THE PIANIST AS A HYBRID INSTRUMENTALIST
Reflections on Stefan Prins's Piano Hero
PhD in the Arts at VUB/KCB
On the importance of new music
The 19th Century is without any doubt the Golden Age of piano, with Beethoven, the musical giant who opened the way to Chopin, Schumann, Liszt or Brahms. Their offsprings in the 20th Century are composers and pianists such as Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Bartók and many others. The situation then evolved with new developments such as atonality, serialism and most important, electronic music. However, it is remarkable to witness how composers remained strongly attached to the piano. Even if they were pioneers in electronic music, composers such as Ligeti or Stockhausen produced great pieces for solo piano. I consider that the indispensable task of teaching and working on the traditional repertoire must be enhanced by a necessary experience of all the music that has been written more recently.
Combining tradition with the experience gained by practicing new repertoires
I start from the idea that there is no rupture in the conception of the musical work : there is a continuum between 18th Century and today’s music, even if the evolution is not always linear. This justifies a global approach of the repertoire, extending it to the most recent works. It is necessary to be aware of the multiple aspects (analytical, historical, instrumental or contextual) of the entire repertoire.
I believe that temporal proximity with a repertoire makes it vital for the performer since he can deal directly with it. In order to perform or to teach older music, we often rely on tradition. However, we should also realise that the distance between older music and our times makes it difficult to grasp. A certain proximity with the music we practice may help enhancing our personal judgment and reflection on any music whatever the period it belongs to. The similar temporal and intellectual position of the performer and the composer as well as their shared presence in the same modernity both help the performer to engage in a dialectical exchange with music. From there on, the performer can cast a retrospective eye over the general repertoire and has the possibility to considerably enrich his artistic reflexion.
Specific aspects of new music and extensions to other disciplines
A remarkable element of the recent repertoire is its extension to other ways of playing. The encounter with new musical experiences, sometimes at the very extreme limit of music, brings new ways of thinking about music and performance, and a new understanding of text and score.
I underline here a number of new elements introduced by composers in the 20th and 21th Centuries :
vocal elements (speaking, singing or noise),
percussion instruments or new techniques involving percussions, including the piano,
electronic media (fixed or live),
improvisation (which was more lively in earlier periods),
parameters inviting performers to make interpretative choices.
Piano Hero, a modern Hammerklavier ?
With Piano Hero, Stefan Prins recontextualises the piano. He goes even further by placing it in a contemporary technological environment. The composer states the following :
"The modern grand piano, perfected in the nineteenth century, consists of a keyboard, a set of metal strings and an ingenious mechanism of hammers and dampers, which serves as the transmission between the pianist's muscles and the strings. The wooden body of the piano amplifies the vibrations of the strings when they're hit by a hammer. In Piano Hero this configuration is updated and placed in today's context, using some of the typical artefacts of the 21st century : the keyboard now is an electronic one, the computer serves as the transmission and the strings are played by a virtual pianist -the avatar of the pianist of flesh and blood sitting on stage- while the wooden resonating body is substituted by a set of electro-mechanical speakers.
But not only the piano is recontextualized. The mechanisms of observing, as done by the audience, is also taken into the equation. The act of observing underwent a radical change of meaning in a society which is ever more being monitored, either by the millions of security cameras in public places, a network of geo-stationary satellites which can zoom in to human dimensions or the world wide web on which every day millions of homemade videos are posted and watched by millions of anonymous visitors." (Source: Stefan Prins)
In Piano Hero, the performer faces a number of challenges, single and combined. Their combination produces a new type of instrument, encompassing the piano but also exceeding it. This generates the necessity to develop new learning and performing strategies in proportion to what is at stake. The performer can therefore not rely on tradition and on what he has retained from it. It requires from him the ability to invent new paths to interpretation, incorporating all the aspects discovered in the new piece, possibly combining them with traditional knowledge.
Beethoven's op. 106 sonata is one of the composer's most important works and a paradigmatic piano piece of the early 19th Century. Its novelty also transcends the ages by the instrumental and musical challenges it still represents for today's performer.
A 19th Century performer approaching a piece such as Beethoven's op. 106 had to face technical and musical challenges which were unheard of in his time. Many testimonies and biographers confirm that when the sonata was published and premiered, it provoked an unprecedented crisis in the reception of Beethoven's music. Similar reactions were sparked when his quartets were premiered. The Schuppanzigh quartet complained that the music was unplayable. Even though the sonata might have been played privately by Carl Czerny, Beethoven's pupil, Franz Liszt was, as far as we know, the first to give a public performance in 1836. Performing such a piece appeared to confine the 19th Century pianist to the very limits of his musical and technical knowledge, forcing him to reinvent the way he perceived and conceived his relationship to his instrument.
By deploying his research capacities in creating new music, the performer reinforces his potential to renew interpretation of classical music. I consider that this potential cannot reach its full power if it solely relies on tradition. However important and enriching it can be, tradition tends to restrict the performer's creative power by making him follow existing mindsets instead of inventing new ones.
I made the statement to follow such an approach as an interpreter and to share it as much as possible with students, colleagues and audiences.
"The main stumbling block in the way of any progress is and always has been unimpeachable tradition." Chien-Shiung Wu, experimental physicist