Piano synergy: music for many hands on many pianos

As preparation for her next concert of many hands on many pianos on 14th July 2012 in Maui, Anne Ku discovers other interpretations on the Internet.

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In preparation for my next concert in mid-July on Maui, I decided to check out performances of the selected works on the Internet. The interpretations are much faster, crisper, and cleaner. It’s really hard to play fast, crisp, and clean —– that is, with many pianists on many different pianos.

Darius Milhaud’s Paris: Suite for 4 pianos spans different arrondissemont of Paris. I try to remember the Paris I know but I only remember Montmartre, L’ile Saint-Louis, and the Eiffel Tower from the 6 movements. I could not find a video clip of this fantastic work against the different scenes of Paris though the 2 on Youtube are sufficiently interesting. This piece is by far the most demanding of our entire 1.5 hour program.

Next, I looked for Gerald Busby’s Four! a statement for 4 pianos. Instead, I found Plucked — 15 hands on one piano. It’s a most remarkable and funny piece. If you have time to watch it, do enjoy the performance art.

Another 4 piano 8 hand piece is Wallace DePue’s 16 Pawns. It’s a short and fast one page work. No videos on the Internet. No background description. Perhaps we can get our own recording at the concert.

We will be playing two multi-hand pieces by Robert Pollock, founder and artistic director of Ebb & Flow Arts, the non-profit organization that is putting together this concert of Sunday 14th July 2012. The titles reveal just how many pianists and pianos. Five for Four. Three for Six. Answer: Five pianists on 4 pianos. Three pianos for Six hands.

I finally get to play a work of Morton Feldman, a composer I have heard much about but never studied. His “Piece for 4 Pianos” is interesting in that all pianists have the same score. It’s up to each pianist to decide when to play each note. Everything is soft. The result? a kind of rippling, echoey effect. Watch the meditative result below.

John Cage’s “Music for Piano” is another aleatory piece (one which the composer instructs the performer to decide on duration or other aspects of the composition). We each chose two consecutive pages from the album. It’s prepared piano at its best, though it would take about 30 minutes to prepare. We each have a bag of black rubber and white felt objects to insert between the strings of the piano for those notes we need to mute. The result? Texture that we’d otherwise not hear. Again, we decide when and how long to play each note. Last time we had agreed on the piece to last 7 minutes, but some of us were too fast and others too slow. It does take some practice to get 4 pianists to end at the same time.

Below is one interpretation of John Cage’s “Music for Piano”

Sadly there is not enough music for many pianos. Ebb & Flow Arts commissioned composer Thomas Osborne to write one for us. The mp3 version of his “Canyons” for four pianos is very powerful. I will try playing it today.

Luckily there is plenty of fun pieces for two pianos and even two pianists on one piano. As 14th July is Bastille Day, we decided to choose works of French composers. Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite; Faure’s Dolly Suite; and Debussy’s Petite Suite.

I am so glad to be able to participate this time. Last year my multi-hands on one piano work “Three on One” was performed in the Battle of the Pianists concert in Maui while I was in Utrecht. Ironically, rehearsing these multi-hand, multi-piano works with other pianists just makes me miss sightreading chamber music with string and wind players even more!

Free concert – no reservation required. Get there early — last year was standing room only!

PIANO SYNERGY FREE CONCERT

Sunday 14 July 2012

7:30 pm

Maui Music Conservatory
Queen Ka’ahumanu Mall (upstairs) 
Kahului, Maui, Hawaii

Pianists (alphabetical order): Lotus Dancer, Anne Ku, Peiling Lin, Ruth Murata, Robert Pollock, Beatrice Scorby

Ebb and Flow Arts North South East West Festival of New Music
Ebb and Flow Arts North South East West Festival of New Music

Many hands, many pianos

Many pianos do not make an orchestra. It requires pianists to listen to each other and play in sync.

I was surprised how difficult it was to get my students to play the same note at the same time to make the sound of one note.

Pianos are, after all, not stringed instruments that can ease into a single sound. Pianos are not wind instruments either.

At my first rehearsal with three other pianists on four pianos, I noticed the same phenomenon as I had in class. We were easily out of sync. Our leader turned up the volume of the metronome. We followed the loud beatings at the expense of not hearing each other. Eventually we stopped the amplified metronome so we could really play like an ensemble.

