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More on Men, Women, and Pianos


BMInt’s Chi Wei Lo, a DMA candidate in Contemporary Improvisation at NEC had an interesting discussion with Bruce Brubaker, co-chair of the piano department at NEC, about the curation of “A Fine Balance: Piano Music by Women and Men,” and developments in the department.

CWL: How did the idea to include such a highly unusual selection of repertoire, with some pieces rarely performed, come about?

BB: The idea for the concert began with the realization that both Fanny Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky had written sets of 12 pieces for the piano, with each piece representing a different month. I was intrigued by the idea of bringing together these two monumental works from the 19th century and thought it would make for an interesting concert. This was part one of the series. The exploration of Fanny Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky’s works led us to consider how women were often excluded from the musical world of Europe during that era. I then started to think about other examples of pieces by women and men that could be juxtaposed on the same subject, material, or formal basis.

How do you see the link between pairs?

Some of the pairings were quite obvious, like Clara Schumann’s variations on Robert Schumann’s Bunte Blätter, which were intended to be published together with Brahms’s variations on the same theme. Other pairings were more thematic, like Joan Tower and Alkan’s “train” pieces.

Although León and Messiaen’s pieces may have seemed at first to have little in common, when we heard them together, they formed a cohesive unit, perhaps due to the way their pieces were organized and the rhythmic juxtaposition of asymmetry and symmetry. Even with Price and Griffes’s sonatas, which may not have been stylistically similar, both pieces used tonal material within a framework of less tonal music. I also felt it was important to hear the Price before the Griffes. When curating a program, our goal is always to help people hear music, understand it, and make connections between pieces that they might not have made otherwise.

Did students choose pieces? Or were they assigned?

Not by me. After the program was created, which I did in this case, the responsibility for the individual pieces was assigned to the faculty members, who then selected which of their students would perform each piece. The faculty members had different approaches to selecting performers, with some dividing up the pieces among more students to give them more opportunities to play smaller pieces. Of course, if someone feels strongly about playing a particular piece, I give them their choice.

The program said that you arranged Monk’s Totentanz.” Is that the same version you did with Ursula Oppens in your album?

That’s the version. During the making of the album more than 10 years ago, Meredith Monk had not yet written much music for piano or two pianos. We had a few conversations about creating more piano pieces based on existing vocal works. I arranged four pieces for two pianos, including Parlour Games, which was adapted from existing material that had not been arranged for piano before. Totentanz was originally a piece for seven instruments and is probably the most changed. The final version for two pianos is not even the same length as the original because Meredith felt that certain parts of the piece needed to be repeated more in substitution of the different forces in the original. As a result, the coda also became quite different from what you would hear in the original recording.

 You mean in the ending of the original, she does a sort of a chant, but in the two-piano version, a repeating pattern in the high register replaces that?

Right, that’s a kind of substitution. There was a brief moment during the making of that album where there was a discussion of Meredith singing. However, the overall feeling was that this album would be the first ever of Meredith’s music where her voice did not appear.

Like much of Meredith’s music, rhythms that appear simple on paper actually require subtle nuance when performed. Her use of rhythm is particularly notable, and her sense of beat and meter goes beyond what is typically encountered in classical music. This is an important aspect of her work and may be connected to music from the early part of the 20th century, like Satie, although this is open to interpretation……

She says it’s connected, and In the Form of a Pear, is one of her favorites, so I thought that was an interesting thing to pair her with Satie. While her rhythmic approach may draw on other genres, I find her use of deceptively simple rhythms to be fascinating. In classical music, we often place too much emphasis on complexity, and the more fundamental, expressive aspects of music-making can be overlooked. This is an issue in music education as well, where musicians may be drawn to apparent complexity because of the clear accomplishment it represents. I believe that other musical traditions, beyond Western classical music, have a better balance between complexity and simplicity, and we can learn from them. Meredith has learned from other genres, like folk and pop music, where the power of simplicity is evident. While these genres may be dismissed by some in the classical music world, we can actually learn a lot from them.

Was Meredith Monk very involved in your arrangements?

