Part 2- A Lateral Wind
Étude means ‘study’ in French. Merriam-Webster tells me that the word refers to 1. a piece of music for the practice of a point of technique, and 2. a composition built on technical motive but played for its artistic value. My approach to the Piano Spheres event, Amour D’Etudes, featuring the hugely talented pianist Steven Vanhauwaert, was quite different than the last. I guzzled a beer at the bar before grabbing a program on my way into the theater, and sat down with a conspicuous case of the burps in the front row, where I was on the receiving end of the open Yamaha. The piano was perpendicular to the audience this time, placing the player in true profile. The stage felt less atmospheric; the lighting was simple and elegant, just four bare, elongated bulbs hung on wires above the piano, giving off soft, tame light that did not change throughout the performance. Two directional mics with cables loosely draped and pooled at their bases were aimed inside the open piano body. Those cables looked oddly sad to me. Casual and indifferent, like a super long and lean person slumped over the back of a low chair, arms dangling carelessly. My own mood was somewhat dangling that evening, as well.
Vanhauwaert emerged from the wings with a practiced gait and sat down on the bench ceremoniously after bowing once, his hand on the front corner of the piano. I took few notes and followed the program closely, which was wise since Vanhauwaert played études by fifteen different composers. Each was over in a flash. I jotted short descriptions here and there. “Haunty” for Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Etydit: Terssit & Sekunnit. “Jaunty” for 3 Afrikaanse Études by Ton De Leeuw. About the world premiere of Eric Tanguy’s Nouvelle Étude: “Deliberate and contemplative, with an arresting, dark blue ending.” “Like falling down a thousand steps after having climbed to the top of an impossible temple.” That note refers to Mauricio Kagel’s Klavieretude: An Tasten. [My right heel fell asleep during the Kagel piece. What an odd sensation for that part of my body, like the burr of static that comes eventually after handling a stinging nettle with naked hands.] Vanhauwaert described Sean Friar’s piece, Wind-up Étude, as being “every pianist’s wet dream.” I gave it best in show but I cannot tell you why; my notes stop at “best in show.” I have searched for Wind-up Étude to refresh my memory, but it is unavailable. Referring to Veronika Kraussas’ piece Freddo, meaning ‘cold’ in Italian, I wrote: “Icebergs in the low range; ice crystals in the high range; and an ‘unanswered melody’ in the middle.” Her intention with Freddo was to create the sound of an iceberg, and she did, curiously enough. Interestingly, the title of Kraussas’ other étude, Precipitevolissimevolmente, is the longest word in the Italian language and translates, ironically, to ‘as fast as possible.’
From my vantage, I could not see Vanhauwaert’s hands at the keys, just his body as it moved precisely with the music. My mind wandered as he played. He could have been pulling those sounds out of a piece of cardboard, for all I knew. This notion took me back to Oklahoma, where I grew up.
When I was a kid I wanted to play the piano and the violin, but the opportunity did not arise in the traditional sense. My mother, resourceful and well-intentioned as she was, purchased via infomercial a laminated practice keyboard and a set of cassette tapes designed to help a person learn how to navigate the piano. Listen to the tapes and poke at the 2-dimensional keyboard, was the idea. But this method produced zero results; I simply couldn’t puzzle together the necessary connections without an actual instrument before me. My desire to learn persisted, however. Later, I discovered that Bach’s Partitas and Sonatas for Solo Violin were elaborate scales, and considered that if I listened to them closely enough, I might internalize a technical understanding of the violin that I could then unleash—through an intuitive somatic process—once the instrument was under my chin. Perhaps I could just pick up a violin and play it if Bach’s music burned its way into me deeply enough. No such luck. Sneaking up on a musical instrument through a back alley is ineffective, I came to realize.
Études move quickly and are often stacked with a glittering deluge of notes. As Vanhauwaert bounced and leaned close to his sheet music, I pondered the subject of comportment and propriety. Steven Vanhauwaert is a Belgian-born pianist who has played in concert halls the world over. His resume reads the way an étude sounds: impressive and stacked with a deluge of notes. He has a light face with spacious eyes, and pliant, jovial brows. His is a very appropriate face. He is handsome and thin, with somewhat stiff, theatrical torso movements. If I could have turned the music off to watch Vanhauwaert play without making any sound, he would have been a model for how one should look while playing the piano. Alert posture. Buoyant shoulders and arms (I couldn’t see his hands, but I’m sure they were buoyant, too) engaged in the morals of musical rectitude. A neutral or apt emotive expression. A detached air. He was confident and composed. His chin dimple seemed supremely satisfied with what it must see of the world. Watching him play was like watching a magician. Études are not an easy climb. Their purpose is, in part, to hone the player’s technical skill, which means they function like an edifice of challenge; to get them right, you must scale their nuanced cliffs successfully, but also make them sound good. Typically, Études are fast. So fast that you can’t sink into them. In fact, some of the most difficult-to-play piano pieces are Ligeti’s Études. They don’t spread out; they ripple over you. They move past like debris on a lateral wind.
If I had known then what I know now about the technical gravity of an étude, I would have used it as another back road to mastering an instrument from the outside in, probably with no more success than the cardboard keyboard and a burrow into Bach, but, who knows? I cannot tell you if Vanhauwaert struck every note perfectly during Amour D’Etudes, but my guess is that he did. Everything about him was right. So much that I found myself hoping that something would go wrong. Not with his performance, or with him, but with the setting in general.
During highly controlled, culturally appropriate events, my mind tends to drift toward hypothetical interference—what if something happens that isn’t supposed to happen? What would happen then? The piano legs turn to dust for no reason. An audience member wanders on stage, disrobes and does a tumbling routine. A bucket of teal paint falls from the catwalk and goes everywhere. Any number of things could happen at any moment. Vanhauwaert becomes enlightened and merges molecularly with the Yamaha. The roof of the theater is lifted by an improbable updraft. Would the études land more effectively in my permanent memory if they were attended by interference? Would I recall them more easily if they were covered in teal paint or leg dust? Would I remember why I gave Friar’s piece “Best in Show”? Maybe, yes.
The last piece of the evening, No. 12, Hymne á l’amour, by William Bolcom, from his Pulitzer prize-winning 12 New Études, was longer than the rest. During the intermission, Vanhauwaert described this piece as having a grand finish, an “over-the-top climax of sound.” I was ready for a grand finish. I wanted to immerse myself in a stratum of feeling and have it end with a clop. I closed my eyes and imagined a storm brewing in a leafy neighborhood at dusk. Gutters filling with rain. Streets morphing into streams. Tea-colored water approaching houses, crowding driveways. The storm gathered momentum with the music, progressing slowly and mutely. But then No. 12 was over, with a climax that I cannot describe as over-the-top, but rather quiet and capacious. There is no question that the tornadoes of my youth have imprinted me with some weather snobbery; the storm system in my brain out-paced Bolcom. However, Hymne á l’amour, as a tame companion to my wilder imaginings, was gorgeous. It begins with a sad, strolling tune that ambles and stretches and builds into a scattered, gentle resolve. It is the type of music that would follow me for weeks if, say, I caught a tiny snip of it through an open window while walking by. The tone of it lingers.
The audience clapped until my own hands itched. The performance was more than good; it was expert. I left feeling satiated for the most part. But I couldn’t get around my desire to see a crack in the veneer somewhere, as a cure for my squirrely mood. Perhaps I don’t trust a presentation when it is too perfect and long for the scent of sudden truth that accompanies an unexpected peek behind the curtain.
Here is a revelation that can only happen when—