BD: Is this what makes a piece of music great, the fact that you can delve into it and delve into it and never reach bottom?
EB: I think that's a huge component of it. Another thing that helps is if the initial experience is attractive enough to make you want to hear it again. In some cases, the initial experience may be so baffling that only connoisseurs go on. This is the case, I think, with some of the late Beethoven string quartets. But for me, it's certainly not the case with a piece like the Brahms D Minor Violin Sonata. That one makes a very positive initial impression, and when you get to know it better, you realize that there are intricacies in it that you missed the first time around. Now try to pull it apart and find the modulations and find out just what key it's in at any given moment.
BD: Did you ever figure it out?
EB: Well, I see 2 or 3 different interpretations of it. As is often the case with music that has lots of modulations, you can either hear many modulations, or else you can hear that the overview is all in one key and this is simply degrees in that key that are being stressed out all in the secondary dominants with subdominants. An overview will give you one idea, but if you're just advancing from bar to the next pretending you don't know the piece or how it's going to come out, you have a different impression. Now, for me as an interpreter, the question comes up – which way do you play it?
BD: It would mean different stresses.
EB: Yes it does, and I'm inclined to play lots of modulations. It just gives a more vivid inflection.
BD: You've played your own pieces and pieces by other composers. Do you find that you react differently to pieces by other composers, great and lesser, than if you were just a performer and not a composer?
EB: I can't be sure. The whole thing is so intertwined at this point. At least in this country, I must be about the only example there is of that old fashioned entity known as a composer/pianist. Now there are other composers that play very well. Charles Wuorinen certainly plays very well, but as far as I know, he doesn't play standard repertoire. I haven't heard of him playing anything except his own music for quite awhile. A week from Sunday, I'm going to play a trio of mine, one of the atonal polyrhythmic pieces, but also the Ives Trio and Copland's Vitebsk. A few months ago, I got to play the Schubert Trout Quintet in the program along with the Stravinsky L'Histoire du Soldat Trio. Shortly after that, I did a program with the Pro Musica that included Pierrot Lunaire of Schoenberg, also a piece by Boulez and another run through of that Stravinsky piece. Last year, with some very good students on campus, we did the Schumann E Flat Major Piano Quartet and the Brahms F Minor Quintet.
BD: Then let me turn the question around. I've asked you about the composer influencing the pianist. Because you play all of this repertoire, does that influence you, the composer?
EB: It certainly influences my piano writing. And I can see this in the music of other pianist/composers. They write for their own hands. They write for their own technique.
BD: Rather than writing something and hoping someone can cope with it?
EB: That's right. You can tell how large a composer/pianist's hand is. Mozart could make an octave, but no more. Beethoven could stretch a 10th but couldn't play it forte. Rachmaninoff could stretch an 11th at least. Liszt could stretch a 10th. Liszt could crash down on A and C sharp in the left hand, but you don't find so many 10ths in the right hand.
BD: So you have to have hands similar to theirs in order to really cope with these pieces?
EB: Or larger! At least as big. Some composers have a tremendous facility with trills. Other composers have a tremendous facility with double notes.
BD: So the hands have to be at least as big. Does the pianist have to be at least as smart as the composer to really get into the music?
EB: I wouldn't say smart. If you play it without a really intelligent musical instinct, you just get a very superficial reading which may not be ugly in any way, but it doesn't seem to communicate very much. Someone who just breezes through the Chopin Etudes may be superficially very impressive, but there are subtleties in the harmonic idiom that go above and beyond simply whizzing through them
BD: Sticking with the Chopin for just a moment, shouldn't a pianist start with a superficiality and eventually try to get into it and more and more, rather than starting where Rubinstein left off?
EB: Yeah. That's certainly the case. With pieces like the Chopin Etudes and many real knuckle busters, you've got to start playing them before you can really play them. If you don't learn those pieces in your middle teens, you can never play them. Chopin Etudes are cases in point. Those are not user friendly for me. I could never play them in my teens. I don't play them now. I just don't feel comfortable with them. On the other hand, I learned the Beethoven Opus 101 in my teens, and I don't feel comfortable with it. I never will, but at least I can play it. The Schumann Fantasy is another case in point. The Brahms F Minor Sonata is another case in point. My teacher once said, "Look. You cannot play these pieces. You must learn them now. If you don't attack them now, you will never get them."
