Speaking and Understanding the Language of Other Universes

Speaking and Understanding the Language of Other Universes

The task of learning a new work involves not only committing notes to fingers in order to execute them with fluency, but conveying those notes in a way that is so natural and idiomatic that the listener will hear not the language but the meaning of the music.

Written By

Gloria Cheng

Gloria Cheng
Photo by Christian Steiner

Pianist Gloria Cheng‘s commentary below was adapted from an address to the Music Critics Association of North America at the National Critics Conference in Los Angeles on May 26, 2005.

As a performer who has for many years been steeped in the music of our time, my experiences include many deep joys, delights, and surprises, as well as a fair share of headaches! A few recent experiences have left a strong impression on me.

A very gifted young composer, Stephen Andrew Taylor of Champaign-Urbana, recently wrote a thirty-five-minute solo work for me that required an entire year to learn thoroughly for its scheduled premiere on our Los Angeles-based Piano Spheres series. One of the reasons I chose Taylor was the breadth of his musical tastes; he is a good friend of many years who knows as much about Björk and Pink Martini as he does about Adès, Ligeti, and Messiaen. The piece he wrote for me, entitled Seven Memorials, was everything I had hoped for: rich, colorful, dramatic, risky, powerful, and heartbreakingly beautiful. I estimate that I easily spent 1,000 or more practice hours on this work over the course of a year. When I mentioned how technically difficult many passages were, Steve’s reaction was “Really? Gloria, I thought nothing was hard for you and that you sight-read everything perfectly and that you are a piano goddess!”

Flattering as this may have been to hear, it is dead wrong!

Esa-Pekka Salonen composed Dichotomie for me in the fall of 2000. I received the second movement three weeks before the scheduled world premiere, and it took all I had in me to master it in time. While making some edits prior to the NYC performance that December, he one day faxed pages and pages of thirty-second notes to me as a replacement for an already quite frenetic passage. We ended up scrapping the changes when I pronounced them utterly impossible for ten fingers to execute. More recently, last February I tackled Esa-Pekka’s brief new Preludes. One of them, composed on an airplane in an unforgivingly flowing Ravel-ian vein, met with alarm on several occasions: Paul Crossley, for whom it was written, reacted, Esa-Pekka tells me, with a long string of curse words; Emanuel Ax, sympathizing with me for my upcoming U.S. premiere, took one look and said, “Have you told him that he shouldn’t write like this? This is really hard. You should tell him.” (As an aside, Manny may have had self-interest at heart: Esa-Pekka was just beginning work on a new piece for Manny’s Ballade project next season at Carnegie!) My own reaction was to attempt to play through the first two measures and then put it away for a few weeks, hoping that I was having a nightmare. “It’s only two minutes out of your life,” teased Esa-Pekka. Yes, but how many hours went into making those two minutes happen? I would estimate it in the low hundreds.

If even these erudite and engaged composers could have such misconceived notions about the toil that underlies the process of preparing their work for performance, then how much understanding is there outside of our little circle?

Recently I’ve been reading some fascinating accounts of a new language that was fabricated for the new film The Interpreter. The movie is a political thriller starring Nicole Kidman as a U.N. interpreter raised in Matobo, a fictional country located somewhere between Zimbabwe and Tanzania. Director Sydney Pollack commissioned Mr. Said el-Gheithy of London’s Centre for African Language Learning to create the “Ku” language of the native Matobians. The sound of Ku, i.e. the pronunciation of vowels, consonants, and the fundamental grammatical structures, had to resemble existing southern African languages. Five hundred words were invented for the movie. As El-Geithy described his challenge: “Literally, I had to create everything from scratch. I had to give a sense of reality to the language. It is not just a translation exercise. It is a language, structure, and comprehensible speech.” A secondary challenge was that of crafting a suitable accent with which to lace Kidman’s spoken English. Since almost every African country was colonized at some point in its history by Belgium, England, or Germany, a dialect coach was brought in to inflect Kidman’s English pronunciation with an accurate cultural and historical mix.

Composers, of course, devote their lives to inventing new languages from scratch. These languages, too, are shaped by the cultural and historical mix unique, in our current Extremely-Post-Common Practice era, to each individual. Composers write with distinctly personal grammatical structures, vocabularies, intonations, gestures, and inflections. The performer’s job is not only to learn the language fluently by mastering the notes and instructions on the page, but also to absorb the unique idiosyncrasies of the language so that it is performed with no “accent” of any kind. A foreign accent can be very charming in speech. But I find it difficult to listen to a performance of Beethoven executed beautifully but with incongruous hallmarks appropriate to a performance of, say, Debussy. Likewise, my “classical” approach to jazz falls painfully short if I don’t make what is for me a conscious effort to assume the subtleties of touch and time that mark that language. Inhabiting the right universe is paramount in shaping a stylistically germane performance!

A performer will best speak the composer’s vernacular when armed with a thorough understanding of the forces that have shaped it. For instance, when I play the gorgeous, filigreed passages in George Crumb’s piano music, I appropriate the love of Chopin that inspired them; when I play recent John Adams, I abandon myself to his sense of humor as well as to the joy he finds in Nancarrow; when I play Takemitsu, I embrace his reverence for the eloquent silence; when I play the unhinged music of Elliott Carter, I absorb and deliver the fantasy and wit which lurks in his notational rigor.

