Kate Kellaway writes in the Guardian on the latest performance of Philip Glass’s 20 solo piano Etudes.
I was proud to be a part of the premiere of the last three of these, back in February. Memories!
I love my hometown, Canberra. I love it so much, I’m giving them a very special concert of a rather exclusive repertoire.
Earlier this year, I had the great privilege of performing some of Mr. Philip Glass’s as yet unpublished Solo Piano Etudes in a concert for Perth International Arts Festival, including a world premiere. He’s given me special permission to perform them, such a rare and wonderful gift. A gift I’m passing on to the lovely people of the nation’s capital.
Cue Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack by Philip Glass?
Philip Glass speaks on the subject of publishing his Piano Etudes. I feel super privileged to be one of the few who’ve played a number of these works. How lucky am I?
Read the rest of the interview here. Really, read it. There’s a rather entertaining story he tells from his youth when he operated a crane in a nail factory.
Well, the dust has finally settled. Following the obligatory post busy period flu, I’ve come out the other side pretty much unscathed. Time now to gather together the lessons I’ve learned from Perth International Arts Festival (PIAF) and Famous Spiegeltent at Arts Centre Melbourne. I’m looking to the future. Exciting times. Times of potential change, that is.
I like to think of what I did at PIAF as a “residency”, even though they didn’t publicise at such. The big ticket item was a concert with Philip Glass. He and Maki Namekawa and I performed his complete Piano Etudes, all twenty of them in a row, which was great! I’d never played to a crowd that big before (well, not as a soloist) so the buzz was pretty amazing. It was particularly wonderful to work with Mr. Glass. After all, nothing like hearing it from the proverbial horse’s mouth! The most valuable lesson I learnt was about being a composer and the importance of finding the right balance between allowing performers to interpret your compositions and ensuring they follow your instructions. Mr Glass gave me a great deal of leeway as a performer to create the kinds of musical shapes I feel when I play his music. I’m a little more pedantic and fussy than that when I compose, but I’m inspired by him to try a slightly freer approach in the future. Stay tuned.
PIAF is also involved in running the Great Southern Festival, a kind of satellite event that tours some of the main festival acts to regional centres south of Perth. I performed a concert in the Albany Entertainment Centre, a completely different program of tunes from my two solo albums. Whilst the Philip Glass Complete Etudes concert in Perth was a more traditional and formal performance, this Albany concert gave me the opportunity to be a little more informal and friendly/chatty. That is, I can be completely myself in this kind of performing context and I love it! I like talking to my audiences about the music, why I choose the repertoire I play, what makes it special to me. Generally I find that if I play it more like some pop musicians play a gig, with a bit of chat between, that the crowd are more likely to come and speak to me afterwards. They don’t feel intimidated or distanced, they can see I’m a human being and that I like meeting people. Keeping Classical Music Friendly. It’s my tag line after all!
Whilst the concerts were super exciting and fun and spoke to a great number of people, perhaps more important and life changing for me were the workshops I presented. I felt extraordinarily lucky to have been given basically free reign to do whatever I wanted to do with these bunches of kids. Although I did plan specific activities, lots of it went completely out the window as soon as the kids were there. I find this often happens, the best laid plans discarded, because you never know what kind of imagination or knowledge or experience level the group is going to have. Anyway, only two kids turned up to the workshop in Albany (out of about 8 who were meant to be there). The organisers were sweetly apologetic - “Oh, you don’t need to do it if you don’t want to, we’ll find them something else to do…” etc. I could’ve let it go, but I am very proud to say that I didn’t let it go. I ran my workshop and between the three of us, we wrote a abstract micro-opera of body and voice percussion complete with characters, dramatic structure and choreography (my original plan was quite different, to workshop a composition about the history of the local whaling industry and rugged coastline!). I was incredibly proud of the result and challenged myself to work more abstractly with the group in Perth the following day.
