Improvising piano guitar in Belgium

Unlike jazz improvisation where chord progressions do matter, contemporary “art music” improvisation is all about gestures. I don’t need perfect pitch to play the right notes. The notes don’t matter. Without the constraints of melody and harmony, we’re free to explore other territories of rhythm, dynamics, and self-expression.

Live music cannot be captured in a bottle or caged in a glass container for all to see.

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Live music performance can get everyone’s attention and even unify a group. It can also give rise to meaningful conversation afterwards.

At the opening of the new exhibition at Artonivo Art Centre in Brugge, Belgium on 26th February 2010, I told the invited guests about the Creative Encounters in Crete experience.

Anne Ku introduces the experience of Creative Encounter in Crete
Anne Ku introduces the experience of Creative Encounter in Crete, photo: Liz Miller

Afterwards I played something I wrote a few years ago on the electric piano, explaining the kind of conversation that could take place between two strangers, hence the title “Encounter” or “Ontmoeting” in Dutch.

Where was the guitarist? I didn’t want to play another piano solo. I am too used to playing duo these days.

“Robert?”

“Yes?” I heard a voice from the back.

“Are you there? Are you ready?”

Robert Bekkers joins Anne Ku on stage in Belgium
Robert Bekkers joins Anne Ku on stage in Belgium, photo: Liz Miller

“Ah! You blew my cover,” he said as he walked on stage. He thought I was going to play another piece.

Now, I can’t remember if we played our arrangement of Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Or if we ended with an improvisation. Nothing was recorded. But I do remember the reaction of the audience.

We had talked about improvising many times. But it was the first time we improvised before an audience. The concept of improvisation is simple: you have a conversation through music. You don’t know a priori what to expect. You just have to go with the flow.

Unlike jazz improvisation where chord progressions do matter, contemporary “art music” improvisation is about gesture and communication. You don’t need perfect pitch to play the right notes. The notes don’t matter. Without the constraints of melody and harmony, we’re free to explore other territories of rhythm, dynamics, and self-expression.

The audience watching Robert Bekkers and Anne Ku at Artonivo
The audience watching Robert Bekkers and Anne Ku at Artonivo, photo: Liz Miller

The next day we met with Liz Miller, the photographer whose polaroid exhibition is currently on display in our monument house in Utrecht. “What did you think of our performance?” I asked.

“I love the improv!” She was sure everyone else loved it — more than my composition or the Vivaldi.

“But we didn’t even practise for it. And I’m not sure we will be able to repeat the same improvisation again,” I said.

“That’s precisely why it works well here,” she said. “We were the only ones to have seen that improv.”

Notice the word “seen” not “heard.” An improvisation has to be seen, for it’s about gestures and expression.

No live performance is ever the same. We can play the same piece over and over again. Each time it will be different. However, no improvisation can ever be repeated.

Live music cannot be captured in a bottle or caged in a glass container for all to see, like the items Liz collected from Crete (below).

Display by Liz Miller at Artonivo Art Centre, Brugges Belgium
Display by Liz Miller at Artonivo Art Centre, Brugges Belgium, photo: Liz Miller

It can be recorded. But it will never be live.

Reviving the Grand Potpourri National

A few years ago we came across the sheet music for the Grand Potpourri National originally written for piano and guitar in 1818. It was a joint collaboration between the great virtuosos of the day: pianist Johann Nepomuk Hummel and guitarist Mauro Giuliani. We invited the musicologist and composer Rolf Straver to research and introduce it at our next house concert of 17th April 2010.

A few years ago we came across the sheet music for the Grand Potpourri National originally written for piano and guitar in 1818. It was a joint collaboration between the great virtuosos of the day: pianist Johann Nepomuk Hummel and guitarist Mauro Giuliani.

A student of Mozart, Hummel was perhaps the most expensive piano teacher at the time, with students such as Mendelssohn and Heller. Hummel toured as a concert pianist and was even more famous than Mozart. Giuliani swept Vienna off its feet when he arrived from Italy. He befriended Beethoven. That circle of composer/performer musicians played in the Dukaten Concert Series in Vienna.

The Grand Potpourri National is not a short piece — requiring nearly 30 minutes of playtime. Just the piano score alone spans 31 pages! It is full of virtuosic passages such as the double octaves in the piano part (below).

Grand Potpourri National piano octaves
Grand Potpourri National piano octaves

When we first discovered the sheet music online, we didn’t understand why anyone would want to hear the national anthems in 1818. For one, we only recognised three. Second, the piece was so long that it would take ages just to learn it. We abandoned it in favour of the shorter Potpourri on famous opera themes by Hummel which took just 10 minutes (and have recorded it in our first CD).

Last year we took a second look at the Grand Potpourri National. Upon closer inspection we noticed that it was extremely interesting to play and “gripping” to listen to.

We invited the musicologist and composer Rolf Straver to research it for us. We had many questions, such as

  1. What do the texts on the cover of the score mean? (below)
  2. What were the Dukaten Concerts at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna? The entry ticket was one ducat for a series of 6 concerts. How much is that worth today? Was it open to everyone?
  3. On which occasion was the Grand Potpourri National performed? Since it was a medley of national anthems, could it have been a concert for diplomats and ambassadors?
  4. Has this work ever been recorded?
  5. How did the two musicians compose this piece? Was this common practice, i.e. to collaborate on a composition?
  6. What are the names of the other national anthems?
Grand Potpourri National sheet music cover
Grand Potpourri National sheet music cover

Rolf visited us the evening of Friday 12th March 2010. We played the piece for him and asked for feedback. Was it interesting? “Yes!” he replied. He was not bored for a single second. The transitions from piece to piece via modulations and cadenzas were very exciting.

As a guitarist, he observed that the guitar part was extremely difficult. Instead of using a “terz guitar” which is smaller than normal guitars, the guitarist uses a capo on the third fret. There are many high notes which require playing on the body of the guitar — not an easy task.

Rolf also noticed that the dynamics were written for the softer instruments of the early 19th century. The grand piano is much louder today. I get the hint. Crank down the dynamics for the piano a notch or two.

The next day when we were preparing for a test recording, Robert started playing the last movement of the potpourri. I don’t know the name of this anthem. But it sounds and feels like a theme from the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean.” And that’s what I call it.

Grand Potpourri National guitar part
Grand Potpourri National guitar part

Rolf Straver will research and introduce this work at our next house concert in Utrecht on 17th April 2010. Hopefully the mystery of the remaining anthems will be revealed.