Hearing the Forest and the Trees
As a pianist who specializes in playing lots of new music, I often find I am asking, “What have I gotten myself into now?” Such was my thought when Belinda Reynolds asked me if I might like to take over her Chatter space here on Mondays while she took a summer sabbatical to spend more time composing. As Gary Graffman so aptly said, “I really should be practicing.”
And so, I ask the age-old question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound? Or, if a composer writes a piece of music, and there is no one to perform it, does it matter? Is the performer’s voice important, or is it the mere act of writing down the music that really counts? Some composers may go their whole lives and never hear their works performed; some (very few) enjoy the pleasure of having their works played somewhere every day. Many pianists spend hours in the practice room and never make it on to the stage. Does it matter? Why do we do it?
Well, I can only speak from my perspective, which I suppose is what this column is all about. I play new music, and I do so because it is new. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it, and sometimes it makes little impression upon me at all. But it is new and it is different. And as a pianist who was steeped in conservatory training—how many Chopin etudes can you play?—this is what is most important to me. I’m tired of hearing the same music over and over, and weary of playing the same notes. There are many recordings of the Beethoven sonatas, but what can I add to the conversation that is original? The act of helping to create a new musical composition is enough to keep me interested for the rest of my life.
So, while I still think the Liszt sonata is the greatest work ever written for the piano, and that the Bach preludes and fugues share symmetry with all that is good in the world, I still crave more. I think my role as a performer is to communicate and express the sounds and ideas of the composer. I also believe that new music is collaboration: without each other, perhaps there is no sound. Both voices are important. What do you think?