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If you know me personally, especially if you knew me 10 years ago, or so, that I perform this piece might surprise you. I used to be quite shy, a little social anxiety and a lot of self-doubt. I’m also a quintessential introvert.
This piece—if you ever have a chance to see the entire thing live, please do, it’s a moving experience!—requires extreme extroversion. A lot of outward charisma and it does not leave room for fright, anxiety or fear of social judgement.
When I was in high school, I ran for student council President (and I won!) to force myself out of my shell, at least a little.
This was not always so!
I used to hate contemporary music. I remember when my college teacher assigned me this piece the summer before my sophomore year. Dutifully, I purchased the score but could not bring myself to work on it. Visually I was intimidated: there are sections without meter, sections with weird changing meters. Aurally I was insulted: there are chords built out of difficult collections of intervals and where was the tonal center? I had no idea how to grasp it. This isn’t even getting into the horror I later looked at the music of serial composers, like this one, with. What awful, kerplunkity music. How are you even supposed to know if I’m playing the right notes or not?
What I always was interested in, however, was rarely heard music by older composers. I spoke a little more about this in my Influential Books series post on Kenneth Hamilton’s After the Golden Age. That book opened my eyes to this brand new way of playing the piano that I was so attracted to.
I tried to approach music with fresh ears in graduate school. I ran into some trouble preparing Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in Bb minor, from WTC 1. I came to the realization that I (and really anyone who plays it) was counting the Prelude in 8/8 meter, rather than the marked 4/4. Which is to say, I played it so slowly, that the eighth note, rather than the quarter, was the actual beat. This seemed wrong. So I moved to a slow quarter note pulse, which brought out an angsty, raging piece. It sounded fast, but in reality, I was just counting the piece in the proper meter. The dramatic moment near the end with a pause over a diminished 7th chord became an even greater moment of discord and emotion.
I was very lucky to have my teacher at the time who let me play that way, so different than anyone else has, and even helped me make my case a little more convincing, even if he himself wasn’t convinced! But I knew I wouldn’t always be lucky, and I knew that I had a lot to learn about being a convincing, artistic performer.
I realized that I needed to mature. But to get the best of both worlds, I found a solution: I could pursue the kind of playing I was after if I focused on music without an established performance tradition. Enter the Doctorate of Music Arts in Contemporary Music at Bowling Green State University.
I was honored to receive one of the limited spots in this program in 2011. I had learned to accept the accessible contemporary music by this time, and was eager to learn more. It’s a difficult program, full of academic work, which challenges your mind, and your time management skills. The program has high standards but is infinitely supportive of all the various projects the students are into.
I think the defining moment was when I was approached that first fall semester by a senior saxophonist, asking me to play Charles Wuorinen’s Divertimento for his recital several months away. That’s that jagged, ugly serial music I mentioned earlier! I wasn’t keen on the idea but I figured I had to give it a shot, I was here for that kind of music.
I agonized over the score for a couple weeks but inevitably we got together for our first rehearsal, on the slow opening section. I was astounded that, though not without coordination difficulties, it actually worked! The harmonies had logic and direction when played together, and these rhythms fit to create a brand new sense of time. I discovered that there is a cognitive appeal to this music and that playing it accesses some part of the brain that isn’t challenged in the same way through tonality.
From here it was an easy and enjoyable slope to discovering and appreciating all kinds of contemporary styles. There are some I love more than others, and a few I to this day dislike. But my love for the music led me to perform something as extroverted as the Rzewski, linked above. And, I feel much closer to my goal of having an established, mature sense of artistry.
Now that I’ve been a graduate of my program for 2 years, I’m making an honest effort to finally bring myself back to standard repertoire. I’ve played some canonical music over the last 6 years since I came to Bowling Green, whether collaborating, or revisiting solo repertoire I’d learned before, plus I learned a few new things here and there.
But this year is all about brand new, standard repertoire. I’ve had a difficult two years. Making money right out of grad school is a tremendous distraction. And just over a year ago my wife was diagnosed with cancer and we spent the next 10 months fitting our normal lives around her treatments (luckily all is well now!). It’s been difficult to actually focus on the joy of music, instead, music was a job.
I feel I am not alone. Real life is hard, and it's so easy to forget about the things you're passionate about.
I will expand more in the next couple months. This blog series I’m calling “Artistic Messages”, because I’m interested in surveying the artistry I’ve discovered, and the artistry I’m still after. Hopefully some of this will resonate with and inspire you. I am working on some exciting things, and hope to give some exciting performances yet this season which I will expand upon in the upcoming posts.