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26 April, 2009

On February 6, 2008 an article appeared in the New York Times under the headline 'When Histrionics Undermine the Music and the Pianist'. It was written by Bernard Holland and in it he describes a young pianist playing Schumann, "bending her back, lifting her head and gazing straight up. Maybe God was sitting in the rafters just above her and she was using the opportunity to say hello." He also writes, "It's another reason classical music is not reaching more young people: not because of how it sounds, but because of how it looks. Even worse, lugubrious gymnastics like these advertise the feelings of performers, not of Beethoven or Schumann. Music is asked to stand in line and wait its turn."

Mr Holland's mention of God and his suggestion of outsize pianistic egos, all in the context of performance manner, provokes me to ask: if music is a spiritual language (and, for me, it is) and if the feelings of the music are much more important than those of the performer (and, for me, they are), then is there a manner of playing that best realises this?

Eastern spirituality, much more than Western, has explored the connection between the body and the spirit. Buddhist meditation, yoga and tai-chi for example are all highly developed methods of achieving this synthesis and it is not hard to find elements that they have in common. The body needs to be put into a state of deep relaxation, it needs to maintain a perfect balance, and the channel from the base of the spine to the top of the head needs to remain upright and open. Even in 'moving meditation' such as tai-chi balance is never lost, movement is fluid and relaxed, the spine is not contorted.

The great, sublime and ubiquitous icon of spiritual posture is the seated Buddha. How simple to take this model to the piano and then to add to it only the flowing movements that playing the music requires.

As for ego, I am happy to admit that it takes a strong one to get a performer on to a stage in front of an audience and allow him/her to play with conviction. But were that ego to speak it should only be saying "Listen to me", never "Look at me". And - best-case scenario - should the pianist be able to achieve a total identification with the feeling of the music, the ego will be silenced. So too will be the coughs and anxieties of the people listening.


17 November, 2008

A favourite daydream

One of my favourite daydreams involves the gradual mental construction of my ideal music academy - the ‘Academy for the Presentation of Music as a Spiritual Language’ as I like to call it. It would be dedicated to the development of instrumental musicians with considerable natural talent and designed to give them the wherewithal to express their talent fully to the enrichment of anyone who should hear them. It would also seek to create entirely self-reliant artists.

It could be very expensive to run (the broadest range of influences), offer no formal qualifications, and promote no organised career-path (although it would deal with all aspects of the professional performing life). So chances of the daydream reaching a waking realised state would seem to be rather slim. Still, I like to imagine it.

I could go on about it for pages, but it is particularly on my mind at the moment because I have just read a great book that would become a central set text at the academy. It is written by Lewis Hyde and is called The Gift - How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World. All creative artists who have come to the realisation that there is something far deeper and greater than their egos involved in what they do (fewer of us than one might hope perhaps) should read it if they haven’t already.

I won’t try to paraphrase what Lewis Hyde has written - I could offer quotations from almost every page. But if you’ve ever wondered why some artistic experiences have an enriching power while others don’t, you will find answers in this book.


17 November, 2008

Expressions new piano

The photographs here were taken by Ross Giblin for the DominionPost newspaper. Their purpose was to announce and celebrate the successful conclusion of a resourceful and high-minded campaign by the citizens of Upper Hutt, a community of 40,000, who raised over $250,000 to buy themselves a new concert grand Steinway piano. For whatever reason (we trust not philistinism) they were not published. To make a little redress I’d like to mention here some of the fine individuals who initiated and saw through the fundraising campaign.

Perhaps I should start with Roger Lloyd as it was the series of ‘piano-centric’ concerts that he organised for the Upper Hutt venue, Expressions, which made it clear to everyone that bringing in an inferior instrument from somewhere else was not going to work in the longer term. There were no available funds to buy a new piano and plenty of nay-sayers warning that the local population was already exhausted from the efforts to get the venue itself built.

But the great director of Expressions, Stephanie Cottrill, and her dedicated, clever and indefatigable cohorts - Owen Anderson, Barry Houston (nice name!) and Clare Derby - rolled up their sleeves and proved the Cassandras wrong. Concerts and other entertainments were produced, auctions held, petitions and applications to trusts organised, all carefully laid out over a two-year period. A ‘Piano Club’ was formed of friends not only willing to make a donation but always ready to help out when needed. Upper Hutt mayor, Wayne Guppy, and his wife Sue were also fully supportive of the campaign.

When the funds were together (great jubilation!) Professor Patrick O’Byrne, ex-pat NZ pianist living in Germany, kindly agreed to go to Hamburg, armed with as much information about the venue as we could provide, and selected the beautiful instrument you can see in these photographs. And it is a beautiful instrument, quite perfect for Expressions which is in fact not a straightforward venue acoustically.

