Composer reinvents the piano

Composer reinvents the piano

‘Fluid’ instrument allows pianists to alter sound before or while they play

Mark Brown
talks to Geoff Smith, whose reinvention of the piano allows players to
alter the tuning of notes either before or during a performance Link to this video

For a non-pianist, the idea of a microtonally fluid piano might
seem either no big deal or baffling. But this weekend a composer will
reveal the result of a 10-year mission – nothing less than the
reinvention of one of the most important instruments in western music.

Smith believes he has come up with the first multicultural acoustic
piano – what he has trademarked as a fluid piano – which allows players
to alter the tuning of notes either before or during a performance.
Instead of a pianist having a fixed sound, 88 notes from 88 keys,
Smith’s piano has sliders allowing them access to the different scales
that you get in, for example, Indian and Iranian music. For good
measure, Smith has included a horizontal harp.

The Guardian was
last weekend given the first access to an instrument that is already
generating considerable excitement – and it can be seen and heard on
our website. It will be formally unveiled at the University of Surrey
on Saturday and receive a London premiere at the Purcell Room in March.

a Brighton-based composer and performer, said: “The fluid piano is a
western piano as we know it, similar to an early fortepiano, but
because of the tuning mechanisms, suddenly, musicians can explore
scales from the Middle East, from Iran.”

Smith’s instrument has
been made by the Somerset-based Christopher Barlow and a light ash has
been deliberately chosen as the wood – Smith said he did not want it to
look like a dark coffin.

The fluid piano has generated much interest since it was first mentioned in the Guardian six years ago
– when it was Smith with little more than a one-key mechanism and an
ambition. Now he has the actual instrument he has been getting
performers on board.

“I’ve said to musicians they might feel
insecure about this piano, they might feel scared. But if they embrace
it they will have this big feeling of liberation, a big high.”

the premiere, three pianists will perform, including Pam Chowhan, the
head of planning at the Royal Festival Hall. She admitted to being
daunted when first confronted with the piano.

“It was really
scary, it is even now. I’m mainly a classical pianist and you kind of
know what you’re doing, you know how the piano is going to respond and
you spend ages and ages on tone control andknowinghow it is going to
sound. Suddenly I’ve got a piano which sounds like nothing I’ve heard
before. It opens up so many choices that you become almost paralysed.”

There have been all sorts of challenges, including having to come up with her own way of writing music for the instrument.

said the internet had helped open access to all sorts of music from
around the world. “If you’re going to start delving into different
cultures and bring those influences into your work you need to think
about tuning and the traditional piano simply can’t cut it. The piano,
for me, is absolutely useless in a non-western context because it can’t
respond to the subtle and fluid tuning of other cultures.”

performing on Saturday will be London-based jazz pianist Nikki Yeoh and
the Leeds-based improvisational pianist Matthew Bourne. He said playing
the fluid piano was “like walking into a huge sweet shop. The
possibilities are endless. Sometimes I do nothing, I just sit and stare
at it”.

Smith said he had received much support – from Arts
Council England for example– but had also encountered resistance.
“Instruments of the western orchestra are locked in time, ringfenced.
Why is that? It’s not for technical reasons, so it must be for
political or cultural reasons. There’s a lot of talk in classical music
about making orchestras more diverse. The only way you’re going to
bring new people in is by changing the instruments. To some people that
is a completely alien concept.

“We are one of the most multicultural societies in Europe. Some people need to put their money where their mouth is.”

who has written scores for silent films and is a highly regarded player
of the hammered dulcimer, has been invited to take his piano to a
Chopin festival in Poland. But the dream is to get his fluid piano
manufactured. “It has become a fundamental part of my life, because
it’s driven by a vision. It’s not just about money, although I haven’t
got much money so of course I’d like to make some. Any money I have had
has gone on this,” he said. “The thing was, I always knew it would work
– I wasn’t like some crazy inventor.”

