May 29, 2010

The Contemporary Piano Music Crisis: Part III

In this final installment, I'll cover the steps that can be taken by the parties mentioned in the first post to help solve the problem of diminishing exposure of contemporary repertoire in the piano performance and teaching world.

1) Patrons - The role of patrons in the promotion of contemporary music is somewhat obvious. Patrons of the arts need to do as much as they can to not only support new composers, but also promote great works written over the past 100 years. Patrons are quick to commission new works from composers. A commissioned work is typically written with some idea in mind or parameters given by the patron who is paying for both its composition and performance. Sometimes a performer will commission a piece from a particular composer using money from a grant, competition, or donor. Other commissioned works are written for competitions, and all competitors are required to learn the piece.

Commissioning works is the primary way new music is premiered in the modern era, and I have no problem with it. The unfortunate downside to this system is that these commisioned works are rarely repeated in non-premiere performances. It might be true that the majority of pieces in the modern repertoire are commissioned works, but that does not mean the majority of commissioned works make it into the canon. With patrons eager to get a new piece composed in their name or by their dime, the performances of contemporary, yet not-new pieces are rare.

Patrons need to make several adjustments to help this situation. They need to be as eager to support recent repertoire as they are to commision new works. Patrons have a great ability to control what becomes part of the canon, and by supporting and sponsoring contemporary and lesser-known repertoire they can influence the canon. Patrons also need to do their research into new and lesser-known music. It's true that you can't go wrong with a Beethoven Sonata or Symphony, but by exploring contemporary repertoire, they have the ability to expand the consciousness of all music-lovers.

2) Pianists - Pianists are the most guilty of neglecting contemporary repertoire but can also make the most change. Pianists can begin by exploring the genres of contemporary music that they like and programming small amounts on their recitals. Many contemporary pieces require learning new techniques, and pianists shy away from them. If pianists want to stay relevant in the modern musical world, they must be bold and embrace new techniques. Pianists should set goals, such as programming at least one piece written within the past 50 years on every recital program, or dedicating a part of every concert to a lesser-known composer. By placing these pieces on programs, the pianist not only shows knowledge of the modern world, but also exposes the audience to a composer or style of music that they may enjoy enough to look into after the concert.

In my own experience, the exposure to composers outside of the canon has had a profound effect on audiences. After a recital in college, in which I played Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin for fifty minutes, the pieces that everyone still talks about were two miniatures by early American composer Amy Beach. Her pieces are not extremely "modern" sounding but they are beautiful and fresh to the ears of the audience. By playing some of her pieces on a recital, I not only exposed people to her music, but also entered her name into their musical vocabulary.

Amy Beach's "Scottish Legend" performed by Phillip Sear, who looks a lot like Larry David
3) Recordings - Recordings have done a lot for contemporary music. Without recordings, our musical vocabulary would be much smaller and we would never get to hear the majority of the great classical repertoire. What we must be careful of is not being satisfied with just the recording. Music is a performance art, and pieces should exist outside of just the recording (for western, piano "art-music" that is, rock and roll and electronic music which exists solely on the record are different). 

When deciding what to record, pianists should think about what their intentions are with the recordings. When forte-pianist Malcolm Bilson came to the University of Illinois in October, 2009, he was talking to a faculty member about recording the complete piano sonatas of Beethoven. Bilson, who has recorded all of the Beethoven sonatas on historical forte-piano replicas, asked what kind of piano the faculty member would be recording on. Upon hearing that they would be recorded on a Steinway, Bilson asked "what's the point?" Although I was shocked by how absolutely cold and rude that response was (it takes an incredible amount of time to record the complete sonatas of Beethoven) he was absolutely correct. 

At that exact moment in time, I was in a room with three men who had all recorded and released the complete Beethoven sonatas. These are in addition to recordings of the complete Beethoven sonatas as performed by Richard Goode, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel, Wilhelm Kempff, Claudio Arrau, Ronald Brautigam, and a massive host of others. If you wanted, you could own well over a dozen (probably close to two dozen) different interpretations of the complete Beethoven Sonatas. Pianists need to take that same enthusiasm for recording the classics and apply it to contemporary repertoire. Pianists tend to see that someone has already recorded the John Cage Sonatas and Interludes for example, and not want to record their own interpretation. As a recording pianist, one has the obligation to record new and lesser-known works as often, if not more often than established works.

4) Competitions - Competitions are what they are, and there is little one can do to change them. They test the complete skillset and knowlede of the pianist, and this by defition must include non-contemporary repertoire. The furtherance of acceptance of non-standard repertoire would help the cause, as well as the expansion of repertoire knowledge on the part of judges. Judges tend to be incredibly knowledgable (usually made up of teachers and performers) but less accepting of modern works. 

The commisioned works of competitions are an excellent, yet flawed attribute. Commissioned piece prizes help add importance to the commissioned work, but pianists in the competitions tend to apply less effort to these pieces, and according to a source that shall not be named, these pieces are often treated as something of a joke within the competition circuit. Expansion of acceptable repertoire and a professional approach to the commissioned work will help the competition scene become less of a problem.

5) Teachers - Many of our conceptions and preferences about music are formed at a young age. As music teachers we have a responsibility to produce open minded students who are as enthusiastic about modern music as they are about anything else. This responsibility includes teaching about modern theory, music history and how to appreciate contemporary piano repertoire. 

Teachers should be knowledgable about contemporary repertoire. Unlike public school teachers, who require licenses with periodic renewals and updating, piano teachers do not need to be licensed and do not need to attend classes. Because of this independence, teachers need to dedicate their own time to self-improvement in weak areas. Teachers who do not have a strong knowledge of contemporary composition technique, repertoire, and performance practice should make it a priority to familiarize themselves with these areas of piano literature. 

Compositions featuring contemporary techniques and sounds are plentiful at every level of difficulty. Composers like Ross Lee Finney and Stephen Chatman use a variety of modern techniques including graphic notation, aleatoricism, improvisation and a variety of styles for beginners through adults. For an excellent rundown of modern techniques and a catalog of contemporary pieces suitable for teaching, download or buy Kevin David Richmond's dissertation Non-traditional Notation and Techniques in Student Piano Repertoire.

This concludes my series on the contemporary piano scene. It's important not only for the advancement of music to celebrate contemporary composers, but it's also important for the advancement of the piano as an instrument of relevance. There are many players in this scene, and everyone has to be responsible for their part. Pianists need to expand their repertoire, patrons need to sponsor concerts of contemporary music, and teachers need to keep their students out of the dark.

1 comment:

  1. On a very unrelated note, will you learn some Josh Groban? kthxbye.