I had to look at that twice–at first, I thought it said “Get The Mouse Out Of Your Piano,” which is also a good idea. Nevertheless, this time I want to call your attention to two piano-related DVDs that may give you some ideas for getting that “big piano sound” that you’ve always wanted. They may even inspire you to take up lessons again. Lessons in what? That’s up to you.
Strategy #1: Throw Frederic Rzewski at it
Frederic Rzewski is an American-born composer who has written some really great stuff. My introduction to him came when I saw the Blackearth percussion group play his “Les Moutons de Panurge,” (“Panurge’s Flock,” a reference to a character in Rabelais whose sheep follow each other one by one over the side of a boat until all have drowned). This piece is basically just a 50-note melody that can take upwards of 20 minutes to play correctly. The instructions for playing it make it easy at first, but as things progress, it becomes easier to make mistakes, and pretty soon the mistakes sort of take over.
Rzewski’s piano playing has been described in ways that made me think he’d be kicking over the bench and making wild gestures, but in Rzewski Plays Rzewski, he looks like he’s not even trying. The camera work is pretty standard–you get shots of Rzewski in profile, shots of his hands, some double-exposure stuff–but his performance of “The People United Will Never Be Defeated! : 36 Variations On ¡El pueblo unido jama?s sera? vencido!” proves that you don’t have to look busy to get everything out of the piano that there is to get. Honest, you listen and you think he’s really working, but when you look, you see that most of the work is going on south of the elbow.
Rzewski’s variations on the Sergio Ortega/Quilapayún song involve some pretty wild stuff, at least for a concert where you’re supposed to dress up. In fact, I started looking around to see where that sound was coming from before I realized that he was whistling while playing. But for all its challenges–both for the performer and the listener–it’s very generous music, and as seductive as a kaleidoscope.
Everything I’ve heard by Rzewski has been characterized by that same combination of generosity and challenge, and there’s more of it available at the library, including the album Fred by a group called Eighth Blackbird (the cover of the disc makes it look like the title is “Eighth Blackbird Fred,” sort of like “First Officer Spock”).
Strategy #2: Have Conlon Nancarrow fix it
No, I didn’t go out looking for composers with crazy names. Conlon Nancarrow is almost local, having been born a little over 100 years ago in Texarkana (but in the Arkansas part of it, drat the luck). He had a fascinating life that took him from Spain–fighting in the Spanish Civil War–to Mexico–that’s were he carried out most of what has us calling him a genius now.
He’s probably most famous for his compositions for player piano, his way of getting around the problems of getting performers to play his music well (and getting around just about every other human limitation the instrument poses). He’ll have several melodies all going at once, each at its own speed, each proceeding independently of the others, and all of them differentiated well enough so that you can hear what’s going on. How do I know this?
A couple of ways. For one, the library has a DVD about his life and music that contains a couple of renditions of complete piecees by Nancarrow; during one of them, the piano roll–the precisely-punched roll of paper that controls what’s played–scrolls by so that we can see what’s happening. This has almost nothing to do with reading music, so don’t let that scare you off. In the video, you really can follow what’s going on in the music. While this could result in something very dull and dry in other hands, I find Nancarrow’s music completely charming.
For another, we have a book on Nancarrow’s music by Kyle Gann, a composer and Nancarrow expert who really is local: hey look! He from Dallas! He’s a really engaging writer who now teaches in New York, and he even shows up in the DVD I was talking about. Gann himself has written some pieces for the modern player piano, the digitally controlled Disklavier. These works are featured on the CD Nude Rolling Down an Escalator, and–at the risk of overusing a simile–they’re more fun than a nuclear-powered kaleidoscope. I guess one of those would be fun, wouldn’t it?