New music: A journey to a “slightly different place”

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 06.11.2014

It wasn’t so long ago that many musicians feared the piano was losing its way in serious music. The repertoire had not grown significantly in the 1950s and 1960s, and technology was increasingly favored by composers on the cutting edge.

But commissions for new works arrived in force prior to the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, and major piano pieces came back into fashion. From that point on, as Ursukla Oppens recalled in an interview, “there seems to have been a real revival of music for the piano. Now almost every composer I can think of has written lots of wonderful stuff. The question of the piano’s importance no longer arises.”

Ursula Oppens

Ms. Oppens, a leading champion of new music, takes the long view and speaks with authority. One new-music cornerstone, The People United Will Never Be Defeated by Frederic Rzewski, was dedicated to her, and she premiered it in 1975 in Washington. Her recording from 1978 will be superseded next year by a new one, this time with the cadenza included. People United and other works have “stood the test of time,” she says.

Known among composers as “Saint Ursula,” she has also commissioned music, often at her own expense, from Elliott Carter, John Corigliano, Joan Tower, Tania Leon, Conlon Nancarrow, Tobias Picker, Christian Wolff, and others in the new-music realm. Numerous additional pieces have been written expressly for her or dedicated to her.

“New music has made my life. I guess I’m proud of it,” she says with characteristic modesty. 

No longer is a single trend or fad—tonal, atonal, modal, serialism, minimalism, neo-romanticism, laptop music, prepared piano, free improvisation—leading the way. Ms. Oppens and her colleagues in new music see the current free-wheeling scene as beneficial to all. Frank J. Oteri, composer advocate of NewMusic USA and editor of NewMusicBox, told me, “New music of our time is more exciting for its greater variety.”

Indeed, pluralism seems here to stay as composers push boundaries into more challenging areas. “It’s thrilling,” says Boston pianist Barbara Lieurance.

Barbara Lieurance

“Nothing has been decided when you step into the concert hall. Nobody is telling you how to react. Sometimes it’s not relaxing but it’s never boring.” Ms. Lieurance has produced new sensations with her piano bow technique, pulling fishing line treated with rosin through the strings.

Yes, the piano has come back, in various guises, as a primary concern of modern composition. It is the natural starting point for composers who began their musical lives studying piano, even if they now play it badly. Gender barriers are falling away rapidly, and “the landscape is changing” as women composers become better known and appreciated, says Ms. Oppens. 

But many, including the women, tinker with extensions of the standard instrument, plucking and strumming the strings, “disappearing inside the piano,” as one critic describes it, or by finding new uses for the harpsichord. A few have discovered the mysteries of the toy piano, following the lead of John Cage.

Is all the news so good? Not quite. The International Society for Contemporary Music recently staged a festival in Vienna that attempted to represent what’s going on in new music. I couldn’t attend but critic Kyle Gann did, and he was not swept off his feet. Everything he heard was “atonal, impenetrable, continuously varied,” and orchestral works were “a panoply of splashes of timbre, violin glisses, celesta washes, brass splats, wind tremolos in tempestuous profusion,” he wrote in a prickly report afterward.

But not everyone has quite such a grim assessment of today’s scene. “I have found a rich vein of interesting ideas and approaches,” says composer Scott McLaughlin of Leeds University (UK). “The possibilities are infinite, and that’s why I am optimistic. I can spring out of bed in the morning and say, ‘Oh, what can I compose today?’” His Bifurcations in a Continuous System shows how far he has extended the piano’s potential in his search for “something beautiful, something that illuminates.”

Ms. Oppens likes the shock of the new. “I think one function of having some unfamiliar music in a program is to just wake up the ears, make someone listen slightly differently from when they listen to something they know already.”

German composer Helmut Lachenmann agrees. As he said in a recent published interview: “We have to find new antennae in ourselves, to listen more, and this is a wonderful adventure of discovery. The whole direction of occidental music is moving on from tradition to provocation—provoking humankind to new experiences. This is human, this is beautiful, this is serene, and it requires the participation of the listener.” Historically, the late Henry Cowell must be credited for finding new ways — at least in modern times — to use the piano. He strummed the strings for his ground-breaking Aeolian Harp in 1923, and The Banshee of 1925, marking the score for the player to use the “back of thumbnail” or “flesh of finger” to achieve the desired effects.

Cowell paved the way for Cage’s 1938 invention of the prepared piano. Other composers took the cue and began to explore extended techniques for what was once called the “orchestra in a box.” Now it is sometimes called the “one-player percussion section.”

Composers and players invoke the name of Cage, who died in 1992, in most any discussion of new music—where it came from and where it is going.

Some great names such as Lachenmann credit Cage’s noteless 4’33” as sending a message to his fellow composers—anything can now be done; no more rules, no more constraints. Oteri, a respected composer himself, elaborates: “Cage allows us to be ourselves. He is viewed by many young and older composers as a role model—not for a specific sound or how it was created, but for the way he liberated us.”

Cage would likely approve of Japanese-born pianist Noriko Ogawa, now based in London, who excites audiences with a one-woman combination of  keyboard and percussion. Playing the music of Yoko Kanno, she taps nambu bells with metallic hibachi chopsticks while also working the keyboard. “This is the thing I find really exciting,” she told me. “Metal versus metal.”

Noriko Ogawa

A key challenge for traditionally trained pianists is the wrenching adjustment required to master and enjoy new music. Not all of it works out so well.

