Pianist: athlete

My eyes wandered back once again, involuntarily, to his forearms.

No elegant, long-limbed evocation of romantic Chopin here. Andrew Czink, pianist, could have been a boxer. Certainly his concert is as much a dramatic athletic feat as a musical exploration. But isn’t that how it is? Isn’t playing any instrument the culmination of long years of intense physical training? Didn’t I have to give up rock climbing when I started learning the standup bass?

Czink’s primary stated goal was to explore a sonorous practice.

”It’s really exploratory. What can happen if I play this note as fast as I can for five minutes? What kind of impetus and motion does this scale compel me into?” the audio engineer, teacher, GLS doctorate candidate and classical performer said of his structured improvisation. “It’s about movement, tactility and sound.”

And so he pummelled. As fast as he could. As loudly as he could. As fiercely as his forearm muscles would allow, and all the while as attenuated, differentiated and delicately phrased as those self-same, well-trained muscles would allow.

Andrew Czink is interested in the embodied physicality of playing music, or “musiking,” a term used by Christopher Small to underline that music should be thought of as a verb rather than a noun. Czink is interested not only in the pitch and duration of notes, but also the noise of the piano hammers hitting strings. “This is a compositional resource,” he said in a pre-performance presentation.

Czink’s 30-minute musical performance seeks to combine his physical body, his mind and emotions, the entire physical piano as well as its conventional ability to create musical tones, a pre-composed musical outline and in-the-moment/in-the-location improvisation.

I heard eight movements. The first consisted of increasingly long and complex variations on a short motif, each separated by held notes which allowed the piano strings to ring and waver into discordant distortions. It was an exploration of pacing and space. I began to worry if I’d last the full 30 minutes.

The second movement involved repetition of a note and variations. The third movement introduced physical, repeated hammering on some notes and included a transition to a more melodic line.

The fourth movement was clearly melodic with the introduction of chords. As a listener, I was now grateful for the more obvious melody and 4/4 rhythm. I found it intriguing that Czink made a mistake in this movement. His face twitched but he kept going. I wondered how many in his audience detected this mistake in a performance piece that was so complex and unpredictable.

The fifth movement may actually have been an extra long 4th movement. Did I miss a transition? He started using a bass note to lead the melody.

The sixth movement had a clear flow. There was phrasal movement in the non-stop flood of repetition and chordal notes.

The seventh movement returned to the clear, physical hammering with roots and fifths in the bass interspersing an ever higher drone reminiscent of The Flight of the Bumblebee. The physical virtuosity came to a climax as Czink shifted on his piano bench to play higher and higher registers.

The eight movement started moving back down toward the bass registers. For me, the sheer physicality of the feat dominated my response. Finally, Czink dropped his entire forearm onto the piano and waited for the sound to subside. I felt as though I’d watched an extended, tension-building athletic feat, and I was grateful for the release.

So here’s the rub. My engagement was largely a matter of watching Czink’s engagement, and Czink’s engagement was inward. Czink didn’t seem to mind, but I think I did.

Czink’s perspective?

“People say you’re expressing yourself in your music. I don’t know if I’m expressing myself. I’m configuring myself,” Czink said. “I have no stories. I don’t think that way as I’m making this stuff.”

 

— Jenny Lee

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Sonorousness: Hearing More

On hearing Andrew Czink, Ph.D candidate
in Graduate Liberal Studies at SFU
Contemporary piano concert”    
May 15, 2016  

When I know I’m going to be challenged by music, I feel like I might as well settle in, buckle up, and try to let go, to just see where it takes me. On a rainy night last week at the Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre, I sat deeper in my plastic folding chair, closed my eyes and allowed myself to be completely present in the moment.

When Andrew Czink spoke to our small audience on Monday night, it was clear that he thought about music in a much more transcendental way than I ever had. He opened up his talk by explaining that, as Christopher Small says in his book, Musicking, music is not a sheet of notes. It is a verb. It is “a sonorous practice”, meaning that it does, and should through its hearing, include all of the sounds that an instrument makes in producing a note, both intentionally and otherwise. The strike of a bow against the neck of a violin, the fingers sliding over the fretboard of a guitar, or the wooden clack of a hammer on the short, high note of a piano. It is the nature of the instrument and how it is handled by the player. What Czink plays is what he dubs “structured improvisation”. The piece he was to perform has, he says, no written notes. But he knew every sound it was possible to make in it, and some that might surprise even him.

