent book The Idea of Culture is very illuminating in this respect). If I can make a difference, albeit a small one, in cultural life through my own activities, then I will have achieved something worthwhile that exceeds the demands of my own probably over-elevated ego.
Returning to Barrett, I think the piece less 'breaches' the capabilities of the piano than 're-invents' it. Its difficulty is in part a result of the unfamiliarity of the pianistic idiom. This is a form of 'materialism' as well - Richard, by using the piano in an unusual manner, draws attention to the conditions by which the sounds are produced, thus avoiding the phantasmagoric sense of music 'from on high' that is always a danger with more familiar idioms. It's something for which I feel great sympathy, and which is quite fundamentally a part of the 'music itself'.
MB: Just as in Chris Dench's Topologies (which is inspired by a Robbe-Grillet novel), Barrett's Tract makes musical inference to literature - in this case works by Samuel Beckett. Did you feel any need to return to the literature in order to understand the genesis of the compositions and to form your own interpretation of the music?
IP: Both Beckett and Robbe-Grillet were authors with whose work I was already familiar, and I knew the literature already when approaching the music. Certainly I try to digest any literary or other influences when performing a piece of music - it can only help, I think. The extent to which Richard's work reflects the concerns of Beckett (and also of Celan, Heissenbüttel, Lägerkvist, B.S. Johnson, Pinget and others) is quite deep. I know that the basic preparation for writing his string quartet I open and close was to read through Beckett's complete output several times. Many important composers have been influenced by Beckett's work: Dusapin, Feldman, Holliger, Saunders, and many others. The composer Ian Willcock takes structural ideas from experimental literature such as Joyce, Dos Passos and Nabokov. To understand this literature is to gain a greater perspective on the music, its motivations and its aims.
Many of the best composers I know have a deep knowledge and understanding of a wide range of radical art, literature, theatre, film, philosophy, politics, etc. This is especially true in Europe, where the overall level of education is so much better. I am sure that being exposed to a wider range of thinking and stimulation only helps in feeding the potential for creativity. Hanns Eisler said 'People who know only about music, don't know about that either'; Busoni said 'He who knows only music is no musician' - sentiments with which I would definitely agree. If music has no meaning outside of its own parameters, it is hardly likely ever to be of interest to those outside of the 'inner circle' of musicians, and consequently is very marginal indeed.
MB: What are the attractions of playing music that so evidently stretches a pianist's technique to near impossible lengths?
IP: Contrary to what some might think, I am honestly not all that interested in virtuosity for its own sake. At least in the sense that we usually mean the word: I prefer, if possible, to use it to denote a particular powerful musical effect. All the very difficult music I play (not just Ferneyhough, Barrett, Finnissy, Zimmermann, but also Liszt, Alkan, Busoni, some Godowsky) interests me because of the nature of the musical result - that makes the difficulties worth tackling.
To make it possible to play a highly demanding piano work, I find I need to have some overall idea of what I am trying to achieve, whether this is manifested most obviously in the localised or global level. This 'carries me through' a piece and supplies answers to the more detailed questions of technique and interpretation. There is some music that I used to play that I wasn't able to conceive of as more than a series of notes, sounds and gestures, and which I couldn't ever really bring off very convincingly in a technical sense, as I would get het up and self-conscious about each little note, rather than seeing how it fitted into a broader picture, which would enable me to relax a little more. By no means do I wish to suggest that every minute detail isn't vitally important when playing a piece of music; however if these can't be perceived outside of their purpose, the piece (and the performer) can easily collapse under the weight of it's own detail! Even in an avowedly 'non-expressive' piece such as Cage's Music of Changes, which I play, I know the type of quietist result I am aiming for, so am able to play it. This is one of many ways in which technique and interpretation are highly interdependent.
Continue to part two
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