Here’s an interview I did with Matthew Westwood for The Australian, 29 January 2013
IN the months before Sally Whitwell recorded her first solo album — Mad Rush: Solo Piano Music of Philip Glass — she took the trouble to learn most of the nine pieces on it by memory.
Some would equate that task with memorising a telephone book, Glass’s music being famously repetitious and often very long.
There is no melody to sing along with, no thunder and drama to signpost the way, as in a Beethoven sonata. Just row upon row of ant-headed notes.
Still, they have to be played in the right order, repeats observed, the minuscule details aligning with the larger design. In minimalist music — Glass is one of the pioneers of minimalism — geometry is everything. The technical challenges for the musician can be formidable.
That Whitwell bothered to commit Glass to memory may be evidence of a singular dedication. In a recording studio, a musician can get away with reading the printed music: no one but the producers and engineers will know.
But Whitwell had practical and artistic reasons for memorising it. She wanted to avoid the papery rustle of page-turning in her recording. And she saw it as her responsibility to know the music inside out.
"I don’t feel I would know it well enough unless I had it memorised," she says. "If you let the energy drop for a split second, you lose the momentum. You can hear it when somebody loses concentration."
Whitwell worked out a system of mnemonics to help her remember the architecture of each piece. For Mad Rush — the album’s title track and the longest at 15 minutes — she used geometric shapes such as squares, circles and arches in a diagram to represent different sections of the music. She stuck the diagrams to the fridge so she would see them before starting her practice each morning.
"When you look at Beethoven, you can see a contour: you can’t necessarily see the contour so easily in a piece of Philip Glass," she says. "I learned it, and then I took it away and created a different notation, a pictorial notation. Then it became this different thing: I could not only see the shape, but feel the shape when I perform it."
Mad Rush was an unexpected hit when it was released by ABC Classics in 2011, reaching No 3 on the ARIA classical charts and winning the ARIA award for classical album of the year.
Its success had the effect of turning Whitwell — an accomplished but otherwise uncelebrated rehearsal pianist and accompanist — into a concert soloist. She has released a follow-up, an album of movie music called The Good, the Bad and the Awkward, and has a third in the wings.
She is now preparing for a concert at the Perth Festival, at which she will perform Glass’s piano music alongside Glass the pianist.
Twenty of his piano etudes — including three new ones written for the occasion — will be performed by Whitwell, Glass and Japanese pianist Maki Namekawa. Glass heard Whitwell’s CD and chose the pieces he wanted her to play. She is determined to perform them from memory, just as she did on Mad Rush.
On a warm summer day in Sydney, Whitwell sits at a piano and begins to explain how she plans to interpret the new set of pieces. She is dressed for a party, her crimson dress making a festive counterpoint to the glossy black grand. She has dyed her hair hot pink.
"I suppose the thing I like most about his music is having the opportunity to make it breathe," she says, sheets of Glass’s music arrayed in front of her on the music stand.
"I know it kind of looks like a machine on the page, but he didn’t write it down like this, he wrote it with pencil and paper. And that, to me, has an implication. If somebody chooses to write something down with pencil and paper, potentially in a hut in Nova Scotia, then you think, there’s an element of living and breathing in this. Otherwise, he could have written it into GarageBand."
She is looking at Etude No 7, a piece in A minor and key signature of 6/4. It is to be played mezzopiano, or semi-soft, at 120 beats per minute. Otherwise, there are few directions to the pianist on how it should be played. It’s like Britten said of the score of Schubert’s Winterreise: “There seems to be nothing on the page”.
"But, then again," Whitwell says, "there are things that you can interpret." She almost whispers the last word, as if testing whether it represents a dare or a privilege. "So when I look at the piece, and I see those little quavers there, in pairs" — they are grouped together in twos, like couples holding hands — "there is an implication."
She begins playing: the paired quavers pulsing in the right hand, and a stepping figure that takes shape in the left hand, in phrases a bar long.
In a later, louder section, Whitwell comes again to the right-hand quavers. This time, she tries playing them with even weight, hammering them like nails.
"You would be quite within your rights to play it that way," she says. "But it’s meant to be pianistic. This is a man who learned from (Nadia) Boulanger, a French woman. The French schooling is really evident in a lot of his music, especially when you listen to The Hours soundtrack."
She digresses: “Unpopular opinion: I didn’t love Nicole.”
She means Nicole Kidman and her portrayal of Virginia Woolf in The Hours, the actress wearing a prosthetic nose. She won an Oscar for the role.
"The nose," Whitwell says. "The whole thing made me laugh. I felt terrible for laughing, because it’s a story that’s very important to me, as a feminist person who has read A Room of One’s Own far too many times for my own good."
Whitwell, 38, did not set out to be a concert pianist. Born and raised in Canberra, she studied at the School of Music there and at the Sydney Conservatorium. When she was still a student, and playing around the traps in Canberra, she found that she fitted in well when asked to be an accompanist or to play in an ensemble.
As working musicians do, she put together a weddings-parties-anything career, a mix of playing for cabaret shows, choir rehearsals and some teaching. For a long time she was a pianist for dance classes at Sydney Dance Company, learning to improvise — “a skill that so many pianists don’t bother to learn” — when the teacher asks for music in a certain tempo and rhythm.
One of her regular jobs is with the Sydney Children’s Choir, and at the choir’s Christmas concert last December Whitwell performed some of her own compositions. In a fun, rhythmic piece called Downsized, she sat on the floor of the stage and played melodica, glockenspiel, toy piano, watering can and mixing bowls.
Audiences will see more of Whitwell’s fun side in a Spiegeltent show in Melbourne next month: a concert of her favourites including music by Prokofiev, Debussy, Blondie and Kate Bush.
"People are always telling you to steer yourself into the industry," she says. "That’s fine, but it never worked out that way for me. I fell into everything. I’m terrible at auditions, terrible, and I have failed at them."
Whitwell had done some work for ABC Classics as a session pianist — one gig had her playing arrangements of folk songs from Azerbaijan — but she was surprised when the label’s Robert Patterson and Lyle Chan called and asked her to record some “approachable contemporary” music. Glass was not mentioned at first; indeed Whitwell had never played his music before.
Glass’s music presented Whitwell with an irresistible challenge: to get into her head an accumulation of tiny details that add up to something larger. Along the way, Australians have warmed to a new musical personality in Whitwell: a little bit serious, a little bit kooky.
As she says herself: “Piano music is very inadequate, really, for the shapes and results that you get.”
Sally Whitwell appears in concert in Albany, WA, on February 13 and with Philip Glass in Perth on February 16, as part of the Perth Festival. She appears at the Famous Spiegeltent, Arts Centre Melbourne, on February 20.