You wanted details of my trip to Los Angeles to play the Complete Etudes of Philip Glass, with Philip Glass? Here’s the diary. (Warning, it’s a long read.)
Wednesday 30 April.
Doesn’t matter how much I travel, it still kinda makes my brain explode that you can depart Sydney, Australia at 11am and arrive in Los Angeles California nearly 3 hours earlier. But there I was, 8.30am-ish walking out of customs at LAX. When the staff from UCLA said “Limo”, they meant “Limo”. Well, a very nice car, at any rate. The driver was genuinely surprised that I went to sit up front with him. Maybe Australians are too familiar with things like this? Anyway, he loosened up pretty quickly - it would’ve been a long boring drive without conversation, as the freeways are ugly and the sky is tinted sepia with smog. Nothing to look at. Hm. Instead of looking for scenery that wasn’t there, we chatted about his coming over from Nigeria and settling in LA, making the necessary cultural adjustments to live happily in LahLahLand. I’ve never been here before, and now I’m feeling just slightly wary. Eep!
So, the hotel was very comfortable. Resisted the urge to purchase/steal the tiger/zebra print bathrobes. I called my contact at the venue, the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA (CAPUCLA). Her name’s Zarina and she’s tops. When I informed her of my intent to perambulate, she seemed moderately flabbergasted. Walk? This is LA.! Nobody walks! Or catches public transport!! Anywhere!!! I assured her that 30 mins walk is about the minimum amount I do every day. Already the cultural differences are making themselves known *grin*
Keen to run my fingers over a piano, so Zarina set me up in a dressing room with a serviceable but basic Yamaha upright. I ain’t fussy and it did me just fine. Felt good to be playing some Glass in the country from which it originates. Seems silly, but it’s true.
Jet lag is bad. I’ll spare you the gory details.
Thursday 1 May
Practise day. If I’m going to be in that tiny room with that little upright for four hours, I’m going to need a really decent quality coffee. In America? Yes, actually. Determined not to have to resort to Starbucks, I ask around the CAPUCLA staff and they point me toward Profeta. Proper civilised coffee, they even have a Flat White on the menu. Hooray!
Back in the practise room, very glad that I had the coffee and very glad that I have my practise diary app on my iPad. On the plane, I read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity cover to cover (brilliant!) and was disturbed to realise that I am a bit of a neurotic list-keeper, kind of like his main characters. So the practise diary app lets me indulge this list keeping fetish and tracks it in a nice handy graph. It’s a touch OCD in the neatness of it’s desigen but if it helps me to leave the practise room after four hours feeling completely satisfied with a graph to prove exactly what I did, well, I’m all for it. It works for me, OK?!
I bump into Michael Riesman at Stage Door. He is very friendly and cool and inside my head I am having a minor celebrity meltdown. Omg, the man himself! He’s come on a bicycle and informs me that is belongs to the hotel, free to borrow for all guests. Nice idea!
Evening meal at a local ‘modern American’ cheap eats kinda place. Reminded about the size of the average American meal portion. Eek! Let’s just say I’m glad I opted for the entree size!
Friday 2 May
Morning practise session gives me a chance to meet Terri, the piano tech and Sapphire, the Steinway. They give their pianos gemstone names at UCLA (the other Steinway is called Ruby). It’s a pretty new piano, only two years old, and clearly needs a bit more, um, playing in. Am struggling to make a nice cantabile (singing) tone in the middle octaves of the instrument which to be completely honest makes me feel pretty nervous. Perhaps that extra morning coffee this time wasn’t so helpful for the nerves? Eep!
For the first time since I arrived, I get to see my co-performer Maki Namekawa who arrives for her practise session after mine. Maki is very lovely and greets me enthusiastically. Then… panic stations! She asks me “So, which numbers are you playing?” My heart stops. What? “I’m definitely playing 5,6,7 in the first half and 13,14,15,16 in the second half.” She says “Philip told me we were doing the same program we played in Perth!” That concert had a considerably different program, and wasn’t in order from 1-20. I frantically search through my emails to find the one from Pomegranate Arts that details the new order of the program. My heart is beating faster and faster every minute. I find the email and show her. It doesn’t look like she was copied in, which seems odd to me. “Don’t worry, it’s OK” she says, “I know them all anyway, because of the recording we’ll do in Vienna”. And I can breathe again. Oh my god.
