May 18, 2010

The Contemporary Piano Music Crisis: Part II


Because I'm not all doom and gloom, Parts II and III of my series on contemporary piano music will focus on the benefits of teaching and performing the repertoire of 20th century and lesser known composers and what we can do to help solve the problem. After Part I (which my father deemed "angry") this installment will focus some of the benefits of exposing others and being exposed to contemporary piano music.

I had played classical piano for over a decade before I attended Birch Creek Music Camp in Door County, Wisconsin as a high-schooler. I had just made the decision to pursue piano in college, and needed some experience at a music camp, under a different teacher. At this point, I knew very little about classical repertoire in general, little about music theory, and didn't particularly enjoy listening to Western Art-Music (aka "classical music"). The camp was brutal for me, but two particular pieces opened up my ears. One was Dvorak's 9th Symphony ("New World Symphony"), and the other was Francis Poulenc's Sonata for Four Hands.


I had heard the Dvorak once before but had never even heard of early 20th century French composer Poulenc. The piece had a profound effect on me. The brutality of the driving secondo part mixed with the witty, syncopated melodies piqued my interest in a way no Beethoven sonata could ever do. I started to gobble up records by "contemporary" (Poulenc died in 1963) composers. Right after camp ended I bought a CD of Dvorak and Elgar's cello concertos, Poulenc's Stabat Mater, Gloria, Secheresses and other pieces, and a recording of Charles Ive's Sonata no. 2 "Concord". Back at my high-school, I discovered the library's vinyl collection (hidden underneath the stairs) and checked out a half dozen records every weekend to record to my computer. I was exposed to Varese, Babbitt, Schoenberg, more Ives, and most importantly for piano, living American composer George Crumb.

As a teenager more interested in punk rock and heavy metal than Mozart, these composers gave me access to sounds that I had never heard before, and related more strongly to my world. Later on, in college I expanded my interest in contemporary composers to a general interest in lesser-known composers. This combined with my growing feminism led me to composers such as Amy Beach, Charles Griffes, Cecile Chaminade, Ruth Crawford-Seeger, and Joan Tower amongst many others. As an undergraduate, despite my interest in lesser-played and contemporary repertoire, I was expected to perform a steady diet of the classics, but was allowed to sprinkle in newer composers on occasion. My recital programs from my final years included works by J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Robert Schumann, Haydn, Beach, and living composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. I grew into Rautavaara's Piano Sonata no. 2 "Fire Sermon" easily, and decided after college to make contemporary music my primary focus.

Rautavaara's Second Piano Sonata (performed by somebody else)

That is my own personal story of how I discovered and fell in love with non-canonic piano literature, but I left out all of the reasons why I've made it my focus. Below are some of the benefits for performers, students, and audiences of learning contemporary and lesser-known piano literature.

1) Wealth of Repertoire - It may seem somewhat obvious, but the amount of repertoire we have access to since the romantic era (ca. 1815-1900) is huge. In keyboard terms, repertoire usually begins in the Baroque era with Bach, Handel, and for the adventurous, Francois Couperin. Classical repertoire is effectively limited to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Romantic repertoire grows immensely with the inclusion of late Schubert, Chopin, Robert and Clara Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms. These composers (with the exceptions of Clara Schumann, and Couperin) are well represented in performance. Representing the era after these composers, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, and some of the other early Russian masters are performed. This is quite a lot of repertoire, and creates a difficult problem for performers and teachers who want to expose others to the abundance of historical music, yet still advocate unheard works. 

Contemporary music offers a huge amount of repertoire for the piano. Composers can publish easily with the help of independent printing presses, or self-publish online. In addition to living composers, there are as many lesser-known composers from the late-romantic and early 20th century as there are famous ones. The sheer amount of repertoire is often daunting, which is why it is important for college students and teachers to begin investigating non-canonic works as soon as possible, and continue for their entire lives. 

Because of the breadth of contamporary literature, there is something for everyone. Many people hear a piece of music written in the past 100 years and throw out the rest of the repertoire alongside it. Unlike some other musical eras, such as the early Classical period, where many musical aesthetics were shared amongst composers (this is not to say they all sound alike, just that they shared many ideals), contemporary music has a wide range of styles and sounds. If the mathematical methods of Iannis Xenakis are not your style, you may enjoy the percussive syncopations of Bartok's Piano Sonata.

Second half of Xenakis' Mists

Bartok's Piano Sonata performed by a very energetic Lang-Lang (I'm pretty sure he thanks his page turner after the first turn)
The term "contemporary piano repertoire" is actually a colossal misnomer. Some of the different styles that make up this era of music include (in no particular order): Serialism, Impressionism, Quotational School, Late Romanticism, Expressionism, Indeterminacy (which itself can include Aleatoricism, Chance music, and Stochastic methods), Pointilism, Electronic music, Minimalism (another misnomer), Nationalism, Avante-Garde, and Neoclassicism to name very few of the many genres. There is literally something for everyone.

