Thursday, February 26, 2009

Piano Blogging and the Art of Impossibility

One of the fun things about this Piano Hero experiment has been remembering how satisfying musical performances can be even when they're not completely polished. I might (maybe) even make an argument (possibly) that the lack of polish can enhance a certain kind of enjoyment. For example, if our listeners know we're sightreading and playing on the edge, a noticeable clinker here or there can actually help heighten the tension in a way that makes the listening more exciting. Maybe. We actually had a rather minor complaint yesterday that we looked too at ease while we're playing. This particular listener wanted to see more visible stress - perhaps even hear some muttered curses.

Anyway, I've been reminded of my decision to start piano-blogging last Spring, the idea being that I'd just sit down and record without lots of practicing, editing, fussing, etc. I continue to wish more musicians did this kind of thing, because what better way is there to express one's feelings about a piece than to play it? I kind of stalled after working my way through a little "songs without singers" series, but I think it's time to let my fingers do the talking some more. And, as usual, I'm interested in playing music not originally intended for piano solo.

A continuing benefit of the Piano Hero experience is getting to hear familiar music in a new way. I loved reading Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia, but what has stuck with me the most from that book are his discussions of musical imaging, the ways in which we can "hear" music without hearing it. That's a fascinating topic in its own right, what it means to think through a piece internally, but even more complex is the way in which internal musical imaging must play a role in what we actually hear. For example, internal musical imaging makes it possible to anticipate the return of a well-known tune or to recognize a tune in the first place. And, it makes it possible to hear the relatively neutral sound of a piano as a flute, oboe, string section...or, let's say, a solo violin.

I mentioned a few posts back that Bach's Violin Concerto in A Minor is just about my favorite piece of music in the history of the world. I love the violin as a solo instrument, but it shouldn't surprise you to know that I'm also intrigued by the harpsichord versions of the violin concerti. Well, maybe not the harpsichord versions, but it's amazing how well the solo violin parts can work on the piano. I also mentioned that I hear the slow movement of this concerto as a sort of "Orpheus Taming the Furies" dialogue. True, the orchestra isn't as gruff as in the famous "Orpheus" movement of Beethoven's 4th piano concerto, but there's a stubbornness in Bach's bass ritornello that the solo passages seem intent on melting. The final solo statement is a miracle of sweetness and simplicity, so perfect that there is no concluding ritornello. It's less a victory than it is a unification of opposing forces. Honestly, I can't really put into words what happens in this musical dialogue, so I figured I'd just play it.

There are many compromises at play here. First of all, all those long, suspended notes the violin sings can really only be imagined as sustaining that way in a piano version. Second of all, I didn't have an orchestra available when I slipped into the recital hall early this morning, so it's just a dialogue between my two hands, not a violin (or piano) vs. orchestra. I did my best to incorporate the orchestral violin parts, but I'm inconsistent about that. Third, I only had about 15 minutes, so I just sat and played, and when I had a couple of slips, I backtracked a little and then stitched things together later this afternoon. It's far from perfect. But, whatever. I really love the way it sounds this way, and in some respects the fragility of the piano sonority just adds to the impossibly beautiful writing. And I also like that this was just a quiet, pre-workday moment, alone at the piano, trying to tame a Steinway into doing something it could never really do. Here's to impossibilities.

(It's also now part of the MMmusic jukebox.)
Note that the keyboard version is a step lower than the violin version.

More reflections on Piano Hero: Level Two coming tomorrow.

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