Thursday, February 1, 2007

Eleven Fingers

Last time I went on a CD-buying binge, one of the items I was seeking was Jenny Lin's recent album, The Eleventh Finger. Two of her previous albums, Preludes to a Revolution and Chinoiserie, were in high rotation in my listening cycle because of their innovative programming and their unusual, and unusually playable, repertoire. As an amateur pianist with an interest in new music, I love to find 20th century repertoire that is within the reach of my technical and interpretive skills. In the 19th century, when recorded music did not yet exist, composers and their publishers actively courted musicians who made music at home. One of the consequences was that published music would cater to musicians of all levels. Chopin's etudes were among the earliest piano works to be published that deliberately targeted more virtuosic players, and with the advent of Franz Liszt and the public recital, composer-pianists wrote flashy showpieces that they could use in concert to dramatize their skills. Virtuosity for its own sake has remained with us, in popular genres such as jazz and rock as well as classical music. In classical music, the most recent culmination of virtuosity for its own sake is the so-called New Complexity movement, whose intent is often to challenge performers to such an extent that audiences can hear the musician's struggles. Sometimes the flash doesn't come off as well in recordings as it does in concert, and generally I have avoided recordings of extremely difficult music, and most of the New Complexity movement generally.

All of this background is merely to point out that The Eleventh Finger is an album of piano etudes. Although both of the earlier albums contained some virtuosic material, these pieces were balanced by more contemplative and less flashy works. Another significant difference from the earlier albums is that both Chinoiserie and Preludes focussed on early 20th century works, whereas the oldest piece on The Eleventh Finger was composed in 1977, and most of the works on the album are premiere recordings. Musical language has changed considerably over the last century, and the works on The Eleventh Finger are representative of many of these changes. Only two of the seven composers represented were born before World War II, Gyorgy Ligeti (whose last three etudes are included) and James Tenney, and their works are the most appealing of the set. Most of the music all sounds very modern and complex to me, even though one of the works (Claude Vivier's Shiraz) appears on Kyle Gann's post-classic piano list.

As long as I'm mentioning Shiraz, let me say that it was one of the biggest surprises here. This album is my first exposure to Vivier, and everything that I've read about his music led me to expect something quite different from this piece. In a Sequenza21 forum, composer Jeff Harrington suggested that Vivier's music was "very slow and weird", but Shiraz isn't like that at all. It opens and closes with repeated chords that almost sound like the beginning of Stockhausen's Klavierstucke IX, but quickly moves on to other textures. Some of the textures are indeed kinda slow, but they don't last long before they're interrupted with something more brassy and assertive.

The Eleventh Finger does share with Chinoiserie and Preludes a successful program for the CD as a whole. The fastest and most dramatic pieces bookend the collection, which starts with Arthur Kampela's Nosturnos and closes with Shiraz. After Nosturnos and the three Ligeti etudes, Lin also includes works that extend the sound world of the piano through external manipulation, from piano preparations at the extreme registers in Stefano Gervasoni's Studio di Disabitudine, to a recording of a second piano part in James Tenney's Chromatic Canon, and electronic manipulation in Elliot Sharp's algorithmic piece, Suberrebus. The remaining work on the album is Detail of Beethoven's Hair, by Randy Nordschow, an arrangement of a work originally for piano and two percussionists.

My lack of enthusiasm for this album should not be taken as a reflection on Lin's playing, which is stunning throughout. As a pianist of middling capabilities, I don't care much for pyrotechnics in general (one of the reasons I don't have many albums by Marc-André Hamelin either). I also realize that I have somewhat less patience for fast, dissonant music than I used to. Maybe I've been listening to Feldman too much. As Kyle Gann pointed out in a recent post, "Feldman discredited, single-handedly and forever, the traditional correlation of dissonance with violence or even anxiety." So I still like dissonance, but the complexity and speed are no longer areas of interest for me.

The Eleventh Finger is available from emusic and iTunes, but the CD booklet has a nice essay by Steve Holtje that provides interesting background on the individual works.

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