The Pianist Will Never Be Defeated!

Updates (and confessions) from behind the 93-page score of
Rzewski’s ‘The People United’.

Having plenty of nervous energy can often be a good thing. It’s what propels me to bounce around the many faces I wear in the week (tutor, lecturer, conductor, teacher, supervisor, Rioter and – oh yes – pianist!)  Colleagues – mostly those that do a wonderful job cleaning our offices and studios – will have seen me cramming in a few hours of practice in the hours before my students turn up for the day. Fellow teachers will have received emails from me at bizarre hours in the night (the only time I have to send them). I’m not complaining. After all, I’m responsible for the challenges I set myself, which include the Grieg Concerto next week, a recital at Sussex University at the end of the month and the then ‘The People United’ in the second week of November in Chichester, London and Brighton.

That feels good!

That feels good at the moment!

Mostly, I’m not complaining because – at the moment – the practice is going very well. Even Rzewski’s metronome marks are beginning to look realistic. But however much progress I make, playing a piece that includes instructions such as ‘struggling’, ‘as fast as possible’ and ‘violently’ is bound to take its toll on the nerve endings.

So things came to something of a head last week. After a particularly busy week in (it seemed) every professional guise except pianist, I sat down at 5pm on Friday evening feeling rather tired to do two hours of piano practice on ‘The People United’.  Then, at 7pm, I ran over to the Chapel to play in the tutor’s opening concert of the year, performing a piece I have played countless times.

Sitting and listening to colleagues, I knew that something wasn’t right. I couldn’t focus and felt my stomach churning.  I just put it down to eating the wrong stuff.  Then it was my turn to play.

On the very first page I felt myself heave and the notes in my head and on the piano (and, in fact, the entire room) seemed to spin. I contemplated the possibility that this could be the most memorable performance of my life – the one where I vomit into the £100,000 Steinway. Fortunately for everyone present, the ‘technicolour yawn’ didn’t materialise. Instead I performed a huge edit and struggled towards a final cadence. I took my bow, left the room and texted my colleagues to apologise. They very kindly said that they hadn’t noticed.

Needless to say, I felt rather embarrassed. So why am I writing this down for you to read? Well, there are several important things I have learnt from this incident that I’d like to share (so I can try to remember them myself in the future):

  1. No matter what the occasion, the most important preparation is to eat and sleep properly. No amount of practice will defend against this.
  2. Breathing is surprisingly important before concerts. Closing your eyes and going through the scenario in detail – including arriving at the concert hall, talking to people, walking on stage, speaking to the audience and performing the piece – is crucial, and…..
  3. ….. all of these things take time. So no matter how things may pile of top of you, it’s vital to create a ‘window’ to allow your mind and body to cope with the pressures of performance.

I expect that many of these things sound pretty obvious, and perhaps I should find most of them second nature at the grand old age of 34. But I’ve taken a lot of positives by reminding myself about these simple rules, and perhaps others will too.

And, to those that see me in the coming weeks, please do not be offended if I need to clear a little ‘window’. It really is the only way that the Pianist’s, (brain, eyes, ears and fingers) United, Will Never Be Defeated!

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.

Continue reading

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