Press keys, no sound

For Sarah Nicolls, playing the piano has long been about much more than sitting at the keyboard. Her performances, both solo and in collaborations such as Alexander’s Annexe, explore the range of sounds and actions that can arise from delving into all parts of the instrument, whilst questioning and highlighting the physical interaction between pianist and piano.

The three pieces at her Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (hcmf) concert on Saturday 21 November each approach piano music in a different, inventive way. Her performance is transformed by electronic processing in Pierre Alexandre Tremblay’s Un clou, son marteau, et le béton, whilst the world premiere of Atau Tanaka’s a new work for pianist and sensors builds accompaniment out of Nicolls’ own arm movements.

Another hcmf first is Transit, a new piece for solo piano and film projection by Michel van der Aa, the Dutch composer and film-maker whose works such as the opera After Life incorporate both the theatrical and the cinematic. Transit brings together elements of his 2000 piano composition Just Before with Passage, a short film he made at the New York Film Academy.

Passage 3
Still from ‘Transit’, Joe Bendavid

hcmf: Michel, what made you decide to combine Just Before with your film Passage?
MvdA: When I composed Just Before, I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to make a film with it some day. It’s a very physical and theatrical piece. When I was in New York that idea grew, and I decided to do my final film based upon the music. It was going to be about passing on but also about fighting getting older and the physical restrictions that come with that.

hcmf: Sarah, what is your take on the piece?
SN: It’s basically a window on to this old man’s struggle with old age, with weakness and loneliness, with fear. The way it’s set up is that there’s a big screen above the piano in black and white and I’m just below it. There’s a very direct and obvious relationship between what I’m doing and what’s happening on the film.

It’s quite black and white in itself as well. It’s very extreme; it’s quite tense and alternates between what I imagine might be a kind of resigned-ness and a kind of panic, swinging violently between the two. Michel has choreographed it so that sometimes I’m doing things which aren’t necessarily for sound, but which physically relate to the man.

hcmf: Michel, is that also how you would describe Transit?
MvdA: It is. It’s a very clear musical idea and also the relationship between the live material and the soundtrack is very direct. It’s certainly one of my more physical pieces. Not everything the pianist does is audible: there’s some very manic miming when she’s miming a low cluster, a very physical section of the piece. The focus shifts back and forth between the film and the live piano and each medium in its own way tries to deal with the topic of the piece.

hcmf: How did you start working together and what do you like about each other’s work?
MvdA: I met Sarah when I was teaching the New Music New Media course at Aldeburgh; she was one of the musicians there. We immediately clicked: I always love musicians who look further than their own instrument and further than just playing what’s written in the score. Sarah is not only a wonderful pianist, she’s someone who thinks about not only what you hear, but also what the audience looks at, and she thinks about how to present herself theatrically and how to extend the music with what happens around and onstage.

SN: Michel showed this film, and it was a quite affecting film and we spoke about it then. I suppose because we’d met and talked about it, that’s where the relationship started, because I responded positively to the film.

I like the blatant starkness of this piece, in that it totally wears its heart upon its sleeve. It’s quite literal and dramatic. I like the way that he’s captured a slightly awkward or unnerving insanity because of what the old man does. It’s of course not real and at the same time realistic. There’s that human element: you can imagine how you’d get to that state of being old and being a bit senile. For me, the challenge is to make the switches in the music very suddenly. That’s quite odd, although also effective because the performer ends up out of breath. And also with the choreography: at the end you have to mime some parts of the texture and play others and that’s quite odd.

Michel’s addressing the fact that there is a relationship when you have live performance and film. He’s pitting one against the other, rather than ignoring it.

hcmf: What was your experience of rehearsing a piece with choreographed movements? Did you find it awkward?
SN: I think it’s funny at first: if you’re a pianist and you’re asked to do something that makes no sound, then part of you is thinking, “well, what’s the point in that?” But the other part of me is becoming more and more aware of what performance is outside of sound. I’ve seen lots of experimental theatre over the past year, and other ways that performance happens; I think it’s good for us as musicians to be aware of the performative language that exists outside of the sound.

On the score there are silent notes where it says, “press keys no sound”. And normally as a pianist, you’d put the third pedal down at that point and then you would have an interesting resonance. So of course I initially thought, “oh, the score is missing the third pedal markings here”. And then you think, “actually, that’s not the case at all, it’s as if my hands are holding the kettle”, or whatever.

hcmf: Sarah, what drives your longstanding interest in the whole physical aspect of playing piano?
SN: I suppose I believe really wholeheartedly in live performance. I just think that arena can create a real intensity of experience. I would prefer to go to a concert than listen to a CD any day. And what is it about performance? It’s what’s happening in front of you; it’s what you experience through the performer, in a way.

hcmf: Tell us about the customised piano you created in 2008.
SN: The reason for building my piano was that it’s a different shape, basically, it’s getting the guts up vertically so that people can see what’s happening inside and not feel left out when the pianist goes inside as though they’re peering under the bonnet of their car to fix the engine. Or when there’s electronic sounds flying around above their heads, but they’ve got no idea how that relates to the piano.

hcmf: Do you feel that much of the piano’s potential as an instrument is yet to be realised?
SN: Yes, I think it needs a big shake-up, definitely. Lots of people are shaking it up at the moment, which is exciting. There seems to be a ‘let’s change the piano’ feeling in the air. I think people are fascinated by pianos because they’re everywhere, but they just need to be pushed on into the current century.

Increasingly in the interface world, people want to personalise, they want to go with their own way of dancing around and then find the interface to suit that. Which is, I think, why sensors are quite popular: people can wave your arms around in whatever way they want to. I think the immobility of pianos is something that will change in the next few years. To be able to personalise it and put whatever interfaces you want on it and to take your piano on tour in your flight case.

hcmf: Michel, do you share this aim of extending the possibilities of instruments in live performance?
MvdA: Yes. I mean, in my music I try and extend the musicians with electronic counterparts, a soundtrack or video or film projections onstage. I present them with alter-egos either in the electronics or the films. So that’s my way of dealing with extended techniques.

hcmf: Do you think this kind of meeting between music and visuals will become much more common in the future?
MvdA: Well, it’s been going on for a while, since the middle of the last century. It’s just that my generation and the younger composers all grew up in an image culture, with MTV. It’s much more part of our DNA to think further than just the audible and to think about what we can do visually with our concerts as well. It’s a tool for me to deal with certain subjects or librettos that I couldn’t have with just the music, especially with my operas: I use the staging and the film and the electronics to get the message across in a way I wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.

— Abi Bliss for HCMF website, November 2009