Why contemporary music is a personal mission
Ralph van Raat
Sunday, September 4, 2011
One of my greatest passions and challenges as a musician is the performance of contemporary classical music. Since I was a teenager, I have always felt that making people aware of the beauty of (an immense variety of) classical music of our own time is my personal mission. The challenge started at the age of fourteen; fanatically playing traditional classical music for many years, I suddenly stumbled upon an explanation of so-called dodecaphonic music in a harmony book. Through dodecaphony, tones were coupled to numbers, which were in turn subjected to permutations or mathematical formulas. It fascinated me: the combination of music (emotion) and mathematics (rationality) seemed intriguing!
As a result, I rushed to the local library and got three scores: Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces, Op 11, Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, Op 19 and a work by Carl Maria von Weber. Playing them through at home, I was emotionally stirred by Schoenberg’s works. I could not believe someone actually wrote these unfamiliar sounds, but I felt that they must have been written by someone who had the deepest feelings – feelings which corresponded to a teenager in puberty: worries, excitements, uncertainties, alienation perhaps. At the same time, I was somewhat disappointed as the Weber sounded much more familiar. However, upon checking my books, I noticed I simply remembered the name of Webern wrongly. With my discovery of Schoenberg, I also instantly knew that I wanted to pursue a career as a professional musician, fully dedicated to trying to convey the beauty of this music to as many people as possible.
Several years later, at the Amsterdam conservatory, I especially gained more vital insights about phrasing, structure and the colours one can convey from the piano. The importance of piano touch, in my opinion, is not only underrated in the performance practise of much contemporary music, but even still today in the execution of much classical repertoire. It seems more natural to pick out mere physical speed and melodic content of an execution than the actual colour of the used sounds.
Through scholarships and exchange programs, I had the honour to study with some of my most respected musicians. The late Claude Helffer, based in Paris, has given me the crucial insight that even the most complex score by Xenakis can (and, in my opinion, should) be treated both analytically and musically as any traditional classical work. If played as such, the contemporary work maintains its relationships with tradition, making it possible for the listener to fully relate to it. Also I studied with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, whose virtuosity always functioned as an enormous inspiration for me, and with Ursula Oppens, who helped me glimpse into the spirit of especially American piano music. And of course I visited numerous composers, varying from Helmut Lachenmann to Arvo Pärt, in order to enter the most diverse stylistic worlds in a most authentic way, and from whom I keep learning continuously. Composers showed me that hearing their distinct voice speak or breathe, explains more about their music than any paper score could ever convey.
At this moment, quite some years after my discoveries, I still feel that music of our time has yielded some of the best hidden secrets in music history. Of course there are some very complex modernistic scores, which many people are thinking of when the term "contemporary music" is being used. However, when approached from a perspective of the past instead of from the present, it is possible to interpret those works as any other classical or romantic work in terms of phrasing and emotional content. A work such as Boulez’s Second Sonata is, in most ways, not much different from a late Beethoven sonata. Phrasing, emotion and colouring are key concepts in the performance of new music, where throughout performance history, more stress has been laid on rationality, disjunction and denial of tradition instead. New music needs a different and fresh approach, trickling through the performer to his audiences, who will become increasingly appreciative.
As for contemporary piano music, especially here an open attitude is worth much: the existence of many earlier masterworks for this instrument should not justify any neglect or denial of the rise of new high-quality repertoire. After all, for many instruments such as percussion, saxophone or even flute and harp, playing music composed after the 19th-century is perfectly normal and accepted.
Lastly, today, there are countless marvellous composers who write just beautiful music (in the traditional sense of "beautiful") also for less experienced ears, proving that contemporary music does certainly not have to be associated with sheer dissonance. One thinks then of composers such as Debussy, Pärt, Otte, Takemitsu, Bryars, Kancheli or Adams.
I strongly think that any musician is almost obliged to his or her audience and to the greatly talented composers of today, to at least include works of his or her own time within every concert. If only the great masterworks of the (gradually deeper and deeper) past are being constantly retaken and relistened to without allowing new ‘classical’ music to see the light, the tradition and art of composing (in the traditional sense) will be lost forever. And with that, an important tool to express the feelings of our own time and circumstances will be muted to extinction.
Ralph van Raat's new disc of music by Arvo Pärt is released by Naxos Amazon