Touring Noise

(Reprinted from old DTM, originally written for our first performance together in 2007, re-edited for the short tour in spring 2010.)

For a short tour, I supported Alex Ross and his essential book The Rest is Noise. Alex read and I played:

Arnold Schoenberg — Op. 11 no. 3 (1909, unrecorded by the composer)

Béla Bartók — “Allegro Barbaro” (1911, recorded 1929)

Jelly Roll Morton — “New Orleans Blues” (c. 1910,  recorded 1923)

Charles Ives — “The Alcotts” from Piano Sonata No. 2 “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860” (1916-19, revised later, recorded 1943)

Igor Stravinsky — “Hymne” from Serenade in A (1925, recorded 1925)

George Gershwin — No. 1 of Three Preludes (1926, recorded 1927)

Anton Webern — No. 1 of Variations op. 27  (1936, unrecorded by the composer)

Charlie Parker — “Moose the Mooche” (recorded 1946)

Dmitri Shostakovich —  Prelude no. 4 from Twenty Four Preludes and Fugues Op. 87  (1950-51, recorded 1958)

Milton Babbitt — “Semi-Simple Variations” (1956, unrecorded by the composer)

Jean Sibelius — “Largo” from Sonatina No. 1 (1912)

György Ligeti — “Fém” (1988)

One way I prepared was by playing along with the composer, a technique borrowed from jazz. If the composer didn’t make a recording, I considered the repertoire’s performance traditions and celebrated practitioners.

Béla Bartók

Bartók was the most virtuosic pianist of this group. He only taught piano, never composition, and recorded one of the great versions of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata with Joseph Szigeti.

“Allegro Barbaro” was the first of many barbaro pieces by Bartók. Folkloric instruments are evoked by a simple but effective device: the main tune dances on all white notes while the harmony encompasses the black. This technique would be used again by Bartók, György Ligeti, and many others.

The composer’s whirlwind performance is faster than the given tempo marking, with the hardest parts of the piece shrugged off with maximum velocity and elegance. I simply can’t keep up with Bartók’s octaves, and I’ve never heard anyone else play it this fast, either.

Bartók constantly plays subtle, Hungarian-accented rubatos not marked in the score. It’s a kind of longeur on the melodic repeated notes, and a fast flourish on the longer lines.  Playing along with “Allegro Barbaro” showed me that there was even more tempo fluctuation than I had first thought.

Amusingly, the usually meticulous Bartók treats the vamp sections casually: at measure 50 there are 8 bars of F# minor in the score—but Bartók plays six. And at bar 144, six bars are written but he plays seven! So I guess I won’t worry about counting the vamps that accurately myself.

Unfortunately Bartók didn’t record most of his biggest solo works (the Piano Sonata, the Out of Doors suite, or the Etudes) but a partial traversal of Improvisations on Hungarian Songs is particularly valuable. Charles Rosen notes that this score (which he considers one of Bartók’s greatest) calls for a new tempo every couple of beats. Listening to Bartók’s stunning performance answers all the interpreter’s questions.

These rhythmic subtleties remind me of another piano recording, Ferruccio Busoni‘s fearsomely virtuosic rendition of Franz Lizst’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 from 1922. Like Bartók, Busoni exhibits some kind of folkloric knowledge of Hungarian rhythm not found on the page.

A probable 19th-century predecessor to Bartók’s piece is an “Allegro Barbaro” on all-white notes by Charles-Valentin Alkan.

Jelly Roll Morton/George Gershwin

Morton’s solo piano recordings from 1923 sound better every year, and I learned Gershwin’s Three Preludes for a Mark Morris solo. I chose to pair “New Orleans Blues” and the first prelude since they use the same rhythm, the division of 8 (straight 4/4) into 3 + 3 + 2.  Around 1910, that rhythm would have been found all over the world except in non-Iberian Europe. This is the “Spanish tinge” mentioned when early jazz is discussed, although maybe it should have really been called the “Cuban tinge,” since 3 + 3 + 2  is half of the son clave.

