Jun 24th 2017

Piano clusters: How to frighten the old ladies of both sexes

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He is now based in Bordeaux, France, where he writes for the International Herald-Tribune and other publications. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine. In 1990 he was appointed chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique where he worked as Editorial Director for two years. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of four books and recently edited “24/7 Innovation” for an Accenture consultant and “Nokia: The Inside Story”, written by historian Martti Haikio, for the Nokia Corporation. A fluent French speaker, he also speaks Russian

I was flipping through my copy of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6 recently and spotted his two “col pugno” markings. My memory took me back many years to the day I first encountered these violent directions. At the time, I didn’t know what to think. Measure 143 calls for the pianist to bang “with fist” on the four-note cluster chord. Prokofiev later said he wanted to “frighten the old ladies in the audience”.

It probably worked for him. In 1940, the year his sonata was published, the people of Moscow and Leningrad were already frightened. The Germans were everywhere, and they had guns. But now they are gone and we are accustomed to dissonance and percussive shocks from modern music, so these clusters are taken for granted.

Defined as simultaneous playing of at least three adjacent semitone notes, clusters turn up regularly in jazz and contemporary compositions so often as to attract little notice today.

It was not always thus. Charles Ives in 1915 amused himself with the aim of creating a stir in his Concord Sonata. The second movement, Hawthorne, makes innovative use of chord clusters, among other shocking techniques, to suggest “fantastical adventures into phantasmal realms”. Musicologist Joseph Machlis noted that “never before did piano music look like this”:


New York area pianist Jack Kohl reminds me that these clusters are too broad for the human hand, and so while studying the Concord himself, his father built a felt-padded strip of wood for him to depress black keys, then white keys, to achieve Ives’ effects. Some pianists just use the forearm.  Kohl notes that various composers have created “an entire subset of clustering” in which the width is wider than the hand.

Another subset fits the palm of the hand – a technique introduced by Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin and widely applied by jazz pianists including the late Thelonius Monk.

Machlis continued with a technical explanation: “These (Concord) pianissimo chords are tone clusters designed to release the overtones and sympathetic vibrations of the piano strings… (The) floating columns of sounds are used as a source of sonic enchantment rather than as functional harmonic entities.”

What Machlis does not mention is that Ives intended to frighten “the old ladies of both sexes”. (He borrowed that wonderful metaphor from Charles Darwin, who had hoped for the same impact from his 1859 “On The Origin of Species”.)

Musicians today argue over the role of the cluster. Is it merely, as one musicologist opined, merely “an extra-harmonic clump of notes”? Obviously not. The avant-garde, going back to Henry Cowell and Leo Ornstein, used it to great effect. Bartok and John Cage understood its power. Indeed, the history of 20th century music shows how clusters progressively found their home.

Frederic Rzewski’s Cotton Mill Blues calls for right and left palm hammering on black and white keys alternatively to create powerful cotton mill mechanical effects. A roll-call of great contemporary composers loved the clusters. Pianist Ivan Ilic lists for me the principals as Sorabji, Messiaen, Louvier,  Xenakis, Ligeti, Stockhausen and the recently departed Finnish composer Rautavaara.

As Americans toyed with clusters, European composers were also experimenting with them. Isaac Albeniz tried them out in Iberia, and this success is thought to have inspired Gabriel Fauré to include his own clusters. In the 1930s, Henry Cowell’s student Lou Harrison worked clusters into his Prelude for Grandpiano.

And the ultimate experimenter, John Cage – another Cowell protégé – applied cluster chords in his work, notably in the 1941 composition “In the Name of the Holocaust”, titled as a nod to James Joyce’s “In the Name of the Holy Ghost”. Analysts detect chromatic, diatonic and pentatonic clusters in that monumental piece for Cage’s revolutionary prepared piano.

 

But it was Mauricio Kagel who noted the clusters are often used as “a kind of anti-harmony, a transition between sound and noise.” He may have been wrong about that but he rightly says that clusters “lend themselves to use in a percussive manner”.

And yet even Kagel seems limited in his appreciation. German composer Boris Bergmann tells me he likes to use clusters in his compositions, just fingered clusters, “not the fist … yet”. He finds that clusters can produce a harmonic quality, which functions like an acoustic kaleidoscope. “The change of a single note can alter the whole spectrum and emotional quality of the multichord”. He says he likes to use clusters to “contrast harmonically clear passages or as transitions from concrete to more abstract expression”.

