What are you looking for in pieces of new piano music? Daniel Beliavsky

Daniel Beliavsky
Photo by Yuri Beliavsky

I believe that successful contemporary piano music has metric and rhythmic vitality, harmonic novelty, melodic invention, but above all (and as a result of these factors combined), gives the player a dynamic and exciting performance experience. I will support this point by way of a short anecdote about Glenn Gould: At around age thirteen, Glenn Gould was practicing when the vacuum cleaner was turned on. Amidst the noise and his inability to hear himself, he discovered that he could force his inner ear to “hear” his playing as it should be ideally. In imagining his sound, Gould removed any possibility of passive listening from his work, enabling himself to take control of every aspect of his musicianship. With contemporary piano music, the pianist is often forced into a similar position. New music trumps many of the piano conventions developed and established since the Classical era, necessitating complete mastery over both technique and sound for the artist. This is not to say that performing music from earlier periods does not require this kind of mastery. The difference, though, is that earlier music has certain built-in conventions for phrasing, pedaling, rubato, etc., that simply cannot be taken for granted in the modern piano repertoire. New music calls for attentiveness to every detail of the score, and the best works require the pianist to develop an inner ear that is attuned to the music’s unique sound and performance technique. When a piece creates a new universe of aural and tactile possibilities, and when pianists successfully integrate the freshness inherent to such a composition into their performance, their audiences become just as actively involved in the hearing of a work as the players do in its realization.