April 06, 2007

On Virtuosity

[program note from a recent solo recital]

Virtuosity is generally defined in terms of technical prowess: thundering scales, incandescent figurations, overwhelming power... Virtuosity is a game between the performer and the audience. The former flaunts his technique via feats of strength while maintaining a suggestion of disaster awaiting around the bend.

This display is fundamentally one of showmanship. In the heat of the moment, one forgets that performing musicians are not slovenly bohemians, but trained professionals. Sure, the shaggy hair is part of our allure, but it’s hard to find time for a haircut when you have to spend all your free time practicing. We rehearse and work through our music so much that by the time you hear us, even the gnarliest passages have been reduced to child’s play. Once on stage, it’s our job to make them look hard again.

True virtuosity, to me, is making the hard sound easy. Virtuosity is the vocals on a Beach Boys album. Virtuosity is Aki Takahashi playing Morton Feldman. This virtuosity is not about flaunting your abilities to an audience, but rather presenting them in a kind of unassuming clarity. Listeners are invited to take them for exactly what they’re worth, but not forced to go further than that (that’s not to say you’re not allowed to show off your strengths, but you’re also forced to recognize when they give out).

As a pianist, music is something I have to pick up and feel in my fingers before I can know if it’s any good. Where other players blow, breathe, and drag horsehairs, we touch and caress. I try to play so you can get as close as possible to that kind of tactile engagement with sound.

The relationship I have with my instrument has been one of the biggest influences on the general nature of my music. My idea of development isn’t concocting a new guise for an intervallic motive, it’s playing something again to see if it still sounds good. How does it feel – how does it make you feel – the next time you hear it? The relationships created by these constant recontextualizations against past experience have a subtle complexity.

Though I often draw inspiration from non-musical experiences and forms, I do not want my music to be something you engage distantly and abstractly. I find our culture is all too dominated by ideas of things. One goes to a knick-knack-filled restaurant to eat an idea of a meal, puts on chic earbuds to listen to an idea of music, and in extreme cases, passes through life only knowing ideas of friendships. I want my music to be something you can only engage through an essential thing-ness. I genuinely want to create an experience that doesn’t need to go any deeper than its acoustic surface.

The program I selected is meant to show off the range of expression and potential for a deeper performer-audience relationship that’s possible with an “anti-virtuosity.” The pieces wedged between my own are meant to be entertaining diversions (they’re pop songs after all), but they’re also meant to be examples of music that has influenced my compositional technique and aesthetics.

"Rednecks" — Randy Newman
Frayed Shirt — Adam Baratz
"All My Little Words" — Stephin Merritt
I Can Turn It On and Off — Baratz
"I Think I Need a New Heart" — Merritt

Mix Tape — Baratz
"Help Me" — Joni Mitchell
"Just Like This Train" — Mitchell
Departing Figure — Baratz
"You Can Leave Your Hat On" — Newman

Scores, as usual, available on request.

1 comment:

Hucbald said...

Humpf. I was wondering if I coined the term "anti-virtuoso" to describe myself a while back. Perhaps not.

One of my favorite quotations on the subject comes from Winton Marsalis, who said, "The ultimate expression of technique is not velocity, it's nuance."

Good news for those of us who have not the genetic makup to play fast. LOL!