-original Article ;

Condoleezza Rice on Piano

April 9, 2006
Condoleezza Rice on Piano

WASHINGTON — Two weeks ago on Sunday, Condoleezza Rice got up at 4 a.m. so she could fit in her daily exercise regimen — weights and the treadmill — and still have time to prepare for interviews on three morning news programs. Just a few hours later, on “Meet the Press,” Tim Russert confronted her with recent reports that shortly after the invasion of Iraq, the Russians had given intelligence on American troop movements to the Iraqis. Even on the normally sympathetic “Fox News Sunday,” Chris Wallace asked her why Americans should not be outraged that United States troops continue to fight and die while Iraqi politicians haggle over jobs.

Toward the end of the program, questions about her future plans predictably arose. Just as predictably, she stated that despite urgings from highly placed Republicans, thank you, no, she would not pursue the presidency.

For most people, let alone a secretary of state grappling with an increasingly unpopular war, this would have been enough exertion for the traditional day of rest.

But late that afternoon, Ms. Rice was back home in her comfortable apartment in the Watergate complex for one of her frequent sessions of chamber music with four friends, lawyers by profession and dedicated amateur string players.

Ms. Rice is an accomplished pianist. At 15 she performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor with the Denver Symphony Orchestra, her prize for winning a student competition. Until college she intended to pursue music professionally. Now 51, she plays as often as every other week with this group, which convened three years ago. Until now it was a realm of her very public life that she kept private.

People often ask her, Ms. Rice said that day, whether playing chamber music is relaxing. “It’s not exactly relaxing if you are struggling to play Brahms,” she explained. “But it is transporting. When you’re playing there is only room for Brahms or Shostakovich. It’s the time I’m most away from myself, and I treasure it.”

She is not the only secretary of state to pursue amateur music-making. Thomas Jefferson, the first to hold the office, was an excellent violinist who played chamber music, especially Baroque trio sonatas, throughout his political career. But back then, playing music at home was commonplace.

Not so today, in the era of recording technology, when you can hear almost any piece from the entire history of music by switching on an iPod. The trade-off is that so few people know the personal joy of making music. Whatever else she is to political supporters and opponents, Ms. Rice may be the most prominent amateur musician in the world right now, which is big news for classical music.

THE amateurs in Ms. Rice’s ensemble do have some professional credentials. Two of the players had successful musical careers before switching to law. Soye Kim, the first violinist, who has two degrees from the Juilliard School, spent busy years studying in Europe and freelancing in New York before she entered law school at 39. Robert Battey was a professor of cello at the University of Missouri for 12 years, and still sometimes coaches.

Though Lawrence Wallace, the violist, now retired, is a former law school professor who served as a deputy solicitor general under eight presidents, he used to moonlight as a musician. Joshua Klein, the second violinist and the youngest member of the ensemble, who clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor last term, studied violin seriously during college and law school.

“I don’t make money playing the piano,” Ms. Rice said, with the pride of an honorable amateur.

“No,” Mr. Battey replied, “though you have gotten some pretty nice dinners out of it.”

He was referring to a concert the group played two years ago at the British Embassy for an audience of 100. After the performance, which lasted just over an hour, the British ambassador presented an elegant dinner.

In 2003, the group also gave a private concert at Ms. Rice’s apartment, which attracted an overflow bipartisan audience, including Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court, Alan Greenspan and Harriet Miers, classical music lovers all. Ms. Rice’s ample living room has a nook in a corner, which accommodates her midsize grand piano, a Chickering, a cherished gift from her parents when she was a teenager.

On this Sunday, once the musicians had settled down and tuned up, they began by playing through the ebullient first movement of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat. The piano part has fancy runs and elaborate flourishes, especially in a tempestuous contrasting development section, alive with intricate counterpoint.

“We generally like to start off with a nice finger-buster for the secretary,” Mr. Battey said. That way, he explained, she’s warmed up when they really get to work.

Ms. Rice’s long, thin fingers are nimble indeed, especially for someone who doesn’t have much time to practice. Her touch has lightness and subtlety, yet she plays with crisp clarity and, when called for, robust sound.

