S&H Piano Recital review

Meta-Piano Ian Pace at King's College, London 26 February 2001 (PGW)

For the last of his exceptionally wide-ranging series of three London recitals report & report in early 2001, Ian Pace tackled radically the issue of the piano as an instrument for the new century (and the end of the last) in another marathon programme. It was given in three parts, of which I was able to attend the first two before departing for a biennial Gaudeamus Performers Competition in Rotterdam.

A verbally explicit thinker, alongside his exceptional keyboard command, I cannot better Pace's thoughtful accompanying notes for the event, and with his permission reproduce below extensive extracts, covering his general approach to the problems which must confront thoughtful young pianists, those who are open minded about the repertoire for their chosen instrument and the implications of the social context in which it is performed.

I valued the opportunity to hear again Helmut Lachenmann's Serynade, previously encountered too late at night, at the end of one of the Huddersfield Festival's typically strenuous days. It is specially notable for its chordal complexities, with resonances and harmonics which are as important as normally sounding notes. Despite the disadvantage of deadening ambient noise from air conditioning/heating in the Great Hall of King's (that apart, a delightful amalgam of new and old, with Corinthian columns, tasteful hangings and both chandeliers and strip lighting) Lachenmann's longest piano work made a strong impression. Only a few days before, Pace had travelled specially to Stuttgart to discuss his preparation of the London premiere of Serynade with Lachenmann himself, and I look forward to a CD of Serynade in due course. Kagel's 1961 Metapiece Mimetics leaves many freedoms to the player in arranging its set of possible structured; it lacked the characteristic wit and irony of his later compositions and left me unengaged. Richard Emsley's For Piano 10 is written mostly as a single, high line of melody, vitiated on this occasion because as each phrase was left to decay into silence, it was overcome reciprocally by that mechanical noise, which can blight enjoyment in many an otherwise fine venue.

Earlier I had been delighted to make the acquaintance of an hour's piano music by Nicolaus A. Huber. His Darabukka is largely based upon a single note treated with every conceivable variety of touch and attack, including sometimes thunderous martello repetition, simulating the playing of that Arabian drum. It seemed long at 14 mins, but after getting into the mood and Huber's way of thinking, neither Disappearances nor Beds & Brackets, with a violent, interposed homage to Nono, struck me as being over-extended, despite each actually being longer. The latter had a built-in Cageian prescription that the outside environment should be introduced, on this occasion done by opening the doors to the college corridor, so that the chatter of passing students became an element of the music. That was not disturbing at all nor, on this rare occasion, was the participation of the inevitable mobile phone!

Ian Pace presented all this music with scrupulous attention to detail and infinite variety of touch and tone, and I would urge other pianists to take it up to bring variety and a contemporary perspective into their recitals.

All the three Huber pieces are available on Koch Schwann 3-1717-2 (Catherine Vickers) plus 3 student Spectrale of 1964 which caused a scandal at the Musikhochschule in Munich. Darabukka (1976) and Beds & Brackets (1990) 'for Piano with doors and windows which have to be opened, or recorded tape' are also played by Kristine Scholz in a mixed programme on Alice ALCD 011. Both are well recorded; I prefer the sound quality of the Vickers, which captures superbly all the resonances inside the piano, and the liner notes are fuller. The ambient sounds appear to have been pre-recorded probably (there must be a conflict between studio requirements and suitable exterior sound availability), with distant voices, birdsong and a passing aeroplane for Scholz, but they sound too muted in the Koch Schwann - that effect was best heard live at King's!

Peter Grahame Woolf

Extracts from the programme notes provided at Ian Pace's recital (for full text visit http://freespace.virgin.net/ian.pace/index.htm:

META-PIANO - the dialectics of piano-playing

All instruments carry with them a large amount of tradition, received perceptions as to how one should write for it, and corresponding highly evolved performing traditions. The piano, with a literature larger than that for almost any other solo instrument, carries more baggage than most; this is one of the reasons so many composers tell me that they find it difficult to write for. Further, because of the particular characteristics of the modern concert grand, in which depth of sonority and power are all-important, and quarter-tones (unless the instrument is retuned - not the most practical of activities!) and true glissandi are impossible, one only needs to play a single pitch (certainly when using the pedals) to be confronted with tonal implications arising from harmonics and sympathetic resonances. The universal adoption of cross-stringing in the bass register provides a degree of bass resonance that early composers for the piano could not have imagined.