I decide that a stroll through campus will help my nerves. UCLA is really a very pretty campus and rather a lot like home in many ways. There are lots of eucalypts and jacarandas providing shade on the grassy knolls between buildings and a whole lot of neo-classical architecture, reminding me of Sydney in a kind of new-world-tries-to-do-olde-worlde way. I’ve always found that slightly comical about Sydney. And now about LA too. Haha. Anyway, the walk does help. I also Skype with my Glennda for over an hour in the afternoon and feel calmer. She is so good for me. I couldn’t ask the universe for a more supportive or loving partner. She also makes me laugh a whole lot. Lucky, lucky me!! And isn’t technology amazing? When I was a kid and I watched cartoons like The Jetsons, I never in a gazillion years thought that I would live to see video calls become a reality. Yet here we are… Hm.
THat evening, there’s the first concert in the little Glass mini-festival of which I am a part. It’s Glass’s La Belle et la Bête, an astonishingly unique combination of opera/soundtrack for Jean Cocteau’s film of the same name. I laugh. I cry. The reality of what I’ve committed myself too is starting to hit me. Sheesh, look at all these people in this crowd! Now I’m properly terrified. Philip Glass, the man himself, is sitting behind Maki and me in the audience. He greets us warmly, asks us about how we travelled and launches straight into talking about the Etudes. This man is driven. He doesn’t really do small talk. We get all the issues about who-plays-what all sorted out in about 30 seconds. You cannot imagine the relief I feel.
Back to the hotel straight after the concert. I need my beauty sleep. Will this jetlag ever end? Argh!
Saturday 3 May
I arrive a little early at the rehearsal room for my practise session, just in time to hear Maki just finishing her practise. Wow, she is so good. What a musician! She’s what I like to call a proper pianist i.e. she specialises as a concert pianist. I think to myself, what am I doing on the same bill as this amazing woman? She plays with proper technique and everything and I just kind of muddle along doing a bit of playing, some composing, some conducting, teaching talented teens and enthusiastic adults… It feel like a bit of a fraud in a way. I know that’s not the point. I’ve been invited to do this concert, Mr. Glass believes in what I do and so do the people at CAPUCLA and I just need to concentrate and play this music the way I feel it. That’s the point. But of course, everyone has insecurities and mine is imposter-in-the-room syndrome. Argh.
After practise, I see Mr Glass upstairs in the Green Room, just about to go into soundcheck for the Music in Twelve Parts. He pulls out his Etudes score and proceeds to show me the changes of notes for Etude no 16. Argh, more panicking! But I do a pretty good job of outwardly looking like I’m keeping my cool. Haha. They are small changes of notes that make a big difference (for the music nerds, it’s all about voice leading). I’m going to memorise this if it kills me. I am.
So I turn up to the hall for the epic Music in Twelve Parts concert. It is astonishing. The stamina, both mental and physical, required to perform this work is unbelievable. I’m looking particularly at the vocalist, the supremely talented Lisa Bielawa. I met her briefly in Melbourne when she came to perform in Einstein on the Beach and then again in Sydney when she dropped into a Sydney Children’s Choir rehearsal (she is artistic director of the San Francisco Girls Choir so, like me, has an interest in seeing what other youth choral music organisations do). I never see her flag once. She’s like a machine! But a machine that emotes. I totally understand why she is Mr Glass’s go-to vocalist. Wow.
Anyway, during the interval of the concerts (it’s such an epic work, it needs four lengthy sessions to perform it!) I start to feel nervous about the changes to the Etude no 16. I mean, it’s only small things he has changed, but as I’ve decided to perform from memory I feel paranoid that I’m going to forget them. I decide to go back to the hotel and work for a few hours. I’m so glad I do, though it breaks my heart to miss half of the Music in Twelve Parts performance. *sigh* you gotta have your priorities sorted as a performer. Bugger.
Sunday 4 May.
Game Day! Woohoo!!
I am sporting what I realise has become my “lucky shirt”, a slightly flouncy girly number covered with pictures of pianos and cats. Could it be more perfect for me? It was a very thoughtful gift from a very talented artist friend Pamela Lee Brenner. Anyway, it makes me feel really myself and kinda stronger as a result. Go figure. I can’t explain that any better!
