Let’s beat the piano

When we talk about piano, one might think of the tuneful, melodic phrase come from the white-and-black keys. Thanks to the composers like Mendelssohn, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, who had explored the lyricism of the instrument by their ample amount of lovely compositions. However, as the time goes by, composers had changed their taste, as if the pendulum swung to the other side. They found their new interest in exploring the percussive nature of the piano, notably composers like Prokofiev, and this is the idea behind Netherland pianist Laurens de Boer who initiated the ‘Percussive Piano Project’.

In this project, Laurens commissioned different composers to write new works for him. He has conducted this project for several years in Europe. This was the first time he extended his network to Hong Kong. It is made possible by local versatile musician Ng Cheuk-yin who met Laurens during his study in Netherland last year. He helped Laurens to organize a concert in Hong Kong City Hall in February which featured nine compositions by local and foreign composers, some of them were premiered at the night.

At the beginning of the concert, Laurens explained to the audience he had two requirements for the composers. First, to write a drum solo for the piano; second, to set groove into their works. He played five works in the first half of the night: Catch Me if You Can by João Artur Moreira, Messages from the Clouds  (《雲之言葉》) by Ng Cheuk-yin, For Sale! by Carlos Jacques Anderson, The Groove is in the Groove (《擊鼓琴動》) by Leung Chi-hin (world premiere)and Percussive Portraits by Paul M. van Brugge (world premiere). Then played four pieces in the second half: Yin Yang Yin-Yang (《音揚陰陽》) by Viola Yip (world premiere), Discovering…a Mystery (《探秘》) by Wong Chun-wai, Lilith & Samael by Florian Magnus Maier (world premiere) and F.U.B.A.R. by Michiel Mensingh (world premiere). 

Given the two strict rules on composing, all the works shared some common features: repetitive patterns, both hands playing alternatively in a quick tempo to achieve a ‘continuous chain of sound’, absence of melodic line; yet the concert demonstrated how the composers developed their works in diversified means. For example, Leung Chi-hin tried to combine the repetitiousness with the concept of minimalism. This is done by changing the dynamic level from piano to forte, suggesting Baroque-like terraced dynamic, or occasional insertion of a few extra notes in well-established patterns. As the music goes on, there was sense of melody grew in the repeating patterns, hence the nature of the music had changed in a very ‘minimal’ way. The music started to fade away toward the end and the piece finished with right hand crossing the left hand to hit a low C, while the left hand press down another C above it so as to produce an overtone. Although Leung wrote in the program note that ‘he aims at developing a unique sonority that includes highly dramatic sudden silence’, I found the sudden silence effect wasn’t too obvious, perhaps it was an interpretation issue rather than a compositional issue.

Contrast was the key word of the night. It was a common technique used by several composers like Paul M. van Brugge. In his last one out of three musical portraits, a note was first being played repeatedly, the pianist then played more rapidly and his hands gradually crawled to the low register of the instrument. The music then became louder and with the use of pedal, the suspended notes overlapped each other. This was the point when the music sounded like noise more than chords. After that, to everyone’s surprise, some chords that could remind the audience the music of Debussy was being played. In this way, dramatic contrast in sonority and mood was achieved.

The same method could be found in the 3rd piece of Carlos Jacques Anderson’s For Sale! as well as Michiel Mensingh’s F.U.B.A.R., in which a soft passage with rest and transparent texture could be found in the midst of non-stop, powerful chords.

German composer Florian Magnus Maier used another approach in achieving contrast in music. His work started with two quasi-Baroque melodic lines playing at the same time. Then the left hand moved to the lower register to play repeated chords, while the right hand played a more lyrical line. After that there was tension piling up by the left hand playing chromatic notes. Both hands then swept around the keyboard and the music had changed to pop style.

Due to the percussive nature of the music, it is not easy for the composers to tell a story in the compositions compared to other genre like symphonic poem. Therefore, most of the works were being inspired by certain objects or music and hardly descriptive. Yet composer like Wong Chun-wai still made a brave attempt to tell a dangerous detective story in his work. He chose the interval of minor third like G --- Bb to depict the footsteps of the protagonist. There were moments that a metal was placed on the strings to achieve metallic sound, while the pianist played some sort of Arabic scale suggested a mysterious exotic journey was being gone through. Both hands playing parallel in low register with pedal turned the ambience to the dark side. The approach of the danger was imitated by playing toward the two extremes on the keyboard. Interestingly enough was the brushing on the string in the last section of the piece. It seems that the composer would like to leave room for the audience to imagine the end of the story.

Some composers had employed extended techniques in their compositions. For example, Carlos’s first short piece required the pianist to cover part of the string with a sheet of aluminum foil, so that when Laurens hit certain notes, the piano created sound of electric spark.

Yet no composer used extended technique so extensively like Viola Yip did. In her work Yin Yang Yin-yang, she borrowed the concept of “Yin-Yang” from Taoism and symbolized the white and black keys as two opposing forces. The entire work showed the confrontation of these two kinds of force in three levels. The first level focused on the relationship of certain semitones, showed a direct meet of white and black keys. In the second level, the forces extended to the keys and strings. It was done by hitting the strings with one hand and pressing the keys with another hand, or placing one hand directly on the strings and played the piano, which result in knocking-door-like sound. Viola further developed these contrasting forces by removing the sound of the highest notes of the piano by some means, thus illustrating a scenario of ‘pitched vs pitchless’ keys. Apart from the demonstrating these confrontations, the pianist was also required to pluck the strings or hit different parts of the instrument as if it was a Cajon, experimenting different sonority could possibly be made by the piano.

The most impressive work of the night was Messages from the Clouds by Ng Cheuk-yin (declaimer: I was invited by Ng, but my appreciation on his work is purely from an artistic point of view). He was inspired by a photo book “Words in the Sky” of a Japanese photographer. Even though his work still followed the routine of repeating patterns like other compositions to suggest snare drum playing, Ng placed the pattern in the high register to depict the clouds in the sky, unlike other composers focused on the middle to low part of the keyboard (the first work of the night Catch Me if You Can started from the low register, making a huge contrast with the this piece). Many subtle changes in the patterns were made to represent the unpredictable movements of the clouds. Such changes included crescendo and diminuendo, legato playing to strengthen the sense of phrasing.

What made Ng’s work stood out from the others was he successfully fused the percussiveness of the instrument with Eastern aesthetic. He followed the rules yet thinking out of the box, broken the stereotyped idea that drum should always sound loud and strong. He emphasized on delicate changes rather than big dramatic contrast. As a result, a feeling of vacancy (空, like the empty space on the Chinese painting) could be sensed in his work. Ng had truly linked two entirely different ideas together.

Apart from the composers, much applause had to be given to Laurens. Not only for his endeavor to carry on the Percussive Piano Project around the globe, but also his highly virtuosic playing with impeccable sensitivity on rhythm. If I really need to look for a bone from an egg, it would be the power of the pianist hasn’t quite matched with the demand of the works where composers expected a dramatic effect.

It is always a challenge to the audience in a contemporary piano recital who would experience new musical language never heard before. Under such situation, program notes become an important tool to help the them to get to know the pieces. In this concert, the organizer (or the venue?) was very considerate to dim the house light just a little for the audience to read the text while hearing the music. What a nice arrangement it was.