They played right through the first movement. When things got a little tangled in the difficult development section, they had the collective wit to forge ahead and let things untangle.

It was wonderful to hear chamber music as it was meant to be: played by friends for their own enjoyment, in the confines of a living room, which makes the sound seem enveloping. Playing chamber music is a bonding experience. During an earlier interview at the State Department, Ms. Rice said the members of her group had become “like my best friends.”

“We are like family,” she added.

Traditionally, playing chamber music has also been a great equalizer. But do these string players really feel free to critique their pianist? Mr. Wallace answered, “I just assumed from the beginning that it wouldn’t be any fun for her if we were deferential.”

Though the Schumann went well, Ms. Rice felt that things had become shaky in the exuberant push to the coda. “Can we try the ending again,” she asked, “just for our pride?” So they did, and they played it with more solidity and just as much spirit.

But the real give-and-take began when they turned to the first movement of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G minor, a piece they are still learning. The music is episodic, moody and — as so often in Shostakovich — elusive. Are the evocations of Bach-like counterpoint to be taken at face value? Are the grim outbursts ironic?

The players began the somberly oracular opening section and soon fell out of sync. “My tempo is not your tempo,” Ms. Rice told her colleagues, when they stopped to regroup. As a musician she is a palpably attentive listener. As they tried again, the opening section emerged in a more cohesive arc, and they segued smoothly into a faster episode with curious triplet figures in the piano, which Ms. Rice infused with a stealthy character.

When they failed to coalesce in an up-tempo section of the movement, Ms. Rice blamed herself. “I don’t know this passage coming up,” she said. “So I hesitated to turn the page.” She stared at her printed score and said, almost to herself, “I’ll get that fixed.” There was no doubting it.

Ms. Kim commented on the articulate way Ms. Rice played a series of thick chords. “You’re playing them really short, Condi,” she said. “I hadn’t thought of that,” she added, warming to the idea.

“I like them separated,” Ms. Rice replied. “Not too short, maybe kind of sticky.” Everyone knew what she meant.

After the Shostakovich, they turned to Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor: “Condi’s piece,” as Mr. Battey called it. This intense, intricate and extremely difficult work is one of Ms. Rice’s favorites. She reveres Brahms, she said, because the music is “passionate but not sentimental.” In the scherzo, the players set a breakneck pace. Sometimes notes splattered and coordination teetered on the brink. It hardly mattered. The music-making was risky and vital.

MS. RICE, an only child, is a fourth-generation pianist on her mother’s side. Her mother, Angelena Rice, who died of cancer in 1985, taught music and science at an industrial high school in a black suburb of Birmingham, Ala. “My mother was a church musician, and she read music beautifully, but she didn’t play classically that much,” Ms. Rice said during the earlier interview. “But she had a marvelously improvisational ear, which I don’t have.”

Her father, John Rice, who succeeded his father, a son of slaves, as minister at a Presbyterian church in Birmingham, also loved music, especially big-band jazz. (John Rice died on Christmas Eve in 2000, days after learning that Ms. Rice had been appointed national security adviser.) When she was an infant, Ms. Rice’s parents gave her a tiny toy piano. “They had a plan,” she said. Today that gift is prominently displayed on the coffee table in her apartment.

But it was her maternal grandmother, Mattie Ray, who proved the decisive musical influence in her life. Because both Ms. Rice’s parents worked, she was dropped off each day at the house of her grandmother, who taught piano privately and sensed her eagerness and talent. Lessons started when she was 3. “I don’t remember learning to read music — you know, the lines and spaces and all that,” Ms. Rice said. “From my point of view I could always read music.”

Classical music became her passion from the day her mother bought her a recording of Verdi’s “Aida,” and she listened, “my little eyes like saucers,” she said, to the brassy and stirring “Triumphal March.”