The Perth workshop was much simpler. I had additional help from two of the PIAF Youth Ambassadors, Chrissy and Krista, two lovely young go getters specifically attached to the Classical Music program who were happy to muck in the the kids a bit (hooray!!). Fine initiative from the festival, I must say. Anyway, I did a good deal more experimentation with my writing-an-abstract-micro-opera workshop and was thrilled that the kids were able to create something so dramatically compelling in the space of three hours. It was a kind of revelation to me, that by presenting people with extremely tight musical parameters I could facilitate the creation a piece of musical theatre by this fairly disparate collective of unique individuals. Only one thing disturbed me and that was hearing some of the PIAF staff talking about how difficult it was to find artists/performers who were also happy to do workshops. Amongst the Classical Music performers, there were really only Masterclasses and Artist Talks offered. *Yawn* I mean, they’re all great performers but they’re preaching to the converted and that does nothing for the future of classical music. Reinvent or perish, things needs must change! More on how I plan to do that later ;)
Anyway, there was little time for basking in the glory of my PIAF appearances, I was due at the Famous Spiegeltent in Melbourne to perform something quite different again. Following my failure to gain professional theatre experience at the Opera, Arts Centre Melbourne offered me this superior opportunity to create my very own solo theatrical experience. Hooray! It was not so much a steep learning curve, more of a sheer cliff face really. I wrote myself a show, a kind of ‘dramatised recital’ that’s somewhere about halfway between Meow Meow and Hahn Bin, all about why I chose to become a musician and not a ballet dancer. I wrote my own script, I played some pretty tough bona fide classical repertoire, I sang some reinvented pop songs, I acted the various characters, I danced some ballet, I played toy instruments with a stompbox livelooper, I enlisted my artist friend Pamela Lee Brenner to create a magical plastic+astroturf garden for me to play in, behind a corps-de-ballet of plastic dolls. My director friend Leonie Cambage helped me to being all these elements together into a seamless whole. It was exhilarating! It was also exhausting. But I feel that I’ve created a new performance genre for myself, something that could bring classical music out of the concert hall and into people’s lives a bit more easily - it’s a whole lotta things at once, a recital, a cabaret, a piece of musical theatre, and it’s immediate, it’s intimate, it’s about choices and that’s something that everyone can identify with, isn’t it? I think so.
The result of all this mental hydra headed activity is that I now have these three wildly different ways of performing (formal recital, informal gig, crazy cabaret) and I have these different styles of creative workshops that I can present (songwriting, musical theatre composition, cabaret/performance creation). I’ve defined them and put them out there (here and here). In the perfect personal Utopia of my mind, I see myself doing little residencies here there and everywhere with people who sign up to get a whole week of Whitwell *grin* Everyone who attends will compose, perform, create, workshop, discuss… Plus they’ll get to enjoy a couple of concerts from me too as an added extra bonus.
Music for the People!! I think I can do it. I really do.
Philip Glass, Andrew Ford and Sally Whitwell (Me!!), interviewed by ABC Arts on playing Glass’s Complete Piano Etudes at Perth International Arts Festival back in February. Yay!
So this one time, I was at Perth Concert Hall playing for Philip Glass…
It was such fun premiering his complete solo piano Etudes. I hope we get to do a repeat performance somewhere…
When Whitwell strode to the piano in a low-back dress, killer heels and shocking pink fringe, the proceedings became more colourful, both visually and aurally.
Whitwell impressed with a brilliant 2011 solo CD devoted to Glass’s piano music and was equally persuasive on stage. Performing from memory, she brought a fluid, organic approach to the musical structures, crafting the repetitive note patterns into elegant phrases that subverted the music’s mechanical drive.
With excellent control of tone colour, she played with warmth, brilliance and delicacy.
They said nice things about me in the paper *blush* especially the bit about being subversive (I take that as a great compliment!)
Craftsmanship of refined Philip Glass brings audience to its feet by Mark Coughlan in The Australian.
So excited to be performing this program for Perth International Arts Festival in Albany WA next week. I often enjoy performing in smaller towns more than in the big cities - there’s a friendliness in close communities that you so rarely find in the big smoke.
Christina Patterson on Philip Glass, The Independent 22 May 2009.
That last post got me thinking too about how Philip Glass one of my heroes (with whom I’m about to perform in a matter of days!) was not too humble to admit what he had to do to survive. In my humble opinion, all the most interesting people are beautifully imperfect.
“Glass Machine”—remixing Philip Glass, with an app
Scott Snibbe, the developer for Björk’s “Biophilia” app, has developed an iOS app for the Philip Glass remix project—the app is titled REWORK_.The studio has built a REWORK app that includes interactive visualizations corresponding to 11 of the remix songs with visuals that range from futuristic three-dimensional landscapes to shattered multicolored crystals and vibrating sound waves. The app also includes an interactive “Glass Machine” that allows users to create their own music inspired by Philip Glass’ early works by simply sliding two discs around side-by-side, generating polyrhythmic counterpoints between the two melodies.
Maybe this will give me something to play with on the plane on the way to my Perth International Arts Festival gig with Philip Glass!
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.
Opening from Glassworks by Philip Glass. Performed by pianist Sally Whitwell (me!)
Happy 76th birthday Philip Glass. So looking forward to performing with you at Perth International Arts Festival