A few moments with Amy Williams

Tonight we welcome Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams (the Bugallo-Williams Duo) to London to perform a concert of virtuosic and exciting music for four-hands piano at MeWe360.

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Amy Williams (left) and Helena Bugallo

In addition to being a fantastic pianist, Amy is a composer, and was one of my first composition teachers at Northwestern University.  It’s a pleasure to welcome her and Helena tonight, and Amy was kind enough to answer a few questions in advance of their performance:

Aaron Holloway-Nahum: Hi Amy!  We’re so excited to have you with us in London. You work internationally as a pianist and as a composer, how does your performance influence your own composition?

Amy Williams: Thanks for having me!  We’re excited to be playing in London on the Riot Ensemble series.  My performance influences my composition very directly—I think very much about the role of the performer, sometimes specifically (what would she or he want to play, what is his or her sound at the instrument), but also performative issues such as physicality and coordination. And I analyze pieces that I play very much from a composer/theorist’s perspective.  So it works both ways.

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A passage from one of the Nancarrow transcriptions

AHN: Amazingly, you and Helena will be performing four transcriptions of Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano studies. Could you tell us a little bit about how you transcribed these really complex studies?  Have they gotten any easier to perform?

AW: We first discovered one arrangement that our teacher, pianist/composer Yvar Mikhashoff, had made in the late 80s for piano four-hands (which we will play on this concert).  And so we wondered if there might be more that was humanly possible.  We worked with composer Erik Ona, who looked through the scores (yes, there are scores!) of all 50 or so Studies for Player Piano.  He determined that there were about 10 that could be arranged for piano duet, without sacrificing notes, rhythmic relationships or tempo.  He arranged 3 of these for us and then we started arranging them ourselves.  

We currently have 13 arrangements, including one for two pianos and one for two-pianos/eight-hands.  Other musicians in the future might determine there to be more—but we are pretty ecstatic to have this much of Nancarrow’s incredible music to play live for audiences.  They are always difficult to play, since they were written for a machine, but they have certainly become easier over time and many, many repetitions.   

AHN: What advice do you have for composers looking to write for piano duo?

AW: Work with the pianists as closely as you can!  Especially with four-hands, think very hard about the physicality of the medium.  A chord in the middle of the piano feels very different to play when you are sitting way up at the top of the piano.  

AHN: What’s coming up for you next?

AW: We are recording our second volume of Stravinsky’s arrangements for piano duo—this will include Petrushka and Concertino (which we will play on the concert), as well as Agon and Scherzo a la Russe.  And our CD of the complete original works for piano duo of Gyorgy Kurtag (and some transcriptions) will come out in the next few months, also on Wergo.  

AHN: We can’t wait to hear it Amy!

Introducing: Adam Swayne

3 - AdamPianist Adam Swayne has been on the Artistic Board of The Riot Ensemble since our very first concerts at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in 2009.  In addition to his busy performing schedule, Adam teaches piano at the Junior Royal Academy of Music and is Senior Lecturer and Head of Chamber Music at the University of Chichester. Adam will be performing in a number of Riot Ensemble concerts in 2015, including our June Portfolio Concert, presented in conjunction with Sound and Music. Get to know Adam a bit better, in his answers to our questions below.

What is the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you at a piano?

Probably playing a wrong note at your (Aaron’s) wedding. It was only one note out of several hundred, but it seemed somehow to resonate louder than a thermonuclear explosion. And it found its way onto the official wedding video too. Other than that, probably having to impersonate two female goddesses in Amy Beth Kirsten’s ‘Speak to Me’.

What are you looking forward to in 2015?

Playing/ vocalising Amy Beth Kirsten’s ‘Speak to Me’ again on January 30th. I suppose it’s pretty kinky to be humiliated. After all, if I didn’t enjoy it then I wouldn’t have agreed to let Aaron release that ridiculous picture.

What is your favourite Riot Ensemble story, so far?

I enjoyed hearing the sharply divisive audience reaction when we performed Michael Daugherty’s Le Tombeau de Liberace in one of our first concerts at Guildhall. I also enjoyed playing Workers’ Union in the rain in Dalston and having the police turn up halfway through.

Introducing: Claudia Maria Racovicean

2 - DiaPianist Claudia Maria Racovicean has been on the Artistic Board of The Riot Ensemble since our very first concerts at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in 2009. Claudia is currently preparing to record her first album, which will include Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations, which she started learning this summer while living at Copland House.  Claudia will be performing in half-a-dozen Riot Ensemble concerts in 2015, none less than our series of concerts with Breathe AHR, which brings contemporary music into hospitals with live visual artists. Get to know Claudia a bit better, in her answers to our questions below.

