Monday, August 27, 2007

How to play inside the piano

One of my recently discovered joys-of-Netflix is that they carry new music DVDs released on the Mode label. Mode has long been a premiere souce for new music, with an early emphasis on the New York school composers, and now including many first recordings from across the US as well as Europe and Asia. They have also been one of the first new music labels to release material on DVD, including opera, concerts, and short films. A while back I rented a DVD of four movies by or about John Cage, and currently we're watching Margaret Leng Tan playing and discussing George Crumb's pathbreaking piano suites Makrokosmos, volumes 1 and 2.

Crumb has a unique place in the history of post-WWII piano music. I remember when the Makrokosmos series was released on vinyl, and it was a very different perspective on contemporary music from both the Darmstadt and New York composers. I was very excited about Crumb's music, and bought the scores for Makrokosmos II and his earlier Five Pieces for Piano. Makrokosmos is a gorgeous and unique (and oft-reproduced) score. Both volumes are exquisitely drawn, with some of the pieces in non-standard layouts, such as the one on the DVD's cover, taken from Agnus Dei, the last piece in book two. He was the first to popularize, if not introduce, many extended techniques for playing inside the piano, including pizzicato, glass tumblers, sheets of paper, chains, playing the beams, etc. The techniques are related to Cage's prepared piano, but Cage generally modified the piano's timbre by weaving objects between the strings of a single note (such as coins, screws, bolts, bamboo shoots, and pencil erasers), which then stays fixed for the duration of the piece. Crumb's preparations are more dynamic and often require a different sort of performance technique. Crumb's piano works are a sensuous and delicate music that never sounds like anyone else.

Leng Tan is, by her own admission, a virtuoso of extended techniques on the piano. She has previously recorded Crumb's Five Pieces as well as a number of Cage prepared and toy piano pieces. Although here she's in concert dress, the performance seems to have been filmed in a bare backstage room, with breaks between the pieces (which you can see from the presence or absence of scores and various preparations) and no audience. The film's director, Evans Chan, indulges in some occasional trickery, with odd lighting and color effects. But with Makrokosmos, the pianist is always moving, whether to pluck the strings on the inside of the piano or using the various props. So the camera is also always moving, following Leng Tan closely, using frequent double exposures to show her hands and her body simultaneously. The film is a very effective view of Leng Tan's excellent and dynamic performance.

The DVD also includes a 45-minute conversation between Leng Tan, Crumb, and Don Gillespie from Crumb's publisher, Edition Peters. Although it seems pretty ad hoc sometimes, there are some real nuggets in here. Leng Tan provides some context for the extended techniques, comparing the canonical three B's (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms) for classical composition with the three C's for extended piano techique (Henry Cowell, Cage and Crumb). She could have found one more C with Curtis Curtis-Smith, who developed the bowed piano with his 1973 piece Rhapsodies, but that's a minor quibble. There's also a fascinating anecdote about one of the pieces that quotes Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu. Crumb had originally quoted a Rachmaninoff piece, but he had to re-compose a week before the premiere because they couldn't get the rights to the Rachmaninoff. And we thought sample theft was new to the digital era!

Crumb's piano music remains somewhat controversial, even now, thirty-five years after its first performance. Many pianists, teachers and technicians don't like playing on the inside of the piano, believing that the piano strings will become damaged because of the oils in the pianist's hands. But the pieces have a life of their own, and many improvisational pianist, such as Sophie Agnel and Andrea Neumann, use these techniques in their own work. Mode has done a great job with this DVD, capturing not only the music, but the visual performance as well.

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