I played the first concert on the piano (my lovely reward for acting as Patron of the campaign) - a programme of Beethoven sonatas Opp.26, 27 and 28 - on Friday 26 September, the same evening these photographs were taken. But the true ‘launching’ took place the next day with something of a marathon event involving mainly local musicians from all genres - jazz, classical, pop - all playing to great acclaim from an enthusiastic packed house of local music lovers. A wonderful community event was the most fitting seal to a wonderful community project.


20 August, 2008

In early August I was invited as patron of the NZ Piano Tuners and Technicians Guild to attend a weekend workshop. I found it very interesting for lots of different reasons, and somehow it all devolved into my writing this little whatever-it-is.

My Selfish Desires: an imaginary address to a gathering of piano tuners

(Scene: Onstage in a 1500-seat concert hall, a full-size concert grand piano open and ready to play, MH standing beside it. The tuners are onstage seated comfortably in such a way as to be able to hear the piano as an audience. MH speaks.)

Greetings gentlemen and...yes, there are a few...ladies, and welcome.

First, a definition: a piano is a musical instrument, a means of making music. For those of you who think it is a box of interesting moving parts I’m afraid there will be little for you in this talk.

Now, let’s get down to business. What does a piano sound like? (MH seats himself at the piano and waits for a perfect silence to descend. After 15 seconds he stands again.) That is what a piano sounds like. (Slight nervous laughter from some tuners.) Now, what does it sound like when I play it? (MH sits down again and plays, with some minor imperfections, the Prelude in b minor, Op.32 No.10 by Rachmaninoff. Polite applause. MH stands up again.) The point I wish to make here is that I maintain that this piano, indeed all pianos, will never sound the same under any two pairs of hands. That is why this address is called “My Selfish Desires”. I wish to suggest how I would like a piano prepared for a performance I am to give, but without suggesting that anything I say here should apply to any pianist other than myself.

Imagining that I am here to do some practise before a concert later in the day, there are some ‘givens’ with regard to the preparation of the piano. I would expect the piano to be already set up to factory specifications, fully regulated, and to be well and solidly in tune. Now, I know the words “factory specifications” sound like a challenge to those among you who like to tinker with pianos and who perhaps even think they can improve on Steinway, Yamaha or whatever. But, at the very least, a piano set up to factory specifications can occasion no argument from me, the pianist, and it is the bottom line from which I can express my preferences. Also, dare I say it, I think there are in fact imperfections in, say, a concert grand Steinway which at least partly make it what it is - an instrument of great range and versatility. All those overtones...yummy! If you think you can put more attack into the piano by altering this or that, fine, but what if I’m about to play a recital devoted to Debussy’s music when attack is almost at the bottom of my list of priorities?

The pedals are for me an area of special interest and I’m not sure if my desires fit with factory specifications or not. I like a little ‘play’ in the sustaining pedal as I find it tiring to only work it at the top of its range. The sostenuto, or middle, pedal should work properly (and quite often doesn’t). The una corda pedal is one of my favourite features on any piano and is often worse than useless, inasmuch as a poorly set-up una corda has a totally destructive effect. It should be effective in more than one position, allowing great colour change without compromising purity of tone. To get the most out of the una corda pedal I suspect there needs to be some voicing done alongside the regulation.

To say the piano should be “well and solidly” in tune may seem ridiculously obvious, but the reality is that most of the time here in NZ pianos are not well and solidly in tune - they are usually “pretty much” in tune. There is seldom any point in complaining about this because as far as I can tell tuners either know how to do an accurate tuning, or they don’t. Electronic Tuning Devices are clearly no solution as they provide no guide to harmoniousness, the piano’s crowning virtue. I have been led to understand that accurate tuning using only one’s ears can be both learned and taught. So it is to be hoped that as many tuners as possible will avail themselves of this knowledge and that radiant tunings will become the norm.

Right. So the piano is perfectly regulated and nicely in tune. It’s voicing time!

How many tuners understand what is required from a piano when a pianist plays a concerto accompanied by a 60-piece orchestra in a 1500-seat hall? Or even a 90-minute solo recital in a 500-seater? Take it from me, we need all the help we can get. The last thing we want to see are needle holes in the tops of the hammers.

Let me put it another way. After years of study, experimentation and practise it is possible for a pianist to learn how to play quietly on almost any piano. But no amount of weight training, muscle development exercises or steroid use will enable us to produce a powerful tone out of a piano where the hammers have been needled. All we can do is phone the doctor and tell him to bring some heavy sandpaper and a litre of shellac.

In my view tuners should never voice a piano without consultation with the pianist. For me, if the hall holds more than 100 people the piano would have to be absolutely screaming before I would request that it be voiced down. In the ideal voicing world the tuner would ask me: “Which is your favourite note on the piano?” and then go about making the other notes match it as closely as possible. Or I could point out which of the neighbouring notes strike me as anomalous. Or I could simply name the notes I don’t like. But the truth is I’m almost never asked. Either tuners feel they’ve already done the voicing, or they’re not interested in voicing, or they don’t know how to voice. Pity.

