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  • Writer's pictureLi Churen

Programme Notes for my Singapore International Piano Festival Concert (4 June 2021)

I adore improvising. I find that playing around with the thematic materials of the pieces I’m working on brings about an exuberant sense of freedom, creativity and spontaneity. Historically, musicians in the Western classical tradition improvised preludes to set the mood for performances or church services, and I think it’s a shame we’ve lost that performance practice today.

To introduce my recital, I want to bring a sense of the improvisatory, the playful, the imaginative by putting a playful twist on the old practice of preluding. “Prelude after Bach” is a prelude on J.S. Bach’s D Minor Prelude for Cello. This prelude is glorious in its simplicity: the first four bars outline the tonic – subdominant – dominant – tonic harmonic functions in rising and falling triads. I incorporate jazzed-up re-harmonisations and extended harmonies in my re-imagining of Bach’s cello prelude as arranged for the piano.

The harmonic thread of “D” runs through my programme for this recital. Ordinarily, the middle C is thought of as the centre of the keyboard when in actuality, it is the middle D that is the point of symmetry between the 88 keys. How does this change the way pianists think about their physical relationships with the piano? Does reconceiving the centre of pianism as D help to bring about greater ease in playing? “Prelude after Bach” sets the stage for Kreisleriana, which is also centred around D. The D-centrism continues in Crumb’s Five Pieces for Piano. Though it’s hardly audible as both movements were written as extended techniques, it is nevertheless especially noticeable in the 2nd and 4th movements. Ravel’s Miroirs ultimately ends with a descent to C# in Cloches, after traversing through Alborada del gracioso, which also revolves around the tonal centre of D.

If Robert Schumman’s Kreisleriana, op. 16 sounds jarring, if not downright moody and temperamental, it might help to know that it was inspired by a book. Its full title, in all its bombastic, eccentric glory, is The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr together with a fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper (c. 1819-1821). The novel is as surreal and experimental as you might expect it to be: written by E.T.A. Hoffman, it features a pet cat who fumbles and jumbles his master Kreisler's papers, magically leading to the creation of a surreal memoir that switches inexplicably between the feline and the human. It was wildly popular when it was published in the 19th century, predating post-modern literary techniques with its unusual narrative structure. Kreisleriana, op. 16 is named for the eponymous character, Johannes Kreisler the Kapellmeister.

The alter-ego of Kreisler provides a vehicle for Schumann to express the schizophrenic dualities of his own personality: the extroverted Florestan and the introverted Eusebius. Having written it during a manic episode over four days in 1838, the tumultuous nature of Schumann’s music also mirrors his troubled personal life as he sought to marry his beloved, Clara Wieck. Wieck, upon hearing Schumman’s music for the first time, responded in a rather unfortunate manner:

“Sometimes your music actually frightens me, and I wonder: is it really true that the creator of such things is going to be my husband?”

Harkening back to the resonance of the key of D in this programme, as the tonal centre of Kreisleriana, op. 16, D is almost engulfed by the highly-chromatic modulations and harmonic relationships in Schumann’s work. Spanning eight movements and violent shifts in mood, a nervous, frenetic energy runs through the even-numbered movements. The stark contrast this establishes with the tranquility and repose of the odd-numbered movements is almost unnerving. Eventually, the eighth movement fades into nothingness.

The next piece in the programme, George Crumb’s “Five Pieces for Piano”, represents a different kind of inversion. Composed in 1962, Crumb turns the very idea of piano-playing in on itself. This was his first composition to utilise extended techniques, preceding decades of explorations into the sound possibilities of instruments.

Extended techniques amplify certain parameters of the body’s motion and gestures. As musicologist Richard Steinitz describes of Crumb:

“Crumb’s music belongs, unquestionably, in a colouristic category… displaying the most resourceful and imaginative timbral language of any non-electronic composer”.[1]

When playing Crumb’s music, one almost feels like they are going inside the piano to reach for far-flung strings. A deep level of tactile and bodily control in sound production, as well as creativity and intuition on the part of the performer, is necessary to realise the timbral possibilities of Crumb’s sonic world. This necessitates a different, possibly more intimate and visceral, physical relationship between the pianist and piano.

Concluding the programme is Maurice Ravel’s “Miroirs”. Translated as “Mirrors”, “Miroirs” is a fascinating title for this collection of five pieces: What or whom do they reflect? Maurice Ravel later wrote that he was inspired by a quote from Shakespeare:

‘the eye sees not itself

but by reflection, by some other things’

(Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2).

To me, “Miroirs” is a special collection precisely because the act of playing music is a kind of self-reflection, a kind of revealing and self-knowing. Ravel prefaced the first piece, “Noctuelles” (Night Mohts) with an evocative quote from Léon-Paul Fargue’s poetry, to whom it is also dedicated:

“Les Noctuelles des hangars partent, d’un vol gauche, Cravater d’autres poutres. (The night moths launch themselves clumsily from their barnes, to settle on other perches)”.

The second piece, “Oiseaux Tristes” (Sad Birds) was actually the first of the set to be composed. As Ravel described of this piece: “It evokes birds lost in the oppressiveness of a very dark forest during the hottest hours of summer”. Rather than imitate birdsongs of nightingales and cuckoos as is often depicted by composers past, Ravel’s portrayal of sad birds calls to mind “The Raven” (1845) of Edgar Allen Poe in its melancholic evocation of loss.

“Une Barque sur l’Ocean” (The Barge on the Ocean) paints the journey of a lonely barge sailing on a vast ocean through increasingly expansive. “Alborada del gracioso” (Morning Song of the Jester) brings to mind the music of Spain, with dexterous repeated notes and crisp arpeggiated chords mimicking the sound of guitars. In the fifth piece, “La Vallée des Cloches” (The Valley of Bells), Ravel weaves multiple layers of differently sized and pitched bells to create a three-dimensional sonority. The music also utilises the pentatonic scale extensively, which is perhaps fitting given that Ravel dedicated it to his only pupil, Maurice Delage, who later went on to become a composer known for his interest in the music of India and Japan.

[1] Richard Steinitz, “George Crumb,” The Musical Times 119, no. 1628 (1978): 844.

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