I. The Art & Science of Playing One Note, or Tone at the Piano
Perhaps the largest and most long-standing theme for me (and the topic of my doctoral thesis), this is about tapping into nuances in the sound when playing the piano. Tone is an experience specifically bound to the piano, and at its core, it is really about soundflow at the piano, the idea of flow foregrounding an aspect of experiencing sound at the piano which is akin to meditation. So tone at the piano is about a state of being where you experience sound as what you imagine, what you hear, and what you do concurrently. The sound and the means of its production become one and the same, and it feels like you just imagine a sound, sense a certain suppleness in your hands, and you listen, as the sound you imagine fills the space around you.
Piano tone is a topic that has been discussed in many ways (and under different names, like sound production, tone, color, touch, and others) and has also at times been hotly debated from different perspectives, including in the natural sciences. Tone is my favorite designation, which essentially comes to us from the Romantic period when it was most often used and discussed in regards to piano playing. To me, tone is not specifically tied to the Romantic repertoire, as it can be an approach to any repertoire one plays. But it is an essentially Romantic concept, and part of an essentially Romantic approach to piano playing.
In my artistic practice (let us say), it has meant countless hours of repeatedly playing one note until it reliably sounds out exactly like you imagined it. Imagining that note is tied to its musical context, in other words, this one note is a specific one note from a repertoire piece, and part of playing that note is taking the time to imagine exactly how you want it to speak, so that the phrase or gesture to which it belongs comes to inflect exactly as you feel is right for that moment of music. Playing a five-minute piece in that way could easily take a day of practice, but it is also one of my favorite practice routines, one which gives me a sense of unlimited possibility with nuances and inflections, and a wonderful sense of freedom and ease in shaping the piece as it unfolds.
This hyper attentiveness to nuance has also been my most reliable radar for how a performance is going, as sustaining this kind of close connection to the sound has (almost) invariably meant a favorite performance.
In my research, I have tried to express what I know in practical terms from different research perspectives in ethnographic theory and methods, cultural studies, psycho-acoustics, sound studies and theoretical and experimental research in embodied cognition. I would always gravitate to particular theories and perspectives based on how productive they were to me in being able to communicate aspects of my performance practice and experience to others, as well as in contributing back to my performance practice and experience. Some key sources I have worked with include:
in cognitive theory: Francisco Varela, Ulric Neisser, Paul Bach-y-Rita
in sound studies, sound experience: Jonathan Sterne, Aden Evens, Morton Feldman
in piano performance and pedagogy: Heinrich Neuhaus, historical and contemporary interviews and conversations
In my research work on tone, I have tried many different directions, the most lasting ones being:
A Romantic sensibility: Tone is an inherently Romantic notion in the ways it is described and discussed as well as experienced. A Romantic sensibility is part of both understanding and experiencing tone.
Audio-haptics: Working with tone rests on an extra tight interaction between auditory and haptic (touch in motion) abilities. In time, these two senses come to be experienced in terms of one another, making for a sort of acquired, piano-specific, sensori-motor ability, or "audio-haptics." This idea of a merged audio-haptic capability rests on interactive models of embodied cognitive skill and, on the practical side, it is one way to understand pianists' frequent claims that in order to master tone at the piano one needs to listen.
In the Realm of Improvisation: Working with tone is about real-time adjustments to acoustics, instruments and the specific inflections of what you hear moment-to-moment while at the piano. In this sense, it is not about something you learn and fix as part of an interpretation; it is rather about an ability to engage and shape in real-time, akin to improvisation.
II. Preludes and Repertoire
This is about reinventing today an improvisatory practice tied to the Romantic repertoire (especially Chopin, Liszt) and fashioned on Romantic preluding practices. Preluding (or interluding) is just what it sounds like – an improvised bit of music one plays before or in between repertoire pieces in the course of a particular performance, as a way to “set the tone” for a given work, or shape the arc of the full program, or also on more mundane motivations, like trying out an instrument or summoning an audience into place.
As may already be apparent, inspiration for this project comes in large part from historical research on what keyboard preluding practices were like in the Romantic period (roughly). With the history come questions and concepts that cross into philosophy, culture, aesthetics; questions like: should we ever improvise in public or only offer our audiences the finished works of master-composers? Do we prize spontaneity in performance and how should it be accessed and expressed during a performance? What are suitable ways to prelude to a given work and how or by whom should that be decided?
The other main source for this kind of work is keyboard harmony (a practice still in use in some music departments and conservatories), conceived as a basic course of study in tonal improvisation; as well as basic music analysis, mostly as a tool in devising different versions of passages in repertoire pieces. Keyboard harmony and music analysis (always at the keyboard) form a central and inherently practical aspect of this work.
So why go through the trouble of learning to prelude, especially if improvisation is not something classical performers currently do, or are ever expected to do by their audiences or competition juries?