At the second rehearsal a week later, we had improved greatly. Not that we had practised more, I think, but that we got used to each other. We were in tune. And in sync.

It’s hard to expect 4 pianos to sound like an orchestra. But it sure is fun to play. And it’s difficult to hear who is playing what part. We are all pianos after all!

Concert date: 14th July 2012 at the Maui Music Conservatory in Queen Kaahumanu Shopping Mall

Piano orchestra

Definition of piano orchestra = many players on many pianos making orchestral sound, a rare event.

What do you do with 22 students in a classroom of just 15 electric pianos (2 of which do not sound) and one portable synthesizer for 3 hours?

  1. Let them take turns at the piano, one at a time. Give a lecture to the rest of the class. Swap.
  2. Put two students on each keyboard and have them play duets.
  3. Put two students on each keyboard and conduct them like an orchestra.

When I googled “piano orchestra” I found a variety of piano concertos and questions about the role of piano in the orchestra.

Truth is, it is rare to see so many pianos in one room, unless they are all for sale, in which case you can’t play on them as you wish.

On day one, I asked my students to play just the black keys. I split them into several section. One section played successive quarter notes. Another joined with half notes. The third joined with whole notes. I then improvised on high treble.

My father used to play Chinese songs just on black keys. Pentatonic music (using just the 5 notes of the 5 black keys) blend well in any order in any octave.

Now is my chance to deconstruct my favourite works, be they classical concertos or pop songs. Assign the parts to the various pianists. This way, everyone gets to play. Doubling up is fine. The string section does it all the time.

What I want to get across is simple:

  1. Most students of piano learn to play solo piano works. They advance to become soloists.
  2. Some learn to accompany choir or other instruments or voice.
  3. Others move on to become organists.
  4. Whether you’re an accompanist or organist, you serve the choir or congregation. You’re not equal.
  5. But when you play in an orchestra, ensemble, or chamber music group, it’s totally different.
  6. String players know this. Wind players, too. Brass players. Singers in choirs.
  7. But pianists in a piano orchestra? That’s nearly unheard of.

It’s hard to find pianos you can play in one place. It’s hard to move pianos into one place. It’s hard to find pieces written for many pianos.

But ah! such joy to play together! The full polyphonic sound of a piano orchestra!

[Note: this is my first blog post on an iPad!}

Introducing new piano solos

Anne Ku catalogues new piano solo works by living composers on Concertblog

As a sightreader, I am always looking for new challenges, that is, to play new music I have not seen before.  Before I entered the world of composers, I would search for published music of dead composers.

In my musical journey, I discover that the new music (of living composers) is just as interesting if not more. These days, if I come across music of a composer I like, whether it’s ensemble music or piano guitar duo, I’d ask if he or she had written anything for piano solo or piano duet. Similarly — vice versa.

Below is a catalogue of the piano solo works I have reviewed and introduced on Concertblog. I will continue to add to this list, arranged alphabetically by the composer’s last name.


Sightreading new multi-hand duets for one piano

First attempt at getting pianists in Utrecht, Netherlands to sightread new multi-hand piano duets has ended in showing off solo works of dead composers. Why?

I am blogging the experience of trying to get pianists to sightread, choose, and commit to studying the new piano duets I collected from the 30 living composers who answered my CALL FOR SCORES. In Maui, I had gone through all 42 new works with Karyn Sarring, an excellent sightreader at University of Hawaii Maui College. On electronic keyboards however, the duets didn’t sound quite the same as on real pianos as I later experienced with Chong Kee Tan in San Francisco.

This afternoon in Utrecht, Netherlands, the first in a series of small get-togethers in my CALL FOR PIANISTS, we three pianists gather in the home of Tom who had just bought a new Yamaha grand piano.

After coffee and a green bean coconut soup dessert, we approached the black piano with a few pieces I shortlisted to try. I showed them pieces that worked in San Francisco — they were easy to read. I showed the pieces that no one dared to try — the notes were too small. But there were other reasons why some pieces were not attempted.

“What happened to tonality?” cried Thera after trying to figure out the beats and pitches of a few duets that required rigorous counting.