What is the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you at a piano?

I was in my final year of my Masters at the Royal Academy of Music – and before the concerto exams every student gets about 20 minutes on their fantastic Steinway in the Duke’s Hall (where the exams eventually take place).  I was the very first pianist to practice on the day, and I ran through my concerto (Saint-Saëns Second Piano Concerto) and on as I played the final fortissimo chord, a string on the piano snapped!  It was this incredible, thunderous sound and my accompanist and I had no idea what had happened.  When we saw a string had broken we quickly gathered our things a slipped out to let the piano technician know.  I wondered if the rest of the pianists that day thought someone was trying to sabotage them…!

What are you looking forward to in 2015?

I’m really looking forward to recording my first full-length album.  It’s going to include some works I’ve been playing for many years, such as the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, but I’m placing those pieces alongside much lesser known (but no less beautiful) works such as Matthias Pintscher’s On A Clear Day.  With Riot Ensemble, I just look forward to every concert because there’s always some sort of crazy excitement happening on the day, and it’s just great to be making music with such close friends in concert after concert.

What is your favourite Riot Ensemble story, so far?

You know, I really love the concerts we do with Breathe Arts Health Research.  It’s great to perform this – often very serious and high-minded – music in a venue where it has a very real affect and impact on people’s lives.  The music always speaks really well in these concerts because of the informality of the event – and I also really like the experience of sitting down to play something, and then finding this artist has created this wonderful painting that you can look at and enjoy long after the music has finished.

Four Hands

Date: Wednesday 4th February; 7.30pm
Venue: MeWe360
A spectacular evening of virtuosic music for four-hands piano, including Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Concertino, Kurtág’s Játékok I and IV, Amy Williams’ Crossings and transcriptions four of Conlon Nancarrow’s studies for player piano.

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The People United: Countdown!

There are just a few days to go until the first of my three ‘People Uniteds’. The Chilean wine is on ice, the programme is ready and my pre-concert talk has been composed. The cadenza, by contrast, has not been composed because I am thoroughly enjoying the release of improvising it differently each time. I have a few strategies, but spontaneity is going to be the essence of my performances at this point. If you don’t believe me then check with my friend the wonderful composer Patrick Harrex who tells me that he is coming to two of the three concerts. It is sure to be different each night!

I have my colleague from Chichester University, Dr Rod Paton, to thank for opening my eyes to the world of improvisation. His ‘LifeMusic’ method is fantastic, and well worth checking out.

Glue on my fingers is the last thing I need, but I’ve been fairly covered in the stuff after the painstaking task of sticking each stave onto A3 sheets of card so that I can turn the pages myself at appropriate moments (of which there are very few). This is an unusual experience for me because I like playing from memory, even though it has its obvious risks. And, as this video that Barry Mills produced shows, I look at my hands too much when I play, which makes following the score even more tricky.

But in this piece there is just too much to remember, and I was glad to hear this from the mouth of Ursula Oppens herself when she was in the UK a few weeks ago. During my studies with her she encouraged me play the Lutoslawski Piano Concerto from memory, which I eventually managed. In my view she is the greatest die-hard risk taker of all pianists, which is probably what motivated Rzewski to write the piece for her in the first place. And she uses the music when she plays it (which she does magnificently) so I know I am on safe ground.

I’ve been immensely grateful and inspired by all the support I’ve been getting during these hot and sweaty past few months of toil. My students have been amazing, and friends and colleagues have been both patient and endlessly encouraging. Now I’m just looking forward to getting down to it and delivering something worthy of the piece’s political motivation, which is my primary reason for playing it.

It’s been something of a Rzewski saturation recently as I played the ‘North American Ballads’ at Sussex University last week, and I’ve been working with CoMA and my Chichester students on ‘Coming Together’, which is based on letters from Sam Melville, an inmate of Attica Prison. I can hardly claim to truly relate to these words, but nonetheless they’ve been keeping me going recently, so this is how I’ll sign off. I hope to see you at one of the concerts!

I think the combination of age and the greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. It’s six months now and I can tell you truthfully few periods in my life have passed so quickly. I am in excellent physical and emotional health. There are doubtless subtle surprises ahead but I feel secure and ready.

As lovers will contrast their emotions in times of crisis, so am I dealing with my environment. In the indifferent brutality, the incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men, I can act with clarity and meaning. I am deliberate – sometimes even calculating – seldom employing histrionics except as a test of the reactions of others. I read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.

The (Fingers/ Eyes/ Brain) United Will Never Be Defeated!