The pre-concert rehearsal (which is what we are imagining here) is the way to get to know the piano and so it is crucial that the tuner sticks to the few voicing requests and does not suddenly decide to redo the whole piano before the concert. It is extremely disturbing to launch into a programme and not recognise the piano you played only a few hours earlier.

And that’s it really - regulation, tuning , voicing. But perhaps I should deal with another couple of things.

There are, of course, crap pianos, pianos that were never very good, and I call them “character-building” pianos. They give you nothing for free, you have to create every tone through the entire dynamic range if you are to give the audience anything worth listening to. Sometimes a tuner will spend hours trying to get such a piano into decent shape for a performance, and will receive scant thanks for their work. I apologise for this.

Which brings me to the final thing. Perhaps the question I am most often asked at a concert is : “How do you find the piano?” There are a number of facetious replies to this, but mainly I hate the question. If the questioner added, “We’re thinking of replacing it”, I might feel a little less reluctant, but they seldom do. Possible responses are “How does it sound to you?”. Or “It’s a given...I’m here to make music”. But I don’t suppose the question will stop anytime soon.

I think it might be a good time for a cup of tea. (Murmurs of approval)



13 May, 2008

Here are some scribblings by Peter Hawes who writes in The Manawatu Standard on the Opinion page, his byline ‘Curmudgeon’. These appeared on Tuesday May 6, three days after the MayDay concert at the Regent on Broadway in Palmerston North.

First, the headline: ‘Beethoven’s message of anarchy’. Really? Who thought that up?

Anyway, he writes...“I was at the May Day Concert to listen and Mr Houston (sic) was there to play what I was listening to. Maybe he was also there to obliterate the fact that Mayday gave us Morris dancing and all the insensately dainty music that goes with it. I hope so. He did so, intentionally or not, by sublimely playing Beethoven’s Midnight (sic) Sonata. The work ends up, in part three - if you’ve seen the movie, heard the tape or read the comic - in a violent shit-fight of urgent chords, wherein keys are seen as noses to punch. But it starts as a lyrical sob, a sort of nocturne emission during the which the Houston (sic) fingers seemed to adhere to the keys like the emulsions of wax candles. Spellbinding. Mr Key may have the evocative name, but his National party will never get in while Mr Houston (sic) plays for the left.”

Mmmm....leaving aside the straining for effect, just what is this left and right business and where do I stand? Presumably there is a dividing line somewhere, or is it impossible not to be one or the other? I’ve decided, perhaps whimsically, that the dividing line between left and right does in fact exist, but it is nowhere. When you find it and stand in the very centre of it and put your head up there is nothing and noone to be seen. It is the only place I feel comfortable politically. It reminds me of the very centre of the hub of a turning wheel - no matter how fast the wheel is turning, there at the centre everything is still. And in case anyone should wonder why I might play at the MayDay concert, it was a paid gig and I am just a piano player for hire.



14 March, 2008

On 10 March I was in Invercargill with my lovely colleague Diedre Irons to play a 4-hand concert to celebrate the purchase of a new concert grand Steinway. The concert was in the Civic Theatre and entrepreneur Christine Hainstock had done a very good job in almost filling the house. During the afternoon Christine had asked me if I would mind if a photographer from The Southland Times came to the theatre at 7.30pm and took a few photos of Diedre and me warming up. I said I didn't mind. This duly happened and it was only when I went out into the house to take a few photographs of the stage set-up that I realised a reporter had come along with the photographer and was talking with Diedre. I quickly returned to the stage picked up my music and started to head for the dressing room, but I was not fast enough and the reporter tried to buttonhole me. I kept moving and she called out, "Don't you want to talk to me?" "No thanks" I replied as my heart sank.

Sure enough, the following morning a photograph appeared in the paper and under it the reporter wrote 'Mr Houstoun declined to comment on the new piano last night but Ms Irons sang its praises.'

I have several reactions to all of this. Firstly, I think that no person is ever obliged to talk to a reporter if there is no agreement beforehand, and that it is pathetically unprofessional for a reporter to react personally when a person declines to answer their questions. (I have to wonder whether the issue of refusal is ever dealt with in journalism courses). Secondly, if the person does decline to talk, then the reporter should either tell the truth ('Mr Whomever declined to talk to me last night') or say nothing. In this case I did not decline to 'comment on the new piano', I declined to comment on anything at all which is perfectly within my rights. But because of her personal/amateurish reaction the reporter could not resist trying to make me sound churlish and uncooperative. Thirdly, all this could have been avoided if the simple courtesy of requesting an interview had been shown. I would have declined but I would have found a way to do so that was not offensive to anyone.

Just for the record, my declining would have been based on two separate issues. Firstly, I see interviews as a form of publicity for an event, a way of selling seats. In this case nothing could have appeared until after the concert was over and so there was simply no point. Secondly, as it happened I only played the primo part in two duets on the new piano which means I barely touched a note below middle C. Also the lid was removed. I could not fairly comment on the instrument unless I played all of it with the lid on and raised in normal concert position.


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