'Even when semi-paralysed with panic, I never doubted that it was worth investing the time and emotional energy into learning Chin’s Etudes'
When faced with Unsuk Chin’s Etudes for the first time, I have to admit that my initial reaction was one of apprehension, if not outright fear. I had, by that point, performed a large number of technically challenging contemporary works, but nothing had prepared me for the sheer hard graft that was necessary to get these under my fingers.
I spent months pounding away in a practice room underground, deprived of natural light and, once summer kicked in and the air-conditioning still hadn’t been installed, with limited oxygen. When learning new repertoire, particularly if I am not memorising it, I can usually work productively for a whole day. With Chin’s Etudes, I would struggle past the three-hour mark and at four, my brain would shut down entirely. The next morning, it would be as if I had never seen the score before. The harmonies, textures, figurations were all so unfamiliar that I had no point of reference. Nothing would stick.
Under these conditions, I became preoccupied with the technical challenges that the Etudes presented. Once I had (finally) managed to get them up to speed, I found that each rendition was completely unpredictable. I was being pushed beyond my physical limits, my brain could not process the music swiftly enough, and, worst of all, I completely forgot that any performance is supposed to communicate something, other than wholesale desperation...
After the first public performance, I put the Etudes to one side with a sigh of relief, rapidly stifled with a stiff drink. Later in the year, I revived them for a BBC recording. After the initial shock of finding that my fingers remembered nothing, followed by a week back in the underground cell, I found that I had gained a freedom that was lacking before. I suddenly felt that I had the space to explore what lay behind and beyond the notes, to view them from a wider perspective and to release my imagination.
There is always a danger with technically difficult music of becoming distracted by the physical challenges and forgetting the communicative side. With contemporary music, this danger is both more enticing and ultimately more hazardous. The unfamiliar harmonies, strange ways of approaching the instrument and counter-intuitive dynamics, can easily preoccupy the mind. If you allow them to, you not only do a disservice to the piece itself but also to your audience. Perform a Chopin Scherzo like a turbo-charged typewriter and a listener will still find something that they can recognise and latch onto. Do that to a contemporary piece and they are lost within the first ten seconds, restless by the second page, and irate at the end.
The essential task in this case is to find ‘hooks’, to give the audience a way in. Often searching for parallels with the standard repertoire is helpful. This flurry of notes, peppered with accents, sforzandi and double sharps, racing to the top of the keyboard may not look much like Schumann, but if you think of a velvet Schumann-esque touch and legato line, suddenly it has colour and emotional content. Imagine that these staccato chords depict a ball bouncing along a path and suddenly they form a line that doesn’t irritate but engages the ear. In an attempt to hold onto swarming masses of notes, you may develop a strained, cramped posture and stifle the sound. If you then, counter-intuitively, take a leap of faith and imagine that your fingertips are exploding into the keys, suddenly you gain a physical freedom and a breadth to the sound that was absent before.
Even when semi-paralysed with panic, I never doubted that it was worth investing the time and emotional energy into learning Chin’s Etudes. These are truly great works, of enormous significance to the piano repertoire, and, when well played, can ignite and inspire audiences. My primary task as an interpreter is to make sure that a listener can make sense of the pieces, that I don’t obscure their meaning by letting my own fears and neuroses crowd in. That old adage - to perform in service to the music and the composer, rather than to one’s ego - is particularly vital here. Only then can you let your imagination run riot.
Read the Gramophone review of Clare Hammond's new album, 'Etude'