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(written July, 1997)

    From time to time I am asked to describe my pianistic style. Naturally, this is a difficult question to answer even in a particularly lucid frame of mind, but by necessity, over the years, one develops an "official" answer to questions of this sort.

    Any artist, however, has additionally an unofficial, private "take" on what constitutes their style. Recently it occurred to me that one element of my pianism is what you might call an element of "vulnerability."

    At the conservatory, they teach performers how to play with strength and confidence. Frequent references are made to "playing to the person in the back row (of the auditorium)," and so forth. Perhaps, though, there is something missing in the pianists who graduate from these conservatories and accept this philosophy of performance without question. Perhaps this "something missing" is a sense of vulnerability.

    The wonder of classical music is how it reflects the full range of human emotions and experience. Most people (and therefore most audience members) at base suffer from a lack of confidence. We all have our moments of weakness, of vulnerability, just below our surface facade of feigned assuredness. So occasionally I do infuse (subconsciously) the performance of a musical phrase with a little fragility, a little weakness, a little vulnerability. I feel listeners respond to this, that it is one way the music may be connecting to them on a deeper level, below the surface, recognizing this undeniable element of our human make-up.

    "Vulnerability," of course, is something particularly human. A synthesizer is incapable of performing in this manner. Every sound they produce is black and white, unambiguous. Only a human can create music that is not sharply defined, that is in hazy greys; only a human can create what I call a "fractured" sound in music, music far-removed from the smooth virtuoso confidence taught in the conservatory, yet music that perhaps resonates more deeply, a more human music.

    Ultimately, our feelings of vulnerability stem from our fear of death. Outwardly, most of us banter and jest, make light conversation and appear reasonably confident. Every now and then, though, we sense our mortality, and this gives us pause. I strongly believe composers have evoked these precise feelings on occasion in their music, and therefore it would be a great mistake as a performer to suppress these sensations in interpreting these special moments -- rather they should be cultivated.

    How do I cultivate this garden as a pianist? I doubt there is much of a recipe for creating a sound of vulnerability, and it's best not to be too self-conscious about it. Perhaps my development of a highly nuanced dynamic range is helpful to me here -- I employ a greater variation in dynamics withiin a phrase than is customary. I also am capable now of more rhythmic subtleties within a beat. So this may more easily enable me to depart from a more stratified, black and white presentation. In terms of articulation, I only use the ultra-smooth legato of the conservatory virtuoso at key moments, to highlight a phrase or part of a phrase, and not as a basic, all-purpose general sound texture. Rests and silences are also important. Most musicians are afraid of letting the music "die," but they would by letting go of these inhibitions be able to add a new dimension to their music-making.

    Before we get too enchanted with all this, I feel compelled to note that one wouldn't want to over-emphasize this element of vulnerability. Most of the time great composers have strong ideas they communicate directly and powerfully, and it would be inappropriate to approach such passages with ambiguity or a sense of fragility, as that would diffuse the focus and direction of the music. Indeed, presenting a composer's ideas with the utmost clarity is the primary goal of my performance interpretations. Nevertheless, there are these occasional moments where we need frailty, where we need to deconstruct, where we need to suggest a little vulnerability.

    Of course, all this talk of death and mortality -- this is not part of the "official" answer. No one wants to hear about this in the open air, they just want to "small-talk"!

Comment from "Mournfully Hopeful in Toronto":

The idea of creating a human, rather than an unfeeling and perfect performance has been dogging me for some time also. I personally don't know what type of singer it will have been possible for me to be, when I reach the end of my days, but I know that I DON'T want to be a meaty-voice opera specialist, what I call the "voice muscle on two legs".

I most often like to take examples from history, I suppose, and my favourite singers are, say:

Pete Seeger -- puts into practice the social-music ideals of his intelligent and far-seeing father; a whole lifetime of vivid, life-changing songs

Peter Pears -- a flawed voice by any measure, but committed to poetic ideals which inspired his partner, the composer B. Britten, to create on him an astonishing body of work

_______________ -- the French tenor whose name I cannot think of right now, who was displaced from the Opera in the 1830s, and sang many a benefit concert with Liszt, and who declaimed according to the ancient rules of rhetoric, rather than the modern Italianate uniform sound of his nemesis Gilbert DuPrez

I think that if I didn't have these models to look up to, plus the model of Anzor Erkomaishvili, the product of a noted family of Georgian singers, I would surely be dejected every day, by the ascendency of Pavarotti and Michael Jackson over many other more meaningful possibilities.

-- Alan Gasser, Toronto, Canada


Comment from Jason Brown

I delighted in reading your essays. I hope more are posted in the future. The essay on Vulnerability was particularly touching to me.

It is a new vista for me that vulnerability is an asset to the performer. Now it is clear that these vulnerabilities can be channeled into something which contributes to the music.

I have heard many pianists who had limitations yet found such a unique voice within those limitations but it never translated into a cherishing and embracement of my own limitations. Limitations are ubiquitous and an expression of our humanity. Many of the negative comments that music critics make about a performance or performer are the very things that make such a musical offering assume life.

-- Jason Brown


Comment from Ann Regan

... I stumbled onto some of the essays you have written, and was interested in the one on "vulnerability." As a singer, of course the first thought that entered my mind was "what can someone who has the luxury of a ten-foot block of wood and steel between him and the audience know about 'vulnerablility'?" I did appreciate your addressing the subject though, because I do think it is that sense of vulnerability that can make a performance especially poignant.

Although you suggest techniques such as rhythmic and dynamic nuances, articulation, and use of rests and silence, etc. as venues for creating a sense of vulnerability, I am glad that you also speak of there being no real recipe for achieving this, and that one had best not be too self-conscious about it. Perhaps because I am an amateur musician, (ie weak in the technique area) I find a studied approach to what properly must spring directly from the heart in order to be honest, frustrating.

I wrote the following after hearing a performance given by a famous pianist; for me it was frustrating because it felt so contrived and affected, a kind of micro-management of nuance for lack of a better description.

The Concert Pianist and The Washerwoman

Round spheres of silver sound
Torrent down
From conjuring hands
Of the Man on stage.
With scalpel fingers,
Each sinew taut,
A note is caught
And forged.
And sent forth coiffed.

Marching from the stage
In rank and file precision,
Notes of rigid softness,
Then calculated Passion.
The listener in the dark
Gropes intently to feel,
Heart entwined around
As by cords of steel.
Molded ingots of sound.

Round spheres of gurgling sound trickle down
From work-worn hands of the woman on knees.
From pail to floor in rhythm content,
Liquid phrases are sent to slosh and sing--
And waltz forth trilling.

Floating from the bucket in tumbling elision,
Notes of joyous softness in spontaneous compassion.
The passerby upon the street
Stops to catch the carefree mood,
Heart unfettered and uplifted,
By airy bubbles pursued.
Nature's hymn of sound.

Ann Regan (Vermont, USA)

Some related thoughts can be found in the essays "The Sound of Silence" (under construction) and "Why I Don't Play Chamber Music"

Your thoughts on the above are most welcome. E-mail me your comments and I'll post excerpts from the most interesting replies right here. Please include, if you are willing, your name, town, and country. (However, to safeguard your privacy, I will not post your e-mail address.)