The performer’s challenge has always been to see beyond the dots on the page. Notation and metronome markings are easily misinterpreted or over-applied by the most earnest of us. But literalness in interpretation, whether in music of the Common Practice era or not, will kill the music. A performer’s flexibility, imagination, and clarity of understanding are more essential than ever in presenting new works to first-time listeners. Just as an uninformed performance can obscure or even destroy a great work, a great performance can ennoble a merely good work by communicating this new language, that is, the music, with savvy and deep understanding.

For starters, learning the notes to a new composition is a slow and tedious process, even for piano goddesses! Patterns do not fall familiarly under our fingers as when we play standard repertoire. Taking on a work in a contemporary idiom is akin to our first lessons in French, when we must work our muscles around those vowels, or Mandarin lessons when we are just learning the four tones by reciting “po1, po2, po3, po4, mo1, mo2, mo3, mo4.” Though we may be making the right sounds more or less, we are far from speaking the language. Even once we have mastered the rules of grammar, acquired some vocabulary, and gained some fluency, it doesn’t mean we are expressing ourselves in our new language with the eloquence of a native speaker. True fluency means that thinking in that language is spontaneous and second-nature. Analogously, the task of learning a new work involves not only committing notes to fingers in order to execute them with fluency, but conveying those notes in a way that is so natural and idiomatic that you the listener will hear not the language but the meaning of the music. This is a difficult job, and there are infinite ways to get things wrong.

Coaching the 12 Notations for piano with Pierre Boulez prior to performing them at the 1992 Ojai Festival was one of the best lessons I’ve ever had in allowing the music to speak to me. The Notations are epigrammatic works that Boulez composed at the age of 20, and they are potent with poetic expression but spare in gesture and texture. I remember him sitting down to demonstrate a simple, pale line that I had been digging into with an inappropriately round, singing sound, and immediately I understood the tenderness and delicacy that this music was meant to convey. As he played, he created phrases that were not explicitly notated; he took pauses which defied the measured rests in the score; he exploited the ultimate extremes of the dynamic registers. It was a liberating moment for me and reminded me that notation is the best means a composer has to get ideas on paper, but it is no more than a detailed guide. My lesson with Pierre gave me the insight I needed to unlock the door to his universe, and my performance that weekend was transformed by the experience.

Separating a fabulous performance from a problematic piece, or a problematic performance from a fabulous piece, can be difficult. Nonetheless, these are totally separate entities that in the best scenario serve to complement and elevate each other. Critics of new work in other performance fields: movies, dance, and theater, consistently address the screenplay, choreography, and script as separate from the performances. Music critics, especially confronted with strange foreign languages, perhaps have a trickier job. Nonetheless, as much as we all live for those earthmoving, practically religious experiences that music can provide, these experiences can arrive in response to the composition, to the performance, or to any combined blend of the two.

Musicians count on critics’ sophistication as seasoned listeners to illuminate and evaluate both the composition and the presentation for a wider public. We expect them to treat composition and performance as distinct endeavors and to give informed consideration to the separate but enormous weight that both the composer and the interpreter share in the collaborative act of introducing new work. Just as a successful premiere hinges upon the symbiosis of a great work with a great performance, I believe that performers must share responsibility as well for the premature dismissal of certain works by a public unequipped to imagine an alternative and more charismatic presentation.

Music critics have a difficult job, indeed. They are expected to publicly, authoritatively, and instantly assess the music and performances they have just heard. But if I could so miss the essence of Boulez’s Notations when I had lived with them for weeks, then don’t critics ever feel, upon a first hearing, that they may be missing something? Don’t they find it difficult to evaluate a complex new work on a single hearing? Don’t they find it difficult to evaluate a performance if the composition itself is impenetrable, or weak? Doesn’t it sometimes take several hearings, or being in the right circumstances, to click with a piece? I remember suddenly opening up to late Stravinsky after viewing a Picasso retrospective at MoMA; I remember responding more strongly to Ligeti upon hearing a CD of his music away from home in a friend’s pre-war apartment on a gloomy day in Cologne.

Dealing with new music has always presented challenges that familiar music does not; Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective documents many unfriendly rushes to judgment. A good dose of compassion on all sides is probably a good idea: for the composer who might have had a creative block, for the performer who might have gamely struggled onstage because she just received the second movement three weeks ago, for the music that might have suffered from an oboe player’s uncooperative reed. Meanwhile, we who are the bugs under the glass of critics’ opinions need to understand that they too face pressures of their own.

The reason I love my involvement with new music is that it has led me to universes that I could never otherwise have imagined. Each is a very private universe conceived from a rich personal history, philosophy, and culture; each somehow traces indefinable facets of human experience; each invites a response from deep within me. Every composer’s musical language is so personal and unique; the best are eloquent, persuasive, surprising, and ingenious. Understanding them requires openness, respect, humility…and a lot of patience. My world has grown bigger and more interesting for every composer I have committed time to. New soundworlds have revealed themselves to me in every instance. To mix a metaphor, some of these universes become lifelong loves that grow and evolve over time, some become great friends, some we want never to visit again. But the more openness we can show in the face of a new encounter, the richer our lives become.

Would I trade all of this universe-hopping for the option of staying within the time-tested, inarguably wonderful universe of Common Practice Famous Classical Composers? No, I don’t think so. I have come to enjoy space travel far too much for that!