Playing the New Classics

It seems that every composer has a piece for keyboard, so why don’t we hear more new piano music? What makes one work better than another? Certainly it’s a matter of programming and the performer’s style and approach to learning a new piece, but it can also be an issue of what I like to think of as “playability.” All new music performers love a challenge (or we wouldn’t be doing this) but some challenges are more fun than others. So, from this pianist’s perspective, here are some thoughts.

We are all different. As with traditional music (i.e. Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, etc.) we all like and are good at different things. While I love to listen to Rubenstein play Chopin, it was not really Glenn Gould’s forte. Horowitz’s Liszt Sonata is unrivalled in my opinion, and listening to the old Schnabel recordings of the Beethoven sonatas is always revealing. As performers we are drawn to the expression of different sounds and varied ways of communicating. Some people are drawn to the passionate and fiery playing of Martha Argerich, while others prefer the more cerebral and intellectual playing of Peter Serkin. Both are wonderful pianists, and both have very different things to say. The same is true when performers select the new music they want to champion. The intellectual and technical demands of the Carter Sonata are different than the challenges of the Crumb Makrokosmos. Berio is different than Babbitt. Shapiro is different than Singleton. Just like traditional classical music, it’s all good, and all varied. Different styles of music require different techniques and musical expression and the commitment to communicate those clearly. Passion and understanding for a piece of music always makes a difference.

The piano is a difficult instrument to write for. While it spans the complete Western harmonic language, its equal temperament can make it sound bland or too homogenous in the wrong style, and its technical challenges can make it awkward in the most talented hands. Brahms’s piano music can be very difficult to play on the piano, while Chopin’s music is idiomatic to the keyboard. Much of the standard keyboard repertoire was written by virtuoso player/composers who knew and understood the advantages and limitations of the keyboard. While it’s not necessary to be a first-rate pianist to write fine piano music, it does help to understand what sounds good on the piano, and what does not. It’s also helpful to know what is difficult to play for even the best pianist. Large five note chord clusters that span a tenth in each hand may sound great in concept, but will only be played by pianists with really large “Rachmaninoff hands.” Similarly, repeated notes are a great effect, but some pianos don’t have a very fast double action. Traveling with such pieces can be tricky. The same is true for special pedal effects; they may work great on my beautiful Steinway, but pedals are adjusted differently on each piano.

I love the sounds of strings plucked and strummed on the inside of a piano, but the crossbar lies in a different place on each grand piano and often varies from one model of piano to another, so it’s good to keep that in mind when writing with extended techniques. Each piano is different, and since most of us don’t have the luxury of traveling with our own instrument, we have to take what’s there. It may be hard to believe, but even 75+ years after Henry Cowell wrote The Banshee, many piano technicians are still leery of visiting pianists playing works on the inside of the piano. All of these issues should be confronted before you get to the hall, but sometimes I have planned a program with extended techniques, only to find that I am “not allowed” to play that way on the available concert grand when I arrive, or worse, that I have to sneak around to do it.

Genre of piano music can influence a pianist’s choice as well. Playing etudes is different from playing sonatas. Etudes require a shorter, more intense attention span, while sonatas require the depth and breadth of a longer work of fiction. Playing contemporary piano rags can be like summer reading, and modern preludes and fugues can be every bit as difficult as Bach. I am attracted to all of these genres, and all these different styles, but like anyone, I find I am good at some things, and better at others. Again, choosing to play short pieces versus longer works may be a matter of programming, or it may be a matter of endurance. Longer works usually take more time to learn and require more commitment. However, I have played plenty of short works that are every bit as difficult as their longer counterparts. Some pianists love short flashy works that show off their bravura technique while others are programming more weighty pieces (think Horowitz versus Rudolf Serkin). Some pianists will only program one contemporary piece on a recital program, and they may consider Bartók and Schoenberg as “new.” In this same category I am often asked if I play Lowell Liebermann’s Gargoyles. These are beautiful pieces that could have been written a hundred years ago. Yes, I play them, but I wouldn’t consider them adventurous programming.

