Modern solo piano, the generation gap

31 Aug 2010 // places

I got pretty excited recently whilst reading the events guide when I saw that the second half of the last session of the Modern Solo Piano Festival was going to be free. I dutifully turned up a little earlier and found out that although it was free, it was not actually free. It turned out the listing had mistaken the style of piano (free) for the price (not free and not so cheap either). Still, I am a fan of solo piano (my bro is one) so I went anyway.

The festival was designed to bring together pianists of all stripes and this session bought together one pianist from the "experimental" style, and one from the "free" style. Thankfully the festival tried hard to minimize the pretentiousness normally associated with "serious" music. The show was compered by a hand puppet, who was, at least, funny to the germans. There were psychedelic patterns projected onto screens arranged vaguely in the shape of oversized piano keys, which vaguely matched the music.

Still, it was quite odd to see music that was "free" distinguished from music that was "experimental". What possible difference could there be? It turns out that the difference was a generational one as much anything. The two guys playing experimental piano, american Dustin O'Halloran and a german, known simply as Hauschka, were in their 20/30s, whilst the free piano was played by an german dude A. von Schlippenbach and and a japanese woman, Aki Takase, who were on the northern side of 50.

First the similarities. Both acts felt sufficiently liberated to interpret solo piano as meaning two pianos on stage. Also, since there's not too much crazy things you can do to a piano without electronics and without damaging the piano, the only option was to put things onto the strings, anything from rags to tin pots. When the first act put ping-pong balls into the piano, it seemed really cool. But when the second act did it too, it seemed kind of derivative. Still, it's a great visual effect as the balls would bounce out of the piano depending on the vigor of the playing.

The "free" piano played by the older pianists was all about technical virtuosity devoid of harmony or movement. It seemed like these pianists were paranoid about hitting any classically pleasing intervals, producing anti-melodies in the playing. Although there was some astonishing skill, evident in the finger work across the keyboard, it was all a cluster of cacophonic notes that bought to mind a stuttering washing machine rather than a piece of music. Was it composed or improvised? Does it really matter?

The younger pianists in the "experimental" style played pieces of haunting beauty and tonal simplicity. The music flowed in repetitive arpeggio figures and plaintive drones. Rhythmically, the music moved in steady crescendos. There was an inexorable emotional logic to these pieces as they worked through classic harmonic modalities, and washed over like a lost soundtrack of a european coming-of-age film. Alex Ross of the New Yorker once wrote that the biggest contribution that Phillip Glass made to contemporary music was to bring back melody and rhythm, without sinking into sentimentality, after decades of avoiding it. These younger pianists are clearly on the after-side of that divide. There is an emotional logic to harmonies that have been known ever since Archimedes, and although for a few brief decades, musicians disdained this logic in the classic boomer style, the current generation have seen fit to bring it back.