THE PIANIST AS A HYBRID INSTRUMENTALIST
Reflections on Stefan Prins's Piano Hero
In the beginning : the piano
In the 1990’s, after completing my studies at the Conservatory and pursuing abroad, I had developed a rather extensive practise and knowledge of the classical piano repertoire. This included 20th Century and earlier music pieces. While remaining faithful to 18th and early 19th Century composers, somehow neglecting the Romantic period, I started specializing in the repertoire of the first half of the 20th Century. More specifically, I favoured Central European, Eastern European and Russian composers such as Anton Webern, Arnold Schönberg, Béla Bartók, Sergeï Prokofiev and their contemporaries. However, I progressively made frequent incursions in more recent repertoire when I had the occasion. The first serious contemporary piece I performed was Philippe Boesmans’s Sur Mi (1974) for two pianos, percussion and electric organ (four performers). The piano score was quite new to me and proposed a type of playing I had not yet encountered although it remained in the realm of classical piano. The next piece I performed was Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstück IX for piano (1954-1961) which again contained several advanced piano techniques and incredible novelties but remained in what I considered as the heritage of the first part of the 20th Century music writing. Many pieces followed by composers such as Stefan Wolpe, Elliott Carter but also living Belgian composers. I also started playing minimalist music, especially Morton Feldman, discovering a new concept of time in music. All the pieces I played, some of which had been revolutionary in their time, were exclusively composed for piano in the great tradition of the instrument.
Kontakte : an extended piano
In the late 1990’s, Anthony Gonzalez, a friend of mine who was graduating from The Juilliard School as a percussionist, asked me to play with him for his final recital. He had chosen to perform Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kontakte (1958-1960) for piano, percussion and tape. After practising this demanding score individually, we rehearsed for two weeks to prepare the performance. Afterward, I played Kontakte many times with various percussionists such as Gerrit Nulens and Miquel Bernat.
Kontakte was first conceived as a purely electronic music piece and was performed as such. It is considered groundbreaking in its genre, entirely handmade by the composer who had no computers at the time. Later on, Stockhausen believed that audiences would appreciate the piece better with live musicians. Instrumental accompaniment was therefore added to the tape. At first, this accompaniment was improvised. However, that did not satisfy the composer because musicians always seemed to react to the tape instead of playing with it. He finally decided to compose a complete piece for piano and percussion to be played with the tape. Kontakte can therefore be considered as electronic music with an accompaniment of piano and percussion.
A page from Kontakte showing from top to bottom: the tape in graphic notation,
the percussion part and the piano part with notated percussion
Besides playing the piano, Kontakte requires from the pianist to achieve three more tasks : to play with a partner, to play with a tape and to play percussion. Playing with a partner is the basic task of any chamber musician and was not really new. Playing with a tape was definitely something new. From the beginning and for all my performances of Kontakte, I chose not to use a click track. The timing notated in the score is merely there to attest the construction of the tape which is conceived organically. It has to be learned and played as such. The tape has to be considered as a third partner, or rather as the first one, to be followed by the two others. Instrumentalists have to know it practically by heart, even if they have its graphic representation in front of their eyes. The third task is by far the most original one for a pianist : playing percussion. This represented a new way of using the body at the instrument, usually quartered in front of the keyboard. It also meant to develop and be able to produce a new variety of sound combinations.
The vast majority of piano repertoire involves playing one instrument but also using only the keyboard. However, with the 20th Century, a new breed of composers arose. Despite being overshadowed in their day by their contemporaries, Henri Cowell, Leo Ornstein or John Cage, to name a few, experimented new ways of playing the piano, beyond the piano. Being able to master several instruments separately or together might be a common accomplishment in folk or pop music, it is rather unusual in the classical music world. With the notable exception of percussionists maybe.
Noteworthy performances of Kontakte with Miquel Bernat include Ars Musica Festival (Brussels) in 2009, Agora Festival (Paris) in 2011 and Quincena Musical (San Sebastian) in 2014.
Set up and stage for Kontake (Quincena Musical de San Sebastian)
Further : more extended piano
Playing Kontakte encouraged me to get in touch with those who were already experimenting beyond the instrument. It also inspired me to stimulate composers to write new pieces. I took several new paths which contributed to broaden the repertoire I had developed as a young pianist.
Composers wrote pieces which have become milestones in my musical evolution.
The Americain pianist and composer Frederic Rzewski is the godfather of a musical genre which requires the pianist to speak as he plays. A speaking pianist ? Or is it a speaker playing piano ? In 1992, he wrote De Profundis, a long and intense piece for speaking pianist based on Oscar Wilde’s break up letter written in prison. This piece features a wide range of pianistic but also vocal techniques including speaking, yelling, breathing, groaning, moaning, whistling, barking, quacking and even body percussion. Piano playing is brought to a whole new meaning as it is mixed with the text. In addition to many pieces for this configuration, Frederic Rzewski wrote Dear Diary based on his own notebooks in 2014. I also adapted Coming Together originally for undetermined ensemble and speaker for solo speaking pianist.
US-based Greek composer Panayiotis Kokoras wrote West Pole for piano and electronics in 2008. The piece also uses several objects and small percussion.