All of these issues aside, I believe there are wonderful keyboard pieces being written all the time. From my perspective, I simply want to play music that challenges me to respect it and like it. I don’t care if it’s difficult, or even presents some technical challenges. But if those challenges become the focus of the experience, then I may not feel like playing the piece more than once, or even at all. Like all good piano classics that came before, new pieces must command my attention enough to want to return to them again and again. They need to hold a place in the repertoire that is unique. Performers who don’t play a lot of new music often ask me, “Do you think this piece will be around in a hundred years?” Well, I hope so. I certainly want to be part of an art form that is living and breathing, not lying on a shelf collecting dust. I want new music to have a life that is beyond its initial premiere, and I hope the experience will be so rewarding that I contemplate programming these new works whenever I can. When another performer asks me about a specific work, I want to be able to say, “Oh, it’s terrific—you should learn it!” When I record the piece, I want other performers to like it so much that they request a copy of the score from the composer. In essence, I guess I want all of these new works to be classics. And why shouldn’t they be?

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11 thoughts on “Playing the New Classics

  1. sarahcahill

    Hi Teresa-
    Congratulations on your new column! You’re doing a terrific job.

    Just out of curiosity, which new (written in the last six years or so) pieces in your repertoire do you recommend to other pianists? Which ones do you think have become, as you put it, “classics”? Just hoping for some specific examples…

    Reply
  2. teresa

    Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for your kind words, and that is an excellent question…. and one I might ask you? In any case, at the risk of leaving someone out, I thought I might choose to share one of my favorite “new classics” of an old friend and composer who is unfortunately, no longer with us. While this doesn’t fit your parameter of the past 6 years (I believe it was written in 1985) I think that Lou Harrison’s Piano Concerto is wonderful, and I play it whenever I can. If it’s any consolation to the living composers out there, I felt this way about Lou’s concerto when he was alive (and I think I told him the same). Basically, any piece that I dedicate enough time and energy to (like any of those I have recorded or performed frequently) becomes a “new classic” for me. I guess time will tell…..

    How about you?

    Reply
  3. sarahcahill

    No More Masterpieces
    Well, there are certainly composers I gravitate towards, and they’re different for me than they are for you or any other of our new music pianist friends. But when we start to speak about “new classics,” I think of Antonin Artaud’s groundbreaking essay “No More Masterpieces,” in which he scolds us for constantly creating a hierarchy of composers, or artists, or writers, as if they all can be rated according to some objective system. A hierarchical attitude doesn’t do service to the vast spectrum of fresh voices in new music. In other words, I’m not sure we can speak of “new classics” except in the case of a piece like, for instance, The People United Will Never Be Defeated, which has been performed and recorded and admired so many times that its “classic” stature is not in question. But that piece is also thirty years old. For very recent music, I think we just have to study and explore and pay attention, and if we play it with conviction, then our belief in it will come through, whether or not it belongs in “the canon” or will become a “new classic.”

    Reply
  4. teresa

    beauty is in the eye of the beholder…
    I agree, that it takes time to define a piece’s place in the canon, and that throwing words around like “classic” can be hierarchical. Also, a composer’s place in the pecking order of what gets performed has a lot to do with how we look at it (or hear it). The People United… has been around long enough and has been performed so many times that I suppose it has earned that honor. But just because something gets performed all the time doesn’t necessarily make it good (don’t get me wrong–I happen to really like that piece). If that had been the only piece that Rzewski ever wrote though… then we might not be programming it so readily because we probably wouldn’t know about it. His body of work has earned him a place in the repertory that is unique and as a result his music get performed more frequently than many other composers. Winning prizes, writing works that get performed by large-scale ensembles (orchestras, opera companies, new music ensembles) having your work championed by a famous artist, all contribute to the way a composer becomes known. By comparison, new piano music reaches a much smaller audience (although I like to think it’s an important one : ) Gee, I hope this doesn’t discourage anyone from writing that as-yet-unknown piano piece…..