I have a bit of a sleep in. Then an enormous American sized breakfast, a walk under the Jacarandas on Campus, and an hour or so to do some score study on a bench under the arches outside the hall. I get two hours with Sapphire the Steinway before they move her up to Royce Hall for the concert. I am really starting to feel the nerves by now as I listen to Terri working on the tuning and voicing of the instrument on stage. Omg. This is it. All these months working towards this one concert. I wish it were like a blockbuster musical and we could perform this concert for a year or two, but it’s so damn niche you could never sustain it. The classical musician’s lot, I’m afraid, all these months or years of work for one night, one performance. Argh.
Mr Glass listens to us soundcheck in the hall. He’s unhappy with the growliness of the bass notes on the piano, but there’s not much that can be done about it. Terri makes a few adjustments that help the middle of the instrument to ring a little more, which makes me feel happier. He seems pleased with the way I’m playing (phew!) and makes a couple of small observations about the way I am balancing some of the chords. These are easily fixed and I hope like hell they stick in my memory!
I hate the waiting time between soundcheck and concert. By the time the hour rolls around, I am pretty much beside myself. My hands tense up a bit, the usual thing that happens when I’m feeling a bit nervous. Philip plays the first two Etudes. Maki plays the next two. Then it’s my turn. I watch as the stagehands swap our piano stools over, take a deep breath and stride out as confidently as I know how onto the stage. My hands are all tense with nerves, it’s as much as I can do to make sure i can reach the octaves in No 5 and make them ring. Argh. Breathe, Whitwell. When No 6 rolls around, I hit my proverbial stride a bit more. Those epic octaves are so much fun, I get stuck in what Philip calls a minimalist loop. Luckily, i found the right way out. phew. I even get a little bit of an appreciative tittering from the audience when I do my slightly cheeky/comical ending of no. 6. Classical music shouldn’t take itself too seriously! I try to make some nice organic shapes out of No 7. When I come of stage, Philip is giggling about my minimalist loop but seems impressed that I managed not to get stuck. I feel greatly relieved!
Second half goes considerably smoother. Am not feeling so tense now. No 13 (my favourite) is a nice one to start with. It’s easier to create the singing tone for lugubrious No 14 since Terri made the changes to the piano. I relaxed the tempo on No 15 a little, which helped me to make the appropriately organic shapes. And those changes in No 16? I did remember them after all, thank goodness!
It was such a relief for it to be over. Everyone was in a good mood. It was flattering to meet so many folks after the concert who had enjoyed it immensely. Always makes me feel a bit shy though. Philip strikes me as a bit of a reluctant hero-of-the-hour, but honestly, I owe a great deal of my career to his music. And I just feel it very deeply, y’know? I haven’t words to explain that. Kristy, the director of CAPUCLA took us all out for a really lovely meal after the concert. I sat there looking around the table at all these amazing creatives and the crew that supports us to do what we do and I felt like I was really home. These are my people and I need to work towards making sure that I can work with them more and more in the future.
And now for fourteen or so hours on a plane. Ugh. Joy.
I didn’t know what to write… So I wrote that.
Philip Glass on his Étude No. 20
After we’d played last night’s concert of his Complete Piano Etudes, I was standing backstage with Philip and Maki Namekawa. Maki had just performed Étude no. 20 which is an extraordinary epilogue for the whole project. Really something. I was moved to tears, awkward given that I had to walk on stage to take a bow directly after! Anyway, I complimented Maki on her singularly moving performance and turned to Philip to ask him, y’know, how that amazing piece happened. And the above was his response, said with a laugh in his eyes.
He won’t be able to write any more Etudes now. Really, nothing can follow a piece like that!
In my student days… I knew a lot of composers, many of them more talented than myself. But I learned one thing most of them did not: good work habits. When I was still a teenager, I forced myself to write music during a set period every morning, and I also forced myself to stop at one in the afternoon. I refused to take down musical ideas at other hours, even when they came to me. You might say I trained the Muse to come calling at my hours, not hers. And it worked. For years now, I have got my ideas in the morning and never in the afternoons.
This book was a very thoughtful gift from a very talented composer colleague Sally Greenaway. How lovely she saw it and thought of me. I am so lucky to have such gorgeous friends!