It might seem like all’s gone quiet on the Riot front, but we are actually furiously at work behind the scenes gathering a shortlist for our Sound and Music Portfolio Scheme and preparing music that we’ll be performing this Autumn.

Here are some little musings from a pianist holed up in his garret practising Rzewski’s sprawling opus.  As I write this, I have the words of one of my own tutors, David Fanning, ringing in my ears: ‘I would love to play that piece. The thing is I would need a sabbatical just to put the fingering in.’

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So if you’re in the vicinities of Chichester (November 7th), London (November 11th) or Brighton (November 14th) you may be interested to know the back-story, the hours of preparation, my tales of woe.  Because I don’t have a sabbatical, and I only have just over three months left to go before the concert.

But I should not complain. I am lucky to live in a nice place. Whenever I wish I can walk out on to the balcony and smell the sea air, barbeques and (err…) burning human flesh from the sun-soaked beaches of Hove Lawns. I myself have been swimming in the sea every day since June, alongside jogging, press-ups and sit-ups. (As a result I am now very good at all of these. But I haven’t lost any weight…).

Happily, work’s been relatively quiet too. Even Aaron (our glorious and venerable Riot Ensemble Artistic Director) has lain off sending me a gazillion emails while he is taking the Aspen Music Festival by storm.

And, even more happily, today marks a milestone because it now looks as if I will actually be able to play this piece! Sorry if that sounds a bit churlish. Why, after all, would I have agreed to play it if I wasn’t sure of this before?

Because it’s all about targets, goals, objectives.

The piece itself is a mission. The composer himself says: ‘The extended length of the composition may be an allusion to the idea that the unification of people is a long story and that nothing worth winning is acquired without effort’.

Effort… and rigorous organisation.

So I have a battle-plan. I have separated the 38 strands (36 variations and the theme book-ending at either side) into five columns with different practice methods for each:

  1. ‘Can already play at tempo’. Hmm…. only six of these so far… (and they exclude the whistling bits – I have tried and failed to teach myself to whistle).
  2. ‘Will be able to play eventually’ (i.e. without too much fuss). Seven bits.
  3. ‘Practice X3’. This is a slightly brainless technique of practising I perfected as a student that just involves going through the motions three times every day without worrying too much – it will get there in the end! There are seven such variations that I’ll give this treatment to.
  4. ‘Bits need help’ which means I need to focus on small, tricky passages in eight parts of the work
  5. ‘HELP!’. Intensive focus required. 10 strands.

In two months I want all 38 bits in column number one.

And then I’ll have another month to make sure I give the most committed performance I can of this amazing work. I’ll keep you updated…

 

The People United Will Never Be Defeated

Date: Friday 14th November; 7.30pm
Venue: St. Luke’s Church, Brighton

The Riot Ensemble’s co-principal pianist Adam Swayne presents a unique performance Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, one of the twentieth century’s most monumental works for solo piano.  Rzewski wrote the piece in 1975 for Adam’s teacher, Ursula Oppens. The 36 variations are based on a song that expressed solidarity with the Chilean resistance to General Pinochet and, in a wild and often bewildering mix of virtuosic piano techniques and motley musical styles, the composer also weaves in other anthems that represent a struggle for democracy. The concert will last just over an hour without an interval and will include a spoken introduction.

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The People United Will Never Be Defeated

Date: Friday 7th November; 7.30pm
Venue: The University of Chichester

The Riot Ensemble’s co-principal pianist Adam Swayne presents a unique performance Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, one of the twentieth century’s most monumental works for solo piano.  Rzewski wrote the piece in 1975 for Adam’s teacher, Ursula Oppens. The 36 variations are based on a song that expressed solidarity with the Chilean resistance to General Pinochet and, in a wild and often bewildering mix of virtuosic piano techniques and motley musical styles, the composer also weaves in other anthems that represent a struggle for democracy. The concert will last just over an hour without an interval and will include a spoken introduction.

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The People United Will Never Be Defeated

Date: Tuesday 11th November; 7.30pm
Venue: The Forge Camden

The Riot Ensemble’s co-principal pianist Adam Swayne presents a unique performance Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, one of the twentieth century’s most monumental works for solo piano.  Rzewski wrote the piece in 1975 for Adam’s teacher, Ursula Oppens. The 36 variations are based on a song that expressed solidarity with the Chilean resistance to General Pinochet and, in a wild and often bewildering mix of virtuosic piano techniques and motley musical styles, the composer also weaves in other anthems that represent a struggle for democracy. The concert will last just over an hour without an interval and will include a spoken introduction.

Continue reading