Clusters are largely limited to instruments or groupings of instruments that can produce at least three notes simultaneously. After the piano, this leaves the human voice in choir mode. One of the most moving choral pieces that blends semitones into a giant tone cluster is R. Murray Schafer’s Epitaph for Moonlight. This clip, from the choir of American River College, Sacramento, California, includes an interesting introduction and a display of the original notation from the Schafer score. The music starts at 1:50.



Sometimes the cluster can lead a pianist to attack the keyboard rather than play it. While pianos are remarkably robust instruments, it doesn’t take a Franz Liszt to break it. Here an American musician best known for his mastery of the harp takes on a concert grand toe-to-toe. The piano loses. Note the cluster chord at 1:23.



To subscribe to Facts and Arts' weekly newsletter, please click here.

To follow Facts & Arts' Editor, Olli Raade, on Twitter, please click here.

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Jul 19th 2018
San Francisco Opera’s revival of its Ring Cycle got off to a rousing start with a top notch performance of “Das Rheingold” at the War Memorial Opera House on June12. The production featured outstanding performances from top to bottom by an exceptional cast and new video projections that were even better than the ones used back in 2011.......
Mar 26th 2018

Johann Sebastian Bach’s B Minor Mass, performed at Symphony Hall on Friday (March 23) and again on Sunday (March 25), was delivered in impressive Baroque style by the Handel+Haydn Society orchestra and chorus.

Mar 15th 2018

The Brahms Scherzo Op. 4 opens with a delicate and playful theme, then carries us along on waves of emotion swinging from the filigree, to the lyrical, the thunderous, and back to the delicate.

Mar 9th 2018

Perhaps enough time has passed since the death of the famous French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger to step back and question her musical sainthood. After all, she was only human. 

Feb 21st 2018

A new “electronic opera” from Ireland, “Heresy”, broke new ground in contemporary opera a couple of years ago, bringing together Irish vocal talent and the synthesized music of much-decorated composer Roger Doyle.

Feb 4th 2018

Elegant, poised and deeply musical Ran Jia has brought a new freshness to the Franz Schubert piano sonatas, a phenomenal achievement considering how often they have been performed by the greatest pianists of the past 75 years.

Jan 31st 2018

American expat pianist David Lively found happiness in Paris as a teen-aged piano prodigy and got so busy performing and studying  -- with an Alfred  Cortot associate -- that he ended up making his life in France, a “different planet” culturally, he says, compared to that of his native land. 

Jan 26th 2018

When young French pianist François Dumont appeared at the Salle Gaveau in Paris recently, the critics embraced him without reserve. One wrote that his recital “confirmed his place in the family of the best musicians in France”.

Jan 13th 2018

Nearly two hours of Debussy’s solo piano music at one sitting can be, for some, too much impressionistic color to digest. And indeed a woman beside me fell asleep during the twelve Préludes, Book One.

Dec 30th 2017

If I were to help a new listener grapple with Charles Ives’s Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860”, I would share my story of first seeing the score’s opening page.

Nov 29th 2017

Piano practice is like having a dog. If one has lived long enough with such an unnecessary but at the same time critical circumstance, one wonders how others live without it.

Nov 29th 2017

In the world of classical music trios, there are few combinations as natural as the cello, guitar and piano. Operating mostly in the same register, attacking and retreating equally, the instruments can blend beautifully if played with discipline and heart. 

Nov 3rd 2017

A California polymath has electrified the music world with his images of classical music in visual form, capturing more than 165 million hits on his Internet postings in just a few years.  Only pop singers or weird videos do better. 

Oct 30th 2017

Ukrainian-born Evgeny Ukhanov, based in Australia for the past 20 years, is an established performer of new music originating in his adopted homeland. Now he has teamed up with friend and Melbourne composer Alan Griffiths on a new CD of selections regrouped under the title “Introspection”. 

Sep 9th 2017
 

If music makes you happy or sad, you are probably an average listener. If it leaves you indifferent, you might be considered insensitive. But if it gives you goosebumps you are in a very special group with connections in your brain anatomy that others may never feel.

Aug 31st 2017

Lake Como, known as the “magic lake” of Italy, has inspired writers and composers for centuries with natural surroundings so conducive to creative expression.

Aug 16th 2017
File 20170815 15219 g8geue

Much of the mythology that surrounds Elvis Presley, who died 40 yea

Aug 2nd 2017

Katia and Marielle Labèque -- the glamorous French keyboard siblings -- have achieved a solid legacy of exuberant performances in the two-piano repertoire, ranging from experimental contemporary works to traditional classical-romantic composers.