An equal amount of baggage surrounds the piano recital and piano playing in general. In the idealized 'romantic' piano recital, the pianist is playing as if 'from on high' communicating 'divine truths'. The instrument itself is seen as a mere transmitter; one famous pianist recently declared that 'a good pianist can produce any sound from an instrument'. The piano is to be anything except a piano, it is claimed to be a 'whole orchestra'. Yet there is no escaping the irascible presence of this gigantic construction of wood and metal in front of us. Most praised of all is the pianist's production of a 'singing tone'. The performer caresses, fondles, or otherwise stimulates their instrument to induce it to spasms of indescribable pleasure. 'Playing the piano is like making love to a beautiful woman'.

In the presence of a great musician, one is supposed to be transported into a new realm, an escape from the real world into some supposed free flow of fantasy. The aloof, charismatic, performer, whose artistic status means that they are above the concerns of the material world, is instead able to concentrate solely upon their inner forces and the divine nature of music. They attract wonder and awe on the part of mere mortals, who cower in deference to the superior member of the artistic master-race they see before them. When this experience is possible, how trivial and disdainful it would seem to be concerned about the homeless people that one might trip over on the way out from the concert hall?

As Adorno points out, the extent to which art is able to preserve some degree of autonomy from the social forces that condition its production and distribution, can be seen as a potential form of emancipation, pointing the way towards a better world. Yet in a late-capitalist world, where music and musical ideals have been rarefied and commodified by the mass market into packaged affective products, it is difficult to see this process occurring.

The ubiquitous power exerted by Russian schools of piano playing, in the West as well as in Eastern Europe, is undoubtedly related to the Cold War. - - - The elaborate mystique around and fascination about some long-established Eastern European musical traditions may have to do with a subconscious and hopelessly idealized nostalgia for these countries' pre-communist times.

Without necessarily wishing to disparage these musicians or their aesthetic values, I believe we should view their emergence in terms of the wider political forces that helped to shape them. The composers in this programme are predominantly from the left; few of them would I believe wish to take a wholly negative view of the past, rather they would recognise the necessity of a critical perspective if one is to be able to progress beyond. Correspondingly, their approaches to the piano are to take on board and move beyond the established criteria and categories that inform its literature and approaches.

I wish through this programme to posit a materialist view of the piano and of piano-playing. Materialist in the sense of focusing attention more fully upon the piano as a material object, and the physical nature of the human performing mechanism used upon it, as an antidote to the forms of mystification that usually characterise such thinking, which is used in defence of what I believe to be highly particular performance ideals; more subtly, materialist in the sense of seeking alternative possibilities for the role that music and the concert can play within today's world, itself highly circumscribed by material conditions.

The most fundamental issue to deal with in this respect is the whole question of a 'singing tone' or 'beautiful tone' on the piano. In particular, is it possible to produce differentiation in tone independently of dynamics? When one plays a single note, a finger presses a key, the key sets a hammer into motion, no longer in contact with the key (or the finger); the only parameter that one can affect is the velocity of the hammer. Any change in this parameter will produce a change in volume as well as timbre. After performing Huber's Darabukka and Bussotti's Pour Clavier , I realized that what one hears is a composite sound, of both the hammer hitting the string and the finger hitting the key (this idea was also suggested to me by the chapter 'Burnished Singing Tone' in Geoffrey Payzant's book Glenn Gould: Music and Mind). This second aspect of the sound, the 'key noise' is generally believed to be negligible, but when presented in isolation, one realizes its significance. It is affected by choice of finger, elasticity of the equipment, distance from the key, type of motion connecting notes (vertical or sideways motion of the wrist), type of attack, etc. This is one reason why, for example, a note played either staccato or tenuto with the pedal down sounds different each way. Many of the pieces in this programme foreground this aspect of piano sonority.