Like having the wind knocked out of you, the first few moments of this piece were jarring, even stunning, in their volume and atonal dissonance. And then after the introductory assault, Czink froze over the keyboard, arched and waiting – waiting for the buzz of the strings and the hum in the wood of the piano to not only subside, but to become utterly silent. It  had to have taken at least twenty seconds for that silence to finally descend. The silence, held for a moment, was defining and dramatic. What followed was a continued warping of the sounds of what one expects to hear from a grand piano. There were 2-inch bamboo poles striking each other, rocks tumbling and eddies of wind. In a more musical vein, the piece broke into something reminiscent of the Bulgarian folk songs sung by Kitka, complete with verbal chatter in between sung phrases. Sometimes the voices drowned out the melody and sometimes the reverse was true. At this point, it occurred to me that Czink must be becoming physically exhausted. He was striking keys so fast and so hard, it seemed inconceivable. The sound went from controlled to frantic and back again and, ultimately, calmed like a Vancouver rainstorm, orderly in its rhythm, then disorganized and loud, then once again aligned and rhythmic. Symbolically, as the piece ebbed it sounded like a train, gliding into a station, complete with metal wheels on metal rails, brakes protesting.

Andrew Czink’s composition is experimental and fresh. It might not seem focussed through any familiar lens. It is a full-body experience meant to expose the hearer to sound and music in a new way. It can make us think about the edges beyond music, the places where music pushes us and sears itself into our memory. It’s worth a listen, with an open mind.

Dorothy Dittrich’s The Piano Teacher: moments of wisdom from an unlikely source.

 

Elaine has long come to terms with the arthritis which sidelined her performing career as a pianist – or so she thinks.

She’s remade herself into the kind of inspired piano teacher who comfortably accepts a student’s desire to not perform on recital day knowing, perhaps, that the music lives already in the child.

When Erin, a celebrated pianist so grief-stricken she can’t even bear to sit on a piano bench, asks Elaine to be her teacher, playwright Dorothy Dittrich uses their relationship to explore grief, loss and the potency latent in music.

“Music is a language. You have to learn to speak it, not just play it,” Elaine (Caitriona Murphy) says in the Arts Club’s production of The Piano Teacher. “Music played from the heart is healing.”

When Erin (Megan Leitch) recounts the recital day incident in an imaginary conversation with her husband, I want to cheer in solidarity for all young music students. “Imagine the freedom, Kevin. Imagine the space not to play,” Erin says.   The child said, “’I learned a bunch of songs,’ and sat down!”

Humour lightens what could be a heavy theme. Erin doesn’t like Beethoven because he was “too big, too loud. Probably a bastard.” Elaine admits Chopin’s music “reminds me of clammy hands.”

But for all the levity, Megan Leitch’s Erin is a painfully accurate depiction of the desperate loneliness and emptiness of depression. Jenifer Darbellay’s costumes are perfect in everyday simplicity. Although we never actually see Erin’s thin, bare, brave shoulder-blades, we feel them.

Patrick Pennefather’s spare sound design skillfully walks the line between appealing to intellect and emotion, and never descends into overblown indulgence.

While Elaine’s love interest, Tom, is a lightly sketched character played with amiable animal warmth by Kamyar Pazandeh, there’s no real need for Tom to be fully-fleshed. Depression flattens perspective and if one is emotionally ready, as Elaine becomes, even the smallest event or interaction can be enough to help spark a return to life.

As a musician, I warmed to Dittrich’s theme. Playing music is indeed “a relationship,” that transforms both player and listener. The chord “unbroken” can  sound “banal”, but broken, can indeed be “sublime.”

“The broken chord acts as a container for the melody,” Elaine says poetically. “It supports without imposing itself.”

In one heart-stopping moment, Elaine asks Erin “What’s (composer Aaron) Copeland to you?”

Erin answers with one word: “Space.”

“This man has found a way to make us hear the landscape and the space around it,” she continues. “He’s given space a voice.”

As Erin regains her ability to play music, Elaine finds the space to explore her own loss. “I wasn’t prepared for Erin,” Elaine says. “How could I be? She was the teacher.”

Yet while Erin and Elaine’s dialogue is clear, spare and delicate in its dance between emotion and rationality, Elaine’s lecture/musings occasionally jarred with painful banality. I felt an almost physical affront from inane lines like “Life changes you,” and “I think you just have to be grateful for what you have and do the things you love.”

Does the blatancy of these lessons, along with the obvious metaphor of Elaine installing a giant new window on her landing at home, originate from the playwright? Dittrich, afterall, also wrote this sensitive, illuminating observation: music is “sounds and silence in motion. It has to have space and time. Sometimes it gets too intense and it has to breathe.”

Or does the responsibility lie with the Arts Club looking to provide its paying audience with simple answers nicely wrapped up in a picture window?

– Jenny Lee