2) Audiences Enjoy it - Many pianists fear that audiences will not enjoy contemporary music. In my experience, audiences tend to enjoy this repertoire as much, if not more than canonic works. Because the majority of audiences cannot tell Beethoven's Op. 53 from Op. 106 (and seriously, why should they), programming a Ginastera sonata will be just as exciting as programming a Chopin Scherzo. To an audience that does not know a piece of music is non-canonic, there is no sense of danger or entering unknown territory.

Much of the contemporary piano repertory is very exciting music. The pieces are often shorter and more in line with the modern audience's attention span. With the exception of minimalism, pieces often feature rapid shifts in mood, content, harmony, and character. This keeps contemporary music exciting, a feature rarely associated with western art-music.

3) It Reflects Modern Aesthetics - We don't live in a time of grand balls, elegant dress, and court concerts anymore. For the same reasons that pre-20th century music can be hard for an audience to understand, contemporary music can be far more accessible. As mentioned before, the length of pieces are closer to the attention span of the modern audience, and the character of pieces relate more directly to those found in the modern range of emotions. The dripping sentimentality and overt show of emotions found in much of the romantic repertoire, while appealing to us, is somewhat lost outside of its original context, whereas the mechanical drive of a Prokofiev Sonata is much more relatable to the modern experience.

Additionally, the musics that make up modern "popular" music are well represented in the art-music world as well. Jazz and classical music have played off of each other as long as Jazz has existed. The compositional idioms of Jazz, Pop, and Classical share much more in common than we might think. This makes for a compositional style that is more easily understood by the modern listener, regardless of classical background knowledge. For example, the following third and fourth movements of American composer Samuel Barber's Piano Sonata (especially the fourth movement) contain both driving rhythm and syncopations, understandable by any untrained listener, as well as a fugue which can appeal to those with a historical background. (Go to around 1:58 for the beginning of the fourth movement fugue) 

Samuel Barber's Piano Sonata mvmts 3 and 4 performed by Christopher Atzinger (full disclosure: Dr. Atzinger was my undergraduate teacher)

4) A Way to Teach Recent History - American educator Raymond Burrows, one of the creators of the college "group piano" class wrote about the usefulness of piano for history teachers, to give an insight to their classes on the culture of European civilizations of the past 300 years. Music teachers can also use piano literature from the past 100 years to help illustrate historical concepts and events. The reaction to the World Wars can be seen in Serialism and Indeterminism, Nationalism can be illustrated in the piano works of Charles Ives in America, and numerous Russian composers operating under the auspices of the Union of Soviet Composers. The avante-garde and experimentation of the 60s and 70s can be explored just as validly through the music of Terry Riley and LaMonte Young as it can through the psychadelic music of Jimi Hendrix.

5) The Modern Piano - Pieces written within the last 100 years were overwhelmingly written for the modern piano. Some things that distinguish the modern piano from the piano used in Beethoven and Schubert's time are the standardization of the steel frame and the crossing of the strings. Both of these things were done for power and sonority of the instrument. The steel frame enables performers to play louder and harder, and the crossing of the strings (the bass strings are crossed over the treble strings) creates a more lush sound due to sympathetic vibrations, as well as the ability to fit longer (louder) bass strings into a smaller area. For more information about the development of the piano check out this Wikipedia article.


These technological innovations had a profound effect on the style of writing for the keyboard. Composers stopped writing busy bass-line passages, as can be found in many of the piano sonatas of Beethoven, and wrote more octave or character-specific bass passages. The power of the new piano also allows more percussive sounds such as heard in the above Poulenc and Bartok videos. The modern piano also allows unique extended techniques such as those found in the works of pioneer Henry Cowell, and living composer George Crumb.

Henry Cowell's "The Banshee" performed by the composer
These extended technique pieces are often played on the strings rather than on the keys of the piano. They involves scraping, muting, and plucking the strings amongst other techniques. These pieces utilize the modern piano specifically, and were written for the instrument that we currently play. These pieces will almost always work on the modern instrument, unlike Mozart and Beethoven sonatas which have to be played differently on the modern piano than they are on the classical forte-piano. If we have access to pieces written specifically for our instrument, we should be playing them. As it is, the majority of recital program pieces were written for a very different kind of piano.

6) Teaching Pieces - Because of the difficulty and "newness" of many modern pieces, it is often thought that they are intended for experts only. Although I will write more about this in Part III, there are a wealth of contemporary composers who not only write pieces for children, but whose pieces (often written in non-standard notation) better suit children than canonic pieces can. Composers like Stephen Chatman, whose children's pieces often consist of shapes and lines with written directions more effectively teach the piano than more traditional pieces by controlling the number of variables a student has to focus on when learning the instrument. Pieces often focus simply on pitch selection, or dynamics, or articulation, rather than combining all of these elements at the same time. The results are often pleasurable, unique, and satisfying for both audiences and students.

I can't write enough about the benefits of teaching and performing contemporary repertoire. The amount of repertoire is immense, and largely untapped. One only needs a first exposure to catalyze the exploration of this great musical world. Part III of this series will focus on what each area of the musical world from Part I can do to help solve the Contemporary Crisis that exists in the piano world.

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