When you compare their performances, there’s no surprise upset: in the “3 + 3 + 2  feel” contest, Morton kicks Gershwin’s ass.

Morton’s piece is the better the two, anyway. The final stomp chorus (with Morton laying back on the beat just a hair) delivers a particular joy found only in early jazz. There’s nothing better than playing along with Jelly Roll Morton. Hats off to James Dapogny for making it relatively easy to do so: his huge book of Morton transcriptions is a treasure trove of accurate scholarship.

However, Gershwin’s playing is stiff only in comparison to a jazz master like Morton, not in relation to the classical piano tradition as a whole. Many classical pianists have played Three Preludes since the Twenties, and usually those performances swim in stylistically incorrect rubato.

Gershwin wasn’t jazz, but he loved jazz, and even hung out with the Harlem stride masters like James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith.  His bright and engaging piano style is right on the beat. I recommend that all classical pianists intrigued by this repertoire play along with Gershwin. Play along with Morton, too!

Igor Stravinsky

Not all of Stravinsky’s piano performances are outstandingly charismatic. But he wrote Serenade In A specifically to have something to record on two 78’s (Alex points out that he used the same Brunswick studio that Duke Ellington would for his first recordings a year later) and the result is vigorous and solid.

Serenade spins out an endless supply of pretty melody. In “Hymne,” though, it’s not always clear where the primary melody is: sometimes it seems like it might be in the thumb of either hand. The score doesn’t say, but on his recording Stravinsky always emphasizes the top line, even when that is somewhat counterintuitive (see especially the middle section beginning at bar 30). This tactic certainly works, but at this point I have decided to emphasize some of the inner voices as well.

Another interesting detail is how Stravinsky consistently retards a descending three-note motif starting in bar five (it’s not marked that way in the score).

Steven Walsh’s book on Oedipus Rex shows how some of the shapes from the opera stem from this piano piece.  In his performance of “Hymne,” Stravinsky uses the same kind of declarative attack that characterizes any good performance of the first movement of Rex.  Pianistically, this “operatic brashness” is closer to Jelly Roll Morton than Bela Bartók. Too bad we will never hear Morton play Stravinsky’s “Piano-Rag Music.” Jelly Roll would have been the ideal interpreter.

It’s time for a new good critical edition of Stravinsky piano music. The pitches and even the rhythms of score and recording are different in subtle but significant ways. I think it makes sense to play a mixture of both.

Dmitri Shostakovich

Both Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich were fine pianists, and posterity is blessed with recordings of both of them in major concertos and short solo works.

Shostakovich plays the little E minor prelude from his 24 Preludes and Fugues just as it should be played, with a penetrating and stoic Russian sadness. His performance is about a third again slower than his metronome marking. I will play it at the slower tempo, although I have heard pianists be convincing at the tempo given in the score. Tatiana Nikolayeva, the inspiration for Op. 87 and for many the definitive interpreter of these works, plays it even slower than the composer.

Charles Ives

The CD  Ives Plays Ives is a bit of a mess, really, and mostly only for Ives students, performers, and scholars. However, it does contain two miracles of interest to anybody—the scalding “They are There!” (see Kyle Gann) and “The Alcotts.” For years, I was uncertain of how much I liked the Concord until finally hearing Ives himself in this movement.

Two of my favorite pianists, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Marc-André Hamelin, recently recorded versions of the Concord (Hamelin for the second time). They both display amazing technical polish. Hamelin in particular plays certain passages impossibly fast and smoothly without forsaking passion.

However, neither Aimard or Hamelin seem to reference Ives’s own recording of “The Alcotts,” which has many different pitches and rhythms than the score.   Of course, a performance of the complete work has to fit this mostly tranquil movement in the middle of three other massive movements, and perhaps Ives’s version as a standalone doesn’t help this process. (Aimard makes the bold choice of playing “The Alcotts” especially slowly and softly, finally unleashing a triple-forte just before the close of the movement, thus making this climax the cornerstone of the whole sonata.)