Matthew Shlomowitz is a British-Australian composer based in London. In 2010, he wrote Popular Contexts 2 for piano, sampler, voice and physical actions. Physical actions play a very important role in this cycle because they are intimately bound together with the music. Samples are played from a keyboard placed on the piano.
Belgian composer Jean-Luc Fafchamps wrote his 50 minutes Beth/Veth for piano, percussion and electronics in 2012. The piece was premiered at Ars Musica festival the same year. As in Stockhausen’s Kontakte, the pianist plays several percussion instruments as well as his own intrument. The piece was released by Sub Rosa in 2015 and received the Octave de la musique for contemporary music. Beth/Veth is also an interactive sound installation on which the performer happens to play at some point.
In 2011, Fafchamps also wrote two miniatures, Rap and Tap for speaker and sound-effect pianist. Rap is for speaking pianist and based on a text by James Baldwin. Tap is for a pianist playing percussion on the instrument with thimbles and foot-tapping on the floor and pedals.
Brussels based Canadian composer and pianist André Ristic wrote Feynman Speech Sonata for speaking pianist in 2016 which was premiered in Montreal the same year. The piece includes a rap based on a lecture by American physicist Richard Feynman about understanding.
Canadian-American composer Alec Hall wrote A Dog is a Machine for Loving for piano, electronics and voice between 2016 and 2018. The piece is based on field recordings of dogs. The piano part uses a compositional technique similar to the one used by Peter Ablinger in his Voices and Piano. Several parts include spoken text. The piece will be premiered in 2019 at Columbia University in Paris.
Several pieces complete this list : Pasaka (1995-97) by Vykintas Baltakas for speaking pianist and electronics, based on a Hindou Creation narrative spoken in Lithuanian; Ô Piano (2012) for speaking pianist by François Sarhan, based on the interview of a pianist explaining his doubts as a musician (the composer rewrote an English version for me); and Trivia Surreal (2013) by Keith Kusterer, a piece for speaking pianist based on answers and questions (because answers come first) from a TV game show.
In 2018, I played Karheinz Stockhausen’s Mantra (1969-70) for two pianos with pianist Wilhem Latchoumia and Jan Panis for the electronics. In addition to playing the piano, performers are required to use a set of 12 crotales each, woodblocks and manipulate ring modulators.
Set up for Mantra (Ars Musica Festival 2018 in Bozar)
Stefan Prins and Piano Hero
Stefan Prins is a singular figure in the new music landscape. Having always been interested in music as well as in science and technology, he managed to create new artistic horizons and innovate through his compositional work. Every piece by Stefan Prins, especially the most recent ones, challenge old ways of thinking about music but not only. They also question the way we perceive the world around us and its representations through Art.
In the words of Michael Rebhahn: "In his compositional work Prins seeks to critique received convention, to break the framework of the usual, and dispose of aesthetic axioms. He envisions a musical art form beyond the safe confines of the »scene«, wherein the connection to the larger cultural discourse has gotten lost. A central pre-condition for the making of a new music with a future is the role of the aware, critical observer, one who is prepared to exploit the technologies and mechanisms of the prefabricated media with a view to their possibilities for new music. – Stefan Prins lives up to this calling." (2012)
I met Stefan Prins in 2010 when he was working on Piano Hero #1 and planning Piano Hero #2. He told me about his project to elaborate a cycle of pieces for piano, electronics and video. Piano Hero #1 and #2 were the first pieces of this cycle. I started to work on Piano Hero #1 and followed the evolution of Piano Hero #2 of which I performed successive versions. Piano Hero #3 followed and later, Piano Hero #4 was to become the final piece of the cycle.
Although I followed the progress of Piano Hero #1 and #2, and included them in concerts, I was more involved in the making of Piano Hero #3 and #4. Together with the composer and Florian Bogner (electronics and programming), we worked at ICST (Institute for Computer Music and Sound Technology) in Zürich. Two consecutive residencies were devoted to elaborating the electronics of Piano Hero #3 (feedback system), collecting objects used inside the instrument for Piano Hero #3 and filming the necessary material for the footage of Piano Hero #4. These aspects will be discussed in detail in the next part.
The Piano Hero was premiered during concerts in Darmstadt Ferienkurse, Ultima Oslo and in De Bijloke in 2016 and 2017. It was recorded and filmed in 2018 at De Bijloke for a Stefan Prins Album release for KAIROS in 2019.
Stefan Prins is a Belgian composer and performer who obtained a PhD in composition from Harvard University in 2017 after studying composition in Antwerp and sonology in Den Haag.
This website is part of a PhD thesis defended at the VUB/KCB in 2019.
I wish to express my special thanks to Dr. Jan Michiels for his ongoing support and guidance during my research as well as to Dr. Kathleen Coessens, Dr. Kristin Van Den Buys, Inge Pieters from the Brussels Arts Platform and VUB/KCB for their warm support.
I am most grateful to Stefan Prins who trusted me over the years during which the composition Piano Hero took place.
Finally, I am grateful to Newton Armstrong, Pierre Bieliavsky, Sarah Defrise, Jerome Lowenthal and Matthew Shlomowitz for their precious advice.