Ms. Rice, not quite 9, was sitting in her father’s church on the Sunday morning in 1963 when, two miles away, bombs went off at a Baptist church and four black girls were killed, one of them a childhood playmate of hers. During this period of protests, fire hoses and bombs in Birmingham, she found comfort taking music classes at a local conservatory that had boldly opened its doors to black children. In 1969, the family moved to Denver, and Ms. Rice, having skipped the first and seventh grades, entered the University of Denver at 15 as a music major.

At 17, she attended the prestigious summer school at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado and came to believe that though she was a very good pianist, she was “not great,” she said. “That was the really the revelation,” she added. “And it wasn’t just that experience. You start noticing prodigies, and you realize that I’m never going to play that way.” There is “just some intangible” in music, she said. Whatever it was, she said she felt she didn’t have it. She decided to major in international relations instead, focusing on the Soviet Union.

As her career in higher education and government prospered, she began to let her music slip. Feeling the loss in 1993, when she became the youngest provost in the history of Stanford University, she applied herself again on the piano and took regular lessons with a faculty member, George Barth. It was he who encouraged her to immerse herself in chamber music.

A couple of times in recent years she has ventured onto a concert stage for special occasions. In 2002, when the cellist Yo-Yo Ma received a National Medal of the Arts, he requested that Ms. Rice accompany him in a piece during the ceremony at Constitution Hall. They played the slow movement of Brahms’s Violin Sonata in D minor in an arrangement for cello and piano. A photo showing her playing with Mr. Ma that night has pride of place in her living room.

Ms. Rice has only just begun to see the potential of music as a diplomatic tool, notably last February, when she delivered a speech in Paris about American rapprochement with Europe in the face of vehement disagreements over the invasion of Iraq. During the trip, she visited the Hector Berlioz Conservatory in Paris, where she attended a children’s music class and watched young ensembles perform. As cameras caught her listening, she seemed deeply affected by the fledgling musicians.

At the time, there were “whole questions about U.S.-French relations and so forth,” she said, “and I think it was just nice to connect with the French kids.” Asked to play something, she declined, but promised to come back sometime with her chamber group.

Her fellow players would surely be eager to go. At the Sunday session, after their hellbent rendition of the Brahms scherzo, they segued without a break from the fortissimo final chords of that movement to the mysterious introductory section of the finale, a minor-mode Allegro with a touch of a Gypsy dance. Connecting these two movements is a bold interpretive stroke.

“The scherzo has such an odd and abrupt ending,” Ms. Rice said. So plunging right into the slow introduction that follows “seemed like a good idea,” she said. Wanting credit, Mr. Battey said, “It was my idea.” His colleagues laughed and said, “Yeah, yeah.”

As the session ended, the string players packed up their instruments and took places around the coffee table for their traditional postrehearsal reward: white wine and cheese. As they chatted, Ms. Rice’s friends spoke of how touched they had been to be invited to her swearing-in as secretary of state and to her 50th-birthday celebration, attended by President and Mrs. Bush.

Ms. Rice, who lives a short walk from the Kennedy Center, said she was looking forward to attending the Washington National Opera’s new production of Wagner’s “Rheingold” when she returned from an overseas trip. In February she took in the Kirov’s production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” when the company visited the capital. She spoke of how impressed she had been by the innovative staging. By the music, too.

“That’s about the only Puccini opera I can take,” she said. A couple of us, led by this Puccini lover, stuck up for him. But Ms. Rice is not alone in her opinion.

Her favorite opera is Mussorgsky’s epic “Khovanshchina,” not surprising, given her expertise in Russian culture, language and history. It may have special resonance today: it tells of bloody factional strife at the time of the ascension of Peter the Great, made worse by the intransigence of the Old Believers, a fundamentalist Orthodox group opposed to reform.

These days, Ms. Rice finds chamber music so fulfilling that she has almost no desire to play solo works, she said. But she does have her eyes on a particular prize of the piano repertory.

“Before I leave this earth, I’m somehow going to learn the Brahms Second Piano Concerto,” she said, “which is the most beautiful piece of music.” It is also dauntingly hard.

Whether Condoleezza Rice some day becomes commissioner of the National Football League, president of Stanford or president of whatever is anyone’s guess. But don’t bet against her learning Brahms’s Second Concerto.

