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Pianos in parallel universes

img  Tobias Fischer

Turkish-born, Salzburg-based and formerly Harvard-affiliated pianist Seda Röder has commissioned twelve Austrian composers to offer their perspective on the piano. The result is Black and White Statements, an album featuring stylistically diverse works by artists from different traditions and offering insights on the concept of regionality. Röder claims that the outcome both supports and questions the potential of the piano. But regardless of whether the outcome is radical or not, it always makes for an absorbing listen: From fifty-second short experimental miniature and, moments of pure bliss to an attempt at a performance without expression – Black and White Statements manages to keep your attention from start to finish.

Austria, as is the home of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Fatherfigures like these, as always, can not just be inspiring, but intimidating as well. What do they still mean to you?
Whenever I feel a little down, I play the last movement of the “Emperor” at home, and *bam* I am in the E-flat mood! How awesome is that!? I love to feel the vibrations and the energy that a Haydn/Mozart/Beethoven symphony or quartet creates in a concert hall. I could never imagine a life without that. And, yes, they set the standards very high,  both for composers as well as for instrumentalists. So, even if a composer today says “my music cannot be compared to what they did”, I still think that one can learn a lot from the listening experience this music creates.

Would you say there is something typically Austrian about these pieces?
This is a difficult question to answer. Some composers see their national or geographical heritage as something to ignore and some see it as something fruitful. Especially in Austria, you learn quickly that a ¾ measure is not a straight ¾, but a ¾ with some “Gemütlichkeit”: The second beat requires enormous flexibility, and depending on where you are in a phrase it will be shorter or longer - think of Strauss waltzes. And for most contemporary Austrian composers, these kinds of approaches to rhythm or measure are still relevant; in a highly stylized manner of course, because a Bartokian folklore is no longer wanted …

What's your take on the ongoing relevance and existence of regional schools?
I don’t really believe that regional schools exist today in the same sense that they existed until mid 20th century. We live in a highly globalized environment. Yes, in universities sometimes students imitate their professors’ techniques, but then they travel around the world and at some point find an individual voice.

How did you approach the selection process with regards to the composers for the project?
I asked composers whose work I knew, whose work moved me. I wanted to have a legitimate and interesting mixture of different styles in Austrian piano music reaching from academic to more popular. While doing that, I didn’t give the composers any strict guidelines besides the duration. Since I am touring with this program, I also asked the composers to keep in mind the live concert situation when they considered preparations or electronics.

Do you feel there is still a tangible difference between artists with a background in academia and those coming from "popular culture"?
I have a feeling that the composers with a popular background don’t worry too much about how things look on paper. But that’s about it. They are as concerned with the sonic outcome as every other composer.

In the promotional video about the release, you've stressed your involvement in the composing process. What did this involvement look like in practise? 
Well, the most important issue here is the trust! I work only with composers whose skills I trust. Sometimes disputes are unavoidable, but when you know that you can rely on the other person’s insights, every problem will end in a positive outcome. So, when a composer wants to discuss certain issues about the piece he is writing for me, of course I am happy to answer any questions and try to find solutions. It was also no different this time. In some cases I worked with the composers on technical issues such as the best position of certain chords, what to use to create a certain effect etc … or on more formal questions such as whether or not to repeat a phrase and how fast to repeat it.

You did all the organisation for Black and White Statements on your own. What's your perspective on the music industry and the dual role of musicians as artists and entrepreneurs?
It is very difficult to answer this question without hurting anyone. So I will keep my thoughts about the traditional business to myself (laughs). But about the role of artist/entrepreneur … I can say that it is the perfect mixture for me, because people in the industry know what to expect and associate my name with my projects. As an artist/entrepreneur I can keep full control, and the outcome will always be a high quality “Seda Röder” product.

The album is also about your relationship with the piano. Tell me a bit about your own love affair with the instrument, please.
The piano is an instrument with which you can create a universe, and a parallel universe, and another one and then challenge everything you did … You can make music with every single square centimeter of a piano. Every time I sit at the piano, I know that I will travel so far in my thoughts and the instrument will be my magic carpet … It is the most liberating feeling!

Friedrich Gulda, Alfred Brendel, Paul Badura-Skoda – the history of Austrian music isn't just paved with legendary composers, but also myriads of remarkable pianists. Which of them have left a trace on your own playing?
All of them. Gulda is an excellent example of a multifaceted personality who was never ignorant. He was also very courageous to try out his skills in pop and techno - I am planning to dive a little deeper into the world of ableton in my future work (laughs). Badura-Skoda is probably one of the most important names when it comes to historically informed performance practice. Playing on period instruments was also an integral part of my early career. And finally a very special friend, Mr. Brendel; he is one of my all time idols! I not only see in him the perfect example of an excellent musician and thinker, but he is also the most modest and humorous person you will probably ever meet in the music business. I am so grateful that has he always been very generous to me with his time and support.

Black and White Statements is said to offer thoughts about, in favour of, but also against the piano. What were some of the main points in favour of the piano – and which statements actually went against it?
I think “Lintarys” by Alexandra Karastoyanova-Hermentin, “Aura” by Bernd Richard Deutsch, “Intermezzo:Sehnsucht” by Herbert Grassl and “Schatten. Verschwindend…”  by Klaus Ager are a very good examples of “pianistic/idiomatic” works in the technical/traditional sense. They focus on the best qualities of the piano and work in favour of the piano - as well as the pianist! (laughs)  The rest of the album consists of very individual pieces, which break with the traditional piano sound and require some elaborate preparation, and unidiomatic bodily engagement such as standing up, reaching into the instrument and sitting down within seconds, while also playing with one hand on the keyboard. There is also a piece included on the album titled "Tatsächlich ohne Ausdruck" ("Really without expression"). Which seems like an impossible demand, but you can play it with no remarkable expression on your body, and this is what the composer wishes in the drama of the piece. So, the expression is the non-expression. Karlheinz Essl's "Take the C Train", on the other hand, is a one minute short miniature and the difficulty and challenge of such a short piece is the presentation of it as a complete entity. Thus every single move I make must be a part of the choreography and it cannot be left to coincidence. It is a great piece which requires lots of preparation and responsibility. But, for the amazing sounds arising form the piano, all of this is totally worth it!

The one thing one notices is that despite all the quality on display here, "radical" positions seem to be absent.
I think the word “radical” no longer really exists when it comes to art! The real question is “what needs to happen for a piece to be ‘radical’”? Can anything really surprise us at all? This album starts with a piece of 50 seconds in which not even one “normal” piano note is heard and contains pieces with electronics, preparations. Pieces that push the sonic boundaries of the modern piano, and create most beautiful and also challenging sounds. I remember people doing Lockwood’s “Piano Transplants (1968-82)” recently which includes a piano burning act. So, in theory this is “radical” right? But most contemporary audiences react to this kind of performance with a “bah, seriously?”. Not many people care about the philosophical background - and they will accordingly judge it to be about nothing more than grabbing some attention. 

Intriguingly, your latest two projects both dealt with the topic of "home" from a different angle. Which of the two - Listening to Istanbul or Black and White Statements - is more about you, do you feel?
I traveled a lot, lived out of a suitcase and sometimes did’t really know where home was … In the global world of today the question of “home” is relevant for many of us. In both albums I was just paying tribute to two places that made me who I am now. I can’t really say one is more about me than the other …

By Tobias Fischer

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like our first interview with Seda Röder.

Homepage: Seda Röder
Homepage: Gramola Records