BD: And he was right?
EB: He was right.
BD: So then you're advocating that if someone decides when they are 8 or 9 or 10 years old to be a concert pianist, you're saying throw everything at them right away.
EB: Well, you can't do it when they're 8 or 9. You have to wait until the hand is mature.
BD: Well, 14 then.
EB: 14. That's right.
BD: Then throw everything at them before they're 20.
EB: Well, find out what they seem to take to at that point and concentrate on that. Don't concentrate on what seems to be a challenge.
BD: Then is it a mistake for a mature pianist to try to expand his or her repertoire?
EB: No it's not. But you have to be very careful because if you expand in the areas where other people are experts, the difference is going to show. Now, I'm willing to expand in the areas where the repertoire is really obscure like the Casella and Szymanovski pieces. But actually, I knew the Casella Sonatina when I was 14.
BD: Then when you play Ives, do you feel like you're competing with other performances?
EB: Oh yes. Oh yes. And where the Copland is concerned, I'm competing against Leonard Bernstein's recording. Jim Ginsberg (the producer of Cedille records) and I discussed all these matters before he was interested in putting out the disc. We had long discussions before doing the Ives. He said, "Here is the recording of the Ives that has got the most favorable notices from the best, sensitive critics. What do you think? Can you do better than this?"
BD: Do you have to do better?
EB: Yes, you do. There's no point in recording a piece that's got 6 different recorded versions unless you are sure that you can do it better, and that means, all egocentricity aside, that you can hit all the notes right (after you re-record and edit enough), and that you know inflections about the phrasing and idiomatic things in the piece that elude the other players.
BD: Does this necessarily mean that it has to be different?
EB: In the case of that piece, it does. Most of the recorded versions I know don't appreciate the ragtime elements in the second movement and don't realize how sharply the syncopations have to be inflected. There is an unfortunate spot in the second movement of that piece which is really, as far as I can tell, unplayable as it's written. It involves very complicated, intricate figures with the double note figures. In the first edition of the Sonata that was always over the same 4 notes. But in the revised version in the 1940s, that has been changed around so that sometimes it's white notes and sometimes it's black notes. And at the same time, there is a very fast hand crossing asked for. The left hand crosses back and forth across the right hand and I have never heard anyone play that correctly.
BD: Do you get it right?
EB: Yes, but I redistribute the hands in such a way so as to eliminate the hand crossing. I'm playing the notes that are written.
BD: Well, that's your job - to play the notes that are written. How you accomplish it is irrelevant.
EB: That's right. No one has spotted that. I think a pianist who knew the problem there, who listened very closely to my recording of it would say, "Yes, he's redistributing the hand parts there."
BD: There's no thought though that maybe Ives wanted it to sound messy and wrote it just a little bit beyond technique?
EB: You can't be sure. He sort of hints at that in some of the comments he has made about the piece. But it sounds so much better when you play it right.
BD: Really? Better than smearing it his way?
EB: Yes. It is much more convincing. It's smeared up in the writing. If you play it exactly as written, it sounds smeared in precisely the right way. If you smear it above and beyond what's written, it simply sounds out of control and it begins to weaken.
BD: You mentioned a minute ago, "...once you get all the editing done and all the notes are right..." If you have to edit a performance to get all the notes right, does that make it a fraud?
EB: No, it doesn't. But you have to be very careful just how far you go with this. If you over-dub, then you're committing fraud. Suppose you win a Grammy for your finest piano performance and it turns out later on that you've been over-dubbing. That is just one step shy of lipsynching.
BD: So the editing process is really just if you had gotten all the notes right in one performance. You've gotten them all right sometime and you're just picking out those sections?
EB: You're just picking out the sections where you got it. One wonders how much editing is legit and how much is not. Another thing that's possible with modern technology, is to record the whole thing at 75% or even 90% of the correct tempo and then speed it up. That's not legit. That you must not do.
BD: Should there, perhaps, ever be one technically-perfect recording just to hear it with all the notes in the right place and no pianist credited?