My answer is what makes this a project in artistic research: it is something I developed as part of my performance practice, which has brought with it great practical (experiential) value. Preluding (especially when based directly on material drawn from the pieces I perform) makes me familiar and at ease with these pieces in a unique way that no other practice has offered me. Developing the ability to “doodle” on the keyboard – or in other words, to spin tonal progressions, arpeggiated or otherwise textured, using motives and patterns from repertoire pieces – has been the most effective antidote to anxiety, an almost magical technique for memorization, as well as a way to tap into a unique and utterly freeing sense of spontaneity.
And here enters one more research dimension of this project: creative agency, which is how I have come to designate this sense of spontaneity and freedom to author my own actions when performing works of the classical music canon. The concept of agency has been theorized and defined in different ways, but I have taken it to designate "the sense of authoring one’s own actions and shaping one’s own circumstances," adapted from work in sociology, especially work by Polish sociologist Piotr Sztompka in the mid 1990’s. The idea of agency, thus defined, has been immensely productive to me in clearly seeing blockages I would encounter in practical experience, which have to do with the authority of composers, scores, editions, juries, conventions, traditions etc. On the flip side, this idea has also been invaluable to me in claiming my own agency, or in other words, in fully letting myself be the source of my own actions at the piano and the actor (agent) behind the sounds these actions engender. In this sense, this concept captures (and offers me) the sense of having full license to create the sounds of my own performances.
III. Creative Agency in Classical Music Performance
Agency, as the sense of authoring one’s own actions and shaping one’s own circumstances (see directly above), is something that was missing in my experience playing the classical piano repertoire. When I first encountered the concept – during a talk by my future thesis advisor, Professor George E. Lewis – it was a revelation: without the concept of agency, I only had a vague sense of something amiss in my performance experience, something that had to do with freedom, expression, perhaps even ownership of the pieces I played, but agency put it all together! What I needed was a sense of freedom to create, to make the gestures that would create the sounds of a performance, in full consciousness that these gestures were mine, that they were my responsibility and right to make.
“Why would they not be?” is perhaps a question that quickly comes to mind to anyone who does not immediately recognize my own experience. To me, that has to do with contemporary usage of essentially Romantic ideology and structures of authority in classical music institutions, both of which are points explored in depth and with great clarity by other scholars. Especially productive for me has been work by sociologist Lisa McCormick on music competitions, musicologist Mary Hunter on Romantic ideas of music performance, and performance scholar Daniel Leech-Wilkinson on norms and conventions in classical music today.
To me, putting a spotlight on creative agency in classical performance is a way to potentially re-imagine concert experience altogether: creative agency is a core part of experiencing performance, for performers and their audiences alike, a concert always being a shared experience (see directly below).
I focus my own work with this theme on developing concepts and cultivating practices that foster and strenghten a performer's sense of creative agency. And this is where this theme folds back on the others, especially preluding, tone and artistic research.
Preluding is about an ability to improvise around the standard repertoire which offers an embodied sense of familiarity with the repertoire, and hence, can be an access point to a stronger sense of creative agency, even as one continues to love and revere repertoire works. This is not about necessarily altering a score; it is about what the ability to do so can bring to the performance experience.
Tone directs attention towards the nuances in a single sound and away from the perceived difficulty of playing many notes correctly. Hence, a focus on tone can become an (almost) magical antidote to the perennial fear of mistakes, especially present in high-stakes performance situations, like competitions and conservatory juries. Tone also foregrounds a necessary aspect of creativity which is part of any performance situation.
Artistic research is (in important ways) a practice which encourages performers to develop their own confidence, know-how, and suitable tools, with which to turn their performance experience into a wellspring of knowledge, waiting to be articulated, shaped and shared with colleagues, audiences and the world beyond. And the production of knowledge can be a source of agency in many domains, and perhaps especially in performers' own domains of activity and experience.
IV. Collaborative Listening
This is about the creative agency of listening, or about a clearly felt sense that listening is never a passive receiving of stimuli; rahter, it is always a creative act. During a concert performance, a musician gets to make sound that everyone there can hear, but what each person hears in the sound that is present in the space, that is a matter of co-creation, or in other words, something that everyone listening shapes for him- or her-self. Hearing a sound as joyful, mournful, pastoral or expressive in any way is a matter of active participation on everyone's part in creating a particular concert experience. A performer can go a long way in offering sound that is exquisitely created at the instrument, but ultimately, the listening experience is a collaborative affair.
Imagine looking onto a stage with chaotic lighting: blinking, changing shapes, continual movement, no particular patterns to follow. Now imagine a dark stage with a single light beam, projecting a yellow-white circle around a grand piano. The piano was always there, but the lighting changed. And that made a difference in your experience of the instrument on the stage. With the single, yellow-white beam, your gaze is steady, and so is your focus. You are primed to hear the instrument play; or, you may even be hearing piano music already.
In a metaphorical sense, we are always the light designers for the concerts we hear. Our own focus, imagination, and attentiveness shape our experience of a performing arts event, to the point that each audience member becomes a crucial collaborator or co-creator of the event.