On January 25, Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi, who perform together as the piano-four-hands ensemble ZOFO, gave an exciting concert of new works at Old First Church in San Francisco (where they are currently artists-in-residence). I thought that forming a piano duet was an interesting choice for two young pianists with successful solo careers, so I asked Eva-Maria Zimmermann for her perspective on what makes piano-four-hands such a compelling experience. She explained:
We often talk about piano duet as “the most intimate form of chamber music.” In “regular” chamber music, the pianist is separated from the other players due to the positioning of the piano, or through the instrument itself. In my experience playing piano quartets, I often felt that the string players had this wonderful circle of communication and that I as a pianist was an outsider—this has nothing to do with personality—it’s just how the players have to be positioned. [There's] none of that when we play one-piano-four-hands. There’s a very direct communication going on and I feel part of a team as I never did before.
The challenges are that we share the same instrument, i.e. the same keyboard, pedal, and often bench. We have to choreograph almost every movement in order not to bump our hands (or sometimes feet) into each other. Keisuke and I love to think about the best way to move in order to bring out the character of the piece, as well as to make it look beautiful and compelling. The challenge is to move naturally although your space is limited—I sometimes think of figure skating. The slightest imprecision from one partner can destabilize the other partner’s pirouette or jump. For me the great thing of playing with Keisuke is, that—after having rehearsed intensively—I feel completely free in expression and movement in spite of all these challenges.
Since forming in 2009, ZOFO, which is shorthand for 20-finger orchestra (ZO = 20 and FO = finger orchestra), has already debuted at Carnegie Hall, won a chamber music competition, and signed a multi-disc recording contract. Their first album, Mind Meld, was released in 2012 and received two Grammy nominations, and their second album, titled Mosh Pit, is due out later this spring. In addition to performing existing piano-four-hand repertoire and four-hand transcriptions of other works–Mind Meld featured two original works and two transcriptions, for example–they are also actively commissioning new works for piano-four-hands and this recent concert featured pieces composed especially for them by Stefan Cwik, Gabriela Lena Frank, ZOFO’s Nakagoshi, Nicholas Pavkovic, and Allen Shawn. I reached out to these composers via email before the concert to get their perspectives on composing for, and in some cases performing as part of, this ensemble.
The figure skating metaphor echoes the sentiments of composer Allen Shawn, who compared Zimmermann and Nakagoshi to Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. In addition to composing for piano-four-hands Shawn has played much of the ensemble’s repertoire and shared similar thoughts regarding the unique experience of performing on an instrument normally played by oneself. “On the one hand, it is so intimate and wonderful to try to match the tone and articulation of your partner,” he noted, “and to somehow handle the pedaling, and become an ensemble. It is chamber music—but on the same instrument. On the other hand, it is a real challenge to collaborate on an instrument that you are used to playing alone. Suddenly you are playing half a piano, and you are sitting in a different place, and are physically oriented differently.”
Gabriela Lena Frank, an accomplished pianist herself, considered this different physical orientation when composing Sonata Serrana No. 1 for ZOFO. She explained that “one thing that dramatically altered the landscape was the positioning of each pianist high or low on the keyboard. Chord positions normally comfortable when you’re parked in front of middle C become very awkward when you’re to the left or right of it instead. There are also challenges in considering the lack of elbow room sitting in such close proximity to another person–you can’t just take all the space you’d like to getting a running jump on things anymore. And then there’s overall balance of registers–duos quickly sound like solos if you have one person sit out for too long. Yet, having both pianists play all the time usually means all of the registers are being employed which can lend a tiresome sameness to the sound.” Whether it was considering the implications of reduced elbow room or making the switch from composing at the piano to composing for piano, all of the composers talked about making these types of adjustments.
The concert opened with a work by a composer who is undoubtably very familiar with the piano-four-hands medium, ZOFO’s own Keisuke Nakagoshi. His Synæsthesia is a beautiful, evocative work inspired by the synæesthethc abilities of Messiaen and Scriabin, and the presence of both composers is strongly felt. It begins with a quasi-mystical atmosphere—the harmonic language here is reminiscent of Scriabin’s late piano sonatas—with repeated chant-like notes in the middle register alternating with bird call flourishes at the top of the keyboard. After an early climax with huge Messiaen-like stacked sonorities, a consistent pulse emerges while melodic fragments coalesce into an eerie melody. It ends softly with ascending scale figures and a return of the chant-like tones.
In most respects these were the most extraordinary sounds and pianistic textures of the evening, and they were executed brilliantly. Nakagoshi spread his music across the keyboard. Melodic fragments were often enveloped by sustained tones or flourished but were never covered or muddled. Even the most orchestral textures were perfectly balanced. This level of virtuosic playing that was also supple and intimate—every texture clear and focused, every important musical idea projected—continued throughout the evening.
Next on the program was Allen Shawn’s Fantasy. Cast in a broad ternary form, the outer sections are by turns dark, wistful, and poignant while the contrasting middle section is more rhythmic, with macabre march-like figures and a hint of menacing dance band cacophony. Shawn wrote that his music has become “darker more of the time, more introspective” over the years and Fantasy definitely feels weighed down by struggle or stress. The work is unified by two nostalgic melodies—Shawn described them as “somewhat 19th century–echoes of Schumann or Mahler, perhaps” that reoccur in different contexts throughout the work, and the piece’s impact was due in large part to the different emotional landscapes that result, always clearly emphasized by ZOFO’s balanced and expressive playing. When heard against dissonant harmonic backdrops, the melodic fragments stood out like bewildered children surrounded by chaos and destruction.