 She was very consciously involved. “Phantom Waltz” was another piece played on this concert series. She wrote it as a two-piano piece. There’s a section in the coda of the piece where both of the pianists actually play clusters in various patterns, the notes are indicated only graphically, and they’re not precisely notated, yet there’s a rhythmic component to the notation, which is pretty precise.

The first time we played it, it was very difficult. Ursula and I really worked hard to try to get all the notes, and I remember Meredith coming to the last rehearsal and saying to us: “Well now that you’ve got that, you could do something else.” We were really shocked by that remark and didn’t know what to make of it, and we didn’t act on it. It does illuminate something about Meredith’s music and maybe about every kind of music that’s rigorously careful. Controlled preparation does not necessarily equate to accurate reproduction of that preparation. Just because you prepare in a very regimented, precise way doesn’t necessarily mean that the ideal performance will be that kind of controlled precision. Maybe you prepare something and then do something different, but still, the preparation allowed you to do that thing on stage.  We didn’t have the courage to do that in that occasion, but a lot of music that I really admire is exactly that. It’s kind of a controlled chaos in a way that there’s something under the surface which isn’t as orderly as the surface might suggest. It’s an important idea, not just in our time, but through the long history of art.

The German poet Novalis says “Chaos muss in der Ordnung glänzen” or in English, “Chaos must shine through the appearance of order.” You do all that practicing to put everything into order. That’s very important, but that’s not really the goal. The goal is to allow this other thing to come across, which isn’t so orderly.

That’s always friction between written music and non-written music because often with written music there can be a sense that the object is the music, and that’s really problematic. A lot of the performances of written music that I really admire are in the direction of making that written music seem like it’s not written, and that just for a moment, I’m able to suspend my disbelief and think that that piece is being improvised. Even though I’m hearing Beethoven’s “Appassionata,” I can have the momentary impression that it’s brand new and nobody has ever heard it before, and that would be one kind of a good performance.

That’s a problem in classical music because it’s just so difficult to do the reading of all those notes and all those indications and trying to get that all in order. It can sometimes seem like that’s the whole task, but of course, it isn’t, it’s just the beginning.

You have emphasized the importance of collaborating with the piano department in pre-college. Is there something particular that you would like to see come to fruition from these collaborations?

It started with the recognition that the prep school has so many piano students and teachers, and it’s a significant part of what NEC does in the world. Somehow, in a small way, we could acknowledge that by including a couple of these students in these concerts. We’ve been doing it for a while, and it’s important.

The possibilities for collaboration between the college and preparatory school are still underexploited. In the past, there was a direct connection between teaching prep and college students, and we should consider revisiting that connection. As we reconsider the role of the prep school due to our recent gift, there may be opportunities to combine them better. But so far it’s more of a possibility than a reality. Nonetheless, there are significant potential benefits. The relationship between teaching preparatory students and what goes on in the college can be puzzling in most conservatories.

It may also be intensified by the way the student body of the college has changed. You know, our piano majors at NEC in the college is at a much higher level of accomplishment than they were 10 or 20 years ago, so there are differing priorities and different expectations. Connecting the teaching of piano to prep students with the conservatory piano department may have been easier in the past than it is today, but it remains desirable. In order to really make something meaningful, we have to address some of those issues.

 This kind of concert programming and repertoire choice is refreshing. Do you think modern-day concert programs should lean towards this direction? Or do you think it’s case by case/project by project?

 I suppose it’s project by project. I am often a little discouraged by programs that I still see that really focus only on the most standard repertoire. It was in close juxtaposition for me because during the week of “A Fine Balance – Piano Music by Women and Men”, we were also hearing auditions of prospective students. In one week, I heard Beethoven’s Sonata, Opus 101, more than 30 times, and Chopin’s fourth Scherzo 20 or 30 times, or maybe even more. Every year, due to chance, some pieces are over-repeated, which highlights the focus on certain monuments of the repertoire perceived to be difficult and a way for young pianists to demonstrate their abilities. While there’s nothing wrong with that, there is a dichotomy between wanting to perform well-known pieces to showcase one’s abilities and the musical value of playing lesser-known music that can be appreciated by the audience on its own merits, rather than being compared to other well-known performances.

