What are you looking for in pieces of new piano music? Kathryn Woodard

What are you looking for in pieces of new piano music? Kathryn Woodard

Kathryn Woodard
Photo by Barbara Gottling

As a performer I am interested in communicating with audiences. So I look for pieces that help me do that. That isn’t to say that a new work should have an explicit message or content in any sort of programmatic way for me to be interested in it. I also don’t mean that I prefer particular styles that will please audiences. A piece that is confrontational in any variety of ways will certainly communicate something to an audience!

Maybe this seems like an obvious requirement for a piece of music, but I do come across new works that seem to have been written only for the composer’s own benefit: to explore a certain compositional technique or to write something complex and difficult just to see the results on the page without any concept of how it will sound or how it can be performed. I am not interested in learning those pieces.

How communicative a piece will be goes hand in hand with how pianistically it is written. By “pianistic” I don’t mean that everything should just “lie well” under the hands, but rather that the work be written with the sound of the piano and piano technique specifically in mind, which includes the full range of extended techniques. Often the composer does have a clear intention to communicate, but the piece is unsuccessful because it is written without a sufficient understanding of the instrument and what it can (and can’t) do. The best way to remedy this is simply to work through a piece with a pianist.

I should explain that I don’t shy away from technical challenges when confronted by a new piece, but the challenge should exist for communicative reasons, not just for the sake of difficulty. On the flip side, composers often make a point of saying they are writing something “easy” so as not to take too much of my time. But that shouldn’t be a concern. Composers should take the time to make the piece work well on the piano. Of course, that implies that I should also have time to learn it prior to a performance!

Clear and accurate notation is also something I look for when I’m considering performing a new piece, and this point is related to the composer’s desire to communicate. After all, if the piece isn’t communicated to me, the performer, in written form, how am I supposed to communicate it to an audience? I’m not talking about free or graphic notation, and I don’t mind being called upon to improvise during a piece, but when I notice I would need to “improvise” just to make up for unclear (or downright inaccurate) notation, I don’t want to spend time learning the piece. I also find rhythmic notation that is unnecessarily complex to be particularly nettlesome. Clearly this is intended to be more of a mental counting exercise for the performer rather than a discernible rhythmic pattern for the listener.

These general observations can apply to any style of music and I do perform a variety of styles. However, if I were to claim a stylistic or aesthetic preference, I would say I am drawn more toward pieces that are informed by traditional styles of music, no matter where the composer is from or what tradition he or she is evoking.

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