Practising Glass for next week’s concert.
Sometimes the hardest thing about performing is making the leap from you yourself feeling the music to communicating that feeling to others. Practising this piece is kind of hypnotic and trance-inducing so it’s particularly tricky to make the aforementioned leap. I’m loving it so much though. So much.
BUS DRIVER : Lovers on a Park Bench
(Text written by Mr. Samuel Johnson)
The day with its cares and perplexities is ended and the night is now upon us. The night should be a time of peace and tranquility, a time to relax and be calm. We have need of a soothing story to banish the disturbing thoughts of the day, to set at rest our troubled minds, and put at ease our ruffled spirits.
And what sort of story shall we hear ? Ah, it will be a familiar story, a story that is so very, very old, and yet it is so new. It is the old, old story of love.
Two lovers sat on a park bench with their bodies touching each other, holding hands in the moonlight.
There was silence between them. So profound was theire love for each other, they needed no words to express it. And so they sat in silence, on a park bench, with their bodies touching, holding hands in the moonlight.
Finally she spoke. “Do you love me, John ?” she asked. “You know I love you. darling,” he replied. “I love you more than tongue can tell. You are the light of my life. my sun. moon and stars. You are my everything. Without you I have no reason for being.”
Again there was silence as the two lovers sat on a park bench, their bodies touching, holding handls in the moonlight. Once more she spoke. “How much do you love me, John ?” she asked. He answered : “How’ much do I love you ? Count the stars in the sky. Measure the waters of the oceans with a teaspoon. Number the grains of sand on the sea shore. Impossible, you say. Yes and it is just as impossible for me to say how much I love you.
“My love for you is higher than the heavens, deeper than Hades, and broader than the earth. It has no limits, no bounds. Everything must have an ending except my love for you.”
There was more of silence as the two lovers sat on a park bench with their bodies touching, holding hands in the moonlight.
Once more her voice was heard. “Kiss me, John” she implored. And leaning over, he pressed his lips warmly to hers in fervent osculation…
from Knee 5 from Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass (via bluejayflys)
Was this is most moving moment I’ve ever experienced in an opera? Yes. Yes it was. I now I could live without ever going for a Tosca or seeing a Madame Buggerfly ever again. Thank you and good night.
Reasons why I might feel a little down today…
1. I’m practising in F minor which according to Christian Schubart’s “Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806)” means “Deep depression, funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave.”
2. I’m playing a good deal of Philip Glass who, according to director Errol Morris, “creates a feeling of existential dread better than anyone else I know of”. Argh.
3. It’s a slightly grey day but a little humid and not properly, deliciously cold so… meh.
Why use a word to describe something that we’re trying to say is undescribable or unnameable? It’s not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It’s because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live.
Dead Things by Philip Glass. A recorded by me (Sally Whitwell) on my 2011 debut album Mad Rush
It was originally composed for the soundtrack to the Stephen Daldry film The Hours which was about the life and work Virginia Woolf…. in a kind of roundabout way. Brilliant performances from Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore, lengthy appearances from Nicole Kidman in a prosthetic nose at which I couldn’t help but giggle just a little. Such a shame cos her co stars and the screenplay were all brilliantly compelling.
Anyway, looking forward to playing this piece in a concert on the weekend. Nothing like a little Philip Glass existential dread on a Sunday afternoon.
Wichita Vortex Sutra by Philip Glass. Performed by me (Sally Whitwell) on my first album Mad Rush on a splendid Stuart and Sons piano. I’ll be performing this piece amongst other works of living legend Philip Glass in concert on Sunday at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, not on a Stuart and Sons piano, but on a generically nice Steinway or something… ;) (cheeky Sally!)
Video by my friend Andrew of New United Artists
Metamorphosis No. 2 by Philip Glass. Performed by me (Sally Whitwell), video by New United Artists.
I’ll be playing this piece in a concert at the Art Gallery of New South Wales early Sunday afternoon. It rather appeals to me to play Glass’s works in art gallery spaces, when I think about the kinds of spaces in which he performed his music when he was just starting out… all those tales of the artsy crowds lying on the floor in Soho lofts, smoking joints and blissing out to the oscillating quavers of Tetris rain (yes, that’s why my tumblog is called what it’s called!).