Thursday, June 19, 2008

SICPP hump day

Steve Drury led this morning's master class through a discussion of George Crumb's A Little Suite for Christmas and Karlheinz Stockhausen's Klavierstück IX. George Crumb's music is famous for the variety of sonic effects that he gets from his instruments, so we all got up on stage to see specific information about how to play the inside of the piano. For example, the student who played the Crumb brought in tailor's chalk to mark the strings — it's very thin and is the easiest to clean up. Drury recommended using the tips of one's fingers to play harmonics rather than the heel of the hand because it provides more control over exactly what gets played, which is very important in Crumb's work. We also discussed what to do when the middle pedal doesn't work on a piano and how to find one's way around the inside of the piano (another hint: use small labels that are easily detachable, because the dampers are the most fragile parts of the piano and should never be marked permanently).

The Stockhausen is one of my favorite pieces, and one which Drury has recorded. Amazingly, the student who played the piece had only been working on it a week, and the only way we could tell was that it wasn't quite up to tempo (meaning she played around 140 beats per minute rather than the prescribed 160)! The piece is not only a study in contrast between order and chaos (or order and freedom, depending on one's perspective), but techically it is an etude for using the pedals (like the Crumb, for that matter).

My partner and I got some coaching on the two piano Feldman pieces, including some debate about whether to play them on one or two pianos (we've decided on two so that we can both use the pedals independently). From hallway conversations I see that I am not the only student at this session who finds more of an emphasis on chamber music than in past years. A number of students here are repeaters, and the change in emphasis is pronounced even over last year. It is a tribute to Drury's success at getting together musicians and composers, established and novice, for this educational experience.

Drury also gave the evening recital, a set of four pieces that spanned the entire range of contemporary piano language. The opening work was Nacht Klänge by Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa, a sparse and short work of hard notes generating unusual resonance on various other open strings. The second piece was Jo Kondo's A Dance for Piano "Europeans", the only piece on tonight's program that was entirely played on the keyboard. It reminded me a little bit of the Satie nocturnes that Aki Takahashi played on Monday, but Kondo later said that the piece was a Schoenberg study, specifically on Schoenberg's Klavierstücke, op. 33.

The two last pieces were massive and imposing studies on alternate piano resonance. Helmut Lachenmann's stunning Serynade covered so much sonic territory, starting with big clusters whose resonance slowly diminished to a single note through a gradual dampening of the strings, through all kinds of gestures that triggered strange pedal harmonics. The final piece for the evening was a recent work by John Zorn with the odd title Fay Ce Que Vouldras, sort of old French for "Do What You Will." Drury moved the music stand to the center of the piano so he could get to the strings, which included not only playing the strings directly, but the application of glass (a large two-cup measurer) and some other kind of mute. It showed that Cage's piano preparations aren't dead, that it's still an active device that produces new and interesting results. I followed Zorn's music for many years in projects like his various soundtracks, Masada (a jazz project based on Jewish melodies) and Naked City (a thrash-rock combo), but it has been a while since I heard something new from him. His composition tonight showed considerable drama and lots of unusual sonic techniques, a very impressive piece.

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