EB: Now that's an interesting question. It is now possible, using the synclavier, to do an electronic simulation of just about anything there is. I recently connected with that technology too. Some years ago, I wrote a piece for steel band. I was judge of the bi-annual Steel Band Competition in Trinidad for several festivals in a row and I got very familiar what steel bands can do and play, so I wrote a piece about 4 and a half minutes long. They never played it. Obviously, no contestant could enter that piece with me sitting there as a judge. That's not proper. But I have in my possession an electronically simulated version of that steel band piece. I don't know whether it's close enough to fool anyone, but it certainly gives me an idea what the piece sounds like that I could not possibly of had before.
BD: Is there any end to musical possibility?
EB: Oh, eventually there is, but we're not there yet. At this point, I am persuaded that the tonal and harmonic resources of the 12 note equal scale have, in fact, been discovered and exploited. And I think that's something that only came true in about 1965 or 1970. After that, it's been some kind of a rehash of what's been done before. So the last frontier to be breached is the atonal polyrhythmic idiom, and there's a vast repertoire in that idiom that begins somewhere around 1948, just to pick a random year,
BD: But I thought you said that this was dead!
EB: Well, it's dead now. It went on till about 1965. There's a huge repertoire written at that time and I'm a participator in that. I remember being confident that the techniques that are needed to play polyrhythms accurately would eventually be part of any good professional musician's standard training. It did not happen.
BD: And it never will happen?
EB: I don't see it at this point. It's confined to a few specialists. Thank heaven Sharon Polifrone and Kim Scholes can do it so we'll get a very accurate sensitive reading to my trio. But most players can't, and composers who insist on writing that way for orchestra are going to get a very rude shock when they find that the string section can't play it in unison.
BD: So they're writing things that cannot be played and probably never will be played, and they will be lost in the recesses of history?
EB: That's right. You hear orchestras trying. It sounds terrible. It's terribly embarrassing to the orchestra. But certain things that are playable with a small group of highly specialized chamber music players in that idiom are simply not available for orchestra.
BD: Should they be?
EB: In the ideal, yes. But when good conductors audition string players, they are not interested in how accurately they can play seven while the conductor beats three.
BD: They want a nice long line for the Beethoven Symphonies!
EB: Well, more than that. They want to be able to summon huge volumes of sound so they're not drowned out by the brass in the last movement of Tchaikovsky's Fifth.
BD: Coming back to your own music now, I assume you are asked for many, many pieces. How do you decide if you will accept a commission or turn it aside?
EB: Oh, it depends to some extent what kind of rapport that I seem to have with the players or with the commissioning agency. When someone is interested in a new piece, the first question I ask now is what kind of idiom would they like it to be in? At this point, I feel comfortable in such a variety of idioms. If someone said write an atonal polyrhythmic piece for four strings and four winds and piano, I'd be tempted to go back into that. On the other hand, if someone said just write an idiomatic piece for flute and guitar, which has recently has happened as a matter of fact, I'd say I'm inclined to write in a tonal idiom which will sound, to some extent, like Baroque or Classical - at least in the rhythmic arrangement - but it will have some chord progressions that are more associated with Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, or Franck.
BD: Do you think that we'll ever find a time where this kind of idiom takes off, and more people accept this, and music history becomes, then, a continuum with about a 50 year gap in the middle?
EB: It begins to look that way, although I don't think there's ever a gap. I think reactionary composers have been operating right straight through writing pieces which are obscure. There are composers in Europe, too, who have written six and seven symphonies over a long period that sound something like Strauss and Elgar.
BD: So you think there is still promise for progression, but just in this different direction?
EB: That's my guess.
BD: Are you optimistic about the future of music?
EB: Oh yes. I certainly don't think that this mass of atonal polyrhythmic music that's around is all bad. Much of it is too repetitive and just shows just how limited the idiom is. That's part of the problem. A few months ago, I got out a recording of a piano recital I played 25 years ago. It contained nothing but atonal polyrhythmic pieces. The first piece in the program was a set of 3 short fantasies that I wrote in about ‘63. Then a piece by John Perkins – a piece that I commissioned, written also in about 1963.
BD: Is that the one that showed up on the CRI record?
EB: That's right. That's the piece. And a piece by Charles Wuorinen – his piano variations, again, written in about 1963. Then after intermission, is the Boulez Second Sonata. Now I have not played any of those pieces in many years and to a large extent I've forgotten them, but I was struck as I listened to that whole recital as to how similar they all were. The differences are really a matter of subtlety. If you listen carefully and know what to listen for, you can tell they're by four different composers, but oh, are they similar.
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