    Reply
  5. rtanaka

    Hi, just dropping by to say that I enjoyed reading this column. I always get a little bit antsy when presenting works to performers, so it’s really helpful to get some perspectives from their point of view.

    Reply
  6. jenny bilfield

    Hi Teresa,
    I really enjoyed the column and the way in which you explored the question of how works become ‘classics.’ The best part of this (in my view) is imagining a work that lives on…that inspires performers to return, reinterpret, and contextualize. The sense of a ‘classic’ work of course requires that performers resist the temptation to over fetish-ize the novelty of premieres, and to invest in existing works over time. And it’s a call-to-action for those who facilitate performances, to encourage repeated hearings of works alongside debuts of new compositions.

    Reply
  7. sarahcahill

    That’s a very good point, Jenny. Many of us can get so wrapped up in introducing new work that we overlook how valuable it is to revisit music we’ve performed before. And we imagine that audiences desire newness, which isn’t always true. Tania Leon says that her piano piece Ritual (1987) was considered impossible, but it’s been recorded and performed by many different pianists, and is extremely satisfying to revisit, since it becomes more “possible” with each performance. I remember a piano teacher discounting John Adams’ China Gates (1977) with the comment that it’s “best played while on drugs,” but now that too has been recorded and performed thousands of times. For me, composers like Peter Garland, Mamoru Fujieda, Kyle Gann, and Annea Lockwood (and the list goes on and on) write piano music which gets more rewarding with successive performances.

    I have to admit I’m still apprehensive about the term “new classic.” It reminds me of people who ask “Where’s the Beethoven of the 21st century?” to which there is no answer. But it seems, Teresa, that you’re using it in a personal way, about pieces you commit to wholeheartedly, and that attitude can only be commended.

    Reply
  8. rtanaka

    I have to admit I’m still apprehensive about the term “new classic.” It reminds me of people who ask “Where’s the Beethoven of the 21st century?” to which there is no answer.

    It’s actually very rare for composers to get repeat performances of a work, but there’s really a strong pressure built into the classical music scene for composers to produce works of “timeless” value. I think this started around the time of Beethoven where the term “genius” started being thrown around among musical circles — I think a lot of the stress involved in doing music originates from this desire to meet that sort of expectations. (Mr. B sure does put a lot of composers to shame, anyway.)

    I don’t know if its possible (or healthy) for composers to consciously try to produce masterworks…back when I was caught up in a lot of things I used to worry about not being “original” enough, though fortunately I had enough teachers who told me not to worry about such things and just do the best that I can.

    It may sound counter-intuitive in a lot of ways but reducing my ambitions in this manner dramatically improved my attitude towards music-making in general. Maybe it’s the result of making the process much more personal, but, I feel like my output has improved quite a bit since. (In my opinion, anyway.) I can focus more on making the music fun to play for the performer and it seems like if there’s a good vibe during rehearsals between the composer and the performer then it usually carries through all the way into the performance.

    Reply
  9. pgblu

    I remember a piano teacher discounting John Adams’ China Gates (1977) with the comment that it’s “best played while on drugs,” but now that too has been recorded and performed thousands of times.

    re:The above sentence: neither does the first half sound like a criticism, nor does the second half sound like a refutation.

    Reply
  10. sarahcahill

    criticism
    What I was trying to say is that the piano teacher dismissed China Gates as being musically uninteresting and insubstantial. But it has withstood the test of time. The other day, in my daughter’s piano recital, a nine-year-old boy performed a small piece by Philip Glass which, thirty years ago, was still controversial. You might be saying that multiple performances and recordings provide no indication of the value of a composition. But they do show that the composition has survived, while many others have fallen by the wayside. Believe me, I’m not saying that those pieces are “better” than others, just making an observation.

    Reply
  11. pgblu

    I certainly didn’t mean to ruffle anyone; it just struck me that, taken at face value, the sentence could have implied something other than a value judgement. Then, my comment, taken at face value, would just be funny.

    Maybe the piece is still controversial after all?

    Reply

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