I got to ask Hamelin about the Concord and Ives’s own performance of “The Alcotts” when I interviewed him. He believes the score is the truth, and that obviously works for him! Perhaps because I’m not the same kind of professional, I am still basing my version on the composer’s recording. (UPDATE:  After the Gilmore performance, composer Curtis Curtis-Smith talked to me about “The Alcotts.” “You play the rhythms more like Ives himself than most,” he said. I  asked him if he had read this post, and he hadn’t. I was delighted—hands down, it was the nicest compliment of the tour!)

In The Rest is Noise, Alex writes in detail about the famous Ives piece Three Places in New England. After reading I listened to a version recorded by a great modern chamber orchestra. Unfortunately, they really sounded prissy! Especially in the ragtime and march sections. This band can play any European composer with fire, but they seem unable to roll up their sleeves for Ives.

Part of the problem is that to play Ives well, you need to sound like you are excited enough to start improvising at any moment. On his recording of the “Hawthorne” movement of the Concord, Hamelin lashes out during the “marching band” section, replacing a simple upbeat triad in the score with a forearm on the piano. Now, that’s great Ives playing.

Charlie Parker

Ellington is treated as seriously as Gershwin in The Rest is Noise—a circumstance rare in general histories of classical musicand there are many other refreshingly accurate and unsnobbish pages on jazz and pop. A few choice quotes:

There is so reason to belabor the point that le jazz was condescending towards its African-American sources.  [Jean] Cocteau and [Francis] Poulenc were enjoying a one-night stand with a dark-skinned form, and had no intention of striking up a conversation the following day.


Although his [Aaron Copland’s] comprehension of jazz went not too much deeper than that of his Parisian contemporaries (“It began, I suppose, on some negro’s dull tomtom in Africa,” he wrote), he did send a strong rhythmic jolt into American concert music.


Jazz was intuitive, intimate, collaborative; it was serious in thought but playful in execution.  Steve Reich remembers attending composition classed where students showed off Byzantine scores whose intellectual underpinnings could be discussed ad nauseam.  Then he’d go to see Coltrane play with his quartet.


As technology grew more sophisticated, tracks became monstrously dense:  Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome” is the Rite of Spring of black America.  Hip-hop relies on the speaking voice, but as Janáček, Partch and Reich have demonstrated at different times, there is music in the speaking voice.

Charlie Parker makes several appearances in The Rest is Noise. To accompany Alex’s reading of one section, I played the head and the saxophone improvisation from the first recording of “Moose The Mooche.”

The rest of the composers on the program did not record as performers.

Arnold Schoenberg

Schoenberg didn’t play the piano. His music shows it. While the massive difficulties of the Concord Sonata all make some basic sense when you’re sight-reading, Schoenberg’s music is crammed with ungainly “special effects” not found elsewhere in pre-Schoenberg repertoire. Hardest to pull off are Schoenberg’s spidery, far-flung pianissimo figurations. (In Op. 11 no. 3 there is fortunately only one passage like this: viel rascher on the first page.) Even super-virtuosos like Maurizio Pollini and Glenn Gould can only manage the flitting leaping dissonances at about mezzo-forte, when they really should be played much softer.

Last year Peter Serkin made the best recording I know of the complete Schoenberg piano music. Produced by Serkin himself, this is the Schoenberg recording I was waiting for. Few other pianists hear this music as luscious garlands of pretty sounds, but Serkin exudes a gentle aura when playing this often obdurate music. It’s like a golden honeycomb of atonality. Serkin has lived with this music his whole life, and this recording feels like a valediction.

Historically, the pianist most closely associated with the Second Viennese School is Eduard Steuermann. The first time I heard Steurmann’s 1957 Columbia LP I was stunned: Steuermann seemed to be speaking the truth about this music. However, it’s far from a definitive recording, since Steuermann did not have a really big technique, never playing that fast and seeming only to encompass a medium-soft to medium-loud dynamic range—not not nearly enough for Schoenberg’s ferocious expressionism.

