THE AVANT-GARDE FOR PIANO
JOHN CAGE (1912-1992) - Between 1942 and 1948, John Cage wrote a series of pieces for prepared piano (Music for Prepared Piano, Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano) which revolutionized the so-called classical world. Vilified by many of the “serious” composers of the day, Cage’s works are actually rather charming and surprisingly melodic. In keeping with his love of Zen Buddhism, there is a calm and rather uncomplicated center to most of the pieces. Most importantly, the pieces were a turning point for what music played on the piano “should” sound like, and paved the way for other more aggressive composers to come.
KARLHEINZ STOCKHAUSEN (1928-2007) – Intensely iconoclastic and uncompromising, Stockhausen overturned the very fundamentals of music—harmony, rhythm and melody—with his Klavierstuck (Piano Pieces) I-XI.Written between 1952 and 1961, these pieces are truly revolutionary. And without a doubt, the definitive piece is “Klavierstuck X”.
Depending on the performer, this work runs over twenty minutes. It is an absolute assault on the piano (with a surprising amount of space and reflection over the course of the entire composition), and uses a unique form of notation which Stockhausen himself designed. For sheer vision, invention and intensity, in my opinion this piece has yet to be equaled.
Detailed analyses have been written by others about “Klavierstuck X”, but I’ll just say that it has had a lasting effect on me throughout the years, and to me remains one of the most amazing compositions ever written for the piano.
IANNIS XENAKIS (1922-2001) – A formidable Greek composer, Xenakis was wildly innovative and wildly (and somewhat erratically) prolific. A highly skilled architect, he pioneered the use of multimedia installations and what has become known as sound design, collaborated with Le Corbusier, and generally frightened and alienated a lot of “concertgoers” with his music! Today, that same music is enjoying a considerable renaissance, with performances and retrospectives popping up all over the world.
Xenakis wrote quite a few pieces for piano (all of them very demanding for both the listener and pianist). The one which revolutionized things the most is “Eonta” (1963-4), for piano, 2 trumpets and three trombones. It begins with a three minute piano solo which is unlike anything ever heard before (or since, for that matter). In part created using an IBM computer (in 1963, keep in mind!), this piece is filled with fury, elegance, touches of dry humor, and an insanely futuristic vision of sound and energy.
ELLIOT CARTER (1908-2012) – Having just passed away one month shy of his 104th birthday, Elliot Carter was a true force of nature. His output over a staggering 75 years of composing was incredible. An acquired taste for many, no one will ever say Carter’s work is easy listening, and some of his music to me kind of “goes on”. When it comes to his handful of piano pieces, however, I have the highest regard.
Outside of his “Piano Sonata” (1948), an early work which operates in a post-Romantic tonal virtuosity mode, Carter’s piano music is immediately distinctive and full of depth and jaw-dropping intricacies. “Night Fantasies” (1980) is probably his best-known, but I love all of them, including a recent one called “Catenaires for Piano” (2006) -- remember, that made him 98 when he wrote it! Multiple coincident tempos, rapid-fire technical passages and bursts of non-repeated abstract melody and rhythm infuse these works with momentum and an edge that I find quite playful at heart.
LUCIANO BERIO (1925-2003) - A fiery, very prolific Italian composer, Berio wrote for a wide variety of settings, including pioneering work in early electronic music. He had an aggressive, free-wheeling style when writing for piano, either as a solo instrument or with full orchestra. His "Sequenza IV" for solo piano (1966) is a definitive composition, and a serious tour de force. By Berio's own admission, the piece was inspired after his first hearing of Stockhausen's "Klavierstuck X" (ref. above). However, the resemblance is only in its boundry-less, stream-of-consciousness flow. The "Sequenza IV" is a far more playful and tonal piece, while still existing as defiant and full of hard-charging virtuosity.
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CAGE - 1. Music for Prepared Piano- Boris Berman, piano (Naxos 8.554562)
2. Sonatas/Interludes for Prepared Piano- Gerard Fremy, piano (Ogam 488004)
STOCKHAUSEN - Klavierstuck I-XI - 1.Aloys Kontarsky, piano (Sony S2K 53346)
2. Frederick Rzewski, piano—unbelievable performance.(Wergo B008YAN988)
XENAKIS – “Eonta”, others -Yuji Takahashi, piano (Le Chant du Monde:LDC 278368)
CARTER – “Night Fantasies”, others - Winston Choi, piano (L’empreinte digitale: ED13164)
BERIO - "Sequenza IV" --Florent Boffard, piano (Deutsche Grammophon B00000I93T)