A Journey of Dmitri Shostakovich(동영상)

A Journey of Dmitri Shostakovich

With the centenary of Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich’s birth (September 26th, 1906 – August 9th, 1975), 2006 marks a revival year for this greatest of Russian 20th century composers. In commemoration of Shostakovich’s life, events are taking place worldwide, including performances, screenings of films including never before heard film scores, films of classic performances of his works, and new and important documentaries.

One such event is the premiere of the documentary A Journey of Dmitry Shostakovich, directed by Okasana Dvornichenko and Helga Landauer (presented as a component of Discovery Day: The Songs of Shostakovich at Carnegie Hall on Saturday, November 11). The film chronicles Shostakovich during a Soviet ‘propaganda cruise’ to the United States where he is forced to act as a cultural emissary, lauding the political structure of his country, (carefully escorted by several party ‘handlers’). Shostakovich’s relationship to the Russian authorities, and what his personal convictions were in regards to the Communist Party have never been fully appreciated by the West. While this issue should have been put to rest with the 1979 publication of Shostakovich’s memoirs entitled Testimony, the true message of his life’s work has yet to gain universal consensus.

Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg, the arts capital of Russia at the time. At the age of nine, he was recognized as a child prodigy pianist and composer. After the success of his first symphony (written as a graduation piece at the Petrograd Conservatory), Shostakovich became world-renowned. But the landmark event of his early career occurred after the premiere and phenomenal success of his second opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District.

In 1936, an article was published in Pravda (written by Stalin) that criticized the work as too dissonant, and essentially threatened Shostakovich’s life if he continued this trend.

This would change the course of his compositional output, after which (in order to survive) he focused on concert works eventually composing 15 symphonies, several concertos, and 15 string quartets, and numerous other works including film scores, and songs. The polysemic potential of instrumental concert music would become a defining aspect of Shostakovich’s output during the Stalin years in that he could compose music satisfactory to the ideological requirements of Politburo, while in reality expressing the terror, fear and despair of the Russian people.

The most famous example of this is the 5th symphony, which Shostakovich described to the Party members who previewed it for suitability as “joyous and optimistic”. It was obvious though to the audience at the work’s premiere that the symphony was about the Great Terror: many audience members wept during the third movement, and the work received a one-hour standing ovation.

The 4th and last movement is about an obvious musical representation of the Soviet Juggernaut as there ever was. Similarly, the first movement of the 7th Symphony, a.k.a. the ‘Invasion Theme’, was generally considered at the time to be representative (patriotically) of Hitler’s invasion of Russia, but actually represents the spread of communist ideology through the Russia like a cancer spreading through its host.

As part of an ongoing effort to portray a more liberal attitude towards the arts, Nikita Khrushchev appointed Shostakovich as chairman of the Russian Union of Composers in 1960. In order to accept the position, Shostakovich had to join the Communist Party despite a previous vow never to join.

The self-loathing engendered by this decision drove Shostakovich to the point of suicide, and his String Quartet No. 8 was to be his epitaph.

Dedicated “To the Memory of the Victims of Fascism and War” (namely Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich) the work is entirely autobiographical, and was composed in three days. Fortunately Shostakovich didn’t kill himself with sleeping pills in 1960, and lived until 1975, dying of cancer likely caused by chain-smoking cardboard tipped Russian cigarettes his whole life.

As Dvornichenko’s and Landauer’s new documentary illustrates through the juxtaposition of Soviet propaganda films with Shostakovich-the-dissident’s words and music, his life and work present a defining example of singular artistic vision persevering against life-threatening political forces. We can finally appreciate his music as a canvas upon which has been painted the fear, despair, suffering, and hope of generations.

Like all great composers, Shostakovich was a mirror of his time, and ultimately a Shaman who spoke with grace and fluency through the mystical language of sound directly to the hearts and minds of the Russian people, and through time to us, perhaps offering us a warning about the abdication of freedom and the grave consequences of totalitarian power.