French-based U.S. pianist Ivan Ilic, who plays both standard repertoire and contemporary music in well-attended recitals around Europe, has dealt intellectually and physically with this dichotomy: 

“There is a distinct physical feel to playing a traditional classical composer,” he says. “For example, Brahms gives us thick chords that fill the hands and ears, and there are brutish physical requirements that are somewhat at odds with the refinement of the music.” Because we learn the instrument with these pieces, “we adapt our bodies accordingly. But new composers, many of whom are not accomplished pianists, come up with much different physical sensations at the piano. Not all of them are pleasant.”

But Ilic has gone on to master Morton Feldman’s long works and has just launched his CD The Transcendentalist, which includes a twenty-three-minute piece by Feldman, Palais de Mari. He also intrigues audiences with a quiet piece he commissioned from composer Keeril Makan, Afterglow, which starts with a bare repetitive striking of middle C, encouraging the listener to focus on the harmonics of that single note. The piece then progresses into a thing of beauty.

Ivan Ilic

Is it possible to allow the traditional and the new to coexist in one composer’s or player’s mind? Not always. Berkelee College of Music composition professor Marti Epstein says a clean break from tradition can be a cleansing experience. She once decided to wipe her mind of past musical patterns. “I realized I was really starting to hate Haydn and Mozart, so I went a whole year without listening to them,” while working on her contemporary style, she told me recently. After her “year off,” she gave the old men another try, and “I rediscovered them all over again!”

Ms. Oppens would agree with Ms. Epstein’s conclusion. She counsels students to play all eras of music, including that of past centuries, because “every composer draws on it, and is educated in it… I would not be too supportive of someone being too specialized when they’re young. I think you need as broad a knowledge — both listening and playing — as possible.”

For many, contemporary music means the risk of too much hard work for a musically unfulfilling experience.Ilic is categorical: “A significant percentage of recent piano music is unnecessarily difficult and betrays superficial knowledge of the instrument. If it takes me more time to learn a convoluted, opaque new contemporary piece than a big, gorgeous twentieth century concerto, then guess which one I’m going to learn?”

William Grant Naboré, director of the International Piano Academy, Lake Como, Italy, remembers agreeing to do a world premiere recording of Roger Sessions’ “unplayable” Sonata No. 3 in the 1970s. “I two spent hours learning one single measure,” he recalls. Mastering the full score “was the scariest thing I ever did, before or since.”

When I told Ms. Oppens of Naboré’s struggle with the problematic measure, she said, “Only two hours?”

Ms. Oppens, who worked closely with the late Elliott Carter for more than forty years, acknowledges having to invest her full energies in learning many of the complex new works, including Carter’s — some of which were written for her. At age seventy, she can still tackle new material “but I’m learning slower,” she admits. “If young people find contemporary music difficult, it might be because they are not expecting it to take so long to learn.” 

The mental adjustment from playing a Beethoven sonata to new music demands an attitude change, a desire to explore something new and strange. Naboré, who has recorded Cage and Sessions, told me that getting on the new music wavelength was, for him, something like the Stockholm Syndrome. “When you are locked up with your captors, you begin to love them.”

A debate among composers today centers on the negative impact of overly cerebral music, a genre that has always played to small audiences mostly in small venues. Traditional music-lovers have problems making that leap into the unknown, preferring to stay with their comfortable, if passive, listening habits.

Arguments rage today over whether to care about what the audience thinks. Purists advise creating music for its own sake, without trying to guess where popular tastes are going. But Kyle Gann, sympathetic to the needs of an audience, wrote that he “wanted to scream” when musicians in Vienna objected to a particularly accessible piece.

“What a horribly severe world we have to live in,” he wrote, “in which the slightest pleasure given to the listener occasions such tut-tutting for its deplorable pandering.” Too much music, he added, is that from which one “receives no thrill at all and remembers nothing afterward.” Another leading commentator, Don Visconti, wrote on New Music Box recently that such elitist notions are “killing contemporary music.”1

To be sure, contemporary composers who seek to produce sheer pleasure in some of their music—to meet traditional listeners halfway—can sway larger demographics and fill seats.

For example, pianist and music writer Melanie Spanswick of London finds beauty in Oliver Knussen’s Sonya’s Lullaby Op. 16, a harmonically complex work set around a tritone. “It’s a pleasure recreating these sounds,” she says, “and audiences warm to the dynamic variety and hypnotic effect. These features alleviate any fear of the often misunderstood contemporary style.”

Makan, Associate Professor of Composition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks continually about “how to engage an audience” and he deplores the elitist composer who “doesn’t care if you don’t get it.” He and other composers try to bridge the gap with more accessible music that eschews complexity for its own sake, and by explaining their music to newcomers.

“We must start getting up in front of the audience and talking,” says Marti Epstein of Berklee. “It’s our only hope.” Los Angeles pianist Aleksei Takenouchi weighs in with his agreement, and places the blame on management of recitals and concerts: “The fault is not with the audience but with the organizers who do not prepare the audience sufficiently to accept contemporary music comfortably. Because of this, the audience is alienated from the composer.” 

Is there a future for new American piano music? Indeed there is, and it is developing today in conservatories and music schools around the country. Oteri of NewMusic USA said that during our interview “a new music composition was being created somewhere as we speak.”

Ms. Oppens, who presently teaches at Brooklyn College, feels the avant garde talent is out there. She finds her students “new, surprising, witty, and wonderful.”

Out of a dozen student compositions, she says, “two or three or four excite me.” She knows the difference. The real thing “puts me in a slightly different place.”

Originally published in Clavier Companion, posted here with the kind permission of their editor.

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