Still, Steuermann’s affect is wonderful, especially on the gentler pieces, and perhaps the cloudy and compressed recording quality is partly to blame for the limited dynamics.  You can listen to him on the extraordinary Schoenberg website.

Apologies for a corny comparison, but this music was the punk rock of its day. In 1909, Op. 11 no. 3 was a middle finger in your face, and it still remains shocking. We opened the program with it.

Anton Webern

Webern’s Variations are short, fairly easy to read, and really fun to play—all factors that contribute to its place as the only twelve-tone work for solo piano that regularly turns up in the international concert repertoire. (It certainly gets more plays than Schoenberg’s twelve-tone piano music, Op. 25 and  Op. 33  A and B.) In addition, a professional concert pianist always considers how a piece will sound in a good hall. When Krystian Zimmerman played Op. 27  at Carnegie on a program with Bach and Chopin, Webern’s slow dissonances glistened in the resonant acoustic.

The Variations are dedicated to Steuermann, but he never recorded them. Again, Peter Serkin’s passionate recording is recommended. It’s too bad that Serkin’s father Rudolf didn’t record any of the Second Viennese School, since he knew and apparently even studied with them.

Milton Babbitt

The music of the Second Viennese School has its rhythmic roots in central European tradition (it’s quite helpful to hear a kind of evaporated Strauss waltz in your head when playing the first of Webern’s Variations) but a generation later Milton Babbitt brought the New World accent to twelve-tone music. You need only compare Babbitt to Pierre Boulez or another fully-serialised European composer for Babbitt’s “jazzy” dialect to become obvious.

Robert Taub is the preeminent pianist in the Babbitt repertoire. His performances were the highlight of the terrific Babbitt 90th birthday concert at Weill Hall. Taub is especially good with Babbitt’s serialised dynamics.

The dynamics in Babbitt are too much for me. To play them really well as marked, even in the short and slight “Semi-Simple Variations,” requires a skill-set I simply don’t have.  I will just do the best I can. However, perhaps because of his care with dynamics, Taub chooses not to emphasize a steady beat, which is what I can try to do instead.


The conclusion of the 2007 post:

After hearing me practice “Semi-Simple Variations” a few times on tour, Dave suggested playing some drums along at the soundcheck in Odense, Denmark. It actually sounded really good!

I threw it into an editor and added compression and harmonic rotation:

Reid eyed the score. “You know,” he said, “I could double the low notes.” The Bad Plus Plays Babbitt? If so, thanks to Alex and curator David Brendel for the inspiration!

“TBP plays Babbitt” did indeed happen. On For All I Care there are two versions of “Semi-Simple Variations” alongside a couple of other covers of classical music.

However, see this YouTube video for the real Babbitt dance party.

György Ligeti

“Fém” was also covered by TBP on For All I Care, and we’ve played it on tour since. Hands down, this is the hardest thing I’ve played in public, and also the hardest thing to memorize. Reid got it off the page a long time before me—I had my little score on the piano for months. But I’m certainly a better musician for getting this piece together.

Scores of pianists have already learned and recorded the Ligeti etudes, something that cannot be said of any other piano music composed in the 1980s and 1990s. Fredrik Ullén’s Ligeti recital on BIS is a marvelous record.

In”Fém,” not all classical pianists bring out the Pygmy polyrhythm clearly enough. In my opinion, the ground rhythm of the 12/8 is four, not six. (Everyone else plays it in six.)

Jean Sibelius

Outside of  Glenn Gould, I’m unaware of any famous pianist playing the Sibelius Sonatinas.  It’s too bad, because they are just great and a bit harder than they look.

Sibelius is treated at length in Alex’s book, the combination of a few pages of The Rest is Noise with this piece felt especially moving.

Sincere thanks to Alex giving me the opportunity to do this kind of homework!