Like Shawn, composer Stefan Cwik also used a melodic idea to unify his piece Acrobats, a short, action-packed work consisting of a theme and five variations. As a composer who normally composes at the piano, often using two grand staves, Cwik noted that he took care in making sure he was composing specifically for piano-four-hands. “If the piece was a set of etudes that explored techniques and textures that are only capable with four hands,” he pointed out, “then I would be forced to explore all of the possibilities of four-hand writing.” Explore them he does, and Acrobats is a showcase of what two people can accomplish on the same keyboard–including two changes of position and some plucking under the lid–but it is also a bit disjointed. The seams clearly show despite all the movements being played attaca. The most compelling sections were the second variation where great peals of sound mimic the overtones of large church bells, and the fifth variation where Zimmermann and Nakagoshi trade fleet figures back and forth as if playing tag on the keyboard. Despite its structural shortcomings, it was virtuosic and exciting.
After the break came Nicholas Pavkovic’s Chimera, originally written for performance on piano by the Marantz Pianocorder Vorsetzer, a device that turns any piano into a player piano. After hearing the original work, titled Contraption No. 1, Nakagoshi commissioned an arrangement for piano-four-hands. “Of course there was no notation at that point,” Pavkovic wrote, “and since I had simply flung notes around with abandon when creating the piece, it sounded rather fiercely unplayable. But I did manage to tame it into a format that 20 fingers could manage.” Pavkovic was inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis, in which a young woman’s struggle for class equality is undermined by her robot doppelganger. His program note explained that “Chimera is a kind of dialog between rational and irrational elements, fused by common musical material. A lyrical line is cloaked and interrupted by a second, insistent voice of mechanical wildness, a fugue state, a tangle of terrifying, uncontrollable associations and compulsions.”
Many composers who have written for mechanized keyboards have used them to compose complex music beyond the technical limits of humans—many of Nancarrow’s player piano works, or much of Zappa’s Jazz from Hell, for example—but by emphasizing the lyrical, Pavkovic takes a slightly different approach. The work, though difficult, was also intensely rhapsodic. Chimera proceeds in fits and starts with fiendish figures followed by more plangent lyrical melodic fragments—the rational voice lamenting the irrational one. Though certain moments were exciting, like in the middle of the work where repeated figures in the middle of the keyboard were paired with virtuosic melodic fragments and flourishes in the upper register, Chimera seemed too episodic; a series of musical ideas and gestures that almost, but don’t quite, form a convincing whole.
The final piece of the evening was also ZOFO’s first commission, Gabriela Lena Frank’s Sonata Serrana No. 1. It is a brash, vivacious work bursting with rhythmic vitality, and Zimmermann and Nakagoshi tore into it with obvious relish. The first movement, “Allegro Solar,” opens with a big, full-throated theme followed by delicate, scampering material and a rousing close (the loudest ending of the piece, actually). The second movement, “Scherzo Nocturno,” has roiling textures and dense harmonies that evaporate away in a wonderfully quiet, open-ended finish. “Adagio para el Anochecer (Adagio for Dusk)” built quickly to passionate outbursts and just as quickly subsided and closed with searching, repeated notes, like a parent wandering the neighborhood calling for a wayward child at dinnertime.
Speaking before the performance, Frank talked about being inspired by Bartók’s “gradations” when using folk material, meaning he sometimes used it in a more abstract sense and other times presented it front and center with little alteration. While Sonata Serrana No. 1 as a whole is influenced by musical elements from Frank’s Peruvian heritage, the final movement, “Karnavalito (Festive Song in the Quechua Indian style),” is the most overtly folkloric–raucous and dance-like with tremendous energy. It had the entire audience moving. After a bluesy call-and-response section between the two pianists, Frank sets up a final push to the end featuring rapid-fire chuta notes—the repeated notes heard in panpipe music—before ending in a wisp of smoke, like a carnival that packs up and steals away in the middle of the night.
If up to this point I haven’t singled out the playing of Zimmermann and Nakagoshi all that much it’s because their performance was so assured, so confident. Their movements were so elegant and without ostentatious showmanship that they, as individual musicians, receded into the background. This was especially pronounced in Nakagoshi and Frank’s pieces, and I was reminded of a quote by the 17th-century Chinese painter Lu Ch’ai, which is one of my favorites: “The end of all method is to seem to have no method.” In their best moments, ZOFO simply disappeared into the music.
During the pre-concert talk Gabriela Lena Frank said that piano-four-hands was an “underdog” ensemble and she especially liked composing for ZOFO for that reason. A unique instrumentation hasn’t stopped other new music ensembles from creating repertoires for themselves, and ZOFO seems to be on that path, too. With outstanding musicians like Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi championing piano-four-hands, perhaps more composers will be encouraged to take up the cause.
Dustin Soiseth is a conductor and co-founder of the Loose Filter Project. He lives in Oakland.