Friday, June 5, 2009


Here's a video to get you thinking about what musical performance is all about. I've been interested in piano versions of The Rite of Spring for awhile now, mainly because I've been listening again and again to Dag Achatz's remarkable solo version. (Get the whole Rite for only two tracks on eMusic.) I'd love to get my hands on Achatz's arrangement, even though I'm sure it would eat me alive. (Piano transcriptions, in general, are of special interest to me.)

There is also a 4-hand version prepared by the composer, and I guess that's what Fazil Say is playing above, but he's apparently recorded two of the hands ahead of time, using a Bosendorfer reproducing piano. In fact, as you'll see, Say doesn't actually start playing until almost a minute into the work (which is odd, because in Stravinsky's 4-hand version, the secondo part enters in the second measure, so maybe this is an entirely different arrangement.) This makes for a strange sort of drama as the work begins with the piano playing by itself, with Say intently watching and occasionally shuffling the sheet music around. (Come to think of it, it would have been really cool if the piano started before Say comes onstage; auto-piano functioning as a sort of primordial, pre-human prelude.) Finally, he starts playing, although the audience can never really know for sure which notes are being played by Say's fingers in the moment and which were performed ahead of time.

Now it's interesting enough to consider how we listen when hearing a piano version of such iconically orchestral music. As I've already suggested, I love hearing it this way, but that surely has something to do with the fact that I'm hearing the orchestral version internally (via what Oliver Saks calls musical imaging) - at least to some degree. The brain is both enjoying the newness of the piano sonority and filling in the gaps with orchestral sounds. Honestly, it's surprising how effectively this incredibly colorful score transfers to black-and-white, but for the experienced listener, there's no question there's a kind of layered listening going on. (Of course, all listening is layered, but this more specifically so.) It's also an opportunity to hear new things in the music, as the transcription inevitably brings different aspects to the surface.

Then we have this whole issue of what an audience expects in a live performance - namely, live performing. Obviously, there are lots of exceptions to that in the pop/rock world with backing tracks, lip-synching, etc., but classical music culture still has this baseline assumption that the notes are being produced in real-time. There are exceptions to this, whether through the use of taped sounds or the growing interest in looping performances live, as seen in this Zoe Keating cello+laptop performance (via Hugh Sung). But here we have something closer to the old studio trick that allowed Jascha Heifetz and Gidon Kremer to play both parts of the Bach double concerto - or the Emerson Quartet to record the Mendelssohn Octet. (Or, for something more extreme, check out Doug Yeo's multi-track recording of the 1812 Overture on serpents!)

So, this is bringing that concept to the concert hall. On the one hand, one might ask why Say doesn't just pre-record the whole thing. The audience still would get to hear the genuine sound of a live piano - not the same as listening to a recording - but there'd be considerably less suspense. An important part of our listening has to do with appreciating the technical challenges that are being attempted. (See my first ever blog post.) Also, Say is clearly a rather theatrical performer, so watching him play can be a catalyst for the audience's listening. It is, after all, music that was written to accompany visuals.

And that brings up another interesting listening layer, one I've blogged about before (here and in Peterman-style here): this is music that is ostensibly about primitive pagan rituals - and yet presented in a very disciplined, civilized, and modernist context. I spent last week in some enlightening meetings with faculty from other arts disciplines, and the theater prof talked about the idea of the Greek theatrical mask as a way of providing a safe distance from the sometimes intensely disturbing content of a tragedy being played out on stage. The audience member for Say's performance is not only dealing with the "piano as orchestra" layer and the "pre-recorded as live" layer, but also the fascinating "primitive/barbaric via cultured/safe" layer.

I'm honestly not sure how to evaluate exactly what's going on here, but I guess I could say that I'd like to hear something like this live, even if it breaks some rules about what we expect a live performance to be. I can see how this allows the transcription to incorporate much more detail than a solo version could, and yet there's something inherently dramatic and heroic about seeing only a single performer on-stage - and there's something curiously dramatic about seeing the piano play itself, as if the performer is in dialogue with the instrument. Perhaps it works particularly well because this is such an iconic work, already full of contradictions.

One of the Twitterers I follow recently confessed to having listened to The Rite every night for a year as a teenager; not only is that making a true rite of the Rite, but it suggests an extreme version of what most fans of this experience surely experience: the sense that, even after repeated listenings, the music is still full of terrifying surprises - even when they're not actually surprising any more. Think of those famous "unpredictable" accents [3:08 in the video above] that augur the coming of Spring and other frightful things:

If you know the work well enough, the accents aren't really surprising or unpredictable, but we continue to hear them that way because they're encoded with a kind of meaning that goes beyond the literal aural experience - in much the same way that a long, suspenseful pedal-tone buildup can still thrill on the 123rd hearing. (It's an interesting aesthetic question to wonder if a performer might be justified in shifting those accents around!)

The bottom line is, we are strange, complex creatures when it comes to how we listen. One element I didn't yet mention is that, because Fazil Say has an established reputation as a virtuoso, his audience will buy into his unusual presentation because they have little reason to doubt that he's still challenging himself. I mean, I could go out on stage with a Bosendorfer programmed to play 90% of the Trois mouvements de Petrouchka (a work I'd dearly love to play, but not sure I have the chops), with me just overlaying the remaining 10%, and the result might be aurally thrilling - but who'd want to hear it?
BONUS: I just ran across this video of another solo pianist (Daniel Rivera) tackling the monster, here in an arrangement by Sam Raphling. Look at that crazy cut-and-pasted score. That guy really needs an Airturn! (Yes, I'm a testimonialist for the Airturn, but an unpaid one who genuinely thinks it's great.)


Unknown said...

It is really all down to the performer, in my mind. Listening to live music is as much about the performance as the music, in my mind, and anything that pulls the audience in without harming the integrity of the piece can't be bad, in my book.

Baywatch said...

totally fascinating post, thanks!

Rick Robertson said...

Dickran Atamian made something os a splash with the Raphling transcription in the early eighties. He recorded it at least once. I have it on RCA digital vinyl and (perhapsw a later recording, or licensed to another label) as an iTunes download. A live performance was also broadcast on public television around that time - I remember watching it - he was sweating, and I was tearing up.


Yes, I remember reading about Dickran Atamian's recording - I think it was in Keyboard Classics magazine. Who remembers that publication? I think when I came across the Dag Achatz recording many years later, I first had the two pianists confused since they have the same initials.

I just heard about a recording by Serhiy Salov via this article about the recent Bad Plus performance. Have you heard it? It's available on Amazon download (probably iTunes as well).