Contemporary music, particularly that of a pointillistic variety, often features isolated notes, so the natures of singular sonorities are worth considering. The new approaches to the instrument pioneered by such pianists as Aloys Kontarsky or David Tudor were the beginning of a more radical performance aesthetic to match the radicalism of the music they were performing. In particular, they pioneered a new type of dry, detached, even percussive, playing as an extension of the range of possible sounds. Some more traditional approaches impose restrictions upon dynamics and articulation (the Russian schools of technique in particular preclude the clipped sound of a short staccato), liberal use of pedal to consistently produce a halo of sound that lends an auratic quality to the musical experience, and the demand that at almost all times one voice should predominate with others placed firmly in the background, mirroring a very particular notion of melody and accompaniment. All this in the name of a rather idealized notion of a 'beautiful sound'

In a brilliant essay entitled 'The Beautiful in Music Today', Lachenmann stresses the historical nature of our concepts of beauty. In his music, he has consistently sought to emancipate the neglected aspects or possibilities of instrumental sonority. For the piano, this includes the potential of resonances induced by silently depressed keys, pioneered in Schoenberg's Klavierstuck Op. 11 No. 1, an attention as much upon the endings of notes as their beginnings, the use of the hand scraping the surface of the keys like a guero, and plucking, scraping and stopping of the strings, the latter to produce harmonics. The pieces of Nicolaus A. Huber often isolate particular pitches or types of figuration to illuminate the possibilities of variety therein, Ligeti uses 'blocked keys' whereupon the finger plays but does not activate the hammer, Bussotti has the pianist play just on the surface of the keys, with various types of touch, Kagel has the pianist play 'uncleanly', Sciarrino uses phantasmagorical effects by the use of the second escapement of a piano key so that the pitch is at the limit of perception and the sound of the mechanism is foregrounded, Richard Emsley distorts his melodic lines by the incursions of strange forms of touch, Ross Lorraine treats pedalling and playing separately, as well as building upon some of these other possibilities.

All this music, in part by virtue of the unfamiliarity of its methods (how these will seem in time to come is a difficult question) is rooted firmly in the physical world of the piano and its performer, and as such resists a 'transparent' listening. The pianist is not a superior human being (those who think so probably don't know that many pianists!), he or she is a worker (as is a composer or any artist) who has the inclination and fortunate opportunity to enter into an interactive relationship with the products of compositional labour. This music, I believe, helps to reinforce this artisanal view of performance, and I hope will lead to new types of listening.

NICOLAUS A. HUBER - Darabukka; Beds and Brackets; Disappearances

The Darabukka is an Arabian goblet drum popular among nomads. It produces two sounds, one high, one low. When the lower aperture is covered, the lower sound vanishes, and only the higher sound remains. These qualities are here transposed to the keyboard:
1. The piano key is treated like a drum and every possible combination of fingers and hands is brought into play to produce rhythmic instrumentation.
2. By using subharmonic oscillations the tone of the individual note is further fragmented. Its tone colours are subordinated to the rhythmic models.
3. I learned this piece from various folk musicians, and the end result is an act of tonal solidarity with the people of Chile: 'el pueblo unido jamás sera vencido!'

In Darabukka three different structural and sound characteristics are utilised. Of all the various techniques of rhythmic composition perhaps the most interesting is rhythmic modulation. In Beds and Brackets there is a piece in a piece - 'Statement' to Nono beating his fist. Shortly before his death Nono and I were members of the same jury in a competition for composers. Every now and then, throughout the days of the competition, he would beat out heavy, ponderous rhythms of the most elemental; proportions on the table with his first - ffff. These thumps of self-liberation stayed obsessively in my mind throughout the time I was working on 'statement'. They originated totally in the intimate domains of 'doing' and 'perceiving'. Such proximities in the world of the human senses are also the model for the musical execution of the work and its auditory reception. Its sounds are drawn out of the 88-key keyboard according to sketches of movements whose duration and speed, multiplied by the weight of the limb concerned, characterize their tone and harmonic system.

The horizontal temporal course of the piece sometimes confuses our perception of this proximity by using repetition. In the score, numbered brackets indicate the fragment of notation that is to be inserted at another point in its musical course in such a way that it appears to be being heard for the first time. In other words this has nothing to do with psycho-dynamic self-perpetuation: it is a simulated live repetition of what has already happened as if nothing had happened. Movement construction emphasizes the alien element in repetition, its divisive quality, rather than having a unifying influence. Towards the end of the piece the physical proximity increases until we are suddenly 'enveloped': is that a radio, a TV, a fridge, a gust of wind outside? Or is it a car? Or children playing? Pre-recorded tape is a poor form of simulation. Best of all would be to leave the doors and windows of the recital room open, and then to close them. I have dedicated my piece to the pianist Catherine Vickers.