It becomes increasingly difficult to appreciate a piece of music when it’s repeated over and over again. When that happens, the focus of one’s attention is inevitably more on the nuances of the performance and it becomes harder to hear the essence of the musical “work,” if we still use that word. On the other hand, when you hear a piece that you really don’t know, you can still appreciate details of the performance. You can still understand that the performance is shifting your attention or focusing your attention in a certain way, but at the same time, you’re having a musical experience, which is much more surprising, and……Alive. I thought that week for me, the contrast between hearing Chopin’s fourth Scherzo dozens of times and hearing the Griffes Sonata, which I hadn’t heard in five or six years, provided an excellent contrast. I hope the audience can appreciate this contrast as well.

Performing well-known pieces like Beethoven’s “Appassionata” can still be enjoyable and engaging for audiences who have never heard it before, as they may have the opportunity to experience it for the first time. “Don’t you wish you had never heard the “Appassionata?” You could hear it now for the first time!” However, constantly repeating the same pieces runs the risk of making classical music less relevant to the larger world and causing our musical taste buds to become dull. Critics have reported feeling tired of hearing the same pieces over and over again, and this issue can vary depending on location and accessibility to music. One of the efforts of these projects is to allow our students to feel the potential power of playing less known music.

Do you wish for these students, at least the ones that participated, to program in this direction in their own performances?

Everybody has to do what they are comfortable doing. There are many kinds of musicians, so it’s hard to be too prescriptive and say, “oh, you really ought to do this.” But people can be influenced by the models they see around them. I hope that this project can serve as a model for others to consider programming less-common pieces, which may also help address concerns about the lack of inclusivity and diversity in classical music repertoire over the past century.

Here, we have the opportunity to hear music by women that has not been frequently performed, which is significant in itself. This is a complex issue in classical music and other areas of the arts because many of the societies that produced the works we admire were racist, misogynistic, and exclusionary. It leaves us wondering whether we can still treasure those cultural products without addressing any of those aspects of the unpleasant society surrounding that art. It doesn’t mean that I want to stop playing Beethoven, but Instead of just accepting the “greatness” of that music and accepting those musical pieces as autonomous, I now have to understand that they do connect to a culture that enabled their creation, and that some of these works were acts of resistance. Even so, they emerged from a society that I do not necessarily admire, and we need to actively reconsider our relationship to them.

Bruce Brubaker

Am I saying we should take the Beethoven statue out of the NEC lobby? Not really, but I do wonder if it should come with some kind of comment. For example, the statue in front of the Museum of Fine Arts depicts a Native American on horseback and has been on display for over a century. Recently, a comment was added acknowledging its historical significance and acknowledging that it may be viewed as problematic by some. I think that’s a good thing to admit. One of the most challenging issues facing music conservatories is how to address the complex historical and cultural legacies of the music they teach, and to create a more inclusive and decolonized approach to musical education.

What happened to the Harvard Music Department is quite remarkable, especially given the short amount of time it took to move away from exclusively celebrating Western European White classical music. How would that look in a conservatory? It’s difficult to envision what this transformation would look like in a conservatory setting. I am troubled by that because you look at what’s happening in fields of study of Classics in America, which was a collective studying of Greek and Latin languages, art history, and architecture, into one department. Many universities, notably Howard University, has dismantled its Classics department, not that they won’t continue to teach parts of it in separate places in the university, but the gathering of those things into a department is now seen by some people to be a kind of racism. This raises the question of how we should approach classical music, a topic that is complex and controversial. We must begin discussing it and consider what music really matters beyond the traditional canon, which has often been centered on composers like Beethoven.

