What are you looking for in pieces of new piano music? Daan Vandewalle



Daan Vandewalle
Photo by Goethals

New piano music reaches me quite regularly. Although I look through all the scores, it’s very seldom that something “interesting” (I agree, of course, that this is subjective) captures my ears. Make no false illusions: all new music pianists throw scores in the dustbin. But, then again, what am I looking for? What keeps me from throwing away a new score?

The answer is quite simple: I am looking for something that I don’t know. I don’t really need to read new material about things I already know. My premise of “newness” or “originality” has nothing to do with the Futurists‘ “Samothrace versus a beautiful new car” dogma. For me, newness and originality is always conceptually based, therefore dependent on the “idea” and not strictly musical parameters such as harmony, rhythm, etc., although this, too, may come into play. An example is the postmodernist Belgian composer Boudewijn Buckinx who uses a tonal language in a non-hierarchical manner, thereby creating a surreal contradiction. Buckinx’s statement can be heard on two levels. However, those listeners interested in new chords and rhythms will be bored and disappointed since the originality is within the conceptual view of the composer.

In short, I want new piano music to be realistic, i.e. the music must tell me or the audience something about the worldview of its composer. In other words, I only play pieces that make a clear statement, a deliberate pro or con choice about something. Although the piano is an instrument that has always been associated with the 19th century, the harvest of striking new pieces in the 20th century has been more than impressive. The same is true of today’s composers who carry on writing for the instrument. In fact, there is such a large amount of music being written that a large portion of today’s piano music is, more than likely, unknown to me right now. This limitation notwithstanding, I strongly disagree with the “everything has been done (or said) already” cliché.

In the 1990s alone, formidable pieces were written for the piano by virtuosos like Michael Finnissy and Frederic Rzewski, while I had the privilege to plunge myself into the spiritual depths of Alvin Curran‘s Inner Cities for piano—six hours long, beautiful, and conceptually new given that these pieces posit a possible answer to the unanswered questions raised by the music of Morton Feldman. No, not everything has been said before, and creativity cannot be stopped. As for those scores that show only bureaucracy, one always finds ways to dispense of them: dustbin, wrapping paper, something to throw out of a balloon when one wants to climb even higher… a lot is possible. To all the composers out there from all over the world, please do send me your scores, I might just play them one day.