“There’s so much wonderful literature of romantic piano music that I have yet to play! Why would I spend time trying to read new music?” exclaimed Tom.

After several attempts to read and decide who was better at the secondo or primo parts, we gravitated to showing off solo works we had studied individually and memorised. Thera played a moving work by Mendelssohn.

“I like to close my eyes and play — much easier than reading,” said Thera.

As soon as it was over, Tom gently pushed her aside and said, “It’s my turn now.” He played a virtuosic work of Haydn followed by Scarlatti Opus 11 no. 11.

How many hours of music have these two pianists got memorised in their heads? How long have they spent studying these pieces?

How can living composers compete with the dead ones who have a head start? Whose music are heard and published and readily available?

On 15th May 2011 in San Francisco, when I tried to get pianists to sightread these duets, one pianist reasoned as follows:

“Composers have to try much harder to get us to play their music. There is so much beautiful music we want to play — music we have heard of. To play music we haven’t heard of, it better be good and worthwhile.”

Perhaps such pianists prefer to play music they have committed themselves to. People, in general, for that matter, prefer the known, certain, and familiar. It’s far more comfortable to play something you’re competent at than try something that shows your incompetence (which can simply be due to lack of acquaintance or familiarity).

My attempt at getting these two pianists to try the remaining 40 duets has failed. They are now (as I write) churning out grandiose sounds of Katchaturian (Toccata), Rachmaninoff (Prelude op. 32 no. 5 in G), and Franck (Prelude, Fugue & Variations).

“It’s not that they are familiar,” protested Tom. “These old works go straight to the heart. Modern music appeals to the intellect.”

Thera added, “Yes, music IS emotional. I see in many modern compositions, the brain comes first.”

Surely there is modern music that appeals to the soul and the heart! But where is it?

“I like Martinu,” suggested Tom as he overlooked my typing. “His is mid-20th century. But he is dead now.”

Would my CALL FOR SCORES be more successful (in the sense of getting works to be played) if I had specified the music to appeal to the emotions?

We end with Liszt’s Consolation number 3. I have not given up trying the remaining multi-hand duets in the few hours left of the afternoon.

I am sure there are pianists who are eager to discover new sounds, new music that has yet to circulate or become familiar. These pianists like to sightread, try new things, work with other musicians, get to know the composers who write the music, and eventually get the composers to write music they want to play. How can I find other pianists like me?

Multi-hand piano duets: many hands on one piano

Many hands playing on one piano is not a common phenomenon. On 15th May 2011 in San Francisco, pianists will gather to sight read multi-hand piano duets submitted by composers from a Call for Scores.

What do you do when you have many pianists all eager to play but there is only one piano?

Get them to play multi-hand duets. Most typical is two pianists on one piano, but there are also 3 hands on one piano up to 8 hands on one piano.

The International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) has volumes of sheet music you can download for free. The scores are categorised alphabetically by composer, instrumentation, and genre. The library continues to expand as contributors donate scanned or created copies of sheet music whose copyrights have expired.

In the category of multi-hand piano duet, only one 8-hand one piano duet is available for download at this time.

Bouillet’s Divertissement for 8 hands one piano (PDF) looks fabulously easy and fun.

Where else can you get multi-hand duets?

I don’t know anyone who has been collecting such duets for as long as I have been buying, borrowing, and writing music for many hands on one piano. After seeing how much the pianists of my sightreading workshop last November enjoyed playing new music they have never heard of or seen before, I decided to try a little experiment. I wanted to introduce new music to pianists who are so used to buying or borrowing music that have existed for hundreds of years. Where can you get new music?

From composers who have written music but not disseminated them.

From composers who have not yet written the music.

In short, ask composers to submit music for performers who are eager to play —- hence a CALL FOR SCORES.

On Sunday 15th May 2011 at a piano soiree in San Francisco (SOMA 10th Street), pianists will gather to sight read new duet music by living composers who have responded to the CALL FOR SCORES (deadline 5th April).

Curious about the music? Want to join the fun? Visit the invitation page at High Note Live for details and reservations.

Below: a party where 8 pianists played on two pianos in the Netherlands.

Steinway to Heaven Welcom Fest
Steinway to Heaven Welcom Fest