If you come out of a place like NEC or any kind of institutional learning and see yourself only as an expert in a specific area, like playing Beethoven’s sonatas, then that can be problematic. Boy, I don’t want to be that. If you can go a little wider and say, “oh, I am actually a player of music,” that would be better, would’’t it? And then maybe you could even go a little farther and say, “well, I’m actually an artistic practitioner but I happen to be a musician.” You can even go farther and say, “well, you know, my art is a form of communication, so really I’m a communicator.” By now we’re pretty far away from saying, “Oh, I play all the Beethoven piano sonatas.” There are people who are disturbed by this kind of talk, but I think that it really is the way for us to find a way forward that will have longer, wider meaning, allowing us to serve and thrive. The bigger we understand our role, the more likelihood we have of being able to bring some kind of meaning of joy to other people. If we define ourselves too narrowly, we’re doomed.

Many composers on the program are celebrated alums of NEC. Was that intentional?

At least slightly intentional. We have a very good history that we can be proud of, and in a way of understanding that the audience and the practitioners of music can be a more diverse group of people. I’ve always been gratified by the fact that people like Halim El-Dabh was a student here. Chou Wen-chung was a student here in the 1930s, I believe. That’s incredible. Those things are good, and we should celebrate them. If there was any kind of moment in NEC history where there was a turning away from that kind of inclusion, then we should certainly bring it back, in a very carefully attended way.

What’s next for the piano department?

We’re doing a project around the music of Ligeti on April 24th, which marks his 100th birthday. The goal of this project is to showcase some of his lesser-known pieces, particularly his collection of 18 etudes for piano. While some of his etudes have been played a lot, some are not. This concert will be a rare opportunity to hear his complete set of etudes. One notable aspect of these projects is that they highlight the remarkable skill and talent of our student pianists. There are very few schools in the world that could undertake such a project, and it is a testament to the unbelievably high level of piano playing that goes on here. I felt that way when we performed all of Scriabin’s music a few years ago, and the showcase of talent was just as valuable as the musical and cultural significance of the performance.

Looking back at the year we presented all of Beethoven’s piano music, I was pleasantly surprised by the end result. Over the course of 13 recitals, we showcased every piece Beethoven had ever written for piano. As you know very well, there were numerous events around the world celebrating Beethoven’s music, but we were the only ones to tackle this massive undertaking. Many pianists may have played all of the sonatas, but no one else had performed all of the piano music, including the numerous variations sets. It was truly incredible. By presenting something that others were not, we tapped into a certain power that comes with showcasing the unconventional. Even in the midst of the most standard of standard repertoire, our way of looking at it was not so standard and actually allowed us to understand things about Beethoven. It’s not just about hearing the music, it’s also about understanding what the benefits of having so much high-powered talent together in the same place could mean.

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4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Ban the Appasionata and place a trigger warning in front of NEC’s Beethoven state??? Really Bruce?

    Comment by denovo2 — March 8, 2023 at 11:22 pm

  2. Perhaps citing Beethoven’s own words is relevant: “In the world of art, the main aim is freedom and moving forward (weiter gehen), as in the whole of creation.” (Letter to Archduke Rudolph, 29 July, 1819). Indeed we might ask ourselves why we think that we ought to be progressive, inclusive, fair, universal, woke? Did our generation invent these notions? Ironically, nothing supports our own aspirations to justice better than a deep grounding in our classical patrimony.

    Comment by Ashley — March 9, 2023 at 10:30 am

  3. Congratulations to both CWL and BB for this insightful probing fascinating discussion so very different from the the usual BMint posts but refreshingly so…kudos indeed, and I’d suggest it
    should be required reading for College level Piano Depts. near and far but let’s start with local Boston schools!
    Interesting to read about the upcoming Ligeti project, there are strong Ligeti connections to both BU/Music and NEC, longtime friend and Chairman of the Piano BU/Music Anthony di Bonaventura
    premiered the Ligeti Piano Concerto in 1986, and 7 years later Stephen Drury at NEC worked with Ligeti on the Etudes during a weeklong Ligeti Festival.
    Here’s a relevant Richard Dyer article.

    Comment by Martin Snow — March 9, 2023 at 10:34 am

  4. Fascinating interview – many profound thoughts about the role of art and the artist in society. Thank you both for this insightful discussion!

    Comment by Sivan Etedgee — March 17, 2023 at 5:18 pm

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