What does the piano do when the pianist strikes it, and after? That is the theme of Disappearances. 'Disappearing' needs sensitivity to time lapses felt as living, definite lengths of time. Every single note on the piano has its own resonance pattern, either natural, dictated by rhythm or composed. 'Disappearing' therefore means asking, seeking the start of the sound and structure of its disappearance, whether it sinks, rises up again, gets called away again or appears for the last time - seeking its inner intrinsic speeds. 'Disappearing' also means staying with something, going over into another sound, lending colour to a scarcely perceptible sound, leading the ear away from the rhythm of the incipient note. - - - At the end of the piece 'disappearance' acquires extreme bitterness both human and political. A trilling voice with recitative-like characteristics intones words from Paul Celan's poem Tenebrae, like a litany. Human beings who disappear into inhumanity, torture, concentration camps or gas chambers, become so embittered that they blaspheme aggressively (N.A.H.)


Richard Emsley's For Piano series were begun in 1997 and continue to the present day. They represent Emsley's breakthrough after a long compositional hiatus. The pieces intentionally set themselves the constraint of being written on a single line, usually mostly in the higher registers, so as to focus attention upon minute details of pitch, harmonies, rhythm and touch, and create their own exclusive 'space'. For Piano 10 came about after various conversations (often in the Roebuck pub in Richmond) and sessions at the piano about questions of touch and tone on the instrument, as I described in my introduction. The otherworldly and visionary material of the outset is gradually corroded by the introduction of different types of touch in successive sections, by the end the sounds are corrupt, the vision is untenable. (I.P.)

GYÖRGY LIGETI - Etude No. 3 - Touches Blocquées

The Études of Ligeti stem from his many-fold fascinations and conceptions: the incredibly complex polyrhythms to be found in African drumming, the player-piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow, ideas from chaos theory and other forms of scientific process. Most of the pieces make use of automated processes, but which progress towards destructive ends, suggesting a darker underlying world-view from one who has experienced totalitarian regimes of both East and West. Touches Blocquées uses a technique first to be encountered in the earlier two-piano work Monument, Selbstportrait, Bewegung, in which one hand holds down keys silently, while the other plays chromatic figurations running across the 'blocked' keys. Thus notes are filtered out and replaced by the sole sound of the finger on the key. (I.P.)


Serynade was written for Lachenmann's wife, the pianist Yukiko Sugawara; the title is configured to refer to her name. It is Lachenmann's longest piano work to date and is notable for its relatively sparing employment of extended keyboard techniques. In its extensive use of resonances and harmonics produced by silently depressed keys, highly intricate use of the pedals, it resembles in part the earlier piano works Echo Andante (1962), Wiegenmusik (1963), Ein Kinderspiel (1980) and the monumental piano concerto Ausklang (1984-85). Sometimes the harmonics form into a parallel layer of information whose importance is as great as that of conventionally 'sounding' notes.

Lachenmann utilizes a relatively familiar array of gestures, including block chords, clusters and virtuoso runs up and down the keyboard, as well as many repeated notes. These elements have a clear history, both in Lachenmann's own music and that of others; what is more important is their contextualization. Our perception of any sonic effect is highly conditioned by those others that surround it; Lachenmann subverts expectations in this respect to produce a music that is continually startling and intriguing. On the larger scale, sometimes material is extended beyond the length that might make it containable so as to open the music out onto different planes, to move beyond that which has been predicated by what has gone earlier. In the final section, Lachenmann makes use of powerful bass notes together with much quieter ones in the treble, like a contemporary re-working of Messiaen's concept of 'extended resonance'. Structurally the piece would seem to organize itself into three or possibly four movements; a homage (by inversion) to a classical sonata? (I.P.)

Seen&Heard is part of Music on the Web(UK) Webmaster: Len Mullenger Len@musicweb-international.com

Return to: Seen&Heard Index  

Return to: Music on the Web